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The Work of Director Spike Jonze

The Work of Director Spike Jonze demystifies him. He's not a freak or a mad genius. —Marty Mapes (DVD review...)

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Can a movie like Transformers, a concoction served up as a big screen adrenaline rush, really be a better experience at home? In the case of the Transformers Blu-ray, the answer is a hugely surprising – and resounding – yes. The picture quality pops with stunning clarity and detail, the audio rumbles and rocks, and the disc’s BD-Live features include a great rarity: a highly entertaining trivia track loaded with character- and story-driven material.

With Transformers and Beowulf, another Paramount title that first appeared on HD DVD, the studio has leapfrogged the competition by playing with the new format’s bells and whistles and delivering to fence-riders a couple great movies loaded up with enticing reasons to upgrade.

To Punish and Enslave

Transformers + Blu-ray = Spectacular
Transformers + Blu-ray = Spectacular

The Transformers story is simple. Back on the planet Cybertron, Autobots (led by the most righteous Optimus Prime) battled Decepticons (led by the evilicious Megatron, presented here in a surprisingly small role). The source of their conflict was control over a powerful cube that wound up getting blasted into outer space.

You know the drill. Power can be used either for good or evil. Unfortunately, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the black hole and those menacing sons of Edsel are always lookin’ for destruction.

With the hieroglyphic cube lost in space, the dueling brands of shape-shifting gizmos have been in search of their all-powerful treasure. The Autobots want to destroy it in order to bring the war to an end. The Decepticons want to own it in order to wreak havoc on gadgets and automobiles across the universe.

Unfortunately for mankind, the cube found its way to Earth.

Car Meets Boy

Much like the Transformers themselves, this movie rapidly shifts from high-comedy to over-the-top action. Perhaps not-so-surprisingly, given Michael Bay’s choppy résumé (which includes the decent The Rock and the Godawful The Island), the comedy actually works much better. That said, the action scenes, which in the theater seemed so manic and fueled by such testosterone-driven pixilation, play much better on the home screen, buoyed by the crystalline crispness of the Blu-ray picture.

Even so, the humanity found in the movie’s humor is what really drives the underlying story, which is ultimately about a boy and his car. The boy’s name is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, Disturbia) and the car is a burnt-out Camaro his dad buys for him from a huckster used car dealer (gamely played up by the late Bernie Mac, Ocean’s Eleven).

For a teenager in heat, the Camaro is, in Sam’s eyes, the ultimate babe magnet. The babe in this case is the out-of-his-league Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen). They’ve been in the same school together since first grade and currently are in several of the same classes, yet Mikaela doesn’t recognize the benchwarmer whose eBay handle is “ladiesman217.” (Quick! eBay’s selling all sorts of Transformers history right at this moment. Bid now!)

It’s clear from the outset that Sam’s yellow Camaro has a mind of its own, one that can set the right tone by playing the perfect pop song off the radio.

Satan’s Camaro and Mom’s Pink Bicycle

Transformers does get credit for feeling fresh. It was, after all, the “biggest” non-sequel movie of 2007. It also gets a nod for generating a real sense of movie magic on more than one occasion, a feat sadly lacking in this year’s The Clone Wars, the lame animated edition of the once highly magical Star Wars saga. But, on the flip side, the movie doesn’t deliver the kind of multi-layered heft that made The Dark Knight so exceptional.

Bay and his writer-collaborators on the aforementioned fiasco called The Island, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, take great pains to come up with a pretty clever back story for Sam Witwicky, one which helps explain the Camaro’s affinity for its teenage “owner.” But a portion of the movie deals with the U.S. military in Qatar, fighting the war against terror with all sorts of nifty, man-made machinery.

The filmmakers are so skeptical of their audience’s geographic and political knowledge, each time the movie shifts to that location, the subtitles boldly state QATAR — THE MIDDLE EAST.

And therein is the movie’s biggest loss. The Earth-bound war doesn’t really go anywhere in terms of creating any sort of worthwhile analogies or juxtapositions that would actually give the movie a good amount of substance. In this high-tech age when American lemmings are given the misguided impression the iPhone is a requirement in order to maintain any degree of self-respect and social relevance, it’s a shame this movie squanders its opportunity to itself be more relevant by relegating a couple political jabs, courtesy of Sam’s relatively loose parents, to the beginning of the end credits.

As it stands, Transformers is, nonetheless, an entertaining romp. It’s Bay at his best: loud, raucous, funny, and relentlessly action-packed. But if Bay and company had only put a wee bit more thought into the story and their overarching objectives for bringing Transformers to the big screen, they could have transformed this movie into a real classic.

