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Transformers (2007)

Once again Hollywood is quick to prove that if any television show emits some level of nostalgia, or merchandising potential, it is only a matter of time before it finds itself reconfigured as a big screen blockbuster movie. In all honesty, I was never a huge Transformers fan; I was more into Ghostbusters and then transitioned into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It may be sacrilegious, but I thought the knockoff cartoon/action figures, The Go Bots, were just as good. Steven Spielberg and critically derided director Michael Bay (Bad Boys II, Armageddon) have teamed up to bring the world a lengthy and noisy Transformers feature film. I can’t wait for the Go Bots to get their own equally pricey close-up.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is your typical teenager obsessed with getting his own car. He can only afford an old Camaro at a used car lot, and his dreams of impressing the hot girl in school (Megan Fox). But Sam’s car isn’t just any old busted jalopy, no sir, it is really a robot in disguise from another planet. Sam’s car, codenamed Bumblebee, is apart of a robotic race known as the Autobots, led by their leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen returning to voice with gravitas). They can transform into vehicles that they scan with their optical sights. The Autobots are trying to save the planet from their evil counterparts, the Decepticons, who have already infiltrated our world in search of their fallen leader, Megatron. It seems Sam holds the key to the survival of Earth. His great grandfather was an Arctic explorer and happened upon the frozen sight of Megatron. He left behind an artifact that reveals the location of the chilled robot as well as a source of unparalleled power known as the Allspark. Needless to say, the military and the Secretary of Defense (John Voight) are a little aghast at how their weapons stack up to big bad robots.

Michael Bay was born to direct a live-action, ultra expensive Transformers movie. The testosterone is through the roof and the film worships everything shiny, fast, and automotive. This is the kind of movie that fits exactly into the artistic parameters of Bay. The film is one gorgeous product placement orgy that is all about the eye candy; the cars are hot and desirable, the car chases are cool, the explosions are a lovely shade of orange, and Megan Fox is quite hot and desirable too (engaged to a 90210 actor? Why oh why, Megan?). The special effects are downright flawless and the action sequences are enormous. The scale of destruction is, like most aspects of Transformers, cranked to such a high degree that summer satisfaction can only ensue. Everything is bigger in Michael Bay world. Transformers is Bay’s best movie so far and it delivers the goods when it comes to hyper-kinetic action and plenty of thrills.

While the movie runs on silliness it also keeps its wits about it and delivers solid and exciting action with a breathless pace. What really surprised me about Transformers is how much humor they squeezed into 143 minutes of loud and hyper bombast. Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (The Island, Mission: Impossible 3) have a great economy to their storytelling. They also have created a wacky teen comedy that just so happens to also be inhabited by giant robots. Much of the first hour is spent with Sam and his attempts to look cool with his new ride and impress the pretty girl. Sam is hocking his family wares on eBay and the Decepticons are on the hunt for… LadiesMan217. There’s a lengthy sequence where five Autobots have to duck and hide outside Sam’s house so he doesn’t get in trouble with his parents. Ma and Pa Witwicky look out the windows, and the robots dodge getting caught, and it’s like a classic bumbling slapstick comedy. A good action movie can become a great one when aided by well-timed humor, and Transformers has so many quips, sight gags, and goofy sidesteps (“Mountain Dew machine must destroy all humans!”) that is could be considered the most expensive comedy of all time (take a seat, Evan Almighty).

There is, however, a price to be paid for all this comedy and that is that no one acts with any true sense of awe. They are witness to large walking and talking monsters of metal that are out to enslave the planet – there has got to be some wonder there, but the film doesn’t treat anything seriously. Its jokey nature keeps the film from being anything more than disposable, throwaway entertainment. I mean, I find it difficult to take any movie seriously that features a robot “relieve” itself on John Turturro.

Shia LaBeouf (Disturbia) carries the film on his sturdy shoulders. The shape of Transformers has more to do with his horny, smart allecky character than the robots that fight. Normally the only thing required in an effects-heavy action flick are some fast legs and a healthy set of lungs, but LeBeouf has charisma to spare. He has a young Tom Hanks everyman feel to him. The greatest compliment I can give him is that he is the most memorable figure in a movie with big brawling robots. Fox is pretty easy on the eyes. Voight is adept at playing government figures in times of national peril. If you need a guy to stare at something massive, or formative, or formatively massive, and utter, “My God,” then Voight is your man. Kevin Dunn and Julie White provide nice comic additions as Sam’s mother and father.

