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Friday
Jun272014

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

Tuesday
Jun282011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Aside from the horribly inept, yet inexplicably popular, 1999 action movie, The Boondock Saints, Michael Bay’s first Transformers film is hands down the most overrated “guy” picture out there. If my experiences are any indication, men from all corners of the country hold that film up as an example of how action films should be, and for the life of me I cannot figure out why. It’s loud, overblown, overlong and convoluted, among other things. It may not match the abomination that is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (which made my worst of the year list back in 2009), but it’s still a decidedly bad movie. It appears the third time’s the charm, however, for director Michael Bay. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is easily the best film yet in the series and although it’s far from amazing, it rectifies many of the previous films’ shortcomings, making it one of the most pleasant, if ultimately unfulfilling, surprises of the year.

The film begins with a history lesson, but it’s a little different than what you learned in school. After being informed by American scientists that something of mysterious origins has crash landed on the moon, President Kennedy gives his famous 1961 speech promising to take a man to the moon and back safely. The catch is that the mission is to investigate the crash site, where Buzz Aldrin and company find an alien spacecraft from the planet Cybertron, the home planet of the Transformers, carrying cargo of unknown capabilities. Meanwhile, in present time, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is living in Washington, DC with his new girlfriend, Carly (Victoria’s Secret supermodel, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), and can’t find a job, despite saving the world twice and receiving a medal from President Obama. He soon finds out that his unemployment is the least of his problems, though, when the Decepticons find the cargo on the moon and threaten to use it to destroy Earth.

Based on that plot synopsis, it would be easy to conclude that the story here is just as inconsequential as they were in the previous two films, but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s still rather ridiculous (as is the whole concept of alien robots from outer space, in fact), but it works here for one reason: Bay takes the time to develop it. For about an hour and a half, Dark of the Moon does a decent job of building its characters and allowing the story to flow naturally through dialogue. The romance between Sam and Carly, mercifully replacing the Megan Fox character from the first two films, is delicately handled and genuine. Huntington-Whiteley is a beautiful young woman with a surprising amount charm and comes off like a natural acting opposite the always amusing LaBeouf. Thanks to this, their chemistry rings true, which makes the later scenes of peril that much more tense because you’ll have invested so much in their relationship together.

There is some good humor too, much of which stems from their relationship and Sam’s jealousy towards Carly’s flirtatious boss, Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), but Transformers: Dark of the Moon is nevertheless a darker film than its predecessors. I hesitate to call it a more mature film, however, because cinematic maturity comes with favoring story over explosions, but after that initial hour and a half, it devolves into another mind-numbing action picture. Like most Michael Bay movies, it begins to resemble something similar to what a 13 year old boy would do if given a camera and $200 million to play with. The story hits a standstill, the characters stop developing and the promising set-up is undermined by flavorless stupidity. It’s like Bay shot the movie in order, eventually got bored with all the talking and decided it was about time to blow stuff up. One of my chief criticisms of the original film was that the final action scene, as impressive as it was, went on for far too long, an exhausting 45 minutes. Well, in Dark of the Moon, the final action scene hits closer to the hour mark. Bay is a master at staging these types of scenes, there’s little doubt about that, but he needs someone to tell him when enough is enough. His refusal to edit them down to a manageable length does nothing but weaken an otherwise impressive finale.

What makes Transformers: Dark of the Moon still work in spite of those stumbles is that the events leading up to the mindless action are better handled. Although it still suffers from some of the same problems that plagued the previous films, many of them are fixed. There are no more offensive, stereotypical Transformers, no wrecking ball testicles, no small robots humping anyone’s legs and the acting is all around better thanks to a terrific supporting cast that includes veteran Frances McDormand, the personable Alan Tudyk and John Malkovich in a delightfully off-kilter role.

Of course, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is just as shallow and empty-headed as its older brothers, but it’s competently handled and more coherent. And given the track record of this franchise, that’s about as good as it’s going to get.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon receives 3/5