Sunday, July 3, 2011

Movie Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

The Bay of Pigs

      The Bay of Pigs invasion may have been unsuccessful back in 1961, but, in 2011, the world has successfully become victims of a new kind of invasion: The Bay of Pigging Out. Special effects overload, Check; Spectacular destruction, Check; More explosions than you'd see in a Cold War era nuclear test facility, Check; A clumsy narrative, Check; Gigantic robot carnage, Check; Stylized CGI on a colossal scale matched only by running time (a not-so-brisk 157 minutes), Check; Indefensible one-liners, Check; More slow motion effects than August Musger, its inventor, could have ever dreamed, Check; Actors named Shia LaBeouf and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley giving the audience a smooching sendoff, Check on the Checker. But here's the thing. I actually enjoyed it; not the kissing, the movie. Attention deficit of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish, so long as Michael Benjamin Bay is running the show. If plausibly ludicrous (an oxymoron, I know), escapist cinema can be an exercise in novelty, high art's necessary evil. And Michael Bay, an anabolic pragmatist, is the King of Escapist Cinema. He understands his niche brilliantly and intricately, #winning. And to the victor goes the spoils; Bay's wallet is so fat, George Costanza couldn't give him a run for his money...with good reason. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is primed to be a massive box office juggernaut, the likes of which 2011 has not seen (until Harry Potter hunts down the remaining horcruxes in a few weeks). The theatergoing experience is mercurial. With such critical polarity (critics loathed it, general audience loved it), is the enormous success of Transformers 3 a good or bad thing for cinema at large?
      War between the Autobots and the Decepticons has shifted into Fast and Furious mode. Yes, someone hit the NOS button and full-fledged demolition derby ensued. High-prized officials in the government and the military (and Mr. "bad news magnet," Sam Witwicky) start to realize that the 1969 lunar mission was triggered by, in the interest of scant disclosure, a Cybertronian event. Optimus Prime and Ratchet board a ship to the moon and inspect the remnants of a spacecraft, only to discover the body of the great Autobot leader. After returning with the body of Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), the chasm between humans and Autobots widens considerably. As a familiar enemy reasserts his presence and an unlikely harbinger of peril emerges, war becomes inevitable. If humankind is to stave off complete annihilation, then humans must unite with Autobots. When transformers wage war, allegiances become the most primal of mankind's fears.  

      Michael Bay is a virtuoso maestro of action. Bad Boys, Armageddon, The Rock and Transformers are prime examples of his sharp acumen for both construction and destruction. The first Transformers movie was fun, funny, and, without stymieing too many brain cells, believable; or as believable as one could be with a story about gigantic robots. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was an unmitigated disaster, undoubtedly, a victim of the contentious writer's strike. Transformers: Dark of the Moon falls somewhere in the middle; it's neither great nor bad, it's just good. For one, the visual composition of the action is stunning (for that reason alone, it's worth the price of 3-D admission). Bay has an incredible sense of depth and scale. He also has a remarkable knack for framing shots, shooting on location, experimenting with the physics of natural environments and presenting action (the building sequence was amazing). The problem that Mr. Bay often encounters is not one of visual gravitas, but of narrative lucidity. At least for me, my entire Dark of the Moon experience consisted of a persistent hope: could or would Bay connect all the myriad action sequences? Essentially, I was clinging to the belief that Bay understood storytelling, its essence; the object is to make the scene matter, not just look cool. But Mr. Bay never attached that pivotal weight to his story. It's an inexcusable disconnect for a blockbuster of this magnitude and of this scale, and it is precisely why Transformers: Dark of the Moon failed to arrest my attention. 
      For example, the final act—the immense block of action that laid waste to Chicago—had no narrative or tonal connectedness. At a point (the denouement) when my feelings for the well-being of Sam, Lennox, Epps, Carly, etc., should rise to a crescendo, I felt nothing. The characters are devoid of emotion. Consequently, as a keen bystander, I was devoid of any emotional investment. During the breathless climax, Optimus Prime is almost afraid of heroism. He sheepishly begs his mentor to please not kick his ass. Such an incident, to me, represented a criminal breach of the senses, hindering my immersion into the story. Part of what resonated with me in Transformers was the intention, however illusive, of character building, setting up plausible relationships between robots and humans (chief among this dynamic was the budding relationship between Bumblebee and Sam). But in the maelstrom known as Transformers 2 and the action extravaganza known more kindly as Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Sam just berates Bumblebee, reducing him to the status of a pesky pet. It's one of the core relationships in the story and yet it's stripped entirely of sentiment. In fact, this whole aspect of the story is completely tarnished by Bay's horrible sense of humor and obnoxious manipulation of tension. A good hour of the movie consisted of people bellowing and screaming with no normative or tangible sense of self or circumstance. I guess the Spielbergian quality that meticulously shined through in Transformers (namely, the relationship between Sam and his dog) was just that: a Spielbergian quality that Bay cannot or has not attempted to revive. Then again, very few moviegoers watch these types of movies for coherent plot and tangible storytelling, so that's another reason, I suppose, for one to ignore such glaring inconsistencies. Plus, Bay at least eschewed shaky cam, which was a prominent gripe with those who braved through Revenge of the Fallen. Instead, in Dark of the Moon, he relied upon slow motion, which accommodated his excessive, bold brand of action.

