Sunday, July 16, 2017

Film Review: TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT by Mike Sullivan

If Megan Fox is remembered nowadays, it’s less for her star-making role in the first TRANSFORMERS movie and more for what caused her to lose that star-making role. In a 2011 issue of the UK fashion magazine Wonderland, Fox compared Michael Bay to Hitler and the response was immediate. Fox was let go from the franchise and in her stead, a random Victoria’s Secret model was tasked with bending over in front of a green screen until the batteries in the digital camera died or she got too old. Fox was roundly mocked and criticized for the Hitler comparison, but maybe her comment was taken too literally. Maybe she was comparing Bay to Hitler in the sense that both men are really terrible artists? Maybe she caught a glimpse of the harrowing schizophrenia simulator that was TRANSFORMERS and maybe its incomprehensible parade of crumpled, shattered metal crumpling and shattering other shattered and crumpled metal reminded Fox of Hitler’s -- as one German art critic noted -- “profound uninterest in people?” But whereas Hitler’s landscapes could be considered “good” if your definition of good is “that print of Humphrey Bogart playing poker with Marilyn Monroe will really class up my 1996 cigar bar,” any given TRANSFORMERS movie could be replaced with three hours’ worth of Go Army commercials edited around still shots of random human asses and footage of that dancing NFL robot and barely anyone would notice or care. 

However, if taken within this specific criterion, Fox’s comparison doesn’t work. Hitler’s blandly competent craftsmanship recedes from your memory seconds after you’ve seen it. Memories of Bay’s movies remain in the way an ACL injury never really goes away. The pain can only flatten out until day to day life is somewhat manageable. No, Bay isn’t as bad as Hitler. He’s worse. And while we’re on the subject, he’s no Charles Manson either ("Garbage Dump" is a great song!).

It would be easy to say that the prologue to TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT is the worst moment you’ll find in the film’s nearly three hour running time. But it would also be untrue. After all, how do you qualify the worst moment in something that’s like a three hour ice cream headache crossed with a seizure? It’s unbearable until it ends. Opening with a sequence resembling the panicked, oxygen starved final thoughts of a Warhammer fanatic the moment before it sinks in that this is the way his family will find his body when they open the hallway closet, TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT takes the Arthurian mythos to a place that only Bay can take them. By which I mean it resembles a Superbowl ad for pewter dragons and sweat. Knights are fighting big screaming guys in bondage gear who could be anything from Vikings to those guys that got high off of silver chrome spray paint in FURY ROAD. It’s up to Stanley Tucci to hide behind a pile of dog hair and spirit gum as Merlin and attempt to convince a medieval transformer to save the knights by transforming into, I don’t know, a cathedral? DaVinci’s helicopter? What does a medieval transformer transmorph into anyway? The door Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to? Plague Boils? At any rate, whatever it was that Tucci was trying to do involves a two-headed robot dragon and an ornate staff that either holds the key to saving earth and destroying the Transformers' home planet or holds the key to destroying earth and saving the Transformers' home planet. It’s one of those or possibly something entirely different. It’s just that hard to tell because the story and plot are sloppy even for a Bay movie. Unlike the previous scripts which seem to have been dictated by a screaming seven-year-old as he repeatedly steps on the clumps of plastic that used to be his action figures, the series has matured and now seems to be written by that guy on COPS who doesn’t know how the angel dust got on his lap because he was sleeping at the time and someone must have dropped it on his lap and that isn’t angel dust anyway. TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT still seems to be making it up as it goes along but the childlike innocence has been replaced with the surreal, ‘Am-I-being-detained’-style yarn-spinning of a drunk idiot that has priors and can’t go to jail again.

