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.
Much has changed in the world of finance since Oliver Stone first explored its grubby innards in 1987’s Wall Street a film that netted Michael Douglas a Best Actor Oscar for his iconic portrayal of scheming corporate raider Gordon Gekko. Technological advances regulatory changes a terrorist attack a global economic meltdown and the emergence of China as a dominant player have combined to transform the securities industry in the two-plus decades since Gekko paraphrasing Ivan Boesky first captured its more sinister aspects in those famous words “Greed is good.”
What hasn’t changed is Stone who remains every bit as hubristic and heavy-handed as ever. With his sprawling spotty follow-up Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps he has once again taken it upon himself to put forth the definitive portrait of the culture of money and the film suffers badly for it. Set in 2008 in those halcyon days just prior to the subprime mortgage crisis and its subsequent leveling of financial landscape the film is told through the wide eyes of young Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) the 21st-century heir to Bud Fox’s mantle. (Charlie Sheen who portrayed Fox in the first film resurfaces in a fun but ultimately pointless cameo in the sequel.)
Jake we are told is a successful proprietary trader but his countenance more closely resembles that of a venture capitalist. (The risky practices and alleged conflicts of interests of prop traders are widely believed to be among the causes of the financial collapse; the Obama administration has recently proposed their ban.) Though he’s as profit-driven as any other young Wall Street turk he also boasts something of an idealistic streak and hopes to use his position at the prestigious investment banking firm of Keller Zabel to further the cause of a cutting-edge green energy startup. No doubt it’s this noble trait that appeals to his girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan) a progressive pixie who runs a muckraking leftist blog and who also happens to be Gekko’s estranged daughter.
Jake’s bright future takes a dark turn when rumors of over-exposure to “toxic assets” swallow up first his company Keller Zabel and then its founder Lou (Frank Langella) who opts to retire beneath a speeding subway train after the Federal Reserve denies his request for an emergency bailout. Devastated by the suicide of his boss and mentor Jake vows to exact revenge upon the slithery brute he believes to be the source of the poisonous rumors: Bretton James (Josh Brolin) a prominent partner at Churchill Schwartz (read: Goldman Sachs) Keller’s chief rival.
And where exactly does Gordon Gekko figure in all of this? After the opening sequence during which he emerges from a lengthy prison stay to find no one waiting to greet him Gekko doesn’t re-enter the story until about the 30th minute and lurks mainly on its periphery for much of his screen time. In the years since his incarceration for the various misdeeds chronicled in the first film he’s rebranded himself as a sort of populist crusader against speculator avarice hawking a book about the ills of the financial system entitled Is Greed Good? (“You’re all pretty much fucked ” he instructs a lecture audience.) Gekko’s got a grudge of his own against Bretton his one-time protege turned state’s witness in his securities fraud conviction and he agrees to supply Jake with crucial insider info in exchange for help in brokering a reconciliation with his daughter Winnie.
All of this is set against a backdrop of the collapses and bailouts of the 2008 financial tumult — a topic that could easily warrant its own film. (Indeed HBO is currently readying its adaptation of Aaron Ross Sorkin’s book about the crisis.) His ambition outstripping his ability Stone labors awkwardly to integrate the macro of the crisis with its many backroom deals and soap-opera intrigues and the micro of Jake’s increasingly complex relationship with Gekko. Mulligan’s character meant to serve as the film’s emotional anchor as well as its conscience is ultimately little more than a distraction diverting us from the story’s more compelling elements. The last third of the film which focuses on Gekko’s reemergence as a Wall Street player feels tacked-on as if driven by data from test audiences dissatisfied with his relatively minor presence in the early goings.
There are moments in Money Never Sleeps where Stone successfully invokes the heady verve of the 1987 film but for a story dealing with such titillating subject matter its pace too often drags to a near-halt as it wallows excessively in Gekko family melodrama. (The performances it should be noted are all terrific though LaBeouf is an exceedingly tough sell as a would-be BSD.) And a topic as sexy as money should never ever be boring.
Is the "Road to Perdition" paved with gold?
Debuting in a modest 1,790 theaters, the elegant but violent Tom Hanks gangster epic seems doubtful to emerge as the likeliest among this weekend's four new wide releases to vanquish Men in Black II from the top of the box office. MIBII is ensconced at 3,557 theaters, while Reign of Fire burns 2,692 theaters, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course storms 2,525 theaters and Halloween: Resurrection creeps into 1,749 theaters.
Yet Road to Perdition's future remains assured. Glowing reviews already position Road to Perdition as this year's first Oscar-worthy candidate, allowing distributor DreamWorks to market Hanks' latest as a intelligent and prestigious alternative to the budget-busting adventures of superheroes, spies and law enforcement officers with unusual beats.
Also, the 1930s-era Road to Perdition represents the second film from Sam Mendes, whose American Beauty won five Academy Awards and earned a surprising $130 million. Mendes' brooding mediation on revenge and loyalty isn't quite the Irish Godfather that it seeks to be, but it does boast some truly memorable moments, including a bloody showdown in the pouring rain and gripping performances from Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law. Road to Perdition should satiate those who have waited (and waited, and waited) for Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, which ironically was scheduled to premiere this weekend before it was delayed to Christmas.
Consequently, Road to Perdition should enjoy a long and healthy run throughout the second half of the summer, albeit without the benefit of a smash opening a la Hanks' Saving Private Ryan ($30.5 million) and Cast Away ($28.8 million). Expect an opening similar to that of The Green Mile's $18 million.
Hanks certainly does not fall into the category of an action hero, but audiences accepted him taking up arms for Steven Spielberg's uncompromising World War II Saving Private Ryan. In the 1930s-set Road to Perdition, Hanks' cause is less noble. A hit man working for Irish mobster Newman, Hanks finds himself on the run following the murder of his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh and their youngest son. Hanks seeks retribution while trying to protect his oldest son, whose curiosity about Hanks' profession led to the tragic turn of events.
Hanks remains a sure thing precisely because audiences welcome and enjoy the risks he takes. But the sight of Hanks out for revenge and killing in cold blood might alienate those who prefer him to undertake infinitively more heroic endeavors. Thus Road to Perdition won't come close to matching the terrific totals of Cast Away ($233.6 million) and Saving Private Ryan ($216.3 million). Instead, Hanks' travels should reap a total somewhere between Sleepless in Seattle's $126.6 million and The Green Mile's $136.8 million.
Regardless, Hanks can sleep well knowing that he should score his 12th $100 million hit.
Slaying dragons might prove more appealing than kicking alien butt.
Reign of Fire, which imagines a future overrun by dragons with blazing tempers, poses the greatest challenge to MIBII. Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey, both beefed up and ready to rumble, join forces to wipe out the dragons that reawake to leave the world scorched and barren. Their destination is London, home to the dragon that started it all.
More Alien3 than Independence Day, Reign of Fire requires its heroes to make do with little technology and weaponry to fight their flying, fire-breathing foe. Directed by The X-Files' Rob Bowman, Reign of Fire never quite lives up to its potential despite its marvelous special effects and tense confrontations between man and the supposedly mythical beasts. Reign of Fire begs for the mayhem and destruction that turned Independence Day into a summer smash.
Without the prospect of witnessing London burning, Reign of Fire will do only marginally better than 1996's Dragonheart ($15 million opening, $51.3 million total). Reign of Fire should debut with at least $20 million, but flame out rapidly with about $60 million. Audiences also might find themselves distracted by the giant spiders of Eight Legged Freaks, which will open Wednesday.
The further exploits of Michael Myers also could keep some young men away from Reign of Fire.
Halloween: Resurrection, the eighth in the series chronicling the masked serial killer's murderous rampage, arrives three months before Oct. 31. That's not unusual. The last sequel, Halloween: H20, debuted during the dog days of summer 1998.
