Saturday, July 4, 2009

Notebook: Poop, Puke & Pop

A Familiar Odor
I haven’t seen Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and I won’t. Life is too short, and after suffering through the 144-minute original it seems backwards that the Transformers franchise should get to take “revenge” on me. But amidst a busy schedule that has me too far behind on blogging, I have carved out some time in recent weeks to read several reviews. For the most part, reactions to Transformers 2 haven’t been pretty. I’ve seen it called “a literal tsunami of shit” made by “an asshole” or “a jerk of the most obnoxious and insecure order,” and I’ve seen director Michael Bay slammed as a “fucking tool.” Having only enjoyed The Rock among Bay’s films, I can’t say I disagree with the general spirit of those assessments (I might have expressed my displeasure differently), but at the same time I’m puzzled by the timing of this eruption of anti-Bay vitriol.

Could Revenge of the Fallen be that much different than the original? Where was this anger in 2007? For example, here is Roger Ebert on Revenge of the Fallen: “The battle scenes are bewildering. A Bot makes no visual sense anyway, but two or three tangled up together create an incomprehensible confusion. I find it amusing that creatures that can unfold out of a Camaro and stand four stories high do most of their fighting with...fists. Like I say, dumber than a box of staples.” And now here is Ebert on 2007’s Transformers: “How can a pickup truck contain enough mass to unfold into a towering machine? I say if Ringling Brothers can get 15 clowns into a Volkswagen, anything is possible.”

I’m not here to pick on Ebert, but I fail to understand why the original was considered “goofy fun with a lot of stuff that blows up real good,” and yet Revenge of the Fallen is something else. Really? Here’s Ebert again: “The mechanical battle goes on and on and on and on, with robots banging into each other and crashing into buildings, and buildings falling into the street, and the military firing, and jets sweeping overhead, and Megatron and the good hero, Optimus Prime, duking it out, and the soundtrack sawing away at thrilling music, and enough is enough. Just because CGI makes such endless sequences possible doesn't make them necessary. They should be choreographed to reflect a strategy and not simply reflect shapeless, random violence.” That’s a good slam of Revenge of the Fallen, right? Wrong! It’s a passage from Ebert’s three-star review of Transformers.

The point is this: Revenge of the Fallen isn’t new crap; it’s the same old crap. How did people not see this coming? Out to prove that he doesn’t like everything, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone suggests that “Transformers 2 has a shot at the title Worst Movie of the Decade.” Fair enough, so long as Transformers 1 is in the running, too. After all, I agree with Travers that “when Hasbro invented those Transformers toys, the intention was for kids to use their imagination about what those bots would morph into” and that “Bay crushes that imagination with his own crude interpretations that seem untouched by human hands and spirit.” But Bay’s crime against imagination didn’t begin with the sequel.

Personally, I’m more of the mind of Anthony Lane, who called 2007’s Transformers Bay’s “first truly honest work of art” because the director “summoned the courage to admit that he has an exclusive crush on machines.” For better or usually worse, Bay makes one kind of movie, and he’s box office gold. I suspect that both Transformers films share the same thrills (excessive CGI and explosions, mindless entertainment and Megan Fox in skimpy outfits) and have the same turnoffs (excessive CGI and explosions and mindless entertainment). If Transformers 2 is trash, so was the original.

As I noted in my own 2007 review of Transformers, which is hardly worth reprinting in full, Bay’s CGI spectacular subverts the famous “More than meets the eye” marketing tagline for the Hasbro toys: “With Bay’s Transformers there’s what meets the eye and nothing else. Unless you count the noise that meets the ear, which is good enough for a splitting headache lasting well over three hours.” I wasn’t being figurative.

Misadventures in Moviegoing
Last weekend, Hokahey of Little Worlds was in town for his annual visit to our nation’s capital. As usual, we looked for opportunities to go to the movies, and, as usual, Hokahey managed to arrive on a weekend when there wasn’t much worth seeing. (Last year it was The Happening, for example.) And so it was that on the Friday of his visit we decided to take in Year One, because neither of us had seen it, and Hokahey likes Jack Black and I like Michael Cera and we were both in need of foolish entertainment.

As soon as the movie started, I detected a problem: alternately, the sound was coming through all of the speakers or only one speaker in the front left corner of the theater. Mindless comedy doesn’t work well when you’re straining to hear it – there’s a reason your local comedy club does its best to rupture your eardrums – but I could have settled for the one-speaker version. It was the sound coming in and out that was disorienting. So, after about 10 minutes, I appointed myself The Guy Who Would Need to Leave the Theater to Complain. And so I did. Of course Year One just had to be playing at the theater farthest from the lobby, so I walked quickly, made my complaint and turned around to head back.

