David Wong: Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Piling on the Transformers series would make me the Transformers series of pop culture commentators. There's no reason to be the billionth person to dive on that pile, and if I decide to do it anyway, I'll be met with the standard rebuttal: "This isn't meant to be Shakespeare, old man! Climb down out of your ivory tower and allow yourself to enjoy some simple, dumb fun, Poindexter!"

But you have to hear me out, here. Transformers 3 (aka Transformers: Dark of the Moon) was 2011's Movie of the Year. Not the best movie, but certainly the most important.

You have to understand that if you're in the business of selling entertainment, the one thing you hate is being held hostage by erratic, egotistical creative types. You don't want the success of your movie to hinge on whether Will Smith is willing to star, or on some writer sobering up long enough to write you a groundbreaking script. No, you want to be able to turn out movies without those people, to assemble and distribute them as reliably as manufacturing toasters.

So the logical goal is to build a movie-making process that renders moot the actors and writers and the volatile process of birthing original ideas, replacing it all with an assembly line of already-established properties can be made and remade endlessly, even swapping out the stars without skipping a beat. The only flaw in that system is that it's expensive -- it costs money to buy the rights to a superhero or a toy line, pile on CGI and fill the producer's swimming pool with cocaine. But you can offset the budget with product placement and snack food tie-in promotions and merchandising dollars.

Transformers 3 is the result of that assembly line working to perfection: Each film in the series makes more money than the last (the first film made $709 million worldwide; the second made $836 million; the third, $1.12 billion). Hollywood has, with this franchise, finally punched in an Infinite Money cheat code. Hooray! And all they had to do was combine everything you've been complaining about in movies for the last 10 years!

Let's run it down:

A. Forget about unoriginality; this bastard is the sequel of a sequel based on a cartoon based on an American toy line based on a different Japanese toy line;

B. It's full of gleaming, detailed, yet supremely artificial CGI effects that are dazzling but that do not for one millisecond look like a real world that you could immerse yourself in;

C. It has a slapdash, zero-effort screenplay that abandons logic and story structure in favor of an action sequence delivery system;

D. It has a huge budget;

E. It's not just full of product placement, but seems to exist only as a vessel for it (the series builds parts of the plot around which car brands were willing to pay the most);

F. It doesn't have any kind of charismatic star at its core -- the lead could have been replaced with the most handsome member of your high school drama class and not a single ticket sale would have been lost. The CGI robots are the stars.

This was the logical end point, what the system had been evolving toward for the last 100 years. They'll eventually get to where they can eliminate all of the risk that creativity brings to the process by simply drawing from the same pool of characters and franchises that have been pre-approved by audiences and giving them a new CGI polish. Then it's just sequel, sequel, sequel, reboot, an automated system that will stamp them out every couple of months.


Michael Swaim: Rango

Johnny Depp and I have had something of a parting of ways in recent years. I've grown weary of his oddball persona and degrading taste in scripts, while he's grown weary of MY oddball persona and the constant vague threats embedded in my writing. Not that I'm not still a fan -- I'd be really broken up if he ever, say, had his eyelids gnawed off by trained helper ferrets.

Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Number 17.

So, out of the Depp loop as I am (what we in the business call "going off the Depp end"), I went into Rango expecting a revealing expose of Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, assuming they'd changed his name and made him a CG lizard to avoid a lawsuit, except from Geico. Imagine my surprise when, instead of sobbing admissions that he drumstick-fucked his way through half of Liverpool's birdcages (what they call "sororities"), I got a neo-Western featuring walking cacti, a gun-tailed rattlesnake Bill Nighy and Sheriff Seth Bullock in a golf cart pulling deus ex machina duty.

It was probably set between Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour.

Sure, it wasn't the fake movie I've claimed to have been expecting, but Rango had so many of the ingredients that made up 2011. It had a sense of constant doom. It had stunning computer-generated ugliness on levels never before imagined. It had an apocalyptic desert wasteland and corrupt businessmen exacerbating the woes of a recession-saddled community. It even had sloppy plotting obscured by a bunch of quasi-spiritual set pieces loaded into the third act, which is an endorsement of the 2012 Mayan apocalypse prediction if ever I've inferred one.

And it makes total sense. In an era where memes roam free across the 'net, multiplying, spreading and getting stranger and more insular as they do, why WOULDN'T the people who make kids' movies think "We should really up the weird factor 25 percent ... kids are weirder these days." And as any YouTube denizen will tell you: "What? Plotting? Uh, just don't forget to subscribe, OK?" Cue over-their-head references, existential monologues they'll never be able to fathom and me quite enjoying the movie, Depp included, while kids around me scream at the hideousness of the talking dead armadillo Alfred Molina and ask their parents why Johnny isn't doing his flappety-pappety dance.

