REVIEW: Harry Potter and The Order of The Pheonix


Prologue:

Surely the most at-once annoying and unintentionally-entertaining fun to be had in the reading of movie reviews this year has been had in the watching of “political subtext-hunting” in films that have no real plausible political dimension. Already this year we’ve seen Iran flip-the-hell-out over feature-length abs-n-stabs epic “300” because they thought it was a work of American pro-war propaganda, only to find themselves in essential agreement with American “conservative” critics (inanity.. now in stereo!!!) who were falling over one-another in a rush to declare the film a rallying cry for the Bush war policy. And as if that nonsense wasn’t a veritable BUFFET of sad absurdity, last week a full-scale Blogfight broke out when “Transformers” first-draft story writer John Rogers over at Kung-Fu Monkey… http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2007/07/hey-libertas.html …took exception to some of the GOPstriches over at “Libertas” jumping up to claim Michael Bay’s latest affront to humanity as part of the flock: http://www.libertyfilmfestival.com/libertas/?p=5790

What’s fun about this is that the silliness goes in both directions: For every nutbag “conservative” who LOVES “300” because he thinks it’s “on his side,” there’s a nutbag “liberal” who HATES “300” because he thinks it’s on “the other side”… and BOTH of them have decided this based on the “compelling evidence” that it’s an action movie about a leader who marches himself and his men into an unpopular war. If THAT’S all it takes now for an otherwise apolitical movie to get either enshrined or condemned as “pro-war/pro-Bush,” I’m a little scared to imagine what’ll happen when such enshriners/condemners get a load of this 5th “Potter” installment, which revolves around the boy wizard and his compatriots trying to beef up the war-readiness against He Who Must Not Be Named despite the interferance of (of course) cowardly beaurocrats and their media conspirators who insist that the Bad Guys don’t exist and that the whole thing is just a fearmongering push for political power. Stupid, you say? Of course it’s stupid, but so is locating the same message (and then getting all happy or bent out of shape over it) in a Grand Guignol splatterfest like “300” or a junkpile like “Transformers,” and yet people are STILL going on about both.

MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW

The “Harry Potter” films, now numbering 5 with two more to go including the final book in about 9 days, are now officially starting to feel much less like a rapidly-released series of movies and more like a TV series with especially-long seasonal hiatuses. The good news is that, even if it feels like a TV show, it’s still a good one. At it’s worst (or, at least, most formulaic or obligatory-feeling) moments, it has the tinge of Roger Moore-era James Bond: Less and less consistently innovative, but still consistently entertaining (read: No “Moonraker” just yet, and “Prisoner of Azkaban” equals “The Spy Who Loved Me.”)

Now decidedly past the halfway point of the overall story, “Pheonix” carries the weight of serving as a kickoff to a climax – and feels like it: Story points are coming to a head, “this has to go somewhere” is starting to look like “somewhere” and a general air of immediacy has finally overtaken the proceedings (despite the fact that we’re still basically tracking another semester at Hogwarts.) Head-baddie Voldemort, (Ralph Feinnes made up to look like offspring of Sinead O’Connor and Skeletor,) ressurected at the end of the previous film, is “putting the band back together” i.e. his evil “wizard supremacist” club called Death Eaters.

Following an uncharacteristic “real world” attack by the nasty Dementors, Potter discovers that The Order of The Pheonix – the collection of “good guy” grownups, most of whom we’ve already met, who helped counter the baddies before – has reformed. He’s keen to join, but easier said than done: The less-than-spine-filled officials of the wizard government are insistant that Potter and Hogwart’s headmaster Dumbledore are fabricating the reports of rising evil to cull political power in their favor, and are hard at work undermining both of them. To that end, they’ve installed at Hogwarts a lackey/enforcer in the form of Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton from “Vera Drake,”) a petty tyrant who insists on rigid rulemaking, textbook-adherance and seems to derive a sexual (or at least reeeeaaally inappropriate) satisfaction from inflicting (literal) pinprick-tortures on her young charges. Still fearing an impending attack by You Know Who, Harry opts for the “Red Dawn” route: Organizing his fellow-students into a paramilitary squad and helping them hone their wand-fu in a series of secret training sessions which are almost begging the soundtrack to momentarily morph into “Eye of The Tiger.”

