Attack of the Remakes! The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
by Steve Habrat
Tobe Hooper’s grubby 1974 horror outing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ranks as one of the scariest films I have ever seen. Hands down. It is downright terrifying and manages to make us queasy even though it has very little gore to speak of. In 2003, Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes decided that they were going to remake the film, a decision that would open the remake floodgates and shower the film market with a slew of senseless horror remakes that absolutely no horror fan was begging for. With music video director Marcus Nispel behind the camera, Bay unleashed his sleek and gory update that comes at you like a speeding demon. Truth be told, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 is not that bad of a film. It’s actually sort of fun and it has plenty of personality and style. It has a must see opening sequence shot in shaky black and white, a crime reel that is chillingly authentic as John Larroquette somberly explains the back-story. It opens the movie with a bang. What comes next is a fairly mundane but excessively flashy exercise in teen slashers elevated by the presence of R. Lee Ermey and, surprisingly, Jessica Biel. It’s the excess and Nispel’s reluctance to leave anything to the imagination that ultimately keeps The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 from reaching the levels of terror that the original does. Oh, and cannibalism would have helped too.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre begins on August 18th, 1973, with five teenagers, Erin (Played by Jessica Biel), her boyfriend Kemper (Played by Eric Balfour), Andy (Played by Mike Vogel), Morgan (Played by Jonathan Tucker), and Pepper (Played by Erica Leerhsen) passing through Texas on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. While making their way along the desolate highway, they happen upon a distraught hitchhiker (Played by Lauren German), who quickly climbs into their van, rambles about a “bad man,” and then shoots herself in the head. Terrified, the group stops off at the nearest gas station to call the sheriff. The sheriff convinces the group to meet him at a local abandoned mill, where he will come and pick up the body. The group waits for hours but the sheriff is a no show so Erin and Kemper decide to travel to a nearby farmhouse to try to contact the sheriff again. The home seems to belong to a cranky amputee named Monty (Played by Terrence Evans) but as Erin and Kemper linger at the home, they begin to suspect that Monty may not be the only person lurking around the decrepit home. Their suspicions are confirmed when they are chased down by Leatherface (Played by Andrew Bryniarski), a gigantic psychopath who enjoys dispatching his victims with a chain saw and then removing their faces so he can wear them as masks.
Since Michael Bay and Platinum Dunes insisted that this film exist, I can at least give it credit for the fact that it isn’t a shot for shot remake of the brilliant Hooper original. It is bold enough to play around with the premise and up the number of nutcases from four to seven, making the whole film seem a bit more dangerous. While upping the number of psychos is a positive, Nispel and Bay do everything in their power to strip Leatherface of the horror he once possessed. And, lets face it, it takes a lot to make a psycho with a chain saw only slightly creepy but apparently Nispel and Bay were up to the challenge. Looking like your crazy uncle in an expensive Halloween costume, Leatherface looks like he is wearing a rubber zombie mask that tried to smile but couldn’t. Only once do we see him wear another face and there doesn’t seem to be any of the eerie cross-dressing that the character liked in the original. It would have been nice to see him in that famous suit with a woman’s face covering his own but I guess you can’t always get what you want. Nispel and Bay also give him a new origin story, one that just comes off as silly. Things really got shaky when old Leatherface decides to peel off his mask and show us what it underneath that rotting flesh. I’ll tell you this much, it isn’t very spooky and actually sort of laughable.
While Nispel and Bay certain screwed up the monster, they fair better with just about everyone else. I still think that Biel does a great job as Erin and she rightfully earns our sympathy, especially as things really get bad. She’s no Marilyn Burns but she is alright in my book. Balfour is also pretty strong as Kemper, a guy just trying to do the right thing for his girlfriend. Another standout amongst the group of teens is Tucker’s shaggy pothead Morgan, who always has just a little too much to say when he shouldn’t. Out of all the teens, I actually liked him the best. Leerhsen and Vogel are okay but they never really grab us like Biel, Balfour, and Tucker. Then we have the merry Hewitt family, led by R. Lee Ermey’s deranged Sheriff Hoyt, a mean son of a bitch who drools chewing tobacco and giggles at the suffering teens. He is here in full force blasting hilariously sick and twisted one-liners right into the faces of his victims. Marietta Marich is also pretty terrifying as the matriarch of the Hewitt family, Luda Mae Hewitt. She rules the family with a rusted fist, demanding that Leatherface lumbers into the family room and get one of the sobbing victims out of her sight. It is such a cold and cruel scene, one that ends with one character suggesting that their victim should stay for dinner, one of the better nods to the original film.
