MOVIE REVIEW – ‘TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON’

Michael Bay. The mere mention of the name is instantly polarizing. His unapologetic odes to spectacle and excess have split theatergoers into two camps: those that indulge in his brainless adrenaline rides with unabashed glee, and those that feel his work behind the camera is single-handedly destroying the art of cinema. In films like The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys, and most recently the Transformers franchise, Bay has developed a reputation as a master of loud and ludicrous action set pieces, but his frequent inability to deliver compelling characters or an engaging storyline has earned him a name of ill repute amongst the cinema cognoscenti. Yet time and time again, the masses queue up to gorge themselves on his trademarks: fast cars, dazzling explosions, overly-dramatic slow motion camera pans, gratuitous T&A, military fetishism, and crash-edited action wizardry.

Why then, is a director so adept at spectacle and kinetic camerawork, so inept at basic storytelling? Is it the fault of hack screenwriters? Poor casting choices?  Or is it something else? Does a film – regardless if it’s a “check your brain at the door popcorn flick” or not – have a responsibility to the audience to provide a coherent plot and likeable developed characters? In Michael Bay’s case, that answer seems to be an emphatic “NO”, as evidenced by his latest Magnum robot Opus/giant middle finger to “film snobs” around the world – Transformers: Dark of the Moon. This third installment is not so much a movie as it is a two and a half hour assault on the senses; an un-checked display of empty bombast and juvenile humor that bludgeons the audience into dazed, slack-jawed submission by the end of its exhausting run time. It’s a pointless mess, a film that goes nowhere and has nothing to say.

The “plot” of this (or any other) Transformers movie is a lesson in irrelevance, but suffice it to say that recent college grad Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) – fresh off of twice saving the world from enslavement by giant robots – is having a tough time balancing dating an impossibly gorgeous supermodel and landing a job that allows him to “matter”. Eventually, certain encounters at his entry-level job at an Aeronautics company once again embroil him in the conflict between the noble Autobots led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron (Hugo Weaving). This time the giant robots are racing to unlock the secrets of some MacGuffins on board an ancient Autobot starship that crash-landed on the Moon, which was discovered and subsequently covered up by NASA after the 1969 Moon landing.

It’s not just hyperbole when I say that there is absolutely nothing enjoyable about the first hour and a half of this movie. The shifts in tone from scene to scene are staggering. Bay builds up very dramatic, dire stakes in the opening sequence featuring the 1969 Moon-landing and the  discovery / cover-up of the crashed Autobot ship, then completely sabotages any weight or momentum with painfully unfunny and out-of-place lowest common denominator comedy. It’s unfathomable to me why a screenwriter would choose to juxtapose the Autobots looking to prevent the Decepticons from another potentially world-ending plot with sequences of Sam bumbling his way through job interviews, visiting his girlfriend’s workplace and getting jealous of her boss, dealing with his insane co-workers at his new job, or interacting with his cringe-inducing parents. LaBeouf spends most of the first hour of the film acting like a complete jerk and screaming at other characters for no apparent reason. His bizarre performance here can only be attributed to the fact that he loathes the franchise that put him on the map and has publicly gone on record as saying he doesn’t plan on returning for any future sequels.

But at least LaBeouf had a reason for his terrible, manic performance. There is no excuse for venerable, respected actors like Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and John Turturro flailing around Bay’s set, chewing scenery and acting like complete buffoons. All three actors are completely wasted in this film, and seem to be present only for Bay to show off the fact that he can get Oscar-winners to deliver embarrassing dialogue to a tennis ball on a stick that will be replaced by a CGI Optimus Prime later.

As for the other “performances” in the film, vacuous Victoria’s Secret lingerie model Rosie-Huntington Whiteley replaces the vacuous Megan Fox as Shia LaBeouf’s love interest, which is an improvement only because Whiteley delivers her stilted dialogue with a British accent rather than a bored Valley-girl accent, giving her some false credibility. With her glossy eyes, bee-stung lips, and impossible curves, she exists solely for Bay to indulge his adolescent predilection for extended shots of bronzed, glistening supermodel flesh.

