Friday, July 1, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

There comes a point in watching Michael Bay's latest visual assault where one must choose to either go with the crazy, muddled and bombastic and will oneself to surrender to aural and visual submission, or pick at the millions of problems with story, character, coherence, logic, and egotistical buffoonery (the auteurs specialty) with Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  The third, and absolutely unnecessary latest in the Hasbro toy epic is long (very long; too long at two hours and thirty-seven minutes) and silly and stupid and a product of a soulless industry, but it's strangely enough kind of cool, more so the first two mindless exercises in blowing things up, more so than most of the output Bay has unleashed in his career.  And while the overly indulgent, nutrition-free runs it's course, and eventually runs out of gas (how could it not), for the first time in Transformers trilogy, there's a bemused sense of humor and slightly contagious fun.  Also for the first time it seems that the shape-shifting alien robot spectacles of the Autobots (our heroes) and Decepticons (not our heroes) are in the same movie as the human characters, headed by an incongruously manic and relaxed Shia LaBeouf, finally fitting into his character of nerdy-boy-next-door caught up in a holy cow intergalactic stage show, while inexplicably always landing a hot girlfriend-- British model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley subs for Megan Fox.  The supporting cast is bolstered by Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and the returning John Turturro, each fully aware of the their respective preposterous roles with pleasurable aplomb.

And wait just a freaking moment.  Am I admitting to actually have found pleasure in a Transformers film.  I feel like the ultimate traitor, and even the most ardent of blow 'em up, popcorn should expect more than Bay's latest ludicrous ego trip, and while improvements over the first two films are noticed...let's be perfectly honest, those movies aren't very good at all.  This is the conflict of conscience here, and yes the story is dumb-- a muddled mess of science-fiction pop cliches, aggressively violent, and overly extended battle sequences, a film of little consequence or nutritional value, it's vaguely sexist, and less vaguely homophobic-- but there's an almost earnest and strangely operatic amusement to which it so desperately wants to entertain.  The first sequence, a fairly nifty one at that, re-stages and montages the entire space race of the late 1960s, using archival footage, seamless visual cues and re-creations in a disarmingly elegant way.  The payoff, and story kick-off (not that it matters) is that on the far side of the moon, our morphing toys were found, starting a top secret government cover-up and stuff (Buzz Aldrin makes a cameo.)  It's not the point-- the sequence looked terrific and reminds the easily-forgotten fact that Bay is an impressive stylist, and while he's, I'm sure, many other things as well, he knows how to stage spectacle with a bravado few could ever dream of.  That he chooses an extended shot of Huntington-Whiteley's ass immediately following this sequence reminds the not-so-easily-forgotten fact he's kind of a jerk as well.

The story that can be coddled together has perhaps a little more on its plate (it was written by Ehren Kruger, already well versed in Transformer nonsense; he co-wrote part two, Revenge of the Fallen as well as The Ring and Scream 3) than its predecessors, as in it still makes no sense, but is slightly more thoughtfully outlined.  The epic war between arch rivals the Autobots (led by the mighty Optimus Prime) and the Decepticons (led by the evil Megatron) continues, this time with American space age cover-ups. An elder robot known as the Sentinel is restored with ideas of dominating Earth, and lots of robot on robot carnage ensues...really who knew machines could bleed!  The more human-driven story revolves around Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) finding a job, perhaps in a nod for a more relatable, recession-driven audience sympathy; sure he's saved the world a couple of times, but he has money struggles too.  And relationship woes as he, not so suavely, battles his girlfriend's oily boss (played by Patrick Dempsey), who has deceptions in his own right.  John Malkovich stops by for a lark as Witwicky's obsessive compulsive boss, and McDormand storms in as a top CIA something or a another, each seemingly enjoying their paychecks and freedom to do whatever the hell they please.  There's even enough time (it's a long movie folks) for Witwicky's obnoxious parents to visit, and it's just as awkward as before (Julie White and Kevin Dunn play Mom and Dad, respectively.)

Perhaps it's best to think of Transformers: Dark of the Moon as a screwball comedy moreso than anything else, the character actors are surely playing up the camp value, and the toys themselves, while technically amazing, are still implausible characters. Interchangeable and recklessly abandoned for long awkward stretches, there's almost a comic wit to the film's inconsistency, and abrupt change in tone.  Yes the action sequences are stellar and slightly more coherent than in the past, but while the joke may be completely unintentional (or perhaps not, who knows) there's a humorous aside to the utter inconsequential mayhem in store, and for a film where it's baddie is hellbent on world domination and enacting human slavery, that is kind of feat.  There's a wonderfully pointless moment when Lincoln's head at the Lincoln Memorial is blown up and replaced by a Dececpticon robot...gravity is turned into absurd humor.  There's a gay sex joke, accompanied with extra tackiness by The Hangover's Ken Jeong that clearly was played for laughs that nets far lamer results, by comparison.

And so you take the good and the bad with Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and decide whether you want to roll your eyes at the ridiculousness or go with it.  I was on both sides of the fence, almost simultaneously.  The climatic battle sequence has enough holes and breathless wonderment to it, that after a while I readily admit I didn't know, nor care what was going on, but still thought it was cool...a thrilling office building sequence is a technical marvel, and while logic persists that no one should have survived it, words like that mean nothing to Bay, and after two-hours and thirty-seven minutes of alien robot carnality, it may mean nothing to you as well.  And for the first time in cinema relationship with Hasbro, that's not entirely a bad thing. C+

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