by Bill Stamets

“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” Not in White House.

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on October 13, 2019

Where’s My Roy Cohn?
directed by Matt Tyrnauer
written by Tom Edge
scored by Lorne Balfe presented by Sony Pictures Classics
MPAA-rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual material and violent images.
running time: 97 minutes


by Bill Stamets

“Roy Cohn, Aide to McCarthy and Fiery Lawyer, Dies at 59” reads the obit in the New York Times on August 3, 1986. That’s the epitaph Roy Cohn predicts in a “60 Minutes” interview clip that Matt Tyrnauer places near the end of his diligently researched documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” Although the insistently in-your-ear score by Lorne Balfe – whose credits include the documentary “Salinger,” the biopic “Churchill,” the action thriller “Mission: Impossible– Fallout” and the video game “Assassin’s Creed III”– may fit Cohn’s histrionics, it can at times over-amp this true crime chronicle.

On the day of the film’s release the New York Times ran an op-ed headlined “Roy Cohn Is How We Got Trump” with the sub-headline “From McCarthyism to the mob to Trump, Cohn enabled evil. Why did elites embrace him?”

Where did Tyrnauer– a Vanity Fair chronicler of elites– get the title for his latest documentary? From a January 4, 2018 New York Times article. “Obstruction Inquiry Shows Trump’s Struggle to Keep Grip on Russia Investigation” indicated: “the president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him. Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama. Mr. Trump then asked, `Where’s My Roy Cohn?’ He was referring to his former personal lawyer and fixer, who had been Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s top aide during the investigations into communist activity in the 1950s and died in 1986.”

“Joe McCarthy’s Roy Cohn tells it like it was” announced Esquire’s cover for an article by Cohen in February 1968. Trump’s current attorney general, William Barr, is not in Cohn’s league. To adapt a rehearsed 1988 riposte from a vice presidential debate in Omaha, a 2019 observer could taunt Trump’s attorney general William Barr: “I knew Roy Cohn. Roy Cohn was a friend of mine. Attorney General, you’re no Roy Cohn.” Nor is Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, a former mayor of New York City.

Tyrnauer opens with a close-up of a tape recorder meter. In a voiceover writer Ken Auletta recalls interviewing Cohn for Esquire. We hear the original audio transcribed in subtitles. “What makes Roy Cohn tick?,” asks Auletta. “A, uh, love of a good fight, uh, a certain pleasure I derive from fighting against power and the establishment. I will take on a cause against practically anybody. I hate hypocrisy.” Cohn lived for irony– and to play the press– imply those last three words.

Esquire headlined its December 1978 cover story “Don’t Mess with Roy Cohn, The Legal Executioner.” Auletta there asserts: “He is a self-proclaimed `cynic’ who nevertheless calls many of his cases `causes.’”

Fights, fees and infamy drive this cynic more than any cause, even if vigorous anti- Communist endeavors launched Cohen’s career. Right out of Columbia’s law school, he started as a Special Assistant Attorney General and earned notoriety during the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. From there he became chief counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations run by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Cohn’s contemporaries and later historians suspect he was more of a sinister opportunist than an ideologue. Ever the provocateur, he gave Auletta this quote: “I believe there’s going to be a Communist world someday.”

Cohn put “cause” in quotes when testifying before the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice in Congress: “[B]ehind the Rosenberg agitation is the hand of the world Communist movement which ritualistically sparks `causes’ and uses well-meaning people with sincere beliefs to unknowingly further their ends.” Seven months before the Rosenbergs were executed by electrocution in 1953, an internal FBI document reported that an agent in its Manhattan office “said Roy Cohn, Special Assistant Attorney General has informed him that attorneys for the Rosenbergs are out to get Cohn. Cohn assumes that his office and home telephones are tapped and that his office contains hidden microphones. He asked for an FBI check.”

Drawing on family lore shared by three cousins, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” traces the birth of Cohn to brokering by the well-heeled, well-connected kin of “the ugliest girl in the Bronx,” as the mother of one cousin put it. “Nobody would marry Dora [Marcus] so they cut a deal with a young lawyer named Al Cohn. If he would married Dora they would make him a judge.” He did and they did.

Only child Roy received overmuch attention from his mother, who lived with him until her death in 1967. Roy’s father made him sit with his political and business cronies at the dinner table and the whip-smart lad imbibed their lessons. According to Auletta he “began speaking at political rallies at the age of nine.” Tyrnauer relates Cohn fixing a traffic ticket for a high school teacher. Cousin-by-marriage Ann Roiphe, interviewed in the film, once wrote that Cohn’s parents “thought he might grow up to be the first Jewish president of the United States.”

“Why would a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx, the son of a renowned liberal Democratic judge, choose to make his name by prosecuting the Rosenbergs and working for Joe McCarthy?,” asks Cohn in his posthumous autobiography edited by Sidney Zion. The press kit Sony Pictures Classics hands out for Tyrnauer’s film does not answer Cohn’s flippant query but makes a diagnosis: “Cohn’s tinderbox of fury and insecurity contributed to his raging need to control his world and administer pain on his adversaries. The irony of his life is that his key adversaries were representations of himself: Cohn was a homophobic, anti-Semitic member of the establishment.”

