Sunday, July 31, 2011

Jon Favreau: Reinvigorating the Western (Cowboys and Aliens)

Daniel Craig, Cowboys and Aliens, Dreamworks, 2011.

A key shot from studio auteur Jon Favreau's important new popcorn flick says it all : Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, bathed in a lovingly hushed light by ace cinematographer Matthew Libatique, each designated their places in both Hollywood and Western narrative iconography. Craig, the potent, silent but strong Brit leading man, our Western anti-hero, framed in a flame of light. Ford, the wise ancient oak, indestructible and irresistable, our Western villain, contrasted beside Craig in darkness. With one shot, Favreau tells us all that is in his heart and mind regarding his state in the artform, as a storyteller and a visionary.

Cowboys and Aliens. The title itself slaps us with the archetypes of the most American and  presently neglected of film genres. Instead of cowboys and indians, we've got cowboys and aliens. Based on an imaginative graphic novel, adapted by a roomful of writers, Favreau uses his penchant for extravagant CGI and mindful plot busting to shape an awesome reinvigoration of the Western genre, by way of science fiction and horror. He is wholeheartedly glancing backwards at the westerns and sci'fi B-movies which enthralled drive-in crowds of the 1950s.

The plot deconstructs the cliches and constants of the Western, apart from the musical our country's greatest stylistic creation, and crafts a rivetingly silly otherworldly epic upon it's exquisite corpse. Craig and Ford are crucial to the shake-up and its overall impact. Craig is an ace at the strong, silent type, but the real revelation is Ford. His naturalistic acting style is overhauled here by himself and Favreau, eliciting a deeply nuanced performance as rich in it's complexities as its gravity. In the 'evil' cattle baron role usually played in the 50s by other seasoned actors, Ford cuts into the heart of the man and presents him to us quite differently than any other actor in the past. The exceptional cast is rounded out by the ethereally beautiful Olivia Wilde and a wonderful supporting flock of character actors, including Adam Beach, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown.

Favreau utilizes his visual spaces to pay homage to not only the championed masters of the western genre, but also the lesser known 50s drive-in auteurs. Andre De Toth. Budd Boetticher, John Sturges, Henry's Hathaway and King are smiling down somewhere, proud of his creative license. Libatique utilizes several techniques he has used on the films of Darren Aronofsky, yet gives Favreau's picture a pulpy sheen of it's own. Harry Gregson-Williams' score recalls the splendor of 50s western scores by the likes of Alfred Newman, as well as the tenacity of Alan Silvestri's 80s blockbuster themes.

Metamorphosing from a schlubby straight man to a director of promise with his funny indie satire Made (2001), Favreau has shown himself to be a major director with a bright future. His love of the smart blockbuster was apparent when he made Zathura (2005), a good film which did not strike a chord with audiences. His two Iron Man films showed clever perception on the corresponding heart and bombast which ignite any super hero movie. With Cowboys and Aliens, he floors us with an epic Summer entertainment which also makes us think. The scary-plasticity of the aliens and their exploitation of the human species recall European settlers who decimated the Indians as well as Nazis incinerating Jews and taking their gold.

His Summer blockbuster as genre mash-up and socio-historical commentary is a triumph. Its science fiction elements are well done, and far more successful than the sci-fi elements of another Summer film commenting on cinema past, Super 8. With Cowboys and Aliens, Favreau has made the best studio film of the Summer, as well as his best film as a director.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ficarra/Requa & Will Gluck: State of the Studio Romantic-Comedy (Crazy Stupid Love & Friends with Benefits)

Kevin Bacon, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Stupid Crazy Love, Warner Bros., 2011

The studio romantic-comedy is in a state of siege, besieged by spoon-fed audience expectation and the influx of cash it incurs. Once upon a time, the studios were not only state of the art, but mavens of style and taste. We find romance micro-brewed, character subjugated to the modern era of state of the dollar.

Cliche is inborn, contrivance apart of the DNA as well. Clever rom-coms comment on their own inclusion in the feeble-minded genre while the red-headed stepchildren just are what they are. Whatever became of the spirit of Capra, McCarey, Hawks and Sturges? Pleasure and depth took a back seat to a graying middle which is ruining it all. Movies don't have to be like this; it is a funk dying for a different drum beat to dance to.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have proven themselves two of the best satirists at work in present Babylon; their script for Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa showed a delightful tendency towards the whimsy of character as well as the darkest edge of humor. Their directorial debut I Love You, Phillip Morris was masterful in its surrealist slant on gay prison love, with a true beating heart at its core.

