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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


Jack the Giant Slayer

One question kept lingering in my mind as I watched Jack the Giant Slayer: how do the giants procreate? Aside from some physical abnormalities, they’re basically big people who sleep, eat and produce all the bodily fluids one would expect, yet they’re all male. Where are the women in this land of the clouds? Without them, do they reproduce asexually? If so, where are the (comparatively) little ones? If they aren’t able to procreate, are they immortal? Normally, a lack of answers would bother my obsessive compulsive brain, but in this case, they gave me something to think about while I was otherwise bored out of my mind. Jack the Giant Slayer is a lackluster production all around that features thin characters stuck in an even thinner story that stumbles along boorishly, never really building all that much excitement despite its titular promise of giant slaying.

Nicholas Hoult, who was so good in last month’s Warm Bodies, plays Jack. He’s a poor farm boy whose father told him stories of a mystical land full of giants when he was younger, which gave him hope to one day go on a grand adventure. Little did he know, however, that those stories were actually true and his adventure was going to mimic the stories he loved so much as a child. After making a deal with a monk, he finds himself in possession of some magical beans, one of which sprouts a giant beanstalk that soars to the sky and above the clouds. Unfortunately, this beanstalk takes his home with it, with the kingdom’s princess, Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), inside. He, along with the king’s men, Elmont (Ewan McGregor), Roderick (Stanley Tucci) and Crawe (Eddie Marsan), begins his ascent to rescue her.

It’s not unreasonable to expect a fantasy tale to have an imagination. Thinking outside the box is paramount to the genre’s success, but Jack the Giant Slayer is as bland as they come. This fantasy world in the clouds is severely lacking in the fantastical elements to make it come alive, aside from the actual giants, of course. The land is virtually no different than the one beneath them at the bottom of the beanstalk. There are grassy knolls, waterfalls, small ponds, forests and little else. Much of the film’s supposed appeal comes from the exploration of this land in the moments leading up to the confrontation, but, despite an abundance of CGI, there’s nothing particularly interesting to see.

More startling than its lack of imagination, however, is a narrative that is stretched so thin that it feels like two movies in one. After about an hour or so of wandering around and a moment or two of heroism, the film comes to a conclusion that one might expect the first part of a multi-part franchise to have. But then it starts again. It almost feels like the filmmakers shot the first half of the film, realized it wasn’t long enough to be justified as a feature length movie and expanded the story with the more action packed part two. Even more surprising is that when the film actually ends, it sets itself up for an actual sequel that could be set in modern day.

But making a sequel to an idea that wasn’t particularly interesting to begin with seems unlikely. Jack the Giant Slayer won’t be heavily panned, however. Some will see the charm in it, mostly due to a script that is a lot goofier than the trailers have led us to believe, complete with groan inducing puns. “He wouldn’t spill the beans,” one character says while trying to extract information on their whereabouts from that aforementioned monk. Although this goofiness will appeal to some, it’s a pandering type of goofiness, one that’s trying to trick viewers into thinking it’s amusing while simultaneously hiding its lackluster story. When you tack on a useless 3D that creates constant double vision and even further darkens some already visually dark scenes, as most films in the format do, you have something that simply doesn’t work. Director Bryan Singer is a talented guy who, unfortunately, seems to take more flack these days for the underrated Superman Returns than praise for his knockout X-Men movies and The Usual Suspects, but he failed to bring Jack to life.

Jack the Giant Slayer receives 1.5/5


Captain America: The First Avenger

In a year where superhero movies have been hitting us over the head, the results have been subpar at best. Only X-Men: First Class has managed to impress while The Green Hornet, Thor and Green Lantern have failed to live up to expectations. So I suppose it’s a good thing we have Captain America: The First Avenger bookending our year of men in silly costumes because it’s the best of all. It's a summer popcorn film of the highest caliber and it delivers all the thrills one would expect while also laying the groundwork for future installments.

As with most first entries in a superhero franchise, Captain America is an origin story that chronicles the rise of its titular character. This time, we have Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a short and scrawny kid living in Brooklyn during World War II. He wants nothing more than to enlist in the armed forces so he can help bring down Hitler, but because of his stature (and laundry list of health problems), he is denied. When Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist working for the American government, overhears Rogers’ desire, he allows him to enlist so he can be the subject of an experimental operation that makes bad men more evil, but good men great. The operation has only been done once before on Johann Schmidt, also known as Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi officer, and it turned him into a tyrannical miscreant. Rogers, on the other hand, receives healing powers and strength beyond imagination that he plans to use for good, so he sets out to single-handedly put an end to the war.

