Transformers: Age of Extinction


Never mess with Mark Wahlberg's car.

Never mess with Mark Wahlberg’s car.

(2014) Science Fiction (DreamWorks) Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Titus Welliver, Sophia Myles, Bingbing Li, T.J. Miller, James Bachman, Thomas Lennon, Charles Parnell, Erika Fong, Mike Collins, Geng Han, Zou Shiming, Richard Riehle, Peter Cullen (voice), Patrick Bristow, Cleo King, Jessica Gomes, Melanie Specht, Abigail Klein. Directed by Michael Bay

After the Transformers trilogy had come to an end, the thought was that the series would continue with an all-new cast and a new director. Well, only half of that equation turned out to come true – but could Bay sustain the same popcorn momentum he had delivered with the first trilogy?

Five years after the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon devastated Chicago, the CIA has a special task force led by the overly macho James Savoy (Welliver) hunting down what Decepticons are left. Except there are none left and now he is hunting Autobots, with the full blessing of his CIA liaison Harold Attinger (Grammer). Seems a pretty harsh way to treat the guys who basically saved our bacon in Chicago.

Meanwhile, out in Texas, would-be inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) is basically at the end of his financial rope. Eking out a living repairing electronic devices, most of his inventions are a circuit shy of a load. With his hottie daughter Tessa (Peltz) ready to go to college and in need of pants that aren’t Daisy Dukes (who wears short shorts? Tessa do!) not to mention in a date-free state until she graduates from high school, Cade is fending off real estate agents who are ready to sell his home out from under him and pretty much behind on every bill he can be behind in. Oddly enough for a Texan, he doesn’t seem to be blaming Obama for his situation.

While a movie theater owner has him repairing some vintage projectors, he discovers an old beat-up truck – not a pick-up but a semi – he gleefully figures he can scrap the thing for parts and make enough to get his daughter a down payment on her college tuition, but as he and his buddy Lucas (Miller) find out, this is not an ordinary truck. Being that this is a Transformers movie, you know what it is. In fact, it’s not even just any Autobot – it’s Optimus Prime (Cullen) himself.

Once the government figures out that this is Optimus himself, Attinger sends out Savoy with his strike team’s secret weapon – a mechanical creature named Lockdown who is a bounty hunter with a particular yen to capture Optimus Prime and bring him back to the Creators of the Autobots and Decepticons to become slave labor for them once again. And the rest of the Autobots will be broken down and melted, their metal – called Transformium – some of which remains on Earth in small amounts – used to create a new mechanical race that is under human control, specifically under the control of billionaire industrialist Joshua Joyce (Tucci).

This pits the few remaining Autobots – including Bumblebee, Hound, Drift and Ratchet – against the might of the American government, the new automaton named Galvatron who turns out to have the mechanical DNA of a familiar foe, and the might of Lockdown with his advanced weapons and his space ship. However, they will find new allies from the distant past in an ancient place.

The movie rips across Texas, Chicago, Beijing and Hong Kong and levels a lot of real estate in the process which is pretty much par for the course when it comes to this franchise. As the second half of the movie ensues, the human actors are less participants than dodgers of falling masonry and their dialogue is mostly cries of “OPTIMUS!” and “Look out!” or things along those lines. Other than the voices of Optimus and Galvatron, not one actor returns from the previous trilogy. This has been characterized as a reboot but it isn’t really but a continuation along the same road with different actors.

Wahlberg is the movie’s secret weapon; he makes a much better hero than Shia LaBeouf did as the neurotic Sam Witwicky. My complaint is that they make Wahlberg something of a clownish inventor and then once they get out of Texas, there’s almost none of his skills utilized as an inventor. He may as well have been a car mechanic or an X-ray technician or a data entry clerk. We spend a good deal of time in the first third of the movie establishing Cade as a hapless inventor whose inventions generally don’t work and then they do nothing with it the rest of the way. It’s a waste of the filmmakers time as well as the audience. I call it “wasted exposition.”

