I thought you were made of sterner stuff….

Or “I would have waited an eternity for this….” My ability to remember dialogue from the animated movie continues to alarm me.

The combination of rainy weather and a day off made it virtually impossible that I would not see the Transformers movie on the 4th. Despite the unusual effort it took to get there, I was firmly settled into my seat at 6:30 as the film began to roll. I’ve got kind of a lot to cover here, I’ll do my best to keep it all organized. Forgive me if I get a little offtrack.

The most pertinent questions are the basic ones. Did I like the movie? The answer is an overwhelming yes. The answer, however, to the question ‘did I not like the movie?’ is also yes. It took me a few days before I had sorted my thoughts about the picture and in the end I find myself conflicted. There was a lot to like about the movie and a lot not to like. The root of this is in the movie’s director, Michael Bay. I, like many others more knowledgable than myself, was against the decision to give him a large hand in shaping the property. In interviews he comes off as not liking the original property or the ideas behind it. Beyond simply not being a hardcore fan of Transformers, he seemed to look down upon them as silly and stupid. This disheartened me because projects that involve fully realized mythos from another medium live and die on the ability of the creative team to understand what about the characters resonates with their fans. Sam Raimi seemed to have a good handle on how to fully integrate Peter Parker with Spider-Man and it shows in the movies. Michael Bay, the man who directed the video for the one hit wonder from the DiVinyls ‘I Touch Myself,’ finds Transformers to be beneath him.

The perplexing part about this is that his strengths as a filmmaker match up with the Transformers perfectly. Take an over the top Bay carchase and throw in the idea that the cars can transform into giant killer robots at any moment. Sounds pretty exhilerating. I’m hard pressed to come up with many other directors who look as good a match on paper. I’m also eternally grateful that Bay got it instead of one the terrible directors constantly pumping out movies based on videogames. They copy Bay anyway, but with none of his distinctive flair.

And his style is on full display in the movie, make no doubt about it. The action is everything you could have imagined. The opening scene, the attack on the air base, is perfectly done. The attack underscores a single idea, albeit one that was fundamental to the cartoon, that these machines are completely unstoppable. As the movie got going I found things that I didn’t care for quite as much, but the action onscreen stays fully unimpeachable throughout. If nothing else, Bay knows how to shoot a dynamic action sequence and his sense of movement combines well with the robots, who are constantly shifting between forms as they battle each other. Heady stuff, and something my inner six year old yearns for desperately. If you’re someone with no nostalgia for the cartoon who just wants to see an action pic, this is the movie for you. It delivers on the promise of gigantic alien war machines beating the living hell out of each other.

Where it gets bogged down is when the movie starts following people. Totally unnecessary. This was probably a concession to the film’s status as a summer blockbuster, that there had to be a narrative arc that the Transformers fit into, not the other way around. The cartoon spent almost no time developing human characters choosing instead to focus on the machinations and relationships of the robots. It’s understandable that this would happen, as a movie just about Transformers doesn’t receive $150 million budget. I would love a movie that was just two hours of Spider-Man beating ass, but that would never make real money outside of the geek community. So fine, let them throw some people into the film. To their credit they found really likable leads, who do a good job with the limited material given them. Shia LeBeouf is excellent playing the flustered but tongue in cheek lead that Nic Cage pioneered in The Rock. His bag of tricks is more limited than Cage’s, but it’s unbelievable what he does with make believe robots and the wooden acting of Megan Fox. (More on her in a minute.) It’s all the ancillary characters that kill the momentum. No one cares how the nerdy codebreakers at the NSA crack the Decepticon code and Rachel Taylor’s character, while pretty, is completely extraneous. Her only purpose is to introduce us to Anthony Anderson, whose character does even less. What the hell was John Turturro doing? Jon Voight? As if! I won’t even bother going into the plot points they were involved in because they were confused, poorly told and generally useless. Josh Duhamel and Tyrese chip in gamely, but their roles are so limited that it seems like they’re just part of the scenery for the big action setpieces.