The lone bright spots of the film are Ken Jeong doing his usual psychotic creeper shtick as a former NASA engineer involved in the Moon Landing conspiracy. His confrontation scene with Sam in a men’s bathroom – while completely superfluous – was some inspired comedy. Alan Tudyk, a genre fan favorite from his work as Wash on Firefly, also used his talents to somehow make an effeminate German computer hacker/butler into a memorable and enjoyable character. Excellent voice work by Peter Cullen, Hugo Weaving, and Leonard Nimoy (as Sentinel Prime, leader of the Autobots before Optimus) is also wasted because the Transformers themselves simply don’t get enough screen time to shine. However, that is a good thing in the case of the Wreckers, a group of NASCAR Autobots that speak in gruff Australian accents. While not as racially offensive as the “twins” from the previous installment, they were still rote, one-note stereotypes, as were most of the secondary Transformers.

Something very strange happens after that first 80 or so minutes of Dark of the Moon as it slogs to its conclusion. Another, entirely different film kicks in – an hour-long cacophony of spectacular destruction and chaos the likes of which have never been seen before, as the Decepticons and Autobots attempt to obliterate each other in the streets and on the buildings of Chicago. This marathon of metal carnage is destined to go down in history as one of the most ambitious and technologically astounding action set pieces of all-time. Marauding Decepticons brutally disintegrate terrified humans running through the streets; seemingly endless numbers of missiles, rockets, grenades, and machinegun rounds are discharged; dazzling, thunderous explosions rip through the streets, enormous spaceships light up the sky like Fourth of July fireworks with their weapons;  buildings buckle and collapse as the human characters slide through them and cling to support beams, NAVY S.E.A.L teams emerge from the rivers guns blazing; and of course, the giant transforming robots clash with one another in a symphony of metallic annihilation.  All of this is rendered in gorgeous CGI by Industrial Light & Magic, and very effective 3D.

In fact, the 3D in Dark of the Moon is some of the best I have ever seen. Bay takes the ball kicked off by James Cameron’s Avatar crew and runs down the audience’s throats with it, the highlight coming in the form of a jaw-dropping, vertigo-inducing sequence of military base jumpers in “flying squirrel”-type flight suits plummeting through the steel canyons of Chicago that thrilled me like nothing I had ever experienced on a movie screen before. However, when that exhilarating flight was over, common sense rushed back into my body and I realized that, exciting as it was, it was ultimately meaningless since I didn’t care about any of the flying soldiers, the transformers themselves, or anyone else involved in the noisy carnage. It truly was a lot of sound and fury that signified nothing.

If the first Transformers film was a sleek, supersonic aircraft soaring off into the sky on its maiden flight, and Revenge of the Fallen was the engine exploding in mid-air, sending the craft into a dizzying nose dive; then Dark of the Moon is the spectacular ball of flame erupting from the jet’s devastating crash to Earth. One can only the hope the next pilot to board this vehicle has a steadier hand on the yoke.

‘G.I. JOE 2’ TO FEATURE THE ROCK AND RZA?

Despite lackluster ticket sales and a 33% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, someone in Hollywood thought it would be a good idea to greenlight a sequel to the face-meltingly awful G.I. Joe The Rise of Cobra. Even more disconcerting than this news, however, is the recent casting rumors that are starting to trickle in. First off, the only cast member that is confirmed to return in G.I. Joe 2, is the mannequin-esque Channing Tatum as Duke. None of the other major heroes and villains featured in the first film are returning, which means that key characters like Cobra Commander, Destro, and The Baroness will need to be re-cast.

Ray Park is likely to return as Snake-Eyes, as is Byung-hun Lee as his nemesis Storm Shadow. As for new members that will be enlisting in the Joe’s ranks, Elodie Yung will portray the female ninja Jinx, Detroit 187’s D.J Controna will star at the beret-wearing warrant officer Flint, and none other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will lift a heavy machine gun as Roadblock! The most bizarre casting rumor surrounding the film right now is the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, who is currently “in discussions” to play “The Blind Master”, an obscure ninja master from the comic books who shares a past with the masters that trained Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow. G.I. Joe 2: Cobra Strikes is set for release on August 10, 2012.

In a related story, this G.I. Joe video is ten times better than G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. If they released this into the theater on a two-hour loop, I would gladly pay $11 and laugh my ass off.

SHUT UP AND EAT YOUR AWESOME

As the hours trickle down towards what is sure to be another gargantuan take at the box office for the colossally terrible Transformers franchise, Garrison Dean of i09.com fame shows us a glimpse of a world that is brutally honest about its marketing strategies. “Fuck art films, it’s time to see Michael Bay blow the shit out of shiny metal objects!”  It’s amazing how well this trailer functions both as a scarcastic dig at fans of “Bay-hem”, and an effective visual adrenaline ride that will put butts in seats come June 29.

FAN-MADE CG ANIMATED ‘ROCKETEER’ FILM

This gorgeous and fun CG animated ‘Rocketeer’ short was lovingly crafted by John Banana as a tribute to the late Dave Stevens (the creator of the Rocketeer), and to mark the 20th anniversary of the live-action Disney film. It’s absolutely adorable and I would love to see Pixar or Dreamworks do a full-length Rocketeer movie!

MOVIE REVIEW – ‘GREEN LANTERN’

When I was around 4 or 5 years old, I liked to root around in my parents’ dresser a lot. One day during one of my raids, I came across my Father’s high school class ring, and my heart leapt. At that age, there was only one person that I knew who wore a ring – The Green Lantern, champion of justice and venerable member of the Super Friends. I immediately slipped the ring over my middle finger and started “flying” all over the house, pointing my “power ring” at my dog, pretending to catch her in a glowing green baseball mitt after a fall, or smashing a bad guy in the face with a giant, green, glowing fist. Decades later, Hollywood has turned one of my beloved childhood heroes into a slick, $200 million production, but it pains me to say that my adventures around the living room with my Dad’s class ring were far more entertaining and exhilarating than this colossal disaster of a superhero film.

In a nutshell, Green Lantern is about a squadron of space cops (called the Green Lantern Corps) who patrol sectors of the universe, using the power of a ring imbued with the green energy of will. Each ring-user can create any object they imagine out of the green energy (usually giant fists and weapons). The rings have a weakness though – they are near powerless against the yellow energy of fear, embodied by an evil cloud of yellow tentacles with a giant head called Parallax. Parallax is wreaking havoc around the universe, and mortally wounds the strongest Green Lantern, Abin Sur (Temura Morrison). His ship crashes on Earth, where his ring must choose a new wearer to take up his mantle.

The ring chooses Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a cocky, irresponsible test pilot who tries to escape from the fearful memories of his Father dying in a plane crash by being as daring as possible in a fighter jet. He tests jets for Ferris Aircraft, which is managed by his (presumably) ex-girlfriend Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). The ring transports Hal to the Green Lantern Corps home world of Oa, where he meets Sinestro, the leader of the Corps, and a bizarre menagerie of CG-created aliens who all bear the ring. Meanwhile on Earth, Hector Hammond, a nerdy scientist, is infected with Parallax’s fear energy while examining Abin Sur’s remains and gains telekinetic powers. Hal must then decide if he has what it takes to stop both Hector and Parallax from wiping out the Earth.

Joyless, disjointed, and dull – Green Lantern suffers from a terribly written screenplay, and a narrative that beats the audience senseless with another tedious origin story, gobs of exposition, and a painfully boring romance. The editing is dreadful, resulting in one of the worst-paced films I have ever seen, (And I sat through Jonah Hex!). A sloppy, un-satisfying climactic battle then materializes out of nowhere without any rising action or buildup to speak of.

All of this ineptitude is rather shocking, considering the film was directed under the normally capable helm of Martin Campbell, who gave us two of the best James Bond films of all time – Goldeneye and Casino Royale; not to mention the Saturday matinee fun of The Mask of Zorro. But despite the colorful and mostly well-crafted CGI effects, and the creative constructs that Hal creates with this power ring, there is no fun to be had here.