Transformers may be a perfect slice of summer thrills, but unlike its titular gigantic robots, it’s little more than meets the eye. The movie loses steam whenever it deters from its main story involving Sam. I understand that the filmmakers were trying to widen their story scope, but nothing is gained by the inclusion of such useless characters like the overweight super computer hacker who lives at home with his mom. There’s an elite team of national security analysts and they all happen to be scruffy multi-cultural hippies. We have a blond Aussie (with a nose ring, oh so rebellious) who discovers the Decepticon signal and then, well, she sits in a room for a long while and then mostly sits on her hands during the climax. The opening follows a band of soldiers in the Middle East (which the film reminds us is where Qatar is, because apparently it does not feel that your core Transformers fan has a basic grip on geography) who also must reach the bigwigs in Washington with important info on these killer robots. These dangling storylines could be lost and little momentum would be lost. None of these extra characters are given a lot of attention. Most of them will vanish for long stretches so that when they do reappear you’re reminded how much you did not miss their absence. You’re going to need stock roles, like military men and tech geeks, but Transformers has cast its lot with the simple story of a boy’s first car and his unyielding teenage hormones. Transformers could use a good pruning for balance.

The robust action sequences are somewhat hampered by the typical Michael Bay ADD edits, but what really hurts the action sequences are the robots themselves. The original Transformers were designed smoothly, because in all reality they were animated toys and needed to function for kids. These 21st century Transformers have parts all over the place. There are gears and wheels and who knows what sticking out everywhere. They look far too cluttered, like a little kid’s art project where he keeps slathering on more junk. As a result of this robo design, when it comes to action you may not have a clue what’s actually happening. When the big robots wrestle you’ll be left trying to piece together in your mind which part is the robot mouth, the robot head, the robot fists/claws/drill/whatever. I suppose in a way this kind of demanding user activity is similar to watching scrambled porn; both involve trying to dissect the image into something workable and, thusly, satisfying to the senses. That’s right, I compared Transformers to scrambled porn, which is also quite more than meets the eye.

Obviously, with a film about powerful robots from space, there is going to be a stopgap of logic. If you can accept interstellar robots that arrived from a robotic planet, oh and by the way, they learned English from the Internet (it’s a wonder they speak in full sentences), then you should be able to shrug off any other shortfalls in logic. Transformers was never too deep a subject to being with; every episode of the cartoon revolved around the Autobots and the Decepticons battling over new energon cubes, and that was all the plot needed for a show about robots that fight.

There could be 20 minutes sliced out. Lots of ancillary characters are just dropped. There may be too much humor. The climax is way too long. The dialogue is corny. And yet with all its flaws considered, Transformers is an exhilarating entry into the world of summer smashups and blown eardrums. Michael Bay may never stretch his creative wings with a Victorian costume drama, but the man does what he does well. Transformers is a perfect match for Bay’s noisy and boisterous sense of action and his love of things fast and expensive. There isn’t much below the surface when it comes to Transformers, but it’s such a fun and exciting popcorn movie that it’s hard to argue with the results.

Nate’s Grade: B

Ocean’s 13 (2007)

Much more like 11 than 12, this latest Ocean’s caper is just as preposterous as all the others but remembers that the audience needs to have fun too. Danny (George Clooney) and his baker’s dozen are plotting revenge on Willie Bank (Al Pacino, looking like a leather couch), a ruthless casino mogul who pushed old friend Rueben (Elliot Gould) out of a business agreement. The boys must outwit casino workers, modern technology, and a super computer able to detect pupil dilation in order to fleece Bank’s Vegas eyesore. Thankfully, all of the players are back and given tasks to do, and some of the means of their scheme are ingenious. How do you pass a lie detector tests? Place a tack in your shoe so that all your truthful answers match the intensity of your false ones. How do you get your hands on rigging dice? You send a couple guys to work in the Mexican factory and, why not, start a worker’s revolt. Ocean’s Thirteen glides along almost too smoothly, barely stopping to enjoy the crazy amount of absurd machinations before they fly by. The dialogue is packed with coded terms and the film doesn’t even stop to explain them. The movie works on the contact high of cool it luxuriates in, but unlike Ocean’s Twelve, this time the gang is given an objective, allows the audience in on their plot, and then we sit back and watch the execution. Steven Soderbergh and the gang have created a slick and amusing sequel. It lacks the freshness of the first go-round in 2001, but Ocean’s Thirteen is the most satisfying three-quel so far in a summer already weighed down by them.

Nate’s Grade: B

Ocean’s 12 (2004)

In 2001, Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven was a giant surprise. It was a blast of fun with an impressive collection of Hollywood royalty. It had clever dialogue, fun characters, and a gala of amusing plot twists. It was one of the breeziest, most entertaining movies in years. Now, come late 2004, Ocean’s Twelve is released with the entire cast returning, including the lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones in tow. Expectations are high for another glitzy romp, but what you’re left with in Ocean’s Twelve is all glitz and no romp.

It’s been three years after the gang robbed ruthless casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) of 160 million dollars. Benedict tracks down each member of Ocean’s Eleven and gives them the same ultimatum: either pay back what they stole, with interest, in two weeks or they’ll be killed. Danny Ocean (George Clooney) leaves his attempts at normal home life with Tess (Julia Roberts) and reassembles the team, many of whom have burned through their shares of the millions. Danny and his right-hand man Rusty (Brad Pitt) figure they’re too hot stateside so they’ll need to travel overseas if they’re to steal their fortunes. Linus (Matt Damon) also wants to have a greater role in the heist this time around.

