much more than meets the eye: Transformers.
by Michael Bay
of Transformers being a Michael Bay-directed film,
this first paragraph will be composed entirely of pull quotes:
The ultimate summer movie! Eye-popping special effects! Great
for kids of all ages! I haven’t had this much at the movies
is a typical Bay film in almost every way—the dialogue is
shit; the plot is nonsensical; the love story, disposable;
the explosions, gigantic and plentiful—but it’s such fantastical
fun, these shortcomings are forgivable. In Bay terms, it’s
a lot like Armageddon with giant, alien, shape-shifting
robots in place of the giant asteroid. Think of it as a cartoon,
but with real people in it.
nutshell: High-school student Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf)
is trying to get his first car. Over in the Middle East, a
giant enemy robot attacks and levels a military base and attempts
to tap into the government’s defense files. Back home, the
Department of Defense, led by Secretary John Keller (Jon Voight,
in a slyly hammy performance) tries to crack the mysterious
code left behind by the enemy combatant. Meanwhile, Sam begins
to notice that his car has a mind of its own. There’s an overachieving
student (Rachael Taylor), her hacker friend (Anthony Anderson),
a mysterious government unit led by John Tuturro (whose outsize
performance dwarfs the 30-foot robots), and a love interest
for Sam (Megan Fox).
there are the giant, alien, shape-shifting robots.
matter what the setup is, because it’s all about the robots.
The scads of subplots and peripheral characters keep the film’s
first hour moving swiftly; once Optimus Prime (voiced with
familiar stoicism by Peter Cullen) and the rest of the Autobots
show up, it’s off to the races.
in his late teens and early 20s when the original cartoon
series ran, and he seems to have known exactly how to satisfy
the audience. In an era where films are tailored to suit viewers’
interests, this is a three-piece Armani suit: The catchphrases
(“more than meets the eye,” “one shall stand, one shall fall”)
are intact; the cars look cool; the robots look really
cool; the battle scenes are cartoonishly epic; and there’s
a comic element that keeps the film from going face-first
into the same pile of self-important stink that his other
films usually do. To wit: When the ’bots first slam into the
Earth, a kid running toward the crash site shouts, “This is
easily 100 times cooler than Armageddon!”
this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. As fun as it is,
Transformers certainly isn’t enough of a triumph to
answer for Bay’s past wrongdoings. (Who could forget the 1999
abomination Every Other Movie Michael Bay Has Ever Made?)
But it’s big and exciting, everything a summer movie should
may have more to offer than escapism: Throughout the film,
the U.S. military is confused and near-hapless—rightfully
so, considering they are battling giant, alien, shape-shifting
robots—and, in the end, it is a mere boy who saves the
day (cue the Whitney Houston). Meanwhile, Prime rattles on
about letting humans decide their own fate, that “they should
not suffer the penalties for our mistakes” or some such rhetoric.
Is Transformers a comment on the wars in the Middle
East? Could it be that, through the eyes of a child—or through
the eyes of every child who grew up in the middle part of
the 1980s with the cartoon as their babysitter—Michael Bay
is presenting his thesis on foreign-conflict resolution?
he just likes making stuff blow up. And he does it damn well.
Free or Die Hard
by Len Wiseman
years after the first Die Hard, NYPD police officer
John McClane (Bruce Willis) finds himself an analog guy in
a digital world. He still wears a Timex, is clumsy with mobile
phones, and hasn’t updated his opinions on right and wrong
since the Ford era (that’s John, not Gerald). And that’s exactly
what makes him the right guy to search out and destroy a terrorist
cell intent on crashing the infrastructure of the United States.
Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth installment of McClane’s
career, is, as hyped, the best of the series, and one reason
is the action sequences: They’re as anachronistic as McClane.
Heavy on hitting, kicking, and crashing things into flaming
smithereens, the stunts and settings are real (audiences won’t
be surprised that Willis’ stunt double was seriously injured
during shooting), giving a visceral charge to the street-level
carnage unmatched by any other recent action flick.
is particularly appropriate to the film’s topicality, which
concerns the computerized vulnerability of the entire nation,
as well as many of its citizens. Once again, McClane is unwittingly
caught up in a web of criminality far beyond the scope of
local law enforcement. This time, it’s a simple transport,
of a high-level hacker suspected of dabbling in illegal encryption.
