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Transformers (#110 of 7)

Comics Column Special More Than Meets Few Eyes At All: The Legacy of the Transformers

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Comics Column Special—More Than Meets Few Eyes At All: The Legacy of the Transformers
Comics Column Special—More Than Meets Few Eyes At All: The Legacy of the Transformers

I was working on the next comics column, inspired by some of the welcome suggestions and comments to my last entry, when a special date snuck up on me. So do pardon my self-indulgence.

When I began this essay, it was Friday, May 8th, 2009, and Transformers celebrated 25 years of near-continuous presence in various media, from animated cartoons to live action films to, quite obviously, action figures for children and obsessed collectors. It was, actually, the comic book that was released first, with the intent to stir up interest in the new toyline. And with a sequel to Michael Bay’s spastic blockbuster film coming in a couple of weeks and the newest speciously-reasoned philosophy book recently released (surely the sign that you’ve hit the zeitgeist, right?), it’s a time of reflection for armchair pop culture theorists; what has led the property to endure—even, arguably, to flourish of late—when so many have fallen by the wayside? While critical reception to the film largely confirms the popular view that the property’s long-running fiction is little more than a facile toy commercial, is there anything buried there to hold onto?

Noted webcartoonist and longtime Transformers fan David Willis (Shortpacked!, Joyce and Walky!), in noting the anniversary date, proposed, “...perhaps being a marketing gimmick is part of Transformers’ longevity. It’s free to reinvent itself whenever it feels like it so as to keep itself viable…Star Trek had to sludge through forty years, at the end subsisting on nothing more than fumes, before it was allowed to reinvent itself top-to-bottom for a fresher audience.” And indeed, Transformers’ numerous iterations over the years found it trendsetting as often as it drew on nostalgia (the Emmy award-winning cartoon Beast Wars, for instance, was one of the earlier uses of fully-CG animation for a wide audience, debuting only about six months after Toy Story).

Understanding Screenwriting #3: Transsiberian, The House Bunny, Tropic Thunder, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #3: <em>Transsiberian</em>, <em>The House Bunny</em>, <em>Tropic Thunder</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #3: <em>Transsiberian</em>, <em>The House Bunny</em>, <em>Tropic Thunder</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Transsiberian; The House Bunny; Tropic Thunder; Silent to Sound; Transformers; In Plain Sight; Mad Men, but first:

Mailbag: Well, I certainly seem to have ticked off the graphic novel crowd, haven’t I? As “futurefree” and “JJ” noted, I was careful to doubly qualify my comments, and I did that because I was aware there have been some fairly good films made from graphic novels. One that some readers mentioned was From Hell, and one that I am surprised nobody mentioned was A History of Violence, which was terrific until it went a little funny in the head in the last third.

My point, that several readers such as “futurefree” and “Ed Howard” picked up on, is that the form does not necessarily lend itself to complex characters. It is not just a question of panels, but that the images are static, so you do not get the nuances you do in actors’ performances in films.

I have been meaning to admit since US#1 my dirty little secret, which is that I am not a fanboy. As a kid in the ’40s and early ’50s I read comic books, but as I hit adolescence I gave them up, with of course the obvious exception of Mad Magazine; some things are sacred. I never got back into comics or later graphic novels, and the older I get, the less interest in mythical kingdoms I have. I can certainly understand people, particularly in the last seven years, who much prefer to live in mythical kingdoms rather than the real world. But I just find the jumps in logic one has to make a little much. At the risk of driving off all my readers, I have to admit that I have seen only the first Lord of the Rings movie and not the other two. I have not seen any of the Harry Potter films, and only the first Matrix, which struck me as one of the stupidest movies of all time. I avoided Batman Begins (I am a little too old for yet another version of the origin story) and The Dark Knight (even though a friend whose judgement I trust said I had to see it because it was “as if Kubrick had directed The French Connection”). I do try to see one comic book/graphic novel movie a year and this year it was Iron Man. I kept wanting to see a) the outtakes of Downey Jr. and his stunt man trying to move in that outfit, and b) that cast (Downey Jr., Bridges, and Paltrow) in a real movie.

Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions Sound Mixing

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Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

In all the hubbub about Kevin O’Connell’s 20th nomination (well, actually, more like the residual hubbub about his 19th nomination last year that many presumed wouldn’t have to carry over to this year), no one has brought up the fact that the sound mixer’s co-nominee for Transformers, Greg P. Russell, has 12 winless nominations under his belt as well, and has in fact been nominated nearly every year since his work on 1996’s The Rock. That no one ever brings up Russell’s name when discussing what has been sold as the greatest Oscar injustice since Richard Burton or Peter O’Toole lost on their respective seventh and eighth times at bat suggests what the O’Connell buzz really boils down to: PR. If the Sound Editing category is more forgiving of bluster, Sound Mixing favors subtler textures—or at least a surfeit of musical numbers. In the absence of the live instruments that helped Dreamgirls hand O’Connell his 19th loss, we have to admit O’Connell’s odds likely haven’t been this good since the year his nominations for both The Rock and Twister were edged by, um, the tasteful, subtle, Best Picture-nominated textures of The English Patient. Déjà vu. This year’s slate also contains a sole Best Picture nominee, one whose spare but surprisingly inventive sound (inspired by Robert Bresson, not that I imagine most voters would give a shit) also just won the award from the Cinema Audio Society. While it’s true the CAS-to-Oscar track record isn’t quite as solid as either the DGA or SAG, it should be noted that O’Connell hasn’t won a CAS either. And with some of the action-addict votes undoubtedly being siphoned away by The Bourne Ultimatum, we preemptively wish him the best with nomination number 21.

Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions Sound Editing

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Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

Not every tech category where No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are facing off will settle in either of their favor. Case in point, and waaay down on the totem pole for most Oscar pool voters, is Best Sound Editing. Because it’s the sister sound award, Best Sound Mixing, that gets the more tasteful shorthand designation of “Best Sound” over on IMDB, we have to assume many will take this award to mean Biggest, Brashest Boomage, even though it’s the other sound category where you’ll find Steven O’Donnell, the Susan Lucci of big, dumb action spectacles, nominated. (What? His name’s Kevin O’Connell? Oops, well there goes the notion that the PR behind his campaign has made him into a household name. We promise to get his name right in a couple days when we get around to his category.) Because There Will Be Blood’s textures are more apt to convey the ominous creaks of wooden oil derricks, and because the most tangible sonic effect is Daniel Day-Lewis’s roar, I doubt it’s much contest for No Country’s terrifying web of gunfire and ricochets. But even No Country’s sonic tour de force might read more as a coup in sound mixing. This is the category where shattering panes of glass, screeching tires, and flying knives tend to stake their claim of the territory, meaning cunning Oscar pool voters might want to use this category as an opportunity to deviate from the “vote for the Best Picture nominee” ethos that will probably decide more categories than usual this year. Pixar won this category three years back with The Incredibles, so Ratatouille may find similar success with the same recipe of sound-from-scratch. Transformers, all heavy-duty kazoos, is the traditionalist’s choice in this field. When in doubt, though, it’s never a bad idea to bet against the adult-contemporary action movie with a relatively strong critical pedigree. So, in the spirit of Speed, The Matrix, and Master and Commander (and, arguably, Saving Private Ryan and Letters from Iwo Jima), we see voters using this award to christen the Jason Bourne series as the great white hope for reasonably intelligent Hollywood actioneers.

Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions Visual Effects

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Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Visual Effects
Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Visual Effects

There’s obviously a certain bloc of voters in the Academy’s visual effects branch who loved seeing CGI open up a world of animal-on-animal violence, as when Polar Bear #1 clocks the jaw right off Polar Bear #2, or when that monkey gets slapped around by Nicole Kidman. Unless they mistook the seemingly post-produced softening of the actress’s Botox-rigid face as one of the film’s supposed visual effects, they’ve once again gone out of their way to reserve a slot for anthropomorphized members of the animal kingdom, just a couple years after The Chronicles of Narnia did precisely the same thing (and well over a decade after Babe surprisingly swiped the trophy from Apollo 13). The Golden Compass has an odd and off-puttingly dour look about it—at times, I thought I was watching a tribute to those fable-transcribing mid-century nationalist epics from Russia—but I sincerely doubt many will take that as a positive. Even if they do, those fucking Pirates of the Caribbean movies continue to carry the torch as the ne plus ultra of supremely ugly-looking films with shoddy effects. (That the exact same team that won this award last year managed to slip in this year’s lineup instead of the equally irritating but lamentably trend-setting visuals of 300 suggests this is simply a group of voters that prefers their porridge cold…though to their credit, they appear to have finally gotten over the Harry Potter and Spiderman series.) Transformers’ speed-demon visuals carry little pomp, but they emerge as the only sensible option in this lineup.