Crazy Stupid Love, from a semi-inspired script by Dan Fogelman, is a let-down, a sophomore slump if ever there was a definition for the term. What starts out as genuine and funny crashes into the sad circumstances of its imprisoning genre. The brilliant directors salvage what they can, but the picture misses its mark, devolving into sap and stagnancy. Despite great performances from Steve Carell (who's never been better), Julianne Moore and Ryan Gosling, the screenplay is a booby-trap laying in wait to stifle any imagination or intelligence. What truth in human desire the directors do delineate only makes us more aware of what could have been.

Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake, Friends with Benefits, Screen Gems, 2011.

Simultaneously, Will Gluck's Friends with Benefits mines similar paralyzing fields of pleasure and pain. A traditional rom-com set-up is given kick by a cleverly barbed script written by a roomful of writers, and at times the humanity peeks through the hip pop culture references and posturing. Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are as always likable and show adeptness at screwball delivery, yet ultimately what joy can be had from a film which only affords glimpses of fun, when lorded over by the ridiculous demands of its dead-end genre?

Gluck is a talented young helmer, as witnessed by his intelligent design of this misfire and the smart if similarly structurally subdued teen-comedy Easy A. His vision is bright and breaks through in bolts, yet once again the script and its asinine structure are the culprits. Patricia Clarkson contributed her sublime presence to both of Gluck's projects, kicking them up a notch.

What we need is more original screenwriters, or screenwriters not afraid to make audiences laugh and think at the same time. The current school of script structure is wretchedly wrong, and continues to waste what could be good films, relying on plot contrivances that never should have been there in the first place.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Joe Johnston: Saturday Matinee Menagerie (Captain America: The First Avenger)

Chris Evans, Captain America: The First Avenger, Paramount Pictures, 2011.

The Film School Generation grew up on the popcorn-fueled highs of Saturday morning matinees, the thrills and chills of Flash Gordon and the Falcon . . . . they've been delivering their own loving blockbuster homages ever since. The most obvious examples of this movement include Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis, Dante and Milius. Boy's adventure tales streamlined and lovingly brocaded for the big boys of the Baby Boomer set and beyond. Among the more low-key, yet unmistakably adventitious of their ilk are arguably the most recently novel in this vein: Stephen Sommers and Joe Johnston. Together they have crafted some of the most unabashedly nostalgic, serial style studio fare ever.

Johnston started out as f/x guy on the Star Wars/Indiana Jones flicks, and his organic adoration for hijinks and mysterious calamity. The Spielberg/Lucas touch is in his DNA. From his debut, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and his subsequent projects The Rocketeer, Jumanji, October Sky, Jurassic Park 3, Hidalgo and The Wolfman, Johnston has not only proved himself to be the greatest unsung studio craftsman, but also an auteur with a glorious subtext of Americana and pure cinema coursing through his veins.

His Captain America is a lovingly fisticuffed valentine to the audiences of the world, a paean to a bygone era and an invitation to his contemporary helmers that the future of cinema need not treat it's viewers as dull dolts seeking punishment at the movie palaces of the planet. The best super hero movie of the Summer steps into a magical past, reconfigures the Second World War even more imaginatively than X-Men did the Cuban Missile Crisis or Transformers 3 did the American Space program. Captain America has a vulnerable American boy yearning for adventure, heroism and patriotism inside of him, and the emotions Johnston transfuses are palpable.

Shelly Johnson's camera captures the glossy browns and tans of a fantasy American past while Alan Silvestri's majestic score has Williams in its heart. The story sucks you in from the start, a rousing adventure involving the physiological evolution of supermen, Nazi scientists, battle circuses and true love transcending time and space. Beneath the Summer popcorn veneer, Johnston raises issues of American hero-worship, biological ethics and masculinity.

Chris Evans is ideally cast as the vulnerable strongman, backed by a superb cast including Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci, Hugo Weaving, Toby Jones and Dominic Cooper, all fitting their archetypal roles to a tee.

The median of past popcorn pleasures and future blockbuster bliss has never gone down as well. The joy of American movie going and making is our hand in Johnston's Saturday morning glove, floating among his nostalgic matinee menagerie.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Errol Morris: Slaves of Fortune (Tabloid)

Joyce McKinney, Tabloid, Sundance Selects, 2011.

