Because the Transformers franchise has become an unwieldy cloud of toxic waste over the years, most seem to have forgotten how enjoyable the first one was. Michael Bay gets an awful rap for these, and by all means he deserves any shade thrown his way for some of the sequels, but I’m still convinced they only got made to cash in on the massive Asian market, I’ve heard that stuff like this is huge over there. This first film is a little saner and a lot more focused though, with a sort of 90’s Amblin infused vibe crossed with big budget CGI disaster mayhem of our current era, which is par for the course in a film directed by Michael Bay, as are lens flares, a grossly backlit slow motion kissing scene, explosions, fetishistic attention to the details of military protocol, montages of various factions of Americana playing out and um…cameos from loud sassy African American actors. Based on the Hasbro toy of the same name as well as probably an animated show that came before it, Bay ramps up the scale, special effects, human characters and exposition to somewhat plausibly set the Autobots and Decepticons loose in our world, engaged in noisy warfare over the All Spark, a cube of untold power that looks not so distantly related to the Tesseract. Caught in the middle is Shia Lebeouf as Sam Witwicky, a nervous teen whose family history hides something related to the Tranformers mythology, naturally sending him and the obligatory super hot love interest (Megan Fox) on a wild goose chase of stuff blowing up. There’s also various military factions caught up in the squabble including intrepid soldiers Josh Dumahel, Amaury Nolasco and Tyrese Gibson, research scientists Rachael Taylor and Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight as the grave Secretary of defense, John Turturro in pure comic relief form as a hapless federal agent and uh… Bernie Mac too, as the world’s saltiest used car salesman. The Shia Lebeouf angle has a cool 90’s sort of Joe Dante vibe, right down to the presence of consummate 90’s dad Kevin Dunn, naturally playing Sam’s father. While it goes a little off the rails in a final battle that pretty much levels an entire city to the ground and numbs any sense of realism to a dull roar, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the film, especially in the special effects used to bring these mechanical goliaths to life. Bumblebee is always a fan favourite, Optimus Prime looks fantastic and Hugo Weaving brings the vicious Megatron to life nicely. Steve Jablonsky almost outdoes his score for Bay’s The Island here, giving a magisterial composition that’s large and loud enough to accompany the Transformers on their journey and fills the film with noise, as the does the Oscar nominated sound design. Like I said, the sequels have become an impossible wall of deafening, uncalled for noise in the years since and it’s a shame because this one gets tainted in people’s memory when it’s still a good time.
There’s a lot of ideas running around in David S. Goyer’s The Unborn, ideas that a terrific cast do their best with but ultimately this was one big WTF of a letdown, a boring waste of time that deserved better execution than it got. It’s essentially another Exorcist retread, given a twist, with Odette Yustman (whatever happened to her? She was sort of like Megan Fox Lite) playing a girl who is tormented by something called a Dybbuk, some sort of mythological Jewish entity but also just a fancy way of saying demon. It has something to do with her unborn twin who never made it past utero, her institutionalized mother (Carla Cugino, wasted in a heavily cut role) as well as history dating back to Joseph ‘Angel of Death’ Mengele, the infamous Nazi surgeon who had an obsession with twins, a theme that also plays on here. This thing haunts and eventually possesses her, until she finds help from two priests played by Gary Oldman and Idris Elba, in roles beneath their talent. There’s one nicely written scene where she and her boyfriend (Cam Gigandet, who can’t act to save his life) ponder the universe and all its terrors while in bed that would have been better brought to life by different actors. Various scenes show her interaction with her loving father (James Remar), but they’re underdeveloped and feel edited. Mostly it’s just her running from freaky scuttling apparitions, loose plot threads hanging about like wires in an abandoned warehouse and just.. bleh. There’s definitely something there in terms of brainstorming script ideas, but they screwed it up big time by making a haphazard, boring, generically glossy PG-13 dud instead of putting some actual style, personality and genuinely frightening elements in. Big ol’ missed opportunity. It’s a shame, because there’s some neat, spooky special effects thrown at the wall here that deserve a better film, and I’d expect better from Goyer too. Oh well.
Rogue’s Gallery, given the slightly lamer title of Operation: Endgame, is a very odd little amalgamation of extreme violence, comedic banter and wannabe spy intrigue. It concerns a group of government agents holed up in some remote bunker, basically taking each other out one by one after someone among them murders their boss, Emporer (Bob Odenkirk). The cast is made up of two types of actors: sleek, distinct genre bad asses and quirky, less aesthetically streamlined comedians who stand out in this type of material very strangely. Fool (Joe Anderson) is the rookie, being shown the ropes of his first day by Chariot (a hilarious Rob Cordry). That’s where the plot starts, and that is also where it lost me. The rest of the film is just al of them bickering until it gets way beyond words, and then murdering each other in shamelessly gratuitous ways. Ellen Barkin stands out as Empress, a bitchy old tart who has it in for Devil (Jeffrey Tambor) another senior operative. Emilie De Ravin steps wayyyy outside her comfort zone as Hierophant, a psychotic little doll faced southern Belle who gives hulking Juggernaut (Ving Rhames) a run for his money. There’s also work from Odette Yustman, Maggie Q, Adam Scott, Brandon T. Jackson, and Zach Galifianakis as a weird character that I still can’t figure out, perhaps because he does not much of anything at all except mope around wearing a hazmat suit and looking very hungover. It’s cool to see these actors give each other shit and fight like two raccoons in a burlap sack (the violence in this is really vicious, especially when Ravin is involved), if not much else. Very odd stuff.