Everyone has a crappy backstory, a cursory nod towards the “motivation” of these characters. While I like to pretend that they’re more than two dimensional line readers too, a movie like this doesn’t need that crap. Who cares why they do anything?!?! There are a dozen Transformers waiting to smash up the place! Josh Duhamel has never seen his kid, Megan Fox has a criminal record, blah blah blah. Frankly, the only character that needed any sort of build up is Shia and his is the only one that gets more than lip service. (In short, he wants to sleep with Megan Fox. Understandable and something that most people can relate to.) I wasn’t doing this intentionally, but I’ve been referring to the actors by their name, not their characters name. I think that says a lot about how forgettable the people were. But this isn’t Gosford Park, it’s Transformers. For all my bitching, it’s a minor, minor annoyance. Especially when you have the best special effects money can buy.

I’m referring, of course, not to the robots, but to Megan Fox. Oh man. I have no clue what kind of lab she must have been cooked up in, but please, make some more. Simply unreal. Her role in the movie mostly consists of staring upwards at robots and looking yummy. In my previous post on the movie I mentioned that Transformers was an amalgam of things I thought was cool when I was six and I think of Megan Fox in much the same way, except I’m 25 now. As I so often do, I’ve decided to enumerated on this with a numbered list. To whit:

1. She has a tattoo of a line from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Clearly I would be less excited about this if she was, you know, normal looking, but as is, it’s a definite plus. [Image of the tat from cityrag.com]

2. “I like the way getting a tattoo feels. If I’m depressed, it’s nice to get one and deal with the pain.” [justjared.com]

3. “I’ve done drugs. I didn’t enjoy anything other than marijuana.” [celebstoner.com]

4.

Seriously, add 1 through 4 up. Could she be any yummier?

She’s engaged to Brian Austin Green, which is severely uncool. Aside from releasing what’s generally considered the worst rap album of all time (with help from the Pharcyde no less) he seems like a douche, as the kids say. However, in this article it claims that the two started dating when he was 31 and she was 18. Well played, sir. Respect.

That’s probably more ranting about Ms. Fox than was absolutely necessary, so I’ll try to get back onto track. The real star of the show is the effects and the filmmakers do a wonderful job putting them on screen. The highest praise I can give is to say that I didn’t once, throughout the entire movie, think of the Transformers as effects. They were characters as much as any of the actors, with detailed animations and carrying real weight that most CGI characters don’t have. They look stunning. Some of the voices were a little off and I think they had Jazz breakdancing at one point, but these are tiny complaints. I didn’t mind the design changes to the robot forms because the cartoon designs would have looked, well, cartoony. I love the little details, like the gears moving in their feet as they walk. I had read in reviews before I saw the film that the effects were the next level in movie CGI technology. At first I didn’t understand, but as I thought about it, I think that’s accurate. The reason I didn’t immediately agree is simply due to the fact that they were integrated as seemlessly into the movie as they were.

I had more trouble with the Autobots than with the Decepticons. The Autobots are supposed to stand for something and they end up a little flat. None of them have much personality at all besides Bumblebee, who’s doing a Harpo Marx bit the vast majority of the time, and Optimus Prime, who they basically nailed. Ratchet has one good line then basically disappears. Ironhide barely gets any screen time. Jazz does, but there’s the aforementioned breakdancing and the “hood” accent, provided by Darius McCrary. Or, as most probably know him better, Eddie Winslow from Family Matters. What’s he been up to? It’s too bad, because I think the character had a lot of similar elements as the cartoon version. The cartoon Jazz surely knows how to breakdance, he knows not to is all. Bumblebee is well done, unsurprising considering that he had the most screen time to flesh out his character. Optimus Prime they figured out. He was the lynchpin in the cartoon and he remains so here. He’s the same tough leader, good soldier and protector that was twenty years ago. The aged voice of Peter Cullen, who voiced Optimus in the cartoon, lends an air of sadness to the role. Thankfully, they don’t screw Prime up.