      Dark of the Moon looks like the late George Steinbrenner financed it. The movie screams exorbitance. Thankfully, the storyline, not without faults, is much tighter than the second film. There's a basic goal and, unless you suffer from Charlie Sheen syndrome, you can understand what's going on. Unfortunately, the opening sequence reflects Bay's music video background; you know, trailer/rap music style video editing. Essentially, he spins his creative wheel to the action overload indicator. But, shamefully, he does so without an innate or learned ability of how to actually convey said action. He switches between raw footage and archival footage using awkward digitization. It's thrown together clumsily and the frustrating part is that it leads nowhere (the historical revisionist trope worked much better in X-Men: First Class). The motto of Transformers 3: Great ideas executed poorly. He unleashes integrated car commercials, promotes excessive corporatization (I'll take the pepto-bismol scene for $500, Alex), and shamelessly flaunts a catalog of cars large enough to fill an aircraft carrier (both John Turturro and Patrick Dempsey have an amazing staple of cars). You want to know what's not so amazing: listening to them spend five minutes telling us how amazing their collection is. It's the Bay School of Dick Measuring. We get it Mr. Bay. You are good at procuring money for your projects.
      Shia LaBeouf gives his customary performance; that of the bumbling, self-effacing star. I like Shia, but I don't like him pigeonholed in this role. His Transformers exploits, to me, represent a Screech Powers level of achievement. Fortunately for Shia, he's making the big bucks, getting the big roles, and getting with the best of bosoms. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is stunningly beautiful, but she's also a complete non-entity. From the first shot of her rear end, there becomes no further need to understand her presence. Her story function is superficial. She is more of a construct than the actual transformers. You can't describe her without talking about her seductive physicality. It's like she's a fetish model, distinguished only by her snaring sexuality and adolescent angst. Patrick Dempsey's character was terribly written, but it was fun watching him being a dick. I had the same impression of John Malkovich even though his character is pointless. John Turturro is always a delight. He elevates his dialogue like few others. He adds a layer of complexity and sarcasm to his role. It is refreshing and comes across (unlike most other characters in this movie) as sincere. Frances McDormand may be an unnecessary character, but she is not used as a female pin up girl. As a fierce, well-respected actress, she exudes moral toughness. Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson are great eye candy for the lady demographic. But this is Michael Bay, so don't expect any shirtless money shots or pectoral photo shoots. Apparently, Bay gets a bit nervous around scantily clad men. 