Blu-ray Extras

Back in the days of the format war (going all the way back to the beginning of the year), much was made of Michael Bay’s affinity for the Blu-ray format. The format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray, which saw the studios taking sides in favor of one format or the other, relegated Transformers to being an HD DVD-exclusive title, much to Bay’s irritation. The man even blogged about it.

Well, the Blu-ray release of Transformers lives up to Bay’s hype.

Overall, the set comes across as something like a coming out party for Michael Bay. Under the auspices of Steven Spielberg, he comes across more like a rich, big dork rather than a shrill, thoughtless Hollywood hack. And… could it really be said… should it be said… that maybe, just maybe there’s a method to Bay’s cinematic madness? Yikes!

The Blu-ray release captures all the supplements from the standard DVD and HD DVD releases.

On the standard-def side, there’s a feature-length running commentary from Bay that is highly informative. He’ll go for long periods yapping away about this, that, and the other thing, then there will be short lulls of movie-only audio. Maybe the dude had to go get a drink of water. On the high hubris side, Bay starts off talking about how he initially all-too quickly dismissed a phone call from Steven Spielberg requesting he direct the Transformers movie. Granted, Bay is an admitted Spielberg fan who ranks Raiders of the Lost Ark as one of the movies that helped shape his childhood. Even so, the way he tells the Spielberg phone call story, it’s clear sometimes what he says needs to be served with a large silo of salt. At the same time, he does display a wee bit of humility when he explains that one theory behind why they were allowed to film at the L.A. observatory was because he’s related to Leonard Nimoy by way of a marriage. That’s coming from the same guy who boasts of having an “in” with the Pentagon. He’s all over the place and in a way it’s oddly endearing.

As for Spielberg, it’s interesting to see him featured fairly prominently in the supplemental documentaries, both as an interviewee and as a behind-the-scenes participant.

Those documentaries, spread out over nearly two hours, are split into two main docs, one entitled Our World and the other entitled Their War.

Our World is made up of four featurettes, entitled The Story Sparks, Human Allies, I Fight Giant Robots, and Battleground. In this case, it’s mostly standard behind-the-scenes story-telling, planning, and plotting. Bits of Transformers history are rolled up with lots of on-set footage and on-camera proof that Bay’s bite might not be as bad as his bark, as when dozens of cheap plastic megaphones are thrown at the director as part of a practical joke.

Their War is a highly recommended documentary that offers up another set of four featurettes, entitled Rise of the Robots, Autobots Roll Out, Decepticons Strike, and Inside the Allspark. Their War features stories of incredible fan obsession (dang, what was it William Shatner said on Saturday Night Live? “Get a life!”), a hefty dose of toy talk, and a lot of really good technical information related to the meticulous, painstaking effort put into creating the Transformers.

More than Meets the Eye: From Script to Sand: The Skorponok Desert Attack is a lengthy, 15-minute look at the making of the desert scene shot in Qatar (err, wait a minute, that would be Qatar by way of New Mexico – The Desert Southwest). What’s surprising here is that Bay tells his actors they’re about to film a trailer scene. As it turns out, Bay had already determined back in the animatics pre-production stage that this piece would be ideal for use in the movie’s coming attractions footage.

Also on tap is a fairly lame video montage of key concept art and a collection of three trailers (yeah, including the one with the Skorponok scene).

The Easter Eggs included in the previous releases are also available here.

On Disc One, let the movie play out to the end credits, but act fast. The “Easter menu” appears only for a limited time before moving on to the traditional legal mumbo-jumbo. On tap: a Transformers trailer, an Iron Man trailer, and a little ditty called Rise of the Autobots, a brief montage of movie footage set to a rockin’ beat.

On Disc Two, in Our World, go to I Fight Giant Robots and move right. Select the Transformers icon and be treated to a very brief mock commercial for Hasbro’s “Bay Bot” Transformer, a robot with Michael Bay’s head.

In Their War, go to Inside the Allspark and move right. A Transformers icon appears and selecting it will reveal a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Michael Bay’s cameo, which he wound up cutting from the film. It involves him, a Mercedes, and a couple hot chicks getting attacked by a Decepticon.

Select More than Meets the Eye then move UP through the men options. A Transformers icon will appear. Selecting it takes you to a silly little bit of casting sessions for Mojo (yeah, the dog).

Also under More than Meets the Eye, select Trailers then go to Theatrical Trailer 4 then move right. Another Transformers icon will appear. Select it and witness the filming of a deleted scene that involves the dress getting ripped off a hot chick and what might appear to be a slam against the Xbox 360 (a game system with an optional HD DVD player).

Blu-ray Exclusives

There’s still lots more to go. The Blu-ray “exclusives” here, as with the Beowulf Blu-ray, are ports from the HD DVD edition.

On Disc Two, there’s the Tech Inspector, which is a neat little doohickey that allows viewers to choose from six Transformers (Optimus Prime, Ironhide, Bumblebee, Megatron, Blackout, Starscream) and take a painstakingly close look at their head, torso, and base sections.

