Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Think twice before hanging out with Shia LaBeouf; there are a lot of angry film critics out there.

(2011) Science Fiction (Paramount) Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Alan Tudyk, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, John Malkovich, Ken Jeong, Leonard Nimoy (voice), Tyrese Gibson, Buzz Aldrin, Elya Baskin, Peter Cullen (voice), Hugo Weaving (voice), Robert Foxworth (voice), James Remar (voice). Directed by Michael Bay

Nothing exceeds like excess, and by that criterion Transformers: Dark of the Moon exceeds all expectations.

Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) has saved the world – twice – and all he’s got to show for it is a lousy Ivy League education. He longs to make a difference once again but he can’t get any sort of job and has to settle for living on the largesse of his new girlfriend Carly (Huntington-Whiteley), a former British consulate employee now working as an assistant to billionaire Dylan (Dempsey).

To make matters worse, the unemployed Sam is being visited by his judgmental parents Ron (Dunn) and Judy (White). However, Sam manages to get a job in the mail room of a defense contractor run by the somewhat eccentric Bruce Brazos (Malkovich).

Sam would much rather be working with the Autobots in NEST, but the government wants him far away from Optimus Prime (Cullen) as he can be. Lennox (Duhamel) is nominally in charge of the Autobots who are helping the American government putting out small fires around the world; taking out an illegal Iranian nuclear plant and investigating a strange occurrence at Chernobyl, where Lennox discovers Autobot technology may have been responsible for the disaster there.

Optimus demands an explanation and finally supercilious CIA chief Mearing (McDormand) gives him one. Apparently, near the end of the civil war that drove the Autobots from Cybertron, an Autobot ship escaped from the planet carrying a secret weapon as well as its designer, Sentinel Prime (Nimoy), the leader of the Autobots before Optimus. That ship crash landed on our moon, prompting the space race of the 1960s.

The Autobots rocket up to the moon and retrieve both Sentinel and the remains of the weapon. As they return, Megatron (Weaving), brooding in the desert after two defeats at the hands of Optimus and Sam Witwicky, puts into motion an evil plan that involves murder, betrayal and plenty of nasty robots coming after Sam and his new girlfriend. The stakes are high as the entire human race could end up as slave labor in the New World Order as envisioned by Megatron – and the Earth itself a desiccated, dried-out husk as her resources are used in the insane rebuilding of Cybertron. Once again, Sam and Optimus must lead the allied human-Autobot forces if both races are to survive.

My son has said that the reason you go to a Transformers movie is to watch robots beating each other up, and he has a point. If that’s why you’re plunking down ten bucks plus to see the movie, you won’t be disappointed. Once the battle starts in earnest, which is about halfway through the nearly two and a half hour movie, it doesn’t let up. The robots just about level Chicago and it is done realistically and spectacularly.

In fact, it’s done so well there seems to be no reason for human participation at all. The first half of the movie is somewhat slow and talky, and the humans are no match in the slightest to the giant robots of Cybertron. It is very much like watching a movie about, say, the Battle of the Bulge from the point of view of an ant colony. All the humans really have to do is dodge falling debris and be blown up by robot plasma shots; when one of the lead characters looks like they’re about to buy it, an Autobot comes out of nowhere to save the day (usually Optimus).

In fact, once the battle starts, LaBeouf has very little to do other than look concerned for his girlfriend, and occasionally shout “OPTI-MUUUUUUUUUUS!!!!” and he does both pretty well. His twitchy persona fits right in with the Witwicky character and although he’s the focus for the first half of the movie, it does break down during the first hour or so as we watch Sam mostly feeling inadequate and sorry for himself. It gets old.

Other than that, Bay did upgrade the supporting cast some, adding McDormand and Malkovich, Oscar nominees both, to the cast and both of the veteran actors deliver, as does Turturro in the returning role of Simmons, the paranoid agent (who is now a bestselling author) as comedy relief. Alan Tudyk, who impressed so much on the “Firefly” series, gets a meaty role as a fey German assistant to Simmons with his own set of skills. He makes the best use of his limited screen time.

As far as adolescent chubby-inducement, Megan Fox is out and former Victoria’s Secret model Huntington-Whiteley is in, making her feature acting debut. Fox was never known for her acting skills but she at least has some; Huntington-Whiteley is there mainly to wear tight dresses, have the camera almost see up her skirt and be put in jeopardy so Sam can rescue her. At least Megan Fox’s character wasn’t nearly as useless.

Transformer fans can rejoice; this is easily the most spectacular movie of the series and for non-fans, this is the best of the lot. Check your brain at the door, get the extra-large tub of popcorn and soda, and bliss out in a dark theater for awhile. This is pure popcorn spectacle on a massive scale and the plot is merely window dressing to the special effects. That’s not always a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of robots battling for those who like that kind of thing. Easily the most spectacular film of the series.

