Friday, June 27, 2014

BABES, BOOMS, BOOZE, ‘BOTS…BOREDOM. “Transformers: Age of Extinction” Edges The Franchise Closer To It.

Within the first ten minutes of Michael Bay’s Transfomers: Age of Extinction, an ancillary character says something to the effect of “sequels and reboots are all a bunch of crap”; a metatextual line of acknowledgement that, in Michael Bay’s hands, can either be taken as a challenge to belie the statement or as serve a “f*** you” to the audience as he’s about to fling it at you like a pissed off caged monkey. The film, and I term it loosely, is more latter than former.

Taking place five years after the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), the Transformers, both Autobot and Deceptacon, are deemed unwanted aliens and are systematically hunted down by a government agency run by rogue CIA agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), with the help of an alien robotic force led by an entity called “Lockdown” (Mark Ryan), whose mission is to find the gone-missing Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). In the meantime, a down-on-his-luck, single father inventor named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), discovers Prime's remains and finds himself, his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), and her race car boyfriend Shane Dyson (Jack Reynor) drawn into events that involve…

…remember that analogy about monkeys above? Well, that’s kind of what the plot feels like. After the relatively poor performance of the previous installment (in comparison to the first two that preceded it), there was a need to up the ante on this one.  While Ehren Kruger is credited with writing the film, the narrative is so disjointed it barely holds itself together as such.  It’s as if someone took a monkey, gave it poo with plot ideas written on them, flung it against the wall, and saw what stuck which, given what’s packed in the overlong running time, seems like everything. That’s the whole tragedy in this film.

One of the major rules of storytelling (never introduce an element if it is not intended to be used, a rule especially espoused by Alfred Hitchcock) is violated many times. There are some really good ideas (one of which never before explored in the entirety of the “Transformer” mythology), which are built up without any payoff, playing more as a“wouldn’t this be cool if…” pastiche than an actual cohesive, linear story line. 

Directing actors have never been Bay’s strong suit, but at least in his previous films his characters had a sense, however thin, of consistency. In Extinction, character motivations change at a moment’s notice to a simian-head-scratching degree. Mark Wahlberg would be a welcome addition to the franchise solely for the fact that he’s NOT Shia LeBeouf, but he earns his place as he is certainly the most enthusiastic and sympathetic member of any Transformers film. His character is the anchor for the human point of reference; despite being a gifted tinker, his inventions never work and he is due to lose his home. The only other human performance worthy of note is John Turturro stand-in Stanley Tucci as a blatant Steve Jobs rip-off who is out to destroy the Transformers for his own purposes.  His character is completely disjointed, but at least his over-the-top histrionics make for entertaining fare. The rest of the cast are nothing more than the usual Michael Bay stock cut outs (the "hot girl", the "rebel boyfriend", the "homicidal muscle", etc.) that do their jobs adequately for the purposes of what passes for a film. The CGI is perhaps the best this series has seen, despite some weaknesses in translation to 3D.  However, I can honestly say that for the first time in a Transformers movie I could identify which robot was fighting whom with each ‘bot having a look as distinctive as their personality.

However, this is a Michael Bay party, and he’s brought his usual testosterone-jacked bag of tricks:  Ascending point-of-view car exits, babes in short shorts that would make Catherine Bach blush, sssslllloooooowwww-moooooooo, hardware (military and otherwise), booze, Steve Jablonsky’s staccato military rhythms, product placement galore, and the boom, Boom, BOOM! But much like the lens flare in a J.J. Abrams Star Trek production, the elements are so overdone here Extinction comes across as a Michael Bay parody; some moments so obviously pandering that they are groan-inducing caricature. The movie could have been significantly improved if Bay hadn’t seemingly fired his editor as the action sequences go so long that by the time the “money shots” are arrived at, one is either past caring or just relieved that it’s finally over. More and more is thrown into the ramped up battle scenes, with John Goodman’s “Hound”, Ken Watanabe’s “Drift”, John DiMaggio’s “Crosshairs” and Robert Foxworth’s “Ratchet” reminding us that this movie ostensibly about "robots in disguise" is really a study in machismo excess (everybody’s running around chasing a “seed”…yeeeeaaaah….); not that there’s anything wrong with that, if it weren’t so disjointedly blatant. As far as I’m concerned, so long as Peter Cullen continues to voice Optimus the character itself can do no wrong. But even actor and character are slaves to the story. By the time Optimus gets to his own “money shot” of riding the Dinobot “Grimlock”, the movie has gone so far off the rails for so long the viewer is left too confused about the shenanigans to care. Situations, motivations, and locations all jump around to such a leap frog extent that it feels like someone tried to condense all six Star Wars films into a two hour plus running time. When one says that an episode of the original Transformers (1984) cartoon was better executed in story and presentation than a big-budgeted, big screen adaptation, there’s a problem.

All in all, Transformers: Age of Extinction is a poorly designed robot; some parts work, others are mismatched and grind like nails on chalkboard. The sad fact is it really is like visiting monkeys at the zoo.  The cute monkey will fling the poo at you with disdain, but the audience will still shell out the money to watch without realizing they’re essentially paying for the privilege of being shat on.

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