First things first: Aside from Michael Bay, Staunton’s Umbridge is 2007’s most abundantly hateable movie villian so far. It’s a terrific bit of “will someone PLEASE kill this bitch already?” wickedness and obnoxiously-upbeat condescension – altogether the creepiest spin on “Matronly English Cat Fancier As Sadist Control Freak” since Judi Dench in “Notes On A Scandal.” She flat-out deserves a Best Supporting Actress nomination for this turn – and I’d LOVE to know who came up with the subtle bit of “stair choreography” when she engages in a stare-down with Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall, an exchange that plays out like the Lee-vs.-Norris of Thatcheresque verbal sparring.

I’m fairly comfortable in saying I enjoyed this “Potter” the most out of the series thus far. I’m not certain that it’s the asthetic achievement that “Azkaban” was, but it’s just as solid on the story front and the actual goings-on are more on-target for my tastes: I dig the bold mash-up of the series’ whimsical occutremants and what’s eventually a big-scale action flick – right down to a final battle that manages to take the sight of rival teams of garishly-costumed British character-actor mainstays shooting fireworks at eachother from their ruler-sized wands and invest it with the energy and edge of a Hong Kong handgun melee.

It’s also nice to see the various supporting characters still back in form, year after year. Definately nice to see some more fun with Brendan Gleeson’s “Mad Eye Moody” and Gary Oldman’s “why, yes, I AM the coolest guy in the room” turn as Sirius Black. And I’m really, really hoping to see a lot more of Helena Bonham-Carter as baddie Belatrix LeStrange.

I’ve still got my nagging issues with the series (one in particular, the lack of clarity or consistency as to how “aware” the Wizard and Muggle ‘worlds’ are of one-another becoming more glaring here) and I’m still at a loss to discern WHY the adults keep hiding vital information from Potter when it ALWAYS turns out a lot of trouble would’ve been avoided by just telling him on day one. But considering what has to be an amazingly difficult undertaking year after year it’s still a wonder that the series is still as solid as it is. When all is said and done, this is going to be a monumental achievement even if a brick or two is out of place.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

Oh! Hey, since this is on topic and since every other blog (especially Geek Blogs) has done so by now…

BOOK SEVEN PREDICTIONS (in no particular order):

1.) He’s not dead. But he might lose his powers and/or connection to the magical world.
2.) Snape is good, or at least not as bad as it would seem, and a high candidate for a martyr.
3.) Either Ron, Neville or both are as good as fragged.
4.) At least one long-term “bad guy” has to go good. My money would be on Draco – going “good” and then getting pwned to prove it would be a decent way to finally kill the little shit while still making him more well rounded than “guy who’s been asking for this since book 1.”
5.) At least one long-term “good guy” probably has to go bad, though probably not by their own choosing (this is why supervillians with mind-control powers HAVE mind-control powers.) Best candidate: Hermoine. Because she’d probably stand a fighting chance against Harry even without his reluctance to fight her, because it’d really throw people, because it’d be a HELL of an “undercard” to Harry-v-Voldemort, and because she’s got Fantasy Fiction’s Mother-of-ALL-Villian-Exploitable-Weaknesses: Pride and ambition. Just ask Boromir. Or Anakin Skywalker.

Please make all betting-pool-percentage checks payable to cash.

Alvin & The Chipmunks


At this point, can a simple “WHY?” suffice?

I’m serious. This is MISTER “A good movie can be made out of anything” talking here, and even I’ve got to ask what the hell the point of this is? Is this franchise even on the radar of the kids it’s targeting (since the new Ghetto Fab-a-lus redesign rules out the prospect of this being nostalgia bait)? The Chipmunks were a late-50s novelty album and cheap (even for 60s TV) cartoon based SOLELY on the premise that voices sound squeaky when you speed up a recording. Briefly got popular again in the 80s with a revamped series. Hasn’t really been heard from outside the odd DVD quickie since. So exactly what’s the profit prospect on this? Did the two “Garfield” movies really earn that much?