Contradictions inscribe Cohn’s identity. He participated in government anti-gay investigations, sneered at smears aimed at himself, and denied on his death bed he was gay and AIDS had anything to do with his participation in an experimental AZT drug trial arranged by his friends President and Nancy Reagan. Cohen spent his last four weeks in a National Institutes of Health clinical center in Bethesda, Maryland. Among the causes of his death listed on the death certificate: “dementia” and “underlying HTLV-3 infections.”

Al Pacino plays an ailing Cohn in an HBO film adapted from Tony Kushner’s stage production “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” James Woods plays him in “Citizen Cohn,” another HBO production. “Cohn loved to cast himself in the classic American role of the charismatic, maverick individualist,” writes Stephen J. Bottoms, a prof of contemporary theatre and performance.

“Roy was the definition of a self-hating Jew,” testifies his cousin Dave Marcus in Tyrnauer’s film. Marcus, formerly a Miami Herald reporter, contributed “Roy Cohn’s Last Days” to the August 1987 issue of Vanity Fair. He asked Cohn, his father’s cousin, about AIDS. “Roy said, his anger apparent even in his feeble voice. `It’s a smear campaign.’”

Cohn was honored by Jewish organizations in New York City. The American Jewish League Against Communism, Inc. presented a plaque saluting his efforts, at age 25, “in the cause of Americanism and for noteworthy devotion to the principles of Judaism” at the Hotel Astor on June 18, 1952. His after-dinner comments, placed in the Congressional Record, display bravado in laying bare his rhetorical devices.

In accepting this award I realize I must abide by the customary code for the recipient of an award in making his acceptance speech. He must disclaim any right to the award and try to modestly persuade the committee that they have the wrong man. But he must do so in such an intelligent and persuasive way that committee is more than ever intrigued into believing that they have acted wisely in making their selection.

A month later Jewish Life published “Letter to Roy M. Cohn” wherein Arthur D. Kahn slammed him as “a representative of the American Judenrat, which like the German Judenrat and the Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat, hopes to buy security for itself… You will be remembered like the German and Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat members, if at all, along with the traitors, renegades, opportunists, sycophants… who are a disgrace in the history of every people.”

The Chicago Tribune defended Cohn by invoking a different moment of European history. “Purging the McCarthy Committee” editorialized on July 17, 1954: “To a legion of Americans who detest Communists, Roy Cohn could take on something of the quality of an American Dreyfus.” Towards the end of his life Cohn had an Irish wolfhound named Disraeli, presumably after Benjamin Disraeli. The two-time British prime minister was born into a Jewish home but converted to the Anglican Church at age 12 after his father’s death.

Cohn returned to the Hotel Astor on July 28, 1954 for another American Jewish League Against Communism gala. Senator Joseph McCarthy was the keynote speaker. The Catholic opinion weekly Commonweal picked up on a theme from the accusatory letter in Jewish Life, noting the event’s “indomitable godliness, the constantly repeated thought that Heaven had put a blanket security clearance on the activities of Joe and Roy (God bless them) and personally endorsed their crusade.”

Cohn attended a League luncheon the following year. Two years later he delivered a McCarthy eulogy at a League luncheon. News accounts identify Cohn as the League’s president at various times. One mentioned its listed address was the same as Cohn’s law firm.

In his 1968 Esquire cover story– with the snide headline “Believe me, this is the truth about the Army-McCarthy hearings. Honest”– Cohn describes letters he received from viewers of the televised proceedings: “One woman said candidly she had been a strong anti-Semite until she heard my testimony about my work and the fight against communism. Now she no longer believed that all Jews were Communists.” Besides “a number of marriage proposals,” he got “some business offers.”

Notoriety’s upside is marketing. Tyrnauer cues up a 1978 video from Tom Snyder’s television show. When the host quotes derogatory phrases from Auletta’s article, Cohn parries with his bad-mouthers: “The worse the adjectives the better it is for business… scare value.” Wording threats is lawyerly tradecraft. “We just tell the opposition Roy Cohn is representing me, and they get scared,” Cohn client Donald Trump once bragged.  Auletta writes: “`The mere sending of a letter from Roy Cohn has saved us a lot of money,’ says builder Donald Trump.”

A month before the 2016 Republican National Convention nominated Trump, a New York Times profile noted: “One of Mr. Trump’s executives recalled that he kept an 8-by-10-inch photograph of Mr. Cohn in his office desk, pulling it out to intimidate recalcitrant contractors.”

Tyrnauer finds a television clip of Cohn showing off his photo with Trump: “Let me tell you about this. This is a picture of Donald and me in which he says `Roy is my greatest friend’… By the way, this picture hangs in my office directly next to a picture I treasure of the president and Mrs. Reagan, two of my favorites.” A 2017 Vanity Fair article titled “How Donald Trump and Roy Cohn’s Ruthless Symbiosis Changed America” claims Cohn gushed, “Donald is my best friend” after throwing a birthday party for him. The byline is Marie Brenner’s. This co-producer of “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” makes a few appearances on camera.

Trump was just 23 when he introduced himself to Cohn at Le Club and asked what to do about Justice Department charges that Trump and his father Fred did not rent apartments to blacks. Cohn began representing Trump. “`I made Trump successful,’ he would occasionally boast, according to Mr. Marcus,” reports the New York Times under the headline “What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthy’s Right-Hand Man.” That article also quotes “Mr. Cohn’s lover… [who] spent a great deal of time with Mr. Trump”: “Donald was certainly his apprentice.”