The juicy stuff, however, is back on Disc One, where appropriately enabled Blu-ray players can take advantage of the Heads Up Display. The feature provides a mix of a text-based trivia track and picture-in-picture footage. The trivia track runs the gamut from behind-the-scenes facts, bits about the toys, and “G1” cartoon references to virtually unrelated trivia, such as information about the “Midnight Sun.”

The picture-in-picture portions cover a lot of ground as well, including raw behind-the-scenes footage and animatics. The best parts revolve around Hugo Weaving and Peter Cullen doing voiceover work, including Cullen’s monologue at the film’s conclusion.

There are some repeats from the other supplemental materials, but overall the feature is quite well done and the picture-in-picture size is perfectly proportioned. However, the transition from standard text trivia to the picture-in-picture footage can be a little jarring, as when the secondary clip starts off right away with an audio comment; a little signal of transitioning into the clips would help ease the segue.

BD-Live content is available for Blu-ray Profile 2.0 and newer players. The function provides online access to download new features and content.

The best feature available at the moment is called “Intelligence Mode” and it offers up a complex dashboard of information for in-movie viewing. On the left side of the screen is the Robot Status Alerts, which is a list of the Transformers that lights up based on which Transformers are currently involved in the action. It offers excellent biographical information about the robots as well as various status updates regarding their activity, including a video game-like health meter that goes down as the robot gets pummeled.

Another piece of this feature is a Data Panel, placed mid-screen at the bottom of the picture, that serves mainly as a unique character- and story-driven trivia track. There is some really great, entertaining content here, including minutiae like the grades on Sam’s last report card; a funny little joke about Sam, eBay, and a G.I. Joe figure (another Hasbro property); Sam’s list of chores; and Ron Witwicky’s household rules.

In the upper-right corner of the screen is the GPS Tracker, which pinpoints the action’s location and lights up a little blip on a regional map.

A separate feature available to download is the Transformers Profiler, which is presented as a layer on top of the left-half side of the screen. The feature presents bios and filmographies of cast members and voiceover talent, and topics such as Transformers history and technical aspects of the production. Sadly, there’s a typo in its menus: “Military Involvment.” Oops. Otherwise, it’s a decent feature, albeit with fairly limited content.

Another downloadable feature is called Menubots, which transforms the in-movie menu bar into one of three Transformer themes. This option is a little obnoxious, actually.

BD-Live connectivity could be a bit sketchy. After accessing a couple of the BD-Live features, the next attempt to return to the option prompted an error stating the player was not BD-Live compatible, while a subsequent attempt was once again successful. Another go-around the next day had no issues at all.

While this type of functionality, at least in this fledgling stage, begs the question as to why the extra content simply isn’t included on the disc right upfront, it is still exciting stuff strictly in terms of exploring the possibilities of BD-Live. The promise is that more features could be added for online access down the road, which is a great idea when one considers that, no doubt, some type of Transformers 2 downloads could be/should be made available in the coming months leading up to its theatrical release.

At its best, BD-Live seems like a “double-dip” killer that could, theoretically, eliminate all those annoying secondary re-releases that too many movies undergo. But, as with DVD, which initially promised BOTH widescreen and pan-and-scan versions of a movie on a single disc, it didn’t take long for studios to separate them out as separate packages.

It’s far too early to tell where BD-Live will go, but based on this set’s Intelligence Mode, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic more comprehensive and compelling options will further transform the format down the road.

Picture and Sound

The image quality of Transformers on Blu-ray is an absolute revelation. Maybe it was the result of the dreaded “dim bulb” syndrome of the theatrical experience with the projector not set to full luminescence, but the Transformers and their hyper-paced transformations seemed really dark and lacking in detail; it seemed as if the FX wizards were hiding the lack of detail behind frenetic action. On Blu-ray, however, those robots in disguise positively zing with a magnificent amount of meticulous fineries that truly makes the movie itself much more entertaining and eye-popping. 

And the audio steps up to its own challenge by matching the video quality on a sonic level. On Blu-ray, the offerings are English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD as well as French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. The awesome rumblings and gyrations of the Transformers are proof positive that Blu-ray trumps the now defunct HD DVD and the, by definition, less stellar Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround track that graced the “red” edition of Transformers.

Subtitles are available in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

How to Use This Disc

Pump up the volume to 11 and bask in the sensory overload of the Blu-ray presentation. Then, if you think you can handle it, rack up Michael Bay’s commentary and the Intelligence Mode simultaneously for total Transformers information overload. If that doesn’t leave you short-circuited, also check out the Tech Inspector and Their War. For those who still can’t get enough, run through the movie again with the Heads Up Display.