Meh. Poor Jason Lee (though I’m still getting the vibe that “Underdog” will be good). Part of me feels I should be more aghast at the “updated” look, but I’ll hold my fire at least until the Chipettes show up with tramp-stamps. Not holding his fire is the reliable Devin over at CHUD, already lobbing a warning shot in the direction of anyone who dares wax nostalgiac over this:

Transformers: Take 2

This’ll be fun.

There’s nothing I like more than mixing it up, especially over a piece of garbage as discussion-worthy as “Transformers” (you could write a COLLEGE THESIS on all the manner of ways this movie manages to suck) so let’s get to it:

I’ve already got at least one fella in the comments giving me a hard time on points that certainly ought be addressed from my “Transformers” review. Just to open it up here, I’m going to post my response here on the public page (I will not, for netiquet’s sakes, identify the fellow being responded to by “name” in a public post.)

“From your earlier reviews I can’t help but think that you were going to hate this movie no matter what happened and there was nothing it could do to redeem itself in your eyes.”

I was entirely honest and upfront about the fact that I was not exactly pre-sold on this movie. Thing is, that cuts both ways: As bad as I thought it looked, had Bay managed to make even an “okay” film I’d likely have been pleasantly surprised. Perfect example: I kinda liked “Delta Farce” mostly because it wasn’t NEARLY as terrible as it looked like it’d be.

“There is a simpler explination. Michael Bay gets the audience.”

Bay gets a PART of the audience, I’ll grant. He’s 100% hard-wired to the desires of 15-30 year old males who ‘s demonstrable ambition is to live their lives in an approximation of the Alpha Betas from “Revenge of The Nerds.” Lucky for him, giving out cinematic handjobs to this demographic can usually net you a hit movie. But EVERY time he reaches beyond that, he fails. “Pearl Harbor” is one of the worst historical dramas ever made. “The Island” has the same standing in science fiction. And now we have “Transformers,” a tragic low-point for Giant Robot movies. Even the cheapie live-action “Gundam” movie was better than this. “Robojox” eats it’s lunch.

“For better or worse he understands that people often just want fun, pure escapism from their movies and he doesn’t try to be overly pretenous unlike a lot of movie makers who seem to be too self absorbed with how “important” their films are.”

There’s an important difference between being “unpretentious” like Tony Scott or (to a lesser extent) Renny Harlin and being incapable of taking anything seriously like Bay. The only times his movies work is when they’re big, noisy, nobody-gives-a-care gagfests, because thats the only level he seems to operate at. His movies aren’t “rock and roll,” they’re the cinematic equivalent of Club Techno… rock has a SOUL. For pity’s sake, the man couldn’t even eke out believable weight and emotion out of PEARL HARBOR. Do you have any idea how much of an emotional/spiritual void you have to be to not appear moved by Pearl Harbor? That’s like not tearing up during “Old Yeller” or “The Cowboys” times a thousand.

“My bias meter is going off. I mean, really the worst film? I liked it far far more than Pirates 3.”

Pirates at least is counting on it’s audience to be able to keep pace, IT’S comic relief is actually funny and THEIR “hot chick” is genuinely attractive.

“Besides, I thought we already had that movie. Why not just admit you wanted a live version of the first transformers movie.”

Honestly, I’d have simply settled for a pretty-good 90 minute movie about one group of good robots-who-turn-into-stuff fighting bad robots-who-turn-into-stuff over a magical macguffin. That would’ve been just fine. Instead we’ve got a horribly-written, overplotted mashup of ID4, all Bay’s other movies, “Mac & Me,” “Iron Giant” and “Men In Black” with occasional action scenes featuring Transformers. Why are we wading through all of this idiocy about government secrets and military buildup and explorers and hackers and (seriously, think about this part) the hunt for ONE magic whatsit to help find ANOTHER magic whatsit? How POINTLESS does the entire 2nd act and all the “Decepticons hacking the military database” become once we realize that EVERYTHING everyone is looking for is conveniently kept in the same damn place?

“Sidelines? I don’t have the hard numbers yet, but I’ll bet you money bob that if you tallyed the the total film minutes with the total minutes of the transformers it’d be well over 50% (probably closer to 80).”

