Friday, June 27, 2014

Extinction Level Entertainment

I've been catching up on a lot of 2014 movies this past week, and I'm going to get on to writing about them soon enough, but right now I just have to talk about Transformers: Age of Extinction. I have to talk about it because the fourth live-action movie in the Hasbro toy franchise might just be the best movie of director Michael Bay's career.

Now, I know what you're probably thinking: "That's not saying much," and normally, you'd be right. Bay has become known as a staple of big, explosion-laden blockbusters, dating way back to 1995 and directorial debut Bad Boys. The director has made a name for himself by making successful tentpole flicks ever since, and even though his stories and characters have been dumb as rocks (and getting dumber every time), people still want to see his movies. That's because Bay wants everything you see (in his own words) "to be awesome", and that energy tends to rub off onto the big screen and excite his audiences. But as I said, his storytelling has gotten dumber, and the first three Transformers movies are perfect examples of Bay's negative trends as a director: he doesn't know where to focus the story, his humor devolves into criminally racial stereotypes, he feels the need to pull a Lucas and create Jar Jar Binks-level caricatures for "levity", and despite everything we've been told in the past twenty years, he's really not all that great at directing action, where the characters clash in mishmashes of unreadable disaster porn.
"Take me to your Earth women."
And yet... Age of Extinction is actually pretty good. Not "great", but also not just "good for Michael Bay". In his surprising fourth turn as director of the franchise (the third was supposed to have been his last), Bay actually seems to be growing as a director. I know, I can't believe it, either! The story takes place five years after the climactic battle of Chicago from Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and in the aftermath a black ops CIA strike force has been hunting down the robotic aliens with a vengeance, with both the noble Autobots and evil Decepticons in their cross-hairs. They're even getting aid from a rogue Transformer bounty hunter named Lockdown (voiced by Mark Ryan) who seems to have an agenda of his own concerning his brethren. With the remaining "robots in disguise" in hiding, nobody knows where Autobot commander Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) is... until a damaged semi truck shows up in the barn of Texas technician Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg)...
Not even Marky Mark can stand up to these baddies...
So, to be honest, the reason I enjoyed this latest Transformers flick so much is because the whole thing is actually ABOUT something. Whereas the first three were nothing but the hidden war between the Autobots and the Decepticons and Bay's love of all things military, and yet somehow focusing mainly on the spasming face of Shia LaBeouf, Age of Extinction actually seems to have something behind the exposition and explosions. It's about being a father, as Wahlberg's character must deal with the realization that he can't always protect his daughter (The Last Airbender's Nicola Pelz) from the dangers of the world. It's about racial profiling in a post-9/11 scenario, as we see the human bad guys (played by Kelsey Grammar and Titus Welliver) expound "us vs. them" speeches without discerning between the evil and innocent under their gaze, with one even having lost family in the aforementioned Chicago battle. It's about cloning, corporate greed, the dangers of too-soon scientific progress, genocide, a veteran soldier's bitterness at being abandoned by the people he worked so hard to protect, and what it means to be a living being. There are deep, philosophical discussions to be made of any of these topics, and they all have a part to play in the plot. Now granted, Bay is not necessarily the best man to be putting these ideas out there alongside his CGI mayhem and robotic dinosaurs, but that he does so well introducing these ideas to a major Hollywood blockbuster makes you wonder if he's secretly been growing as a director while the world has scoffed as his "artistic achievements" thus far.
If struts could kill...
Another major upgrade made to this sequel is the cast. Gone are the boring, adolescent hi-jinks of Sam Witwicky and his useless, pointless, interchangeable love interests Megan Fox/Rosie Huntington-Whitely. Gone are the requisite military bad-asses and really just pointless cameos Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson. Gone are wacko John Tuturro, Witwicky parents Kevin Dunn and Julie White (who were appreciated by absolutely no-one), and almost every racist and sexist stereotype (just almost, because... Michael Bay) that has plagued the franchise to this point. They're replaced by a mostly-solid group of actors, especially Wahlberg in the lead. Finally, Transformers fans have a thoughtful, likable human protagonist who actually does things that MATTER, far beyond just being a cosmic MacGuffin who improbably gets the girl through sheer audience annoyance. Wahlberg has showed a heft of talent over the years, and working with Bay again (they paired up for last year's awful Pain & Gain) as an off-type everyman works surprisingly well, thanks to the equal parts tough guy and compassionate man that the role required, to which the actor took exceptionally well. He gets some good support as well, not only from Grammar and Welliver (the former also gleefully playing against type), but also Stanley Tucci as a results-oriented scientist dreaming of greatness, Sophia Myles (Madame de Pompadour!) as a geologist who discovers that what we know about Dinosaur extinction isn't necessarily true, Resident Evil: Retribution's Li Bingbing as Tucci's surprisingly kick-ass assistant, and even T.J. Miller providing a bit of decent comic relief in the first act. And the Transformers themselves get a bit more attention this time around, with the voices of Cullen, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe and John Dimaggio providing more personality and depth than we had seen from this group in the previous three entries. I've been saying for a while that the series needed to focus more on the titular heroes if it wanted my respect, and Bay actually seems to have addressed that issue, putting them front and center and writing some excellent material for the voice actors to work through. It's almost as if the director actually WANTED to make a Transformers movie this time around.
