Friday Feast for 27 July 2007

It’s been a while since I participated in Friday’s Feast, so here we go…

Appetizer
Describe a toy you remember from your childhood.
Optimus PrimeI was in Toys R’ Us a couple of days ago with my young apprentice and couldn’t help but linger at the new Transformers toys. I was disappointed to find only one Optimus Prime toy that actually transformed into a semi. This particular Prime was celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Transformers: The Movie, and would spout various lines from the movie. The Prime I had as a boy was much smaller and had no voice chip, but included both tractor and trailer. In robot mode, Prime’s hands attached to his headlights (which became the ends of his arms when he transformed); in vehicle mode I stowed them in his passenger compartment. Theoretically. The tiny blue fists were constantly getting lost—camouflaged perfectly against the large, dark area rug that covered much of the living room floor—and found again later, almost invariably by a bare foot whose carpeted footfalls were rudely interrupted by a nigh-indestructible hunk of plastic. It wasn’t until I discovered the joys of Dungeons & Dragons that four-sided dice replaced Optimus Prime’s fists as the most unpleasant toy to tread upon with bare feet.

Soup
On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being highest) how observant are you?

I’m nowhere near as observant as I’d like to be; I guess I’m at about a 4 or 5 on the scale normally—I completely failed to notice a vase of roses on the dining room table a couple of weeks ago, even after being in and around the dining room for about an hour—but depending on the situation I can peak around a 7 or 8. I’m definitely more observant when I’m making an effort to notice things. At work, I often take a 20 on my Spot and Listen checks when I’m working on something tricky.

Salad
Where would you rather be at this very moment?

Where ever I could go to comfortably finish listening to Jim Dale read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows without interruption.

Main Course
When was the last time you learned something new?

About an hour ago I learned that I can get a discount on Apple computers through work.

Dessert
Fill in the blank: I have ____________ but I haven’t ____________.

I have taught my young apprentice many things, but I haven’t completed his training.

Podcast: Volcanicast for week ending 21 July 2007

It’s another episode of Volcanicast, the show that’s all about what your hungry, your poor, your huddled masses have been searching for on The Google. It’s a three-host week, with Wesley, Bob and yours truly discussing prehistoric fish, historic speeches and posthistoric Baldwins.

As always, Volcanicast is intended for mature audiences, though that’s mostly due to the immaturity of the hosts.

Podcast: Volcanicast for week ending 14 July 2007

The latest episode of Volcanicast, the podcast about the hottest Google search terms for the week, has been posted at Volcanicast.com. This week Volcanicast goes retro, returning to the classic two-host format you may remember from way back in early June 2007!

Topics this week include porn stars you went to high school with, baseball, reporters who go that extra mile to get the inside scoop, song lyrics, and a whole lot more.

Volcanicast is intended for mature audiences.

Podcast: Geeklabel Radio Episode 50

While Chris and I were at Origins earlier this month, the guys from Geeklabel not only took us out to dinner, but invited us to record a couple of segments for Geeklabel Radio with them!

Geeklabel Radio Episode 50 – Origins and Transformers

The show features hosts Kingfish and The Vicar with superproducer Billy Flynn and a bevy of special guests:

Hear geeks talk about geek stuff!
Hear stalking tips for contemporary creeps!
Hear about the burning of Jim van Verth!
Hear about the hobo who saved Arkham!
Hear Kingfish’s Stupid Question of the Week!
Hear a shocking sheep-related confession!
Hear Mur Lafferty squeal with joy!
Hear Kingfish, Billy Flynn, Chris Miller and yours truly dissect the new Transformers movie!
Hear The Vicar interview Luke Crane (or is it Shaggy?) about Burning Empires the Best RPG of 2006!

Podcast: Volcanicast for week ending 07 July 2007

The latest episode of Volcanicast, the podcast about the hottest Google search terms for the week, has been posted at Volcanicast.com. What are we talking about this time around? Hunchbacks and vampires, April, June and November, yaks and ahhhhhh, the atmosphere!

Volcanicast is intended for mature audiences, on account of a metric tonne of swearing.

Movie Review: Transformers

Transformers
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Transformers (2007)

Starring Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Rachael Taylor, Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight, John Turturro, Michael O’Neill, Kevin Dunn, Peter Cullen, Darius McCrary, Mark Ryan, Jess Harnell, Robert Foxworth, and Elrond Half-Elven.

Directed by Michael Bay.

