Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf in TransformersTRANSFORMERS

I laughed out loud a good half-dozen times at Transformers, and for the first time ever at a Michael Bay movie, not derisively. No one could have been less enthused than I at the prospect of a Bay-directed, live-action "adaptation" of the toys I was too old for in the mid-'80s. (I'll admit to a mildly derisive chuckle at the opening credit: "In association with Hasbro.") Yet all things considered, the resulting movie is great fun - 90 minutes of amusement and frequent exhilaration. The fact that the film actually runs 145 minutes proves to be only a slight detriment.

In many ways, Bay's style hasn't changed much since his testosterone-fueled heyday with producer Jerry Bruckheimer; there are times, especially during the film's incoherently kinetic climax, when Transformers feels every bit as bloated, over-produced, and Ritalin-deprived as Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon. And Bay is still overly fond of the sort of soporific romantic encounters that make you want to throw popcorn at the screen; Megan Fox, as lead Shia LaBeouf's love interest, displays slightly less personality than the Busty Ladies centerfold LaBeouf's character hides under his bed.

Yet something rather remarkable appears to have happened with Bay: The director, at long last, seems to have developed a sense of humor. Bay's action films have always been studded with jokes (or at least punchlines), but until Transformers, actual wit has escaped him; the thudding obviousness in his previous works is replaced, here, by subtlety and cleverness. More often than not, the visual effects in Transformers are extraordinary, but the happier surprise is the way Bay blends the miracle of the effects with comedy.

There's a hugely funny running gag involving how stealthy these enormous shape-shifters are (in a hilarious sequence, four of the 'formers trash LaBeouf's backyard and infiltrate his parents' house without their noticing), and beyond the wizardry of their presentation, the mechanical aliens themselves are pretty damned entertaining. A miniature beastie cackles and runs amok like Stripe in Gremlins, and the transformers' '80s-era colloquialisms and poses and even disguises - that Gremlin turns into a boom box - lead to good-natured chuckles. (I kept waiting for one of our heroes to morph into a gigantic pair of metallic parachute pants.)

And here's another shocker for a Michael Bay picture: With very few exceptions, the actors here are allowed to be as enjoyable as the effects. For my money, every Hollywood blockbuster should star Shia LaBeouf. He's unaffectedly quick-witted, exhibits a playful, knowing sense of irony, and projects earnestness without forcing it; LaBeouf is the most human center a shiny, steely contraption such as Transformers could hope for. Yet he's hardly the only one providing empathy and laughs: Kevin Dunn and Julie White, as LaBeouf's clueless folks, have several scenes of hysterical, long-married bickering; Bernie Mac shows up (too briefly) and gives the film a sizable jolt of energy; Anthony Anderson screams and hyperventilates and does his endearing Anthony Anderson thing; and although he, too, eventually gets lost in the mêlée, John Turturro plays a comedic bad guy with such cartoonish malevolence that you watch him with a big, goofy grin plastered on your face.

Easily my favorite Bay-directed film to date, Transformers may be kids' stuff, but it's unexpectedly gripping and almost unfailingly watchable kids' stuff. At one point, an extra runs across the screen videotaping the awesome destruction, and excitedly yells, "This is easily a hundred times cooler than Armageddon!" Yeah, that's a pretty shameless in-joke. But for Michael Bay, it's a shockingly self-deprecating one. It's an even more shockingly honest one.


John Krasinski, Robin Williams, and Mandy Moore in License to WedLICENSE TO WED

Ken Kwapis' License to Wed opens with Robin Williams' Reverend Frank speaking directly to the camera, narrating the road to engagement for young lovers Ben (John Krasinski) and Sadie (Mandy Moore). We witness the pair's initial meeting, their first kiss, and the first time they decide to spend the night together. But before the camera can follow them into the bedroom, we're whisked back to a face-to-face with the good reverend. "Whoa!" he says to us. "You didn't think I was going to show you that, did you?"

Of course not. Why bother showing us sex when he can spend so much time talking about it?

License to Wed is one of the creepiest, most desperately unfunny comedies I've seen in years. The film finds Ben and Sadie under Frank's tutelage for a three-week, premarital "training program," yet no one involved seems to recognize that the character of Frank is, to put it bluntly, a monster. He questions the couple incessantly about their romantic lives, involves Sadie in a "role-playing" exercise in which she's forced to tell him what she likes in bed, and makes obscenely inappropriate Viagra and "coveting" jokes in front of a classroom of grade-schoolers. He bloodies Ben's nose with a maliciously thrown baseball. (The vehemence of the attack made the audience gasp, not laugh.) He bugs the couple's apartment - purportedly to make sure they aren't having premarital intercourse - and listens, with demonic glee, to the goings-on in a van downstairs.

And all the while he's in the company of a prepubescent, apparently parentless boy who follows Reverend Frank's orders with dogmatic obedience, and all but salivates at the twisted schemes that await the intendeds next; the subtext of this relationship - Frank grooming the young man to be his successor (or worse) - is beyond appalling. (The kid is played by Josh Flitter, who is, quite possibly, the least appealing child actor in the history of motion pictures. Flitter is even more unbearable here than he was as that repellent little caddie in Disney's The Greatest Game Ever Played, though I understand he appears in Nancy Drew as well; I knew I was skipping that one for a reason.)

Actually, Ben does recognize Frank for what he is, and it's a measure of License to Wed's stupidity that he winds up being punished for his knowledge. The film goes out of its way to convince Ben (and us) that Frank is just a well-meaning eccentric with a unique counseling style, and the groom-to-be is made to seem an overly suspicious slacker dufus who deserves the continual abuse he receives. (Sadie, meanwhile, merely seems pathologically dim.) By the end, the couple is happily married, Ben comes to thank Frank for his "guidance," hugs are administered, and a few of us - especially those of us who love John Krasinski on The Office - are left wanting to slap Ben's face and scream, "For God's sake, he bugged your apartment and hit on your fiancée!"

While Christine Taylor and Rachael Harris, in minor roles, provide a moment or two of levity, this is the sort of atrocious material that no actor can look good in - I can't even fault Williams for his ever-sickly, amphetamines-on-auto-pilot laziness because I couldn't fathom how his nightmarish role should be played. During License to Wed's prologue, Frank discusses the institution of marriage and hypothetically asks, "How are you going to make it through with your dignity, if not your extremities, intact?" I wondered the same thing about the movie. At least my extremities survived.

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