REASONS TO STAY: The beginning of the movie lags a bit. The human characters are stiffer than the robots. Humans no match for aliens whatsoever.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of mayhem and a few bad words, but it’s the scenes of destruction and robot death that might be a bit much for tykes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leonard Nimoy, voicing Sentinel Prime, utters the line “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” in homage to a line spoken by Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

HOME OR THEATER: The spectacle demands the big movie theater screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

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The Dukes


The Dukes

The Dukes engage in a competition to see which one can hold his arms at his sides the longest.

(2007) Dramedy (CAVU) Robert Davi, Chazz Palminteri, Peter Bogdanovich, Frank D’Amico, Elya Baskin, Miriam Margolyes, Eloise DeJoria, Melora Hardin, Bruce Weitz, Joseph Campanella, Dominic Scott Kay, Elaine Hendrix, Alphonse Mouzon. Directed by Robert Davi

There are those in this life who seem forever doomed to be runners-up, also-rans and second-raters. It just seems as if no matter how hard they try, they never win the blue ribbon. They’re the sorts who get attendance awards in school, who are snubbed by all the girls except for the ones who can’t get dates, and who seem to have the knack for parlaying what talents they do have into mediocrity and obscurity.

The Dukes define this trait. A doo-wop band from the 60s, they got big just as the trend was on its way out and managed one minor hit to call their own before music passed them by. Still, they labor gamely on, led by their cockroach of a manger Lou (Bogdanovich), playing seedy dives and getting work in awful commercials in which they must dress as fruits and vegetables.

Still, Danny (Davi) is reasonably optimistic, despite a lifetime of letdowns. Then, when his ex-wife Diane (Hardin) gets his son’s teeth fixed by the orthodontist she’s dating, it seems like the last straw. He can’t even provide for his family like a man and little wonder since he and brother George (Palminteri) have resorted to working in their Aunt Vee’s (Margolyes) kitchen, slinging plates of pasta while dreaming of opening their own place.

When they get wind of a fortune in gold being kept in a dentist’s vault, they and fellow Dukes Murph (Baskin) and Armond (D’Amico) decide to pull off a heist, something that will solve all of their money problems. They enlist the aid of a professional (Weitz) to teach them what they need to know to pull off the job. Of course, given the track record of the Dukes they’re going to need a lot more than that.

Davi has made a living playing the heavy in films like Licence to Kill and The Goonies; this might come as a bit of a surprise for those who know him through those roles. Here he plays a somewhat lovable kind-hearted schlub who dreams of better days, but never quite gets there. As a director he doesn’t do anything that gets too far out of his comfort zone. He doesn’t take a lot of chances, but he does his job competently and to be honest that’s all you can ask for out of a first time director.

The always-reliable Palminteri excels as the chubby-chasing George. This isn’t anything too far out of Palminteri’s wheelhouse – he has always done well with quirky – and he reacts with a solid performance. He and Davi have some chemistry together too with that love-hate relationship that characterizes most brothers well-defined.

This isn’t the kind of movie that’s going to get you any particular insight nor is it going to stick around your memory far beyond the closing credits. Nonetheless, its nifty entertainment that won’t leave you terribly disappointed either. Sometimes that’s all you really need.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a sweet nature at its center.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While sweet, the calories are ultimately empty ones.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and a couple of drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Davi starred in, directed and wrote the script, which was inspired by a stint working in a 1977 TV movie Contract on Cherry Street with real-life 60s rock star Jay Black of Jay and the Americans.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26,875 on an unreported production budget; the movie was a flop in its theatrical release.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Fast Five

2010


2010

Jupiter should have used SPF-50.

(MGM) Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren, John Lithgow, Bob Balaban, Keir Dullea, Douglas Rain (voice), Madolyn Smith, Dana Elcar, James McEachin, Elya Baskin, Taliesin Jaffe, Mary Jo Deschanel, Natasha Shneider. Directed by Peter Hyams

2001: A Space Odyssey is considered by many to be one of the pre-eminent science fiction movies of all time – in fact, many see it as one of the best movies of all time period. In 1984, director Peter Hyams (Outland) took on the ambitious and daunting task of filming the sequel, which author Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1982. While Hyams added his own elements and changed many of Clarke’s, nonetheless the framework was unchanged and the message remained the same.

Dr. Heywood Floyd (Scheider), former head of the NCA, was the catalyst behind the ill-fated voyage of the U.S.S. Discovery to Jupiter following the discovery of a black featureless rectangular monolith buried in a lunar crater back in 2001. During that trip, the HAL 9000 computer (voiced by Rain), the most advanced artificial intelligence ever designed, went psychotic causing the deaths of Astronaut Frank Poole and the scientific team in hibernation onboard. After Astronaut David Bowman (Dullea) disconnected the computer, he encountered a gigantic monolith – with the exact same features and dimensions of the lunar monolith – floating in space between Jupiter and its moon Io. After going out to investigate, Bowman disappeared but not before leaving behind a puzzling final transmission: “My God, it’s full of stars!”

