If Transformers: Dark of the Moon is indeed Michael Bay’s final entry in the Hasbro toy-inspired franchise as he has repeatedly intimated then it is a fitting swan song for a director whose lust - and gift - for spectacle remains unmatched. Exhilarating and exasperating awe-inspiring and stupefying the third installment in the blockbuster alien-robot saga is less a movie than a prolonged manic episode. In other words it’s a Michael Bay film.
Any suspicion that Bay might have matured at all since his last film 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen vanishes immediately after Dark of the Moon’s opening credits when model-actress (in that order) Rosie Huntington-Whiteley replacing tempestuous Megan Fox as the franchise’s resident eye candy is introduced ass-first. The camera lingers on her backside mesmerized as she makes her way up the stairs to summon our hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) from the bed she inexplicably shares with him. For a director so notoriously ADD-afflicted as Bay he can show remarkable focus when circumstances require it.
Times are tough for our boy Sam who despite having saved the world on two separate occasions can’t find a job. With the Decepticon scourge abated (for now) Optimus Prime Bumblebee and the rest of Sam’s Autobot pals have gotten side gigs as mechanized Hans Blixes roaming the planet in search of illegal WMDs and eliminating the regimes that harbor them. Feeling left out and finding little comfort in the arms his undeservedly hot girlfriend Sam yearns for a shot at more world-saving action.
He finds it soon enough when he is drafted into a plot so sprawling and convoluted that to describe it in full would extinguish what little neurochemical reserves I’ve managed to replenish since last night’s screening. It’s built on an enticing bit of revisionist history which casts the war between the Autobots and Decepticons as the real inspiration for the Cold War space race. It seems that many years ago an Autobot spacecraft carrying a technology that could turn the tide in their centuries-long war crash-landed on the moon. Alerted to the crash JFK immediately initiated the Apollo program with the specific purpose of harvesting technology from the craft before the Soviets could.
But that’s only part of the story as Sam learns when confronted with evidence by a raving co-worker (Ken Jeong) at his new job. (The two have a tussle in the loo – setting the stage for a hi-larious gay-insinuation joke. Vintage Bay!) Turns out there there’s much more to that fallen craft than anyone realizes and if its undiscovered cargo falls into the wrong hands – say Megatron and the Decepticons who are quietly regrouping in Africa – the implications could be devastating.
Dark of the Moon can be roughly divided into two parts. The first is a conspiracy thriller with a surreal comic bent with Bay aiming for – and dare I say nearly achieving – a quirky Coen Brothers vibe as Sam delves headlong into the moon mystery. (The presence of Coen veterans Frances McDormand John Turturro and John Malkovich among the cast reinforces the connection.) Credit screenwriter Ehren Kruger for recognizing that material this preposterous requires a suitably ludicrous sense of humor. But there’s also a sharpness and irreverence to Dark of the Moon’s wit that previous Transformers films have lacked. (It’s still however steadfastly juvenile: When Sam locks eyes with his future girlfriend for the first time his mom exclaims “What a gorgeous box!” while gazing at an unrelated object in the background.) Dark of the Moon's screenplay is a vast improvement over Revenge of the Fallen's in that it is an actual screenplay and not a stack of index cards.
The second half of the film centering on the Decepticons’ extended siege of Chicago unfolds essentially in one long action sequence. It’s as if Bay having sufficiently answered the biggest complaint about the previous film – the lack of a discernible plot – is suddenly unburdened free to commence the all-out sensory onslaught he’s been planning all along. In doing so he all but disavows the film’s first half rendering much of its storyline superfluous.
The battle scenes are truly epic – unprecedented in grandeur and scale and utterly resplendent in 3D – but the endless spectacle induces a kind of delirium. Each frame is positively crammed with images far more than our feeble non-Michael Bay brains could ever hope to process at the breakneck speed he presents them. And no two shots ever look the same: Even a simple shot-reverse-shot dialogue exchange shifts perspective on seemingly every other word. The net effect of Bay’s frenzied handiwork is a state of joyful discombobulation: mouth agape bewildered basking in the dopamine blush.