Those keeping score may remember that Jamie Lee Curtis decapitated Myers at the end of H20. How Myers returns to life--without so much as a headache--remains a mystery, since Dimension Films failed to screen Resurrection, once slated for a Sept. 21, 2001, release, for critics. All indications are that this film is more trick than treat.
H20 breathed new life into the series by pitting Curtis against Myers for the first time since 1982's Halloween II. With the aid of emerging stars Josh Hartnett and Michelle Williams, H20 sliced up a $16.1 million opening and a $55 million total. In comparison, the preceding sequel Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers only managed a total $15 million in September 1995.
Resurrection can't duplicate the success of H20, which capitalized heartily on Curtis' presence. Curtis reportedly only makes a cameo at the beginning of Resurrection. Her absence will surely hurt when the remainder of the disparate cast includes model Tyra Banks and rapper Busta Rhymes.
With the exception of die-hard Friday the 13th fans, audiences thoroughly rejected Jason X and its change in scenery. That doesn't bode well for an aging franchise that thrives on its audience's nostalgia for a time when serial killers merely hacked their victims to pieces.
With luck, Resurrection could hack its way to a $10 million opening, but Myers will run out of warm bodies to stalk when the film hits a $25 million total. Then expect to see Resurrection in your local video stores long before you stock up on Halloween candy.
Steve Irwin, either the bravest or dumbest man on TV depending upon how you feel about interacting with reptiles of all shapes and sizes, has gone Hollywood.
Irwin and wife Terri leave the confines of cable TV's Animal Planet for The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, a family friendly adventure that seeks nothing more than exploit the boisterous Aussie's household popularity.
Unfortunately, The Crocodile Hunter is just as ill conceived as NBC's disastrous attempt to turn celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse into a TV sitcom star. The folks at MGM, who desperately need a hit after Hart's War, Rollerball and Windtalkers, should have known better. Their previous attempt to turn a minor celebrity into a film star, in that case daredevil Super Dave Osborne, resulted in the direct-to-video The Extreme Adventures of Super Dave.
The Crocodile Hunter also would rank as the year's worst film thus far were it not for its utter lack of ambition and originality. It's nothing more than an extension of TV show, with Irwin spending much of his time addressing the audience while tussling with crocodiles, snakes and spiders. The remainder of the film involves the plodding search for a missing U.S. satellite beacon. Needless to say, the beacon ends up in the stomach of one very big crocodile. Adding insult to injury, the film even features an appalling reworking of Elton John's Crocodile Rock by the Baha Men.
It remains a mystery as to who will pay to see Irwin do what he already does on cable TV. Part of the TV show's popularity lies with the vicarious thrill of watching Irwin pry open the jaws of a rather irate crocodile or wrapping a poisonous snake around his stocky frame. Staging such sequences for a film eliminates the element of danger, which will likely keep audiences home, glued to Animal Planet. Accordingly, The Crocodile Hunter might crack $5 million during its opening weekend, but then end up with a toothless $15 million total.
Parents also have elected against taking their children to see such TV-inspired films such as Hey Arnold! The Movie ($10.7 million through Sunday) and The Powerpuff Girls Movie ($7.5 million through Wednesday). Scooby-Doo, with $140.3 million through Wednesday, remains the exception. The canine sleuth looks set to bark up a total $160 million.
Despite being confronted by four new releases, MIBII should easily remain as the nation's top film for a second weekend. The Men in Black sequel set off fireworks during the July Fourth holiday with a weekend haul of $52.1 million and five-day weekend total of $87.2 million. MIBII now holds the record for the best July Fourth holiday opening. It has $103.9 million through Wednesday.