Witnessing the stabilization of the Documentary film in American art, one finds one of the most crucial forms of storytelling, one grounded in a supposedly objective truth always slanted subjectively, in a slow decline like all films, coagulating into a serious stasis. Talking heads beat the point into our heads in unison with selective footage and text. Now, then, what exactly is truth and reality? Is that not the main thing, the central question of all art? How does this represent and reflect who we are as a society and a species?

The best artists in any format take command in shaping their vision of the world to show us ourselves, or even more to allow us to transcend notions of thought and reality. Frederick Wiseman is the master of the documentary form, his unflinching gaze the one true objective eye, albeit portraying a certain section in society of his choosing. Meanwhile, Errol Morris has shaped the doc as imaginatively as any narrative filmmaker. He skews reality and holds up his Interroscope as a cracked mirror to himself, and through our spectatorship, to us.

Morris feels an undeniable care and affection for his "characters" and his "subjects". What contemporary documentary has the impact of style and substance of The Thin Blue Line or The Fog of War? The man is constantly setting higher standards his contemporaries are unable to reach; his declaration of the documentarian as a creative force is unrivaled. Recently, Herzog has risen to his omnipotence, crafting mysterious worlds out of reality we can see ourselves in.

Tabloid, the master's newest work, comes as a revelation, even for him. The twists and turns of a bizarre "love" story told from multiple points of view, incorporating stock footage, gossip rag clippings and a jubilant music score by John Kusiak mines Morris' instantly recognizable style, while reaching new heights of wonder and compassion at the fractured pasts and perspectives of his mind blowing main "character", Joyce McKinney, who unfolds in front of Morris' Interroscope with more depth and bizarre splendor than almost any Hollywood character.

This 70s Miss Wyoming's sex scandal involving kidnapping, Mormonism, British gossip rag celebrity, mime impersonation and dog cloning has to be the greatest film story of the year. Morris pieces it all together with a smirk on his face at the demented factions of fortune. It is easy to see how his detractors can take his portrayals as mocking, and yet, isn't that the greatness of Morris, or any master's style; an ambivalence which leaves us shaken?

Tabloid shook me up, left me in awe, at the shakes of life which make many slaves to their dreams and drives. Morris' heartbreaking portrait of the unshakable McKinney is one of his very best films.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Oliver Schmitz: Meandering Melodrama (Life, Above All)

Khomotso Manyaka, Life, Above All, Sony Pictures Classics

One key virtue of the equal distribution of the melodrama is that it has no borders. The weepie can be from Golden Era Hollywood, 1980s China or modern South Africa. What entwines them as a genre is their reliance on classical theatrical methods of character and narrative development, as well as the universality of human emotion. Their success depends upon the hand which shapes them into a cohesive cinematic whole.

McCarey, Ozu, Sirk, and Fassbinder all mastered the dual devices of the form, while directors such as Seaton, Kramer, Columbus and Perry have struggled with coalescing the fragments. While the latter directors have crafted some interesting films and the sporadic great one, their are debatable as members of the master pantheon, to say the least.

Oliver Schmitz falls more into the second group, although there are moments of clarity and power in his film Life, Above All. Set in a South African village, he traces the coming of age of brave little Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) as she holds her fractured family together in the midst of disease, alcoholism, village strife and death. Manyaka's performance is revelatory as she fearlessly inhabits the fragility and courage of this young woman. The remaining cast members are the tops as well.

A good choice on Schmitz's part is to steep his film in a cutting realism, steeped in the bleached out colors of Bernhard Jasper's piercing cinematography. Yet he fails to mold the work in any encapsulating manner, which I understand is partially the point. The film just is. Only the plot is too been there, the execution too threadbare to be transformative as it could have been. He does say a lot about less developed countries, children and families. We've just heard it all before.

Let's say that there are many elements which make the film here worth existing, yet a whole they do not make. Schmitz  has promise, but this meandering third world melodrama cannot be his fulfillment. George Seaton began with the tepid Betty Grable vehicle, Diamond Horseshoe, and Tyler Perry began with the mixed bag Madea's Family Reunion. Here's looking to his future as a hands on gritty melodrama meister.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Stephen Anderson and Don Hall: Sonorous Storybook (Winnie the Pooh)

Winnie the Pooh, Walt Disney Pictures, 2011

The American animated film has been in a sad decline the past decade as hand drawn preciousness demoted into computer generated banality. The days of classic Disney and later Don Bluth are long gone, replaced like anything by a more efficient way to produce. Occasionally we are blessed with Up!, Coraline, Legend of the Guardians or Rango, only when CGI is combined with all the elements which a good film make: great writing and direction, namely. Creativity and a spark of originality.