While cannibalism is only hinted at here and there, it is largely absent from this entry in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. If you didn’t know it played a big role in the original, you’d have no idea it was even present in this one. Nispel does take great care in constructing the Hewitt home, a massive, decaying structure gloriously backlit when the sun sinks from the sky. Some of my favorite images in the film are the ones where Nispel’s camera peeks out of the trees and stares cautiously at the house, almost like it is going to spring to life and attack. The set design on the inside of the home is even more painstaking and ornate as the camera pans over rotting corpses, demonic dolls nailed to the wall, and leaky pipes that could very well be oozing blood. While some of the chases are sort of fun and that scene with one character getting his leg cut clean off by Leatherface’s roaring chain saw are nifty, you can help but find yourself longing for that grainy cinematography and that hazy, late summer atmosphere that drips with death and decay. I longed for a scene that would disturb me like the original’s twitching death, where a character that was just clubbed over the head with a mallet thrashed and twitched as his brains oozed from his head wound. I wished for the dinner party scene, the one where Marilyn Burns shrieked in terror as the Sawyer clan tormented her over a plate of human BBQ. And the film didn’t end with that terrifying image of Leatherface doing his “dance of death” in blazing Texas sun. There is nothing razor sharp like that here. Looks like Bay and Nispel removed the chain from this one.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Attack of the Remakes! A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
by Steve Habrat
It may be blasphemous as a die-hard fan of horror to say this but I’ve never particularly cared for Freddy Kruger. I know, I know, how can I dislike one of the most iconic slashers every projected on the big screen? I guess I saw Wes Craven’sA Nightmare on Elm Street at an older age and Freddy Kruger just came off as a clown in a Christmas sweater. I was so used to seeing campy versions of him that I was never really able to get swept up in the love of the character. Considering Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees had all undergone the remake treatment, Freddy Kruger was expected to be next monster off the horror remake assembly line. Infinitely better than the Friday the 13th remake but still an artificial bore, A Nightmare on Elm Street does find Freddy Kruger shedding his comedic aura and retreating to the ominous shadows that spit him out and I couldn’t be happier about that. It was great to see someone other than Robert Englund step in as the iconic burn victim and put a fresh spin on the character, something that was greatly needed. Handed over to music video director Samuel Bayer, he works hard to earn the respect of Craven and the fans of the original but the problem is that Michael Bay is on board as a producer and it is incredibly obvious considering the lack of mood and abundance of rubbery special effects.
A Nightmare on Elm Street begins in the Springwood Diner where Kris (Played by Katie Cassidy) meets up with her sleep-deprived boyfriend Dean (Played by Kellan Lutz), waitress Nancy (Played by Rooney Mara), mutual friend Quentin (Played by Kyle Gallner), and Kris’s ex-boyfriend Jesse (Played by Thomas Dekker). It turns out that Dean is afraid to go to sleep because when he does, he dreams of a horrifically burned psychopath who launches gruesome attacks against him. After Dean appears to cut his own throat, the teenagers begin to investigate the ramblings of their deceases friend. As their search continues, they discover that they all may have known each other longer than they thought. They also uncover information about a deceased gardener named Freddy Kruger (Played by Jackie Earle Haley), who was believed to be a pedophile. As this information comes to light, Kris, Nancy, Jesse, and Quentin begin to suffer from the same bizarre dreams that Dean complained about. These dreams are particularly horrific for Nancy, who was always Freddy’s favorite. While more and more teens die of unusual circumstances, Nancy and Quentin race to figure out a way to pull Freddy from the dream world and into the real one so that they can destroy him.