Much the same can be said about the raging yang to Prime’s sober yin; Megatron. He doesn’t appear until 2/3 of the way through, but he really makes an entrance. While I would have liked more time for him, he’s done right too. He’s menacing, merciless and mighty. Just like the good old days. He also gets off a couple of classic arrogant Megatron lines, the one asking Shia if he was motivated by fear or courage being the best. The other Decepticons are a motley bunch, with only Frenzy and Starscream sharing much resemblence to their cartoon forebears. Starscream is sadly mostly mute, but he does have one of the best action scenes, when he attacks the other fighter jets. Awesome to watch. I don’t have much to say about Frenzy and saw him more as a device to move the plot forward. Barricade and Blackout make the most of their time onscreen, while the others mostly have limited roles. Overall, a decent lineup.

It was a little odd that the Autobots were so overpowered by the Decepticons. The bad guys have always been the better fighters, but no one on the Autobots can get anything done beside Prime and Bumblebee. There’s a certain rhythm to these proceedings that the movie ignores to an extent. The Decepticons ruthlessly execute a fiendish plan, beating up Autobots in the process. Then with victory in their grasp they are foiled, fly away and Megatron declares ‘I shall be avenged!’ The Autobots survive thanks to pluck, teamwork and a couple of big hitters. (The best sports analogy I can come up with is the 2001 World Series where the Death Star Yankees lost in 7 to the Diamondbacks.) Here the Autobots get beat on and show some pluck, but are outnumbered and outgunned. They slow down the Decepticons, but only Prime demonstrates much skill by himself. That Josh Duhamel and his band of buddies could do anything at all to slow down the Decepticon advance is totally silly. But again, the movie does as much right as it does wrong. The Megatron/Prime battle rules, as does Prime taking down Bonecrusher. The visceral thrills in these scenes sweep away most of my admittedly fanboyish nitpicking.

All of this prevaricating is indicative of my feelings towards the film. I compare the time I spent waiting for it to the saga of Oddyseus, who spent ten years fighting in the Trojan War and ten years getting back home, all to see his wife. When he got back, after twenty years, his wife wasn’t the same beautiful girl that he married. But it was still her. Sure, she wasn’t as soft and yes, maybe her face had weathered and worn like an old baseball mitt. But after twenty years, just seeing her was a victory. She was the same person Oddyseus loved and that was enough. I can’t go back to the cartoon that I watched so intently as a child. Just seeing it again, on the big screen, with all the bells and whistles befitting a summer smash in 2007, is enough for me.

Transformers Links:

Real life Optimus Prime battles real life Megatron

Old vs. New Character Designs

Megan Fox Links:

Megan-Fox.net

Megansafox.com

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Published in: on July 11, 2007 at 5:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

War Never Changes

fallout 3 poster

The third game in the Fallout series is once again in development and thus I will renew my computer gaming career. Since around the eighth grade, I haven’t played many computer games. Of course, I don’t count diversions like minesweeper and bookworm adventures, love them though I might. I may briefly dabble in illicit new editions of old favorites, like Civilization 4 or something, but probably haven’t bought a computer game since a Playstation arrived in my home I’m not averse to computer gaming. My memories of playing Marathon on my dad’s Quadra 800 are still close to my heart. It’s just that through the years my computers haven’t kept up with the demands of technology, and it’s a bit hard to get excited about a system when you can’t play the newest, shiniest games for it. So, generally speaking, PC gaming news doesn’t exactly keep me on the edge of my seat. There are exceptions to this rule, however. Fallout 1 and 2 are two of the few games that I bought and played around the time that they came out.

Now, the first two Fallout games are pretty fucking great. If you have played either game and don’t like them, I would probably disagree with you on a variety of things, video games and otherwise.

fallout 2

Although it inexplicably has since fallen out of favor, the post-apocalyptic era once had a firm place in American entertainment. I know the generic reasons (end of the Cold War arms race, etc.) for this change, but I’m surprised that we don’t hang on to more post-apocalyptism in our culture that doesn’t revolve around zombies or natural disasters. Perhaps, these fears already have too explicit of an outlet in the mainstream media these days for a strong demand for fictional works on the issue. I don’t mean to imply that post-apocalyptism is dead. I just miss the more humorous expressions of it of the eighties and early nineties. Maybe, bio-terrorism is a bit too realistic these days. Back to Fallout, new and old.

