Michael Bay's "Confidential Alien Project"

michael-bayThe Hollywood Reporter’s Heat Vision Blog reports that director/producer Michael Bay will be producing a new alien abduction film with the working title CONFIDENTIAL ALIEN PROJECT. Paramount Pictures is said to be behind the project, and a treatment was penned by newcomer Bobby Glickert. Also producing will be Brad Fuller and Andrew Form of Platinum Dunes.
While not much is known about the film at this point, the mere idea of Bay working on an alien story does make one wonder what sorts of theatrics might lie ahead…

Armageddon Blu-ray review

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New Blu-ray release of ARMAGEDDON recalls a time when a Michael Bay film was no cause for dread

Difficult as it might be to imagine, the prospect of a new Michael Bay film wasn’t always cause for dread. After a string of successful music videos, Bay hit box office pay-dirt with the buddy-cop action comedy BAD BOYS in 1995, immediately establishing a signature style of kinetic action visuals on a bed of questionably tasteful racial and sexual humor. While the stars were largely responsible for its success, the energy and strict adherence to formula was 100% Bay. He exhibited a far more refined touch in his next – and best film – THE ROCK, which displayed strong sense for casting and a better grip on action sequence pacing. The film was yet another smash, which guaranteed Bay even more control (and a coveted Producer credit) on his third film, ARMAGEDDON, a hugely expensive sci-fiextravaganza that pushed the limits of 1998-era digital effects.
After Manhattan Island is devastated – and the orbiting space shuttle Atlantis destroyed – by a particularly violent meteor shower, a group of NASA’s top scientists led by Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) discovers that the initial strike was just a preamble to the real threat, a giant meteor the size of Texas that’s due to reach Earth in 18 days. With the meteor too immense to be destroyed by missile, it’s decided that a powerful nuclear device buried near the core would be enough to break the rock up before it impacts. To accomplish the necessary drilling, NASA approaches Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) and his crew of hard-nosed oil rig drillers with the job of a lifetime. The enormity of the task forces Harry to re-hire A J Frost (Ben Affleck) after chasing him away at gunpoint from daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) in an attempt to save her from a blue-collar life. Stamper and his team are trained alongside the crews for the shuttles Independence and Freedom, led by Col. Sharp (William Fichtner), whose military training is put to the test by the less-than-disciplined drillers, particularly the mellower than mellow Oscar Choice and the uber wormy ‘Rockhound’ (Owen Wilson and Steve Buscemi, respectively, making for cinema’s most unlikely geologists). The shuttles finally launch, barely surviving a dock with a Russian space station to gather fuel, where they pick up cosmonaut Lev Andropov (Peter Stormare, reunited with Fargo costar Buscemi). After a dangerous slingshot maneuver around the moon severely reduces the team’s numbers, they must still attempt an unprecedented landing (on a surface without 2 tandem meters of flat space) and then drill through thousands of feet of hard iron for the detonation to be effective. When venting gas destroys the remote detonation system, it’s short straw time for Harry, A J and the remaining crew.
Michael Bay has been making it very difficult to remember that he used to know how to put together a satisfying summer blockbuster. What might have seemed bombastic – or just loud – a decade ago seems almost quaint in the wake of two Transformers films, and Bay’s over-reliance on Americana iconography hadn’t quite worn out its welcome yet (this oversight was taken care of with Pearl Harbor, where we lost count of the number of scenes of Middle-American families huddled around antique radios. Now, were not going to sit here and tell you that ARMAGEDDON is without problems – far from it. The film seriously drags once the crew lands on the offending comet, with Bay creating increasingly incredulous suspense sequences for no better reason than to wring an extra ‘beat’ out of an already exhausted story (and why NASA would think to install Gatling guns on its expedition vehicles would make for a deleted scene that we want to see!)
But you have to give credit where it’s due, and Bay (along with producer Jerry Bruckheimer) shows an almost wizardly casting sense; in addition to giving Billy Bob Thornton his first truly high-profile role in a Hollywood Studio film, ARMAGEDDON features genuine ‘catch a rising star’ turns from Owen Wilson, Jason Isaacs, Steve Buscemi and Michael Clarke Duncan. Almost more impressive is Bay’s knack for filling many small roles with the likes of Will Patton, William Fichtner and Peter Stormare – all welcome faces who take hackneyed characters and make them entertaining and watchable. Plus, look fast for Udo Kier (as a harried NASA psychologist) and Grace Zabriskie (a nagging wife who unwittingly names the meteor).
As for the leads, Willis and Affleck do just fine. Willis can do this sort of thing in his sleep, but to his credit, rarely does. He can take a potentially cringe-inducing scene like his final communication with daughter Liv Tyler, and find a genuinely affecting emotional beat to build on. Affleck, in an early role, doesn’t have the effortless gravitas that his costar does, but exhibits a nice, unaffected humor when given the chance (“I have no idea what I’m doing! See that button (hits button) I have no idea what that does!”) But it’s Thornton that you’ll be remembering, lending the same sort of authority as the executive director of NASA that Ed Harris did in Apollo 13 – and in far less forgiving surroundings!
Unfortunately, the success of ARMAGEDDON seemed to kill one part of Bay while simultaneously awakening another.  His follow-up film, Pearl Harbor, made money, to the extent that it was shoved down the collective throat of audiences in the months prior to 9/11, but good luck finding anyone who actually liked it. Bay’s casting instincts were off, and the few genuinely affecting moments are lost in an orgy of self-indulgent visuals and carelessly slight characterizations. After a brief detour on THE ISLAND (a film that featured a slow narrative build-up in its first act), things have only gotten worse since then, with the two overblown TRANSFORMERS films.
Unfortunately, Disney has let ARMAGEDDON down with a so-so Blu-Ray release that didn’t have to be. Criterion had previously released a deluxe 2-disc DVD, and though that set sports a non-anamorphic transfer (not, unfortunately, odd for a 1999 DVD release), this long out-of-print edition is still desirable for its extras, commentary, and extended cut of the feature (amounting to about 3min) – none of which are in evidence on the new Blu-Ray.  It’s possible that Criterion owns the rights to all of the above, but given Disney’s business practices, it’s a bit much to believe that they would hand over the rights to all that value-added material without at least tying a string to it.
Armageddon (1998)In any case, what matters is the image quality, and it’s quite good. Like Tombstone, Disney’s other high profile Blu-Ray release streeting on Tuesday, April 27th, ARMAGEDDON appears to have been struck using the same master for the older DVD releases. That’s good news the film, which always looked good on home video – even VHS – and not so good for a heavily filtered and artifact-plagued Tombstone. Unlike Bay’s heavily digitized Transformers films, ARMAGEDDON feels amazingly film-like, enough so that we were amazed to see some textural film grain pop-up now and then (particularly in darker scenes).
Equally good is the DTS-HD master audio that retains aural nuance and readable dialog levels without sacrificing the show-off sequences, like the initial meteor shower over Manhattan (featuring several disturbingly realistic shots of the WTC towers being hit) or the beautifully handled dual shuttle launch sequence.
Back in 1998, nobody was going to argue ARMAGEDDON’s place in the annals of great cinema, but more than a decade on, when summer blockbusters like G I Joe thrash about in an unconvincing digital world that leaves even engaging actors like Dennis Quaid adrift without a paddle, who’d have thunk that we’d be holding up a Michael Bay picture as a paradigm of taste and restraint?