While director Bayer and Bay do very little to rework Craven’c classic story, they do tinker with Freddy’s back-story, which has him a full-on pedophile rather than a child killer with a knife-glove. This swap does make your skin crawl when he creeps out of his hissing boiler room toward one of his victims. Funny enough, Freddy’s favored boiler room was something that could have undergone a bit of a change. It worked okay in the original film but it would have been cool to see Freddy’s lair undergo a bit of a change to match the character’s back-story and appearance. As far as looks go, Freddy certainly looks horrific even if he is largely kept in the shadows for much of the movie. I have to give the filmmakers credit for keeping the monster largely in the dark because that does ratchet up the spooks but when Haley is reveled in the hellish glow of his boiler room, the effects applied to his face look sort of obvious and, dare I say, cheap. The rest of the dream world that takes hold when the characters doze off look familiar, like music video sets reused with buckets of fake blood thrown around. Bayer tries to make them creepier by throwing in little girls who jump rope, play hopscotch, and chant, “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you!” Frankly, I found these scenes to feel more staged than surreal.
Surprisingly, the performances are much better than in the previous Platinum Dunes offering. I certainly think that the casting of Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Kruger was inspired and he does attack the role with his fangs bared. He ditches the countless one-liners and instead growls loudly over the soundtrack. The flashback sequence that finds him without all the prosthetics and CGI is effectively creepy, mostly because anything dealing with pedophilia is creepy. Then there is Rooney Mara as Nancy, a promising up-and-comer that seems well aware that she is better than the movie she is in. The filmmakers twist Nancy into an angsty teenager who hides away in her room with headphones crammed into her ears and huddles over her paintings she enjoys doing. It seems like Bayer had a hard time trying to work her in front and center in the film, as she almost seems secondary to Kris in the opening sequence. About a half hour in, Mara is the star of this bloodbath, which in turn perks the film up. Cassidy and Dekker are forgettable as disposable teens there simply to die by Freddy’s favored glove. Gallner puts in 110% as Quentin, an equally angsty teenager who has feelings for the arty Nancy.
Considering A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is largely drawing from the original film’s storyline, the film lacks any real surprises, which is immensely disappointing. While Bayner certainly has plenty of gore to go around, I found some of the violence to be watered down a bit, a shocker because I figured that the filmmakers would fall back on it. There still is no question that the concept is bright but failure to take it in a new direction stalls the film almost instantly. Let’s be honest here, Bay is certainly not the most creative in the story department. Predictability hangs low over our heads as characters we figure are going to get the knife do and twists we figure are coming fail to get the gasp they are hoping for. Then there is the ending, which I was less than impressed with. It consists of Freddy tossing Nancy around a room while he utters repulsive lines of dialogue her way. Having a monster lick the face of the freaked out heroine can only make us squirm so many times before it seems recycled. Much like Friday the 13th, Bayner tacks on a GOTCHA! moment before fleeing off into the end credits, but it feels like a cheap shot jolt. Overall, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is a lousy film because it never gets off the ground. It feels like it was shot on Hollywood sets with tasteless CGI painted over it to make it more interesting. It never scares us although it does repulse us with its subject matter in a few places. It only grabs a recommendation for Haley’s commanding performance.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Attack of the Remakes! Friday the 13th (2009)
by Steve Habrat
It has always been extremely difficult for me to get into Jason Voorhees and the Friday the 13th series. I never found the hockey mask killer to be all that frightening and I found his films to be redundant exercises in sex, violence, and stupidity. The only film in the Friday the 13th series that I sort of liked was the original 1980 film, the one where Jason’s mother was the psycho chopping up hornball camp counselors. With Hollywood remaking every horror film under the gravestone, it came as no big surprise that Friday the 13th would be getting the unholy treatment. While I figured the film would be lousy, I sort of thought that maybe Hollywood would shake the series up a bit. When they handed the film over to Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes and director Marcus Nispel (the guy who gave us the semi-entertaining Texas Chain Saw reboot), it was obvious that this was going to be a major train wreck. Well folks, my worst fears were confirmed. The 2009 remake of Friday the 13th is absolutely awful in every way, shape, and form. Only once or twice is the film actually clever and show a brief glimpse of what could be if Bay wasn’t behind the film. I really don’t expect much out of these throwaway post-Halloween slashers but my God, at least put in some effort. I expect a little more than glossy guts, bare breasts, and steamy sex.
