Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Transformers: Dark Of The Moon

Michael Bay's 9/11 Indigestion

A scene during the 35-minute action climax in Michael Bay's action-adventure "Transformers: Dark Of The Moon". 

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
day, June 28, 2011

"Transformers: Dark Of The Moon" is a gargantuan, steaming pile of metal, carnage and camp, decorated by key moments in latter 20th century American history, some triumphant, others disastrous.  "Transformers", in 3D, opens across the U.S. and Canada tonight and worldwide tomorrow.

During the film's prologue we take a time-jumbled (1967 to 1962 to 1969) ride through the American Sixties to show the bad (JFK assassination, hinted at) and the good (Apollo 11's successful moon-landing mission) that humans accomplished.  During this opening it's clear Mr. Bay intends his film to be a serious enterprise, with archival footage and excerpts of 1960s U.S. history and a range of American presidents from Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon and later to Obama.  (I felt that Mr. Bay wanted to put his film on Mt. Rushmore.)  With the weighty narration of Optimus Prime, an Autobot (voiced by Peter Cullen), things are promising but quickly killed off when "Transformers" reverts to the low-lying fruit of the familiar.

Michael Bay, for those unfamiliar, seems determined to brand every moment of his new film (executive produced by Steven Spielberg), whether with product placement -- Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and the companies Mercedes-Benz, Cisco Systems -- or an encroachment of HASBRO products on the moon, or significant U.S. historical figures, or actors from some of this summer's movie sequels.  All that is needed for accompaniment is a "this moment is brought to you by" subtitle.

The Decepticons (bad bots) return to Earth following the damage done to planet Cybertron, which has become more inhabitable following ongoing galactic battles.  Apparently a Cybertron spacecraft has somehow been lodged into the moon like a monkey wrench in space history.  The spacecraft may have some hidden secrets.  And there is a race to retrieve them. 

The Autobots have become the U.S. government's best buddy, fighting a new battle alongside humans against enemies foreign and domestic (mostly foreign.)  Mr. Bay simulates the musculature of U.S. military might and its neo-imperialistic imprint, tipping his hat to the reality that robots and drones are increasingly replacing humans as battle fighters in many instances over the years.  The director wants to stay well ahead of these ongoing trends, but he replicates and revisits them.  There are shots of other cities of the world and visitations, or reminders of other calamitous episodes in recent history.  The Decepticons are upset.  There's infighting among the Autobots.

Into all of this steps the snarky, cocky and jobless Sam Witwicky (a plucky, hyper-
loud and amusing Shia LeBeouf) who is now riding the jalopy of his nightmares and the woman of his dreams, his new girlfriend Carly (Ms. Huntington-Whiteley), whose gratuitous entrance is all part of the Bay plan.  You think you're seeing an ad for Victoria's Secret that is interrupted by a movie.  At times the branding was so excessive I didn't know whether the commercials interrupted the movie or vice versa. 

Carly and Sam dig each other, and when the smug, "you-wish-I-were-your-daddy" Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), Carly's boss at an antique car dealership, makes suggestive references that breed insecurity in Sam, temperatures and voices rise.  Image is everything, Mr. Agassi once said, and in "Transformers" Sam wants so desperately to keep up appearances, with his model and mini-sugar momma Carly doing all she can to help out.

Your chariot awaits: Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Carly in "Transformers: Dark Of The Moon".

Much of the first half of "Transformers: Dark Of The Moon" feels like a well-worn in-joke, with out of control or tired comedic bits, scenes that didn't belong or make sense, and dialogue written by Ehren Kruger that sounded like it was purloined from James Cameron's school of dialogue writing.  There's the pointless montage of Sam on job interviews with the needless digs, the cynical sauce that drips throughout the film, the political jabs of the right-wing parodied with a big wink, and the histrionics of various cast members.  Everybody, with the exception of cool Carly -- who looks in one beautiful, ornately photographed shot as if she's been dipped in milk -- shouts but really shouts, as if they can't hear themselves shouting in a Michael Bay movie.  John Malkovich and John Turturro, both funny and parodying in their roles, camp it up to the extreme.

