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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. The Rest: Transformers Dark of the Moon

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Michael Bay, 2010
Mindless, soulless, heartless, mechanical, and shamelessly mercenary as it might be, director Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon — the latest in the often obnoxious movie series, starring Shia LaBeouf and a lot of Hasbro toys — is still one of the more crazily entertaining of recent summer movies.
And, mindlessly mercenary as Bay may seem to a lot of critics — all of whose complaints about this movie are valid but, in a way, irrelevant — he and his crew (and a lot of the actors and voice actors) are still able to pump enough wild invention, heavy film technique, weirdo energy and Wowie-Kazowie-Blam-Blam-Blam-Kaboom-Vavoom-Wacka-Wacka-Wacka-Kerboom!!!!!!! into the show to impress the hell out of you at times.
I mean, I worked at the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue for fourteen years and I never expected to see it become a sniper’s nest in a fire-battle waged by killer robots raging from atop the Wrigley Building, while human vs. nonhuman battles waged across the Michigan Avenue Bridge and Wacker Drive to a Trump Tower teetering on its axis — as the good robots (autobots in case you’ve forgotten) battle the bad robots (decepticons), all of them inflated to apparently gigantic dimensions and hurled at us in the deepest 3D money can buy.
Or to see the Tower and the neighborhood turned into a variation of the 1933 King Kong Empire State bulding climax — as LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky and his boys try to inject a little human machismo against the incredibly large robots — a bit like the gunners and pilots who circled around Kong — during the near-hour-long battle that climaxes (in every way) Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
The latest Michael Bay crash-a-thon isn’t my kind of movie. A lot of it is really annoying: overly jam-packed with pop-cultural fancy trash and gadgetry. And I sure wouldn’t be watching many films if they were all like this: over-loud, over-fast, over-violent, frenetically shot and cut, slick, semi-apocalyptic fantasies lightern wit and psychology and heaviercarnage. But this movie is a special case. Its story may be ludicrous, but this time, it all seems more knowingly absurd, more entertaining. And Transformers’ visual and special effects are amazing.

As in Armageddon and Pearl Harbor and the other Transformers, Bay once again shoots the works and tries to blow the house down, and he often does. But there‘s a change. The first two Transformers were, for me, too heavily weighted toward the action scenes, with the all-out carnage laced all the way through and consuming them from the start. Those movies, especially Revenge of the Fallen, didn’t spend much time on character or dialogue, even on bad character and dialogue, and they relied on LaBeouf’s boyish looks of distracted concern to try to pump in some humanity.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon was written by Ehren Kruger, who was also one of the culprits responsible for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen — but who has ably scripted other action moves from John Frankenheimer’s late-career thriller Reindeer Games on. (Yes, I’ve heard the story about the Frankenheimer-Bay connection.)
As written by Kruger, the new show has a fairly simple obvious story. But at least it’s a story. And it has mostly caricatures instead of characters. But we spend more time with them, and they’re sometimes engaging or lively, and there are a lot of them, often played by very good actors, like the Coen Brothers-ish ensemble of Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and John Turturro. Most of those actors seem to be enjoying themselves, maybe only in contemplation of the huge compensation waiting for them, but also perhaps because it’s fun to tear a big important city apart in a movie.
Bay’s Dark is hipped on destruction and sometimes madly irreverent: At one point, Bay and Kruger have bad robot Megatron blow up the statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial and then clamber up on Lincoln‘s chair, in a scene that actually made me queasy. Throughout Dark of the Moon, mostly in its third act, people fall out of skyscraper windows, trigger mass explosions, and otherwise behave as if the world were some kind of mad playground for pathological toys and children.
The surprise is that Bay and Kruger have actually, this time out, taken so much more time and effort with the non-action sequences. I‘m not saying these are great (or even, most of the time, good) comic and dramatic scenes. But they help the movie strike more of a balance, with Bay downloading most of the slambang stuff to that last near-hour of nonstop Chicago havoc.