John Malkovich Joins…Transformers 3?!

John Malkovich
John Malkovich

Following director Michael Bay’s insistence that the third entry in the TRANSFORMERS franchise would be more character driven comes the news from his official site that he’s signed both Frances McDormand (AEON FLUX, DARKMAN) John Malkovich (MUTANT CHRONICLES, BEOWULF) for TRANSFORMERS 3.
This news is quite surprising, considering the prestige of both actors and their career paths thus far. But maybe this is exactly what TRANSFORMERS 3 needs most; some prestige and a bigger focus on the human characters. TRANSFORMERS was great fun but TRANSFORMERS 2: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN wasn’t nearly as captivating.
TRANSFORMERS 3 starts pre-shoots in a month and is set for release July 1, 2011. What do you think, is casting Malkovich a good idea, do you even have any faith left in this franchise?

Box Office: Transformers 2 passes $200-million

In another sign that cinefantastique rules the summer box office,  TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN made its debut at #1 despite spite of overwhelmingly negative critical reactions. Michael Bay’s explosive sequel to TRANSFORMERS earned an estimated $112-million in over 4,200 North American theatres over the three-day span from Friday through Sunday. The added revenue from Wednesday and Thursday (the film opened mid-week rather than waiting for Friday) yielded a five-day total of $201.2-million – just shy of the five-day record held by THE DARK KNIGHT.
As for holdover horror, fantasy, and science fiction films…