On my way back, I saw a guy in his early 30s go stumbling across the hall. He looked disoriented and had his hand up to his mouth. We locked eyes for a moment and he gave me a look that said, “Help! I need to vomit, and I can’t vomit here, but I can’t make it to the bathroom, what should I do?” Being the jerk that I am, I pretended I didn’t notice this look of desperation and instead averted my eyes and tried to walk past him. Before I could slip by, however, homeboy bent over and tossed his cookies all over the floor in the middle of the hallway. (Dude! How about aiming for the trashcan!) At this moment, a motherly woman appeared and asked the cookie tosser if he was OK, thus saving me the responsibility of doing the same. Eyes straight ahead, I walked by the puke and headed back toward Year One, but not without turning my head to see which movie the puker had stumbled out of: The Proposal. Need I say more?

Remembering the King of Pop
I had no profound reaction to Michael Jackson’s death June 25. Immediately it struck me another tragic episode in a largely tragic life. Thus, Jackson’s passing seemed to be fitting and perhaps also a blessing; I just can’t imagine that he loved his life anymore, if he ever did. Over the past week I’ve read some remembrances of Jackson, but even those have failed to move me in any significant way, even though Jackson was one of the most influential musicians and pop icons of my childhood, even though Thriller was one of the first cassettes I ever owned (purchased on the same day as Van Halen’s 1984), even though I remember kids in the neighborhood waiting for scheduled airings of the epic “Thriller” video and even though I was still mesmerized by Jackson in his Bad stage, and bought his Dangerous album in high school and was enthused to buy his HIStory double-album in college, both for its new tunes and for its nostalgic qualities. It didn’t take Jackson dying to get me to appreciate his music or to remember that “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” never fails to put me in a good mood.

But in the days since Jackson’s death, as I have wrestled with how to remember a man whose music never ceased to be inviting but whose personal life was as tempting as poison ivy, I have been unable to shake two thoughts:

The first is that our reactions to and jokes about Jackson’s alleged sexual misconduct might say more about us than about Jackson. Here’s what I mean: A year ago, at an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, I saw a photo taken at the infamous Neverland estate that showed Jackson standing beneath two huge painted statues of children wearing boy scout-type uniforms, their outstretched arms creating an arch over the door to Jackson’s bedroom. The photo struck me as creepy in every way, and without ever thinking about it I added it to the circumstantial evidence file against Jackson. But a few days later, I thought about the photo again and had second thoughts. After all, what did it really show? Not evidence of a crime, certainly. Instead, the photo merely provided further evidence of how Jackson obliviously defied social norms. But often our social norms are nothing to be proud of. (Ahem, have you seen how well Transformers 2 is doing at the box office?)

Our society tends to be uncomfortable with effeminate males and adults who cling to childhood pleasures. Jackson was both. But that doesn't make him a pedophile. Sure, it’s unusual that Jackson liked to invite children into his bed – as in, “not usual” by our societal standards. And perhaps rightfully so. But, just for a moment, compare your mental picture of Jackson sitting in a bed surrounded by children to the image of, say, Julie Andrews sitting in a bed surrounded by children. Different feeling, isn't it?

I’m not here to say Jackson was innocent of his alleged crimes (though he was never convicted in a court, it should be noted). Instead I’m here to suggest that many of us, certainly including me, were often guilty of convicting Jackson in the court of public opinion simply because it was easier to exile him than to try to understand him.

Then again, my second post-death thought about Jackson goes like this: While Jackson’s reclusiveness was one of his many oddities that made him difficult to get close to, it was also his saving grace. To see his ghastly appearance in recent years was to be thankful that he wasn’t doing the late night talk show circuit. On the whole, considering his status as a global icon, Jackson had remarkable control of his image and remained out of the public eye, particularly in his later years as he seemed to grow increasingly peculiar. And so with tabloids obsessing over Britney and Paris, Brad and Angelina, it’s easier for us to remember Jackson as he was, back when he was a somewhat public public-figure, back when he seemed more like a colorful original than a deformed monster. Who was Jackson really? I doubt anyone knows.

I think the concept of pointing out plot holes in a movie about transforming robots is hilarious in and of itself. Nonetheless, this is a fun link. … Blogging buddy Ed Howard has created a site dedicated to listing blogathons and other such online fests. If you’re planning to host an event, be sure to add it to The Film Blog Calendar.


Richard Bellamy said...

A lot of good stuff here. So the puking dude was coming out of The Proposal. That explains it.

I enjoyed your compilation of reactions to Transformers 2 - because I did endure it. I agree with most of the negative comments. Though there is a mindless function for this mindless sort of entertainment, I shudder to think that this hugely popular movie has a chance of making the expanded 10-nominees cut for Best Picture. If that happens, then I really bemoan this change in Oscar policy.

