Transformers: The Last Knight


Mark Wahlberg reacts to news that Michael Bay plans to blow even more shit up.

(2017) Science Fiction (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Santiago Cabrera, Isabela Moner, Jerrod Carmichael, Stanley Tucci, Liam Garrigan, John Turturro, Glenn Morshower, Gemma Chan, Peter Cullen (voice), Frank Welker (voice), John Goodman (voice), Steve Buscemi (voice), Omar Sy (voice), Ken Watanabe (voice), Jim Carter (voice) Sara Stewart. Directed by Michael Bay

 

Michael Bay sure loves to blow shit up. In his latest installment of the Transformers series, he does a whole lot of blowing shit up; so much of it, in fact, that there’s almost no room for a coherent story.

See if you can make any sense of this; the world is in chaos with Optimus Prime (Cullen) having fled the planet to go seek Cybertron, the home world of the Transformers. There is no leadership and the Transformers are being hunted down by the TRF, a government strike force headed by Colonel William Lennox (Duhamel) who implores in vain his field chief Santos (Cabrera) that there are differences between the Autobots and the Decepticons. As far as Santos is concerned, the only good robot is a dead robot.

Izzy (Moner), a 14-year-old girl living in the rubble of old Chicago in a zone off-limits to humans due to Transformer infestation is discovered by the TRF but rescued at the last moment by Cade Yeager (Wahlberg), one of the most-wanted people on Earth due to his association with Bumblebee and the other remaining Autobots. Yeager is given a strange talisman by a dying Transformer who appears to be much older than the rest of them. In the meantime, Yeager takes Izzy to South Dakota and his junkyard where the last remaining Autobots are hiding.

Sadly, the TRF track them there too but Yeager is rescued by Cogman (Carter), a kind of C-3PO type of Butler. Cogman flies Yeager and Bumblebee to Jolly Olde England where Sir Edmond Burton (Hopkins) informs Yeager that the Transformers have been on Earth much longer than anybody knew and that he has been charged with protecting the history of the Transformers by keeping it hidden. He is also protecting the Staff of Merlin (Tucci) which is in reality a high-tech weapon. Quintessa (Chan), the Mad Goddess-Creator of Cybertron, wants that weapon so that her dead world can live again – only it would rob the Earth of its magnetic core which would kill our world. Yikes.

So Cybertron is on its way to Earth, Megatron (Welker) is doing the bidding of Quintessa and Optimus has surprisingly switched sides under the Mad Goddess’ influence. Everyone is after the Staff but only one human can wield it – Vivian Wembley (Haddock), a comely Oxford professor of history who specializes in Arthurian legends and who happens to be, unbeknownst to her, the last living direct descendant of Merlin. Got all that?

I really don’t know where to begin. At more than 2 ½ hours long, this is a bloated mess that outstays its welcome early on. There’s only so much falling masonry the puny humans can dodge before it starts to get old and it gets old fast. The trouble with a franchise like this is that in order to sustain it, you have to get bigger and badder with each succeeding movie and I can see Bay is trying his damndest to do just that. The novelty of having giant robots battle each other is wearing thin; not only are we seeing that kind of thing from the Transformers franchise but also from such movies as Pacific Rim and Colossal. There is a certain segment of the population – mainly adolescent boys or men with the maturity of adolescent boys – for whom that is all that is necessary for an entertaining movie. The rest of us need a bit more.

The turgid dialogue may be the most cringe-inducing of the entire series and that’s quite an accomplishment, albeit one that shouldn’t be an object of pride. The fact that they got Sir Anthony Hopkins, one of the greatest living actors, to appear in the movie is something of a minor miracle although I sure hope they paid him a dump truck full of money.

I give Wahlberg props for at least trying to make a go of it in the film but in the end he is reduced to mostly ducking for cover, sliding down embankments and bickering with Vivian. Wahlberg is an extremely likable actor but most of his charm is wasted here in lieu of spectacle and make no mistake – it’s spectacle without spirit.

The destruction is so constant and unrelenting that after awhile it becomes senses-numbing and actually quite boring. I will admit to never having been a fan of the animated show in the first place but I thought it to be at least better than most of the similarly natured kidtoons of the era but this is worse than even those. While the CGI is generally pretty detailed at times there are moments where it looked like they completed the CGI in a hurry and it shows.

The movie jumps the shark early and never stops jumping it. For example late in the movie, the 14-year-old girl stows away on a military aircraft on a do or die mission to save the world. I mean, really? The only reason she is on there is to save the day for the adults so that the tween audience can be pandered to. Quite frankly I felt the movie was aimed at the lowest common denominator throughout. That’s not a good feeling.

I probably would rank this lower if I thought about it long enough but there are some pretty impressive effects and Wahlberg deserves something for his efforts. I think Bay went for sheer spectacle and found that he was so focused on the sizzle that he neglected to put on the steak. That makes for a pretty empty and unsatisfying summer barbecue.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of shit gets blown up. Wahlberg makes a vain but valiant attempt to elevate this.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is wayyyy too long and boring. It’s a bloated, mind-numbing mess.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi violence and robotic mayhem, a smattering of profanity and a brief scene of sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the most expensive Transformers movie to date with a shooting budget of $260 million.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nothing compares to this.
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Beatriz at Dinner

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Daisy dances her way through life.

(Paramount) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Elle Fanning. Directed by David Fincher

One of the constants of our lives is time. It follows a preset course in our perception; we are born, we grow up, we grow old, we die. There is a certain comfort in knowing how that progression will go. However, what if time wasn’t a constant for us all?

Benjamin Button (Pitt), like a modern-day Merlin, doesn’t age; he youthens. He was born an old man in turn of the century New Orleans; his father Thomas (Flemyng), overwhelmed by the death of his wife in childbirth and the double whammy of a peculiar child to boot, leaves him at a home for the aged, to be cared for by Queenie (Henson), a woman with a gigantic heart.

From there on we watch the events of the 20th century through Benjamin’s eyes; also his love affairs with the wife of a Russian diplomat (Swinton) and the love of his life, Daisy (Blanchett) with whom he had more or less grown up with in the home (she was a regular visitor to her grandmother). Daisy becomes a dancer who…well, that would be telling.

Fincher, one of the more innovative directors of our generation, has crafted a movie with astonishing special effects. Not every special effect has to be of aliens and spaceships, y’know. Here, the aging and de-aging of Pitt is mostly done as computer generated imagery, and quite frankly is done so seamlessly that you never believe for a second that it isn’t organic.

There are also some incredible performances here. Pitt does some of the best work of his career as Benjamin, displaying a child-like innocence that is coupled with deep sadness. Button knows his affliction will make him an outsider in life, and so that is what he becomes, someone separate from life, essentially observing but not taking part in so much.

Blanchett is one of the premiere actresses working today, and this is yet another outstanding performance for her resume (she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for her work, but she easily could have). I’m not sure if Blanchett ever took ballet as a child, but she moves with the lithe grace of a dancer.

Some critics, including a few that I respect very much, complained that the movie wasn’t true to itself and that it was essentially empty at its core. There is some evidence that the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that inspired the script was written essentially as an exercise but I think that it does make for a fascinating what-if.

What we are dealing with here is the ultimate outsider, someone who violated the laws of nature and the consequences of that violation (even if it is involuntary) are devastating. Benjamin Button knows what his affliction costs him; he will not receive the things in life he desires most. That would make anyone a little bitter. Still, he gains a unique perspective not because of any intellectual difference but simply because of the way others treat him.

The framing sequences take place during Katrina and involve Daisy’s daughter (Ormond) reading to her dying mother from Benjamin’s journal and a backwards running clock created by an eccentric clockmaker (Koteas) in 19th century New Orleans.

There are some amusing bits, including one concerning a man who is struck by lightning multiple times, and some poignant scenes as well – such as Daisy caring for the now-infant Benjamin at the end of his life. Parallels to the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease are certainly at the forefront in my mind as I watch these sequences.

I will say this for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; it is like no other movie I’ve ever seen before and am unlikely to again. In that sense, this is worth seeing just because of its uniqueness; the character of Benjamin Button will stay with you long after the movie is over.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing special effects and powerful performances from Blanchett and Pitt (the best work of his career to date) make this a must-see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little gimmicky in places, with actual historic figures interacting with Benjamin a la Forrest Gump.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality here as well as a sprinkling of bad language. There are a couple of violent scenes that may be disturbing to sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the action in the Fitzgerald story took place in Baltimore, the locale for the movie was switched to New Orleans in order to take advantage of tax benefits offered by the Louisiana Film Commission in the wake of Katrina; also the Daisy character was named Hildegarde Moncrief in the original story; her name was switched in honor of The Great Gatsby.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While essentially a making-of featurette, the one on the Criterion collection version is so thorough and exhaustive it literally blows every other making-of featurette on every other DVD or Blu-Ray right out of the water. Entitled The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button, it divides the material into three trimesters and a birth and includes nearly three hours of material on nearly every aspect of the production.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $333.9M on a $150M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice


The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Alfred Molina is disturbed to discover that Nicolas Cage has blue balls.

(Disney) Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Monica Bellucci, Toby Kebbell, Alice Krige, Omar Benson Miller, Jake Cherry, James A. Stephens, Gregory Woo, Peyton Roi List, Nicole Ehringer, Ian McShane (voice). Directed by Jon Turtletaub

 The world is a magical place, even the parts we can see. There exists a whole world, however, that we can’t, one in which the impossible is commonplace, and in that world good battles evil incessantly, barely in the lead although not without cost.

Balthazar Blake (Cage) is one of the three apprentices to Merlin (Stephens) – yes, that one – back in 840 AD, along with Veronica (Bellucci) and Horvath (Molina). All of them are in conflict with Morgana le Fay (Krige), who wants to enslave the world by using a spell called The Rising, which will raise the dead into an army for her. She probably should have put in a call to George A. Romero.

Horvath betrays his fellows and Veronica takes a bullet for Balthazar, winding up imprisoned along with Morgana in a grimhold, a nesting doll that acts like a prison. As the years roll by, Balthazar adds more of Morgana’s followers to the grimhold as additional layers to the doll until he finally captures Horvath himself.

But Balthazar’s work is far from done. The dying Merlin told Balthazar that only one sorcerer can truly destroy Morgana and it is Balthazar’s job to find him. It only takes about 1200 years, but Balthazar finally locates him. Talk about determination!

Young Dave (Cherry) goes on a school field trip and spends most of it trying to get the attention of a comely young blonde named Becky Barnes (List), whom he asks in a note if she’s interested in him as a friend or a girlfriend. Becky checks the appropriate box, but a coincidental wind blows the note all the way to a curio shop named Arcana Cabana which is run by – you guessed it – Balthazar. Using the test of a dragon ring, Balthazar realizes that Dave is the one he’s looking for; the Prime Merlinian. Note to writers: where do you come up with these names? It sounds like something dreamed up by a panel of math geeks at an MIT calculus conference.

Because he’s nine (or ten, depending on who you ask) years old, Dave manages to release Horvath from the nesting doll…err, grimhold, and all Hades breaks loose. Balthazar and Horvath manage to be sucked into a magical urn that will hold them for ten years to the day. Why? Just because.

Ten years later, the adult Dave (Baruchel) is a physics nerd at NYU when he runs into old flame Becky (Palmer) when he runs a physics primer for English majors, which is an idea which no doubt the administrators at NYU are scratching their heads and wondering “wha…?” about. Although apparently without a job and no visible means of support, Dave has placed several eight-foot Tesla coils together in an unauthorized lab in a subway turnaround. Why? Just because.

Of course, now the two wizards are out of their urn and looking for that grimhold, Balthazar so that he can protect the world and potentially destroy Morgana once and for all, and Horvath because he wants to resurrect Morgana and destroy the world. Why? Just because.

Balthazar knows he needs to teach Dave the basics of magic and quickly because (queue serious music) the fate of the world rests in his hands. Why? Just…oh you know what comes next.

The trio of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Turtletaub and Cage has previously teamed up in the two National Treasure movies, which I found to be a seriously entertaining take on the Indiana Jones movies. This one is less effective although it still remains entertaining. This movie is a bit of a mash-up between genres, an action movie blended with a fantasy movie, sort of like Harry Potter in Die Hard. Expelliarmus mothereffer!

Cage and Molina are effective here, and you get the feeling there is a bit of a nudge and a wink in their work. They spend most of the movie lobbing plasma balls and one-liners at one another. Baruchel is less effective for me. He is the perennial dweeb in movies over the last few years, and I can understand why he was cast – Dave is certainly a science nerd. However, his hunched over posture, perpetual whining coupled with his inability to make intelligent choices, made it very hard for me to root for him. I was kind of hoping that Cage would turn him into a newt and save the day.

There is plenty of eye candy and most of it is pretty decent, although there’s a ton of plasma balls, fire streams and lightning bolts hurtling around. Some real cool sequences include a Chinese dragon (which while it was chasing Dave, made me think inadvertently of the much better movie How to Train a Dragon which featured Baruchel’s voice) and a steel eagle from the Chrysler building. There is also an homage to the sequence in Fantasia that inspired this movie which I enjoyed.

The trouble with movies about magic is that sorcerer’s should be pretty much invincible, particularly ones as powerful as these. For example, there is an extended car chase sequence in the last third of the movie; very well done, but it seemed to be fairly pedestrian. They could have easily done a chase with something more imaginative – invisible horses, beams of light, anything – and you would think that a sorcerer could wave his arms and turn the car into a mule.

Similarly, a crucial plot point involves Becky moving a satellite dish so that a spell can go awry. Wouldn’t the sorcerer casting the spell be able to move the satellite dish back into place? After all, they’ve been moving objects telekinetically throughout the movie.

But I digress. Anyone going to a movie like this and expecting Scorsese is a lunatic. This is Bruckheimer, and he excels at movies that entertain on a visceral level rather than inspire or educate, and that’s fine folks – we all need mindless entertainment once in awhile. However, I would have expected a movie about magic to be more, well, magical. Definitely this is entertaining, but it could have been done so much better with a bit more imagination.

REASONS TO GO: Cage and Molina do some pretty solid work here. The eye candy is effective.

REASONS TO STAY: Baruchel is a bit too whiny and foolish to get behind as a heroic lead. The whole car chase sequence seemed unnecessary and could have been handled more imaginatively.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of fantasy violence and some scenes of brief sexuality, but for the most part should be okay for audiences of all ages, although some of the creatures might be a little scary for the littlest of kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Abigail Williams is based on an actual person who was accused of being a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in the 17th century, ran away and was never heard from again.

HOME OR THEATER: There are enough sequences that have the gee-whiz factor that I give a slight nod towards seeing it in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: My Life in Ruins