Friday the 13th 2009 picks on June 13th, 1980, with a terrified camp counselor beheading the crazed mother of Jason Voorhees, who went on a killing spree after her handicapped son drowned at Camp Crystal Lake. The film then jumps to present day with a handful of backpacking teenagers searching the woods just outside of Camp Crystal Lake for some marijuana that was planted weeks earlier. After they set up camp for the night, they are soon stalked and killed by a hooded maniac with a machete. One of the girls in the group, Whitney (Played by Amanda Righetti), is not slaughtered but captured by the hooded killer and taken prisoner. Six weeks pass and authorities are still unable to come up with an explanation for the strange disappearances of the teens. Meanwhile, another group of teenagers, Trent (Played by Travis Van Winkle), his girlfriend Jenna (Played by Danielle Panabaker), Chelsea (Played by Willa Ford), Bree (Played by Julianna Guill), Chewie (Played by Aaron Yoo), Lawrence (Played by Arlen Escarpeta), and Nolan (Played by Ryan Hansen), arrive in town for a weekend at Trent’s summer cabin just outside of Camp Crystal Lake. The group bumps into Clay (Played by Jared Padalecki), who is frantically searching for his sister Whitney. As they explore Camp Crystal Lake, the group stumbles across the same hooded figure, who now wears a hockey mask. As they dig into the events that happened at Camp Crystal Lake, they make the horrific discover that this strange man may be the legendary Jason Voorhees (Played by Derek Mears).
If you can believe it, director Nispel and Bay are not content with giving us just one group of teenagers to hate. They feel the need to give us two groups of annoying clichés that are begging to be killed by the machete-wielding psycho Jason. They do all the typical things that teens in these movies love to do. They wander off by themselves in a drunken stupor or marijuana haze, they hook up with each other in graphic sex scenes that reportedly made Mr. Bay very upset, and they talk to each other about the dumbest shit imaginable. I am well aware that these stupid teenagers are part of the appeal of these types of films but it would have been so refreshing to see them using common sense for once rather than aimlessly wandering around a dimly lit tool shed packed with more weapons than Jason could dream of. The film also has the same faux-gritty look that Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had, sleek and screaming a big price tag. The big budget look would be okay if the film had some sort of ominous atmosphere but it sort of comes off like a nu-metal music video with strategically place fog machines stuck in moss. I guess the one positive you can find here is that at least the filmmakers don’t resort to a shot-for-shot rehash and instead decide to make something that stands apart from what came before it. Yet even this is flawed because Jason only appeared briefly in the original Friday the 13th. This is more of a combination of Friday the 13th Part 2 and Part 3, with actors and actresses that look like they would be more comfortable modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch.
While none of the acting is worth mentioning, the film does take an interesting approach to Jason. More territorial maniac than supernatural specter, Jason dashes after these morons with such ferocity that Nispel and Bay were almost able to convince me that Jason is a neat character. He lumbers out of the dark suddenly and he sets traps for the kids to walk blindly into, which was a nice touch for Mr. Voorhees. Nispel and Bay also cram in a new explanation on how Jason found that legendary hockey mask, a sequence that is both painfully stupid and cheesy fun at the same time. It was one of the only scenes that I actually sort of enjoyed. The other was a fleeting glimpse of Jason showing some sort of emotion as Whitney, his sobbing prisoner, pleads with him and says his name. He stops for a moment and studies her, almost backs off for just a brief second, only to stomp away and hunt more teens. I was actually intrigued by the moment because it made me think that maybe all Jason wants is someone to be kind to him rather than wave him off and ignore him like he was all those years ago. Just as quickly as we saw the potential to give a bit of depth to the character, it was gone.
The main draw to Friday the 13th is going to be the elaborate kill sequences but this poor excuse of a film can’t even get that aspect right. Every death scene is a massive let down because there is very little creativity behind the camera. Only one kill made me sit up and take notice but then the scene switches and the intrigue fades. Nispel makes sure he throws in that famous “ch-ch-ch-ch… ka-ka-ka-ka” whispered in the score but it is only here or there and it never sends chills like it wants to. The acting is awful and predictable, with terrible dialogue handed to only marginally talented young thespians. It has been reported that Bay walked out of the premier of the film due to the unflinching sex scenes that Nispel includes but I wonder if he just wasn’t embarrassed by how awful the movie is. That really says something when Michael Bay walks out of the movie. Overall, it doesn’t build upon the dying slasher genre like it could have and it does very little for the gasping Friday the 13th series. My advice is stick to the original trilogy because at least they were sort of fun and atmospheric. And they didn’t have involvement from Michael Bay.