There are plenty of reasons why Captain America is better than the other superhero movies released this year, but all the proof you need is in the character. Thor, for instance, lacked reasoning behind his actions. He didn’t fight for any noble cause. He simply fought because that’s what he was supposed to do. His thin personality made him a character that was hard to care about, but there’s more to Captain America. There isn’t a more noble cause than fighting Nazism, but his motivations go beyond that. He is willing to, and does, lay his life on the line to protect the greater good, even if the odds are overwhelmingly against him. He is courageous and noble, even going so far as to jump on a grenade to save his platoon, which, luckily for him, ends up being a dummy.

Director Joe Johnston, the man behind the magnificent October Sky, does an excellent job of validating this character, allowing us to see his big heart and selfless desires, which allows the drama to surface naturally. There are a number of emotional scenes and, though I doubt they will make anybody shed a tear, they work. Its real strength, however, is its seamless blend of the heartfelt moments with comedy. Tonally, Captain America is perfect, never lacking or overdoing itself in either area. Where Johnston stumbles is in his obvious camerawork that frames the bad guys in ominous low-angle shots, as if a man with a blood red face and a Nazi uniform wasn’t enough. Similarly, he overdoes it with typical “heroic” shots, like slow zooms, tracking shots and slow motion shots as the character rides away from, or even jumps through, a fiery explosion. All of this is usually accompanied by a swelling up of patriotic music, which is a bit overbearing, even if it does fit the idea of the character himself.

Captain America: The First Avenger also suffers from the occasional moment of unintentional hilarity and spotty CGI, especially just before the final battle, but it’s so much fun you’ll hardly notice. Too many origin stories spend too much time setting up the mythology of the character and forget about the fun, but not this one. It ensures future adventures without neglecting itself, which makes it one of the most entertaining and exciting movies to be released this year.

Captain America: The First Avenger receives 4.5/5



Musicals are wonderful. From George Stevens’ 1936 classic Swing Time to 2001’s Moulin Rouge, my love for musicals knows no bounds. As I sat down to watch the latest genre effort, Burlesque, I hoped for the best. Basically a mash up of Cabaret and Chicago, Burlesque is snappy, energetic and enthusiastic. It’s a phantasmagoric display of colors and costumes. And it’s also as boring as all get out.

Christina Aguilera plays Ali, an Iowa girl who moves out to Los Angeles with the hopes of hitting it big. On her job search, she comes across a Burlesque club and immediately falls in love with it, wishing for nothing more than to be up on that stage performing for the adoring crowd. However, the club’s owner, Tess, played by Cher, refuses to give her that chance. But when she learns she is about to lose her club to the bank unless able to raise a certain amount of money, she changes her mind and finds that Ali is a force to be reckoned with. She can sing, she can dance, she is beautiful and she becomes the talk of the town.

Burlesque’s plot resembles any other film where a newfound talent brings a business back from the brink of bankruptcy. It’s a story mechanic that has been done to death, but in the right hands it can still work. If it’s believable enough, I can look past it and enjoy the movie for what it is, but there’s nothing in Christina Aguilera that makes me believe she would garner this kind of attention. Aside from the fact that she isn’t a very good actress, which was to be expected, she isn’t particularly fun to watch as a singer either. She has a way of exaggerating her mannerisms to the point where you can’t tell whether she’s really into the song or having some sort of rhythmic seizure.

Still, the songs aren’t bad. It’s everything in between that stings the most. The dialogue, while sometimes humorously blunt, is usually just plain bad and it includes some of the most overly cloying exchanges since the last Nicholas Sparks film adaptation. Perhaps most egregious is its contrivances. As per usual with movies like this, a romance buds between Ali and Jack, played by Cam Gigandet. To get them together, the filmmakers force in one quick scene that shows Ali’s hotel room ransacked. Since she now has nowhere to go, Jack takes her in. In a way, all scenes in every movie set up the next because they are telling a story, but a good movie makes the progression feel natural. Burlesque doesn’t.

Burlesque is a musical only in the sense that it has musical numbers, but it fails to capture the spirit of the best in the genre. Not only are the songs not memorable, some don’t even fit naturally into the movie. It sometimes felt like they had written songs for the film and couldn’t figure out a natural way to include them, so they placed them around at random. The best example comes midway through when Tess, as she is about to leave the club for the night, decides instead to practice a new number, which makes no sense since she is not a performer at her club. I guess the mentality of the filmmakers was, “We have Cher. Why not let her sing?”

