Transformers: Dark of the Moon

WHO LEFT THE POPCORN IN THE MICROWAVE? Shia LaBeouf leaves work early in 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon.'

BLENDING IN TV and newsreel footage, Transformers: Dark of the Moon tells how Transformerism was hushed up in the 1960s. On the moon, Optimus Prime jumpstarts an aged robot sentinel (voiced by noble old Nimoy). Meanwhile, evil Megatron (now wearing a tattered cloak like King Lear) vows revenge in the African veldt. The final battle (45 minutes of drowse-inducing clash) takes place in Chicago after an opening act in D.C.

A strange variety special with killbots, the film approaches entertainment through the unleashed flamboyance of the actors. John Malkovich (digitally dyed to the color of a tangelo) lolls at the feet of a robot like a puppy. Alan Tudyk, renowned as Wash in Firefly, brings in some European suaveness as a Dutch bodyguard. Frances McDormand's disgust with the entire film is infectious. Even John Turturro takes his tired part and runs with it. And then they put him in a wheelchair, and he rolls with it.

Strange how well 3-D improves matters, too. The technique forcibly slows the editing and gives some visual dimension to what used to look like wrathful lawn-art junk sculptures, or $300 million versions of the roller-skating saps in a production of Starlight Express. Kneeling, looking indomitable and jabbing their big metal digits right into our eyeballs, the Transformers this time sometimes look as scary as the colossi of Russian illustrator Boris Artsybasheff.

What director Michael Bay has in mind for a mood is anyone's guess. The new Transformers is less the work of a man frenzied by clashing metal than someone coming down: It's not speedy, it's tweeked. So much onscreen is like the prattling of our hero's non-sequitur-crazed parents. Indeed, so much is like the very name of the family itself, "Witwicky," which wouldn't even be funny in a Honolulu-set film. The whole thing is just so odd.

The grinding metal does its stuff. There is that. I was more beguiled by the pitiless sexual menace and lethal martial arts moves of the amazing Dr. Ken Jeong, who gives Shia LaBeouf a good roughing up. Hit him again, doc! Of the boggling moments, none boggle so much as Sam Witwicky receiving a rabbit's foot from a Hawt British Gurl (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). LaBeouf holds this token of good luck but why? What does he need it for? Look at his career. He's the luckiest bastard since Ben Affleck.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

PG-13; 157 min.

Opens Friday

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