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Monday, October 14

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Transformers

Deep down inside, I feel that not enough has been written about Transformers or how much everybody hates its director, Michael Bay. Saying you hate Michael Bay is about as original as saying Michael Jackson is slightly weird. But the truth about Bay's films is that they are nearly impossible to take your eyes off of, though not always for the right reasons. But you watch them with a sense of "Well, I've never seen that before." Transformers is the perfect fit for Bay's brand of ultra-slick action film, where character development doesn't just take a back seat to the special effects and rapid-fire editing; it's actually dragged along behind the movie like a dead carcass. But unlike Bay's previous films (The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, The Island and the Bad Boys films) where a little more investment in the characters might have actually made a difference, Transformers doesn't require such depths. These alien robots were introduced as toys and a cartoon series, so to pile on motivation and anything beyond a surface-level mythology would be foolish and unnecessary.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit I have zero history with any incarnation of the Transformers, but I'm guessing that didn't really make any difference in my evaluation of the film. There are several converging stories happening here. A group of military types in the Middle East are attacked by a helicopter that turns into a robot. Nearly all of the men are killed, except for a small group (which includes Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson) that escapes into the desert. A teenage boy named Sam (Shia LaBeouf) goes out with his dad to buy his first car. For reasons that become clear later in the story, the car ends up picking him. And somewhere on Earth is a giant mechanized cube (known as the Allspark) that is of great value to two armies of robots from the planet Cybertron. And that's pretty much all you need to know going in.

Of course, Sam's car turns out to be one of the good guy robots (known as Autobots, led by Optimus Prime), who are protecting him from the Decepticons, a fearsome (and much cooler, in my estimation) group of 'bots bent on finding the Allspark and using it for their evil purposes. Sam's long-dead ancestor discovered a century ago the location of the Allspark on Earth and imprinted the information on his glasses, which Sam just happens to have. After the attack on the military base, the government (headed by Secretary of Defense Keller, played by Jon Voight) enlists the help of the world's top computer hackers to discover exactly that the nature of the attack was and to help counter a virus that was injected into the world's computers during the attack.

The rest of the film is one spectacular battle sequence after another, interrupted by lame jokes and dozens of underdeveloped characters. Now I know I said that character development isn't important in a film like Transformers, but there are entire groups of characters introduced who do absolutely nothing in this film. Let's take for example the introduction of Anthony Anderson into the mix. I like Anderson as an actor, but he's brought in kind of late in the film as the only hacker in the world who can figure out the meaning of a mysterious signal that the Decepticons sent out during an attack. But to get to that point, we have to go through a painful introduction to his character that is meant to be funny but just ends up being dumb and time consuming. While we're on the subject of hackers, an entire group of them is brought in at one point and they just kind of sit there, with the exception of this smoking-hot Australian chick. Hmmm, I wonder why Bay picked her? Similar wastes of time can be found in comedy attempts involving Sam's parents. Twenty minutes could have easily been trimmed from this bloated work, and you wouldn't have even noticed it.

But ultimately Transformers lives or dies on the strength of its title characters, who really and truly blew me away. I was so busy trying to examine the complexities of their constantly shifting and moving design work, that I barely remember what they said. I can say without a hint of blowing things out of proportion or overstating my case that you have never seen anything like the special effects in Transformers. I can fault the film on many levels, but not on the craftsmanship that went into designing and bringing to robotic life these astonishing creatures. And the effects magic doesn't stop there. The battle scenes are tremendous. Cars and trucks and tanks and helicopters are tossed all over the place, and each vehicle is given a weight and destructive power when it lands and rips up the street or ground beneath it. And I never really got tired of watching the robots transform from whatever vehicle they were pretending to be. One of the film's big mysteries is the location of Megatron, the leader of the Decepticons. I won't ruin that surprise, but his reveal is pretty great, and the film's destructive splendor is tripled when he arrives.

It's hardly worth mentioning the human actors in the movie, but I will single out Shia LaBeouf for breathing some much-needed life into the proceedings. He fulfills every geek fantasy about becoming a hero while the fate of the earth is at stake. But more than that his reactions to being amongst these incredible Autobots are genuine. Of course, he would be struck dumb; who wouldn't be? He has a wild crush on a classmate (the ridiculously stunning Megan Fox, who up to now has mostly done TV work), who ends up becoming his partner in fighting against the Decepticons. And even that storyline kind of works. I should also mention the almost surreal and very welcome presence of John Turturro as Agent Simmons of the super-secret Sector 7 agency. He knows he's in a Michael Bay movie. It's as if he studied Bay's works and came up with ways to stand out amongst all the insanity around him. His performance is so over the top that he makes a far more effective comic relief vehicle than anyone else in the film, plus his character actually does something, which makes him indispensable to the movie.

I'm not one of those people who recommend anyone switch off their brain during the summer movie season; I just don't believe you need to pretend to be an idiot to enjoy any movie. But finally acknowledging that Transformers is a big, dumb, entertaining flick went a long way toward me actually enjoying most of what I was watching. Even die-hard Bay detractors are going to have a hard time denying the good time they have watching Transformers.

License To Wed

This review will be short and not-so-sweet. There are four cast members of NBC's "The Office" in this film about an engaged couple who take part in a marriage-prep course run by a reverend played by Robin Williams. (If your butt cheeks are clenching from just hearing the premise, join the club.) My only thought as I watched these gifted comic actors (including lead John Krasinski, who is marrying Mandy Moore in the film) stumble through this top-to-bottom unfunny mess was how much more I appreciated the writers of "The Office." Never before has the power of the written word been more evident than watching License To Wed. More specifically, the film proves that it doesn't matter how naturally talented you are as a comic actor, if your script sucks balls, so will your performance. It's a lesson Richard Pryor learned many times over in his film career, and it's one Eddie Murphy reminds us of on a regular basis. But one of the kings of his truism is Robin Williams, who not only failed to make me laugh one time in his role as a wacky man of the cloth, but he also managed to find new and deadly ways of sucking any charm and wit out of those around him.

I'm going to stop reviewing this film now because to continue would imply that I actually analyzed this film to any degree. It is the least romantic, least funny romantic comedy I've ever seen; and if you go see it, God will punish you.

Black Sheep

From the land of New Zealand comes a film with a very silly premise that results in a dopey end product. Apparently human flesh-eating monsters aren't quite enough for some; now first-time writer-director Jonathan King turns his attentions to mutant flesh-eating sheep. It is from New Zealand, folks. Although clearly inspired by the gory comic tone of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (Brain Dead), Black Sheep feels like clever short-film idea gone astray. Of course the idea of zombie-like sheep is funny, but the film feels the need to give us a fully backstory about rival brothers Henry (Nathan Meister) and Angus (Peter Feeney). Henry left the family farm at a young age due to his fear of sheep and now returns to sell his share of the property to his brother. Angus has commissioned a crazy scientist to experiment on the sheep DNA with the hope of creating a softer wool, or some such nonsense. Animal rights/environmental activists (because, really, what's the difference?) accidentally free one of the scientist's mutated sheep fetuses from the lab and it runs out infecting other sheep creating a bloodthirsty army of wool makers.

I won't fault the film for its lack of gore. There are plenty of chomped body parts, innards that become out-ards, and blood aplenty. The movie also manages to be funny most of the time, if not particularly inspired. Even the grotesque sheep fetus looks a lot like a Muppet version of the baby Chestbuster of the Alien movies. I did like that if an infected sheep bit a human, that person became a crazed mutant half-human/half-sheep with a taste for flesh and blood. Even at 86 minutes, the film feels too long, but it does have some laughs and director King knows his horror cues and uses them appropriately. I'm more interested in whatever King might come up with next, because I think Black Sheep shows promise if not a ton of originality. Still, the film will make a great midnight movie someday soon. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Lady Chatterley

I'm sure many of you more scholarly types are aware that there were actually three versions of the Lady Chatterley story written by D.H. Lawrence, including the notorious Lady Chatterley's Lover and the lesser-known second version John Thomas and Lady Jane (I believe the third book was called Lady Chatterley Conquers the Martians ). The Chatterley character has been rendered all but unrecognizable in a string of bastardized softcore films, which is why this award-winning French adaptation by Pascale Ferran is such a treat. Yes, it's nearly three hours long; but it's a sumptuous sexual epic that isn't nearly as scandalous as you've heard but still manages to pack an emotional punch.

Marina Hands' (The Barbarian Invasions) take on Constance Chatterley is of a woman who has accepted her role as a dutiful early-20th-century wife to a husband to Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot) wounded in battle and fated to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. The pair had only been married a short time before he went to war, and so her chance to finally open up sexually was never fulfilled. She spends much of her luxurious life passing the time with boring hobbies, with little or no conversation with he husband. She's not some bitchy horny housewife running to the bed of every man she meets; that's the legend. Constance is aware of her place in society, and a scandal or anything perceived as bad behavior is to be avoided.