MIBII enjoyed a slightly better opening than its predecessor, which debuted during the July Fourth holiday in 1997 with $51 million in its first weekend for a five-day total of $84.1 million. That doesn't mean alienbusters Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith should expect the script to a third Men in Black in the mail just yet. MIBII opened in 300-plus more theaters. Ticket prices also are higher today than they were in 1997. Consequently, Men in Black posted a $16,910 per theater average while MIBII made do with a per theater average of $14,661.
Bad reviews and tremendous competition will cause MIBII to drop more than the 41.13 percent tumble to $30 million that Men in Black experienced in its second weekend. MIBII will likely mirror Scooby-Doo's second weekend erosion of 54.8 percent, from $54.1 million to $24.4 million. If this is the case, MIBII will likely end up with a total closer to $200 million than the original's $250.1 million.
And on the subject of lowered expectations, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones continues to creep toward $300 million. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace earned $431 million in 1999. With $291.2 million through Sunday, Attack of the Clones finally surpassed The Empire Strikes Back's $290.2 million total.
Attack of the Clones was tipped to be the year's highest-grossing film. That honor remains with Spider-Man, which on Sunday became only the fifth film to break $400 million domestically.
Lilo & Stitch and Minority Report both cracked $100 million this past week.
Disney's Lilo & Stitch, which has $108.6 million through Wednesday, is lagging behind Tarzan, which had $115.9 million after 20 days in wide release. After a third weekend of $12.6 million, Lilo & Stitch looks set for a total surpassing Dinosaur's $137.7 million.
Minority Report has $101.5 million through Wednesday. Steven Spielberg's futuristic thriller dropped 42 percent in its third weekend, from $21.5 million to $12.6 million. MIBII no doubt appealed more to those looking for a less ominous sci-fi extravaganza. Minority Report has bested Tom Cruise's last effort, Vanilla Sky ($100.6 million), and will surpass Interview with the Vampire ($105.2 million) by Saturday. Minority Report will likely come to rest close to A Few Good Men's $141.3 million total.
Fighting for the same audience of young men as MIBII, Mr. Deeds saw its good fortune drop 50 percent in its second weekend, from $37.1 million to $18.4 million. Adam Sandler's remake Frank Capra's classic comedy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town has $81 million through Wednesday and has already exceeded The Wedding Singer's $80.2 million total. Mr. Deeds isn't quite keeping up with Big Daddy ($97.3 million) or The Waterboy ($83.2 million), both of which has made more money in their first 13 days. Mr. Deeds should, however, amass a wealthy $125 million.
MIBII didn't deter audiences from seeking one of July Fourth's other new attraction, Like Mike. The kids-oriented basketball fantasy, starring Lil' Bow Wow, scored a solid $12.1 million over the weekend for a July Fourth holiday five-day total of $19 million. With $23.5 million through Wednesday, Like Mike isn't destined for MVP-type numbers, but it looks like a $50 million slam-dunk for the teen rapper.
Women turned out in force for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which jumped a joyful 25 percent in its 12th weekend from $2 million to $2.5 million. The romantic comedy only played in an additional six theaters, bringing its theater count to 499. My Big Fat Greek Wedding has a blissful $23.5 million through Sunday. In contrast, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood fell 31 percent, from $4 million to $2.8 million, but has $62.6 million through Tuesday. That bests star Sandra Bullock's Hope Floats ($60.1 million).
Playing spies games is proving lucrative for pals Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Affleck's turn as CIA analyst Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears has $112.7 million through Wednesday. It's slowly but surely posing a challenge to Clear and Present Danger's $122 million and The Hunt for Red October's $120.7 million totals.
Then there's the curious case of Damon's amnesiac CIA operative Jason Bourne. The Bourne Identity slid by a mere 18 percent in its fourth weekend, from $11.1 to $9.1 million. The Sum of All Fears managed just $7.7 million in its fourth weekend. With $92.2 million through Wednesday, The Bourne Identity is displaying surprising endurance and could become this weekend the eighth new release to break $100 million in 2002. More impressively, Jason Bourne should have Jack Ryan watching over his shoulder in the event of a hostile takeover.