The Cynical Optimist – 1/7/09


Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Michael Bay brings forth a Sun-crushing robotic apocalypse

It might be a good idea for ushers to start handing out programs at the door when you see a Michael Bay film at the cinema. The pamphlet would be 50 pages or so and include all the character and plot information necessary to truly immerse yourself into one of his films. In the case of ”Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, it would include a complete roster breakdown of all 42 robots with their names and affiliations and all the bits of coherent story he left out.

With two Transformers films that weigh in at a combined running time of 294 minutes, it’s hard to imagine much could be left out – but there’s something to be said about quality over quantity, I guess. As a sequel, there’s an obligation to make a bigger, better film than the predecessor. Michael Bay has certainly made a bigger film with Revenge of the Fallen, but is it truly superior?

“The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

Michael Bay must not be familiar with this old saying, as he goes out of his way to inflate ”Revenge of the Fallen” to such bloated girth, the film crumbles under its shaking cameras and wobbly plot.

Ponderous. Incomprehensible. Cumbersome. Indecipherable. There are literally too many juicy adjectives to choose from to describe the mind-numbing experience that is ”Revenge of the Fallen”. I imagine a staff meeting between Michael Bay and his crew, similar to the pointless scenes of boardroom meetings between military advisers that run rampant in his films. In this meeting, Michael Bay is discussing what made the first film so good, and after the group reaches a consensus on what worked and didn’t work… the distracted Bay (making “Kaboom!” noises in his head) picks up the list of negatives and decides to cram as much as possible into the sequel.

Characters like Ratchet, Ironhide and Bumblebee take a backseat to a pair of blundering, idiotic twins named Skidz and Mudflap. Their personalities are that of “gangsta” rappers and they take every opportunity to offend the audience’s intelligence, dropping memorable lines of dialogue like, “I’m gonna busta cap in yo ass!”

It’s almost as if Michael Bay watched ”The Phantom Menace” and said, “I can do better than that!” I would much rather watch a television series dedicated to Jar Jar Binks’ haphazard adventures than ever experience a single frame of footage featuring the twins again.

An amazing forest battle royale, an epic confrontation between Bumblebee and Ravage, and a super-charged climactic showdown are worth the price of admission, but don’t expect to come away from Revenge of the Fallen with any discernible idea of what you just watched.

It was completely mindless, and mostly boring – but there were some incredible moments of heroics and excitement hidden beneath all the explosions, screaming and running. Unfortunately, Revenge of the Fallen is the result of a Michael Bay film without the direct influence of Steven Spielberg. It lacks magic and wonderment and much needed coherency.

Not that any of this matters. Michael Bay films are notoriously critic-proof and this failure of epic proportions is sure to become one of the highest-grossing films of all-time. Michael Bay, for what it’s worth, is good at one thing – putting people’s asses in the seats – and in the movie business, that’s all that matters isn’t it?

Memories Published in Print

I was a little boy growing up in a small town in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. I was far, far away from the big city. I was a boy with a head full of dreams and fantasies – an imagination fueled by colorful, flickering images on the television screen and my mother’s excited storytelling at bedtime.

Growing up, there weren’t really any kids in my neighborhood. Looking back on that, I’m very thankful for this. It made me improvise – it strengthened my imagination and gave me the opportunity to play for hours with my mom and dad on the ugly brown carpet of our single-wide trailer. My sister played a big part in all of this too, even though she was 12 years older than me and caught up in the world of driver’s licenses and high school dances.

I would wrestle with my father. In the course of a day we might have two or three matches, each time I would do my best impersonation of a prime time superstar. Isn’t it funny what sticks with you? I remember the sunlight bathing that ugly brown carpet, and feeling its warmth on my bare chest as I flexed in Masters of the Universe underwear. I would take off running and pounce on my father, barking like the Junkyard Dog. I would jump off the back of the couch like Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka and catch my father with a flying crossbody block. I remember his laugh, clear as a bell – it was mixed with an “oomph!” as if I knocked the breath out of him.

I remember being read to. I remember the summer of 1989, June to be specific. I wasn’t even four years old, believe it or not. This was the first time I remember going to the movie theater. My mom took me to see Tim Burton’s Batman, and the place was so packed I had to sit on her lap the whole time – and I did so eagerly, because as a kid isn’t that the best seat in the whole world?

I remember going to kindergarten, walking away from my mother and watching her cry. She would follow the school bus to Macy McClaugherty Elementary and watch me walk in the school. I would go on to make friends and we would visit each other’s houses and do all the things little boys do. We’d play with G.I. Joes and Ninja Turtles and Wrestlers – but I noticed immediately that I played different from the majority of kids.

Whereas other little boys would violently smash their toys against one another, I would very carefully plot out a whole sequence of events. I would commentate my wrestling matches and choreograph the whole deal. I would spend hours alone in my room with a sea of Star Wars toys, creating new stories and adventures for Han, Luke and Leia to take part in.

As a kid in a small town, being a fan of something meant unyielding passion and dedication. The only way to get news about Star Wars or movies or comic books was magazines back then, and boy did I love them. My mom broke down at some point in the early ’90s and got me a subscription to The Lucasfilm Fan Club Magazine. Every two months I got to devour news about Star Wars, Willow, Indiana Jones and whatever else George Lucas and ILM might be working on.

I remember going to the library and finding these books about movies. There were books about films like Alien, The Fly, Terminator, and The Thing. I don’t really know how to explain them, but they seemed to be aimed at young adults. Essentially they were just full-color pictures from the movie with a semi-detailed outline of the film’s plot. Being as these films were rated-R, this was the only way for me to really see them.