Somewhere in the frozen northern wilderness, deep within a remote facility, a mechanical being has slumbered for countless years. His name is Optimus Prime, he is the leader of the noble Autobots, and he is probably in a box in the attic, almost certainly missing one of the blue fists that were stored in his passenger compartment when he made his awesome transformation from robot to flat-nosed Mack truck.

Though I dreamed of commanding massive armies of Autobots and their evil enemies, the Decepticons, I owned only two Transformers toys as a boy: Optimus Prime and Skywarp, a black and purple Decepticon who transformed into a fighter jet. Despite their lack of transforming teammates, Skywarp and Optimus Prime engaged in many an afternoon battle, often recruiting LEGO constructs and other toys to their causes.

Skywarp does not appear in the new Transformers movie, and Optimus Prime is now a long-nosed Peterbilt with kickin’ flame job. Also absent is Prime’s trailer; the classic toy tows a box trailer that transforms into a mobile Combat Deck containing Roller, a small scout vehicle resembling a Mars rover. In the movie, Optimus Prime is never seen towing a trailer of any kind.

[Note: Freedom from spoilers is the right of all sentient beings. The following contains plot details about Transformers that you might not wish revealed until after you’ve seen the movie.]

It was inevitable that the Transformers—even the iconic Optimus Prime—undergo another sort of transformation when Michael Bay brought them to the big screen. Unfortunately, diehard fanboys (myself included) are reluctant to look away from the red Tech Spec decoder filter through which we view the mid-1980s, and the slightest change—no matter how practical or necessary—is seen as sacrilege. When it was announced that Michael Bay would be directing Transformers, it was (if I may be allowed to mix my pop culture metaphors) as though a million voices suddenly cried out in anguish.

In all fairness to Mr. Bay, I think we overreacted a bit. True, Transformers has pretty much all of Bay’s trademark qualities—lots of explosions, plenty of slow motion, ((If you find yourself in a Michael Bay motion picture, you should be resigned to that fact that you will be getting in and/or out of a vehicle in slow motion at some point. As surely as Joanie loves Chachi, Michael Bay loves slow-motion vehicle ingress and egress.)) an overwrought love story—but it also has a satisfying number of “hell yeah” moments, excellent armaments, a sweeping sense of grandeur, and giant robots that transform into cars, jets, tanks and helicopters in the blink of an eye at a hundred miles per hour.

For centuries, the Transformers have been searching the universe for the Allspark, a cube with “the power to create worlds and fill them… with life.” Megatron, leader of the evil Decepticons, is also missing, and nearly forty years ago the Transformers first encountered humans in the far reaches of space, an encounter that ultimately led them to believe that both Megatron and the Allspark are on Earth. ((These events are described in Ghosts of Yesterday, the official prequel novel to the movie, but I don’t particularly recommend reading it.))

One of the biggest fears in the fanboy camp was that Michael Bay would make Transformers more about the human characters than the Transformers themselves. Whether Bay could reasonably be expected to make a movie in which the human point of view takes a backseat to a much, much taller perspective is a debate I happily leave to more diehard fans than myself. There’s no question that a pink, squishy homo sapiens named Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) is the primary protagonist in Transformers, and while this opens the door to humans grabbing more screen time than the robots, it also allows for two very effective sequences in which first the Decepticons and then the Autobots reveal themselves.

Intending to search the United States military computer network for evidence that might reveal the location of Megatron and the Allspark, a Decepticon named Blackout disguises himself as a Sikorsky MH-53 Pave Low helicopter and lands at a military installation in Qatar. Transforming into a towering robot, Blackout proceeds to kick almost every camouflaged ass in the vicinity. My only complaint about Blackout’s attack is that—when compared with his fast-moving, diving, dodging, spinning robot brethren—the Decepticon seemed more like a lumbering heavy mech from Battletech than a Transformer; the attack was impressive (I loved Blackout’s radial electromagnetic pulse weapon), but had a very different feel from the remainder of the action in the movie (which is not always a bad thing).

After the assault in Qatar, an Autobot scout named Bumblebee infiltrates a used car dealership disguised as a rusted yellow Chevrolet Camaro ((At the dealership, Bumblebee parks next to a classic Volkswagen Beetle, which was his vehicle form in the original iteration of the Transformers in 1984.)) and is purchased by young Sam Witwicky. Sam soon learns that his Camaro has some strange quirks, not the least of which is the fact that it drives itself and transforms into a giant robot.

