Combustible Celluloid
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With: Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, Alan Tudyk, Ken Jeong, Peter Cullen (voice), Tom Kenny (voice), Leonard Nimoy (voice), James Remar (voice), Hugo Weaving (voice), Frank Welker (voice), Buzz Aldrin
Written by: Ehren Kruger
Directed by: Michael Bay
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense prolonged sequences of sci-fi action violence, mayhem and destruction, and for language, some sexuality and innuendo
Running Time: 154
Date: 06/23/2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

1/2 Star (out of 4)

Idiotic Robotics

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Michael Bay, inexplicably working again with producer Steven Spielberg, has turned in his longest movie outside of Pearl Harbor (2001), and arguably his most soul-sucking to date. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is Bay's ninth movie, and he somehow keeps getting worse. Watching this, I found myself dreaming wistfully of the intelligence and depth of character of Armageddon (1998) and Bad Boys II (2003).

Indeed, the only one that comes out looking good here is Megan Fox, who had the foresight to get herself fired from the production early on.

The plot, if I need to go into that half-baked sludge, involves a set of "rods" that will somehow transport weapons, or armies, or something from halfway across the galaxy to earth. There's some kind of a double-cross involving Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), and Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving). There's also a double-cross by one human character, which hardly makes any sense. There are other human characters, although it's clear that the movie doesn't give a fig for them. It all has something to do with the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission, and ends up in a huge battle. Or something.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is so bad, in so many ways, that I risk merely rehashing my previous two reviews (Transformers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), just as Bay has rehashed this awful franchise. So, to simplify things, here is a list of the key offenders, and their progress -- or erosion -- over the course of the three films.

1. The action sequences. Bay has always been one of the world's worst directors of action, which is a definite minus for someone that makes action movies his primary bread-and-butter. What he doesn't understand and has never understood is that great action relies on a clear definition of space, whether it's a boxing ring, or a city street. It also depends on a clear definition of the combatants.

With their limited color palette and droning voices, his Transformers mostly look and sound the same. It's difficult to tell them apart, especially during a frenetic battle. His use of space his terrible, as there's no definition to the battlefield. The combatants leap about to any place, at any time, without rhyme or reason. In one chase sequence, Transformers that are racing along as vehicles suddenly convert to robots, and must stand up and run to keep up with the rest of the cars. Bay fails to understand the sense of speed, motion, and gravity in this sequence, the fact that the robots would naturally fall behind for a beat.

Additionally, Bay can't seem to handle parallel battles. When three different groups are fighting at the same time, he fails to juggle their timelines satisfactorily. Some of the players seem to be totally out of commission, or just waiting around, for several minutes too many, while others do all the work. He uses this technique so that his giant robots can swoop in at the last second to save humans, but what were they doing up to that point? Resting?

On the plus side, Bay has always been a habitual camera-shaker, but on these films he has learned to hold his shots longer. On the second film, he learned to pull back from the action just a bit, and on this one -- working in trendy, useless 3D -- he has learned to settle down and hold still a bit more. This helps a little, but without a sense of space or character, the action is still below average.

2. Sense of humor. As bad as Bay is at action, his sense of humor is immeasurably worse. Transformers: Dark of the Moon makes even Cars 2 look like Oscar Wilde material. If only he had a penchant for simple slapstick, that would be fine, but his tastes run even shallower. The humor in these films are more along the lines of French drawing room humor, emphasizing awkwardness and ill timing. It takes a sophisticated, subtle hand to make this stuff work, but of course Bay throws it at us, like catapulting steel dumbbells at 180 miles an hour (to paraphrase my own review of The Island).

In one sequence, John Malkovich turns up. He plays Bruce Brazos, who runs a high maintenance tech company and is Sam Witwicky's new boss. Bruce wants to see Sam's "Bee," and for some reason tries to pick a fight with it. He winds up on the floor and giggling. This happens in the background while Sam and two others try to have a meeting about the end of the world. It's such a peculiar attempt at laughs that it's difficult to describe in words. The response is more like astonishment and annoyance than anything remotely resembling a grin or a giggle.

Malkovich is normally one of my favorite actors, and is capable of injecting his own offbeat brand of personality into any role he plays, but Bay somehow squeezes that out of him here, and he becomes an empty puppet on a string. John Turturro returns here as Simmons, who is arguably the most over-the-top human character in the series, and he's more subtle than usual. Kevin Dunn and Julie White should probably carry the most shame for their continued portrayal of Sam's clueless parents. Oscar winner Frances McDormand is over-the-top snippy, with too much expositional dialogue, and fan favorite Ken Jeong, from the Hangover movies, is also wasted in stupid attempts at humor. (He's discovered in a bathroom stall with Sam! They must be gay! Oh my!)

3. Cultural Stereotypes. In an extension of Bay's awful sense of humor, he somehow loves to make his Transformers into painful cultural stereotypes, with the kinds of "funny" accents that might have entertained lowbrow vaudeville houses over a hundred years ago. To his credit, he axed the African-American ones from the last movie, but there remain Irish, Italian, and others in this one.

4. Extreme Length. Bay has grown so powerful in Hollywood that no one has the courage (or pay grade) to tell him that he needs to cut his films down. Presumably, Spielberg could have done that, but I imagine Spielberg probably takes a hands-off approach to producing these kinds of films. As I said before, this is Bay's longest film outside of Pearl Harbor, which is a trend moving in the wrong direction. Bay's movies can be big and loud, but they would do a whole lot better if they were shorter.

Case in point: the plot of this movie begins from an interesting place. What happened during the Apollo 11 mission when the astronauts were out of contact on the dark side of the moon? A cleverer filmmaker might have saved this idea for a "reveal" toward the climax of the film, but here Bay wastes about 20 minutes of prologue explaining the moon mission in detail, assuming his brain-dead audience members have never heard of it.

5. Sexual Objects. Megan Fox (washed up at 25!) has been replaced by 24 year-old, English-born Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. She's a Victoria's Secret model, and this is her movie debut. She's physically flawless, and Bay's camera practically drools all over her various curves. She wears gorgeous dresses and shoes throughout the movie, and she's fairly vacuous (much like Bay's movies). Also, she's taller than her co-star Shia LaBeouf; Bay tries to hide it in some shots, but he lets it go in other shots. In other words, she's not a human being or a character: she's another special effect to help Bay sell his product (the movie).

6. Shia LaBeouf. I'm becoming increasingly annoyed with this once-promising young actor. In this movie, he screams practically every single one of his lines, and when he's not doing that, he throws little tantrums. He's not a very good hero. Also, I'm not sure if it's because of the kinds of roles he has taken lately -- or if it's the fact that Bay has never once directed a good performance by any actor, ever -- but LaBeouf can't seem to disguise a massive, and growing arrogance; this probably makes him sexy to some, but it's not the ticket to James Dean land.

7. Annihilation of Species. Here, as in some of his other movies, Bay seems to have a great time threatening or actually wiping out thousands (millions?) of innocent people in the name of a good time. There are shots in Transformers: Dark of the Moon of screaming masses being vaporized, and other shots of a slack-jawed LaBeouf staring incredulously at the rampant destruction. Are we expected to cheer at this stuff?

In some ways, I want the Transformers series to end, but in other ways, I think it keeps Bay from getting into trouble by taking on bigger and more dangerous topics. (Imagine his movie about Vietnam? 9/11? The Holocaust?) I guess we can only cross our fingers and hope that, by his next project, he learns a little something or grows up a lot.

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