In Europe, Ocean is challenged by a French playboy (Vincent Cassel) who moonlights as the notorious thief, the Night Fox. The challenge is to see who can steal a priceless Faberge egg, and if bested the Night Fox promises to pay all of Ocean’s debts to Benedict. Hot on the heels of both thieves is Isabel (Zeta-Jones), an expert police officer that also happens to be the former girlfriend to Rusty.

Ocean’s Twelve does not work as a heist picture. For starters, the audience has no idea what’s going on for most of it. A general heist movie bylaw is to explain what the heist will entail, and then we watch the team hit it step by step. Forget that. In Ocean’s Twelve we’re never told how they are going to do their heist, and as they commence with their plan it’s not surprising to an audience, only confusing. I had to wait until the very end for some character to go into a monologue to explain how they accomplished their heist, and let me say, it was not worth two hours of waiting and scratching my head. The result seems to push away an audience instead of involving them in the fun of the scheme.

The story doesn’t utilize the talents of the assembled members. There’s a reason you hire a demolitions expert or a pick pocket, and that’s to let them work their skill. Well in Ocean’s Twelve we get none of that. Most of the cast’s skills are not ever put to use, which further gunks up a heist movie. The movie really errs by putting many of its eleven on ice for long stretches of the film. Around the second act almost everyone gets arrested. Pity poor Bernie Mac, who is in jail for near the whole movie. It seems that Soderbergh doesn’t know what to do with all his characters, and the new additions, so he stashes them away for long stages of time hoping an audience won’t notice.

Soderbergh is in danger of becoming a parody of himself. His usual narrative flourishes are present, including jumps in time and perspective; however, they don’t add up to much except unnecessary showmanship. The nonlinear leaps and shell game of information do not add to the film. Soderbergh keeps his audience in the dark for too long and then cheats us with the ending. Ocean’s Twelve is a good looking film (the vistas look beautiful), but it’s a good looking movie with nowhere to go. What’s even more frustrating is the ending to Ocean’s Twelve. You see, in the end we find out that the last hour plus of the movie was unnecessary. Yes, the movie actually makes a reveal that nullifies over half of the film. It’s cheap and unappreciated. Ocean’s Twelve, there’s a difference between tricking an audience and conning them. Maybe some day you’ll realize this.

The new storylines never really develop. Zeta-Jones doesn’t add much besides another authority figure to chase after Ocean and the boys. Her subplot involving finding her master thief father is abrupt and easy. The best new addition to Ocean’s Twelve was the prospect of a rival, but again nothing really happens with our French thief. He’s more of a catalyst for the plot than anything else, and it’s a shame, because he could have opened the door for a great film pitting two competitive teams of thieves against each other.

Ocean’s Twelve is too satisfied with itself to be that entertaining. It’s now actually reminiscent of the 1960 original film (my grandmother swears it’s wonderful, take that for what you will), starring the Rat Pack. Plot and logic are secondary to a bunch of cool characters having fun. I really enjoyed Ocean’s Eleven (the 2001 film, not my grandmother’s preferred version), but this new sequel lacks any charm and verve. I can’t even say there were many good scenes, just some good ideas that they didn’t fully actualize, like stowing Yen in baggage and then losing their luggage (nothing comes of this). There’s a fun scene involving Topher Grace spoofing his own micro-celebrity, but beyond that many of the scenes and ideas don’t seem developed. The best moment of Ocean’s Twelve, for me, was when I saw Eddie Izzard, the funniest man on the face of the Earth and then some, chat with Hollywood’s A-list on screen. God bless you Eddie Izzard.

Ocean’s Twelve wilts in comparison to its witty, effervescent predecessor. Ocean’s Eleven was fun and hip but didn’t need to coast on star appeal. It had a believable heist, engaging personalities, and it was fun because we knew what was going on and it mattered! I’m sure the cast of Ocean’s Twelve had a blast making the movie together, and their friendly camaraderie shows, but when I left the theater I felt like I had been stuck with the bill for someone else?s good time.

Nate’s Grade: C

Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003)

More of the same, except this time all the verve and invention seems stale and reheated. This sequel subscribes to the bigger-better train of thought, so as it continues to get more and more outlandish and the girls become invincible super heroes on par with Neo, the movie tanks hard. Much has been made about Demi Moore’s “comeback” but apparently she wasn’t sharpening her acting muscles during her hiatus. No one said the first Charlie’s Angels movie was within the realm of reality, but in the sequel apparently the Witness Protection Agency has decided to store all their valuable information not in a computer mainframe, a system of files, no, on two magic decoder rings. What the hell? McG returns as director and cranks the style into overkill, set to a radio-friendly soundtrack, but it all seems so ho-hum and excessive at the same time. Quite an accomplishment. No more please.

Nate’s Grade: C

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