Brenner speculates about Cohn’s regard for Trump in a transcript of a 2018 interview for a Frontline documentary: “He was his confidante. He was an ersatz father… who had a crush on Donald Trump as a young man.” She quotes Marcus in her 2017 piece: “`Donald fit the pattern of the hangers-on and the disciples around Roy. He was tall and blond and… frankly, über-Gentile. Something about Roy’s self-hating-Jewish persona drew him to fair-haired boys…and Donald was paying homage to Roy… I wondered then if Roy was attracted to him.’”

Although Brenner shared with Frontline that “Trump, in his early 30s, had a kind of adorable-monster quality,” his mentor is hardly coddled by a contemporary in Tyrnauer’s film: “Roy Cohn’s contempt for people, his contempt for the law was so evident on his face that if you were in his presence you knew you were in the presence of evil.” Less vituperatively, Life magazine in 1969 called him “a corporate manipulator of the first order” and “a masterful lobbyist… with but a single client: Roy Cohn.” Three years later a document in the FBI’s file on Cohen contained a handwritten note at the bottom of a typed letter: “[redacted] is like an [redacted] spewing forth its black fluid to hide his true character.” If the author of that simile is comparing Cohn to an octopus, he is using an anti-Semitic trope, knowingly or not.

Marcus writes that at his last New Years party Cohn told guests: ”I thank you all for coming, and with great confidence I look forward to seeing you next year. Since our president cannot run for office again, I want you all to know I am available in 1988.” The cunning mechanic of witch hunts during the red scare mentored a future president who rants against “witch hunts” without a clue what that means.

Cohen taught Trump to accuse his accusers in kind. During prolonged proceedings to disbar him, Cohn told the Washington Post in late 1985: “What McCarthy was accused of practicing is actually being practiced against me.” Among 37 character witnesses for Cohn was Trump: “If I summed it up in one word, I think the primary word I’d use is his loyalty.” One intimate tells Tyrnauer: “Roy was incredibly loyal to friends, and he was intensely loyal to Donald Trump. Trump took his legal business to somebody else when Roy had AIDS. He stopped seeing Roy and calling Roy and hanging out with Roy.” If loyalty is a measure, Trump manages to make Cohn look good.

Cohn once asked Trump for a hotel room for a lover dying with AIDS. Trump owned the Barbizon Plaza Hotel and that’s where the man would die. Trump billed Cohn. “He refused to pay,” reported the New York Times. The paper also learned Trump once gave Cohn a pair of diamond cuff links. Another lover of Cohn who survived him inherited them. He had Bulgari baubles assessed. “The diamonds turned out to be fakes.”

“Donald Trump did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this film,” announces a final title in the documentary. Tyrnauer had better luck with access when making his documentaries “Valentino: The Last Emperor” and “Studio 54.”

Seven years before Cohn died he told the Washington Post: ”I won’t be saying ‘please forgive me’ on my deathbed.” An epitaph he could not foresee was sewn by an anonymous contributor to The Names Project AIDS memorial quilt: ”Roy Cohn Bully Coward Victim.”

                                                                                                                          ©2019 Bill Stamets

Capital sacrifice is family value in “Ready or Not,” a satirical splatter

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on August 21, 2019

Ready or Not
directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett
written by Guy Busick & Ryan Murphy
acted by Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Nicky Guadagni, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston.
running time: 95 minutes
MPAA-rated R for violence, bloody images, language throughout, and some drug use.


by Bill Stamets


Donald Trump and Fox News apparently feel America is ready for Fox Searchlight’s “Ready or Not”– but not ready for NBC Universal’s “The Hunt.” Both films show rich Americans hunting other Americans.

On August 9 Trump had seen neither film when he attacked “Liberal Hollywood” in a two-part Tweet: “The movie coming out is made in order….” “ ….to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others.”

Trump never named “the movie coming out” but White House watchers guess he watched Fox TV coverage of the postponed release of “The Hunt.” “Ready or Not” comes out today with no alarms about screen violence. Yet Trump– and his informants at Fox News– did not imagine that “Ready or Not” is in fact an attack on fiscal evil underlying his three-generation family wealth?

“Ready or Not” begins on a stormy night in a big old house as a well-armed family in evening clothes hunts down a bloodied man scared witless. Two little boys witness this gory hide-and-seek played by grown-ups upholding the Le Domas family tradition that stipulates a game must be played at midnight on every wedding day. Or else. The game’s loser wed into this weird family earlier that day.

Thirty years later one of those brothers, Alex (Mark O’Brien), weds Grace (Samara Weaving) at the Le Domas mansion. Raised by foster parents belonging to a much lower tax bracket, Grace fears her new in-laws hate her. “Your family is richer than God,” she tells to Alex.

They are getting frisky in bed when Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni) interrupts to instruct the new member of the Le Domas family she must play a game. If Grace signed a pre-nuptial agreement, it no doubt omitted a line she hears once she is in play: “When you marry into this family you have to play a game and if you don’t you die. You have to play.”

Grace draws a card from an odd wooden box. It’s for Hide-and-Seek. An unseen hand drops the needle on vintage vinyl and the cheery creepy “The Hide and Seek Song” echoes throughout the house: “Run, run, run! Time to run and hide!… Tick tick tock, Are you ready or not?” Grace runs indeed in her yellow Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. Tears her wedding dress again and again. It gets bloody. She does too.

“Ready or Not” is the second feature by directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who made the 2014 horror-thriller “Devil’s Due.” Both begin with a wedding. Writers Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy offer imperiled-woman-survivor-without-a-savior-chase fun with cynical flair.

