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Sunday, December 3

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« Review: The Chicago Story Collective @ Stage 773 Chicago Global Runway »

Column Fri Jul 01 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon & Page One: Inside the New York Times

Hey everyone. Due to my wacky travel schedule this week, I missed the only press screening of Larry Crowne, starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, in a week that's already pretty skimpy for new releases. But really, there's only one movie opening this week that truly matters...

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

All I wanted to do when I left the theater the first time I saw Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third and easily best of the Michael Bay-directed franchise, was gaze upon my beautiful city, just to make sure it was still in one piece. The first time I saw this film about a month ago, it was not in 3D, but I have since seen it in 3D, and it is quite simply the best 3D experience I've had in a theater possibly (probably) in my life.

Let me say two quick things before I dive into this review. The first is that, as a kid growing up, I could not have cared less about Transformers — the toys, TV show or animated movie. When it was first announced that a live-action Transformers movie was being made, directed by Bay, I couldn't have cared less, not because I didn't dig Bay's work but because I simply didn't care about the subject matter. Second, and perhaps more directly relevant to this discussion, the only nightmares I remember having as a child (we're talking Reagan-era 1980s) involved the destruction of the city I was living in at the time, Washington, DC. I didn't know how many nuclear missiles the Russians had, but I knew damn well that a whole bunch of them were pointed at the nation's capital. Seeing War Games for the first time as a teen did not do me a bit of good.

Make no mistake, DC takes a hell of a beating in Dark of the Moon, but it was in the final hour of this Transformers chapter that I simply forgot to breathe; there isn't a spare second to do so. For nearly a solid hour, Bay and his CGI-created robot buddies decimate Chicago. And I won't lie: seeing it so realistically and utterly leveled was almost more than I could handle. Granted, people outside of Chicago probably won't have the same reaction I did (I didn't even get a little misty eyed watching California sink into the Pacific during 2012, or New York die in countless sci-fi stories), but our city has never been the victim of an alien hate crime like this before. And as much as it hurt to see, I also loved watching it happen.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon begins with a great concept and a cool backstory (the screenplay by Ehren Kruger): When the war on Cybertron between the Autobots and Decepticons appeared lost to the Autobots, their leader, Sentinal Prime, attempted to launch a craft from the planet, loaded with technology that would have saved their people. Instead, it crashed on Earth's moon and the Autobots were forced to flee to Earth. Coincidentally, this moon crash happened when John F. Kennedy was president, and he immediately made his famous promise to the nation to put a man on the moon (specifically, an American man, so that we would beat the Russians to investigate the crash; see how that works?). In fact, according to this film, every NASA moon landing was actually an investigation of this wrecked spacecraft.

The first hour and a half of Dark of the Moon focuses primarily on story (with brief fight and chase sequences peppered in), but it's actually a cool story about the Autobots finding out that the technology that was supposed to save their race and planet has been sitting on the moon the entire time they've been on Earth and nobody bothered to tell them; Optimus Prime is not amused. Naturally, we also get the continuing adventures of Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), who has now graduated college and is desperately looking for his first job. He has a new girlfriend, Carly (supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), who doesn't need an occasion to dress in the tightest clothes imaginable. Bay has a great deal of fun shooting Rosie like he's directing a Victoria's Secret commercial (which he probably did on his days off).

Sam is upset that he's even looking for job, since he believes he should be working side by side with his Autobot friends, going on missions, and helping save he world. The Autobots are now firmly in place as part of America's military, as we see from a brief mission in the Middle East early on. They would have killed Bin Laden years ago. A few Decepticons are still around, including a severely beaten down Megatron, who's especially creepy in Dark of the Moon because half of his head is missing and these little spider-like robots crawl in and out of the place where his brain circuitry may have been at one time. He plucks them out, almost without noticing, which somehow makes it worse. Still, Megatron is in good spirits because a plot hatched long ago is coming to fruition.

The clever script manages to find new ways to place Transformers into world events, including one particularly nasty "accident" at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, which was actually the result of some of the moon technology being experimented on. And I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that Optimus finds a way to retrieve Sentinal Prime's body from the moon wreckage and revive him (voiced to perfection by Leonard Nimoy). I don't feel right talking too much more about the twists and turns that lead to the Chicago showdown between a small group of humans and a massive alien robot army, but when Sam says to the Nest team, "Chicago is ground zero!," I got a fucking chill.

Let's talk characters and performances. LaBeouf is LaBeouf; you either dig him or you don't. I happen to dig the guy a great deal, and he seems especially focused in Dark of the Moon, as well as broader in the shoulders. Huntington-Whiteley is actually pretty good here and certainly miles better than Megan Fox, if only because she's actually got something to do here beyond just looking like a million bucks. I wouldn't say Carly is a major player in this movie, but at least she's allowed to contribute. Also returning are Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson as Nest team leaders Lennox and Epps, an shockingly enough there's little attention paid to personal growth in either of their cases.