The action sequences, particularly the robot CGI are the best yet. We see much more detail on the Autobots and their foes, and they look banged up like ‘bots that have been in a good deal of battle. Those, like my son, who are all about robots battling will be very happy because there is a lot of that here. And yes, there are Dinobots as well – which is bound to put old fans of the original series in a happy place.

The movie is nearly three hours long and feels it. Some movies go that long and you barely notice and are sad when the movie finally ends; this one has you checking your watch at the two hour mark. Easily a good 45 minutes of the movie could have been trimmed without hurting the movie overly much. Plus there is a kind of sameness here – if you’ve seen the first three movies, nothing here should be overly surprising to you. Nothing really surpasses the battle of Chicago from Dark of the Moon either.

So while this still remains a summer popcorn movie, it isn’t as good as the last one in the series to my mind. I was pretty numb by the end of the movie rather than exhilarated. This is said to be the first of a new trilogy with Wahlberg in the lead but frankly, I’d be just as happy if the franchise called it a day after this one.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty nifty action sequences. Wahlberg an improvement over Shia LaBeouf.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long – like waaaaay overly long. Lacks energy. Story not particularly much of a change from other installments in the series.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, occasionally foul language (but not too foul) and some sexual innuendo,

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bay was originally planning to pass on the franchise to another director and remain on in only a producer’s capacity. After visiting the Transformers attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood however, after seeing the enthusiastic long lines for the attraction he came to the realization that he wasn’t quite done with the series yet and elected to remain on for the fourth film with an entirely new cast.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battleship

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: How to Train Your Dragon 2

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New Releases for the Week of June 27, 2014


Transformers: Age of ExtinctionTRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

(Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Stanley Tucci, Jack Reynor, Kelsey Grammer, Sophia Myles, Li Bingbing, Robert Foxworth, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe. Directed by Michael Bay

With Chicago laid waste but humanity safe for now, the Transformers have become persona non grata as the picking up of pieces commences. However, a new and ancient threat has the Earth set right in its crosshairs and Optimus Prime must turn to a new set of humans if this threat is to be defeated – if it can be defeated at all.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opens Thursday)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo)

Ek Villain

(Balaji) Sidharth Malhotra, Ritesh Deshmukh, Shraddha Kapoor, Aamna Sharif. After his lover is brutally murdered by a serial killer, a man decides to take the law into his own hands and bring the murderer to justice. As he chases down his nemesis, the lines between good and evil begin to blur and melt into one another until it is impossible to tell light from darkness.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood/Action

Rating: NR

Obvious Child

(A24) Jenny Slate, David Cross, Gaby Hoffman, Richard Kind. A young woman struggles to make it as a stand-up comic, working a day job to make ends meet. Things however go horribly wrong as she loses her day job, gets dumped by her boyfriend and discovers she is pregnant. Happy Valentine’s Day indeed. She will use her ability to find humor in any situation as the courage that she uses to get up on stage will now be necessary to help her make it in real life. This played the most recent Florida Film Festival and was one that I’m looking forward to seeing.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language and sexual content)

Underworld


Black leather outfit #231.

Black leather outfit #231.

(2003) Horror Action (Screen Gems) Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Erwin Leder, Sophia Myles, Robby Gee, Wentworth Miller, Kevin Grevioux, Zita Gorog, Dennis Kozeluh, Scott McElroy, Todd Schneider, Sandor Bolla, Hank Amos, Zsuzsa Barisi, Rich Cetrone, Mike Mukatis. Directed by Len Wiseman

 

Underworld sounds like a great concept: a secret war between vampires and werewolves going on for a thousand years without humans knowing a thing about it. In the midst of this, a vampire falls in love with a human who becomes a werewolf but is really something else … oh dear, my brain just exploded. Let me start again.

 

Selena (Beckinsale) is a Deathdealer, one of an elite vampire warrior caste that hunts down werewolves. She is quite good at it – maybe better than anyone. Things are looking up for the vampires at this point. They are winning their war with the Lycans (werewolves), their high-tech weapons more than overcoming the brute strength and power of the lycanthropes. On top of it, the time of the Awakening is near, when one of the ancient original Vampires awakens from its slumber to assume the mantle of leadership for a few centuries (there are three original vampires still around; they require centuries of sleep in order to survive).

