Film review – Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

27 June 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

The latest film in the Transformers franchise starts promisingly with an alternative history/conspiracy plot about the Space Race and the 1969 NASA moon landing. What unravels is then a familiarly convoluted and busy spectacle film about yet another clash between the rival robot alien Transformers involving their human allies, with Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) once more coming to the rescue on the side of the Autobots. Director Michael Bay and his production team have put an extraordinary amount of work into the CGIs, 3D and sound design, which may have been extremely effective if he calmed down his trademark rapid editing to allow the audience to actually focus on what is going on. Unfortunately this rarely happens. There are a couple of good scenes later in the film – an exciting skydive and an inventive sequence set inside a building about to topple over – but they are too little too late and then followed by an unengaging lengthy finale that obliterates any good faith.

In other words, Bay has delivered another empty spectacle that is overlong and mostly tedious. For a film centred on action set pieces it contains a lot of dull exposition and the humour is either cheesy or very simple innuendo, based around the fact that Sam’s new girlfriend Carly Spencer (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) is attractive in the most conventional sense. And we’re not talking fun, cheeky ‘Nice beaver’ à la The Naked Gun innuendo here either, we’re talking about stuff that Benny Hill would have dismissed as banal. The performances are yet again on the same level as pantomime theatre with lots of shouting, Gilmore Girls­­-style rapid dialogue and characters making ‘amusing’ asides to themselves.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon - Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and Carly Spencer (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley)

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and Carly Spencer (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley)

If nothing else Transformers: Dark of the Moon may one day becoming a teaching tool to demonstrate how ideology is expressed through mass entertainment cinema, in the same way that English students are encouraged to read tabloid newspapers to learn about persuasive language. The hyper-conservative agenda in this film is so pronounced that it almost renders parodies like Team America: World Police redundant. Like the previous films in the franchise, it positions the military as the good guys who know what’s best while the government characters are all bureaucrats who stand in the way of what needs to be done. Soldiers are good ol’ country boys while the government, which in this film is firmly identified as the Obama Administration, gives in to the enemy to allow ‘them’ to take over the planet. Not only does this film resurrect old Cold War red menace paranoia to paint the villainous Decepticons as Commies, but it also evokes a lot of contemporary xenophobia towards a vague notion of what lies in the Middle East. The final touch is just how gleefully and violently the Autobots kill their enemies. Since when were the good guys so driven by revenge and a desire to extract as much suffering on the bad guys as possible?

Maybe this is all meant to be a self-reflexive exercise in superficial spectacle. Just as some commentators have argued this is the case for Sucker Punch, perhaps they will also for Transformers: Dark of the Moon using the way it repeats the famous Jurassic Park ‘Objects in mirror are closer than they appear’ visual gag as evidence. Early in the film when John Malkovich’s character makes a crack about a visual and visceral betrayal, it does sound like a deliberately self-aware moment. Is it all an elaborate post-modern joke? Otherwise, we have to accept that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is little more than a ‘leave your brain at the door’ film for audiences with the dubious ability to stop themselves from thinking. The problem is, such films still need to be exciting, engaging and entertaining and not boring, annoying and embarrassing.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

19 September 2010
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps - Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas)

Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas)

Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko character from Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street embodied capitalism at its worst. Gekko was a corporate raider whose desire to generate wealth for its own sake eclipsed any sense of moral or legal accountability. However, Wall Street reportedly had the bizarre counter effect of actually inspiring people, who were turned on by the idea that greed is good, to become stockbrokers. If stockbrokers today really have modelled themselves on Gekko then is it any wonder that the resulting financial culture of unsustainable lending and speculation led to the 2008 market crash? With this in mind it makes perfect sense for Stone to resurrect the Gekko character in order to explore the events leading up to, and the outcomes of, the Global Financial Crisis.

Gekko for the most part is not the focus of the film but a strange spectre who lurks in the background of the narrative as part mythical legend, part fallen angel and part broken man. Since the first film he has spent eight years in prison, lost his family and lost his wealth. Nevertheless, he is still something of a hero to a new generation, including Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) an already highly successful proprietary trader who is living with Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Jake is attempting to make his fortune from investing in green energy, which is the next major boom market. Young, confident and hungry for success Jake is a gentler version of the type of characters from the original film and somewhat of an idealist, despite what he tells himself.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps - Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) and Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan)

Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) and Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan)

Stone’s politics are still worn proudly on his sleeve but he has mellowed somewhat as the expression of those politics is no longer so aggressive and his visual style has significantly calmed down from the Brechtian excesses of his 1990s films. After World Trade Centre and W, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is his third film made very closely after the events the films are examining. However, Stone and screenwriter Allan Loeb’s ability to make sense of what happened and incorporate those events into a compelling drama is very impressive. Meeting scenes set inside boardrooms could have been deathly dull but Stone communicates the significance of such meetings with his engaging directing style. The film is full of financial jargon that a layperson will not be able to fully understand but it is all contextualised in a way that gives you a sense of what is being spoken about. Like listening to an unfamiliar dialect or slang, you always have a sense of what it going on even if some finer details are lost.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is probably as good a film about the GFC as can be expected. It also explores the fascinating position that renewable energy has in the market, the growing role of new media, the devastating impact of credit culture and, of course, the intrinsic immorality of relentlessly pursuing money over all other considerations. Stone also meditates on what people value most when they look back on their lives and issues of fatherhood (literal and symbolic, inspiring and brutal) also play a big role. The film does undercut itself badly with an unconvincing and contrived final scene and then credit sequence, but it is otherwise a compelling drama and a convincing vehicle to return Douglas to the screen as the infamous Gordon Gekko.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – New York, I Love You (2009)

28 May 2010
New York, I Love You: Mitzie (Cloris Leachman) and Abe (Eli Wallach)

Mitzie (Cloris Leachman) and Abe (Eli Wallach)

A collection of New York set short films about love, New York, I Love You is overall an improvement on the similarly themed Paris, je t’aime, made by the same producing team. While there is no film as strong as Alexander Payne’s final film from the Paris collection, the overall standard of the New York films is more consistent and the films are better integrated with each other. There may be an over reliance on stories featuring couples bonding over cigarettes and Brett Ratner’s prom date episode is truly abysmal, but otherwise this is a worthwhile short film collection.

Natalie Portman stars in Mira Nair’s touching film about cultural divides and Portman also directs a very simple yet sweet film depicting a father/child relationship. Shekhar Kapur’s beautiful and sad film starring Julie Christie, John Hurt and Shia LaBeouf, in a surprisingly touching performance, is another highlight. The collection finishes strongly with Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman as a cantankerous old couple who, among the Woody Allenesque bickering, share a brief moment of intimacy. Director-ensemble films are never fantastic but New York, I Love You does have a few moments worth savouring.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 354, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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