Monday, June 23, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in...

When Transformers: Dark of the Moon came out in 2011, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had somehow convinced myself that it was the conclusion of the series, that I'd never have to see another Transformers movie directed by Michael Bay. But it's never that easy, is it? Because now, three years after I'd let myself believe in a little sliver of cinematic hope, it's been dashed away by the return of the franchise under Bay's watch. I haven't been looking forward to seeing Transformers: Age of Extinction in the slightest, to the point that I've actually been dreading it. But I might as well bite the bullet and see if all my fears are justified, because I'll never really know otherwise.

Five years have passed since what's come to be known as "the Battle of Chicago." Almost all of the surviving Transformers ― both Autobot and Decepticon ― have been systematically hunted down and eliminated by an elite CIA black ops team captained by paranoid, anti-alien government official Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) and assisted by the amoral Transformer bounty hunter Lockdown (the voice of Mark Ryan).

But that's not of any concern to Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a Texas junk dealer and wannabe inventor who is struggling to make ends meet. He brings home an old, wrecked big rig intending to strip it for parts, but discovers that the truck is in truth a comatose Optimus Prime (the voice of Peter Weller). Cade revives Optimus and tries repairing him, but his efforts are cut short when Attinger's squad arrives at the Yeager farm after being alerted to Optimus's location.

Cade and the injured Optimus just barely manage to escape, with Cade's teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) in tow. As Optimus gathers the few remaining Autobots, they discover that Attinger has ties to technology tycoon Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci). Joyce has successfully reverse engineered the shapeshifting metal that Transformers are comprised of, and has been drafted by Attinger into creating his own breed of programmable Transformers. Of them all, his prized creation is one named Galvatron (the voice of Frank Welker), built from the remnants of the defeated and dismantled villain Megatron. But as trace elements of Megatron's personality begins to take over and override Joyce's programming, the Autobots contend with Lockdown and his Cybertronian weapon of mass destruction known as "the Seed."

I must admit that I thought Age of Extinction was most definitely an improvement, certainly nowhere near the worst entry into this godforsaken franchise, and at the very least, a real step up from Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon. The problem with it, however, is that its mediocrity is so overbearing that by the end of its three-hour runtime, you'll feel like one of the trucks from the movie has run you over. Had the movie been shorter, it might not have been quite so bad, but it grows so unbearably monotonous that you'll be glad it's over once the credits finally roll.

And the person you have to thank for the large part of that is Michael Bay. It's another stereotypical Bay action movie, with dumb characters doing dumb things and so much soulless, empty action that you feel stupider for having watched it. The movie is like watching a child play with his toys, slamming action figures against each other to pantomime fighting while coming up with scenarios that increasingly become so ridiculous that there's absolutely no way you can take it seriously. At this point, I fully expect Bay to finish the Transformers franchise by stealing from St. Elsewhere's last episode, the last few minutes of the final movie featuring him staring at a snow globe with Optimus Prime inside it.

And just why did this movie need to be three hours long? One could easily trim thirty to forty-five minutes of footage and nothing would have been missed. Much like with Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong, I got the feeling that Bay was so in love with his own movie that he couldn't possibly bear to edit anything out. And when you realize that the movie is basically repeating itself, with pretty much the same scenes and dialogue over and over but with different backdrops every time, that just makes it even more frustrating to watch. I mean, the only really good thing I can say about Bay's direction is that the special effects are really good and look fantastic in 3D. And when the best compliments I can come up with is "the CGI is pretty and I liked the 3D," you're really struggling.

At least the movie had a slightly better script this time around, but that isn't really saying much. Writer Ehren Kruger has seemingly made an attempt to fix some of the complaints people had with the first three movies, primarily by doing away with the Witwicky family altogether and killing off the annoying comic relief in the first act. But when all is said and done, the script is still kinda weak, only really there to give the actors something to do between action sequences. There isn't enough story to sustain a three-hour movie, and the attempts at character development, specifically the scenes where it's evident that Cade does not initially approve of Tessa and Shane's relationship but grows to like him, are clichéd and trite. You know as soon as Cade and Shane meet that Cade won't like him, but Shane will prove himself to be a decent guy and earns his trust. It's one of those things that's appeared in a ton of movies and is predictable almost every time.

