Film

'Fallen' Fails the 'Transformers' Franchise

In the history of half-baked blockbusters, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is raw and runny.


Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Dreamworks, Paramount
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-06-24 (General release)
UK date: 2009-06-24 (General release)
Website

At this point in his career, Michael Bay has one of two options. He can toss aside all his wannabe Spielberg shtick, lower the gig-normous size of his budgets, and deliver a small, carefully constructed comedy/drama about authentic characters in real world situations. He can tone down the bravado and actually dig deep into the psyche of another human being for once, without all the fireworks and falderal. Or he can just keep blowing shit up. Looking at his recent example of trumped up testosterone as talent, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, he may not have a future in superficial pyrotechnics after all. Sloppy, incomprehensible, and louder than a dozen megaton bombs, this senseless shoot 'em up is all bark and only negligible entertainment bite. When it comes to retro-nuclear bombast, we expect more from Bay. This time, however, he goes way too far.

It's been two years since Sam Witwicky uncovered the existence of alien robots on planet Earth, and while the Autobots have agreed to help the US military with their containment and clean-up crusade, the dwindling Decepticons have been plotting ways to resurrect their beloved leader Megatron from a watery ocean grave. Help comes in the metal persona of The Fallen, an ancient being whose been looking to destroy the planet for centuries. Locked in his extraterrestrial orbit, he needs a piece of the All Spark to start his sun-killing conquest. While he tries to attend college, Sam becomes an unwitting cerebral storage unit for the cube's considerable knowledge. This also makes he, and his cross-country gal pal Mikaela prime targets for the evil entities from another world. Hoping to avoid the Decepticons, Sam relies on Optimus Prime and the government to keep him safe. When they both fail him, it's off to find former Sector 7 Agent Simmons. With his help, he might be able to find the long lost Matrix, resurrect his hero, and save mankind once again.

If you ever wondered what a movie would look like geared toward the underdeveloped brain of a gestating zygote, if you think elements like plot, characterization, and logic just get in the way of your mandatory (over)dose of eye candy, then Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is the insipid illustration you've been waiting for. This is junk as justification, the mandatory sequel that feels less like a follow-up and more like a purposeful attempt to wipe the previous film off the face of the Earth. Within its incessantly long running time (as another critic pointed out, just 10 minutes under 2001) and overreliance on special effects is a philosophy so wrongheaded, so antithetical to what we believe is decent popcorn entertainment, that it practically asks to be smacked around. While it's doubtful, here's hoping the general public wises up to this waste of time and opens up a can of flopsweat whoop-ass on this atrocious turd.

There are so many things wrong with this movie that to discuss them at length would be pointless. Instead, a Hall of Shame checklist is probably more effective. In no particular order, we get: humping dogs; crying robots; pot brownies; robot slobber; tired tech geeks; female Terminator-lite; American Chopper, Megan Fox style; machine scrotums; John Turturro as a tortured mama's boy; Prime gods; yet another ineffectual DC bureaucrat; Borscht Belt level jokes; indistinguishable desert mayhem; wussed out BMOC; and the most racially insensitive sidekick characters ever in the history of cinematic spectacle (take that, Jar-Jar George). That's right, someone decided to invite Leroy and Skillet to the 2009 PC party, and these despicable little examples of big budget bigotry make the famed Dolemite comedy team look like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by comparison. It's not just the jive-talk and cultural clichés (gold teeth? On a machine?). Buried within the ebonics is a litany of inflammatory ethnic fallacies that do nothing but denigrate and defile.

Even the action scenes, Bay's purported strong point, are (rare) hit and miss. The movie starts out strapping, a city crushing cruise through Shanghai establishing the entire Autobots/Army connection. But things go rapidly downhill as we spend way too much time with Shia LaBeouf's sitcom slapstick family. They make Jerry Lewis look subtle. Another stellar sequence set in a surrounding forest pays off in some edge of the seat thrills. But toward the middle, when Bay and his scriptwriting rejects have to basically tie in twenty differing narrative threads, the life is literally sucked out of the film. It's at this point where the director starts channeling his previous canon, lifting moments from Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and Bad Boys, as if dealing with giant battling robots was just not enough. Indeed, what Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen needs is more Robot Jox like stand-offs. We come to a film like this to actually SEE the machine on machine spectacle, not try and interpret it from inside a blur of editing and extreme close-up conniptions.

This is not to say that this seemingly unnecessary sequel won't placate the faithful. Anyone with an actual jones for bigger and badder Transformer travails will feel their wavering attention spans rewarded. This is all polish and presentation, plasticized cheese painted in the grandest of studio supported patinas. It's all go, Go, GO!!! There is never a moment to catch one's breath, to drink in the proposed grandeur of man and massive shapeshifting alien machine co-existing and artfully interacting. There is no sense of scope, no awe-inspiring concept of the epic or the magical. Instead, we are stuck inside Bay's adolescent fantasies, a place where all women are willing, all guys are dork champions, and all evil is vanquished by that most simplistic of moves - the convoluted script rewrite. Nothing makes sense here, but that's not important for true fans of this material. They just want Bay to blow shit up - and blow it he does.

For some, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen remains critic proof. It's the kind of hotwired celluloid crack that keeps the mainstream mesmerized by its pre-natal tendencies for colorful shapes and shiny objects. It's like a rotten carrot covered in glitter being dangled in front of a dead mule - somehow, it makes sense, but on closer inspection, it's kind of cruel…and definitely insane. With the amount of money waiting overseas for an easy to translate slice of hackwork Americana, we will most likely be seeing another alien gearhead grudge match a few summers from now. If the Go-Bots are indeed the K-Mart of Transformers, then this film translation of the toy is its Dollar Store sales pitch. Michael Bay may never make that minor character study, but one thing is clear. In the history of half-baked blockbusters, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is raw and runny.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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