  • Up was in fourth place with $13,046,000. Five-week total: $250,218,000
  • Year One was in sixth place, down from fourth with $5,800,000. Two-week total: $32,207,000
  • Star Trek warped from #7 to #8 with $3,606,000. Eight-week total: $246,225,000
  • Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian petrified at ninth place, down from sixth, with $3,500,000. Six-week total: $163,248,000
  • 11 8 Land of the Lost dropped out of the Top Ten, dropping from #8 to #11 with $1,143,000. Four-week total: $46,763,000
  • Terminator Salvation also left the Top Ten, going from tenth place to twelfth with $1,085,000. Six-week total: $121,922,000


Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – Science Fiction Film Review

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS sequel is less science fiction spectacle than an excursion into abstract cinema

No other critic is going to admit it, so it falls to me to declare  that director Michael Bay is an abstract artist whose work is continuously misinterpreted. The conventional wisdom is that Bay is a no-talent uber-Hollywood hack, who churns out formulaic action blockbusters in which story, characterization, and dialogue are flimsy pretexts for blowing shit up real good. What critics fail to understand is that Bay takes this approach and extends it one step further: the action and explosions are as much pretext as anything else in his films. Bay is not only eager to break with the traditions of narrative cinema; he wants to overthrow the conventions of mindless roller-coaster movies, in which a series of set-pieces deliver enough visceral entertainment to compensate for the weak storyline. Bay couldn’t care less about using camera angles and editing to orchestrate a decent suspense scene that would put you on the edge of your seat, nor is he interested in calibrating special effects, music, and sound design to deliver legitimate thrills. Viewed through his lens, all of that hardware flying around the screen, punctuated with pyrotechnics and saturated with geysers of flame and pillars of smoke, is merely raw material from which he can extract form and color. Yes, there are “actors” in his movies, along with “sets” and “props” – some of them physical, some of them crafted with computer-generated imagery – but in the end, all of them are simply blobs of light and shadow to be shot across the screen like paint spattered on a canvas by Jackson Pollack. The objects being photographed blur until they lose distinction, their form and function subservient to the aesthetics of kinetic motion, color, and composition.
What is most amazing about this achievement is that Michael Bay has presented his peculiar, idiosyncratic vision while working within the Hollywood studio system, under the guise of making movies that are perceived to be crowd-pleasing, mainstream entertainment with wide audience appeal – even while he resolutely refuses to deliver entertainment on the most basic level. In TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, Bay has at his hands numerous resources that could have been easily marshalled by a more conventional director. Given a rising young star like Shia LaBeouf, Bay deliberately uses camera angles, movement, and editing to split the actor’s performance up into a series of jigsaw puzzle pieces that barely fit, giving only the vaguest hint of a character portrait, our attention instead directed to the size and shape of the pieces.

Megan Fox
Megan Fox

Even more obviously, given Megan Fox, who is probably the hottest woman on the planet (Jessica Alba notwithstanding), Bay can barely be bothered to exploit her latent sex appeal. Like Goddard, who de-sexualized Bridget Bardot in CONTEMPT by filming her bed scene in alternating primary colors that rendered her nudity in abstract terms, Bay uses his over-powering cinematic technique to reduce the leading lady to little more than a glorified extra – her denim shorts, tight clothes, and low-cut blouses registering only as small fragments of the kaleidoscopic kinetic color scheme that is the true raison d’etre of TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN.
Even the potential of the titular toys is undermined whenever possible. The fun of Hasbro’s Transformers is that they look impossible: there can’t possibly – or so it seems – be a way to unfold that car into a robot with arms, legs, and claws. And yet, it turns out to be completely possible – a challenging puzzle that engages the minds of children even as they are enjoying play-time with their toys. TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, like TRANSFORMERS before it, is unhindered by physical reality; therefore, Bay sees no need to present transformations that have been as rigorously designed as the toy manufacturers, by necessity, had to design theirs. CGI can do anything, so anything goes. There is no need to marvel at clever construction; you need only allow your eye to be dazzled by the shifting slabs of metallic hues as the robots bend and twist like origami viewed in a fun-house mirror.