The intellectual property behind the series is a familiar 1950’s take on the end of the world. Nuclear bombs have fallen throughout the world, the few survivors fight for power with religious, racial or selfish motivations, and you a lone survivor are trying to make things a bit better for yourself and your village. The game is replete with fading atomic age propaganda, decaying technology and irradiated mutants. The protagonist wanders from ruined town to fortified fallout shelter, completing tasks garnered from local crime lords and corrupt mayors, gaining experience and items as he goes. The combat is turn-based and the humor is dark. It’s pretty much awesome.

fallout line art

While I know that the new game is almost certainly going to be a significant departure from the first two games, I hope that new developer, Bethesda, is true to their promise to stay true to the core Fallout experience. I know that the new game utilizes some sort of pauseable active battle system instead of a true turn-based system. As much as I intend to resist this trend at every available opportunity, I accept that game companies have some reason for believing that turn based games don’t sell. That discussion can be left for another day. Bethesda does seem to be getting the stylistic elements right. Familiar Fallout elements, like rotgut, a bluesy opening theme and Ron Perlman’s narration appear in the recently released trailer. So, that’s encouraging. I admit that Bethesda has made some good games that I would definitely play if an xbox 360 magically appeared in my apartment. I, like many Fallout fans, just hope that they do more than make a Fallout version of Oblivion.

Fallout 3 is still a long way from completion; the release is 4th quarter of next year. So, my recent replaying of Fallout 2 is probably a bit premature. Then again, I take these games slowly and there’s never a bad time for wandering through an irradiated wasteland. Anyway, if you’ve never played a Fallout game, you might want to consider checking them out some time in the next 18 or so months.

vault 15

Here are your links.
No Mutants Allowed – The oldest Fallout fansite.
Fallout 3 Official Site – Bethesda’s Fallout 3 site. (actually goes to Fallout 3 teaser, then site)
The Vault – A Fallout wiki.

Published in: on July 2, 2007 at 7:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

Such Heroic Nonsense…

Well, it’s been a minute since my last post and I was having a hell of a time deciding what to write about. While I have dozens of ideas for posts about basketball, I can’t imagine anyone being quite as enthusiastic about them as I am. So I moved one rung down on the list of things I spend too much time thinking about, which led me to the soon to be released Transformers movie. [Transformers Official Site]

I must say, I’m excited. I’ve been known to say that all of man’s inventions in video technology, from Edison and Dickson’s kinetoscope to the cutting edge in high def CGI, have all been in service of this moment. That the Transformers movie will undoubtedly be the pinnacle of the form, a shining beacon that will level all competitors. These statements are, naturally, hyperbole. It is not an exaggeration, however, for me to say that I’ve literally been waiting twenty years for this movie. Since the moment the animated original ended basically.

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of guys in their mid to late 20’s are aware of the Transformers, if only on a subconscious level. They might not know or remember much about it, but they know what Optimus Prime looks like. For me, it was a little more intense than that. The very idea of Transformers resonates deeply within me. It’s like the creators went down a checklist of things that I thought were awesome when I was six. Giant war machine robots? Cool. Fast cars, jets, and a Walther P-38? Cool. The real innovation was in combining them. Put all together it was a show I found captivating.

I’ve grown up since then and while I still have a giant plastic bin of Transformers in a closet at my parents’ house I’ve stopped caring about the details of the show. What kind of jet Starscream is, who could smash who, even the plot in episodes of the cartoon. And still I feel my inner six year old asking, nay demanding, that I go see the Transformers movie. So the question I want to answer in this post is, why?