Sam, like most humans, fears what he doesn’t understand; fleeing from his demonically-possessed car, the boy stumbles across a police car whose mission (as seen emblazoned on its rear quarter panel) is “to punish and enslave”. Sam soon learns that his Camaro isn’t the only giant robot on the planet when the Saleen-modified Ford Mustang police cruiser transforms into the Decepticon known as Barricade. What follows is a combination car chase and robot battle with rocking guitar riffs accentuating the screeching tires and metal-on-metal body blows. When the soundtrack kicked in, a voice in the back of my head shouted “Hell yeah!” and I couldn’t help but grin as the chase began.

Another such moment occurs after Mikaela (Megan Fox), Sam’s girlfriend-to-be asks why, if Bumblebee is such a bad ass, he disguises himself as a piece of crap beat up Camaro. Bumblebee responds by pulling over and ejecting both teenagers, leaving them apparently stranded. A moment later, the Autobot returns, and as the camera pans over the sleek, yellow lines of his new form—a prototype 2008/2009 Camaro—Tomoyasu Hotei’s “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” fills the auditorium. ((“Battle Without Honor or Humanity” was used in trailers for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1. It is a very recognizable song, filled with cymbal crashes and bold trumpet, and especially apropos when Bumblebee’s yellow finish with bold black racing stripes is compared with the movie poster and DVD cover for Tarantino’s movie, both of which feature a field of yellow bisected by a thick black vertical line.))

Following Sam’s escape from Barricade, the remaining Autobots fall to Earth in their “protocomet” form and, after selecting their various forms—Ironhide (Jess Harnell), a black GMC Topkick ; Jazz (Darius McCrary), a silver Pontiac Solstice; Ratchet (Robert Foxworth), a yellow Hummer H2; and Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), the aforementioned blue-and-red Peterbilt semi—reveal themselves to Sam.

The Autobots arrival, perhaps more than any other part of Transformers, induced a thrilling sense of nostalgia and is another of those “hell yeah” moments. Even Michael Bay patting himself on the back in the form of an excited boy remarking that the protocomets falling to Earth was “more awesome than Armageddon” did little to diminish the ineffable sensation of pure, unadulterated fanboy bliss I felt when Optimus Prime adopted the form of a passing semi-truck and then moments later transformed into the familiar, towering robot for the first time.

Then Optimus Prime spoke and my inner fanboy’s head exploded. Prime, as it turns out, is something of a Fanboy’s Paradox: we cheered at the news that Peter Cullen—who provided Prime’s voice in the first animated television series as well as the 1985 animated movie—would be reprising his role as the Autobot leader. Cullen’s voice is every bit as intrinsic to the character of Optimus Prime as is the distinctive design of the robot’s head and face… and that’s where the Paradox begins. The Optimus Prime of old has no mouth; a very distinct faceplate covers the lower half of his face. Bay’s Prime still has the faceplate, but it slides back to reveal—horror of horrors—robotic lips on robotic jaws!

I can only speculate as to the justification for this travesty, but I believe the intent was to make the character seem more human and give him the ability to emote. Whatever the reason, it just didn’t work for me. Did Darth Vader need a mouth to emote? No! It was all accomplished through body language (thank you, David Prowse) and excellent voice acting (thank you, James Earl Jones). Of all the changes that were made to the characters, this is the one that my inner fanboy refuses to accept; he cannot imagine any practical scenario that justifies slapping a mouth on Optimus Prime.

On the flip side of the mouth issue, we have Megatron, who was voiced not by Frank Welker, but by Hugo Weaving. This would have been an excellent casting choice but for one tiny little detail: Weaving’s voice has been electronically filtered to the point of being unrecognizable. It’s a shame, too, because Megatron would have benefited greatly if Weaving’s personality had been able to pierce through the heavy effects; a little of Agent Smith’s delightful scorn for humanity from The Matrix would have gone a long way to bring character to the Decepticon leader.

Moving right along…

Back in the desert of Qatar, it seems that several soldiers escaped Blackout’s assault on the military base. As they make their way across the scorching landscape in search of a phone, they are pursued by Scorponok, a scorpion-like Decepticon who burrows beneath the sand and attacks just as the soldiers reach a small village. Using a borrowed cellular phone, Sgt. Lennox (Josh Duhamel) contacts the Pentagon and calls for air support as the remainder of the soldiers attempt to fend off Scorponok’s onslaught.