Despite his meticulous attention to craftsmanship, Michael Bay has not yet fully achieved his artistic apotheosis with his sequel to TRANSFORMERS. He does lapse into conventional cinematic forms at time, much to his detriment (it’s no accident that his biggest box office bomb, THE ISLAND, was the one that tried to tell a straight-forward story without explosions, at least for its first act). LaBeouf gets in a line or two of dialogue. John Turturro is allowed to give something resembling a performance (not a subtle one, to be sure, but it still resembles traditional acting). Here and there a close-up lingers just long enough for the viewer to realize that Megan Fox is, indeed, a fox.* An occasional joke elicits a laugh. A stunt looks like a part of the story instead of an Olympic event. A piece of shrapnel seems to threaten a character in a manner that almost makes you fear the impact rather than cheer on the beauty of motion-color artistry.
Bay’s most unforgivable lapse  in TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN comes when he lets the screenplay present exposition intended to justify the action. Bay seems to realize that no one cares what the Decepticons are up to or why super-powerful Autobots need LaBeouf’s puny character for help; nevertheless, he includes these moments, perhaps out of a sense of obligation to the studios unwittingly funding his excursions into experimental cinema.
Fortunately, these lapses into conventional narrative form take up only a tiny fraction of REVENGE OF THE FALLEN’s two-hour-plus running time. Even more fortunately, when Bay gets back to the action, he shows no desire to pay his audience back for having forced them to sit through the tedium. Staying true to his unique vision, Bay insists on botching the promised throw-down between Optimus Prime and the Fallen. The thrill of victory after a hard-fought battle is almost as alien to Bay as the dramatic necessity of exposition. His is a purer form of cinema, at its best when unfettered by such quaint considerations.
We can only hope that he continues to explore this avenue, taking if further and further, until one day, perhaps, he ceases to photograph identifiable objects at all. With advances in computer-generated imagery, we look forward to the day when Bay indulges in a purely abstract phantasmagoria of sound and color, whose shapes and sizes are dictated only by the director’s imagination, not by the face and bodies of actors; their movements coordinated not according to some unnecessary “plot”  but choreographed like a dance; the soundtrack score serving not to convey an illusionary sense of emotional investment in plot or character, but freed to work purely in rhythmic and melodic terms.
‘Tis a consumation devoutly to be missed, but until that glorious day arrives when Bay delivers his perfect masterpiece, we must be content with the psychadelic stylings of TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN.

  • In one inexplicable close-up, Megan Fox is supposed to be expressing fear at the approach of a Decepticon, but her wide eyes and softly parted lips suggest a woman anticipating the arrival of her paramour in a romantic mood. Subsequent shots show Fox with her hand covering her mouth, as if Bay and/or his editor suddenly realized this was the only way to prevent her come-hither look from overwhelming the rest of the scene. Why the first shot was allowed to remain is a mystery – a sop to teen-age boys, perhaps? You can view the scene here.

Optimus Prime
Optimus Prime

TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN(2009). Directed by Michael Bay.  Written by Ehren Kruger & Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman. Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Isabel Lucas, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Rainn Wilson, Ramon Rodriguez, Hugo Weaving (voice of Megatron), Peter Cullen (voice of Optimus Prime). 

Transformers 2 is #1 overseas, Terminator 4 is #2

Hollywood Reporter informs us that TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, which opened in only a couple of major foreign markets last week, nevertheless managed to blast its way to the top of the overseas box office charts, earning nearly $20-million in Japan and England. The sequel outperformed the opening of the original TRANSFORMERS film in both territories.
Apparently foreign audiences have a taste for high-tech sci-fi hardware this summer, because the #2 film this week is TERMINATOR SALVATION, which grossed over $18-million overseas, after having been #1 last weekend.

More on Freddy's New Nightmare

ShockTillYouDrop.Com reports that Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes productions and Warner Brothers Studios have agreed to make the previously announced remake of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET their next project. Wesley Strick (CAPE FEAR) will write the screenplay, which is expected to go before the cameras in Chicago this spring. Says producer Brad Fuller:

It’s like what we’re doing to Friday the 13th,” says Fuller. “It’s not Freddy cracking jokes. We want to make a horrifying movie. The concept is so scary, don’t fall asleep or you’ll die. This guy gets you when you’re most vulnerable, in your sleep. We love that. That’s the basis of the movie. It’ll be most similar to the first one but in terms of kills and dreams we’ll borrow from the entire series.”

Apparently, Warner Brothers’ decision to go ahead with the project was based in part upon positive response to test screenings for the FRIDAY THE 13TH remake. Robert Englund will not return as Freddy Krueger, but he may get some other role in the film.
Stuart Wood at CinemaBlend.com is less than optimistic about the news, decrying the lack of originality. I say, with Strick on the script, this one is at least worthy of the benefit of the doubt.

Transformers blows things up real good – Science Fiction Film Review

Optimus Prime - one of the good autobots. 

This sci-fi action flick featuring Good and Evil robots based on the famous Hasbro toys promises to be another WAR OF THE WORLDS or INDEPENDENCE DAY. Although it strives to appeal to the whole family, it winds up emerging as a kiddie flick on steroids – a big-budget, effects heavy, feature film version of a Saturday morning cartoon. The good news is this means that the film is relatively restrained in its use of graphic carnage. The bad news is that the juvenile tone undercuts the suspense, so the film has to sustain itself on spectacle and bad jokes for its two-and-a-half hour running time.