      My predominant gripe with Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the oppressive length. It is just too damn long. As a result, the action feels bloated and the plot lines go nowhere. If Bay exercised an even remote economy of storytelling (say, excised an hour of the story by assassinating a few of the ancillary characters), not only would he have enhanced the story, but he wouldn't have lost anything vital. There are really good highs (robots fighting). But there is no momentum because of Bay's screaming, scatter-brained style. Subsequently, there is no sense of flow from action piece to action piece. Don't get me wrong. The money shots are awesome. The 3-D is the best I've ever seen from any live action film. But the story doesn't make sense narratively and it doesn't satisfy my sensibilities from a storytelling angle. There's no sense of the character through line. Abruptness typifies Bay's style: a blend of boredom, naivete and arrogance. The camera wanders off from key moments and focuses on irrelevant slow motion sequences. There is no linearity or flow. It's almost as if Bay needs to team up with a director who's good with character and story. A joint Quentin Tarantino/Michael Bay production would be epic. I'd pay twice the price of 3-D to see it. Of course, it would never happen.
      Quite compellingly, this movie illustrates precisely why James Cameron is such a talented visual storyteller. Avatar's denouement worked. I felt genuine emotion. From Transformers: Dark of the Moon, I felt genuine frustration. I recognize the fact that it is hard to communicate effectively during elaborate processions of battle. But compare the Chicago destruction sequence to 13 Assassins or Saving Private Ryan (some of the finest examples of long battle sequences). What happens? You're emphatically reminded of Bay's follies. Takeshi Miike and Steven Spielberg demonstrate cohesiveness, coherence. And they orchestrate battle sequences that appeal to my sensibilities. But those are two great visionaries. From that standpoint, Mr. Bay deserves some clemency.  It's hard enough coordinating these extensive sequences with humans—but with humans AND robots. From that measure of criteria, Bay did a very commendable job.
      Holy shit: Bay tore Chicago asunder. And let's be honest, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is all about the totality of both construction and destruction. It's Cameron-esque world building at its best. Bay soars to heights of climactic action that very few directors can achieve. He is a master of design, to the point that it felt like Bay was playing with an Xbox 360 joystick, frenetically tapping buttons while screaming "it's on like Donkey Kong!" 
      And whether you like him or not, Michael Bay has learned some valuable lessons from his biggest critical failure, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. He eliminated the appalling racist tones and he tempered his seeming obsession with an adolescent-approved sexism (save for the scantily dressed Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). But from the pretense of a slightly adult perspective, as the bar was set astonishingly low, Bay has improved upon the "unmitigated" part of the disaster known as Revenge of the Fallen. Though, he still has not come to grips with his homophobia; cue Ken Jeong.

      Transformers 3 is the kind of audience bait that appeals to the lowest common denominator. There's a litany of ridiculous moments in Dark of the Moon, but let's be frank, the Holy Grail of box office demographics—males under 25—eats up this ridiculousness for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Why else do they watch Jersey Shore in droves? And Bay realizes this and plays to it aggressively, at the expense of the critical community. To a large degree, Bay deserves credit for successfully tapping into the mass appeal of the audience because if it were so easy, every blockbuster out-of-Hollywood would make a ton of money. That's just not the case. For the same reasons Terrence Malick is revered as an auteur who beautifully renders mood and tone, Michael Bay is revered as a magician who renders breathtaking action and visual eye candy (the incredible destruction of Chicago is tantamount to Bay's talents).
      Are the critics, bastions of solidarity, correct in their sweeping denunciation of Transformers: Dark of the Moon? Or, are the masses of moviegoers, members of a collective consciousness, correct in their substantial approval of Transformers: Dark of the Moon? The answer is no one is entirely correct. Critic's tastes change routinely. And moviegoers rely on the judgments of critics only occasionally. Each entity has merits and, to some extent, they must co-exist. Therefore, as professed movie lovers, we need to find that happy medium. Decrying Transformers: Dark of the Moon is fine insomuch as contributing to the gluttonous money grubbing wallet of Michael Bay and company is fine. One's unbridled appreciation of the art of a Michael Bay enterprise is also fine (my appeal lies somewhere in the middle; I like his action and technical acumen, but I disdain his seeming avowal of character and story). Borrowing a line from the great Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek, now a line from Dark of the Moon, Sentinel prime states: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." This is true in the world of box office. But, in the world of cinema critique, this statement is only half true. Sometimes, the needs of the many subvert the wants of the few.    

      Ultimately, I'm torn about the Transformers franchise and the movie in general. On one side of the coin, I'm a proponent of event filmmaking. But on the other side of the coin, I'm cautiously skeptical. Do I really want Hollywood putting all of its focus on $200 million event films rather than making economical boutique/niche films for a fraction of the price? Because of the gargantuan success of movies like Transformers, money has been surging into the coffers of select movie-makers, but I don't think these movies, under my somewhat malleable definition of good, are that good. But I concede one vital point: Without mega hits like Transformers and Avatar, films like Duncan Jones' Moon would never exist. Big hit movies help studios finance movies like Moon. Therefore, I support the studios insistence upon big event movies under one stipulation: the perceived success of said movies should actually contribute to the cause of making good smaller budgeted movies. But here's a thought: why not just make better big blockbuster movies? For Hollywood, a mercurial, often inefficient beast, that's too much to ask. And while the trickle-down theory doesn't work in real life, it does work within the confines of the studio system. For every grand slam, big budget blockbuster, there are smaller budget success stories like Moon, Black Swan, 127 Hours, and Blue Valentine (this is merely a small sample of recent evidence).
      From a box office angle, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is critic proof. Teenagers will love it, and, if you live in a youth-centric community, there will likely be a standing ovation during the end credits. Sentinel prime says something about masterminding a skill that defies our physics. Well, Michael Bay has masterminded a skill that defies our critical standards. In order to enjoy Dark of the Moon, without unadulterated skepticism, you must suspend your critical license for two and a half hours. How else can a sane person (SPOILERS!!!) explain Rosie outwitting Megatron (this isn't Survivor) or Optimus Prime dangling in cables for ten minutes during a pivotal stretch of mayhem. Without quarrels, the latest Transformers is vapid, but just go see it. That's what I did. And I enjoyed it. It even restored my faith in the capabilities of live-action 3-D.
      If you're a skeptic who requires further coddling, let me offer this bit of wisdom. Check it out for the spectacle, not the storyline or the characters. If you've seen any Transformers movie, you know what to expect. If you enjoyed the last two, you'll love this sequel. There's an ongoing, "it doesn't matter, it looks cool" mentality that permeates Bay's entire film. I wasn't entirely game for such a superfluous state of mind, but teenagers love, I repeat, love this mindset (I'm not dissing 'em). Like J.J. Abrams, Michael Bay made the perfect summer movie for kids and for teenagers, but on an entirely different level viscerally, subjectively, and even objectively. In the glorious, always-amusing words of John Michael Turturro aka Agent Reggie Simmons of Sector 7 fame, "Dasvidaniya." Incidentally, Simmons meant to say hello. Here's what I meant to say:  I have no intention of relocating to the Bay Area, but I do enjoy vacationing there in the summer time. 

