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Much, much more than meets the eye: Transformers.

Roll Out

 

By John Brodeur

Transformers

Directed by Michael Bay

In honor 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 in years!

And so forth.

Transformers 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.

In a 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).

And then there are the giant, alien, shape-shifting robots.

It doesn’t 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.

Bay was 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!”

Granted, 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 be.

And it 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?

Nahh, he just likes making stuff blow up. And he does it damn well.


Last Action Hero

Live Free or Die Hard

Directed by Len Wiseman

Nineteen 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.

This 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 cooperation.

Because 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.

The terrorist 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.

—Ann Morrow


Enough Already

Evening

Directed by Lajos Koltai

Once 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.

Minot’s 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 unremitting.

Told 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.

Just 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.

This 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.

Only bad movies.

—Laura Leon


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