Yet nothing can compare to the magic of classic Disney. Those films took fairy tales and classic children's lit and transformed them into moving art, a sheer magic which became All-American in its intrinsic emphasis on our craving for cinematic spectacle forged with timeless themes and emotions.

A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh smote generations of kids across the globe, with its storybook smile upon childhood and imagination. How much has Pooh meant to so many children, starry eyed with the promise of their hearts and minds? The Disney shorts in the 60s spawned some of the corporation's most beloved characters, a merchandising mecca unparalleled in its grandiosity.

So it comes with great anticipation and delight that the first true Pooh feature, based on Walt Disney's original versions of Milne and illustrator Shepard's creations, has come to fruition, and at a perfect time, when children of the cineplexes are drowning in the bombast of flash and 3-D without soul. The simplicity of Pooh and friends, Christopher Robin and the Hundred Acre Wood comes like a breath of fresh air.

The gossamer treasure of this new hand drawn, 2-D picture is deceptive in its delicacy. Winnie the Pooh calls to the child in all of us, the human in all of us, to remember the wonderful years when we looked through clear eyes and understood that its all around us. Disney's new moving storybook is beautiful, nostalgic and narratively adventurous, resounding deep within the child in our eyes.

David Yates: Ending to a Fantasy Era (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Daniel Radcliffe, Warner Bros Pictures, 2011

J.K. Rowling's ambitious, deceptively simple literary bonanza Harry Potter has been a phenomenon unlike any this world has seen. Not the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew or even Twilight can hold a candle to the ways she has stirred up the child in all of us, the craving for magic and drama and a good classic story. Many imitators have come out of the woodworks, but that is all nil in the shadow of Hogwarts.

A decade ago, undervalued studio maven Chris Columbus helmed the first two films in the series, enchantingly old fashioned kids flicks. The third picture, Prisoner of Azkaban, saw master Alfonso Cuaron tapped into the dark teen angst of the plotline, drawing out the themes in the rich visuals of his ingenious adaptation, the best in the series. Each succeeding film saw the f/x and misadventure spiraling upwards, culminating in this climax of a capper to the most popular film franchise of all time.

Deathly Hallows Part 1 set up the storyline, a reckoning of debts, a tying up of loose ends, an end all to end all. With Part 2, we have an apocalyptic rush of sheer pop cinema delight, which washes over you in ash olympia hues, as Harry finally battles Voldemort to the very death. Director David Yates, who capably handled the last few installments, earns merit as it becomes apparent that in the last film he has truly mastered Rowling's universe. As we watch the movie, we realize just how transformative and vital this series has been to the youth culture of the modern world. We've watched Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson grow into their characters, Harry, Ron and Hermione, and it has been a revelation of the casting process and the organic acting contraption.

It also becomes apparent that like all great storytelling, and fantasy in particular, Potter is rooted in Christian symbolism. As Lewis' Narnia in the literary realm and Lucas' Star Wars in the cinematic, Rowling's iconic tales embody the faith and devotion of generations, transfiguring them into a fantastic world of her own reckoning. This has made for a powerfully enduring phenomenon.

Eduardo Serra's cinematography beautifully imbues the armageddon days of Hogwarts, Alexandre Desplat's music score is alternately epic and ethereal. Daniel Radcliffe is especially revelatory, his turn is incendiary as he nears the end of his Harry life, bringing the fascinating character full circle. Out of an eye opening cast, which brings back all of the characters from the seven part series, Alan Rickman as Snape and Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort are both excellent, bringing a tenderness to their "villainous" roles.

The film took me a bit to get into, but once it had me, I was entranced. The visual effects and set pieces are marvelously immersive, sucking us into the magic without the threat of a third dimension. Yates, Rowling and company unfurl a majestic and bittersweet ending to a fantasy era, and the world will never be the same again.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Seth Gordon: Weakness in the Workplace (Horrible Bosses)

Charlie Day, Jasons Sudeikis and Bateman, Horrible Bosses, New Line Cinema 2011.