Clearly, the first and most obvious part of the answer is that warring factions of giant transforming robots is awesome. I’ve grown up, but not that much. Frankly, I’m not sure I want to be the sort of person who think giants robots aren’t cool. I’m slightly worried about Michael Bay overseeing the whole thing, but then again, I’m not too worried. The man directed Bad Boys and The Rock. Sadly, he also directed Armageddon and Bad Boys 2. But the robots look tight, the transformations are appropriately animated and Bay’s never been one to spend too much time on human interaction. Even without the license attached it’s got everything I’m looking for in a summer blockbuster.

To digress briefly, there’s a second reason that has nothing to do with the license. Megan Fox. Like I said earlier, I’ve grown and there are a precious few things that have become more important to me than giant robots. She’s gorgeous and is rapidly becoming my celebrity girl obsession du jour. She’s got everything I’m looking for in a summer blockbuster.

She looks like the sort of girl that would be a bad influence on me. How could you possibly get anything done with her around?

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. What is so great about the Transformers that twenty years after their moment in the sun I’m still geeking about this movie?

I thought about it and it comes down to the characters. And maybe not even the characters themselves, but the archetypes that they represent, that a little me absorbed years ago. I went back and watched a couple of episodes earlier this week and I was surprised by how well they hold up. Much better than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the like. This is because the two most important characters in the show, Optimus Prime and Megatron, are two of the more complex characters you’ll ever find in cartoon fare. The qualities they embody are intrinsic to their factions. Without Megatron, the Decepticons are destructive annoyance. He makes them evil. He’s smart, ruthless and the best warrior among their ranks. Optimus is much the same, which makes the juxtaposition between them so compelling. His compassion is what makes him a leader. While the soldiers on both sides underestimate the other, Prime and Megatron never underestimate each other. They have a grudging respect, knowing full well that, in the immortal words of Optimus “one shall stand, one shall fall”. There’s no in between for them, just a strange sense of honor when dealing with each other. You get the sense that they would lose their sense of purpose without their foil.

While I very much doubt that the movie will be able to bring this all to the screen, I hope it retains enough to keep them both from being one dimensional CGI robot versions of Jar Jar Binks. One aspect I’m sure will translate better to the screen is the relationship between the leaders and their soldiers. Prime is equal parts leader, brother, mentor and fighter. He’s always in control and has the unquestioned respect of every Autobot who’s ever served with him. Well, maybe not the Dinobots, but Prime always let them have a little more leeway, using them as a weapon to be deployed. Megatron, sadly, will have to do without the help of his loyal second in command Soundwave in the movie. I’m sure Starscream will be up to his usual tricks and Megatron will give Starscream his usual beatdown.

Another important factor is, quite honestly, nostalgia. The original animated movie was a watershed moment in my young life. I didn’t cry when Optimus Prime died but man, sniff, it was kind of hard to deal with. I’m sure there are thousands of other people out there who feel the same way as me. The Decepticon attack on Autobot City was everything I could have imagined, but left me feeling upset. The Autobots didn’t win; they survived and did that thanks to the sacrifice of their best and brightest. The tone was, in retrospect, exceptionally dark for a movie aimed at children. It was a war and the lesson was that war has consequences.

Certain parts have aged more noticeably, like the bizarre sequences set to the cheesiest 80’s musical styles you can imagine. No, I’m not referring to Stan Bush’s ‘The Touch,’ which is simply an intoxicating song that inexplicably STILL gets me fired up. But the parts with Daniel are interminable, as the parts focusing on humans always were. Galvatron sounds like Leonard Nimoy doing a cartoon voice, which is disorienting. (But not as disorienting as earlier this morning when I found out that James Avery, better known as Uncle Phil on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, was also the voice of Shredder in the TMNT cartoon. Worlds are colliding! It’s the sort of thing you would think I would know by now, having spent hundreds of hours of my life with both Shredder and Uncle Phil.)

Nonetheless, a little nostalgia combined with massive advertorial hype and a smoking hot female lead all adds up to I gotta see that movie. It’s two weeks away and all I hope is that it’s watchable. I desperately want it to be great, but even more desperately I want it to not be terrible. I suppose that’s all you can ask of a summer blockbuster these days.

Published in: on June 20, 2007 at 5:18 pm  Comments (1)