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Transformers: Dark of the Moon A Prime confrontation
Image: Paramount

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Directed by Michael Bay
Rated PG-13

It doesn't sound like high praise, but Dark of the Moon is the best of the Transformers trilogy.

North Star

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

This third installment gets off to a great start, with a Star Wars-style space battle that morphs into an historical fiction account that implicates the Transformers as the primary catalyst for the space race between the U.S. and Russia back in the 1960s.

It's a fairly clever piece of storytelling that marries Apollo 11 with Alien and creates a nifty backdrop against which the Autobots and Decepticons wage their final battle.

Then the movie comes back down to Earth. Fear quickly sets in that Shia LaBeouf's apology for the past two Transformers movies was nothing more than words pandering to a hyper-critical public, empty words that would amount to nothing, and he'd be apologizing for this one in a few months' time.

From the eerie moon setting, the next cut is to a hot chick's bare legs walking up a staircase, the camera panning up to reveal her panties peeking out from under a male dress shirt.

Sigh. Is it going to be more of the same over-sexed undertones in a movie series based on a line of children's toys?

Well, no. That's almost as naughty as this installment gets.

And that's a mighty good thing. By cleaning up the raunchiness and focusing more on a story that seeks to draw the action to a close, sole scribe Ehren Kruger has crafted a movie that, at least for the first two-thirds, is surprisingly engaging and funny.

Code Name Hero

The hot chick in this case isn't Megan Fox. Her character, Mikaela, dumped poor Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) during the in-between chapters and now Sam is shacking up in a palatial D.C apartment with Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, a Victoria's Secret model in a reasonably credible feature film debut). She was working for the British embassy before taking a job organizing a collection of antique cars for an ultra-savvy accountant/entrepreneur named Dylan (Patrick Dempsey, Enchanted).

As for Sam, well, life's not all that easy. Sure, he's now in his second serious relationship with a ridiculously sexy young lady, but he's also a college grad and unemployed. Perhaps that explains the shift in tone this time around; the first movie showed Sam finishing off high school and in Revenge of the Fallen he was starting his college career.

With his party days behind him, Sam also sees his glory days in the rear-view mirror. Now he has to cope with reality, or at least director Michael Bay's version of reality.

As his parents drive him from job interview to job interview, in a gaudy RV, the kid can't catch a break. He's saved the lives of those across the interview table twice now. And he's received a medal of honor from President Obama (in a funny, Forrest Gump-like scene).

But nobody's impressed. And he's driving – when it runs – a yellow-and-black Datsun POS because he's no longer a part of Bumblebee's missions. All the kid wants is a job where he can make a difference. And it really doesn't matter that President Obama gave him a medal? Really?

Hollywood Geek-out

There's something relatively special going on under the hood of this episode.

Perhaps it's reading too much into things to say there are Bay-style ruminations on the economy, job hunting, the Obama administration, and war – but it's more than a fleeting thought that this episode should hold up well under repeat viewings.

The kicker here, though, is much more obvious. While Revenge of the Fallen goes way back to ancient history in order to make loose affiliations with the Transformers, this time more recent history takes center stage.

Apollo 11, Sputnik, and Chernobyl all figure into the action. So do Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and Obama. But things hit the stratosphere when legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin makes a cameo and the fun blurring of fiction and reality continues with a spirited interview between former agent Simmons (John Turturro, The Big Lebowski) and Bill O'Reilly.

There's an inventiveness here that was buried under all the off-color humor and off-putting Transformers of the previous episodes.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is the new girl
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Shia LaBeouf and John Turturro stay strong
Photos: Paramount Pictures

And, in a geeky way, it only gets juicier when Leonard Nimoy's voice fills the theatre as Sentinel Prime. At one point in the movie, a scrawny Transformer yips about having already seen the episode of Star Trek currently on TV. It's the one in which Spock goes crazy, he says.

Even better, though, is when Sentinel Prime utters the immortal line, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." Ah yes. Spock's last words in The Wrath of Khan.

Comfortably Numb

Throw in supporting performances by Frances McDormand (Burn After Reading) and John Malkovich (RED) and there's plenty of goodwill to go around.

That's a good thing, because the movie starts to falter in the final act.

As the Decepticons begin to blow away the Windy City, the action picks up with some spectacular visuals and nifty shots of soldiers BASE jumping into downtown Chicago. But, while that action should turn the movie into a full-blown barn-burner, it lurches toward the conclusion like a butt-breaker.

While the action looks exciting, there's something about the execution that feels flat.

Perhaps it's a sense of waywardness as the story figures out how to put the right characters into place; things get a little convoluted as the Autobots, considered political refugees, are sent into exile for bringing the mass destruction of the Decepticons to Earth. There's also a goofy, overly-simplistic narrative device involving a worldwide assemblage of Transformers-style lightning rods, and one key rod (yes, one rod to rule them all) that needs to be taken out of commission in order to bring down the entire network.

Yep, the handling of that action is sloppy. But surely its not egregious enough to warrant another apology from Labeouf.

• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.

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The Trouble with 3D Today

Back in the '80s 3D was a novelty relegated to cheesy horror and sci-fi flicks. And it was a time when it didn't warrant an entirely different tier of movie ticket pricing. The 3D, though, gave audiences jollies by sending things out into the crowd. There was a distinct sensation of being able to reach out and touch the action or, even better, have the action reach out and touch you.

Nowadays, though, the entire 3D experience seems to revolve around nothing more than a depth of field perception, with the action pushing back deeper into the screen instead of off it.

Dark of the Moon has some great action scenes, and those involving BASE jumpers in particular should create a great sense of three-dimensional atmospherics. Those sky divers should fly in from the viewers' peripheral vision, not just stick out in front of a deeper field.

That's the biggest downfall of today's slew of movies jumping on the 3D bandwagon. It doesn't matter if they claim to be filmed with the same camera equipment used on Avatar.

The 3D sensation simply isn't that sensational. And certainly it isn't worth jacking up ticket prices by 30-40%.

Bad with Numbers

At the beginning of the movie, a printout clearly indicates the date is July 16, 1962. The action then switches to July 1969 and the title card indicates "8 Years Later." Ooops. That should be seven, guys.

While on the topic of numbers, it's a curiosity that precisely nine Autobots are sent into exile. Why? What sense does that make? What about all the other Autobots around the world, and those tacky, offensive Autobots seen in Revenge of the Fallen?

Maybe it's rude to ask questions like that of a summer blockbuster. Perhaps the conversation should stick to the weather and LaBeouf's (mental) health.

One More Thing

Yes, there is a reference to Pink Floyd.

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