American comedy has sadly become victim to a collusion of pandering studios, gross out humor and low audience expectation. Comedy that doesn't insult viewer intelligence is left to Woody Allen and the Farrelly Brothers. At least the Farrellys have enough wit to use scatology in context, not just as a cop out. Everybody wants another Hangover, simplistic idiocy which may have a few chuckles, but nothing you'll take to your grave.

And so the Summer trajectory of huge wastes of time and money persists with Seth Gordon's Horrible Bosses, a mostly akward and unfunny movie which could have been something great. A promising idea is wasted with a mediocre script and lackluster direction, which is a shame because the cast is so ready to cut loose in a naughty un-P.C. flick. It all comes down to the captain of the ship: Gordon previously helmed the dismal rom-com Four Christmases, and here drags it all together D.O.A. He should take lessons from Jake Kasdan, who with The T.V. Set and Bad Teacher, is showing the youngsters how to shape an intelligent, edgy satire within bureaucratic constraints.

Recent comedy stalwarts Jasons Bateman and Sudeikis are joined by t.v. comedic actor Charlie Day as three schlubs we don't give a crap about who want to off their bosses: a wicked Kevin Spacey, delicious Jennifer Aniston and over the top, akward Colin Farrell. In between are a few laughs, but the overall effect is boredom. Nothing is pulling us in, making us care then laugh.

What we take away is Spacey hamming it up and stealing the film, making us realize how much we miss him, and Jamie Foxx having more fun than anyone in an extended cameo. Aniston looks great, has her usual charm but plays such a one dimensional and offensive misogynist wish fulfillment stereotype that it makes one cringe.

There will undoubtedly be many more shitty comedies before the season is over, but do yourself a favor and see Tom Hanks' Larry Crowne or Chris Weitz's A Better Life, two imperfect but sublime films which are better than anything else at your local cineplex.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Chris Weitz: New American Realism (A Better Life)

Demian Bichir, Jose Julian, A Better Life,Summit Entertainment.

For every writer and director with vacant dreams of creating a resonant work which speaks to man and country, Chris Weitz and Eric Eason have effortlessly engendered one of the most important pictures of the year. A Better Life not only empowers a majority mainly excluded from portrayal in the cineplexes, but both criticizes and loves our country in all its spiralling complexity. They do what great filmmakers do best, namely lay bare the truth through the kino eye.

A Better Life contains the rhythms, cadences and calamities of life in the inner city of Los Angeles, its noises and colors, as seen through the eyes of two men, a hardworking, good hearted illegal and his teenage son, struggling against the grain of poverty and crime in their neighborhood. So simply is this tale told and so powerfully in each aspect, that a few missteps are taken in stride. The overall impact is shattering.

Weitz, one half of the Brothers behind American Pie and American Dreamz, has forged out on his own and his voice is clear, his eye cutting. After the entertaining fantasy epic The Golden Compass and the deadly dull New Moon, he has hit his mark and we realize we are in the hands of a great storyteller, possibly a future master. He is not only a versatile visionary, but his passions and themes become crystalline within. As in his best work, the affecting About a Boy, Weitz speaks to us of family, alienation, socialization, fathers and sons.

The two lead actors are inseparable from the fluid power of the picture. Demian Bichir rises from the ranks of character actor in Steven Soderbergh's Che to lead status with his wrenching, beautifully calibrated turn as the father. The emotion in his weather beaten face betrays a diamond soul. Jose Julian is fresh and deeply felt as his torn son. Together, their chemistry is a force to be felt. They are the heart of the film, we can see their hearts on their sleeves, in their very faces. This is the most natural, realistic, the best acting of the year.

Javier Aguirresarobe's lens follows their trek through the city, steeped in the shades of the day and the color of the night, as we wonder at Weitz's effortless glide from docudrama to melodrama to suspense film. The main influence is Vittorio De Sica's Neo-realist tale of fatherhood and loss, Bicycle Thieves. But more so than this, his influence is the cultural climate of our country, of wretched immigration policies. Alexandre Desplat's sublime score accompanies these men on their journey, lilting while cleverly incorporating pieces from the ethnic milieu.

This all is bound together by Weitz's strong hand, firm and unshakable. He has birthed his greatest film, one of the most vital pieces of celluloid audiences must, but most likely won't, see. He lifts us up on high while our feet remain on the theater floor.

Tom Hanks: Simple Man (Larry Crowne)

Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Larry Crowne, Universal Pictures 2011.

Too few pictures these days concentrate on the mediocrity and joys of regular, everyday life. Brit kitchen sink master Mike Leigh is in a splendid minority of craftsmen who catch the breeze we all recognize and overlook each and every day. Audiences are hooked on the high octane of empty flicks to wash away their problems for a couple hours, not to reflect on the wonders of our world.

Tom Hanks has claimed his place in hearts and minds of the last twenty odd years as the everyman, the Jimmy Stewart of the post-industrial age. His ability to uncannily connect us with what it is to be an American, in all its sincerity and splendor, is unrivaled. Demme, Zemeckis and Spielberg all utilized him in partnerships recalling the amazing auteur-thesp duos of the golden era. They taught Hanks a lot, as evidenced by his sweet, nostalgic debut That Thing You Do, and even more so his beaut of a sophomore pic, the wonderful Larry Crowne.

What we have here is a deceptively simple comedy-drama, replete with all the "normalcy" of real life as filtered through the glow of "reel life". Hanks has a light touch, savoring his characters in this sweet world, and his script with Nia Vardalos(the best work she's ever done) is effervescent. The plot is almost incidental as the title character loses his job at a corporate chain and decides to go to community college. The people and connections he makes there are the meat of a film which brilliantly dissolves substance into style.

Hanks, looking tired and worn, gleans the soul of a good man with the grace that makes him one of the greatest of American movie stars. We never learn much about Larry's past, but then the film is about living in the moment, taking the time to stop and smell the roses as they say. Julia Roberts has never been better, her warmth and sharpness melded into a tangible woman. Hanks is either blessed or ingenious in having the best cast so far this year, all in top form; Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson, Bryan Cranston, Pam Grier, Wilmer Valderrama, Gugu Mbatha Raw, George Takei, Holmes Osborne and Rita Wilson.

Phillippe Rousselot's cinematography is rich and expressionistic of a world so much like our own yet remarkably optimistic, and James Newton Howard's score matches the playful joie de vivre of Hanks' overall tone. Most of all, Hanks channels the master of feel good Americana, Frank Capra. In all its charm and wile, Larry Crowne speaks to a current climate of hardship and hopefulness running through our red, white and blue veins. Larry Crowne is the real thing, a valentine to humanity, to Capra, to Americans, to the simple man. Larry Crowne is the feel good movie of the year.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Michael Bay: Big City Bombast (Transformers:Dark of the Moon)

     Transformers:Dark of the Moon, Paramount Pictures, Shia Labeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whitely

The third film in havoc auteur Michael Bay's action extravaganza contains some of the most mind melting set pieces in recent memory. Not since Battle: Los Angeles has the utter destruction of an American city been so hypnotically numbing, nearly narcoticized.

For, if nothing else, Bay is the one  American filmmaker who knows how to tap into the inner boys of men, the sheer love of a good explosion, for better or worse. His chaotic template can be alternately grinding and blinding. His best films(The Rock, The Island, Transformers) are pop cinema perfection, welding the distinctly American art of the actioner with classic B movie plotline love. His weakest (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, this film) are fascinating messes which never quite converge their elliptical elements.

Love him or hate him, Bay is a master of the cinematic form. Transformers 3, the weakest in the series, contains some of his most riveting tour de force sequences. Yet it is hampered by a sub par script by the usually reliable Ehren Kruger. The first half is slavishly painful exposition, with Bay's curious combo of slapstick and straight face he has lent the series. Offensive racial and sexual stereotypes and the jarring absence of Megan Fox are only the beginning of stumbles from which the picture never quite recovers. At least Revenge of the Fallen, steeped in its slam bang platitudes, felt cohesive. This time, with a wrenching run time of 154 minutes, nothing comes together.

Labeouf is reliable, Turturro, Duhamel and Gibson return, while John Malkovich and Frances McDormand are left to flounder. The second half is long in coming, but Bay mercifully delivers us from the confines of the inane plot and revels in the glory of his gift. Steve Jablonsky's music score is riveting, and the opening is fascinating in its incorporation of American history, tweaking it into the film's storyline, recalling the much better X-Men earlier in the season.

Reviled or revered, there is no denying that Bay has left his mark on our pop culture consciousness. His passion for pyrotechnics and drive in story splendor is an art form in and of itself, touching us even when he fails.