The director tips his hat to sci-fi icons like Leonard Nimoy (who is married to Mr. Bay's cousin), and is seen briefly on an episode of Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek" playing on a TV in the background.  Mr. Nimoy voices a character at the center of the chaos of the film's chaos, an wise Autobot named Sentinel Prime, and his noble, dignified and astute manner are thrown to smithereens in some wacky, incoherent writing.  The film remains three different movies: one about the oversized robots, another about the government and its mighty armaments, and a third about a love story, shoehorned in between the often indistinct and ridiculous dialogue.  (The movie characters of Howard Hawks' day talked even faster than this, and you could still hear them clearly.  What happened?)

"Transformers" saves its best action sequences for every one of the final 35 minutes, with a spectacular, well-staged battle.  The film pulls out its biggest and boldest stops, with action more powerful and potent than in previous iterations of the series.  Scenes are real -- disturbingly so -- and Mr. Bay, on this near-tenth anniversary of 9/11/2001 appears to restage or take that day's horrific events in New York City to the Second City.  We see falling bodies against the backdrop of buildings, and we see them fall again and again. 

One or two moments replicate a horrific picture in the September 12, 2001 edition of The New York Times except with multiple persons, and horizontal motion, that is deeply unsettling.  That some of the falling figures can control their flight is no less discomforting.  Mr. Bay deeply offends the sensibilities here even more than he does the eardrums, and goes even further down a treacherous and uncomfortable path when he, his human characters and his indistinguishable steel behemoths play in and wallow amidst the carnage, destruction and falling buildings.  It's more than unseemly -- as if the director wants to brand and reframe a horrible event for trophy-raising posterity. 

If James Cameron is the self-proclaimed "king of the world" then Michael Bay wants his new film to rule the world and the history depicted in it.  He tries hard to make it happen.  And he supplies allusions to the Challenger and Columbia space disasters, among other references to motifs of history, in perhaps as calculated, if more serious fashion than the history represented in "Forrest Gump". 

Amazingly, and for all its excess, some of "Dark Of The Moon" is admirable, specifically the focused action that is tailored with discipline.  Anything Mr. Bay accomplished here after one of the worst sequels ever conceived was going to be an improvement but it's the excessive iconography of one of America's most painful episodes that is revisited in such an exploitative way, as exploitive if not more so than in last year's "Remember Me", that offends and deadens what is already a busy, exhaustive and exhausting movie. 

A word of advice: bring aspirin (or noise-canceling headphones), for that headache I got was a souvenir straight from Mr. Bay's epic juggernaut enterprise -- and the particular San Francisco movie theater operator in question had the sound turned down for the film.  For this two-hour 33 minute film audiences should be rewarded not with 3D glasses, but with t-shirts that read, "I survived the Bay (Area) decibel-crush."

Of all people, our lad Sam should have realized from experience that saving the world doesn't pay very highly, even if the price one pays for saving it is high.  There's no Mayor Daley or Washington or Emanuel to give Sam the key to the city of Chicago.  No Governor Blagojevich, convicted yesterday, to make a proclamation in Sam's honor on behalf of the state of Illinois.  And Hyde Park's own President Obama already gave Sam a medal.  What will Sam do for an encore?

Only Mr. Bay and the audience box-office returns know for sure.

With: Frances McDormand, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Alan Tudyk, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, Lester Speight, Markiss McFadden, Kenneth Sheard, Rayil Isyanov, and the voices of Hugo Weaving (Megatron), James Remar (Sideswipe), Frank Welker (Shockwave/Soundwave), Reno Wilson (Brains).

"Transformers: Dark Of The Moon" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for intense prolonged sequences of sci-fi action violence, mayhem and destruction, and for language, some sexuality and innuendo.  The film's running time is two hours and 33 minutes.

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