Not everything works out, however. Bay's dislike of strong women seems to show no sign of ending, as the woman who gets the most screentime is the whiny, bratty, completely useless Nicola Pelz. And her character isn't that great, either (zing!). Frankly speaking, Tessa Yeager just makes no sense, in one scene decrying the head-in-the-sky nature of her inventor father and declaring herself the real manager of the household, the next screaming for her "daddy" to save her from the giant robots battle she's too stupid to run in the opposite direction from. Even her singular "redeeming" moment is shortchanged, as she really doesn't do anything besides help her boyfriend (played blandly by Jack Reynor) do one solitary - albeit admittedly important - task, and it never really makes up for how insufferably annoying she is. Forget comparing her to Megan Fox - whose uselessness was at least mitigated by her coolness and take-charge attitude - Pelz's role and performance make Rosie Huntington-Whitely look like an Oscar-caliber actress. If there's one thing that could be said positively about Pelz, it's that she does a better job here than she did in the abomination that was The Last Airbender, but anybody who saw that knows that pieces of rotting driftwood could have done better.
No, wait, Chevy Camero! Better time! 'Murica!
Another downside - or at least a surprisingly inconsistent element - is the SFX use, which most of the time looks positively gorgeous but on occasion flickers into cartoonish territory. And it's not the Transformers animations, which you could forgive for having more uncanny valley than the average Robert Zemeckis movie. No, those look crisp as ever, and combined with the excellent voice-work, make for some amazingly compelling visuals. No, it's the smaller effects that stand out, such as when some human characters are scaling down a building side, and the CGI is just SCREAMING, it's so noticeable. Bay does use some practical effects, but when he uses computers to render something other than the title's main characters, it just doesn't look quite right. This is a shock when you consider how relatively flawless the previous entries were as far as special effects went (it was universally the best aspect of those moves) and how Bay has essentially built his career on said big screen spectacle. It's only a minor gripe, nowhere near the worst the film has to offer.
It's a robot... with a sword... riding a robotic T-Rex. I have no words.
Now, despite the praise I've been heaping on the movie brought to us from Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (whose last great screenplay was The Ring, and that was an American remake of a Japanese classic), I'm not saying that Transformers: Age of Extinction is great. Like I said, despite the surprising depth and metaphor present in the story, Bay still is still not the best director at developing the "human element". The ending is a bit rushed, the only reason they filmed the third act in Hong Kong was a blatant attempt to cash in on the Chinese box office, the product placement is fairly obvious, and the characters often refer to things they couldn't have learned but for a choppy film editing process. The movie also feels a bit long at almost three hours, though it should be pointed out that it never feels as long as, say, Zack Snyder's fellow advertising firm Man of Steel.  But despite these perfectly obvious blemishes, to Bay's credit he doesn't do a half-bad job, either. The action is actually pretty clear, and despite some pointless slow-motion bits (like Pelz' dialogue, Bay doesn't always know how to properly emphasize) the battle sequences are engaging and pretty easy to follow, the antithesis of the first three.
Speech, speech! Oh, who am I kidding, we all know he's going to make a speech.
For the director, this surprising maturity between the first three Transformers movies and now really does bring this fourth entry to a whole other level, blending some serious filmmaking with his usual bombast and bright shininess to create something that isn't entirely brainless and idiotic. I know that might sound like damning with faint praise, but I'm just SHOCKED that Bay was able to create a movie this GOOD and I'm not sure how to say good things about his work. Every action director usually has ONE really good movie, but as Bay really hasn't had one yet, I thought perhaps he had peaked back in the 90's. But - and I'm totally serious when I say this - Michael Bay has made the best movie of his career, and it's a good action film. Not just good compared to Armageddon, or to The Island, or to any of his previous Transformers movies. No, Michael Bay has actually created his magnum opus, a surprisingly cohesive popcorn film that doesn't automatically offend your sense of intelligence every time someone opens their mouth. And Age of Extinction is actually a whole lot of fun, to boot. Sure, you probably need to see the previous dreck to get a full sense of the storyline as a whole, but even if you're not a hardcore fan of the 80's toy craze, there's still a lot to appreciate about what has transformed here.

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