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At The Movies: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Directed by Michael Bay
Even folks who don’t like Michael Bay and his work are likely to agree on one thing – he sure knows how to blow stuff up. Lots of stuff. With really big explosions. His style of visual excess is also well-suited to the industry’s current reluctant love affair with 3D – a trend that’s as much about charging higher ticket prices and foiling piracy as it is about aesthetics. The third outing in the Transformers franchise is about as big and brash as moviemaking gets, with enough over-the-top action to keep legions of fanboys happy. But there are many problems also – most of them in the first hour and in the later brief moments when things aren’t exploding.

“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” follows the recent “X-Men: First Class” in attempting to ground its backstory in a historical context – in this case the space race and the first moon landings. The basic premise is that the Apollo missions were cover for investigating an alien landing on the moon. To make this case, of long-standing government secrecy and covert operations, the film inserts both real and faked footage of Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Obama in the first few minutes. However, the actors used bear little resemblance and, from shot-to-shot, the outcome is distractingly bad. Seventeen years after “Forrest Gump” used the same trick, and assorted television commercials have had dead celebrities gaining new endorsement contracts, this big budget, effect-heavy movie opens by completely dropping the ball.

It also jumps about narratively, with subplots that vie almost incoherently for attention. Part of the reason seems to be connected to the need to introduce a new love interest for Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwickey, following the separation from the project of Megan Fox. Rather than continue with the same character, it feels as though they simply tacked on a whole new back-story on top of whatever they already had. This discontinuity runs parallel with an appallingly awful waste of John Malkovich in a go-nowhere cameo that would have been better off simply left out.

If any of this bothers the folks who paid to see alien robots beating the crap out of each other, it‘s most likely because it delays the inevitable. But there’s still plenty of that, along with bad continuity that most people either won’t notice or won’t care about. While the controversial pair of autobots that many accused of being racist in the last film have disappeared, for better or worse we have another handy pair of quick-talking mini-bots eagerly filling the presumed void. Meanwhile, amidst all of the CGI, it’s worth noting that one of the best-executed scenes in the movie involves actual people jumping out of an actual plane and gliding towards a target area using wingsuits (think of people in sugar-glider costumes – only more high-tech and less adorable).   

The storytelling here is awful and the plot bounces around like a hyperactive two-year-old mainlining M&M’s during a Ritalin embargo – but the fans of robotic, ultimate fighting championships will still love it. And Malkovich fans should sue.

Horrible Bosses

Directed by Seth Gordon
To its credit, “Horrible Bosses” is openly self-aware in lifting its basic premise from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” Here, three friends with bosses from hell determine that their lives would each be better if their nemeses were dead – and that the best way to accomplish such an outcome would be to trade killings to avoid direct suspicion. Except, of course, the point that nobody mentions in comparison to the Hitchcock classic – they’re not strangers.

One of the upsides to all of this is the casting of three higher profile (than the leads) stars playing somewhat against type as the three awful employers, with Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston (in a blatantly raunchy performance) as the targets of assassination. The would-be killers, in turn, are played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day (who comes over like Michael Cera’s hairier older brother). They’re a talented cast, and the movie has moments of hilarity, such as a scene in which Bateman and Day get gradually higher and higher as they try and vacuum cocaine out of a deep pile rug. But it’s inconsistent and, as often seems to be the case, many of the highlights are more efficiently packaged into the film’s trailer. But it’s not the worst way to spend a couple of hours, especially if you don’t have air conditioning at home.

Sacramento Japanese Film Festival

This weekend sees the seventh installment of Sacramento’s very own Japanese Film Festival at the Crest Theatre.  It has a simple, three-day and six-film schedule without any conflicts, allowing attendees to see every film in the program.  Highlights include a Q&A with director Aaron Woolfolk after the screening of his “The Harimaya Bridge” on Saturday, and the festival-closing screening of the classic “Seven Samurai” by the great Akira Kurosawa on Sunday.  The festival runs Friday-Sunday and full details can be found at sacjapanesefilmfestival.net, including information about a separate Thursday evening screening at the Crocker.

“Forks Over Knives”

Written and directed by Lee Fulkerson
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

I haven’t eaten a shred of meat since watching “Forks Over Knives.”

Ok, it’s been less than 24 hours since I watched this film about the benefits of going vegetarian. But I doubt I’ll eat much for awhile. The premise of this very effective work is that we can solve a lot of problems – both society’s and our own – by eating less meat. A lot less. Ideally, little or none.

I’ve long been philosophically sympathetic to vegetarianism, but scared off by it, too. By scary animal rights people, and also the memory of my 6’5” cousin wasting down to 165 lbs. while going vegan for several years. But he probably wasn’t doing it right – as shown by the case of Mac Danzig, the pumped-up vegan mixed-martial arts fighter who won the Ultimate Fighter 6 competition in 2007.

To back up, “Forks” is basically “Super Size Me” in reverse. Filmmaker Lee Fulkerson, late middle-aged and feeling vaguely but pervasively unhealthy, seeks out the married doctor team of Matthew Lederman and Alona Pulde, who specialize in helping patients switch to a “whole foods, plant-based diet,” a phrase that is repeated ad naseum throughout. I still prefer food writer Michael Pollan’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But the message does stick here.

Six weeks later, Fulkerson has lost 20 pounds, cut his bad cholesterol in half, and improved on a variety of health measures. Luckily, Fulkerson doesn’t try to pull a Morgan Spurlock and make everything about him—it’s the doctors and patients who take center stage.

The shocking thing here is that the problem isn’t the quality of the meat. It’s not the antibiotics and hormones, or the feedlot conditions or unsanitary slaughterhouses. It’s the meatness of the meat. In very understandable terms, “Forks” details the slow, microscopic damage that too much animal protein does to our cardiovascular systems – which can cause problems in otherwise skinny and healthy looking people. As someone who has bought and consumed more than my share of organic, free-range meat, it was a wake-up call.

The film doesn’t verge into the kinds of arguments that have alienated people from vegetarianism for so long. There is little in the w
ay of guilt over how we treat animals. There’s also none of that nonsense about how our ancestors didn’t eat meat – if you have a big brain and eyes that face forward instead of to either side, you’re evolved to kill and eat things, no matter how many dreadlocks you have or tie-dyes you own. But that doesn’t mean you have to, or should. Our caveman ancestors ate as much meat as they could get their hands on – and, if they were lucky, it would help them survive to the ripe old age of 40, about the age that a diet heavy on meat starts to cause you problems.

The arguments here are all in the form of self-interest. The film shows compelling evidence that diabetes and cancer rates are heavily tied to meat consumption. Some of the shocking statistics include the number of men in Japan who died of prostate cancer in 1958 – 18, compared to 14,000 in the United States – and the fact that overall health, at least for non-Jews, improved in Norway after Nazis invaded, because they stole all the livestock.

And, of course, this would solve lots of other problems as well. “Forks” suggests that our current healthcare cost crisis is a meat crisis. Global warming – also largely a meat crisis. In fact, a human population far greater than the one now on Earth could survive solely on what we feed to livestock.

Of course, the doctors and researchers (and firemen and septuagenarian tri-athletes) are still a radical fringe in this country. And meat sure does taste good. But I think I’m going to say goodbye to it for awhile and see what happens.

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