The Decepticon shrugs off the aerial assault until he finds himself at the receiving end of a barrage from a Lockheed AC-130H gunship, which circles high above and fires high-caliber incendiary rounds. The camera shot of the gunship banking over the village with its side-mounted guns blazing tickled my reptilian brain even as the thunderous report of the Howitzers rattled my ribcage. Bay may not be subtle, but he does big and loud very well.

Eventually, a Decepticon named Frenzy ((Frenzy is a small Decepticon who disguises himself as a CD boombox. A quick shot in one of the movie trailers shows the boombox beginning its transformation, which gave me a glimmer of false hope that Soundwave, one of my favorite Decepticons, would make an appearance. Frenzy is a poor substitute, usually coming off as a vulgar interpretation of Johnny Five from Short Circuit.)) locates Megatron and the Allspark and sends a message to his sneaky comrades—Starscream (Charlie Adler), a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor; Devastator, an M1 Abrams tank and Bonecrusher (Jimmie Wood), a Buffalo mine protected vehicle—all of whom have been quietly biding their time for most of the movie.

Frenzy successfully sabotages the cryogenic system that keeps Megatron (designated “Ice Man” by Sector 7, a top secret government agency) ((When Ice Man is revealed, the movie contradicts events that occur in Ghosts of Yesterday. In the novel, Sector 7 arranges a convoy to transport Ice Man from the Arctic Circle to Arizona in 1969, a convoy that is ambushed by Russians; in the film, a Sector Seven operative tells Secretary of State Keller (Jon Voight) that Ice Man was moved to the Arizona facility in 1935, shortly after Captain Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard) accidentally stumbled across the frozen robot on an Arctic expedition.)) safely in stasis. With the assistance of Bumblebee, Sam removes the Allspark from beneath the Hoover Dam (where it has lain since President Herbert Hoover ordered the dam be built around it in 1931) and flees the awakening Decepticon leader.

Autobots and Decepticons clash in the fictional Mission City, where Megatron and Optimus Prime go head-to-head in a winner-take-all battle for the championship title. There are plenty of explosions and the property damage is impressive; twenty-foot-tall robots make big dents when they run into things like skyscrapers.

The sequence that stood out for me in the Mission City battle was not between Optimus Prime and Megatron, but between Starscream and the Air Force. When Sgt. Lennox and Tech Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson) call in aerial reinforcements, Starscream slips into the ranks of the incoming Air Force Raptors and wreaks incredible havoc, transforming from jet to robot and back again in mid-air while taking out one F-22 after another. By the time the Air Force pilots realize that one of the Raptors flying with them isn’t supposed to be there, it’s too late; Starscream (Megatron’s second-in-command and always a bit of a screwup in the animated television series) has decimated the fighters. Unfortunately, the sequence is over far too quickly, and Starscream—displaying his characteristic cowardice—disappears during the final battle.

For all its explosions, collateral damage, and aerial acrobatics, the battle in Mission City also highlights two of my major problems with Transformers: the robot design and the hyper-kinetic camera work. Both serve to make the action very difficult to follow.

When in their robot modes, most of the transformers look very… busy. There are a lot of sharp angles formed by hundreds of pointy pieces of metal, all of which tend to make one robot very much resemble another. Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and (to a lesser extent) Ratchet stand out due to their distinctive coloring, but the remainder of the robots are silver and black and don’t have features that would help in distinguishing one from another.

The problem is exacerbated by camera shots that are shaky and a preponderance of quick jump cuts from one point in the action to another. The end result is certainly a battle between two or more giant robots, but it quickly becomes difficult to tell which robot is which, what exactly they are doing, and who (if anybody) is winning.

When Bay does allow his camera to linger, it is almost always on the exceptionally curvy Megan Fox. During Sam’s clumsy attempts to gain Mikaela’s affections, the camera doesn’t so much pan over Fox’s body as drool over it. As I’ve noted before, Michael Bay isn’t much for subtlety, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the final sequence of the movie, in which Sam and Mikaela are making out on Bumblebee’s hood while the other Autobots linger nearby like fuel-injected voyeurs, courtesy of Ford and General Motors. The scene is established by a blatant shot of Fox’s ample upper chassis that pans to reveal LeBeouf and the Camaro on which they both reclined. Subtle it wasn’t, but I was struck by a sudden desire to visit my local Chevrolet dealer.