I was never a fan of Jackson, but I still enjoyed your sensitive comments about him here. I'm very adamant about "innocent until proven guilty," and so I felt offended by the obscene jokes about him (which I heard too many of at the high school where I teach). Even one of the Scary Movie installments makes a cruel joke of that kind forever viewable on DVD. It is too easy to judge.

Craig said...

I shudder to think that this hugely popular movie has a chance of making the expanded 10-nominees cut for Best Picture.

Really, it does? I wouldn't lose any sleep over that one. The movie's box-office success is depressing enough. I agree with Jason that Rob Humanick's review is very funny (beginning with, "Only an asshole could have directed this picture"), yet I also agree that it merits an eye-roll when Rob and others say that the sequel "isn't as good as the original 'Transformers,'" as if Michael Bay suddenly lost his artistic standards. (I finally watched the first one on DVD last week, I'm proud to say a freebie from the library, and fell asleep halfway through.) It reminds me of a conversation in graduate school, when a friend complained about how bad "Police Academy 6" was, and my roommate deadpanned, "The first five were good! After that they just lost the meaning."

Your story about the "Proposal" puker prompts a related anecdote, this one from Peter Biskind's book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls." Reportedly, at a test screening for "Jaws," immediately following one of the grislier scenes (I think the one where the poor schmoe in the boat loses a leg), a gentleman in the audience bolted from his scene, ran to the restroom to vomit, then came directly back so he wouldn't miss anything. That's when they knew they had a hit.

Craig said...

a gentleman in the audience bolted from his scene

...bolted from his SEAT. Or "from the scene." That'd work too.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good comments, guys.

Much as I don't get worked up over the Oscars, I admit that the thought of Transformers 2 earning a Best Picture nom thanks to the expanded field makes me shudder, too. I'd like to think that the Academy's standards were at least higher than that. Then again, I realize that something like Star Trek, which at this point might have a good chance, is similarly undignified in many respects. So, whatever ...

Hokahey: Your comment reminds me that I once had a discussion about Jackson and offered the same "innocent until proven guilty" line. The guy I was talking to said back to me, "So you'd say O.J. was innocent?" To which I responded, "Well, no. But I got to see O.J.'s trial as if I was on the jury." The case against Jackson in the court of public opinion was based mostly on rumor.

Craig: That Police Academy story killed me! Great one!

El Miope Muñoz said...

Great post. My problems with Transformers were simple: too many minutes, too many shots and not so graceful editing, too many stories that they don't interest and they aren't needed for telling this story.

The final battle of TF2 is a bit boring, but the movie is a bit more goofy and sometimes good than the first. Nothing more.

Joel Bocko said...

Great lineup of posts-within-posts.

As for Jackson, my own initial reaction was similar to yours, but then as his musical and personal legacy - and the admiration I once had for him - sank in over the ensuing days, my thoughts became more complicated.

You manage to express was on my mind, as far as the psychological reasons for our obsession with mocking Jackson (regardless of the question of guilt) in a more succinct and straightforward manner than I was able to, but nonetheless this post and particularly the follow-up comments by me (#7 is the most relevant) may be of interest to you, as they stumble towards a similar observation:

"This feeling was only heightened by the singer's own vulnerability - he seemed so easy to crush and in our frustration, we were happy to do so (but let me note here before this line of thinking gets too overwrought, I am not suggesting that 'we' killed Jackson - nothing so maudlin; my concern is more with our own, particularly my own, psychology in relation to his persona rather than its impact on him, which we can't really know). The childish naivitee perhaps reminded us of our own lost innocence, and this was perhaps Jackson's primal sin, the one which enabled the mean-spiritedness of all the attacks on him later. Nobody goes after Roman Polanski the way they go after Jackson - because Polanski is an adult, and one suspects he would be unmoved by our loathing of him, so what's the point? ...

All his soppy ballads about healing the world and not being alone and finally a pathetic plea for "one more chance" were just like blood in the water, making the sharks even hungrier for a piece. He was soft, and his compassion and sentimentality and innocence only made us hate him all the more. Eventually, for me and many others, dislike ebbed into indifference and only his death could shock us out of our apathy."

Joel Bocko said...

Oops. Forgot to link up the post/comments thread I was talking about. It's here:

PIPER said...


It's been a while. It looks like you moved that lamp from that table over to that table and if I may say, it's a nice change.

Anyway, like you, I will not see Transformers 2. Luckily my son saw it with my parents and that got me out of a tough bind. My mother said that it may be the worst movie she's ever seen.

I read a review somewhere where the reviewer said that his "inner-child" is not an "idiot-child" and I thought that pretty much summed it up.

When I saw the original and would actually find someone who would defend it as "mindless-fun" I would always respond with "but a robot pissed oil on a guy's head." And not anyone's head, but John Frickin Turturro's head.

The good news is is that Michael Bay will never visit the hallowed halls of good cinema. Never. Ever. He will come and go and will never be missed. There's comfort in that.