I truly loved the first Transformers movie. It was everything you need in a big summer explosion movie, with stupendous special effects, shot through with heart-thumping adrenaline, with just enough character and storyline to allow us to catch our breath and keep us interested. Our hero, high school senior Sam (Shia LeBeouf), is befriended by a car that turns into a friendly robot called Bumblebee, one of a cadre of good-guy transforming robots who fight against the bad-guy robots, called Decepticons. He is aided by a beautiful girl who is very good with cars (Megan Fox) and an armed services division led by Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel).
This sequel has some great special effects, but the story and the characters are poorly handled and the pacing is a mess. When the robots give a better performance than the humans, we have a problem. When the action is so complicated we can’t figure out who is where and in some cases why they are there, we have a bigger problem. When the characters are so irritating we begin to consider rooting for the bad guys, well, you know what kind of a problem we have. And when the racial humor gets so completely out of hand that it becomes uncomfortable at best and genuinely disturbing at worst, it’s a serious problem.
LeBoeuf is always appealing, Fox looks good stretching over machinery, and the movie briefly takes an interesting turn when both human and transformer characters show that they can learn from their mistakes and switch over to the side of the good guys. A stop at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum leads to Jetfire, an engaging junkpile of an autobot.
But it is too loud and it all goes on much too long. The bloated running time is well over two hours, overstuffed with pointless and increasingly annoying attempts at comedy — Sam’s mother accidentally gets high and talks about his sex life, Sam’s father doesn’t get high but talks about his sex life, good guy robots talk like the end men on a minstrel show, and Sam’s college roommate is a loudmouth who wants to get with some ladies and shrieks like a little girl when he is scared, which happens a lot. There’s another series of confrontations between a clueless bureaucrat and our know-better heroes. But the last movie’s clueless bureaucrat somehow switches sides. I would complain that this is not adequately explained, but I don’t really care. By this point, I began to think the Decepticons might have a point about how they could do better with our planet than we could.
Opening this week are “Amelia,” with Hillary Swank as the famous aviator, Amelia Earhart, “Astro Boy,” an animated film based on the classic Japanese character, and “Cirque du Freak,” based on the popular series of books by Darren Shan. Stay tuned for my reviews!
If you saw Where the Wild Things Are this week and loved it — or if your children are too young for it but want to enjoy Sendak on film, try the Sendak collection from my favorite Scholastic Storybook series. It includes not only the title story but other Sendak favorites like “In the Night Kitchen” and the wonderful Nutshell classics that teach letters (“Alligators All Around”), numbers (“One Was Johnny”), and the months (“Chicken Soup with Rice”) to wonderful songs by Carole King. Our family favorite was the one about Pierre, who learned not to say “I don’t care!”
Thanks very much to Professor Michael Ebner and Ageless North Shore for inviting me to answer four very intriguing questions for its website.
Nell Minow: The Four Questions
Why is this profile different from all other profiles? Because today’s guest blogger is Professor Michael Ebner.
#1: Readers of your recent profile in The New Yorker learned much about the role of the Corporate Library and not nearly as much about your role as the Moviemom. Ageless North Shore would like to learn about the impulse that prompted you to assume the guise of Moviemom.
NM: I have always been interested in thinking about why things don’t work. And that is what links both of my jobs. Corporations and movies are both large, complex endeavors involving a lot of people and in general everyone inside and outside wants them to work. When they don’t, I like to try to figure out why not. It’s all just systems analysis.
And I have always, as long as I can remember, loved movies and remembered them easily. Everyone’s brain is Teflon for some things and Velcro for others. The things you can’t forget – that’s you speaking to yourself about what you should be doing. I always wanted a job where I could get paid for going to the movies. And I got my start as movie critic for the New Trier News.
2: It isn’t difficult to detect that your double identity — Corporate Library and Moviemom — play to the realities of the twenty-first century revolution in communication technologies. Ageless North Shore would like to inquire about the balance in your personal reading activities between print and online sources of news and information. More and more on-line? Still reading lots of hard copy? Struggling to achieve a balance?
NM: I love to read online and in print, books, magazines, newspapers. And I love audiobooks and podcasts as well. The most difficult challenge in reading books is the way that all of our other technologies bombard us, making it hard for me to read many chapters in one sitting as I used to. But I do it as often as I can. It’s one of the best things about plane and train rides!
#3 : Your father, the much-esteemed Newton N. Minow, during his term as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, excoriated commercial television programming. He famously invoked the term “the vast wasteland.” Ageless North Shore seeks your own take on contemporary American television from the vantage point of 2009. Better? Worse? Still a “vast wasteland?”
NM: I have a Dickensian “best of times, worst of times” sense about it. I both love and regret the fragmentation. I love the specialization, so that no matter what your interest you can find it on television. But we don’t come to school or work in the morning with the same shared experience any more. The best of television is better than it has ever been before. But the worst is horrifying and I believe destructive. And the mediocre is almost as bad.
Of all the changes since my childhood, I am most upset about the way television has invaded children’s lives. I wish I could eliminate television from all children’s bedrooms, from all meals, and from all but the longest car trips. Parents relinquish so many precious connections by permitting that kind of immersion in media.
#4: You spent your own formative years residing with your family in Glencoe and graduated from New Trier High School. Ageless North Shore seeks your reflections on the experience growing up in the northern suburbs? Was it a shaping influence? Alienating experience?
At New Trier, I had a radio program, I reviewed movies, and I dated David Apatoff. Forty years later, I review movies on the radio and am living happily ever after with David Apatoff. So, I’d call that a shaping influence!
Michael Ebner is the James D. Vail III Professor of History Emeritus at Lake Forest College, where he taught from 1974 to 2007. He is the author of the prizewinning Creating Chicago’s North Shore: A Suburban History (1988).
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