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TRANSFORMERS -- DARK OF THE MOON , USA , 2011 , MPAA Rating : PG-13 for intense prolonged sequences of sci-fi action violence, mayhem and destruction, and for language, some sexuality and innuendo

The first giveaway that TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON will be a film with serious problems comes early on. In an attempt to inject President Kennedy into the film, a sub-par digital image is used. Kennedy has the unglossed appearance of a student cartoon, the eyes distinctly off, the face itself curiously ill-formed. As rotoscoping, it is not bad, as trompe l’oeil, it is a disgrace. Especially in a film that expends so much effort in crafting even the tiniest element of its mechanical Autobots and Decepticons and then have them interact with humans in yet another overwrought flick from Michael Bay.

Make that three overwrought flicks from Michael Bay. The first, tracing the grand conspiracy surrounding an alien crash-landing on eponymous dark side of the moon, rips off Stone’s JFK with an abandon as wild as it is badly executed. The second is a rip-off of Star Trek, that sadly includes using Leonard Nimoy as the voice of Sentinal Prime, the grizzled mentor of Autobot leader, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). A clip from the original series, quotes from the subsequent films, and dismal attempt to integrate it into the storyline provide the other irksome background to the only element that works. That would be the adventures of Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf), the human kid who befriends, and is befriended by, the Transformers. All grown up now, and paired up with a slinky new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), he has now saved the world twice and is facing the harsh reality of landing a job in a depressed job market with only a degree in one of the Humanities to help. Dealing with his well-meaning but blockheaded parents (Julie White and Kevin Dunn) as they alternately embarrass and unwittingly undermine him with well-meaning intent is the best part of the story. Significantly, it is the part without the Transformers, or the new girlfriend, who was hastily written in when the Megan Fox was dropped. The rewrite is emblematic of the attitude here towards writing. The audience is asked to believe that Carly has given up a career in the British diplomatic corps to accept a job curating classic cars for Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), and to do so for a guy she has just met. Granted it’s Sam, and LeBeouf makes him an irresistible geek who wears his heart on his sleeve, but still.

Interesting characters come and go in a chaotic, episodic fashion meant, for the most part, to distract rather than advance the story. Hence John Malkovich is an extended blip preening as the tech billionaire with color-coding issues. Frances McDormand scowls with a hint of delightful eccentricity as the no-nonsense head of some intelligence agency or another. John Turturro returns to swallow scenery and then gulp it down as the conspiracy buff who’s hit the big time tapping into that market. John Duhamel also returns, but for reasons that, once again, can only be explained by a contractual obligation, so little is he needed. On the other hand, Ken Jeong, as a software engineer with a secret and poor social skills, all but steals the film taking painfully contrived schtick and driving it home with a savagely jagged edge of lunacy. As for the Autobots, they are once again facing down Decepticons to save the Earth yet again. Optimus and Sentinal are deathly dull in their leaden mantles of nobility, and it is the lesser Transformers given the job of injecting some personality into the conceit. Most are merely annoying, though Bumblebee as Sam’s best friend, brims with emotion and even heart. Heart is less evident in Huntington-Whitely, dressed for the most part in immaculate, if form-fitting, white that accents her fresh-faced beauty. She is undoubtedly lovely, but with a loveliness that finds its potency in the still photo. Animation dulls it. Even when filmed with the focus of the composition at a level several inches below her waist

Plot, of course, is merely an excuse for mayhem in the traditional Bay mode. Known, and rightly so, as Bayhem, the film wastes little time in beginning its reign of bombastic terror on the audience. The effects are enormous and realized with fluency, particularly Huntington-Whiteley’s ability to race at top speed for long distances in stiletto heels. The problem is that for all the sound and fury, not to mention balance, there is no finesse, no pacing, no narrative sweep. It starts loud and just pounds along, and rather than the pulse-pounding adrenaline rush intended, a stultifying action fatigue quickly sets in. Death is defied so thoroughly and so often that it becomes like a metronome of destruction clicking along with a hypnotic regularity. By comparison, the discovery earlier in the story that homicidal tendencies lurk in office copiers is stroke of brilliance.

TRANFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON tries the patience of its audience even as it insults its intelligence, rambling, undisciplined, yet somehow very pleased with itself. It brings to mind the question, just because a special effect department can roil a serpentine Transformer through a skyscraper, should it necessarily do so when it’s the small moments that really hit home?

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