3D cinema has become a sort of cinematic battle ground since Avatar made 2 billion bucks. A silly gimmick which was once defined by yo-yo’s being tossed at the screen, the process has become a sore spot for many film goers as scores of movies post convert to 3D to justify inflated admission prices. Every week brings another 3D experience to the multiplex which viewers must wring their hands about how to see. To 3D or not to 3D, that is the question. All the while the results vary from audacious to horrendous. Me? I say screw 3D. Whatever a movie is at its core is going to be obvious no matter how many dimensions it expands into. An empty, stupid movie is an empty stupid movie whether things fly out of the screen or not. That brings us to two recent viewing experiences, Drive Angry and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Both are features which were heavily pushed as 3D experiences, but in both cases I rejected the extra dimension and let the movie stand for itself. The results may surprise you.
Drive Angry – Though pushed heavily as a gimmick laden 3D experience and nothing more, which certain parts were clearly conceived as, Drive Angry is a prime example of revisionist, grindhouse cinema. Nic Cage, blending seamlessly into the scuzzy scenario, plays John Milton (ha ha), a father escaped from Hell to avenge the death of his daughter and out to thwart the sacrifice of his granddaughter, doomed to be butchered at the hands of Satan worshipers looking to bring upon Hell on Earth. Cage hooks up with an ass kicking hottie (Amber Heard) who refuses to take shit from the masculine side of the gender line and together they embark on a road trip replete with wicked, gruesome violence, retro muscle cars, lots of meaningless sex, and a devil may care attitude which puts many a genre throwback to shame. Looking at you Machete.
Drive Angry is exceptional lowbrow fun and proof positive that it’s the enthusiasm of the minds making the material, not how much money they have to play with, which is important. Angry is a lean mean machine which strives to entertain in goofy, gruesome ways. The 3D aspect, while clearly the intent of a lot of shots, doesn’t make or break the experience. The movie exists on its own merits and though cheap looking around many corners, it proves more entertaining than just about every bloated summer chore to hit the theater since the season started. Cage is great in a role tailor made for his patented quirks. Heard is a hot body with genuine pluck and ball busting attitude which never feels fake. She’s a find and a half and here’s hoping she lands in future endeavors worth her talent. Terminally undervalued character actor William Fichtner plays Satan’s handyman, The Accountant, a retriever of souls out to repossess Cage’s escaped con from Hell. Put it all together and you’ve got a magnificently trashy movie experience which will delight fans of good movie garbage. And speaking of garbage, we come to the other side of the 3D coin.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon – The Transformers franchise has become what’s commonly referred to as a critic proof. No matter how many people stand up and call it a piece of shit, people will see it in droves. $400 million worldwide in less than a week! This lemming like quality of the audience can make critics crazy but I understand the compulsion. We buy into a promise of unparalleled visual mayhem and plunk down our money for a glorious payoff. But rarely does an audience experience this promised grandeur and looking for Michael Bay to deliver it really is a fool’s errand. Dark of the Moon vastly improves upon the incoherent horseshit of his last robot battling effort, but many of his signature deficiencies are still loud and clear.
You can boil down the complaints about Bay and his Transformer flicks into four major things. First, they are incoherently edited and ignore any kind of comprehendible action geography . Meaning they can be like watching a blender grind up your movie as it runs. Second, they are routinely overlong by 20-30 minutes, if not more, and tight scripting would help things greatly. Third, they are populated with characters which could at best be called mentally challenged. I.E. he loves to pollute his bloated opuses with one asinine caricature after another. Fourth, though these films are called Transformers the robots themselves always seem superfluous to their own story. Dark of the Moon shows improvement in Bays abilities with this first complaint. TDOTM, thanks to the editorial demands of 3D, has forced Bay to reign in his aggressive style and he’s managed to craft compelling action set pieces which dazzle. Action fans, and 3D admirers I hear, will love his robot battle interludes. There’s scores of graceful shots of towering Autobots and Decpticons flying through the air which have no small amount of wow infused into them . The movie is also bookended with notable segments, kicking things off with a spiffy premise and ending with a gigantic war of robots. But there’s about 80 useless minutes in the middle and he’s fixed none of his other nagging deficiencies.
TDOTM runs an incredibly bloated 150 minutes, too long by 30-40 minutes at least. The movie is needlessly bloated in the plot department, filled out with scores of characters who rank somewhere between jackass and idiot. John Malkovich, John Turtorro (his third outing), Alan Tudyk, Ken Jeong and many more aggressively mug their way through the protracted narrative and nothing they do contributes a thing. Frances McDormand manages to escape unscathed. If Bay isn’t out to humiliate these professionals for taking his dirty money, then one is forced to assume he has one of the most tone deaf senses of humor of any working director. Or he simply thinks everyone watching is as dumb as the people on screen. Heading up the cast of embarrassed thespians is their leader, Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf’s third turn at his Witwicky character is grating in too many places. LaBeouf, prone to being overly spastic as it is, cranks it up to 11 here. After three films you’d figure there would be some residual ability of the viewer to like the character, but you don’t. It’s impossible to care about any of it. Bay has never rung a genuine emotion out of anything, ever and to expect as much here is ridiculous. But to be so completely unmoved by so much energy is a Hell of an accomplishment that only he could manage. And once again the Transformers, from Optimus on down, feel like marginalized supporting players. They’re there throughout, but with so many people running around playing dufus, the robots take a backseat, making an impact only occasionally.
With all the needless exposition and goofy characters, TDOTM, becomes as uneven as a broken see-saw. A movie which wow’s one minute, then infuriates the next 10. If these movies are your thing then nothing I’ve said matters one bit and you’ll watch slack jawed as Bay crafts the finest 3D action porn around. But no matter how many dimensions it thrust itself into it’s an experience with a few high points, but a lot of low and lousy ones riding right behind them.