For most of us the feeling of being frozen on 9/11 will never leave; it was our knee-jerk reaction to news and images that we just couldn’t wrap our heads around. But for policemen and -women and countless other emergency personnel in New York City on Sept. 11 2001 the knee-jerk reactions were those of duty and instinct--and as World Trade Center demonstrates a human’s most basic instinct is to want to help a fellow human. After the first plane hit the World Trade Center Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) a veteran of the Port Authority Police Department and PAPD officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) were amongst the first responders who raced into the heart of pandemonium. Mere hours earlier the two men were heading in for another day at the office the twin towers hovering exclamation marks in the skyline that enveloped their morning commute; hours later the officers were trapped under twisted metal that was previously the Trade Center from which only 20 people would be rescued. WTC tells of their desperate struggle to stay awake let alone alive with the help of the spirits of their wives Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who were equally in the dark. Even with all the agent hardball and anticipatory buzz that likely factored into these actors earning these roles there’s something noble in their seeking involvement. That nobility manages to come across in even the smallest roles. For one we’ve never seen Cage quite like this--stern hushed steely impenetrable. (Even in his somber roles like Leaving Las Vegas he is animated and herky-jerky.) But it’s those traits that convey a dutiful man of the law a man who tries to remain levelheaded even while pinned beneath a building’s worth of debris--anything to improve his chances of seeing his family again. Cage also nails a subtle New York accent--which would seem in theory difficult for him--making his character lived-in instead of methodized. As his cohabitant for what seems an eternity Pena also scores big. Last year’s Crash put him on the map; WTC breaks him out. As the much younger and slightly less severely hurt of the two Pena’s Jimeno adds a touch more energy even comedy at one point humming TV-show theme songs. The men’s beleaguered wives wear the terror on their faces and wear it well and there couldn’t have been two better choices than Gyllenhaal and Bello. Gyllenhaal’s Jimeno is heavily pregnant with hormonal swings that don’t help her already distraught state while Bello’s expression looks even more urgent than it did throughout A History of Violence. If he weren’t on the inside looking out Oliver Stone might’ve said it himself: There’s something not right about America’s darkest day looking glossy as a poster advertising its movie. Ironically it’s Stone who’s responsible for this effect in WTC. Doubly ironic is the fact that the man who has always been such a controversy magnet tackles his most incendiary project only to produce by far his tamest effort yet. In that sense there are reasons to admire Stone’s finished product--“product” in every sense of the word--but there is a gaping void where his voice or slant usually goes. And while it’s honorable for him to sacrifice his beloved politicizing and philosophizing--there’s hardly any attention paid to the attack or the Bush administration--for the sake of WTC’s heroism Stone in a decidedly anti-Stone move has turned this film into Apollo 13 all the way down to its absurd box-office minded PG-13 rating. The true story is obviously compelling; its movie dramatization as borderline unpatriotic as it may sound is “soap opera” compelling. But maybe that’s because more so than Stone’s sudden conservatism some true stories--earmuffs Hollywood--are too big for the big screen.
Will it take a Hollywood production to alert the masses about the current oil crisis facing the world which leaves no person unaffected? Does Syriana have the makings to be such a wide-reaching film? Well probably not but it does make a noble stab at it. Much of the way through Syriana has the feel of a documentary although it ultimately falls into the pattern of the popular interwoven narratives that are so popular these days. Among the interwoven: A beleaguered CIA agent (George Clooney); a wary and inquisitive Washington lawyer (Jeffrey Wright); an opportunistic energy analyst (Matt Damon) and his wife (Amanda Peet) who have just lost their young son; and a Persian Gulf prince (Alexander Siddig) who helps China in an oil deal thus antagonizing the U.S. The cast assembled here includes some of this era's finest actors. That no single actor steals the show is mostly a testament to on-screen time split justly. Clooney is the big story here and he should be: Rare is the sex symbol superstar of his enormity who dares to don a gut and a beard as he does here. With his trademark physical attributes obscured Clooney's acting is allowed to shine and his character's tension is palpable. As for Wright the quintessential chameleon of an actor his performance is as flawless and brilliant as always. Damon provides a reliable turn but it's onscreen wife Peet who adds the truly raw emotion that the film lacks overall. Rounding out the ensemble are two under-appreciated stalwarts: Chris Cooper nailing the role of a shrewd oilman and Christopher Plummer perfectly cast as the head of a law firm. Stephen Gaghan has displayed his writing chops in the past—most famously in 2000's Traffic for which he won an Oscar—and he certainly has a solid mentor behind him in (executive producer) Steven Soderbergh. After making his directorial debut with the 2002 flop thriller Abandon he finds far better luck with this star-studded politically charged film having traveled the world to gain insight into Robert Baer’s book which serves as source material. Unfortunately Gaghan’s stirring documentary/handheld-cam filmmaking is contradicted by the overall convoluted feel of the movie which comes to a too-neat conclusion that leaves several characters hanging. Although Gaghan has a bold and daring take on a topical problem there's a reason a topic like this with so many disparate lives and ideas is not often tackled on the big screen: film is just not a vast enough medium.
Elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) who once served under the great Alexander (Colin Farrell) narrates the life story of the man the myth the legend--the son of the ambitious King Philip (Val Kilmer) who surpassed his father at every level and charged into the farthest reaches of the world. From early childhood in Macedonia we see where Alexander gets his drive--mostly from his vengeful snake-lovin' mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) who urges her son to take charge as well from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Even in the taming of his unbreakable horse Bucephalas at 10 years old Alexander's destiny is evident. The heart of the film lies in Persia which Alexander conquers in one of the most studied military battles of all time. Alexander spends a great deal of time there--taking in the culture claiming its riches and marrying a Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson)--much to the chagrin of his Macedonian generals who are stuck in this foreign land with their king. Despite this success Alexander grows restless and turns his attention to the rest of the world including the unexplored regions of India. With his army stretched thin and his Macedonian troops longing for home Alexander presses them one campaign too far. Succumbing to a mysterious illness at age 33 Alexander dies never quite finding what he so desperately searched for.
Although some may scoff at casting the Irish actor in the lead Farrell does an admirable job playing the tortured hero blond wig and all. He exudes plenty of wide-eyed fury and intensity as Alexander the warrior balanced by the controlled calculation of a hyper-effective military commander although he isn't nearly as effective as the idealistic pre-world-conqueror Alexander as he is spiraling down into the haunted angst-ridden Alexander at the end of his obsessive crusade. Casting Jolie as Olympias is a stroke of genius. Sure Jolie can play a smart and beautiful woman in her sleep but her beauty is surpassed only by the power she imbues as Alexander's bitter yet loving mother; she's as hypnotic as the snakes she carries around. Kilmer relishes his role as Alexander's father Philip in all of his grotesque wine-soaked glory. Powerful driven and battle-scarred Kilmer's Philip knows precisely what he wants and matches Jolie's quiet intensity with the raw aggressive masculinity of a warrior king who is far more comfortable in his armor than a toga. In the supporting roles Hopkins is great as always this time in the thankless role of the narrator while Dawson plays Roxane with a ferocity that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Standout Jared Leto also turns in a concentrated performance as Hephaestion Alexander's long-time companion boyhood friend and the person who loves Alexander the best. (And we do mean love.)
Alexander is Oliver Stone at his best. An Alexander nut for most of his life the director gives us a film that--even in its loooong three-hour form--continuously holds your attention especially its intense and bloody battle scenes. I mean honestly once you've fought against an elephant in armor the plain old sword-and-shield skirmishes pale in comparison. Alexander also possesses a great breadth of visuals: Alexandria's peace Pella's tension Babylon's opulence and India's richness. Yet as wonderful as the landscapes are it's personal interactions and internal politics that drive the story--and of course Stone's penchant for conspiracy theories as he more than insinuates Alexander was poisoned by his enemies rather than dying of an "unknown" illness. But a problem still remains: Alexander's life was so huge and he did so much that it's almost impossible to encapsulate it effectively into one film. Stone instead has to focus on what he thinks is the most important namely Alexander's renowned conquests while allowing the pressure cooker in which the young conqueror grew up--the triangle of mother father and son--come through in the decisions he makes later in life. For those few of us who have studied Alexander Stone has made this film especially for us. If you haven't spent any time reading Arrian and the other histories this excellent film might just inspire you to do so.