After the prologue we’re introduced to group of modern day Little Rascals, each with a single defining personality trait. For the amount of time Bay spends on developing these characters and their adventures in the ruins of Chicago, you would think these deeply unappealing pre-teens will play a major role in the movie. But, no, they don’t. But neither does the scrappy orphan (Isabela Moner) they meet and her friend -- a giant robot yurt she apparently lives in. No, in spite of the fact that all of these characters had prominent roles in all of the promotional material, the real star is just moments away from claiming the movie as his own. Suddenly and without warning Mark Wahlberg will arrive, tearing ass in in his post-apocalyptic muscle car! Yeaaah! And so does Bumble-Bee (a yellow Transformer that speaks entirely in Wacky Morning DJ soundboard clips) who blows and up and dies but then doesn’t! Also, there’s a Anti-Transformers task force that never really does anything and suddenly Mark Wahlberg is in the desert! A Chicago desert? A Chicago desert junk yard? Yes! Guess what? Wahlberg, Moner, several baby robot dinosaurs live there! Steve Buscemi is the voice of a traveling robot scrap salesman who visits the junkyard and sells robots the severed heads of other robots. The earth is growing horns! Uh-Oh! Optimus Prime is in outer space and a little fairy (that is bad but floats) robot hypnotizes him into coming to earth to destroy it. Because of horns. Many film hours later Optimus finally visits earth to destroy it but Bumblebee falls down and talks words that aren’t film clips and hyptotism stops. Seconds after he arrives. A CLOCK KLLED HITLER!!!! Mark Wahlberg’s name is Cade and medallion with spider legs has dubbed him Sir Cade! Sir Cade also doesn’t like a tight dress professor (Laura Haddock) but then he rides around in a submarine until he does. The tight dress professor doesn’t believe in King Arthur but believes Mark Wahlberg is chesty and pretty without shirt. But only on submarine! Movey ends at Stone Henge were bang bnag plane happens outer space robort daeth. All over! Tony, Tony, Tony. Hale! He aslo in movie!

Being that THE LAST KNIGHT is "Metal Machine Music" adapted into a movie made specifically for babies born wearing a neon green trucker hat with the word Rage silk-screened across it, the preceding paragraph can only hint at how incoherent, headache inducing and so very fucking stupid the film is. Stupid enough to defy a simple plot synopsis. Stupider than even the stupid previous TRANSFORMERS movie and that had a scene where a furious man pointed to his face and called it “a warrant.” So stupid it can’t even tell its stupid story about an average, blue collar pork roast that sounds like it’s perpetually winded (Wahlberg) and its attempts to stop an armada of giant robots from destroying the earth in a simple manner. Yet, as stupid as this film is, it’s not fun. And believe me, these films should be fun. At one point, Transformers are shown fighting Nazis, at another a robot robbed a bank and went to robot jail! Anthony Hopkins says the word bitchin’ to his crazed robot butler that strangles people for no reason as they drive recklessly through the streets of London. For fuck’s sake, most of the original cast from BARTON FINK either appears as robots or men who play volleyball with robots (a returning John Turturro plays volleyball with a robot. Off-screen, unfortunately). Why isn’t this fun? Mainly because this fun is filtered through something that looks like an air horn, a strobe light and a half-empty can of Monster finally decided to undertake that creative collaboration they always talked about. It’s not just the cheap looking but undoubtedly price-y explosion of ones and zeros that surround the film like the dust cloud around Pig Pen nor is it the interchangeable selection of oversized metal shard things that either sound like the most regressive “that’s what I’m talkin’ about”, Budweiser commercial from 2001-ready, dated black stereotype or John Goodman that make this movie so unbearable. It’s not even the frenetic editing that practically renders everything into monochromatic blur of shouts and clanks or even fact that the ending looks like a soft reboot of last year’s equally excruciating INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE. It’s the fact that it thinks it’s a comedy that makes it so punishing. With a cast larger than three Robert Altman movies combined, THE LAST KNIGHT allows every actor in the film to just riff or workshop their tight five. Which, granted, is not explicitly terrible when someone like Stanley Tucci is doing it but nearly unwatchable when Wahlberg is ‘yes and-ing’ in his pissy, out of breath, ‘why-did-you-punch-me-in-the-stomach-and-then-yell-action’ cadence.

Like anything that’s terrible but inescapable, over the next several years the TRANSFORMERS series will go on to attract ironic, nostalgic appreciation, only to eventually give way to misguided critical reassessments. Shake your head all you want and mouth the word no, but the Chuck Klostermans of the future are coming and they’re bringing their think pieces with him. In fact, it’s already happening. The New Yorker qualified their negative review of THE LAST KNIGHT by dubbing Bay an, “experimental filmmaker of pure sensation.” I could see the discursive, excessive to the point of parody level of commercialism and generally incompetent qualities of Bay’s movies being mistaken for artfulness much in the same way that the unintentionally campy, melodramatic qualities of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray’s films were misconstrued as sly meta-commentary. Never forget Bay is not an experimental filmmaker. Michael Bay isn’t Man Ray. He’s not Kenneth Anger. He’s your Five Finger Death Punch loving neighbor who paralyzed himself by diving head first into a Slip ‘N Slide and spends most of his time editing supercuts of boobs jiggling in slow motion for his YouTube channel.