 

Selena notes that the Lycans have taken interest in a human named Michael Corvin (Speedman), an intern at a large urban hospital. She decides to investigate. This becomes a tightrope as she tries to keep him alive, saving him both from the Lycans who seem to want him, as well as from her own race who wants him dead, The other vampires become downright irate after Corvin is bitten by Lucian, the Lycan leader (Sheen). And as Selena digs deeper, she is thwarted by Craven (Brolly), the Vampire leader, and in desperation, awakens her mentor Viktor (Nighy) for guidance.

 

Before you can say “Wouldn’t it be a total Hollywood cliché if she fell in love with Michael Corvin?” she falls in love with Michael Corvin. Then she begins to find out the truth about the war, and it ain’t pretty. In fact, the vampires are keeping a lot of deep, dark secrets.

 

The problem with “Underworld” is that there is an incredibly rich backstory that screams for further exploration. But director Len Wiseman is forced to sacrifice much of the dialogue and backstory for action and effects, and so it can be kind of hard to keep track. Those who have seen the sequels to this will find that it is less of a problem but seeing the original cold without the benefit of some of that backstory that comes out in the sequels can be confusing.

 

The vampires, who are supposed to be arrogant and aristocratic, come off as indolent and lackadaisical. Think of it almost like vampires written by Anne Rice on lithium. I know that at the time this was made it was fairly fashionable to portray vampires as members of a vanishing race, going un-quietly into oblivion, but, sheesh. At least none of them sparkle in the sunlight.

 

Although technologically advanced, there’s no real hint as to where the vampire technology is coming from. Few of the vampires in the movie seem to do little more than sit around in crumbling, faded mansions sipping what I guess is meant to be blood from wineglasses. They wear trendy Eurotrash fashions and generally behave as if they are guests at an interminably long party at which the guest of honor hasn’t yet arrived. And they’re supposed to be winning?

 

As decadent as the vampires are, they are in some ways preferable to the Lycans. Although they have more vitality than the vamps, they still come off little better than the disposable thugs that populated the  TV Batman series. When they hit someone, you almost expect cartoon graphics reading “POW!” “BAM!” and “KA-THUNK!”

 

In any Romeo and Juliet type of romance, which Underworld ultimately is, there has to be an element of tragedy and there just isn’t one here. Sure, there’s bloodshed, mayhem, death and destruction, but as the movie lurches to a climax, the tragedy seems to be less and less involved with the romantic leads. That strips the love story of its poignancy and just about kills any shot at romanticism. If you were to populate Romeo and Juliet with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sigourney Weaver in the leads and instead of having them kill themselves at the end instead mowing down all the Montagues and Capulets with machine guns, you get the idea of what we have here.

 

It’s a shame, since Speedman and Beckinsale work well together and have some nice chemistry. And while Beckinsale’s costume designer seems determined to break some sort of cinematic record for the most variations on black leather in a single movie, Beckinsale still manages to look vivacious and attractive, even alluring, while kicking some major patootie.

 

The visuals are what work about Underworld which makes sense, since director Wiseman comes from an art-direction background. The cityscapes are crumbling, corrupt, dimly lit and depressing, a cross between the landscape of Tim Burton’s Gotham City and  the Detroit of The Crow. The effects are pretty nifty too, particularly the sequences in which the Lycans morph from human to werewolf. The action sequences are a highlight, beautifully choreographed.

 

Ultimately, though, this is a good concept gone bad. Think of Underworld as a grand mansion that looks terrific from the outside, but once you open the door turns out to be empty and cold.