Friday the 13th is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
by Steve Habrat
Michael Bay’s 2007 Transformers was no doubt a huge guilty pleasure. It was far from intelligent but at least it was entertaining and that is really all we could ask of it. I can’t really say that I was dying for a sequel but you knew it was inevitable given the success of the first installment. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the 2009 sequel, never even remotely justifies its own existence. Revenge of the Fallen is lumbering, loud, stupid, and downright obnoxious from the first frame all the way to the last. It’s almost as if the first film shot up with a bunch of steroids, downed a whole case of Red Bull, and then was let loose to wreck havoc on society. Part of the problem is that returning executive producer Steven Spielberg has obviously cut the short leash that he had director Bay on and allowed him to bolt right for the TNT stash. I swear that Bay can’t go ten minutes without blowing something up and he sculpts his film all the fireballs.
In the opening moments of Revenge of the Fallen, it is revealed that ancient race of Transformers called the Dynasty of Primes was searching the galaxy for energon sources. The Dynasty of Primes used energon to power their mighty AllSpark, the device that caused all the ruckus in the first film. They decide that if the planets they visit have life forms residing on them, they will not harm the planet. When one brother who is dubbed “The Fallen” breaks away, he lands on earth and builds a Sun Harvester, which drains stars of their energy. The other Primes sacrifice themselves to stop “The Fallen” before he wipes out the human race and to hide the Matrix of Leadership, which is the key to operating the Sun Harvester (I hope I have all of that straight…). In present day, the Autobots are working with an elite group of soldiers lead by Captain Lennox (Played by Josh Duhamel) to seek out and destroy the remaining Decepticons. Meanwhile, Sam Witwicky (Played by Shia LaBeouf) is getting ready to go off to college and start a life of his own away from his goofy parents (Played by Kevin Dunn and Julie Alice White). He is also grappling with leaving his super hot girlfriend, Mikaela Barnes (Played by Megan Fox), who wants Sam to say the L word (LOVE). After Sam discovers a small piece of the AllSpark stuck in his jacket, the Decepticons begin to regroup and launch an even more powerful strike on earth. Autobots leader Optimus Prime calls on Sam and Mikaela to once again aid him in his protection on earth, but Optimus discovers that he is facing a far more powerful villain than he ever could have imagined.
The small synopsis that I have provided in this review is only the tip of the iceberg that is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. This movie has so much going on in it, you will be in utter disbelief (Seriously, go look at the synopsis on RottenTomatoes. It’s unreal how long it is!) and actually feel your brain melting from overload. Upon my first viewing of the film, I actually started getting a headache from all of the longwinded explanations and teeth-rattling explosions. The first film didn’t bog itself down with complex back-story and sub plot silliness, which made it an easier pill to swallow. It appears that Bay and his screenwriters overcompensate for the simplicity of the first film, which is what made it so likeable in the first place. If that isn’t bad enough, the film features more pointless action sequences that are stuck in simply to show off how much the CGI has improved in the past two years. A sequence in the middle of the film that features an army of Decepticons raining down on earth, smashing into U.S. Naval ships, cities, and everything else you can think of is the final word in extreme and meaningless, a continuous string of explosions, CGI destruction, and incomprehensible aliens.
In addition to all the inane action and story, Revenge of the Fallen further irritates with the horribly misguided acting that Bay proudly displays. LaBeouf’s Sam was once a relatable teen who was caught in the middle of something larger than life. In Revenge of the Fallen, you want to kick him in the face. I couldn’t believe how unbearable he was this time. Bay throws him in with a slew of other aggravating teens, which makes things even worse on the viewer. Fox is given absolutely nothing to do except look hot in a tank top and run away from multiple explosions. Duhamel is still wooden and cliché yelling orders at Tyrese Gibson’s equally useless Sergeant Epps. John Turturro returns as the disgraced Sector 7 agent Simmons, who once again appears to be having fun but he fails to cast his spell on us this time. Ramon Rodriguez joins the insanity as the Sam’s college roommate Leo, who is even more aggravating than Sam. Blonde bombshell Isabel Lucas also is on board as the mysterious Alice, who has an attraction to Sam and wishes to break up his relationship with jealous Mikaela. I still don’t buy these two girls battling over LaBeouf. Sorry, Bay.