Ryan Reynolds does the best he can with the material that he is given in this absolute mess of a screenplay, so Green Lantern’s failure should not rest squarely on his shoulders, but he is still woefully mis-cast in the role (it should have gone to the runner-up Bradley Cooper). I was dreading the snark; the endless wise-cracks and mugs for the camera that are the trademarks of a Ryan Reynolds performance, but aside from a few minor quips, Reynolds usual shtick is completely replaced with a generic affability. Blake Lively, as Hal Jordan’s love interest Carol Ferris, while not reaching January Jones-levels of awfulness, is still very wooden. Her character suffers the same fate of many females in comic-book adaptations: she drowns in1940’s damsel-in-distress and 1980’s empowered- business woman tropes, and in the end is nothing more than a cheerleader for Hal to believe in himself enough to save the world. However, kudos should be given to her character for recognizing Hal Jordan behind the goofy, CGI domino mask, thus making her the single smartest female character in the history of comic-book movies.

The romantic storyline, and anything on Earth that pulls us away from the far more interesting events taking place in outer space, completely drag the film down because the relationships amongst the characters are so poorly defined. One of the most atrocious examples of this occurs at the obligatory “party/fundraiser/press conference” (a trite scene that every superhero origin film has so that all the central characters can be in the same place when something catastrophic happens), when Hal and Hector Hammond bump into one another. The characters share a “Hey, how’s it goin” moment, and act as if they have known each other for years, yet this is the first time the audience has seen them together, and has had no visual clues or any expository dialog whatsoever to enlighten them to any prior relationship. This inexplicably and inexcusably happens several more times over the course of the film, as it’s implied that Hector had/has an obsession for Carol, and a rivalry with Hal for the affections of Hammond’s father, a slimy Senator played by Tim Robbins, whose talents are completely wasted on this arbitrary role.

James Newton Howard, best known for his subtle musical cues in film like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, is a complete mis-match for Green Lantern. The result is one of the weakest superhero scores of all-time. As a long-time comic book reader, I should have felt a sense of awe and wonder as the camera panned over the Lantern’s visually spectacular home planet of Oa, but with the subdued music, it all fell flat. A colorful superhero like this deserves triumphant, bombastic music, but here the score is hardly noticeable at all, and when it is noticeable, it’s for all the wrong reasons. Themes derivative of classic scores like John Williams’ immortal Superman seep through constantly (there are several moments where actual segments from the main Superman theme begin to play!)

The bright spots in Green Lantern (ironic – due to the title and nature of this film) are difficult to find, but some shine through the garish CGI sludge. Mark Strong, coming off excellent villainous roles in Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass is a spot-on Sinestro, the stern, driven leader of the Green Lantern Corps who (SPOILER ALERT) eventually leaves the Corps behind to become Green Lantern’s arch-nemesis. Strong is terrific, imbuing the character with honor, gravitas, and a burning passion to see the Corps use any means necessary to preserve the peace. Sadly, he is given nothing to do with all that fire and rhetoric, aside from make a couple of speeches, and appear in a post-credit reveal that needed far more build-up in order to make sense.

He and the rest of the key Corps members – Geoffrey Rush as Tomar Re, and Michael Clarke Duncan (lazily and too obviously cast) as the Corps drill sergeant Kilowog – are truly wasted in this film as characters who are simply there to dump a ton of exposition on Hal, explain the powers of the ring to the audience, and serve as flying deus ex machinas to save the day in the very end. The training sequence on Oa between Kilowog, Tomar Re, Sinestro, and Hal was one of the truly fun moments in the film, but it was cut far too short to have any real impact. I would have liked to have spent more time on Oa, learning more about the different Corps members as well as the blue-skinned Guardians (the enigmatic beings who created the rings). Alas, it was not meant to be.

So, after the surprising quality of Thor and X-men: First Class, the Summer of 2011 has its first superhero dud. Hopefully the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger, The Dark Knight Rises, and the promise of an epic superhero team-up in The Avengers, can stave off the inevitable comic book movie backlash that is sure to follow in the wake of this blunder.