First touch is cuing Beethoven’s Ninth as bridal fanfare. Then we glimpse the first of Aunt Helene’s malevolent glares at Grace. Seated in the front row for the vows, Helene wears a black suit accessorized with morbid purple. Observe her severely coiffed silver hair and chiseled sunken-cheeked mien. This sight gag package can steal a scene. She icily greets a wedding guest: “Brown-haired niece, you continue to exist.”

The script eviscerates the family values of the Le Domas clan. One accuses Alex, I think: “Thanks to you now we’re all now fucking fucked.” Grace deploys “fuck” with a winning array of line readings, including this for less-than-forthcoming Alex: “Fuck your fucking family!” At first they are merely “your moderately fucked-up family.”

Alex’s kin are comically monstrous. Each gets at least one sympathetic moment that belies caricature. Even the Le Domas with a pronounced incompetence in killing, as two luckless lookalike nannies discover. “Every character has a very fun death,” states executive producer Tara Farney in the film’s production notes. “In the days we shot those scenes, everyone’s getting bloody and there’s blood everywhere. It’s absolutely disgusting… Everyone was having a lot of fun with it.”

The family’s money and its curse are intertwined in Le Domas lore about a Civil War card game entrepreneur and his mysterious investor who exacts sacrificial dividends from descendants. One of whom yells at the painting of the ancestor for his artless dealmaking: “You couldn’t have negotiated better terms? Talked him down on the whole eradication clause?”

“Fucking rich people!” screams Grace after failing to get help from a sports car speeding by her on a dark road outside the estate. That got a laugh at the screening I went to. Ditto the last line of her new father-in-law Tony (Henry Czerny): “I played by the rules and I am in control.” Supernatural payback for skipping a payment ensues.

“It’s true what they say,” admits Grace’s new brother-in-law Daniel (Adam Brody). “The rich really are different.” There’s a little irony there but none at all when he judges himself and his relatives: “we all deserve to die.” Maybe excepting his new sister-in-law. She delivers her last line when an off-screen paramedic asks, “Jesus Christ, what happened to you?”

“In-laws,” answers Grace.

“Ready or Not” might not be what Trump had in mind when he recently told reporters: “What they’re doing with the kind of movies that they’re putting out is actually very dangerous to our country. What Hollywood is doing is a tremendous disservice to our country… They treat conservatives, Republicans totally different than they treat others. And they can’t do that.”

There’s no clue how many members of the Le Domas family voted for Trump, but I can imagine him tweeting or retweeting a defense of them as victims of the “Liberal Elite” in Hollywood. Would he endorse the outlawing of a 1913 film by the Ohio film commission, as reported in Motion Picture World?: “The picture was rejected because the censor thought it wrong to satirize the hypocritical rich and to reflect critically upon one of the evils of the existing social order.”

Trump might even buy the next sentence repurposed for the Putin era: “This is the Russian way of dealing with mediums of expression.”


©2019 Bill Stamets

“Transformers: The Last Knight”: Securing homelands and unearthing secrets

Posted in film review by Bill Stamets on July 7, 2017

directed by Michael Bay
screenplay by Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan
story by Akiva Goldsman, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan
acted by Mark Wahlberg, Laura Haddock, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Jerrod Carmichael, Isabela Moner, Santiago Cabrera, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci; Transformer characters voiced by Peter Cullen, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi
presented by Paramount Pictures in association with Hasbro
rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo
running time: 149 minutes


Pop culture cosmology lifts Arthurian myth to embroider backstory in “Transformers: The Last Knight.” The fifth film of a toy-based franchise directed by Michael Bay lobs summer action spectacle. The CGI chaos is as meticulously crafted as ever. Bay can stupefy almost sublimely. Enabled by six editors, this hands-on showman evokes a three-eyed Shiva, the Hindu god known as a `transformer’ depicted with up to ten arms.

Since the 2007 debut of “Transformers” I have ogled Bay’s cinema-of-attractions set pieces. Futurist-Vorticist detailing of metallic behemoths– transforming in a matter of seconds into cars, trucks, motorcycles, helicopters, jets, submarines, boomboxes, laptops, flatscreen televisions, campus hotties, dinosaurs and fire-breathing dragons– startles the eye.

Eardrums endure collateral damage. So do Chicago, Shanghai and other unlucky terrestrial locales where factions of “intelligent mechanical beings” from the civil war-ravaged planet Cybertron continue their eons-old “blood feud.” A 2007 tagline apprised us: “Their war. Our world.”

Autobots “fought for freedom” and Decepticons “dreamt of tyranny,” narrated Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) in the third film. He– all of his kind are gendered as male– is the key recurring Autobot (Autonomous Robotic Organism). In 2017 he will face a crisis of self-knowing by encountering his creator.

Hasbro Industries imported Transformer toys from Japan in 1984, four months after Tonka Corp. began distributing a similar GoBots toyline. (Hasbro Industries, renamed Hasbro, Inc., bought Tonka in 1991.) Hasbro restyled its G.I. Joe male action figure as “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero,” a counter-terrorist taking on the international evildoers of Cobra Command in 1982. A script is in the works to combine G.I. Joe and the Transformers onscreen.

The ad campaign from ten years ago hyped: “[director/ executive producer] Michael Bay (Armageddon) and [executive producer] Steven Spielberg (War of the Worlds) change the history of motion pictures with their stunning and revolutionary visualization!”

Bay’s battles and chases are inventive, but what comes in between is not. Seven writers fill the 149 minutes of “Transformers: The Last Knight” with intrepid outliers unearthing an outlandish truth underlying a debunked myth, and save Earth from annihilation by aliens. Mostly set in contemporary England– Stonehenge and 10 Downing Street are among shooting locations– Bay’s latest conjures up a premodern pact and prophecy.

As in “Prometheus” and “The X-Files” evidence emerges of primordial alien arrivals. We might be latecomers to Earth. The very end of the fifth film hints the sixth will elaborate. This one may be the last Transformers for Bay, who says he is handing over directing duty to others. Three months ago he told MTV News that 14 more Transformers films are outlined.

“Transformers: The Last Knight” opens amidst the CGI ruins of Soldier Field in Chicago. A dying Autobot knight– who came from the planet Cybertron at least 1600 years ago– hands a Cybertronian-etched talisman to a Texas inventor running a Badlands junkyard to hide illegal aliens from the private paramilitary Transformers Reaction Force. Sector Seven– “a special access division of the Government, convened in secret under President Hoover”– no longer monitors terrestrial Transformers.

As the title’s “Last Knight” Mark Wahlberg reprises his role as Cade Yeager from the fourth film, “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” Except now this Texan on the run is like a station manager on an underground railroad for his Autobot buddies. The abolitionist reference is hardly farfetched. Look for a photograph of Harriet Tubman later on. The first three films featured Shia LaBeouf playing the lead befriender of the Autobots. We followed his character Sam Witwicky graduate from high school, go to college and get his first job. U.S. President Barack Obama awarded him a medal for his heroism.

Yeager, a widower with a daughter in college, is paired in the 2017 iteration with Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), an Oxford University professor of English history. We first meet her playing polo. A teammate taunts her for being “single.” In her next scene she instructs Puffy and other kids on a London museum tour that all those Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin and Percival legends are “horse shit.” Imagine her shock upon discovering she shares DNA with one of them.

“You don’t need to save the world. You need a frigging’ girlfriend,” advises Yeager’s daughter in a phone call cut short to foil U.S. government intel gatherers.

Wembley and Yeager are brought together by Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), “the last of the Order of the Witwiccans.” Burton imparts the inside story of this “secret society” founded “to protect the secret history of Transformers here on Earth.” The 40-generation roster includes Leonardo Da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Catherine the Great, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Stephen Hawking and even Sam Witwicky.

“Your father was a member,” Burton informs Wembley. She learns Merlin was real. We saw him ourselves back in the opening scene: “England– The Dark Ages.” Merlin (Stanley Tucci) is drunk and late for a battle where Arthur (Liam Garrigan) and his army are “outnumbered, a hundred to one.” Merlin begs for military magic from Transformers hiding in a local cavern. They deploy a three-headed dragon to win the day. Debunker of legends of fire-breathers, Wembley always thought Arthur’s catapults hurled fireballs at Saxon invaders. Paramount Pictures lobs CGI fireballs through the opening credits at the audience.

Merlin also gets a secret super powerful staff from the Transformers. Only he or an heir can wield it. In the right hands it will save the world someday. “You, Miss Vivian, are Merlin’s last descendant here on Earth and as such you are our last hope,” states Burton. And right there, on the very last page of volume 40 of the dusty tome charting Merlin’s family tree, there’s an irrefutable 8×10 photo of Vivian Wembley. Only her grasp can activate the long-lost staff. She and the Yank are now yoked as Earth’s co-saviors.

Transformers screen characters– human and alien– are never scripted as lovingly as the special effects and soundtrack are composed. Screwball dialogue between Yeager and Wembley is on the schoolyard level. She orders: “You American man, shut it.” In a later scene he comes back with: “You, English lady, shut it.” They spar over mishearing “chaste” as “chased.” Wince when you hear Sir Anthony Hopkins use “dude” and “dickhead.” His human-sized robo-butler Cogman (voiced by Jim Carter) cracks, “No shit, Sherlock.”

It’s as if the writers excuse their lapses by inserting an early scene of four Chicago boys trespassing on an Alien Contamination Zone in search of robot souvenirs. “We’re kids,” their leader tips his cohorts. “We can get away with anything.”

Careless writing leads to different characters referring to the same planet as both “Unitron” and “Unicron.” In Bay’s world the words “race” and “species” are interchangeable: all of humanity is one “race” and one “species,” and all the Transformers represent a single “race” and “species.” It’s a binary cosmos. “Two species at war. One flesh, one metal,” narrates Burton.

In the previous film, Yeager dubbed his daughter’s Irish boyfriend “Lucky Charms” and mocked his “Leprechaun” accent. “You’d get your ass kicked in Ireland for saying that,” advised Shane (Jack Reynor). Yeager gets another pushback in “Transformers: The Last Knight” when a Native-American policeman (Gil Birmingham) complains that Yeager calling him “chief” is “vaguely racist.”

Lines emanating from the “vocal processors” of Transformers cater to a demographic that once played with Hasbro toys, read Transformers comics, watched Transformers cartoons and played Transformers video games. And may continue to so entertain themselves. Autobots and Decepticons sound like macho bikers and military irregulars. With all their quicksilver transformability, you’d think the screenwriters would tap into the politics of identity and diversity that animate so many superhero narratives (e.g., “The X-Men”). Instead these English-speakers default to adolescent trash talk.

The first Autobot to manifest on Bay’s big screen is Bumblebee. Hiding-in-plain-sight is the modus operandi of Transformers in Earth’s technoscape. This particular alien morphs into a yellow and black 1977 Camaro that turns up on a used car lot. The proprietor has no idea how it got there but sells it to Sam Witwicky in the first Transformers film.

No voice actor is credited for Bumblebee in the first four films because this CGI character is mute, due to prior damage in combat. All his dialogue is sampled from rock songs and movie lines. Ironically, his pop cultural tastes in sampling lend him a more distinctive personality than his voiced peers. At the end of the fifth film, he has two different “voice processors” installed. Bay’s longtime sound designer and supervising sound editor Erik Aadahl voices Bumblebee’s handful of lines here. This Autobot headlines a prequel/ spinoff film scheduled for next June.

Script slips can puzzle. Every “Transformers” film seems to include Americans discovering an old Transformer in an out-of-the-way place like the Arctic Circle. That entity was “reverse-engineered,” starting in 1935. Among the “modern age” tech yielded: “cars.” Rather imprecise on the timeline of internal combustion motor vehicles. Henry Ford debuted his Model T in 1908.

Meaningless precision occurs in the 2014 film. Aliens turned Earth, partly or totally, into Transformium “65 million” years ago. And that is “B.C.” to be clear. Aliens also visited in “17,000 B.C.” Optimus Prime divulges, indefinitely: “They have been here forever.” That voiceover is used as a tagline too.

Dialogue and taglines repurpose Hasbro hype. “More than meets the eye!” reads a 1984 ad touting a Hasbro toy that transforms between a Decepticon and a Walther P-38 gun. “Ages 5 & Up.” Optimus Prime uses the same expression in “Transformers” to refer to the optics of humans and Transformers alike. It reappears in a 2017 article in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology that “interrogates” the first two Transformers films. “[T]here is much more to these commodities than meets the eye: they are also U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) promotions in disguise,” argues an Ontario assistant professor of communications.

Marketing prose at times is off the mark: “`The Last Knight’ shatters the core myths of the Transformers franchise.” No such thing to see here. Nothing is demystified or deconstructed. This film conforms to what came before and continues the tale. Even though the three writers credited for this screenplay and story have not worked on earlier Transformers films.

The filmmakers indulge in one witty bit of reflexivity. Music builds as Burton intones weighty lines of ancient lore about King Arthur’s 12 knights and their 12 alien Guardian Knight allies. Just as we hear an overwrought crescendo, we spot Cogman playing an organ in the background. “You ruined the moment again,” hollers Burton, the 12th Earl of Folgan. “I was trying to make the moment more epic,” pleads his aide-de-camp. “Legend tells that one last knight would someday be chosen and the struggle to save the world would begin,” continues Burton, who always gets Yeager’s surname wrong. “It would appear, Mr. Cade, that that last knight is you.” Cue a swelling offscreen chorus. Burton orders Cogman: “Stop it!”

When his 2014 Transformers film came out Bay told a Mother Jones writer: “Yes, I am a political person, and I have my views about America… I don’t feel the need to go out and tell people what to believe politically.” Last year The New Yorker ran a satire headlined “Donald Trump Chooses Michael Bay as Running Mate.”

Two taglines for “Transformers” (2007) launched the franchise premise: “Their war. Our world.” and “Most have come to destroy us. Some have come to protect us.”

At first an interplanetary bystander, the U.S. turns into an ally of the Autobots, but then tries to exile these conflict refugees. In later episodes, American CEOs and NSA types will make covert deals with Decepticons.

A topical hook threading the five films is the Department of Homeland Security. Transformers are classified “alien terrorists” in the fourth. Non-alien terrorists are absent. There’s a fleeting reference to 9/11 in the second. When Decepticons strike, a television newscaster reported the country is at “Condition Delta, which is the highest level we’ve been at since 9/11.”

Decepticons in the first film targeted U.S. military computers at Special Operations Command Central in the Qatar desert. Bay’s second film made up the Classified Alien-Autobot Cooperation Act and Non-Biological Extraterrestrial Species Treaty. U.K.’s unnamed prime minister (Mark Dexter) is on the phone asking about the unnamed “U.S. president” and “Putin” in the 2017 film. Bay skips the traditional scene from other alien attack films: a montage of world capitals in a united front for self-defense.

Transformers films universalize the issue of homeland security. Civil war ruined Cybertron. That puts Earth in peril. Autobots seek asylum here. Decepticons in pursuit always seek some Cybertonian power source and an ultimate weapon to wipe out Autobots. And they seek dominion over Earth as a resource to rebuild Cybertron. In Bay’s universe, no one’s home is secure.

“Earth, the only place in the universe whose people let me call it home,” Optimus Prime shares with Yeager in “Transformers: The Last Knight.” Yet, as Burton notes: “Transformers are declared illegal on Earth.” This film introduces homeless 14-year-old Izabella (Isabela Moner), orphaned by a Decepticon missile strike during the Battle of Chicago. Hiding amidst the rubble, she stands by stigmatized, stereotyped Autobots: “Someone’s got to take care of them. They’re scared, they’re lost. No place, no home, no family. Do you know how that feels?” This nurturing militant is a social justice warrior for illegal aliens. Yeager and his comrade Autobots let her tag along.

“All they want is a home and you know that,” Yeager argues with Lt. Colonel William Lennox (Josh Duhamel). “You push them and they push right back.” Lennox counters: “Whose side are you on? They’re all bad.” Transformer-phobe and rogue C.I.A. official (Kelsey Grammer) in the previous film insisted: “There are no good aliens or bad aliens, Yeager. It’s just us and them!”

Lennox fought alongside Yeager, Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and other Autobots against Decepticons in the first three films, where he was ranked Captain, Major and Colonel, respectively. Chief Master Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson), fighting the good fight in those same films, noted: “We’ve shed blood, sweat, and metal together.” “Transformers are declared illegal on Earth,” narrates Burton.

Now Lennox fears more and more diasporic aliens finding their way to Earth. Little does he know the film will end with an alien narrator transmitting a homing beacon into space: “I am Optimus Prime. Calling all Autobots. It’s time to come home.” He means Earth, not Cybertron. In the closing lines of the first film Optimus Prime termed Earth “a new world to call home.”

“Friends?,” Lennox reacts. “This is an invasion. One day we wake up. They’re in charge.” In the second film he informed his commandos: “This makes six enemy contacts in eight months.” And Optimus Prime briefed General Morshower (Glenn Morshower): “Our alliance has countermanded six Decepticon incursions this year, each on a different continent.” In the third Transformers film, Optimus Prime related how Autobots also served their hosts as off-the-books United Nations Peacekeepers: “So now we assist our allies in solving human conflict, to prevent mankind from doing harm to itself.”

Self-harm was afoot in Chicago. Decepticons conspired with treasonous fixers ensconced in Trump Tower. Their objective? Acquire “a slave labor force” of “six billion” humans to “rebuild Cybertron.” Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) decreed: “Now, it is time for the slaves of Earth to recognize their masters. Seal off the city.” The ruins of the ensuing Battle of Chicago, where 1300 died, are where Izabella and Yeager will meet in the 2017 film. (By hashtagging #MidasTouch, Donald Trump claimed some credit for the 2011 “summer blockbuster” in his August 13, 2012 tweet.)

“To punish and enslave” is the sneering motto adopted by a Decepticon disguised as a police car in 2007 and 2017. In 2014 Optimus Prime rallied Dinobots, variant Transformers predating the auto age who assume the guise of mechano-dinosaurs: “We must join forces, or else we’ll all be their slaves.”

Bay’s writers insert no dialogue about historical, terrestrial slavery. However, a relevant aphorism that recurs as a line of dialogue, a motto and a tagline does coincide with a 1942 quote in Vogue magazine about Japan enslaving China.

“Without sacrifice there can be no victory!” is the battle cry of medieval English warriors repelling Saxon invaders in “Transformers: The Last Knight.” Paramount Pictures recruits that line in its publicity. Burton lectures Wembley and Yeager: “It has been said throughout the ages that there can be no victory, without sacrifice.” For his 11th-grade history class, Sam gave a “family genealogy report” in “Transformers.” His great-great grandfather Captain Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard), glimpsed via flashback, urged his band of Arctic explorers: “No sacrifice, no victory!” That’s the family motto.

“No Sacrifice … No Victory” is also the headline of Agnes Smedley’s dispatch in the April 15, 1942 issue of Vogue. Embedded with the New Fourth Chinese Army at a hospital near the front, Smedley quotes an elderly Chinese woman resisting the Japanese invaders: “Without sacrifice, there is no victory. We do not want to be slaves of the devils.”

Freedom is under threat across the galaxy. “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings,” declared Optimus Prime in 2007. A 2011 tagline warned: “Earth’s last stand. The fight for our freedom begins.” Bay leverages such anodyne one-liners only for mounting awesome maneuvers, never for an aside on human or alien rights. We have yet to see a Dialecticon or Kantbot on the roster of autonomous robotic organisms.

Other philosophical filler is for pondering origins. “Transformers: The Last Knight” continues a theme introduced in “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” Optimus Prime promised: “Autobots, we’re going to prove who we are and why we’re here!” His last lines were: “There are mysteries to the universe we were never meant to solve. But who we are and why we are here, are not among them.” To get answers, he zooms across the galaxy to wrecked Cybertron and meets the Creator known as Quintessa (Gemma Chan), “the Prime of Life.” Gendered female, Quintessa generates Transformers and can re-engineer them. She weaponizes his will for her designs on Earth.

Quintessa qualifies as an Intelligent Designer. Creationists may cry heresy. Bay is unclear about what form of life Transformers are. “They have evolved” since the first film, forewarned a tagline for the second. Darwinists will notice there’s nothing like natural selection going on. Characters variously refer to Transformers’ “genome,” “chromosomes” (which are somehow “infect[ious]”) and “hatchlings.” When a depowered Transformer is rebooted he is said to be “reincarnated” or “resurrect[ed].”

Transformers each have a “power source” in the center of their chests (or mediastinum, the term medical students had to memorize in Anatomy 101). It glows faint blue, as do all alien energies in Earth cinema. Unspelled on screen, this sounds like Allspark. “It contains our life force and our memories,” says Optimus Prime. “Yeah, we call it a soul,” replies Yeager. Sam got hold of a shard. Besides transmitting Cybertonian symbols into his head, it enabled him to read “a 903-page astronomy book in 32.6 seconds” and manically write arcane formulas on the blackboard in his Astronomy 101 classroom.

Christianity and other faiths are out of the picture. Transformers make little theological impact on Americans. “Excuse me, are you the Tooth Fairy?,” inquires a little girl the night one of the 30-foot-tall aliens cuts through her suburban yard. “You gotta wonder: if God made us in His image, who made him?,” asks Epps, in the only line of its kind in all five films.

“We were gods once, all of us!,” vents Sentinel Prime, former mentor of Optimus Prime back on Cybertron. This turncoat first entered the storyline in 2011’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” During the civil war, he fled their planet with space bridge pillars, but crashed on our moon. In 1961 the U.S. and U.S.S.R. discovered his spacecraft. The government secretly moved the depowered Prime that was on board to Earth. Secret research ensued. Just as it did in 1935 when a different Transformer was secretly moved from an Arctic Circle crash site to a secret research facility.

If Transformers were all gods on their planet, who were the lesser inhabitants, the believers bowing to them? Now there is only one and she sounds like a lower-case “g” deity who de-deified Transformers. Quintessa rebukes Optimus Prime: “You dare to strike your god?”

God-grade power takes the form of super-high-tech that drives every Transformers plot. Decepticons are the ultimate power-seekers, both physical and political. Autobots typically thwart their quests. Allspark, the Cube, Energon, Seeds and Transformium are at stake. Each film adds a plot element from long, long, long ago that tells us how these powerful resources made their way from Cyberton to Earth. Plots lengthen Transformers film running times– ranging from 143 to 165 minutes– with intervening hunts to find clues to locate keys to unlock alien powers. Among these items: eyeglasses etched with a map, a children’s book holding a secret, and something called a Matrix of Leadership.

Bay is more interested in alien weaponry than religious ramifications of one-time gods appearing here. He especially likes their planet-annihilating and sun-consuming gizmos. Transformers deploy really cool killer toys. An ill-conceived, if non-lethal, one that Hasbro launched in 1966 was “The Hypo-Squirt,” an oversized plastic squirt gun modeled on a hypodermic needle: “It’s Fun!! Shoots Over 20 Feet Accurately.”

Bay is invested in so-called practical effects– wherein real stuff really blows up– versus the digital virtual ones. His enthusiasm for filmmaking tricks echoes a line Orson Welles, an amateur magician and showman of stage and radio, supposedly said after touring the RKO Radio Pictures lot: “This is the biggest electric train set a boy ever had!” Roger Ebert is among many who recycled that irresistible quote. Biographers usually write “reportedly said” and cite no source. “When a New York friend asked him about it [RKO] Welles pointed to the wilderness of cameras, lights, sound apparatus and other engines of the talkies. `It’s the greatest railroad train a boy ever had,’” claimed the Saturday Evening Post in 1940, without identifying the second-hand source. John Logan’s 1997 draft of the screenplay for the Welles’ biopic “RKO 281” has Welles (Liev Schreiber) playing to a newsreel camera: “I’ll tell you what, this is the best electric train set a boy ever had!”

The scientific superiority of Cybertron inspires about a minute of demystifying dialogue in “Transformers: The Last Knight.” “Magic does exist,” relates Burton. “It was found long ago. Inside a crashed alien ship.” That was back in the year 484 A.D. when Merlin obtained a weapon made by 12 Transformers transforming into that singular Saxon-smiting dragon. To hide the key to Sun Harvester technology in the second film, six principled Primes from Cybertron sacrificed themselves to create a secret crypt inside an Egyptian pyramid. All to thwart an evil seventh Prime

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says Yeager. Impressed, Wembley promptly name-drops Arthur C. Clarke as the source. Thus initiating a chance of romance. Natalie Portman’s character, an astrophysicist, used the same quote in Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 film “Thor” when she refers to the Einstein-Rosen bridge. The title god (Chris Hemsworth), son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), informs her: “Your ancestors called it magic. And you call it science. Well, I come from a place where they’re one and the same.”

“Personally I’m going to rely on physics and mathematics to save the planet, not mysticism, fairies and some hobgoblin,” declares the hard science guy played by Tony Hale in Bay’s new film. Wembley wielding Merlin’s staff to foil the evil Creator on her Earth-bound exoplanet is unthinkable to this Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer.

A “bidding war” for “alien technology” broke out between India, Israel, Japan and Russia in the fourth film. Engineers and entrepreneurs were busy dismembering aliens. One of whom, named Brains (Reno Wilson), resisted: “This is illegal experimentation… This is worse than waterboarding!” Yeager angled for a competitive edge: “If I could apply that technology to my inventions we’d never have to worry about money again.” A Chicago CEO (Stanley Tucci) crowed: “We will own the robotics industry.” Optimus Prime countered: “We are not your technology!”

Wembley tells kids at the museum: “A desperate last stand between civilization and barbarism. Two worlds colliding. Only one survives.” Burton later repeats her past words to underscore the Earth versus Cybertron showdown. Now the Creator and her Decepticons clash with Earth and its Autobot allies. That dualism evokes Samuel Huntington’s 1993 essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” On July 6, 2017 in Warsaw’s Krasiński Square, President Donald Trump framed a dire scenario for all of Europe. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive… Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?… [O]ur civilization will triumph… So, together, let us all fight like the Poles– for family, for freedom, for country, and for God.”

Bay mobilizes similar sentiments on the grand scale of a galactic smackdown. Transformers films entertain with escapist spectacle that resolves nothing. Thinking of a different genre in a different time of war, Agnes Smedley regretted Hollywood distracted her home front readers from grasping the struggles of Chinese women: “American women, going to movies, finding the solution of life’s bitter problems in the mirage of a Hollywood kiss and embrace.”

©2017 Bill Stamets