What was once sort of cute has become a revolting spawn of Satan, a film that is shockingly racist (get a load of the Twins), unintelligible, and just plain irresponsible. It could be one of the worst written sequels I have ever seen, one that was spit out to suck more money out of the pockets of those who enjoyed the first film. Sadly, we were all suckers and flocked right to it opening weekend. If I were a bigger fan of the Transformers franchise, I would be absolutely furious at Bay for what he has done to this material. He is so concerned with staging an action sequence that he throws lucidity right out the window, napalms it, and the proceeds to piss on the ashes. What Bay fails to understand is that story is more important than action and respect for the material is key to winning the hearts of fans. These characters mean so much to people and to see Bay more concerned with how much of Fox’s cleavage he can capture is just despicable. Furthermore, Spielberg should be ashamed of himself for allowing this film to be made and being okay with his name stamped in the credits. If you have not seen Revenge of the Fallen, trust me when I say that you will not believe your eyes or your ears. With Transformers, Bay earned a smidgeon of my respect and showed the world that he could make a film that was watchable. With Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, he lives up to his reputation for being one of the worst directors currently working in Hollywood.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Michael Bay’s 2007 live action interpretation of Transformers, the immensely popular Hasbro toy line is infinitely better than it should be. I can still remember seeing trailer for the Bay vehicle and thinking that it would be the biggest piece of junk ever spit out by both Bay and Hollywood. It turns out that Transformers was more than meets the eye (I couldn’t resist!). While I admit that I had more fun than I should have at Transformers, it is nowhere near a perfect movie. Transformers has some of the worst dialogue that you are likely to hear in a motion picture, bizarre lapses in time, and some truly awful acting yet astonishingly, the film remains watchable and surprisingly entertaining when it really shouldn’t. The first Transformers film works because it shows us something we can all honestly say we have never seen before. Despite all the twisting and turning metal that fills the picture, executive producer Steven Spielberg slyly inserts a human heart in all of the nonsense and keeps Bay on a short leash, giving it a yank whenever the action on screen gets too out of control.
After their home planet is destroyed by war, the Transformers are split into two groups. There are the Autobots, who are lead by the courageous Optimus Prime and there is the evil Decepticons, who rally behind the dreaded Megatron. The two groups are after the AllSpark, which could allow the Autobots to rebuild their home planet and allow the Decepticons to wipe the Autobots out and take control of the universe. Their quest to find the AllSpark brings both groups to earth where they meet nerdy teenager Sam Witwicky (Played by Shia LaBeouf), who unknowingly holds the key to locating the AllSpark. It turns out that Sam’s new beater car also happens to be the gentle Transformer named Bumblebee, who has to protect him from the Decepticons that are closing in on him. In between attempts to woo the girl of his dreams, Mikaela Barnes (Played by Megan Fox), Sam is dragged into vicious war between the Autobots and the Decepticons, who fully plan on using earth as their new battleground. Sam and Mikaela are reluctantly paired with a small group of humans who have to battle beside the Autobots in order to save the human race from being wiped out.
Transformers is a must-see for the mind boggling special effects and earth shaking action sequences that Bay is noted for. The end battle in the streets of Los Angeles ranks as one of the most satisfying and adrenaline-pumping action sequences in a summer blockbuster. This one is truly one of those films that leaves you asking, “How did they do THAT?!” Being a Bay film, you are never really required to use your brain outside of keeping all the Transformers’ and secondary character’s names straight. Credit has to be given to Bay because he knows why we are watching this film and it certainly isn’t for a beefy plot. He fills the screen with hot chicks, explosion porn, and enough showdowns to drive Transformers fans up the wall. It’s all eye candy here but it is eye candy that we have never seen before and that will give your eyes cavities. I dare someone to name me another film where you see a Camaro convincingly morph into a towering robot, go leaping through the air, and clash with another robot that just morphed out of a police car. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
While the fiery battles are quite a bit of fun, they also happen to be one of the many flaws that wound Transformers. Clarity is sacrificed as Bay’s camera shakes around violently and his editor jumps from one side of the action to the other. He doesn’t really go out of his way to really distinguish the secondary Transformers, as he has them all done up in gunmetal gray and earth tones. When it is only two of them trading punches, rockets, and bullets, you can easily distinguish who is the bad guy and who is fighting for good but when the climax arrives, Bay frantically throws every single robot at us, causing Transformers to loose control here and there. And while the climax is rousing, the earlier battles are a bit more fun because we are able to actually see who is winning the showdown. A confrontation on the highway between Optimus Prime and Bonecrusher is stunningly realistic and easy to distinguish. Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Megatron are really the only Transformers that we are able to identify in all the mayhem, as they are the ones with the most color and personality.