It doesn’t matter if they’re standing around in every frame if they’re hardly consequential to the plot. This movie isn’t about the Transformers, it’s about “Sam” and his cliche’d “boy becomes a man” routine intersped with moments involving his plucky robot sidekicks. NONE of the Transformers have any personality or character aside from Optimus and BumbleHerbie… and Bumble Herbie’s SUCKS. The opening narration of the film is talking about intergalactic, centuries-old war and alien civilizations… and we’re supposed to be MORE concerned with whether or not LeBeouf is going to get to second-base with already-used-up-looking Maxim chick? Really? The whole “BumbleHerbie tunes the radio to help Sam get laid” sequence is some of the most teeth-grindingly horrible stuff I’ve had misfortune to see… a literal representation of EVERY fear I had about this movie.

“Well you’ve lost a fan with this.”

I’ll note that this was, apparently, in regard to my reference to Bay’s “juvenille fetish for Army Stuff.” The responder in question, however, has missed that I qualified that statement with the following: “when it came time to actually MAKE a serious movie about the Military, it was “Pearl Harbor” and he wasn’t up to it.”

But for the sake of clarification, I’ll elaborate. Anyone who knows me or has read this blog can tell you that I’m far from an anti-military, especially AMERICAN military, guy. That big ass American Flag at the top of the blog isn’t there for IRONY, kids. I love our soldiers. I respect our soldiers. And that’s why Bay’s use of them, here and elsewhere, often rubs me the wrong way. This is a filmmaker who looked at the unprovoked slaughter of American fighting men at Pearl Harbor and saw nothing but the chance for another fireworks display. He demonstrates ZERO regard for the humanity of his military characters, he just seems to think the gear and the fatigues and the additude is “bad-ass” and that HE becomes “bad-ass-by-association” for hanging out with them on set and getting the thumbs-up from the Pentagon. He’s the Bush-in-a-flightsuit of action directors… except Bush was AT LEAST in a branch of the Military once. He’s a poseur, and his “appreciation” of the Armed Forces is just a shallow, juvenille fetish for heavy arms and cammo-print.

“You basically just scream over and over “it’s bad it’s bad” without giving any real concrete examples.”

So, you missed this part?

ME: “It features an awful screenplay, built on a flimsy structure and draped with some of the worst dialogue ever spoken even in Michael Bay movies. It’s human characters are too numerous, badly developed and horribly acted – any actor who CAN give a bad performance is giving it here – while the mechanical ones are largely indistinguishable, uninteresting or annoying. If there’s a misstep that can be made, it’s made. Better movies are ripped off, interesting ideas are tossed aside.”

And these, too?

“Amid all this, Bay also proves himself a singular talent at misusing good actors, coaxing a shockingly bad performance from John Tuturro and a shockingly dull one from Jon Voigt.”

“Problem is, the focus on LeBeouf’s story leads the film into it’s most unimaginably awful territory: HUGE scenes that go on forever focus on the cutsie-poo “comedy” of Bumblebee helping not-yet-robot-aware Sam score with the object of his desire (Megan Fox in the role of Assembly-Line-Maxim-Hottie-With-No-Business-Trying-To-Act) by spontaneously tuning in love songs on the radio and other “Herbie”-like foolishness.”

“Seriously, pages and pages could be written about the uselessness of all the extraneous characters, the shameless cribbing from movies WAY too recent and well known to be “okay” to lift from, and how craptastic the second act is.”

Or even one example of how it could have been better.

One? I’ll give you TEN:

1.) Lose Bay, who didn’t want to make a “Transformers” movie and, despite the title, did NOT in fact make a “Transformers” movie. You probably don’t even need a superstar director, someone competent and familiar with this kind of material like Ron Underwood (“Mighty Joe Young,”) Joe Johnston (“Jurassic Park 3,”) or even Stephen Sommers (“The Mummy”) would be find, especially with Spielberg’s oversight. Basically, find someone who’s psyche doesn’t resemble the male equivlanet of a Bratz doll and who at least realizes that there are other times of the day than midnight and sunset.

2.) With or without Bay, lose an hour. A FULL hour. If you’re NOT going to make a full-on everything and the Cybertronian sink epic, 90 minutes is just fine – it’ll FORCE them to get to point and not get lost in go-nowhere subplots ripping off two different Will Smith movies.

