Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Transformers-Dark-of-Moon-PosterWhen going to any Michael Bay film, it’s best to check your brain at the door from the get-go and just abandon yourself to the idea that you will not be watching high-quality cinema.  You’ll get explosions, hot chicks, muscled-up dudes, fast cars, and more explosions.  But even so, some of his films really go for broke and shoot for the bottom of the movie barrel.  Nevertheless, I was pretty excited for his third entry into the burgeoning Transformers movie franchise partly because the trailer was completely awesome, partly because Michael Bay said it would be way better than the second film, and partly because I dig explosions and giant fighting robots.  I also fully expected an assault on my senses as well as my intellect, and while Bay was correct in that his final foray into Cybertronian lore did indeed far surpass Revenge of the Fallen, it was only worthwhile as simple entertainment and not much more.

I saw Dark of the Moon on the Friday of its opening weekend in a packed theater, but as I write this review a week and a half later I’m struggling to come up with images, scenes, or even characters from the movie that made an impression on me.  It’s not that the movie didn’t have its moments…it’s that nothing really stands out.  When I think of other big-budget disaster movies like 2012 or The Towering Inferno, certain images come to mind like Woody Harrelson watching Yellowstone Park explode, or Paul Newman strapping himself to a pillar in an attempt to survive a flood of water.  But with Dark of the Moon it’s all a blur, like someone took all the elements that are supposed to make up a cool summer blockbuster and threw them together without stopping to consider whether any of it really mattered.

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Believe it or not, all he did was press "PC LOAD LETTER" on the copy machine.

One of the most pressing issues with Bay’s treatment of Hasbro’s cartoon begat as a vehicle for selling toys is that his tone just doesn’t work. The original Transformers cartoons, as well as the 1986 animated movie which exceedingly surpasses Bay’s films in every way possible, were serious but fun in a campy sort of way.  Bay’s films are serious but attempt to be fun in a wince-inducing sort of way.  Juxtaposing world-is-at-stake alien invasions and Black Hawk Down-style demolition setpieces with scenes of our intrepid hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBoeuf, as spastic as ever) making out with his Barbie doll girlfriend or trading barbs with sarcastic transformers on his living room couch just doesn’t work.  Mistaking the Transformers universe for Bad Boys III, Bay can’t help but infuse his own brand of crass humor and off-color inappropriateness (this film is marketed to young boys, with a section at Wal-Mart selling Bumblebee and Optimus Prime bedsheets and sun visors) into a film where it simply has no reason to be.

That being said, some parts of Dark of the Moon really were amazing to behold in a July 4 fireworks “oohh…aahh” sort of way. Watching Optimus Prime lay waste to a horde of decepticons during the siege of Chicago was pretty awesome, and Bay really does pull out most of the stops in creating an avalanche of destruction in the third act of the film.  There’s even a modicum of something approaching plot depth, which a bit of unexpected double-crossing and other grade-school-level turncoat action.  All the human characters in this film exist to fulfill one-dimensional casting calls:  Tough Military Dude, Hot Girlfriend, Wacky Parents, Slick Boss, Spunky Kid, and so on.  In the first of Bay’s films these characters had something called motive, (Captain Lennox even spent a minute pining for his wife and baby girl back home in the first movie, but in Dark of the Moon his character does nothing but grunt and shoot) but here all individuals exist solely to propel the action forward and spout bits of plot exposition.  Like I said at the start, all this is to be expected given the film’s pedigree, but it’s just too bad the film doesn’t strive to do anything but wow and amaze an audience.  In the end, Shakespeare himself put it best: “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

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Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

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Only a few sizable blockbusters have managed to break through the box office ice this summer. ‘Star Trek’, ‘Up,’ ‘The Hangover’ and even ‘Wolverine’ have managed to earn their keep amidst several flops: ‘Terminator Salvation,’ ‘Land of the Lost,’ ‘Year One,’ ‘The Taking of Pelham 123.’  Does Michael Bay’s latest margarita of explosions, babes and robots spice things up on the silver screen?  In terms of dollars: yes.  In terms of entertainment value: not like I’d hoped.

Sam (Shia LaBeouf) is off to college for five minutes when war explodes between autobots and decepticons once again.  While Sam may not want anything to do with the fight, the ‘Fallen’ (just know they’re bad bots)  have other plans for him and need to scan his brain for some important information that will lead them to a temple in Egypt that is key to the autobots’ destruction.  Sound crazy?  I haven’t even gotten into the teleporting yet.  But maybe I’ll just stop there while the plot makes little sense as opposed to absolutely zero sense if I were to go on any further.

This latest Bay quest to blow up the world certainly shows off its budget. The special effects are revved up high as these morphing bots battle each other in several eye-hurtling wrangles of metal-on-metal thrashing.  There’s lots of yelling and screaming amidst the computer generated imagery — and let’s be honest — this is ‘Transformers’ we’re talking about, so all the critical backlash can go dismissed when it comes to cursing Michael Bay for his brainless eye-popping antics. This series was never about strong storytelling from the first teaser trailer we discovered with the 2007 picture.  Instead, Bay has created a canvas for fireballs and tearing up the laws of physics. Sounds like ‘Armageddon,’ ‘Bad Boys 2’, ‘The Island,’ and even ‘Pearl Harbor.’ Span that destruction over 2 1/2 hours, and you have the idea for both ‘Transformers’ films as well.

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The problem with ‘Revenge of the Fallen’ is that the script obviously has little ambition. This thing fell together as if plot devices and dialogue rained from the sky intoa  gutter-system and out a studio drainpipe. I really have no idea why these Decepticon bots want Sam Witwicky’s knowledge of hidden systems from millions of years ago buried beneath the Egyptian pyramids that have the power to suck up the sun. I guess it will destroy Earth, but it never comes together, and never really makes any sense. All the previous characters are back too, but anyone can tell it’s only out the sheer coincidence of the confused storyline to throw these characters together again. All this confusion, punctuated with bouts of humor from some rather irritating supporting characters, human and robotic (I’m looking at you ‘Twin Bots’), sends ‘Revenge of the Fallen’ into rushed studio oblivion where fan anticipation and big booms cover all.  Let me veer on a tangent for a minute:

Shia LaBeouf.

The young man really holds this odd opus together. When the self-absorbed director and multiple screenwriters throw lemons at the kid, he makes lemonade with it. He consistently carries us through this mess and the laughable romance with Megan Fox’s character. His delivery never misses a beat when it comes to the humor and focus at the center of this soulless endeavor.  Regardless of his stance as a debatable box-office star, he holds this $200 million production together.

At the end of the day, Transformers 2 will wear the crown of box office champ of 2009, no doubt. It’s expensive, visually great, louder than a wood-chipper, and has a storyline that gets it about halfway and then falls apart into a huge, confusing onslaught of action in the last forty-five minutes or so. The first film (which I would’ve award 4 stars of 5 for its huge scale, likable find in LaBeouf, consistent humor, and simpler dopey premise) got it right. This second installment is poorly conceived and confusing, and a lot of the humor falls flat. As much as I want to recommend the action, even the ‘explosion! explosion!’ finale isn’t engaging. No Peter Travers, it’s not the worst movie of the decade. I can think of far worse to sit through. Let’s all stop hating Michael Bay – we know what we’re getting with the man. Transformers 2 is a minor failure, but give the next installment a little more time to bake and a little less ingredients, and I’ll be first in line.

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Frost/Nixon

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen came out this weekend, and in almost every conceivable way it is the polar opposite of 2008’s Frost/Nixon. The former is, from what I have read, a typical Michael Bay exercise in excess: explosions, lightning-paced editing, the hottest young stars, blazing weaponry, insane chases, and more explosions. The latter has none of these, and its leads are virtual unknowns–especially compared to the headlining actors in Transformers: RotF. But it is this limited canvas with which director Ron Howard paints a very interesting, engaging, and (dare I say it? Yes, I dare!) entertaining movie about…well, about little more than a series of TV interviews between a talk show host and the former president.

Movies based on plays are a tricky proposition for today’s audiences weaned on the theatrical bombast of directors such as Michael Bay, Tony Scott, and the Wachowski Brothers. Not to mention their forebears, the great Lucas and Spielberg. Whereas movies often employ special effects, realistic audio, blaring soundtracks, and a host of other tricks to enhance the viewing experience, plays instead offer, for the most part, only dialog cemented by good ol’fashioned acting. And this is why adapting a play into a movie is a somewhat daunting task for any director, but Ron Howard manages to pull it off quite nicely.

In many ways, Frost/Nixon is the spiritual successor to Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men. Both are based on plays. Both are about well-nigh untouchable political figures brought down by unlikely young spitfires. Both feature extended dialog-heavy sequences with no changes in setting. Music and special effects are used sparingly, characters are well-defined and interesting, and yes, both movies feature none other than the estimable Kevin Bacon. But whereas Reiner’s 1992 movie was a largely fictionalized account of military justice loosely based on the experiences of young military lawyer Donald Marcari, Ron Howard’s film is about the verbal toppling of none other than Richard Nixon himself.

Frost/Nixon follows the tale of David Frost, a talk-show host who hatches a plan to get Richard Nixon to admit to wrongdoing while in office and apologize, on camera, to the American people. His preparation and interview methods are better suited to the theatrics of a boisterous TV personality, and I enjoyed seeing him come face to face with the political powerhouse that is Mr. Nixon. What kept me entertained through the dialog-heavy film was the constant sense of awe and wonder with which Mr. Nixon is portrayed–not awe for his politics, but a healthy respect for the type of man he was: an extremely savvy politician who was not to be trifled with. Michael Sheen’s portrayal of the young, eager David Frost who is forced to come to grips with his own shortcomings and find a way to, as in A Few Good Men, get an extremely powerful man to admit to his own wrongdoings, even though it will cost him dearly, is impeccable. The two men eventually come to a mutual respect for each other, and it is this character journey that makes Frost/Nixon as entertaining as anything Michael Bay could ever do.

Well, not that a few explosions wouldn’t have helped a bit…

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