Transformers: Age of Extinction

Robots in disgrace

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

There aren’t many franchises that could make me feel compelled to see the fourth instalment after the previous films were so completely awful that they seem less like entertainment and more like clandestine scientific studies into the limits of the human gag reflex. Still, I felt I needed to see this one, because the Bayformers sequels are fascinatingly bad and because they’re handy yardsticks in measuring how dumb Hollywood thinks people are. It would be gauche of me to not mention the fact that despite all this, I still kinda like Michael Bay, or at least several of his previous films, and want him to make things like The Rock and Bad Boys again.

“Fuck this film”

Inventor and robotics enthusiast Cade Yaeger (Mark Wahlberg) brings home a dilapidated truck for scrap and on closer inspection finds out it’s actually Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). The CIA, under the command of Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) storm the Yaegers’ home and threaten Cade and his daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz), having a zero tolerance policy on alien robots since Chicago got totalled, causing mass civilian fatalities. Initially, Age of Extinction is probably the most coherent of the films since the original. The first 20 minutes or so were borderline OK. The story they were sketching out was dumb as fuck, but still decent enough to be forgiveable. Then it snowballs. Characters switch motivations and ideologies on a whim, practically everyone is a sociopathic arsehole and it became hugely unpleasant to sit through. Acting ranges from flat to actively bad. Marky Mark gives a weirdly earnest performance, but delivers his lines like he’s back in The Happening.  The only decent presences are Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammer who are that damn good at acting they make the insane nonsensical shit they have to say seem legitimate.

I hate to sound like a bored, fusty old retiree writing into the Daily Mail, but this film is morally reprehensible. My expectations weren’t high. I’ve seen all the previous films and am aware that the very best it could be is a dumb action film based on a line of action figures. This film has racism, sexism and all the other kinds of “isms” peppered throughout. I’m not sure whether it’s down to Bay or writer Ehren Kruger or both, but there is some ugly shit below the surface. So, Cade has a daughter, a character we’re introduced to via a low angle crotch shot getting out of a car. She is kept on a tight leash by her dad, not allowed to date or express herself in any way. The script is at great pains to state that she is a minor at 17 years old and that all Cade wants to do is “protect” her. In fact, I’d say a good 30% of Yaeger’s dialogue contains the word “protect” or a variation. When shit hits the fan, Cade and Tessa are rescued by Tessa’s secret boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor) and cue lots of awkward moments. Thing is, the way the characters are written, it feels like Cade is in love with his daughter, spending most of the runtime competing for her affection with Shane. It’s a fucking creepy love triangle. It’s not as if it’s subtle, either. There is one part where they’re talking about her being underage and Cade being tempted to call the police on Shane for having sex with a minor (there’s all sorts of icky shit in here, especially concerning the Madonna/whore complex) and- I shit you not- Shane pulls out documentation on the Romeo & Juliet laws in his defence. This is meant to be a dumb, for the masses CGI abusing blockbuster- why the fuck are we even talking about statutory rape and underage sex, especially since the writing is so fucking stupid it can’t handle basic human characters, let alone a pointy and complex issue like that?

That aside, how does the rest fare? Not well. The humans are creepy and the Autobots are kill-happy jerks. They can’t shut up about how much they enjoy killing. It hardly makes you want to cheer for them. Basically, Kelsey Grammer’s character is right in wanting to destroy all the Transformers, regardless of allegiance. Too many people die when they’re around. They’re not heroes. The whole film is gravid with shit like this and it’s exhausting to watch. It’s nearly three hours long and it’s basically done with the simple story it wanted to tell halfway in. How about the Dinobots, eh? Yeah, they’re not in it much. Think of the ghost army in Return of the King. Few token scenes then show up in the final battle, only to fuck off afterwards.

I’m aware that not all people care about narrative, they want to see ‘splosions and lots of them. The arguments are always the same. “But I just want to turn my brain off and have fun” or “I just want to see giant robots beating the shit out of each other” etc. Thing is, even the action’s not great. Whilst it is possible to distinguish one robot from another this time, it’s just the same old shit with an over-reliance on slow motion shots to show off how “cool” everything is. The action doesn’t mean anything. There are no stakes. It’s just noise. I think even the most forgiving of violence junkies will be pissed off at how flat the action is and how much time the film spends on the incestuous love triangle instead.

Critics have said that by naming his play “As You Like It”, Shakespeare was taking a jab at his audience, frustrated that they just wanted knockabout comedies instead of his more serious work. I think Age of Extinction is Bay’s As You Like It. The Transformers franchise is way too much of a money juggernaut for Paramount to lose Bay. He’s a selling point. We know Bay has never had any qualms about “selling out” considering his background in advertising and the shameless product placement in his films. My guess is that they keep offering him embarrassing amounts of money to stick around and this is him accepting his fate. This film is a soft reboot and there are a further two films planned. He’s stuck. So, here he is, packing the film with all sorts of shit because he can and nobody is going to stop him. The worst part is that people are eating it all up and clamouring for more. That’s seriously depressing.

“Seriously though, fuck this film”

So yeah, Age of Extinction is pretty much the worst. It’s a cynical, hateful, loud film with absolute contempt for its audience.