3.) Regarding #2: If you ARE going to go the “general audience” route, keep it nice and simple: No more than 15-20 (TOPS!) minutes in: “We’re the good guys. They’re the bad guys. We both want ‘it.’ If THEY get ‘IT,’ that’s bad. We’ve got to stop them.” And then that’s IT! Begin Autobot vs. Decepticon war NOW. No ID4 “figuring out the patterns,” no MIB guys, no “DaVinci Code” ancient symbols crap; just good against evil for the Big Shiny Whatever, and every time things get confusing pause briefly to explain Transformer lore to the kid.

4.) Pee jokes. Lose `em.

5.) If you’re going to steal from “The Iron Giant,” steal the sense of wonder, excitement and heart. Not the slapstick scene of hiding robots in the damn yard.

6.) The Transformers should be the stars of “Transformers.” Everybody got that? No, that doesn’t mean you make an all-robot “fanboy” movie. But you also don’t just squish ID4 and “E.T.” together and randomly plug robots in at the margins. Sam and the humans are the Autobots’ sidekicks, not the other way around. Look at “Hellboy:” Yes, we have a “new agent” character who’s mainly there to recieve exposition on behalf of the audience members who are unfamiliar with the source material; but the STARS are undoubtedly Hellboy and the other main guys.

7.) The little Jar-Jar wannabe recon guy? “Frenzy?” The one my viewing companion and I dubbed “Not Soundwave?” Lose him.

8.) Writers, listen up: Audiences can easily tell that Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson’s characters are black without having to make a full HALF of their total onscreen dialogue caricatured idiocy about “they grandmamas!” See also: Spanish Army Guy with “me mama, she have de GIFT, mang!” and the Indian call center guy. I was surprised you didn’t have a Native American guy hanging around with a bottle of whiskey, too. Seriously, this has nothing to do with PC, it’s just shitty writing. Do better.

9.) If you’re only going to cast an actress for her tits and midriff, show the tits and midriff and then usher her offscreen. Meagan Fox, if this film is any real indication, cannot act and hasn’t even been asked to try. If you want someone to ACT, there are plenty of much better actresses all over the industry who are also just-as if not substantially more attractive – though I’d hope most of them would have the good sense to avoid acting in Michael Bay movies.

10.) Quentin Tarantino using the theme song from “Battles Without Honor or Humanity” as Lucy Liu’s entrance theme in “Kill Bill?” Clever reference. Michael Bay using Lucy Liu’s entrance theme from “Kill Bill” as a trendy backbeat to a car-porn product placement shot for the 07 Corvette? No. Just… no.

So, that was that fella’s turn. Anybody else?

REVIEW: Transformers (2007)


“I hung up and said, ‘Thank you, I’m not doing that stupid, silly toy movie,'” –Director Michael Bay, on his initial reaction to being offered the directing duties on “Transformers”

That quote seems to pop up in nearly every remotely-in-depth interview with Michael Bay regarding the making of the film. I’m not sure what amuses me more about it: The idea that Michael Bay, maker of the most empty, commercial-esque films of ANY A-list director, somehow feels he’s “above” making a movie based on a line of action figures; or the idea that he feels he’s in a good position to turn down a near-garaunteed hit after having just made “The Island.”

“Why does Michael Bay get to keep on making movies?” –The End of An Act, “Team America: World Police

Acting, as all Movie Geeks find themselves acting at one point or another, as the Geek in Residence among both ordinary folks and the odd oldschool “Film Buff,” I often find myself answering “on behalf” of my fellows – at least to the best of my ability. From the “Buffs,” one question that tends to come up a lot is “Why do Movie Geeks by-and-large give such a pass to Michael Bay?” It’s a fair question, given the amount of hyperbolic vitriol the general Geekdom sends in the direction of “Hack Pack” filmmakers (Tim Story, Brett Ratner, Paul W.S. Anderson, etc.) versus the “meh, his stuff is good for a laugh, especially “Bad Boys 2!!” backhanded-praise it generally floats toward Bay.