This has haunted Floyd in the nine years since the Discovery incident. He has left the NCA for an academic position. One afternoon, he is visited by a Russian scientist (Elcar) who chats cryptically about the Discovery and informs Floyd that the Russians are planning a mission to the Discovery that will arrive a full year ahead of the American one. He proposes that the Americans tag along on the Russian vessel. Floyd is skeptical, but then the Russian points him in the direction of a shocking new development; the Discovery has changed its position and has moved towards Io and is in danger of crashing to its surface. There is no explanation as to why it had done that.

A joint Soviet-American mission is a lot more of a difficult sell than you can imagine. Tensions between the two countries are at an all-time high due to an unspecified ongoing crisis in the Honduras. The leaders seem ill-disposed towards acting sensibly and nuclear war is a very real possibility. Most of the people on the planet are in fear for their lives. Still, after Floyd goes to the new head of the NCA (McEachin) with the information, he manages to convince his replacement to go to bat with the president for the idea – with Floyd one of the astronauts to be sent to Jupiter to discover just what went wrong aboard the Discovery.

Accompanying Floyd will be Dr. Chandra (Balaban), the brilliant designer of HAL 9000 and its successor SAL 9000, and engineer Walter Curnow (Lithgow) who designed many of the systems aboard the Discovery. Commanding the Leonov is Commander Kirbuk (Mirren), a hard-as-nails by-the-book military commander (notice that Kirbuk is Kubrick spelled backwards – sorta) who butts heads with Floyd from the beginning. Suspicious of the Americans, she and her crew are not the most co-operative of sorts. However, they do grudgingly confirm that they have discovered the presence of chlorophyll on the surface of Europa – an icy moon of Jupiter where no signs of life previously existed. The Leonov sends a probe to investigate but this ends in the destruction of the probe before any meaningful data can be discovered.

At last, the Leonov reaches the Discovery and at last the mystery of the monoliths and the madness of the computer might be explained. However, you know what they say about curiosity – and finding the answers to these mysteries may cost the crew of the Leonov their lives.

The tendency is to compare 2010 with its predecessor and in many ways that’s quite unfair. 2001: A Space Odyssey is, as I mentioned, one of the most honored films of all time. It’s a lot like comparing Gods and Generals to Gone with the Wind; the former is a solid film on its own merits but doesn’t really compare to the classic latter. Hyams is a competent filmmaker in his own right, but he is no Stanley Kubrick, as Hyams I’m sure would be the first to confess. His storytelling technique is more straightforward, which makes 2010 a more accessible movie in a lot of ways.

By our standards, the special effects are primitive, although they were cutting edge for 1984 when the film came out. Still, taking that into account, it’s still a very watchable film, even if the computers look clunky when compared to, for example, iPhones. One has to look past that and try to concentrate on the story and the performances.

While the Soviet-American tensions seem hopelessly dated (the Berlin Wall would fall a mere seven years after the movie came out but while it was being made, the ideological conflict was in full bloom), some of the other aspects of the movie are prescient; for example, widespread use of portable computers and voice activated controls. We are finding out more about Europa and its potential for harboring life.

Scheider was one of Hollywood’s most dependable leads, having done such films as Jaws and Hyams’ own Blue Thunder. He is in his element here as the irreverent and maverick scientist Floyd. He plays nicely off of Mirren, who hadn’t yet reached the stature as an actress that she has today. Her character is essentially one-dimensional, but Mirren gives her at least as much depth as the script will allow. Fluent in Russian (Mirren’s father was Russian-born – her birth name is Mironov – and Russian and English were both spoken in her home), Mirren lends authenticity to her character and while she is something of a cliché (the Americans are always right, the Russians are always mulish), she remains someone you want to root for even if the writers didn’t always allow you to.

Its eerie seeing Keir Dullea as Bowman, the role he originated 2001. De-aged by make-up artist Michael Westmore, he looks uncannily ageless. When I first saw the film in theaters, I actually got shivers up my spine.

I will admit to being somewhat overly lenient towards science fiction films, so do take that into account when reading this. There’s something to be said for watching two enormous spacecraft orbiting near Jupiter. While some of the movie seems dated (which seems odd for science fiction which is intended to be forward-looking), certainly it remains a very watchable, mostly enjoyable science fiction movie. Some of the intelligence of Clarke’s original work remains, but this is meant to be more entertaining than illuminating. For what it is meant to be, it succeeds. Just don’t expect to see psychedelic visuals at the first strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra.

WHY RENT THIS: Solid performances by most of the cast. The de-aging of Dullea as Astronaut David Bowman is astonishing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the special effects, while cutting-edge for their time, are laughably primitive. Those who measure this by Kubrick’s movie are going to find this sorely lacking.

FAMILY VALUES: By 2010 standards, there’s nothing in this movie that a good parent would object to.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the SAL 9000 computer during the University of Chicago Computer Lab scene is voiced by Candice Bergen, operating under a pseudonym. She is credited, somewhat cheekily, as Olga Mallsnerd, combining the names of her then-husband (director Louis Malle) and one of her father, Edgar Bergen’s, most beloved characters Mortimer Snerd.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Did You Hear About the Morgans?