6 out of 10


  1. Yet another impressively written review and analysis, buddy!
    Bay sticks to his forte, making the action sequences as imaginative and larger-than-life as possible. In this, he succeeds. But the lack of an engaging script and a seemingly hurried editing job mar the film’s entertainment quotient to an extent.

  2. That's what I call an insightful analysis. Amazing! Yes, the Transformers films are all shallow and messy, but I still think Michale Bay deserves more credit for his efforts, as nobody else (well, maybe except for Snyder) could handle action so well. In my book, he's the master of action and visual effects, and at the end of the day, T3 is all about that. I enjoyed the film quite a lot and I was stunned by the impressive use of 3D and the incredible CGIs.

  3. this is by far your most gigantic and longest review ever, Matty, now breathe, breathe, breathe :)
    I was, personally never caught on this Transformers bait, but I do think that the success of the film has 90% to do with the Independence day weekend. It's interesting that it earned less than the second part in its opening weekend.

  4. @ Jaccstev

    Thanks, amigo! I couldn't agree more. Bay operates almost exclusively within his wheelhouse (big action), but when he strays or veers from that comfort zone, he loses the story. The sad part is that Bay is capable of crafting a wonderful story that is engaging, coherent, and full of his signature extravagance, but it has been a long time since he's attempted to conjure that skill set.

  5. @ Nebular

    Thanks homes!

    I enjoyed the film for what it was: a Michael Bay action fest. But the reason I deducted points and the reason my experience was tainted was Bay's seeming refusal (perhaps, a product of his arrogance) to weave his various big action set pieces into a cogent narrative. Yes, the story makes sense (under a broad guise) and there are numerous improvements over Revenge of the Fallen, but I was still distracted by the bloated narrative and jumbled plotting.

    I knew what to expect. And my expectations were met. But as a believer in Bay's potential for blending storytelling with incomparable action, my expectations were sorely bypassed. For that, I was wholly unsatisfied.

    Yes, Bay's ability to frame action, present action, and orchestrate big action engagements is incredible. But movies are, beginning with their roots in Greek Tragedy (and way back before that), modes of storytelling. That essence can't be shortchanged no matter how amazing the action set pieces are rendered.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  6. @ Dezmond

    Haha! Yes this one takes the cake for length. I decided to mimic the running time of the movie...just kidding.

    Actually, the reason my review is longer is because I wanted to address the critic/audience divide. And I wanted to analyze the summation of Bay's talents and inefficiencies (for which there's been ample discussion in the past). And in the midst of those talking points, I still had to give a thorough review of the movie.

    And thanks for the sentiment. I'm breathing easy buddy, lol.

  7. Much agreed with what you've proposed in your write-up. TF3 is very critic-proof and at the end of the day, it's meant to be one of the Summer cinema attractions for people to have some mindless fun.

    I'm beginning to accept that and thinking Spielberg produces this film so that there's more money made from this to finance his 2013 Robopocalypse (which is another robot movie!) Haha.