Pain & Gain

Lame & Shame

Pain & Gain (2013)

Like a fly to shit, I always get incredibly curious when there’s a bad buzz about a film. It would be an understatement to say that there has been some dung flung around this one, with it appearing on several “worst of the year” lists. Michael Bay’s name has become synonymous with low-brow lunkhead pandering and sickening excess and with mostly good reason. I’ve spoken about it many times, but I often find myself speaking up for the guy. I really enjoy the Bad Boys films, I love The Rock, I don’t mind Armageddon and I actually rate the first Transformers. Having said that, I haven’t liked any of his output for years. As you may have garnered from my oh-so-fucking-witty standard reviewer pun above, Pain & Gain doesn’t break that brown streak.

“The events you are about to see took place in Miami, Florida between October 1994 and June ’95. Unfortunately, this is a true story.”

Purportedly based on a true story, Pain & Gain tells the story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a personal trainer who “masterminds” a criminal plot to seize control and ownership of all of moneyed businessman Viktor Kershaw’s (Tony Shalhoub) assets. Along with gym buddy Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and muscled God fearing Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), the trio kidnap Kershaw and set about their scheme, which soon turns very ugly. I used the term “purportedly” very deliberately as whilst it’s being sold on the “this actually happened” angle, minimal internet research shows that this is third-hand information, the script being largely based on a series of magazine articles about the “Sun Gym Gang”, inviting a lot of opportunities for Chinese whispering and dramatisation, if you catch my not-at-all subtle drift. The cast is a mixed bag. We have seasoned veterans like Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris and Peter Stormare being reliably brilliant, but fighting the limited script every step of the way. Dwayne Johnson, who is one of my favourite people ever, manages to be the only amusing presence and does a damn good job of selling his conflicted role, even if the script once again raises its ugly head and puts him in a box he can’t quite bust out of. Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie are bland as hell and give you no reason to invest anything in their characters. Rebel Wilson also makes an appearance, but is solely used for cheap yuks, which pretty much sums up the film as a whole.

The real story behind all this is a truly shocking one, saturated by greed and grotesque violence. Handled correctly, it could make an amazing dark comedy filled with hubris. Unfortunately, Michael “Sledgehammer” Bay is at the helm and as such, things that require a deft touch and sensitivity are fucking annihilated by his juvenile style and gratuitous nature. The main drive of the film is pointing and laughing. Everything’s a target. Our stupid bodybuilding trio, fatties, homosexuality and women in general are all in the firing line and it gets very tiresome very quickly. It’s fine to show how meatheaded our criminal trio are, considering they thought they could pull off a complicated scheme and walk away clean, but Bay overplays his hand on everything. Despite the main targets being the gang, Bay still manages to glorify the terrible things these people did. He insists on bombastic shots like super slo-mo or that 360 degree shot going in and out of rooms, with the camera moving through glass and walls (similar to the way he shot the Haitian gunfight in Bad Boys II). It’s just too much for this sort of story. There’s even the hackneyed “walking away from an explosion” shot. Thing is, at this point in the film, they’re in the process of murdering someone. This style is fine when in a film where action sequences are the point, death doesn’t matter and bullets are liberal, but with something like this it jars massively. One could argue that the film is being satirical with its shallow, showy presentation, aping the way the main gang would picture events in their heads, but when the film contains testicle jokes and other easy yuks, I think even someone playing devil’s advocate wouldn’t have much ground to stand on.

I would love to see the original script. The screenplay was written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the writing duo that brought us the Narnia films, Captain America and Thor: The Dark World .Their past work has been well-structured and often really quite good, so forgive me for thinking that some of the Transformers-esque humour in this film didn’t come from them. My guess is that Bay just couldn’t resist chucking in his trademark cheapseats gags to appease his thick jock demographic. Anyone with a working brain stem could have told you that not only were the gags terrible, but the very notion of putting them into this sort of film was an atrocious idea as it fucks with the tone and comes across as incredibly insensitive and monumentally disrespectful of the real-life happenings. The film keeps banging on about the American Dream and being “a doer” so much it reminded me of F&F 6‘s woeful attempts at theming. I read the gobsmacking source articles and there are completely untapped veins on drama contained in there and the potential for an absolute barnstormer of a film. What we’re given is like a 12 year old’s interpretation of the events, one who skim read the articles and got hung up on pointless details, like Doorbal’s impotence from steroid abuse because teehee his dick doesn’t work.

“Why’d you make me do that to you, Victor? I have responsibilities! Jesus Christ himself has blessed me with many gifts! One of them is knocking someone the fuck out!”

It isn’t all bad. As I said, there are some casting high points (The Rock is once again the MVP) and I must say, the film is structured and paced rather well. In some ways it reminded me of the Coens’ Burn After Reading, which had a similar set-up. If this had been a fictional tale like Burn After Reading, it may have got away with some of this shit, but Bay takes great pains in reminding you that this actually happened, even going so far as having “this is still true” flashing up on the screen during one of the film’s more “out there” moments. He needs restraint. The whole thing being shot like a hyper-edited MTV show really doesn’t help matters. With Pain & Gain, Bay has proved his critics right a thousand times over when they baulked at his ability to direct anything more sophisticated than giant alien robots beating the shit out of each other. I appreciate the fact he tried something new, but this definitely wasn’t the way to go about it. Let’s not get carried away here- it’s not the worst film of the year. It’s not even the worst Michael Bay film. It’s just morally bankrupt, tonally FUBAR and generally empty, which some could argue is worse than any of the crap in Revenge of the Fallen.

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