Friday, November 30, 2007

Movie Chat: The Transformers

The Transformers

There's no real connection between The Mist and the movie version of The Transformers, except that I saw them on the same day. But, IMO, that's a strength (and part of the point) of blogging as opposed to writing "real" movie criticism.

Anyway - after going out to watch The Mist during the Thanksgiving weekend, my wife and my brothers-in-law went home and put on a DVD of The Transformers. To recap: none of them had liked The Mist (at all) and, in fact, had found the experience of watching it mightily unpleasant.

None of us thought The Transformers was all that good, but everyone had a good time watching it. It's goofiness and mindless, flashy action turned out to be a good antidote to The Mist's seriousness and pessimism.

I started out wanting to blog that of course a Transformers movie needs to be goofy and of course taking its subject seriously would be a recipe for disaster. But as I composed that post, I remembered the original, animated Transformers movie. That had its light touches, for sure, but it was also kind of serious and (for me at that time) genuinely, emotionally affecting in a way the new movie isn't.

Some more thoughts:

1. My (not original) observation was that there's a good, 90-minute Joe Dante-esque movie hidden inside Transformers. (Or, as my friend Nick said: "It's like Small Soldiers with fewer good jokes." I swear I could edit the thing down myself.

2. I could hardly stay awake during the final battle sequence, even though we were watching it at 5 in the evening. All the CGI action seemed to blur together and I couldn't make much sense of what was going on.

3. Relatedly: the movie's biggest fault, IMO, is that the Transformers are always moving so quickly and their action scenes are so choppily edited - purposefully, it seems, to suggest their high tech, high speed nature - that I never really got a chance to just enjoy looking at them. This isn't some Z-movie where they had to cover up the low budget by only showing the bits and pieces of the creatures: they spent oodles on the design and realization of these robots, but they never give the audience room to just appreciate their work.

4. Relatedly 2: Michael Bay's biggest fault is that despite some good instincts - mainly with regard to casting and directing actors - he's too into the hard sell. His movies would be a lot better if they were shorter, slower, and softer.

5. The screenplay for Disturbia gave Shia LaBeouf something solid to work with: his role there was conventional (maybe even cliched) - troubled but basically good boy in over his head - but it gave him broad outlines within which he was able to sketch a believable, detailed picture of suffering teenager-hood. The screenplay for Transformers gives him almost nothing - horny teen with giant robot - but it was fun to watch LaBeouf (and Michael Bay) make something out of nothing. It was a much more impressive example of movie magic than any of the CGI effects.


Braccia said...

Let's further distinguish the charm of SMALL SOLDIERS from that of TRANSFORMERS:

Like GREMLINS and the 'BURBS, SMALL SOLDIERS is a suburban horror story - Dante's specialty. The notion of "abnormal" invading "ubernormal" is Dante's bag.

Because TRANSFORMERS is set in LA it doesn't really benefit from this juxtaposition. When you're making a movie like this, but setting it in a metropolis, the mayhem needs a very particular tone in order to seem like, well, opposed to an urban invasion movie, which is what TRANSFORMERS more accurately serves up. The jokes in Dante's New York set GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH, for example, find witty ways to invade a metropolis. I know gremlins and small soldiers are tiny invaders and TRANSFORMERS are big, but still, where there's a will, there's a way...maybe setting TRANSFORMERS in Red Rock or somewhere that has more space?

Another differentiating factor: the best gag in SMALL SOLDIERS is that the creepy bad guy alien toys are the good guys and the soldiers are bad. Adding to this twist, surviving actors from THE DIRTY DOZEN and Tommy Lee Jones voice the warmongering soldiers and the SPINAL TAP guys do the aliens. TRANSFORMERS just doesn't operate on this level. It's a series of inoffensive uninventive set pieces. It's charmless.

Like The Forager, I have fond memories of TRANSFORMERS THE MOVIE.

I was more into GI JOE and STAR WARS toys, because you could collect masses of characters for the price of one Transformer toy, but I watched the cartoon pretty religiously. The scale of the movie was awesome and really upped the stakes. Multiple major character deaths, Ultra Magnus (voiced by Robert Stack)cursed and inventive new character types emerged: The Quintessons, Sharkticons and Junkions, as well as Orson Welles' Unicron character--obviously inspired by Marvel's Galactus, but who cares--made this a movie experience rather than a TV episode extension.

Just the notion of the Junkions (lead by Eric Idle, this robots are live on a scrap heap junk planet and speak entirely in TV phrases picked up from satellite transmissions) has more wit that Bay's entire movie. Even the Junkion joke about the "universal greeting" ~ is fresh and unexpected, like a nod to zany 50s road movies or something...

Anyway, I'd rather watch THE IRON GIANT a DANTE movie or, hell, even *BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED before checking out TRANSFORMERS again.

James said...

I completely agree about the pace of the action sequences. It reminds me a little bit of the climax of "The Phantom Menace": there's a point of diminishing returns with regard to on-screen speediness. If you cannot follow what the characters are doing, then all that money you're spending to wow them is going to waste.

also: why have the dog with a rhinestone collar and a cast? For some reason that really annoyed me. I imagine Michael Bay saying, "Hey guys, I guess I should give the hero a pet... Hmm... okay, a dog, people like dogs... um, but it cannot be a manly dog... um... I know! I'll make it a wacky little dog! (sees concept art) No! No, damn it! 300% wackier! Do it again!"

Jon Hastings said...

Nick - All good points. I don't like to dogpile on Bay, if only because I prefer his attitude towards this kind of movie than those of a lot of other big budget filmmakers.

James - Agreed re: Phantom Menace. The dog, well: yeh - it's goofy, but I think Bay does a better job of throwing everything into the pot than, say, Sam Raimi did in Spider-Man 3.

James said...

Jon: I think the difference is:

Sam Raimi threw everything into the pot.

Michael Bay threw everything into the pot, and then deep-fried the pot.

I still can't believe that Orson Welles' last role was as Unicron. As much as I want to be all contrarian and post-modernist about "what is art" and all, it's still super depressing to think about. But I guess if you have to play a cartoon robot, that's the one.

james said...

I think it was a great movie but there was one clip that if done correctly would have gross the movie millions more because the intensity at that split second would have been 10 fold.The clip iam talking about was when the cop car turned into the transformer and started running after the boy if the transformer would have smashed the concrete pillar it would have been perfect and made millions more.It would have been just as perfect as the clip of the 2 transformers fighting on the freeway.

james said...

I cant believe the adding was missed to the clip of the cop car transformer when it first started chasing the boy and not smashing the concrete pillar at that split second because the intensity of that clip was perfect in my opinion and would have made the movie many millions more if it had been added.

Anonymous said...

I drawn the nicest transformers characters in singapore.I wish you can come and see my drawings and put in the movie!And i am now 10 years old.I love drawing new characters of tranformers!(