Monday, June 30, 2014

Bay of Toys: "Age of Extinction" big, loud, dumb, longest

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
157 min., rated PG-13.

The "Transformers" movies are like all of those sugary cereals you might have eaten as a child. You wouldn't mind eating a bowl of Cap'n Crunch or Fruity Pebbles for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but as you grow older, you crave something more substantial. Not hackmeister Michael Bay, apparently. Using the line of Hasbro toys as a springboard, 2007's "Transformers" was visually excessive but often had a sense of smashing fun; 2009's soul-crushing, pile-driving "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" was one of the worst things to happen to action blockbuster filmmaking that couldn't even be excused by a writer's strike; and 2011's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," despite its miniscule improvements and odd moments of visually coherent spectacle, still added up to a mind-numbing bore. If the first three "Transformers" movies have neither significantly improved or worsenedbesides getting more ginormous, louder, dumber, and longerchances are a fourth one isn't going to turn things around much for the better. Once more directed by Michael Bay with a vengeance, "Transformers: Age of Extinction" still passes through the viewer like a fast-food meal, and while that might sound like a recommendation for some folks, it's just another crushing assault on the senses that never gets the show on the road.

After the Decepticons decimated Chicago (which is now rather impressively repaired) in the last movie, the government has now turned on the outlawed Autobots, rounding them up as their own property. Meanwhile, in Texas, widowed inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is trying to keep his home from being foreclosed on and put his 17-year-old daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz), through college, but none of the junk he builds matters to the world. Once the truck Cade finds in a dilapidated movie house and brings to his work barn turns out to be Optimus Prime (voiced again by Peter Cullen) in disguise, black SUVs turn up on the Yeagers' land, refusing to leave until knowing Optimus' whereabouts. Cade, Tessa, and Cade's work buddy Lucas (an annoying use of T.J. Miller for comic relief) end up escaping with Tessa's secret Irish racecar-driving boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor) and going against emotionless Decepticon protoypes, programmed by tech developer Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) and deceitful CIA head honcho Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) with Optimus and the other Autobots. Millions of the human species will be annihilated by Decepticon leader Lockdown (voice of Mark Ryan) if he isn't stopped. Clean-up in Texas, Chicago, Hong Kong and Beijing, please.

Whereas last year's "Pain & Gain"a dark, sensationalistic cautionary tale that actually called for Michael Bay's slick, kinetic sensibilitieswas a step in the right direction, "Transformers: Age of Extinction" is back to what Bay does all the time, outdoing himself in wearing us down. It means to be a big, awesome, exhilarating popcorn picture that gives us our money's worth and hopes the product placement will make us want to buy a Bud Light afterwards (or, refreshing Mandarin bottled water), but it's a relentless, 157-minute endurance test that enervates and prompts the questions, "Why isn't it over yet?" and "Why the hell not?" To be fair, credit is due somewhere. The shoot-the-works showman that he is, director Bay would rather go big than go home, knowing how to blow stuff up real good and shoot the hell out of a sunset, and he makes sure an American flag can be seen at least twice and all of the "bad" characters are introduced with low-angle shots. Bay isn't always given a fair shake and he isn't about to change the ways he makes movies for anyone, as there's a sameness to every explosion sequence where the characters run and lunge for the ground. Here, it might not entirely be his fault, either. It doesn't help that the director and his cast have been burdened with a negligible screenplay that probably read "Insert Action Here" in between imbecilic clangers of dialogue and exposition dumps every five pages.

The soul-free script by Ehren Kruger (who was lucky enough to write the previous two installments) exhibits a smattering of self-aware humor, perhaps one-sixteenth as cleverly self-reflexive as anything in the recent "22 Jump Street." Early on, a movie palace owner harps about movies nowadays just being "sequels and remakesbunch of crap." A character even has a strong disdain for "cheap knock-offs." Spoken words have never been more honest, which is more than what can be said of the clunky, painfully earnest father-daughter-boyfriend dramatics. None of that matters, of course, since it's all about bot-on-bot action of the big toys duking it out and leaving mass destruction in their wake. Altogether, there might be about thirty minutes' worth of "cool," including some creepy-crawly stuff with Tessa on a spacecraft; a vertiginous sequence that has Cade, Tessa and Shane crossing suspended cables from the alien ship to a city skyscraper; a deliriously ludicrous slo-mo rescue by Optimus Prime that nearly one-ups the deliriously ludicrous one in "Fast & Furious 6"; and hand-to-hand combat with Cade and a national-security heavy (a type-cast Titus Welliver) across the roofs of Hong Kong homes. The rest is otherwise undermined by Bay's swirling camera and lots of pixelated muchness.

As Shia LaBeouf dodges a bullet (and lately, that's saying something for him), Mark Wahlberg is a reliably solid presence, but when he tries to convince in Rick Moranis mode, it's not happening. He and most of his fellow human actors just get in the way of the metallic stars (who, by the way, should never speak, even if the voice performers include John Goodman, Ken Watanabe and John DiMaggio). Being paid no favors by filling the thankless "Hot Babe in Need of Saving" role, Nicola Peltz (who impressed on both seasons of A&E series "Bates Motel") is Megan Fox-ed up, shimmering with sweat in her shorty shorts and directed to run in heeled boots and call out "Dad!" while never losing the luster of her orange tan and lip gloss. It feels pretty smarmy and exploitative to watch the objectified young actress returning home from school, dressed as if she came back from a night of clubbing, to then seeing her pushed to the ground, crying and having a gun pointed to her temple. Instead of John Turturro or John Malkovich, it's Stanley Tucci who comes away with the brightest moments as a sniveling baddie with more color than expected, even if this is clearly a slumming vacation for him. Looking lost as if waiting for more direction, the cast at least tries to believably act as if they're occupying the same space as their hulking friends and foes.

There might be a vague statement about terrorism and illegal immigration buried somewhere underneath all the pyrotechnics, but who are we kidding? Everyone came to see Optimus Prime and his Transformer buddies, along with the additional Dinobots, who aren't around nearly enough and don't make their short appearance until it's too late in the exhausting game. "Transformers: Age of Extinction," like its three predecessors, is empty-headed and chaotic and bombastic, but we already know that going into the theater. Rather, the flimsy, albeit convoluted, plot is just a clothesline for director Michael Bay to string together equal-opportunity explosions and property damage in the U.S. and China for this vaporous, unspeakably bloated, so-what junk that's at least an hour too long and not fun enough to endure. Is there really anything else to say? Virginal teenage boys who still love playing with toys will be first in line, so there's that.

Grade: C -

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