The best reason I’ve been able to offer is, basically, that those others have “offended” Movie Geekdom “personally” in ways Bay hasn’t: By the “screwing-up” of hallowed geek-appeal franchises. Anderson is not loathed (perhaps too much, I think in his case) for being an iffy filmmaker, he’s loathed for making an iffy film out of “Resident Evil.” Story’s crime is the two “Fantastic Four” attempts, while Ratner managed the impossible feat of making a dull Jackie Chan film AND drove “X-Men” into a wall. Bay has “skated,” for the most part, because as far as Geekdom tends to be concerned his output- however questionable it may be- has never “defiled sacred ground.” (Though I know a few WWII vets/afficionados who would disagree i.e. “Pearl Harbor.”)

I bring this up because, as of this most recent film, Geek “sacred ground” is looking pretty damn defiled… and Michael Bay’s “free ride” from the Geek Community (for whatever it’s worth) has probably come to an end. “Transformers” is easily one of, if not the, worst films of 2007.

A certain number of you are already discounting the entire review for that. Because you’ve seen the banner up top, read the other posts, and are thus already saying some variation of “Whatever. Guy’s a geek, he’s just mad that they changed the way the robots look and remixed the story so that people OTHER than nerds who memorized all the mythology can follow it.”

And I’m not gonna lie to you or pretend that all the other easily-searchable posts on this blog about “Transformers” didn’t exist: I’ve been wary of this one for awhile, and yeah, I am a huge, huge geek especially when it comes to sprawling scifi sagas about giant alien robots. I’ll say it up front: My “dream” version of a Transformers movie would be a 100% robot-centric, humans-as-background-details epic dripping in fifty Wiki’s worth of continuity and mythos about Cybertron, Vector Sigma, the Matrix of Leadership and Energon Cubes; Soundwave deploying Laserbeak from his chest and Megatron inexplicably morphing into a gun twenty times smaller than his normal size, and everyone looking as close to their “original” conception as possible… ALL OF IT played at the level of deadpan portentousness usually reserved for Biblical epics.

But I’m also enough of a realist to understand that I was probably never going to get that version, in the same way and for the same reasons that I’ll probably never see “The Silmarillon” announced as an in-production LOTR prequel. The most any reasonable person could ask was that the film be a solid, mostly-serious scifi/actioner, that the characters be engaging and reasonably similar to their original incarnations and that the overall result would be a fun “newcomers welcome” reimagining of “Transformers” mythology. In short, a decent action film about battling good and evil robots hiding out on Earth in the form of cars, planes etc…

…and even on THAT narrow criteria, “Transformers” proves itself a devastating failure. It features an awful screenplay, built on a flimsy structure and draped with some of the worst dialogue ever spoken even in Michael Bay movies. It’s human characters are too numerous, badly developed and horribly acted – any actor who CAN give a bad performance is giving it here – while the mechanical ones are largely indistinguishable, uninteresting or annoying. If there’s a misstep that can be made, it’s made. Better movies are ripped off, interesting ideas are tossed aside.

It’s tempting to consider that having ANY high expectations for this sort of film is a losing prospect. The original “Transformers” series (and yes, it IS germane to the discussion since without it this franchise wouldn’t have become so enduring as to be worth making into a shitty Michael Bay movie) that the film takes the bulk of it’s main inspiration from was such a “lightning in a bottle” thing… somehow what was only ever meant to be – what perhaps only ever had any business being – a toy commercial in narrative form wound up with a gift-from-the-gods vocal cast and an ambitious writing staff and somehow transformed ITSELF into a genuinely worthwhile peice of youth-oriented pulpy scifi. It wasn’t Tolkein, sure, but at it’s very best it could occasionally approach, say, Burroughs. But thats the exception, not the rule, both for the genre and for the franchise overall. But even that hard truth can’t excuse how truly, stunningly bad most of this movie is.

Props to the “Pinkagumma” guy who made this.

Just so we’re all on the same page, short version: There was a civil war on the machine planet Cybertron between rival factions of Transformers, (sentient robots who can “hide” by changing shape to resemble indigenous technology,) that eventually destroyed the place. Now, matching teams of Autobots (good guys) and Decepticons (bad guys) are continuing their fight on Earth, hiding out in the form of cars and trucks (in the Decepticons’ case, military and police vehicles) while seeking important items scattered around the planet. In the series, it was “Energon,” in this film it’s “The Allspark Cube,” a Cybertronian relic capable of turning ANY mechanical device into an instant-Transformer.