I also felt that the introduction of the Dinobots felt tacked on and almost unnecessary. Their appearance in the climax isn't quite as fun as it could or should have been, and one suspects that they were only in the movie at all because 1.) the fans had been demanding it, and 2.) Hasbro wanted to add them to the toy line. They don't add much to the movie, outside of the very awesome shot of Optimus Prime riding Grimlock like he was a cowboy trying to control a bucking bronco.

But at least the acting has gotten better now that Shia LaBeouf and the rest are gone. Hell, things improved immensely simply by keeping Kevin Dunn and Julie White away from the movie. The Age of Extinction cast may not be any great shakes either, but I'll take this movie's cast over the same old crap we were given in the first three. Jack Reynor is serviceable but forgettable, while Nicola Peltz might not be much (her character is pretty much worthless, and it shows), but she's still a damn sight better than Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Mark Wahlberg does whatever he's asked and performs with the suitable amount of emotion, but he's likable and charismatic enough that he can get away with a bare-bones performance in a movie like this. But the real stars of the movie are Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci. Grammer plays his role with a certain sinister edge, a far better villain than these movies have given us in the past, while Tucci is great as always. Tucci is appropriately sleazy in his role, even as he starts to sway towards the side of the heroes. If somebody could edit the movie down to be just Grammer and Tucci's scenes, that's really all you'd need to see.

There are those who'd tell you that Age of Extinction is the worst of these movies, like it's some kind of horrible travesty that somehow leaves the art of cinema worse than it had been before. But those people are over-exaggerating. It's not as bad as they're making it out to be. It's a dull, plodding, often boring movie, but there are a few positives there that keep it from being a total waste. Maybe one of these days we'll have a live-action Transformers movie that's actually good, but until then, we're stuck with these. Hopefully, Michael Bay will get the hint when it comes time to make Transformers 5 and cut it down to a more reasonable running time. Oh, and try rising above mediocrity while he's at it. That'd be nice.

Final Rating: **½

Friday, June 13, 2014

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

One of the first rules of making movies in Hollywood is that if it makes money, keep doing it. That's the big reason why there are so many Friday the 13th sequels. Paramount Pictures had honestly intended for the franchise to come to a conclusive end in 1984 with the fourth movie, to the point that it was even named "The Final Chapter." But much like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, Paramount thought they were out, but were pulled back in. It turns out that The Final Chapter was such a big fat hit that they felt almost obligated to keep the franchise going. And just eleven months later, it was resurrected with Friday the 13th: A New Beginning. And nearly thirty years after its release, it's still notorious amongst fans of the series. So let's find out why that is, shall we?

It has been five years since Tommy Jarvis (John Shepherd) killed Jason Voorhees, an incident that has understandably left him with deep psychological scars. He's quite literally seeing visions of Jason everywhere he goes, and is on a ton of different medications to control these hallucinations. Tommy has spent the last half-decade being shuffled around various institutions, finally arriving at the Pinehurst Youth Development Center, a halfway house for troubled teenagers and young adults.

Tommy's first day at Pinehurst is not a peaceful one, as one of its more unstable residents hacks another to pieces with an axe in a fit of rage shortly after Tommy's arrival. Although he is quickly arrested, more brutal murders soon start happening in the area. But who is to blame? Is it that unhinged axe murderer? Could it be Tommy, having finally buckled under all that mental anguish? Could it be Jason, back from the grave? Or is it someone else entirely?