"Because sometimes Depp isn't a whore for Disney, dear."

So no, it wasn't the Ringo movie. Needless to say, I was outraged, but I rest easy knowing that the theater burned down mysteriously soon after. All that was found in the charred ruins was the burned body of a particularly faithful, if clumsy, helper ferret. We'll miss you, Number 17.

Kristi Harrison: Bridesmaids

Here's the plot of Bridesmaids in one sentence: Former cupcake shop owner flips out in the run up to her best friend's wedding. Here's the tweet I tweeted about Bridesmaids during its opening weekend:

I didn't see Bridesmaids during its opening weekend, but it turned out nobody needed my raggedy little ticket for one anyway. The ladyfest ended up being Judd Apatow's top-grossing movie yet, bringing in millions and millions of dollars. Before you knew it, entertainment folks were talking about a "Bridesmaids effect." (Let me save you some heartache -- the "Bridesmaids effect" isn't that thing where you temporarily develop an eating disorder to fit into a tacky-ass dress you'll never wear again.)

Not that I've actually figured out what the Bridesmaids effect is yet, but I hope it has something to do with imagining women in comedies that aren't strictly rom coms. For hundreds of years we've been told that Sandra Bullock, Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston are comedians, yet there's a sturdy sameness to their roles: beautiful, down-to-earth women who are unlucky in love and happen to fall down a lot. Boom. Rom com. Bridesmaids featured an obese woman having explosive diarrhea in a sink. If that's not a game-changer, I don't know what is.

See this, Sandra Bullock? Try telling us you're tuned in to the average woman's problems now.

Here's the other thing I suddenly realized after watching Bridesmaids -- it takes decades to get funny. Young little twentysomethings getting paid big bucks to shill jokes are the exception, not the rule -- at least when it comes to the ladies. Here's a little math I put together for this article:

Kristen Wiig - 38
Tina Fey - 41
Amy Poehler - 40
Sarah Silverman - 41
Chelsea Handler - 36
Mindy Kaling - 32 (She barely made this list, thanks to math.)
Amy Adams - 37
Jenna Fischer - 37
Halle Berry, Salma Hayek, Cuddy from House and Princess Buttercup - all 45. FORTY-FIVE!

I fudged the last group ... they're not individually known for comedy. But put them together and you're only a few years from the next Golden Girls reboot. Imagine the possibilities!

We could all laugh about the inevitability of death because Princess Buttercup is a grownup now.

I suspect the actual Bridesmaids effect has nothing to do with recognizing non-Covergirl spokesmodel comedians and everything to do with riding the ladytrain to the bank ... which is probably why 2011 was graced with The New Girl, 2 Broke Girls, Whitney and I Publicly Declare My Hate for My Teenage Daughter, Yet Wonder Why We Have Relationship Problems!

True story: 2 Broke Girls is all about an odd couple of gals who dream of nothing more than running a cupcake store ... talk about nailing what it means to be a woman in 2011.

Robert Brockway: Sucker Punch

A disclaimer: The spirit of this piece isn't about picking "the best" or "the worst" of the year; it's about finding which photo, song, person, etc. best captured the essence of 2011. However, this has been kind of a bullshit year for me, and as a consequence, I can't help but view the world through bullshit-colored glasses. So if you ask me what the last 12 months have really been about, you're going to get one of two answers, depending on how much whiskey I've had:

1. "A bunch of bullshit."

2. "I'll fight all of you. EVERYBODY. I'm the best. Arooounnnd. And nuthinevergunnakeepmedowwww --"

With that being said, let's get this bullshit started.

The last decade or so has undeniably been the epoch of the nerd. We went from unwashed basement trolls to trendsetters, and all it took was spending all of our money on things we liked anyway. We got what we wanted, everybody made money hand over fist and it finally became acceptable to admit to a few of our more easily digestible hobbies (you still have to closet those miniatures and write that fan fiction under a pseudonym, Narutophiliac243). It has, in short, been a paradise. We really had a good thing going there.

And then Sucker Punch came out.


That movie should have been everything to everybody: Schoolgirls for the horny, mechs for the Warhammer freaks, magic for the D&D nerds, zombies for the Romero fiends and slow motion for the slow kids(?).

But it wasn't. Sucker Punch flopped tremendously, and it was only marginally due to the fact that it was a god-awful film. No, Sucker Punch's failure wasn't about admittedly inferior quality, it was just the inevitable ebb of the nerd flood. To borrow from Hunter S. Thompson:

"There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning ...

And that, I think, was the handle -- that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting -- on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave ...

So now, less than 10 years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Cyrodiil and look West, and with the right kind of Alteration Spell you can almost see the high-water mark -- that place where the nerd wave finally broke and rolled back.

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