    Great feature and I've enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing! :)

  8. Matty - I mentioned back in your Summer Movie preview that the allure of transforming robots has always escaped me, from frame one of the first cartoon series episode to the last frame of Dark of the Moon. However, I am THRILLLED to read your review for two reasons - first, it's well written. But second, and more importantly - thank all that's holy that you as a reviewer have a different set of yardsticks to measure movies against, instead of one all purpose "Cinema Snob" measuring tape that has (insert name of first "Critic Bait" Superclassic motion picture to come to your mind here) written in at the 3 feet mark at the end, and every other film is held to that standard, and that standard alone. To this way of thinking, all movies must MOVE the viewer, say something PITHY about the Human Condition, and represent the most NOBLE side of the artistic temperament in every scene. Hey, I'm all for that! I truly am - but I also like to watch stuff blow up real good too! (Even if not necessarily as enacted by giant robots in a Michael Bay movie) And to be able to judge a film by how well it completed the mission - to blow stuff up real good - is to recognize the artistic values of both, which is not an easy task, as evidenced by so many critics out there who miss the mark so very, very often. Therefore, with much fanfare, I give you my HIGHEST COMMENDATION as a film reviewer/movie critic/the guy across the cyberspace aisle from me - you ROCK these reviews, and you make me happy to know you, pal! Cheers and double cheers!

  9. you know what that movie could've used? Megan Fox!

  10. Good review! I have not seen this one yet, so I was interested in what you thought. Thank you for sharing!

  11. Bay School of Dick Measuring... LMAO! Stellar, provocative review and a brilliant skewering of Bay's behemoth.

    I agree. Action and f/x are the only aspects of film making that Bay has mastered. His films will always make money with few exceptions (Pearl Harbor) because he appeals to the basest level of moviegoers. But his films will never be great, nor be remembered as classics like Star Wars or Jurassic Park because he just doesn't understand character or plot. He starts off with the germ of a great story, someone interesting like Sam in the first film, but then it all falls apart. He cannot seem to get his stories to be coherent and his characters to grow or change.

    You're right, too, as films like Bay's are necessary to power the engine of Hollywood and they do entertain. I was entertained and I hate Bay for the most part. I think he's a sexist pig and that Patrick Dempsey probably drew on him for inspiration.

  12. @ J-Son

    Thanks, J!

    I read your review and it was quite provocative. I applaud you for your honesty. Movies are about conveyance of emotion and intellect. You covered both bases with great sincerity.

    I'm very much curious about Spielberg's "Robopocalypse." It sounds like something I'd be interested in. I'm going to investigate on IMDB. Thanks for the heads-up!

  13. @ Craig

    WOW! Thanks so much for the wonderful words!

    It is my highest pleasure to partake in the "cyberspace aisle" with you. I take great joy in exchanging movie barbs with individuals, like yourself, of vast cinematic knowledge, both practical and personal. So thanks for paying forward the wisdom!

    Despite the fact that the Transformers franchise doesn't appeal to you at a base level, I still recommend you give it a chance, particularly this third entry. The theater/IMAX viewing is stellar. It is a visual and sensory overload of the highest order; Bay at his best. Beyond that, of course, the movie offers diminishing returns of plausibility. And it's quite the narrative mess.

    Distinguishing between artistic value (compartmentalized across many sub-entities) and the totality of the experience (emotionally and/or intellectually) is my job as an impartial evaluator of artistic work. Modern cinema is about an evaluation of myriad components; films cannot be understood, derided or lauded based on a generic composite of past critical standards. Quite simply, times change and criticism, in any artistic form, is part of the evolution of the world.

  14. @ Agent Orange

    Haha! Like her or not (we can all agree on her sex appeal), she brings more screen charisma/chemistry to the role than Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, at least in this role. Generally, I don't like Megan's performances, but she does fit better within the Transformers/Shia LaBeouf world than Rosie. And I can't believe I just wrote that, lol.

    @ Sylvia

    Thank you! Glad you're putting stock in my review and considering it an objective resource of film criticism. Many thanks :)

  15. @ Melissa

    Haha, glad you enjoyed some of my Bay-barbs. I like the guy (particularly his visual oeuvre and action sensibility), but generally, when it comes to story and humor, he is woefully inept. Maybe, he is his own worst enemy. Recently, I read an article that claims Bay just tries too hard. From a storytelling angle, that makes complete sense.

    And thanks for agreeing with my somewhat loose appraisal of blockbuster/event filmmaking. In that respect, Bay is a vital resource. The voluminous success of his movies help pave the way for smaller films (and by small, I'm conjecturing anything from a few million to $50).

    Lol @ the Dempsey comment!

  16. @ Tame Lion

    Thanks for the praise! Will do!