And let's not forget John Turturro as former agent Simmons, who has written a book about aliens on Earth and become a rich eccentric, trying desperately not to get sucked back into the alien game. Many of his scenes are with a fellow Coen Brothers regular, Frances McDormand as Charlotte Mearing, the defense department commander in charge of missions involving the Autobots. She's kind of a hard-ass who couldn't care less that Sam wants to keep playing with his robots. "You're not a soldier; you're a messenger," she rightfully reminds him.

New to the cast are such dignitaries as John Malkovich, largely wasted (but still funny) as Sam's boss at a tech company where he eventually gets hired; Ken Jeong as co-worker with much-needed information on the moon project; Alan Tudyk, very good as Simmons' right-hand man; and Patrick Dempsey, as Dylan, Carly's boss and perhaps competition for her affections. Oh, and he also harbors a desire for world domination. I'll thank whatever movie gods I have to that Sam's annoying parents are barely in this Transformers installment. Without fail, they take us out of the action on the drop of a dime, they aren't funny, and we don't need comic relief like this anyway when we've got street-smart little robots to entertain us.

So what about the scenes of Chicago's destruction? These sequences are cool for a few reasons, but let me talk about them purely from an action standpoint. Because the Decepticons (who have taken over the city for reasons that involve transporting their planet right next to ours) can detect machines coming into their airspace, the military can't send planes to bomb them. As a result, small teams of Nest soldiers much base jump into the city using suits that effectively make them able to fly. As much as some of you might think this was accomplished with visual effects, guess again. I saw these guys jump off the Sears/Willis Tower and the Trump Tower. Those guys fucking flew, then pulled their chutes, then landed. In watching most of the action sequences, it appeared to me that Bay opted to go practical a lot more than he has with this franchise in the past. Pretty much the only totally artificial element in Dark of the Moon are the robots, and what a colossal difference it makes.

And there's something about scaling things down somewhat in the Chicago scenes that proves far more rewarding than piling on large numbers of troops and artillery. There's one scene where Sam and Lennox are fighting a single Decepticon alone, and they manage to bring it down after a long, hard fight. Somehow, that small moment resonates so much louder than bombs and explosions that take out several bad-guy robots and half a city block at once (oh, don't worry, there's plenty of that as well). It's nice to see Bay act globally by thinking locally. The other thing that happens in Dark of the Moon that's spooky is that during the Chicago invasion sequence, civilians actually die... in large numbers, leaving behind a pile of clothes and a stripped down, scattered skeleton (it sounds silly, I know, but it's actually kind of traumatic).

I have to admit, I was genuinely surprised what a strong effort this film is, not just in terms of its scope, but also in its pacing, performances and ideas. This one dares to go dark from time to time, and that helped me find the often-lacking component of many Bay films: emotion. You probably won't shed any tears watching Dark of the Moon, but you will care when certain lives are lost or in peril. This one might actually rock you a little to your foundation; get excited about that. If you take out Green Lantern, the summer keeps getting incrementally better from where I'm sitting.

Page One: Inside the New York Times

For those who walk into this behind-the-curtain documentary about The New York Times with a fair amount of knowledge about the ins and out of a daily newspaper, there may not be much revealed here that you don't already know. But for the rest of you, this is a fascinating, sometimes terrifying wealth of information and great characters that detail the publication in one of its most difficult periods, when newspapers are dying and the Internet (and all of the bad journalism that goes along with it) is threatening to remove profits from the practice of news gathering and writing.

In the hands of director Andrew Rossi, Page One does a solid job creating personalities out of staff members like former drug addict turned ace investigative journalist David Carr, an old-school, grizzled reporter whose every word is worth hanging onto. The film unnecessarily pits Carr against digital media reporter Brian Stelter, who is shown being at the forefront of the breaking Wikileaks story. But both men seem to be struggling with similar, age-old reporter issues such as getting people on the record, checking sources' information, and protecting those who speak off the record. The way Carr pieces together a pattern of scandalous behavior at the Tribune Co. under Chief Executive Randy Michaels and owner Sam Zell is fascinating stuff; I'm guessing this film won't get much editorial play in this week's Chicago Tribune.

It's also enjoyable to watch colleagues gather together to discuss and debate the day's events and the state of print media (which was apparently granted a reprieve in a sense by the iPad and other tablet technology). Page One focuses almost entirely on the paper's Media Desk, so you don't get much of a sense of the rest of the paper (I demand to know why film critic A.O. Scott isn't represented here!); I strongly recommend heading to the still-in-theaters Bill Cunningham New York for a taste of The New York Times' eccentric and delightful fashion photographer. As surface-level as it may dive, Page One is still a wealth of information and frustration about a news organization that in many ways not only sets the standard but also sets the agenda in news gathering and significance. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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