Despite its flaws, I enjoyed Transformers. Granted, at times it seemed like Michael Bay couldn’t decide whether he was making a romantic teen comedy or the sequel to Black Hawk Down, but all things considered I was quite pleased with the final product (certainly enough to pick up the inevitable two-disc Platinum Deluxe Collector’s Edition DVD set ((Transforms into matching drink coasters!)) when it is released later this year). I don’t believe any irreparable damage has been done to my precious and fondest childhood memories, and I think the next time I visit my parents I may rescue Optimus Prime from his dusty cardboard containment cell so I can share some of those memories with my young apprentice in the near future. ((Okay, and I want to see if I can remember how to change him from semi-truck to robot and back.))

Podcast: Volcanicast for week ending 30 June 2007

The latest episode of Volcanicast, the podcast about the hottest Google search terms for the week, has been posted at Volcanicast.com. What are we talking about this time around? Skinheads, cheerleaders, the capital of the United Kingdom, bone marrow and Conservapedia.

Thanks, as always, to Oprah Winfrey, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? for driving Google searches last week.

Volcanicast is intended for mature audiences, mostly because the hosts have potty mouths.

Bookstuff: Transformers: Ghosts of Yesterday

Transformers: Ghosts of YesterdayTransformers: Ghosts of Yesterday by Alan Dean Foster is “[t]he story you must read—before Transformers rockets to the big screen!” Until I saw the book on the shelves of my local independent bookseller, I hadn’t been aware that there were prerequisites to seeing Michael Bay’s big screen treatment of my favorite childhood transforming-robot toys, ((I’m still waiting for the announcement that John McTiernan (Die Hard) will be directing the GoBots movie. Any day now…)) but I certainly didn’t want to show up at the theater bright-eyed with cash in hand only to be turned away at the box office due to my own ill-preparedness.

I think Paramount and Dreamworks dropped the ball on this; in all the Transformers pre-release hype—trailers, GM and Burger King tie-in commercials—there’s not a single indication that the audience needs to read a book before they can watch the movie. I can only imagine the scene that will play out over and over, all across the country (if not the world) tomorrow evening:

“One for Transformers, please.”

“Have you read Ghosts of Yesterday?”

“What?”

Ghosts of Yesterday; it’s the official prequel to the blockbuster film. Have you read it?”

“No, I—”

“Sorry, no one sees the movie until they read the book. Next, please!”

“Wait a minute! I want to see Transformers!”

“Sorry, kid. Rules is rules. You gotta read the book. Step aside, please. Don’t make me call security.”

The real tragedy is that Ghosts of Yesterday isn’t an especially good book. The story revolves around a top-secret space mission that coincides with the 1969 launch of Apollo 11, the not-at-all-secret space mission that first put a man on the moon. ((You know, if you believe in that sort of thing.)) While the world watches Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin make their historic voyage to a Hollywood soundstage Earth’s only satellite, a secret government agency known as Sector Seven covertly launches Ghost One, an experimental spaceship derived from alien technology. The source of the technology is “The Ice Man”, a giant mechanoid being, one of two alien artifacts held in secret by the United States government.

During its maiden voyage, Ghost One encounters an unexpected phenomenon on the far side of the sun: a wormhole that transports the ship and its crew to an unknown area of outer space, where they encounter two warring factions of sentient mechanical beings who have been exploring the vast reaches of the universe in search of a lucrative merchandising deal.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the powers-that-be decide to move The Ice Man from the frozen Arctic wastes to balmy Arizona, where there’s absolutely no chance he’ll thaw and wreak havoc on humanity; I mean, just put that thought right out of your head, it’s all perfectly safe. Unfortunately, it’s 1969, and no one’s thought to end the Cold War just yet. The Russians, perhaps a little annoyed that we’re about to beat them to a soundstage in Hollywood the moon, arrange for a little accident en route to Arizona.

It’s not a terrible story, but it felt empty to me. Maybe Transformers—perfectly suited to toys and comic books and animated television series—just don’t translate well to the realm of pure prose. Foster makes almost no effort to describe the giant robots, other than to say that they’re giant robots. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that if you’re reading the book you know what a Transformer looks like so there’s no point in wasting words describing them. And while the story certainly sets the stage for the movie, it really doesn’t accomplish much of anything else. The human characters, for the most part, are just sketches with little opportunity for any true development; of the Transformers themselves, only the Decepticon Starscream and the Autobots Optimus Prime and Bumblebee get much in the way of “face time”, but they’re in constant battle with one another and the only part of their characters that really comes across is the fact that they’d like to destroy their enemies.

I’m glad I read the book, if only because now I’ll be able to stride proudly up to the box office and say, “One for Transformers, please, my good ticketmonger! I have completed the required reading and am fully prepared to enjoy an evening of motion picture entertainment!”