It was about this time that Terminator 2: Judgment Day came out, and while I didn’t see it in theaters – my mom broke down because of my unrelenting passion for monsters and robots and rented it. This was such a monumental moment in my life. Films like Robocop, Predator, Terminator and Aliens were movies that, as an eight-year-old, I had no business watching – but I devoured them, and my mother recognized my ability to distinguish them as movies and not real life. She nurtured that love, being the horror fan she is, and allowed me to have an amazing childhood filled with creatures beyond imagination.

I once wrote a letter to the Kenner Corporation, I must have been in fifth or sixth grade at the time. I demanded Kenner make action figures, vehicles and playsets that were more faithful to the film Aliens. I didn’t understand why Apone was wearing a yellow t-shirt and had a bionic arm. I wanted a Vasquez toy to play with. I wanted a Hudson that could break down and whine about everything. I wanted a colonist who had a lever in her back that allowed a baby alien to burst out of her ribcage.

My mom helped me write the letter and we sent it off. A few weeks later I actually got a response. I don’t remember it exactly, but there was a part in there where they thanked me for my “dedication and appreciation” of their product. Wouldn’t you know it, a few years later Hudson and Vasquez made it to shelf pegs. I felt proud – like I had made a difference.

Being a fan back then meant hard work. It meant going out and digging through the wreckage of a popular culture that often buried the things people found themselves obsessed with. I was born in 1984, one year after Return of the Jedi. Growing up, no one my age was playing with Star Wars toys. No one was talking about it at school. It was just me, traveling to flea markets, auctions and yard sales with my parents in search of artifacts from another time – the mysterious era of 1977-1983.

I truly loved it. Getting up early, driving to Dublin and walking through the gravel lots of the flea market – digging through boxes of happy meal toys in search of a Tusken Raider or a Walrus Man. I’ll never forget the year that my sister got me Boba Fett and Admiral Ackbar for my birthday. She found them from some vendor at the mall, but they held a mystical quality to me.

I was my own kind of archaeologist, piecing together a past filled with colorful action figures. Every time Mom dragged me to the grocery store or the pharmacy, I was at the mercy of the magazine rack. There they were: Starlog, Fangoria, Wizard, GamePro and Electronic Gaming Monthly – all waiting to be picked up and thumbed through by my eager little fingers.

I think back to those times, and I miss them dearly. I don’t know many other kids at the time who were actively subscribing to magazines and delving deep into a hobby. And here I was, barely getting the grasp of Earth Science and I had too many hobbies to keep up with. I developed a love for monster movies and would flip through Fangoria to see all the gross stuff that was edited out of television airings of movies like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street.

Nowadays, the world of being an enthusiast is much different. No real work is involved in finding information, for better or for worse. I can research topics infinitely now. I can connect with other fans via online communities and message boards, but it seems empty in a way – shallow even. There’s no real work being put into the art of delivering the information. Everything is in bite-size morsels to appease our ever-shortening attention spans.

I recently picked up the 20th anniversary edition of Empire Magazine, guest-edited by Steven Spielberg and was swept up with nostalgia as I devoured every single line of every article in this spectacular magazine. I could have acquired all of the information contained in this lovely magazine from Wikipedia or various websites, but it wouldn’t have been written nearly as well – and it wouldn’t be as personal.

When you read a magazine, the full-color pictures pop on those shiny pages, and you eagerly gobble every word up one after another. When you come across something that excites you, you can grip the magazine tight – you can hold it up close to your face and stare at the picture hoping to find something hidden in the background – no scrolling or zooming required. You get a concise, well-conceived article that was edited and read over several times. You get a finished product, whereas the Internet is in a constant state of copy-edit and nothing is concrete – nothing is ever in print.

The magazine is dying. The Lucasfilm Fan Club Magazine has since become The Star Wars Insider, but it still limps on – it’s just a lot thinner than it used to be, and not nearly as compelling. Why make the trip to the dusty lots of Dublin Flea Market when Ebay promises convenience and the guarantee of finding rare antiquities? Why write letters to Kenner when you could twitter some executive about a particular product?

I wonder, will my kids grow up in a world where all information is digital? Will they have Kindle textbooks and iPods filled with podcasts of assignments and study guides? Will they know the joy of sitting in a corner somewhere with a book or magazine, feeling as if they’re discovering something obscure – something aimed at a specific audience of enthusiasts with limitless passion?

I’d like to imagine there are those out there like me – members of the X & Y generations who have fond memories of what it meant to be a hobbyist in the ’80s: to spend a healthy chunk of your free time at drug store magazine racks and flea markets searching for something special – something that made you feel different and unique and a part of something bigger. I hope they’ll carry on the tradition.

I’ve enjoyed reading this issue of Empire Magazine. There are some absolutely fantastic articles in here that remind me of those good old days. Jack Nicholson reminisces about his friend Stanley Kubrick. Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Stephen King talk about the influence of Forrest J. Ackerman on their careers. Ackerman was the creator of Famous Monsters of Filmland, another wonderful genre-specific magazine for monster-loving weirdos such as myself.

I look back on my childhood. All those evenings spent playing in the floor with my Mom – the numerous wrestling matches with Dad – were more influential on the rest of my life than they’ll ever know I suppose. In many ways, I’m still that same little boy. Everyone around me has grown up. I have a full-time job and responsibilities and bills to pay – but I still yearn to sit in the floor and play with toys. I have the insatiable need to find a stack of magazines and devour them one by one.

Maybe this wave of nostalgia is hitting because it’s summer time, and with the heat comes flea markets and yard sales and dusty archaeological digs through boxes of toys and tables covered in books and magazines. I long for it – I long for the chance to uncover artifacts from a childhood where not a minute was wasted on reality.

I’m in a sad, adventurous, child-like mood at the moment. The perfect song for this occasion is “Wake Up” by The Arcade Fire. Go ahead, take a listen: