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Transformers: Age of Extinction

As I walked into my screening for the latest Michael Bay explosion-fest, “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” a giant standup poster greeted me, touting my upcoming experience as the first film shot with the IMAX 3D Digital Camera, which means that sequences shot with it are presented in an IMAX aspect ratio that gives around 26% more image than the standard aspect ratio you would get in a normal movie theater. This is such a big selling point that even the actual film itself was preceded by a short behind-the-scenes look of shooting with the camera. It’s an interesting nugget of information for film enthusiasts and provides some exciting possibilities for future filmmakers, but it must be said: more than a new camera is needed to fix the “Transformers” franchise. A lot more.

The “Transformers” movies have always relished on the absurd. They typically take a small amount of time to set up what some might consider a story (thin though they may be) to give what follows some context, and if you’ve seen one, you know what follows is action, action and more action. The movies feel like something a 10 year old would dream up if given a camera and $200 million to play with. Appropriately, a poster with a quote from Albert Einstein on it appears early on in “Age of Extinction.” “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” it says. This quote is a fitting description of Bay’s talent: he has plenty of imagination, but, aside from an uncanny ability to film destruction, no filmmaking knowledge.

Evidence of this comes in the way he directs his actors. This time, Bay replaces Shia LaBeouf with Mark Wahlberg, a recent Oscar nominee, but the result is the same. His performance, along with the majority of the rest of the cast, is wooden. Only Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammar put forth a modicum of effort, likely because their talent and veteran statuses require less input from a director to be effective, but the former is given horrendous dialogue and a narrative arc that makes zero sense while the latter plays the most cliché government villain character you can imagine. The two are in cahoots, naturally, with Tucci’s character being the business mogul responsible for engineering a man-made Transformer (and if the movies have taught us anything, it’s that playing God is a bad idea) and Grammar’s CIA Black Ops character finding and killing all Autobots to give Tucci the transformium elements he needs (which is only a slightly better element name than the unobtainable unobtainium from “Avatar”). Their plan that creates the central story has something to do with building a Transformer army to protect US citizens, but let’s be honest, what does it matter?

Frankly, the story itself hardly even exists, as it comes off more like a dialogue dump than anything else. I haven’t seen a film with so much expositional dialogue in a movie with such a meaningless story in a long time. It’s one of those films where characters will ask a question about what’s going on, only for another character to go on a five minute monologue explaining every plot element up to that point. In a very real sense, “Age of Extinction” feels like it’s written by a first time screenwriter, someone who has no idea how to craft believable situations or dialogue. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given that it was written by Ehren Kruger, the man responsible for the worst “Scream” entry and the messes that are “The Brothers Grimm,” “The Skeleton Key” and the previous two “Transformers” movies. His writing combines with Bay’s underwhelming direction to create a film that has no flow and is thematically and narratively empty.

The best example comes with Wahlberg’s character’s poorly developed relationship with his daughter, Tessa, played by Nicola Peltz. Primarily, this is due to the fact that she, despite being only 17 in the movie, exists solely as eye candy and as a means to be abducted and saved like the helpless woman she was written to be, the Princess Peach to Wahlberg’s Mario. The movie forces in some single father shtick, like when he complains that her shorts are too short, but it never comes off as authentic (and he certainly doesn’t make her change those shorts, as that would ruin the upcoming close-up butt shot the young actress was cast in the movie for). The other characters don’t fare so well either, with the minor ones being too underdeveloped or too annoying to be interesting (“Thank God” a fellow critic whispered in my ear after one of the more grating characters bit the dust).

If there’s one thing Michael Bay knows (and if his past filmography is any indication, it is indeed only one thing), it’s action, but even that is a bit of a letdown here. After three previous movies, each one more bombastic than the last, with the third installment upping the stakes as the end of the trilogy, this feels light in comparison and is sporting a very evident “been there, done that” feel. Only the Dinobots offer up any excitement, but they show up so late in the film’s exhausting two hour and 45 minute runtime that they still fail to make much of an impression, no doubt due to the fact that you will likely be so worn down by the endless slog that came before. Characterization here is the thinnest this franchise has ever seen, believe it or not, so the vapid action is inconsequential, as there’s approximately zero reasons to care if any of these characters succumb to the destruction around them.

If that isn’t enough, “Age of Extinction” has some of the most shameless product placement in a movie since “Talladega Nights,” but at least the product placement fit into the context of that movie. Here, you’ll get nice, clean close-ups of Oreos, Beats by Dre speakers, Gucci sunglasses, Bud Light cans (one of which Wahlberg violently cracks open and chugs after slamming into and destroying one of its transportation vehicles) and even a plug for Victoria’s Secret, which is featured prominently on a bus that is completely destroyed, except for the front where the logo is, of course. I wonder if Bay thought us dumb enough to not notice these things. More likely, the incompetency with which this train wreck was put together was simply creating to its own level; “Texas, USA” flashes onscreen at one point to set the location, as if the country designator was necessary.

At 90 minutes, Bay’s brand of mindless, plotless action may be tolerable, but “Transformers: Age of Extinction” is nearly double that length, an absurd 165 minutes, the longest entry in a franchise already known for being a bloated, meandering mess. This is the second worst of the films, rising only slightly above 2009’s “Revenge of the Fallen” if only due to the fact that at least this one (arguably) isn’t racist. That’s faint praise, to be sure, but I must admit, when watching a “Transformers” movie, it’s not easy finding the high points.

Transformers: Age of Extinction receives 0.5/5


Lone Survivor

Last year’s “Battleship,” directed by Peter Berg, was hands down one of the worst movies of the year. It was a stupid idea based off a simplistic board game that was full of enormous amounts of cheese and patriotic grandstanding. While pride in one’s country is certainly not a bad thing, the ridiculous alien invasion story that surrounded it made such grandstanding laughable. When you combined that with lazy dialogue, contrived plot points and horrific performances, particularly from real life war veteran Gregory D. Gadson in one of the worst performances ever put to screen, you got something that was practically unwatchable. Berg is now back with “Lone Survivor,” another “Go America!” film that shares a fair amount of rough dialogue and cheesy moments, but these moments are offset by real actors giving gritty performances and action scenes that are truly intense. It’s not perfect (and it’s highly unlikely its limited release shoehorning into the last week of December is going to give it any awards recognition), but this is a major step up from Berg’s previous travesty. This is actually quite good.

Based on a true story, “Lone Survivor” follows SEAL Team 10 on a mission dubbed “Operation Red Wings.” Their goal is to capture or kill terrorist leader Ahmad Shahd. After a smooth drop into the nearby mountains, they identify their target on the grounds below. However, some unexpected civilians show up to put a kink in their plans. They have one of two options: they can either let them go and risk exposure or kill them and continue on with the mission. Refusing to kill civilians, they decide to let them go. Unfortunately, their radio equipment is malfunctioning and after those civilians notify the terrorists below, they find themselves in a firefight in the mountains.

“Lone Survivor” is not a pleasant film. Despite all the action, this is not a fun, stand-up-and-cheer “Rambo” type of action movie. It’s intense and scary and, for a while at least, a slow-burner. This doesn’t open with a slam-bang introduction, nor does it end with a high-flying conclusion. Instead, it starts out slow before finally erupting into violence. And when the bullets start flying, they don’t stop. The action never lets up, so the grip the film has on you stays there until the end. Slow beginnings like these require good acting to keep things interesting and this talented cast, which includes Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster, among others, is up to the task. Despite the cloying music and sentimental dialogue about their loved ones back home, they create real people out of these characters. By the time many of their inevitable deaths come, they mean something.

One of Peter Berg’s biggest deficiencies as a director, at least in regards to “Battleship,” was that he went too big. Everything was bombastic and in-your-face. He smartly goes the opposite route here. Much of the action consists of pop-and-shoot gunplay which requires a more focused approach than an explode-y Avengers-esque film, where the visuals can make up for a lack of substance, and he manages to pull it off. The sole flourish he occasionally includes are down-the-barrel shots, similar to a first person shooter video game, which feels a bit out of place in the context of both the story and style he implements elsewhere.

Bizarre stylistic choices similar to that are easily the film’s biggest problems, including an over usage of slow motion, which is supposed to be dramatic, but instead only serves to pull you out of the otherwise gripping and realistic action. But the movie’s intention is to highlight the heroic actions of these men who risked everything to live up to a well-intentioned moral code. They did the right thing and it cost almost all of them their lives. These men are to be applauded and remembered because even though their job required them to be violent, they carried out that violence only when necessary and they valued the lives of the innocent, and the lives of their fellow soldiers, above their own. That’s a noble thing. It’s still a bit too Hollywood to resonate and that aforementioned patriotic grandstanding is so heavy-handed that it threatens to derail it, but in the end, “Lone Survivor” strives to tell a simple story of courage and nobility and it does it well.

Lone Survivor receives 3.5/5



I wanted to start this review by saying that expectations were high for Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s first feature length film, Ted, but let’s face it. Being a fan of that show (especially after its return from cancellation when it devolved from cheerful subversion into intentional offensiveness) means already having such low expectations, it would be impossible to not exceed them. Ted thankfully manages to build some heart amidst its inanity, which is something Family Guy has never done in its 13 year existence, but its comedy is still well within MacFarlane’s comfort zone. He fails to branch out like he should, making Ted one of the most redundant comedies to come out in quite some time.

The movie begins in Boston in the mid-80’s. A young John Bennett (Bretton Manley) goes about his days friendless and lonely until one Christmas morning his parents give him a stuffed teddy bear. That bear eventually becomes his best friend and one night he wishes that he would come to life so they could be best friends forever. A voice over narration provided by the always wonderful Patrick Stewart explains that there is nothing more powerful than a child’s wish (except for an Apache helicopter, of course) and the next morning, the bear springs to life. He becomes an overnight celebrity, but never forgets his friend John. Now John (Mark Wahlberg) is all grown up and he and his bear, whom he named Ted (MacFarlane), live together with his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis). Lori is becoming tired of being the third wheel in their bro-mance, however, and things begin to change, much to the chagrin of the two friends.

There’s a joke fairly early on in Ted where Ted makes a joke, then Lori makes essentially the same joke in a different manner. Ted then condescendingly remarks on how Lori basically just took his joke and then repackaged it. It’s an ironic moment because MacFarlane has been doing that for years. The same handful jokes have been played over and over and over again in Family Guy and his lack of comedic flexibility pours over into Ted, to the point where at least one of the characters in the movie is nothing more than a live action version of someone from his show. Aside from the greater freedom provided by the film format in regards to content and the language used, this is simply more of the same from MacFarlane, including copious amounts of out-of-date or obscure pop culture references to things like Diff’rent Strokes, Top Gun, Saturday Night Fever, the Pink Floyd song, “Another Brick in the Wall,” and even Flash Gordon, the latter of which plays from nearly the first frame to the very last.

But it’s not just the pop culture references that are played out. MacFarlane, being the outspoken atheist he is, makes quite a few religious jokes, at least two in the first few minutes, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing had he not already beat us over the head with his beliefs in his television shows. Similarly, the film makes multiple references to 9/11, another strange obsession MacFarlane has joked about far too many times before, and it’s just not funny, not because it’s offensive, but because it’s unnecessary. One must praise him for his political incorrectness in a world that stresses the importance of the opposite, but you can’t help but feel like he says these things solely because he knows they’re controversial, hoping the audience will mistake forced controversy for humor.

It’s such a sad state of affairs because MacFarlane is a gifted voice actor, even if his style of comedy has run its course. He delivers his lines with spot-on comedic timing and an enthusiasm that few match. Put him in an animated movie written by someone who has comedic range beyond controversial topics and bodily function jokes and he’ll amaze like none other.

Because it spends so much time on pop culture references and jokes about defecating on a hardwood floor, Ted barely manages to muster up much of a story and the character relationships are thin, the little bit of its aforementioned heart coming more from childhood memories over the loss of a loved toy than from the movie itself. That’s not to say those references aren’t occasionally amusing (and if there was ever a movie that delivered a poop joke as well as one possibly could, it’s this one), but Ted is hardly breaking new ground. This is the same old same old we’ve grown accustomed to through the many years of Family Guy’s existence. Of course, if you’re still a fan of that show, I imagine you’ll find Ted hilarious. As for me, though, I wanted something more than what I’ve seen nearly 200 times already on television.

Ted receives 2.5/5


The Fighter

If you’ve seen one sports story, you’ve seen them all. Most are based on an actual event and follow the same formula: a mediocre player/team accomplishes the unexpected and reaches his/their goal despite the odds surrounding him/them. The Fighter is merely another in a long line of movies exactly like this. To immediately write it off because it’s formulaic, however, wouldn’t be fair. What matters is how well it’s carried out and this one is done well enough to deserve a look.

The story begins in the early 90’s where we meet Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a down on his luck boxer who is waiting for his day to shine. His brother and trainer, Dicky (Christian Bale), now a washed up fighter and crack head, is a local legend for hopping in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard and knocking him down in his heyday. However, Dicky, along with his family, is inadvertently holding Micky back. After an encounter with the police, Dicky ends up in jail, which eventually allows Micky to begin his rise to fame.

If experience has taught me anything, it’s that a great performance can fool people into thinking that the movie surrounding it is something special. In 2008, critics claimed The Wrestler one of the best movies of the year, praising Mickey Rourke for his outstanding performance. The problem is that Rourke was better than the movie itself, which suffered from pacing and story issues. The Fighter is largely the same. It’s true that Christian Bale is positively wonderful as Dicky and should be nominated for an Oscar, but that doesn’t negate the rest of the film’s flaws. Those who have seen The Fighter are elevating the overall picture well above where it should be, but aside from the acting, there’s nothing particularly unique that stands out. We’ve seen this movie before, straight down to the montage(s) where the athlete works out and readies himself for competition.

To call the movie great is an overstatement, but that’s only faint criticism when considering the talent behind it. Bale, for instance, flawlessly embodies Dicky. I was wrapped up in his performance the entire film, but it was when the credits rolled around and I saw and heard the actual Dicky that I began to realize how spot on he really was, perfectly capturing his mannerisms and voice. The Dicky character is a lout, an annoying, smug little oaf that I would never want to hang out with, but that was precisely the goal, so credit is due. Wahlberg is no slouch either, redeeming himself from his one note performance in The Other Guys where all he did was yell the entire movie.

But it’s Amy Adams, who plays Micky’s love interest, who brings out the best in Wahlberg. She is beautiful and loving as always, but she has an edge to her here and isn’t afraid to get down to the nitty-gritty. She trash talks, threatens and even beats one of Micky’s sister’s faces in and I still adored her. That’s quite an accomplishment. The chemistry she produces with Wahlberg is as authentic as any onscreen couple this year.

When the film finally gets around to the actual fighting, it’s thrilling and realistic. The visual quality of the fights dips to get that authentic television feel and it works wonders. So despite knowing exactly how it will end, The Fighter manages to remain suspenseful while also providing enough character development so you’ll care whether or not Micky wins the title prize. I may have seen this movie before, but it remains entertaining, so that counts for something.

The Fighter receives 3.5/5


The Other Guys

I hate to poo poo on the parade of admiration that has come for the latest buddy cop comedy The Other Guys, but I honestly have no idea what people are seeing in it. While certainly better than this year’s similar send-up of buddy cop action movies, Cop Out, it’s little more than another overblown Will Ferrell comedy, complete with bad acting and overdone jokes.

What do I mean by “overdone jokes,” you ask? Well, The Other Guys is a certain type of comedy film that likes to make a joke early on and then bring it up repeatedly throughout the rest of its runtime, a running joke if you will. There are at least seven or eight jokes that are made and then remade and then remade again, but, with the exception of one humorous TLC reference, none are funny the first time, much less the third or fourth. The jokes in this movie are like Ferrell’s career. They just won’t go away.

Everyone’s favorite overrated comedian Ferrell plays Allen Gamble, a cop working a desk job in New York with his partner Terry Hoitz, played by Mark Wahlberg. They essentially work for the star cops in the force, P.K., played by Samuel L. Jackson, and Christopher, played by Dwayne Johnson, because after they complete a job, the two are tasked with filling out the required paperwork. However, they are about to get their chance to go out and do some real police work when an accident leaves P.K. and Christopher splattered on the sidewalk.

It’s difficult to review comedies because humor is subjective. What is funny to some may not be funny to others. It’s not as easy as saying whether or not a film is funny, but rather you must explain why and I'm in the minority on this one because I can’t stand Will Ferrell. Despite a funny stint on “Saturday Night Live” and a couple of decent supporting roles in movies like Wedding Crashers and Old School, he has failed to win me over.

The biggest issue I have with the man is the way he delivers his lines. He never fails to go remarkably over-the-top in his performances, taking a simple joke and elaborating to an unfunny extent. He goes on and on and on with no signs of letting up, masking his sarcasm and wit with monotony and annoyance. He tries so hard to make the audience laugh that it becomes depressing. Instead of letting the jokes flow naturally, he seems to force them in when they don’t belong. Will Ferrell is not a good comedian.

My reaction to Ferrell in this movie is expected, but I hoped that his performance would be rectified, or even complimented, by Mark Wahlberg’s clashing personality. Unfortunately, this matrimony was not meant to be. Wahlberg does little more than yell for close to an exhausting two hours of film and I can only imagine that his blood pressure had elevated quite a bit by wrap-up.

So we’ve established that half of the equation fails in this action/comedy romp. Well, so does the other. The action, which is ramped up tenfold in the last block of the film, is poorly staged and boring to watch. Director Adam McKay, the man responsible for the equally unfunny Ferrell movies Step Brothers, Talladega Nights and Anchorman, isn’t accustomed to filming action scenes and stumbles when trying to depict one.

There’s no excitement, laughs or fun to be found in The Other Guys. It’s sad because there’s a funny movie in there somewhere. You can see that some thought went into its writing, but the actors playing it out simply aren’t game. Neither Ferrell nor Wahlberg do a good job of fleshing out their respective roles as dimwitted dork and abrasive tough guy. Of course, this review will do nothing to stop the tide of Ferrell fans from flooding the theaters this weekend, try as I might, but if I can convince even one person that the man isn’t funny, I’ll have done my job.

The Other Guys receives 1.5/5