Transformers ultimately belongs to Shia LaBeouf, who salvages crummy dialogue and creates a multidimensional teenager who other teenage boys can relate to. He also happens to be relentlessly hilarious and a real charmer. He’s just a goofball trying to fit in and win over the beauty, who appears to be way out of his league. It’s through extraordinary events that LaBeouf’s Sam gets what he wants and sees his suburban ennui shattered into a million little pieces. He works well with Fox, who has very little personality but LaBeouf knows how to coax what little she does have to the surface. Fox ends up being likable enough even if she is aware why Bay has his camera pointed at her. LaBeouf and Fox are paired with a slew of other pretty faces including Rachel Taylor as smoking computer analyst Maggie, Josh Duhamel as Captain Lennox, Tyrese Gibson Tech Sergeant Epps, Anthony Anderson as overweight nerd Glen, Jon Voight as Defense Secretary John Keller, and John Turturro as weirdo Sector 7 agent Simmons. They all get their chance to ham it up for the camera, mostly Turturro as Simmons, who seems to be having a ball slumming it. Tyrese and Duhamel are handed some of the worst dialogue to work with and their characters are lumbering clichés for the girls to drool over. Kevin Dunn and Julie White memorably show up as Sam’s TMI parents who walk a fine line between funny and downright annoying. Luckily, they fall more into funny.
Given the problems with dialogue, clarity issues, and everything else that Bay does wrong, Transformers morphs into a fairly memorable adrenaline rush that represents why we flock to summer blockbusters. It never attempts to be anything more than a mindless diversion from the humid weather outside and give us an excuse to munch on a gigantic bowl of popcorn. If you go in to Transformers with extremely low expectations, you will emerge from it a little winded and pleasantly surprised. This uber-expensive B-movie works because Spielberg keeps a watchful eye on Bay, as I’m sure he is fully aware of the work that Bay churns out. Spielberg seemed to demand warm and fuzzy moments, ones where he underlines the idea that there is something extraordinary happening right in our own backyard. It’s a bit naive but it works here. So, if you’re willing to let yourself go for two and a half hours, Transformers is just the escape that you are looking for. It may not change your life but not every movie has to.
Transformers is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
by Steve Habrat
As you exit the theater after viewing Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, there should be theater employees stationed by the door that snap a picture of you and toss you a t-shirt that reads, “I survived Transformers: Dark of the Moon!” I kid you not that when the theater lights come up, the gleaming credits roll across the screen, and Linkin Park blares down on you from the theater speaker system that you will need to take a minute to compose yourself. Your brain will be reduced the pancake batter, your ears will ring, your bones will ache, and you may suffer from a pounding migraine headache as your try to decipher what it is that you just saw. The truth is that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is infinitely better than the previous installment in the Hasbro toy franchise, but the bottom line is that the film, which hints at an intriguing concept early on, single handedly creates a new subgenre of action film: Explosion porn. In the last hour of this film, I’m absolutely astounded that you could not hear Bay’s maniacal laughter as he reduces Chicago to a pile of smoldering embers, reduces the premise to ash, and leaves you reeking of gasoline and defeat.
Almost everyone I talk to about the Transformers films seem to agree that the first film was a charming action film about a boy and his car. About an eccentric kid grappling with problems most teenage boys face (girls, popularity, money, ennui in suburbia) getting thrust into something that is larger than life. Then came the second film and the awe factor was reduced to racist rubble at the pyromaniac claws of Michael Bay. The first film was clearly overseen by Spielberg, who is the executive producer of these films; because Bay demonstrated some disciplined restraint and didn’t blow up EVERYTHING he pointed his camera at. The second film was an incomprehensible mess that was nothing but one confusing fight sequence after another. Furthermore, halfway through the film, it seemed like the writers realized the storyline was rancid and tried to redirect the entire film. Bad idea.