I earlier called A New Beginning one of the most notorious amongst the franchise's fanbase, and that's primarily due to the wildly differing opinions of the movie. There are those who'd argue that it's the worst of the franchise, that it marks the low point for the whole series. But then there's another camp that believes that despite (or because of?) all its flaws, A New Beginning is one of the most amusing and entertaining entries in the saga. And I'll confess that I used to be among those who hated the movie. But as time went by and I gave it more of a chance, I actually grew to like A New Beginning. But all truth be told, it's not a particularly good movie, nor is it even anywhere near being among the best of the franchise. The characters are goofy, the acting is hokey, and the script is stupid. It's also campy like you wouldn't believe, topped the franchise for highest body count, and is the one Friday the 13th flick that feels the most like a sleazy exploitation movie. And that's really not so bad, honestly, because it makes the movie feel a little more unique. When you're five movies deep into a franchise that would eventually spawn seven more chapters, doing something to stand out can't hurt, can it?

The movie was directed by the late Danny Steinmann, a one-time porn director who a year earlier had helmed the low-budget action flick Savage Streets, which starred Linda Blair in one of her few notable post-Exorcist roles. And if the movie feels like a sleazy exploitation film as I stated earlier, it's because that's the kind of movie Steinmann was known for and was good at making. While the franchise hadn't shied away from nudity in the past, Steinmann makes it feel more prevalent and fetishized. And despite some of the gore being trimmed or outright excised thanks to the MPAA (one kill involving a female victim getting a machete to her naughty bits had to be dropped entirely and replaced with something tamer), the movie also boasts the franchise's highest body count to that point at twenty-one kills. Steinmann, with this movie, had made pretty much the most stereotypical slasher movie he could. And that really isn't a bad thing at all.

The movie honestly feels kinda goofy, something that is simultaneously the movie's biggest strength and its biggest weakness. It's full of cheesy dialogue and silly characters, some of whom are actually introduced and killed off within the same scene. And then there's the much-maligned mystery regarding the killer's identity, which is handled in a way that there might as well be a giant neon sign that says "I'M THE KILLER!" flashing over the character's head at all times. To make a long story short, the script by Steinmann, Martin Kitrosser, and David Cohen is (for lack of a better description) a big ol' pile of dumb that contributes to the inability to the movie seriously at all. But this is what makes A New Beginning so charming too, because this lack of seriousness makes the movie more fun.

Even the cast gets in on the action. A lot of the actors are unbelievably over the top, but try their best to be memorable whether they're good or bad, even if they're only in one scene (as evidenced by Anthony Barrile and Corey Parker, who play a pair of greasers that look like they were excommunicated from the T-Birds from Grease and meet a gruesome fate after their car breaks down). The biggest standouts in my eyes, though, were John Shepherd, Miguel A. Núñez, Jr., and Carol Locatell. Shepherd is actually pretty believable in the role, playing Tommy as if he were fighting a war in his own mind. He comes off as shell-shocked, as if he were lost inside himself and in the hockey mask-wearing nightmares that bother him so. It's a damn good performance that I thought was better than the movie deserved.

Núñez and Locatell are, when approaching the movie from a less serious point of view, fantastic as well. Núnez is a lot of fun in his tiny role, showing a lot of the humor and charisma that would make him so likable in The Return of the Living Dead that same year. Locatell is also great as Ethel, Pinehurst's foulmouthed hillbilly neighbor. She steals the show, especially when playing off Ron Sloan, who plays her character's dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks son. Locatell makes the hilariously trashy Ethel one of the franchise's most memorable characters, her scenes serving as some of the movie's best moments.

I've said more than once here that Friday the 13th: A New Beginning is not a particularly good movie, and it isn't. Its reputation as one of the least of the franchise isn't completely undeserved. But one can't help but enjoy the unapologetically campy silliness of the whole thing. It boasts some unique kills and memorable characters, and blends the exploitation flick feeling with the traditional Friday the 13th atmosphere to create a movie that stands out from the rest. Like I said, A New Beginning might not be a good movie, but it's a hell of a lot of fun, and I'll never fault a movie for that.

Final Rating: **½