WHY RENT THIS: Beckinsale is an excellent action heroine. Some nice art direction and special effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing with more backstory than time to explore it. Sets up a romance then forsakes it for action and gore. Vampire profile a little too Anne Rice.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots of violence and gore, as well as some pretty foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Beckinsale and Wiseman would fall in love after meeting on this film. They eventually got married and remain so to this day.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The Special Edition DVD includes a storyboard vs. film comparison and a music video. The unrated 2-Disc DVD edition (and Blu-Ray) includes these as well as a History Channel Fang vs. Fiction quasi-documentary that looks at traditional vampire/werewolf lore and compares it to this film for reasons unknown.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $95.7M on a $22M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Pool Boys

 

Outlander


Outlander

Where's the spam? Bloody Vikings!

(2008) Science Fiction (Third Rail) Jim Caviezel, John Hurt, Ron Perlman, Sophia Myles, Jack Huston, Cliff Saunders, Patrick Stevenson, Aidan Devine, Bailey Maughan, John E. Nelles, James Rogers, Scott Owen, Petra Prazak. Directed by Howard McCain

Here, there be dragons and they often show up in the most unlikely of places. Dragons can be creatures of great power but they can also be the demons that gnaw at us from the inside, piece by piece.

Kainan (Caviezel) is a humanoid who has crash-landed his space vehicle on Earth – eighth century Norway to be exact. He is escaping a massacre at his space colony by a species called Moorwen. One of them stowed away aboard his spacecraft, causing it to crash on what is called by the ship computer “an abandoned seed colony.”  This implies that our planet was originally colonized by out-of-towners. Darwin might be amused.

Anyway, the Moorwen has crashed the ship and killed Kainan’s co-pilot.  The Moorwen is loose on a planet woefully unequipped to deal with him. Kainan goes on the hunt but gets captured by Vikings. This particular group is ruled by King Hrothgar (Hurt), an aging but wise king whose feisty daughter Freya (Myles) is promised to Wulfric (Huston), a hot-headed warrior who’s poised to take over leadership of the clan once Hrothgar makes his inevitably unscheduled trip to Valhalla.

Hrothgar has other fish to fry other than this Outlander. His men are disappearing in the woods, which at first is blamed on the Outlander but then on a rival clan led by King Gunnar (Perlman). Soon, Kainan convinces them that what is after them is a monster unlike any they’ve ever encountered and killing it will be no easy feat. But kill it they must, or it will kill them all and eventually, wiping out the human race.

This is a bit of an amalgam of the Viking epic and sci-fi horror. It is one of those movies that suffers from having a budget smaller than its ambitions. Filmed in Canada, the cinematography is gorgeous. Where the movie lets us down a bit is in the special effects. While the spaceship is at least satisfactory, the creature – the Moorwen – is poorly lit, despite its bioluminescence. It has a Giger-esque quality to it, but it remains frustratingly elusive. I just wish we could have seen it better.

Caviezel, whose career stalled after his appearance as the Messiah in The Passion of the Christ, does little to revive it here. He’s humorless and his face shows little emotion. With a little more animation and emotion, this could have been a memorable role. Unfortunately by the time the film ends, Kainan is largely forgotten.

Perlman has some fun with a sadly brief appearance and Hurt lends the movie some much-needed gravitas. Myles shines here as the daughter who serves as the love interest, creating a triangle between Wulfric and Kainan. She’s both feisty and capable, the femme fatale and the damsel in distress. She can hold her own with the boys but is still easy on the eyes. Good work. Huston, from one of the movies’ most revered families, has the thankless role as the suspicious warrior who ends up being Kainan’s friend. It’s a cliche part but at least Huston performs it well.

Movies like this can be massively entertaining. While this falls short of the massive adjective, it certainly is entertaining enough. Unfortunately, it got almost no distribution in the US at all, another case of a studio picking up a property they didn’t really know what to do with and then giving it a nominal release with almost zero publicity support. While this was never going to be a blockbuster, it deserved a little more push than it got. Still, it’s worth looking out for on the action-adventure shelf if you’re looking for something a little new and a little different.

WHY RENT THIS: Caviezel is a capable action hero. Movie is beautifully photographed for the most part. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: CGI Moorwen isn’t up to snuff.

FAMILY VALUES: There is considerable violence and some disturbing creature images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film in history in which Old Norse, an ancestor language of Icelandic and several other Scandinavian languages, is spoken onscreen.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there is nothing unusual here in terms of features, the deleted scenes add up to nearly 40 minutes of additional footage, unusually high for a movie like this.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7M on a $50M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Double Hour (La doppia ora)

Mister Foe (Hallam Foe)


Mister Foe

Hallam Foe likes to watch.

(Magnolia) Jamie Bell, Ciaran Hines, Claire Forlani, Ruthie Milne, John Paul Lawler, Lucy Holt, Sophia Myles, Jamie Sives, Maurice Roeves. Directed by David Mackenzie

Sometimes a lead character can be someone you wouldn’t want to spend time with ordinarily, at least on the surface. The mark of a good movie, though, is that you are still enthralled by that character despite not liking them much.

That’s what happened to me in this movie. Scottish youth Hallam Foe (Bell) is still mourning his mum, drowned in the local loch. His dad (Hines) has married Verity (Forlani) who was once his secretary. All three of them live in a large house in the Scottish borders along with Hallam’s sister Lucy (Holt). While mum’s death was ruled an accident, Hallam remains convinced that she was murdered by Verity, whose marriage to his dad seemed a bit too convenient by half.

The shock of his mum’s death has made Hallam, well, a little bit weird. When he feels stressed he puts on a badger hat and paints his face with lipstick, eyeliner and eye shadow in a kind of war paint and when he’s really stressed he puts on one of his mum’s old dresses. He also has a habit to spy on his neighbors and family, particularly when they are having sex. Yes, he’s a Peeping Tom.

After Verity and Hallam have sex in the treehouse Hallam’s architect dad built for him, Verity forces Hallam to leave so that dad doesn’t find out. Hallam runs away to Edinburgh where he finds a peeper’s paradise. He finds a home in a rooftop clock, menial work in a hotel where he is stunned to find that the human resources manager Kate (Myles) is the spittin’ image of his dear departed mum. So he watches her sleep and have sex with a brutal married manager (Sives), eventually taking up a relationship with her himself.

However, he is full of problems and his rage towards his father for marrying whom he considers to be the murderer of his mother needs an outlet. Soon Hallam’s world begins to come crashing down around his ears.

This was a movie that could easily have been as unlikable as the lead character seemed to be on paper, but as it turns out it wasn’t. That’s a credit both to director Mackenzie, whose light touch kept the movie from spiraling into indie angst, and to actor Bell who delivers a nuanced performance that keeps Hallam sympathetic even as he’s doing unsympathetic things. Bell, who first gained notice in Billy Elliott, is growing as an actor by leaps and bounds. This is a role that he may not be necessarily remembered for, but one that will build his reputation among those who can take his career further. That’s not a bad thing to say.

The supporting cast doesn’t let him down either. Myles, who has quite the baby face, delivers a performance of great depth, bringing a very complicated character to life in a believable way. Hinds, one of the most dependable character actors out there, gets to stretch a little bit as a man who is very cold on the outside that is hiding a great deal of pain on the inside, while Forlani gives “cast iron bitch” a whole new spin.

The soundtrack contains a goodly number of Scottish indie bands, from the Orange Juice on up to more contemporary bands such as Franz Ferdinand and Four Tet. Still, the band has that kind of indie smugness in places, getting a little too clever in its presentation for its own good.

This is one of those movies that is solid, entertaining in its own way but more successful as a human study. The insight into a troubled soul can be dark and scary, but Mister Foe makes it a little bit less so; in fact, it makes it downright desirable.

WHY RENT THIS: An affecting performance by Bell with plenty of great support, particularly from Myles, Forlani and Hines. A tremendous soundtrack with plenty of superb Scottish indie bands, too.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes the movie is too clever for its own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality here including some fairly twisted stuff. Quite frankly this should be for adult audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel by Peter Jinks.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The End of the Line