Although Aguilera’s performance is wooden and insincere, everyone else is lively and fun. The supporting cast, which includes Kristen Bell, Eric Dane, Alan Cumming and the great Stanley Tucci, provide some much needed withdraw from the sappy main story and stilted, if not nonexistent, chemistry between Aguilera and Gigandet. When focusing on these characters, there is some charm to be found, but in a musical as soulless as Burlesque, that counts for very little.

Burlesque receives 1.5/5


The Lovely Bones

Before 2001, few people knew of the now famous Peter Jackson. Before landing the gig of a lifetime with The Lord of the Rings movies, he had dabbled mainly in comedy/horror films with Bad Taste, the Michael J. Fox starring The Frighteners, and one of my personal favorites Dead Alive (known as Braindead in other areas of the world). Since then, what with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the highly lauded 2005 King Kong remake, Jackson has proven himself to be a real talent in Hollywood. So imagine my disappointment after watching The Lovely Bones, a mediocre, pretentious effort from one of cinema's most prized directors. It's been quite a while since I've seen a movie with such an impressive resume that has failed to create any type of emotional resonance or meaning.

The film begins in 1973 and is about Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a 14 year old girl who gets murdered by George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) one day on her walk back home from school. Susie ends up in a purgatory type of world, which her brother dubs "the in between" after seeing her in his room one night. You see, her family, particularly her father, can still sometimes see her or at least get a message that she is still around, like through a flickering candle for instance. In the in between world, she meets up with another girl named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) who explains that she can pass over whenever she likes, but she must leave her old world behind her. She decides she isn't yet ready and watches her parents, as well as her killer, as they try to unravel the mystery back in the world of the living.

There's a lot going on in The Lovely Bones. There are themes of love, death, tragedy, murder, the afterlife, divine intervention, the break-up of a family, and more, but none of them ever seem to fully come together into a cohesive whole. They are explored, but only by themselves, never together. None of the themes ever run their courses into one giant metaphor on life or death. They're just there.

This is a movie that assumes there is an afterlife. It never truly questions what happens after you die, which comes as a disappointment. Quite simply, one minute you're here, the next you're not and you're on your final journey on your way to the afterlife. Susie talks of "my heaven," but as far as I could tell, this heaven had no god or supreme being to rule over it. The film never questions the implications of what would happen if you died and there was an afterlife, but nobody was there to rule it. I felt like it had plenty of opportunities to really get into why death is such a mystery, but it spends the majority of its time on Earth going through the motions of a routine murder mystery.

The Lovely Bones is an unstructured movie where years go by with little to no indication, which comes off as confusing because Susie does not age in the afterlife, but everything goes on as it would normally on Earth. Its plot turns come off as insignificant, as evidenced by a scene midway through where the Salmon mother, played by Rachel Weisz, leaves the family out of grief and doesn't return until late in the movie. There's even a montage that occurs after Susie's death that is played for laughs that feels like it should be placed in the next Austin Powers movie, not in the serious nature of this film.

Then you have the acting, which is uniformly unimpressive. Mark Wahlberg is poor, Rachel Weisz, a usually reliable actress, seems to be phoning it in and little Susie Salmon as played by Saoirse Ronan is adequate, but hardly compelling. The poor acting correlates with the sometimes laughable story because none of it feels authentic. There's a ridiculous love connection that sparks up between Susie and Ray, played by Reece Ritchie, that plays like a deleted scene from Twilight due to the long awkward stares and a piano tune that sounds ripped from NBC's "The More You Know" PSA's.

After my screening of The Lovely Bones, I inadvertently heard another critic comment that the film had the "style over substance" school of thought. That person couldn't be more right. This is all style and no substance. Jackson is a great director, but his approach to this film seems extravagant simply for the sake of it. It worked in King Kong and Lord of the Rings, but the difference is that this material doesn't always necessarily call for it, yet it's bumped up to 11. It becomes a major distraction.

Though not devoid of all positive qualities (Stanley Tucci is terrific and there's a truly heart pounding chase scene in the back half of the movie), The Lovely Bones nevertheless feels manufactured not out of love, but labor and its ending is anti-climactic and unfulfilling. Don't expect this one to win best picture kiddos.

The Lovely Bones receives 1.5/5