The cyber geek is Matthew Farrell (comedic sharpie Justin
Long), who has no idea what he’s in for, which puts him at
wisecracking odds with McClane. When Farrell mouths off with
hipster irony during his apprehension, McClane accidentally-on-purpose
breaks one of his collectible action figures, setting up both
their personalities for much witty banter, and some appealing
old-school-new-millennium bonding as they are forced into
before McClane can take him into federal custody, Farrell’s
apartment is attacked by a squad of highly trained hit men.
The fresh and relatively believable choreography allows for
the still-muscle-bound cop to defend the apartment (remember,
he’s got lots of experience with enclosed spaces) while the
plot includes enough cyber culture and internal-security lore
to posit a plausible threat to national security. As Farrell
informs the Feds, it’s likely that the panic-causing crashes
in the city’s digital communications are the first stage in
a “fire sale”: a terrorist infiltration that can shut down
everything from federal banking to electricity and water.
mastermind is an all-American computer genius, Thomas Gabriel
(Timothy Olyphant). Gabriel is more vulnerable and less urbanely
diabolical than the Eurotrash baddies played by Alan Rickman
and Jeremy Irons, but at least he’s got the metrosexual tailoring,
and glaring, down, and besides, one of his soft spots is for
his lethal-weapon girlfriend (the alluringly kinetic Maggie
Q), whose martial artistry does credible battle with McClane’s
fists of fury. Even more amazing is the flying henchman played
by a professional acrobat trained in Shotokan karate. But
even these two can’t put much of a dent in McClane’s old-fashioned
fortitude, as he proves when he takes down a helicopter with
his bare hands (and a handy fire hydrant). Len Wiseman, director
of the Underworld movies, isn’t much of a dramatist—much
of the character interaction is simplistic and/or sadistic,
while the climactic shoot-out is a rip-off. Yet like McClane,
he gets the job done, and does it well enough that a fifth
installment wouldn’t be overkill.
by Lajos Koltai
again, Hollywood has taken a very worthy book, turned it into
utter pap, and, in the process, denied countless would-be
readers the privilege of discovering the genuine joys and
pathos of said book—in this case, Susan Minot’s Evening.
book was sweeping if largely interior in scope, involving
several marriages, children, love affairs, deaths, and a running
debate about the importance of one’s art as opposed to one’s
obligations to family. It haunted, on a number of levels.
The movie, directed by Lajos Koltai, confuses sweeping with
in parallel settings—a swank late-’50s wedding-party weekend
and a contemporary deathbed scene in a shabby-chic New England
manse—the plot revolves around the memories and dying dreams
of Ann (Vanessa Redgrave). Occasional mutterings break through
her morphine-medicated state and spark some intrigue—and a
lot of quibbling—among her daughters. The matronly Constance
(Natasha Richardson) and the unhappy boho Nina (Toni Collette)
have disparate lifestyles and are meant to underline a family-and-career
conflict that is much more subtly delineated in the novel.
The crux of Ann’s ruminations concern a brief fling with Harris
(Patrick Wilson), a doctor and boyhood friend of her friend
Lila’s, whose wedding takes up a huge part of the film. As
played by Mamie Gummer, daughter of Meryl Streep, Lila is
the epitome of the shy ’50s deb, whose all-too-obvious crush
on Harris is shared by her brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy). The
young Ann (Claire Danes) is a wide-eyed aspiring singer whose
embroidered blouses and flat shoes run counter to the bridal
parties’ crinolines and stiff coifs. In other words, she is
serious, and for real.
when you think you can’t stand another flashback to windy,
jazzy, rich 1950s Newport, the movie will screech to a halt
in the contemporary setting. The movie’s dramatic climax,
beginning incongruously with a song and concluding with death
and sex, devolves into a horrifically unsatisfying ending
to pretty much all of the early relationships.
is the kind of movie that sells itself on the cast, which
in this case is a stellar listing of some of our best actresses.
Which makes it telling that, with possibly three exceptions,
the cast is woefully inadequate. Redgrave chews up the scenery.
Collette is mopey and dour, and Richardson is stern, hardly
recognizable. Danes hasn’t looked totally comfortable onscreen
since the days of My So Called Life, and in that she
wasn’t supposed to appear comfortable. Glenn Close, on the
other hand, relishes a tiny, slightly cartoonish moment as
Lila’s whitebread mother. Better yet, Gummer does a deft job
of imbuing Lila with grace, humanity and steely reserve. The
depiction is picked up nicely by Streep, who has a bit part
as the aged Lila. One wishes that this society matron had
turned up onscreen much earlier; it would have spared us an
endless series of platitudes designed to convey the earth-shattering
idea that, in life, there are no mistakes.