So how does the third entry in this lucrative franchise fair? Well, it manages to be pretty average in the story department. It has a beefier plot than the previous film but the film is so garish and cramped that it almost bursts on screen. The plot wears thin after the first hour and a half and the film spends the next hour using an epic showdown in downtown Chicago as a dazzling diversion to the fact that the storyline has run out of fuel. The film begins with a nifty prelude that suggests that the space race of the 1960s was in response to a ship that had crash-landed on the dark side of the moon. Turns out that the ship actually belonged to Sentinel Prime, an Autobot that fled the planet of Cybertron during the war between the Autobots and Decepticons. He took with him a precious weapon that would have decided the outcome of the war. Flash forward to present day and the Decepticons are lurking on earth and looking for the weapon to launch a massive campaign against Earth and wipe out the remaining Autobots.
Back at the center of all the action is the bumbling hero Sam Witwicky (Played by motor-mouthed Shia LaBeouf). Once Sam was a lovable hero who just wanted to get the girl. Now, he’s been reduced to a shadow of his once beloved character. He’s set up shop with Carly (Played by Bay’s curvy Babe-of-the-Month Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) in what appears to be a left over set of a Victoria ‘s Secret commercial. The two can’t even come close to emulating the bizarre chemistry that LaBeouf had with Megan Fox in the first two installments. They seem like the most improbable couple on the face of the earth. The rest of the cast is back too and they are all as colorful as ever. We have the tough-as-nails army officers Epps (Played by Tyrese Gibson), and Lennox (Played by Josh Duhamel) back on the front lines of the alien/robot battle. Also back is Sam’s TMI-spouting parents and the eccentric former Sector 7 agent Simmons (Played with berserk delight by John Turturro). Newcomers include John Malkovich as Sam’s unhinged new boss, Ken Jeong as Sam’s jittery coworker, Frances McDormand as an icy government agent, and Patrick Dempsey as a charismatic boss.
It truly is enigmatic how Bay convinced some of the talent to actually agree to be in this beast of a movie. They must have all been desperate for a payday because I can’t imagine stars like Malkovich and McDormand actually biting at this tomfoolery. They do the best job they can with the material they are given. Let’s not forget that some of the dialogue has never been some of the sharpest banter ever projected onto the silver screen but it is given some life by these accomplished actors. Yet somehow all these characters are the reason that these films astonishingly stay afloat. Granted the second film may be one of the vilest movies of recent memory, but you have to admit that it had spunk. The characters are effervescent and so are their alien allies even if tired clichés pour from their CGI mouths.
While many are swift to accuse Bay of producing empty cinematic experiences, they are correct to an extent. Bay does action well and he can frame a scene better than most directors out there, but the problem with Bay is that he sabotages his own film’s potential. This film has plenty of said potential and the first twenty minutes of it are expertly constructed. He weaves history and fiction together just as effortlessly as they did in X-Men: First Class. But then Bay can’t resist himself and pulls the pin out of the grenade. He does this with a single shot that throws off the momentum that the film has been gathering—a shot of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s ass as it sways up a set of stairs. It sucks the life right out of the film and for the next hour, the film scrambles to gather back that momentum. It doesn’t help that the premise here is stretched to the breaking point, snaps, and then continues on for another hour. I believe that the first film worked so well because we knew so little about these alien visitors. Now, the films have been steeped in geek lore and suffer from being completely overblown. Everything is given a longwinded explanation that drags the events on another ten minutes. This entry keeps it a bit simpler but I still firmly believe the franchise should have been left at one. Shame on Hollywood’s gluttony.
Overall, Bay has become a target for another crime against his audience—making them feel no emotion whatsoever. His films are more concerned with the action sequences than any redeeming quality like emotion. Yes, a film should send you away with a feeling. That can include walking away sad, overjoyed, depressed, moved, or, yes, thrilled to your core. While the last entry sent you away confused and simply infuriated that it exists, Transformers: Dark of the Moon sends you away overwhelmed and disoriented. You will feel like you just stepped off of a rollercoaster. I guarantee that your stomach will be doing somersaults for hours after in your gut. We can spend all day arguing over the mediocrity of his latest film, or we can just agree on the obvious: At least Bay sent you away FEELING something this time around. Grade: C+
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is available on Blu-ray and DVD Friday.