It is around this time that she begins to look at the estate's gamekeeper Parkin (Jean-Loius Coulloc'h), certainly not the most handsome, strapping or young man on the property, but a real man nonetheless, whose needs are simple but still seems very much in touch with his emotional side. Constance first sees his humble shack at the far end of the estate as a place to rest and take a break from the world to appreciate nature, but when she actually begins to have conversations with Parkin, a true emotional bond begins to form. Parkin, frankly, doesn't trust her intentions, which begin harmless enough. Before long, the two are mixing it up on the floor.

The sex scenes in Lady Chatterley begin as clumsy and awkward. There's nothing particularly erotic about them. That being said, a true coital awakening is clearly taking shape, and it's kind of exciting to watch a repressed woman suddenly say, "Oh, that's what it's supposed to be like!" and do so convincingly. The film isn't particularly precious about its subject matter. It's a bodice-buster that attempts to add realism to its situations and refrains from soft focus love making and swelling music. What's also thrilling about the film is that we see this couple grow and fall in love and get slightly experimental in their sexual adventures. (Sex with the candles lit: shocking!) There's still plenty of tasty nudity to keep the raincoat crowd awake, but Lady Chatterley's main concern is making us understand Connie's circumstances and, yes, even justify her infidelity. There's even a strange scene with her and her husband in which he makes it clear he wants a male heir if only to prove to his acquaintances that his plumbing still works. Although there's no indication that he knows anything about the affair, the implication is that he would condone her sleeping with another man for the right reasons.

Led by a handful of very strong performances and an epic love story that finally gets the cinematic treatment is richly deserves, Lady Chatterley is surprisingly strong and moving as a drama and as a story of two people who so clearly deserve each other, whose minds seem so in sync that they were perhaps even destined to be together. There's a great comfort, easiness and dignity to the film that I found most welcome. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Boss of It All

I've written about Danish writer-director Lars von Trier many times on this site, and my opinion of him has never wavered. Even if I don't like all of his film (and I do like most of them), I'm glad someone with his kind of contempt for the system still manages to work within it. He's a walking contradiction, and rather than attempt to convince you he's not, he embraces his contrary excesses and makes them a part of his work. Rather than admit that a bare-bones stage-like production of a three-hour anti-American film (Dogville) is maybe more than most audiences can handle, he decides to make two more (Manderlay and Wasington). He falls in love with, yet still torments, all of his leading ladies, most of whom never want to work with him again after that initial time. While several of the male actors he's worked with over the years (Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Davies) seem determined to work with him again and again.

The deceptively simple latest work is falls into a pattern Von Trier has embraced lately of making films with certain self-determined limitations. Beginning with his Dogme entry The Idiots, Von Trier continued in this vein with the entertainingly experimental Five Obstructions documentary, in which he had fellow Danish director Jorgen Leth direct (and sometimes star in) five short films, each made under the most adverse conditions Von Trier could dream up. With the comedy Boss of It All, Von Trier returns to more familiar (to us) linear storytelling but with one major difference. As far as I can tell, he was never actually on the set when the film was being made. In fact, the film's director of cinematography is credited to Automavision. For each scene, Von Trier positioned a room with fixed hidden cameras. Based on his parameters, a computer determines the framing, aperture, even certain aspects of the sound recording, and the scene is shot. No further processing of the digital shooting is permitted beyond editing. Von Trier also banned extra lighting (beyond the natural room lighting on his location shoots) from the film.

The only portions of the film that do not adhere to these rules are four short and very funny breaks in which Von Trier provides brief narration in which he essentially discredits the very process and plot he has put forth. And you know what? None of this matters or will make an iota of difference to your enjoyment of The Boss of It All, a solid comedy no matter how you slice it. And other than a few bizarre camera angles, there's nothing particularly off about the film's presentation. The plot involves the secret owner of an IT firm who wants to sell his company to an Icelandic company for massive profit, leaving his employees high and dry and without any profit sharing in the software they have developed over the years. This cowardly man hires an actor friend to pretend to be the CEO of the company, so he can be the one who takes the brunt of the employees' wrath. But the actor gets so into his character that he starts making decisions about the sale based on his moral convictions about how people should treat each other.

For fans of Danish cinema like myself, there are many familiar faces on hand for Von Trier's clever piece. Stars of such films as The Idiots, Mifune, Dancer in the Dark, In Your Hands, Italian for Beginners and many others are on hand to make this one of the most fascinating works I've seen in quite a while. Forget the gimmick of how it was filmed and come see a funny, insightful and intelligent work about office politics and how all your worst fears about the boss are 100 percent justified. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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