Friday, July 1, 2011

"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" longer and just as loud but less stupid, maybe


Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
154 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: D +



With a summer season of superhero tentpoles and summer blockbusters ahead of us, action filmmaker (if he even deserves such a title) Michael Bay grinds out his presold third installment, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon." 

In the surprisingly compelling prologue (itself a teaser for a better movie), history of 1969's Apollo 11 space mission gets rewritten. NASA's first moon landing was not just exploratory but a discovery and secret investigation of a crashed alien ship on the dark side of the Moon. Even President JFK authorized the mission as a cover before the Soviets founded it. Of course, it's the Transformers space craft, with the remains of Sentinel Prime (voice of "Trekkie" Leonard Nimoy) being resurrected by Optimus Prime. Now that the Autobots have sided with the U.S. Military, Prime launches a mission to retrieve the Pillars, desired by the Decepticons to take over the world, or something to that effect. 

This wouldn't be a "Transformers" movie without Shia LaBeouf's Sam Witwicky, frustrated with unemployed post-college life and living with a new, hot girlfriend Carly Spencer (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). When he's not whining over the jealousy of Carly's playboy boss (Patrick Dempsey), he's helping National Intelligence Director Mearing (Frances McDormand) and old friends, Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Simmons (John Turturro), with the resistance movement against the Decepticons who threaten the planet. And oh, there will be destruction.

"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" improves upon "Revenge of the Fallen" (how could it not?) from some directorial control by Bay, the removal of the unfunny black stereotype bots Skids and Mudflap, and there's at least a semblance of storytelling going on here from Ehren Kruger's script. 

But if you didn't care then, you won't care now. Even if this sequel doesn't completely smash and bash our senses into submission like its predecessor, no visual polish can make a turd more enjoyable. 

As Sam, LaBeouf gets by on his young-star charisma but mostly screams his lines this time. Megan Fox gets the boot, being fired from (appropriately) comparing Bay to Hitler, and replaced by a new babe, British Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Keep your snarky Rosie Palm jokes to yourself. She's more charming and warm than the vapid ice-queen that was Fox. But the leggy model is still used as a blowup-doll object of Bay's male-gaze: introduced by her lingerie-clad ass walking up a flight of stairs (in 3-D!), then put in peril, and left running in tight jeans and heels, with the occasional shot of her vacantly looking into the distance with exploding wreckage behind her. 

As for the usual comic relief, Julie White and Kevin Dunn regrettably return, now in matching track suits and making penis jokes to their son. In it for the paycheck, there are new additions to the cast: an overtanned John Malkovich seems to be having fun as Sam's eccentric, uptight employer; McDormand comes close to outacting the formidable bots; and Ken Jeong is in and out, doing his shticky mugging as a weird conspiracy theorist. 

The last hour is one big 2012 of Chicago being destroyed to pieces that goes on forever, because New York City and Los Angeles were probably too busy, but at least Bay holds shots longer and doesn't cut them incoherently into chop-suey. A single action set piece, during said Chicago apocalypse, inspires the only awe, tension, and excitement, in which a skyscraper collapses, leaving its characters to slide down about thirty stories of glass. It's ridiculous, admittedly thrilling entertainment, but over in about seven minutes. 

And for once, the use of 3-D is brighter and sharper than the norm, and doesn't feel like just a tacked-on afterthought to make more money (although it will). When all is said and done, it all still comes down to a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots smackdown between metal and metal and thus becomes soulless, joyless, and boring in the franchise's longest running time of two hours and thirty-four minutes (that's four whole minutes longer than the second one). 

"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" could've been more fun had it trimmed a lot more fat and noise, but as tradition, Bay goes the behemoth, "more-is-more" route and squanders its little improvements.










Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) 
150 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: D



If Hollywood hack Michael Bay has learned anything, it's that he knows how to outdo himself, now that he owns a Hasbro toy franchise. Even bigger, louder, and longer, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is an even "stupider" tanker than 2007's big, dumb "Transformers" that mistakes amped-up size and volume for fun. 

In an opening that seems like a car commercial with Mr. Movie Phone (or Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime) on the narrating end, we learn that the race of Transformers came to Earth in 1700 B.C. Shoot to the present, two years after the first movie, the Pentagon has a team bringing down the evil alien Decepticons, who demolish Shanghai. One of the Decepticon baddies named The Fallen (voice of Tony Todd) now wants to obtain The Matrix of Leadership, an oval-shaped thing holding a glowing crystal. 

More explanation of the plot is a migraine waiting to happen. 

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is now going off to college, with a co-ed dorm floor that looks more like Hugh's Playboy Mansion, which means having a long-distance relationship with hottie grease-monkey girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox). Before their kissy good-bye (cue The Fray's "Never Say Never"), Sam finds the "All-Spark," a gizmo that turns appliances into robots and ends up leaving his parents' house ready for repair. Once the "All-Spark" is safe with Mikaela, it's desired by the Decepticons, who look to resurrect their leader Megatron (voice of Hugo Weaving) from his watery North Pacific grave and go back to war against the Autobots. Soon, Sam starts having visions of Cybertronian symbols, and this leads to Our Hero, Hot Girlfriend, Hero's Annoying Roommate (Ramon Rodriguez), and Simmons (John Turturro, signed back on to mug) running for their lives, while the U.S. Military and their metallic allies pick up the pieces. 

