Wednesday, July 13, 2011

(FAVORABLE!) REVIEW: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Memo to: Michael Bay, film director

From: Eric Robinette, who now needs corrective oral surgery to reattach his jaw

RE: Transformers: Dark of the Moon


I kid, I kid - well, sorta. Mike, I've been making fun of you for about 10 years now, mercilessly slamming you, sometimes with wild abandon. And I have to admit, it's been rather fun. You usually make it so damn EASY with your lack of storytelling skills, your unwillingness to stage an action scene with any kind of cohesion,  and a sense of humor that would make anyone above the age of 12 roll their eyes out of their heads.

But, unlike some of my fellow critics who fall victim to groupthink, I'm willing to give you credit when it's due. And with your third Transformers movie, it's due for the first time in a very long while.  I actually liked this one. Sometimes I really liked it.

It feels very odd to defend you, but in a way, it's time for us critics to face facts. To criticize you for not being a storyteller is to criticize the moon for being round. That's just the way you are. You're not a narrative filmmaker. You never have been and you probably never will be. Your one halfway decent film before this one, The Rock, succeeded more because of a good cast than a good script.

You exist first and foremost to mount spectacle, and your ability to do that is the yardstick by which you deserve to be measured. And on that scale, you succeeded quite well in Dark of the Moon.  You may not be a narrative filmmaker, but this movie works because you became a three-dimensional filmmaker.

For this third film in the robotic series, you very wisely decided to shoot it in 3D, using the same camera systems that James Cameron developed for Avatar. As a result, the 3D in this movie actually pulled me into the film instead of feeling like a fancy effect for show.

Much more importantly, the 3D forced you to cut differently than you typically do. Most of the time, you seem to edit your films by loading them into the computer, allowing for edits of no more than two seconds, and then hitting the "RANDOM" button. In other words, you threw everything you had up on the screen and saw what stuck. Not much did.

When you shoot in 3D, you have to let the images hold for a certain amount of time, or else the 3D effect doesn't register. For the same reason, you can't whip the camera around too much. So in this film, your action scenes aren't the usual blizzard of flash cuts and whip pans. I could actually tell who was chasing whom, and which robot was ripping another robot's eyes out.

Like Cameron before you, you realized that sequences shot high in the air, with the camera tilting downward, are big money shots in 3D. That scene where you had troopers dive out of planes in wingsuits, swooping around Chicago, absolutely blew my mind. In a good way, for once. I was even impressed that you didn't get carried away with the "comin' atcha" effects.

You also assembeled a surprisingly good cast. In the "adult" roles, you have not one, not two, but three veterans of Coen Brothers movies: John Turturro, John Malkovich, and Frances McDormand, all having a high old time slumming it for you. I imagine Joel and Ethan must be giggling their butts off. I even enjoyed the new girl, Rosie Huntington Whiteley. I'd stop well short of calling her a real actress, but at least she can deliver lines passably and doesn't have a stuck-up sneer twisting her face like that girl you fired.

But don't let all this praise get to your head, Mike. The movie doesn't always work. At two and a half hours, it's too long by at least 30 minutes. I suppose you were responding to complaints that the putrid second movie had too little personality in it, but you really ought to stop wasting your time with pathos. You're not very good at it. When you attempt it, all that "emotion" seems silly and hollow. When the most touching relationship is between a boy and his car, it seems silly to aim for more than that.

If anything, you're even worse with comedy. Whether you direct the fourth Transformers or not, ditch Shia's parents. Nobody cares about them, and they're not funny. I've heard 10-year-olds crack more sophsiticated sex jokes.

I was about ready to give the movie a fairly high grade, but even the action climax wears out its welcome. Most of the destruction of Chicago is stunning, especially when Shockwave winds through a building like a giant mechanical millipede. But as usual, you don't know when to quit, letting the last act drag past the high point.

Still, I guess it wouldn't be you if there wasn't some amount of excess, would it? I'm just grateful I came out feeling happy. As delightful as it is to slam you, I would always rather enjoy myself. And I did this time.  You made a movie at which I had fun. Thank you and congratulations. Would it be too much to ask to keep it up?


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