Things get rolling with an attack on the U.S. military in the Middle East, which seems to set the tone for a more conventional action flick, with the expected levels of destruction and a huge body count. Intercut with this, we see high school nerd Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) acquire his first car, which turns out to be a Transformer (an “Autobot” from outer space) in disguise. Sam uses his new wheels to attract the attention of Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), a hot chick who happens to be an amateur mechanic. Meanwhile, the Secretary of Denfese (Jon Voight) is at the Pentagon, trying to determine what attacked the military base, dragging in a bunch of “experts” who look as if they are barely old enough for grad school. More autobots land and reveal themselves to Sam, whose grandfather discovered the evil autobot Megatron in the frozen Arctic wastes decades ago; it turns out that Sam owns an object of his grandfather’s that will reveal the location of a secret cube that could help Megatron’s minions take over the world, and the good autobots want to get to it first. Unfortunately, in-fighting and confusion impedes progress towards solving the problem: an agent of a secret government organization (John Turturro) arrests Sam and his family, but eventually things get sorted out and everyone finally teams up against the common enemy for the big battle at the end.

After the high-octane opening sequence, which gets the ball rolling in a spectacular fashion, the switch to Sam’s story seems like a traditional narrative manuver; you expect to get a multi-viewpoint story with different plot threads tying together as the characters converge and join faces to defeat the threat. However, it soon becomes apparent that Sam is the story, and the movie is in no particular hurry to get to the climactic action, when instead it can waste time trying to milk humor from his predicament.

Sam (Shia LaBeouf) holds the MacGuffin that fules the thin plotAt first this simply amounts to a car with a mind of its own that strands him and Mikaela on an isolated road with a romantic view. Though LaBeouf does his best to play his character’s combination of frustration and embarassment, the comedy hijinx wear out fast, and the scenes wind up more embarrassing than funny.

Things get even worse when the other autobots arrive and follow Sam home, trashing his father’s lovingly tended garden. The scene plays out almost exactly like a similar scene in the animated film THE IRON GIANT, which also had a boy hiding a giant robot from his parent. It was silly then, and with the increased number of robots, it is five times as silly now.

When the film eventually gets tired of its teen love story and turns toward the action the audience paid to see, it delivers a spectacular barrage of computer generated effects that should please indiscriminating viewers, but anyone expecting an awesome epic on the lines of WAR OF THE WORLDS should look elsewhere. The computer-generated imagery has a cartoony look: it’s not technically unconvincing, but the emphasis on speed undermines the impression of size and weight (a similar problem befell the 1998 American version of GODZILLA). Also, quickness of the movements seldom gives viewers a chance to sit back and be totally impressed with what they are seeing; the strategy apparently was to overwhelm the audience by turning everything into a blur of color and motion.

This undermines the impressiveness of the giant-sized autobots. During the early portions of the film, what gets the feeling of seeing an American attempt to craft something along the lines of live-action anime or perhaps GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (Megatron is even kept in an underground lab that looks suspiciously like the one containing Gigan in GFW). But an evil little spy robot soon shows up to provide goofy comic relief, and when the good autobots start talking English – with lame attempts at hip, colloquial dialogue – the whole thing starts to feel like TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES.

The final battle is long and loud enough to pass for a suitable climax, but even here director Michael Bay cannot quite pull it off. The action is clearly not meant to be taken seriously, but he only knows how to shoot everything the same old way he always does; he never achieves the over-the-top loopiness of a great Hong Kong action movie, where the sheer kinetic energy of movement forces you to accept the action, however outrageous.

No doubt, Bay assumed that his target audience would accept whatever he served up, and it is easy to imagine that young children who love the toys will embrace the film. The script, with its blunt messages about Good and Evil and about the human capacity to achieve great things, sounds like a bad ’50s sci-fi flick, but why bother with subtlety when making a film based on a toy line? Bay’s approach matches the material perfectly; he’s always been eager to throw in everything plus the kitchen sink in a desperate attempt to jangle the nerves of an audience with a (suspected) short attention span. With TRANSFORMERS, he may finally have found a subject, with a built-in audience, perfectly suited to his particular talents.

 Rollerblading Robots

TRANSFORMERS (2007). Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman. Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Jon Voight, Bernie Mac, Rachel Taylor, Tyrese Gibson, Anthony Anderson, John Turturro, Michael O’Neil, Kevin Dunn, Julie White.