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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


The Last Airbender

There was a point in time when you mentioned the name M. Night Shyamalan and people would stand up and cheer. After writing and directing the terrific 1999 thriller The Sixth Sense and following it up with the solid Unbreakable, it seemed like the man could do no wrong. His guts to go where nobody else would and his intelligent twists promised great things to come. Unfortunately, he has been on a downward spiral ever since, attempting to recreate those successes and failing, sometimes catastrophically. Even after factoring in The Village, a travesty on any level, it seems like the once famed director has hit a new low with The Last Airbender, a movie that gets everything wrong.

The film is set in a fantasy world where certain people called “benders” can manipulate the four natural elements: fire, air, water and earth. Most live in tranquility, but one group from the fire nation wants to dominate them all. The only way to do this is to stop the last Airbender, a kid named Aang (Noah Ringer), who has been trapped in a block of ice for the last century. After being found by Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz), he sets off to save the other nations, but to stop the fire manipulators, led by the shamed Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) hoping to get his honor back, he must first master the other elements.

Changing its name from its source material for obvious reasons, the film adaptation of the hit animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender is an embarrassing mess. It’s a movie that impresses in no area and, furthermore, sets itself up for a sequel, which, if there is indeed a higher presence watching down on us, will never come. To pinpoint exactly where The Last Airbender goes wrong would be like choosing the best spot to begin shoveling manure. Regardless of where you pick, you’re dealing with crap from start to finish.

This catastrophe's biggest problem is the writing. Shyamalan is one of the few, like Juno writer Diablo Cody, who struck gold in his first major cinematic endeavor only to fail to recapture that magic. The Sixth Sense had a great story that flowed well and ended with a shocker of a twist. Like a flailing fish on the ground searching around for water, The Last Airbender grasps for something to keep its story moving, but finds nothing within reach. The basic idea works—the characters go from Point A to Point B and fight the evil fire nation—but the excursions in between make for a jumbled experience. The characters jump from place to place, meet many different characters that have already escaped from my mind and Aang randomly enters a dreamlike state where he meets spirits that tell him what to do. This confusion is plainly evident from the fact that the dialogue consists of dumbed down exposition that explains what’s going on. The characters speak as if they themselves aren’t completely sure what they’re supposed to do next and are seeking explanation.

Because of this, I’m not really sure who to blame for the abysmal acting. Should I blame it on Shyamalan the writer for forcing his actors to say such dimwitted things? Should I blame Shyamalan the director for failing to properly manage them? It’s tough to say, but my guess is that this film’s awfulness was a collaborative effort. The young Noah Ringer, who plays the titular character, is one of the worst child actors I’ve seen in a long time. Not only can he not emote when necessary, he can’t even speak a line without it feeling like he was reading from a cue card.

Even Dev Patel, who was terrific in the 2008 Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, comes off as lazy. His botched make-up job, which is supposed to show how hardened he’s become from his past transgressions, only makes him look sleepy. With bags under his eyes and hair that sticks up more than Cameron Diaz’s in There’s Something About Mary, he looks like he crawled out of bed five minutes before arriving on set. His performance only solidifies that theory. He looked tired, ready to go home and get away from the inanity around him. I knew how he felt.

Suffice to say, the acting comes off as wooden. You could film a forest and you’d get the same effect. Even the action, the one thing in this movie that should be a genuine treat, is bland beyond belief. Sure, the actors are agile and the fights are well choreographed, but when you consider that the majority of the action utilizes element bending and consists of little more than special effects, you realize the lack of talent from everyone involved. There isn’t a single thing to recommend in The Last Airbender, an excruciating experience that is a contender for one of the worst of the year.

The Last Airbender receives 0.5/5