What is at first immediately apparent is that Bay and most of his associates clearly have no interest whatsoever in the material they’ve been assigned to make a film out of. Despite being the title characters, the Transformers themselves are pushed to the sidelines and reduced to guest stars in “their” own movie. Instead, Bay occupies an INSANE amount of time spinning his wheels on his preferred visual subject matter: Masturbatory shots of vehicles in motion, heroic magic-hour slo-mo tableauxs of American military personal striding toward and away-from helipads, huge roomfuls of Pentagon suits barking orders at a sea of deskbound techies and autumn-hued explosions – every once in awhile, he plugs a Transformer or two into the background just so we remember which movie we’re watching.

Still MORE time is spent rehashing a lot of business we’ve already seen done 100 times better in “Independence Day,” as Defense Officials, bright-young-thing hacker wizards and a cut-rate MIB knockoff called “Sector Seven” go through the motions of a generic Alien Invasion movie. Amid all this, Bay also proves himself a singular talent at misusing good actors, coaxing a shockingly bad performance from John Tuturro and a shockingly dull one from Jon Voigt. Meanwhile, Josh Duhammel and Tyrese Gibson stand around as survivors of a Decepticon-decimated army squad, so that Bay can mark time indulging in his juvenille fetishism for “Army Stuff” (when it came time to actually MAKE a serious movie about the Military, it was “Pearl Harbor” and he wasn’t up to it.)

But the majority of the film is centered around “it-boy” Shia LeBeouf as Sam Witwicky, a dorky High Schooler who just found out his new car is the Autobot “Bumblebee” and is going through a “boy becomes a man arc” thats plays out like Bay’s demo-reel trying to prove himself adept at aping executive producer Big Poppa Spielberg’s signature “E.T.”-isms. Let’s be clear, here, and “Transfans” especially hear me loud and clear: The movie is about LeBeouf as a cut-rate Elliot, and the Transformers are just his glorified sidekicks. Aside from leader Optimus Prime, who gets lots of expository narration, even the most random human characters get more overall screentime than any of the Autobots, and aside from two cameos the Decepticons don’t even show up until the final twenty minutes or so. LeBeouf is a promising actor, and it’s been understandable elsewhere why Spielberg has flipped for him, but here he’s getting no help in a godawful role in a godawful film.

The desire of the producers to ground the story in a generic “reality” is regrettable, but understandable. Problem is, the focus on LeBeouf’s story leads the film into it’s most unimaginably awful territory: HUGE scenes that go on forever focus on the cutsie-poo “comedy” of Bumblebee helping not-yet-robot-aware Sam score with the object of his desire (Megan Fox in the role of Assembly-Line-Maxim-Hottie-With-No-Business-Trying-To-Act) by spontaneously tuning in love songs on the radio and other “Herbie”-like foolishness. Bay and company even go so far as to steal from “The Iron Giant” with a hatefully bad scene of Sam trying to “hide” his new Autobot pals in the backyard.

And then there’s the Transformers themselves. Look, I’m still not a fan of the overly-busy new look for most of them, back that would be easily forgiven if they just weren’t such awful characters. Of the whole lot, only Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime manages to come off decently, despite his ill-advised flame paintjob and goofy gorilla face, thanks to the voice-acting vets solid delivery (yes, fans, “transform and roll out,” “one shall stand, one shall fall” and “freedom is the right of all sentient beings” are all spoken at least once.) The rest of them are either incredibly annoying (looking as YOU Bumblebee and Jazz) or uninteresting (Ratchet and Ironhide, who may as well not even be in the film.) The Decepticons fare a little better, since they’re in the film even LESS and thus can’t be as faulted for being badly characterized, but it’s STILL a dissapointment to report how anticlimactic and dull a Big Bad Megatron turns out to be.

There’s badness in this I haven’t even touched on yet. Seriously, pages and pages could be written about the uselessness of all the extraneous characters, the shameless cribbing from movies WAY too recent and well known to be “okay” to lift from, and how craptastic the second act is. But I think you get the basic idea: Even with my lowered expectations going in, “Transformers” is a complete dud. And, damn it, it depresses me to say that. Not only because, yes, as both a Geek and a child of the 80s I can honestly still imagine a GOOD movie having been made from this material; but because I’ve always been a staunch proponent that ANYTHING can be made into a great film, be it a Peabody Award winning book or a line of toys… and the complete artistic failure of “Transformers” makes it that much harder to argue that point.

Still, I can take at least two comforts in this. First: That the film is going to get SLAUGHTERED at the boxoffice in it’s second week by “Harry Potter,” an event which will mark the most satisfying instance of something getting the crap pounded out of it by a scrappy Englishman outside of a “Transporter” sequel…

…and second, that the pile of money it’s going to (regretably) make in it’s FIRST week will probably insure the greenlighting of every other 80s toy-toon thats been snapped up for film deals in the runup to this. Which means A.) others are free to try and succeed where Bay has failed, and B.) either way, I’ll get the fun of watching CHUD’s Devin Faraci have a cow every time one gets announced: http://www.chud.com/index.php?type=news&id=10575
http://www.chud.com/index.php?type=news&id=10315
http://www.chud.com/index.php?type=news&id=10039

FINAL RATING: 2/10

REVIEW: Live Free or Die Hard

Better than #2, close to #3, not as good as #1. That really kinda covers it.

It’s endured because it remains a masterfully-crafted example of the action-thriller, but the first “Die Hard” was a massive success at the time owed to two more-immediate factors: First, it’s overriding wish-fulfillment fantasy theme (one scruffy, balding, streetwise New York City cop can manhandle an army of high-tech European supercrooks because his streetwise, balding scruffiness imbues him with the living spirit of All-American Cowboy Machismo AND show the snotty L.A. yuppie types his ex-wife was so impressed with what a REAL MAN can do) and second, Bruce Willis’ starmaking ability at inhabiting the character of John McClane.

It’s somewhat interesting to note that, while “Live Free or Die Hard” is now the 3rd “Die Hard” sequel, it’s the first one to (intentionally or not) “rhyme” the original’s theme outright: In the original McClane was a rough “cowboy” matched against the slickness of Reagan-era big-dollar criminality; in “Live Free” he’s the angry oldschooler duking it out with the eeeevils of the Digital Age – an Analog Avenger here to save us from the dark side of the iPod age and show a team of glorified Techno-Snob effigies that a bullet doesn’t care how smart they are. Expectedly, the film lays all this on so thick it’s kind of miraculous that McClane doesn’t tell any of them to “blog THIS!!!” before blowing them away; but then this is “Die Hard,” so subtlety isn’t exactly to be sought after.

As per the series’ rules, it’s once again coincidence that draws McClane into the action and sense of duty that keeps him there: Homeland Security is having computer-hacker trouble, and Detective McClane is dispatched to pick up one of the top talents on the hacker watch-list (Justin Long) and bring him to Washington. It rapidly unfolds that all the other kids on the list have been assassinated by the real baddies, save of course for the one who had John McClane to watch his back. Luckily, he’s also the one capable of figuring out what’s really going down: A disgraced Government tech-expert (Timothy Olyphant) has taken over and shut down the nation’s computers, aka the entire country’s infrastructure, in order to prove a point and earn a tidy extortion sum.

Which is, at the end of the day, of a better-than-necessary reason to send Willis and Long hopping around the East Coast fighting off attacks by car, helicopter and hails of gunfire as they try to outwit and outshoot the bad guys. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel or give the franchise some uneeded new depth, save for obeying the Action Hero Rule dictating that Action Heroes get progressively less-destructible as they grow older: In the original McClane found himself severely impaired (for awhile) by a lack of shoes and an abundance of broken glass; this time around he essentially wrestles a fighter jet to the ground and walks away looking amused with himself…

…and he still has energy left to show a pair of (bluntly) designated representatives from “newfangled” action-movie styles “who’s boss” by dusting off a French master of parkour (read: Jackie Chan stunts as-performed by fashionably-unkempt European dudes) and Maggie Q as Hot-Asian-Kung-Fu-Hardcase-Girl (“enuff with th’ kung-fu crap!!” grumbles McClane to the expected delight of those for whom action films have shown entirely too much grace and finesse as of recent.) One of these folks even gets smooshed by an SUV… Twice!!! for good measure.

It’s a good movie. It’s “Die Hard.” It’s a good “Die Hard” movie.

FINAL RATING: 7/10