Tuesday, June 28, 2011

'Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon' has amazing visuals, great action and (surprise) awful acting

Psst! Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were secret agents. The whole space race was nothing more than a cover-up for a covert mission launched by President John F. Kennedy. And there’s some weird — I mean, really weird — creatures hiding out in the former Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
The latest ravings of Art Bell? Hardly: These are plot points in Ehren Kruger’s screenplay for “Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon,” which boldly twists conspiracy theories, science-fiction and some prime Optimus Prime escapades into a yarn that might have seemed more innovative if “X-Men: First Class” hadn’t already pulled off the same trick a few weeks ago.

Still, this installment gets some credit for trying to put a slightly different spin on a concept that’s beginning to lose its novelty value: You can only watch that canary-yellow Camaro reconstruct itself as the hulking automaton known as Bumblebee so many times before you start yawning and asking, “Really? Again?”

So it’s slightly astonishing that one of those transformations midway through “Moon” actually does grab our collective attention.
At the height of a race down a freeway, the speeding car is forced to turn into Bumblebee, leaving driver Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) tumbling through the air, seemingly destined to end up as road kill.
But in a beautifully executed slow-motion sequence, Bumblebee reassembles itself back into a vehicle in mid-flight, saving our man Sam and showing off the skill of the wizards of Industrial Light and Magic that created the film’s fantastic effects.
“Moon” has two faces. The visuals are awesome; the acting, dialogue and attempts at comedy are awful, sometimes to a painful degree (the movie is never funnier than when it tries to be serious). This far down the line, “Transformers” fans should know what to expect.
At least director Michael Bay has made a few adjustments to his usual hyperactive style of quick-cutting and wobbly camerawork, which makes “Moon” feel more like an actual movie and less like a migraine waiting to happen.
It is also one of the few live-action films that truly seems to use 3D to its advantage, unlike “Green Lantern,” “The Last Airbender,” “Clash of the Titans” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” in which the supposed enhancement made the movie look dingy or downright unwatchable.
The last hour of “Moon,” a battle royale in downtown Chicago in which the Magnificent Mile is magnificently mutilated by warring Autobots and Decepticons, and Trump Tower ends up looking like the notorious Cabrini-Green complex demonstrates the full power of the 3D format, and it’s often edge-of-the-seat exciting.
The lead-up to that lengthy ‘bot brawl is far less impressive, unfortunately. Bay’s take on shooting action may have changed, but his taste in humor has not, and “Moon” includes jokes and caricatures that would make “Ernest Goes to Camp” or “The Hottie and the Nottie” look classy by comparison.
Sam’s aggravatingly unfunny parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) are back, and Ken Jeong, playing a suspicious Chinese business executive, demonstrates once again that his act that seemed wacky and outrageous in the first “Hangover” has gotten very old very quickly.
While dumping the infamous Megan Fox as the series’ heroine might have seemed like a bright idea, replacing her with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley was a major miscalculation. In place of Fox’s tough, feisty Michaela (and don’t think the filmmakers pass up the chance to throw in a few nasty jabs at the long-gone character), there’s Huntington-Whiteley’s blond, vacuous and often whimpering Carly, who exists purely as something to be dragged around by the bad guys or rescued by Sam.
Transformers 3 2.jpgRosie Huntington-Whiteley plays Carly
Carly is introduced with a shot of her half-bare derriere bouncing up a flight of stairs, which may explain the often bewildered-looking Huntington-Whiteley’s casting.
She certainly doesn’t generate any heat with LaBeouf, who tries to overcompensate for his own blandness by occasionally trying to imitate Tom Cruise’s more manic moments, spitting out lines one on top of each other or straining to hit hysterical heights.
Exactly why LaBeouf has been anointed a movie star is anyone’s guess, but whatever his talents may be they don’t include sharp comic timing. As for Josh Duhamel, Frances McDormand, Patrick Dempsey and John Malkovich, they look appropriately stern, stoic or (in Dempsey and Malkovich’s cases) smarmy and they let the computer-generated stars have the right of way.
At its best, “Moon” has no difficulty delivering the adrenalin rush that disaster movies such as “The Towering Inferno,” “Twister” and the second half of “Titanic” provided, those moments in which you’re simultaneously shocked and yet secretly savoring all the destruction the filmmakers can conjure up.
Shockwave, a sinuous Decepticon that’s sort of like a mechanical version of the dreaded sand worms from “Dune,” is a tremendous creation, and the well-orchestrated war in the Windy City, complete with spiky airships and death rays that blast the flesh off humans, makes up for many of the shortcomings of the film’s first act.
If it’s all a case of spectacle over substance, why should anyone be shocked? After all, it’s basically a $200 million toy commercial, with a few car ads shoehorned in. Anyone who thinks he or she is going to find stirring drama or hard-hitting emotional truths in a “Transformers” flick at this late date must be under the influence of a Decepticon.

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