And so, this cinematic seizure of action-candy and brain sputter keeps going and going like the Energizer Bunny, and we just don't care anymore. Bay still hasn't taken his dose of Ritalin or learned how to shapen the action, as the slick f/x just dominate and nothing is left but scrap metal. 

There's a cynical laziness about this relentless, joyless soul-sucker, from the unfunny, racist black stereotypes of ghetto-talkin', bling-wearin' bots Skids and Mudflap, to hot, tan centerfold Fox poking her rear at the camera as she mounts her motocycle in her little booty shorts. Bay's pandering, unfunny knack for slapstick doesn't go unnoticed either, as he uses dog-humping sight gags and turns Julie White, as Sam's zany mom, into a babbling idiot who, when moving Sam into the dorms, blindly eats a baggie of pot brownies and tackles a frisbee player. The director even shows how full of himself he is when a poster of his very own "Bad Boys II" is caught in the frame, pinned up in a dorm room. 

Any attempt at personality or emotional involvement for Optimus Prime and Bumblebee is wasted on lame one-liners ("That's old school, yo!" and "Punk-ass Decepticon!"). There's no narrative structure, momentum, or "there" there, just a duration of exposition scene after another, grinding visual and aural noise on the screen, and location globe-trotting from New York City to Washington D.C. to Paris and the Egyptian desert. 

Despite a big, fat price tag clearly on display, the action sequences are kinetic, overly busy video games shot and edited into numbing senselessness, so you can't see a damn thing. It all comes down to swooshing, pixelated images; shape-shifting metal fighting the other shape-shifting metal; and pyrotechnics. Watch Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" (2005) to see what a difference tension and a human touch can make for a summer entertainment rather than the bombardment of special effects and tumult. Bay sure knows how to blow things up real good, but "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" feels like a noisemaker blowing up in your face. 




Transformers (2007)
144 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C + 



A gargantuan, spectacularly noisy, and colossally dumb action blockbuster, "Transformers" is squarely aimed at the hearts of fanboys, being that it's based on the popular line of Hasbro toys and animated '90s TV show. But whatever its demographic, the movie should come with ear plugs—and a free lobotomy afterward. 

The alien good-guy Autobots and bad-guy Decepticons scour Earth, posing as inanimate objects, in search of a really big, powerful cube doohickey as a means of domination and control. The Decepticons are so nasty they terrorize soldiers in the deserts of Qatar and infect the government's computer data system. Meanwhile, in what's basically a mash-up of "The Terminator," "Christine," "Gremlins," "Toy Story," and "Small Soldiers" about a boy and his toys, dorky 16-year-old high schooler Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) gets his dad to buy him a used, beat-up Camaro. As it turns out, the piece of junk is actually an Autobot, his guardian Bumblebee. Sam has the eye glasses, left by his late pioneering great-great-grandfather, that contain a clue to the cube's location. If Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) and his Autobots find the cube and destroy it, they will win the battle against Megatron (voice of Hugo Weaving) and the Decepticons. 

For the first 100 minutes or so, "Transformers" has lots of "cool" and the big "wow" factor like when you first caught eye of those dinos in "Jurassic Park." Destructive Hollywood director Michael Bay (and Steven Spielberg stamped with an executive producer credit) manages to make the human actors and big bots look like they actually occupy the same space. The effects are staggering and impressively executed, and there's some fun with Sam "hiding" the Autobots in his backyard. 

As much as a big, shiny, overblown summer movie doesn't need a great script to get its kicks, this flashy hardware junk-food of goofy humor and crap blowing up does come at a price: it runs on for an exhausting two hours and twenty-four minutes. Also, with Bay being at the helm, the aggressively chaotic action during the big droid battle is shot in such a "point-and-shoot" style and so choppily cut that we begin to lose reason to care. But "overkill" doesn't seem to exist in Bay's dictionary. 

As Sam, LaBeouf is a likable wise-ass and relatable young hero. Megan Fox, not exactly a fine actress, gets by with her foxy bod in "the girl" role as Sam's mechanic crush Mikaela. Julie White gets a few memorably funny moments as Sam's wacky mom. John Turturro also brings a jolt of off-the-wall energy as Sector Seven Agent Simmons, a man in black. Other actors, Jon Voight as the Secretary of Defense, Aussie Rachael Taylor as a high-heeled government analyst, and Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson as two military survivors of the first Decepticon attack, are either wooden or unbelievable. 

Expected to have as much nutritional value as hot-buttered popcorn, "Transformers" should entertain LaBeouf buffs and action fans with attention spans that of a poodle and that still play with action figures. 

Seriously, what's next, "Hungry Hungry Hippos: The Movie"?

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