Dark of the Moon is loaded with backstory too, even if you haven’t seen the other movies. Bay and Kruger add a cameo for JFK, suggesting that the robot wars have part of their roots in a covered-up incident back in the ‘60s involving mysterious doings on the dark side of the moon, with the whole space program actually (it says here) instigated by JFK to discover what was up over there.
And the new movie reintroduces us to a lot of old characters: La Beouf as our hero Sam Witwicky (who has helped save the world twice and still can’t get a job better than the mail room), Sam’s new girlfriend Carly (played by British supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, apparently after the series’ original hottie, Megan Fox, got too candid about the series), those ever-ready soldiers Lt Col. Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Sgt. Epps (Tyrese Gibson), and the electric FBI guy Seymour Simmons (Turturro, doing a Nic Cage-ish turn).
New ones too. Malkovich sneering it up as Sam‘s snobby employer Bruce Brazos; Ken Jeong doing another politically incorrect gig as Brazos’ toilet-obsessed director of research and development Jerry Wang (old wine in an old bottle for Jeong by now, but at least they didn’t call him Jerry Schlong), Patrick Dempsey as Sam’s smug romantic rival Dylan Gould, and McDormand as national intelligence chief Charlotte Mearing — an utterly thankless role. There are also walk-ons by astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Fox News tantrum-tosser Bill O‘Relly as themselves. Aldrin is there to lend credibility to the conspiracy theory and O’Reilly is there to blow his top about the autobots. Less convincing are the computer recreations of JFK and Tricky Dick Nixon, who are there for exposition.
You’ll notice that there are a lot of characters; the cast list has a lot more. And I haven‘t even started naming the robots: a heavy metal Hasbro gang that includes Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime, Leonard Nimoy (no less) as Sentinel Prime, Hugo Weaving as the villainous Megatron, James Remar as Sideswipe, Frank Welker as Shockwave, Keith Szrarbajka as Laserbreak, and Timothy Spall as Oilchange. (No, just kidding.)
Not usually singled out, but certainly deserving of it here, are the artists and technicians who made this movie pop: special effects supervisor John Frazier, visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar, production designer Nigel Phelps, animation supervisor Scott Benza and stunt co-odinator Ken Bates. The 3D, touted as an improvement, is a little brighter than usual, and the depth of field a little better used. (Stuff keeps flying at the cameras, including, as many critics have noted, Ms. Huntington-Whiteley’s derriere.)
All this is just to suggest that the new Transformers, while definitely flawed (it’s too loud, too frantically edited) doesn’t necessarily signal the End of Cinema as We Know It, or a Horrible New Trend Which, If Left Unchecked, will Turn All Our Minds into Mush.
In fact, Bay by now has such a highly recognizable and distinct visual and editing style — and even a kind of catalogue of themes (catastrophe, friendship, romantic rivalry, imprisonment, technology and its dangers) — that you might justly describe him as more than a high tech expert: maybe a pop auteur without honor. That’s obviously part of the way he sees himself; he’s helped put two of his movies, The Rock and Armageddon, out in classy Criterion editions.
Bay’s movies tend to blend annoying excess with extraordinary technical skill, and that may be a big part of what annoys the people who treat him as a cinematic Antichrist: the contrast between his obvious talent and the obnoxious uses (and scripts) to which he often applies it. Some day in the future, I suspect, Bay may win over at least some of the buffs ad movie pundits who keep relentlessly bashing him now. But it won’t be for a movie like this. More likely, it’ll be for something smaller, less effects-heavy, more intimate (that wouldn’t be hard) — and not in 3D.

Dark of the Moon, alienating as it may be to some, is still an impressive pieces of movie technology, and easily the best of the three Transformers movies. Admittedly, that’s not saying all that much. But I’d be lying if I said that a lot of it didn’t entertain me. I’d also be lying if I said that, even after three movies, I could keep all those robots straight all the time.
A lot of the movie was obnoxious, too loud and incoherent. But so is the evening news. Maybe you can defend this movie, and Bay movies in general, sort of, by saying that they reflect our obnoxious, overloud, incoherent times — and the obnoxious, overloud, incoherent people who often, annoyingly enough, run them and comment on them. Admittedly, that way lies madness. And, as Sentinel Prime/Spock observes: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” (True, I guess, sometimes….at least when you’re compiling box office reports.) No extras. A deluxe edition, with extras, will be out later this year, according to Bay.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon