Movie Review: “Transformers – Age of Extinction”

In my more lucid moments, I hate that I saw this movie. The entire bloated “Transformers” franchise ranks with Diet Mountain Dew, “Supernatural,” Britney Spears, etc. in the “things that I rather enjoy but simultaneously am appalled by” category. And yes, it is beyond question that director Michael Bay is the Monsanto of Hollywood, and that this movie series is symptomatic of everything wrong with contemporary entertainment and global society.

But man, say what you will, I like to watch giant robots beat up on each other. And there is something to be said for the delirious, epileptic grandiosity of watching an alien robot warrior ride a gigantic fire-breathing mechanical tyrannosaurus into the midst of a city-destroying battle.

This time around, the human cast is substantially different. Shia LaBoeuf (who will not be missed) has been replaced by Mark Wahlberg in the role of a down-on-his-luck inventor. (Remember when “The World Is Not Enough” cast Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist? Wahlberg is about as believable as a “quirky science type”). After the Chicago-clobbering events of film #3, public opinion transformed against all aliens and the Transformers have faced systemic genocide. Wahlberg, however, manages to find the heroic Optimus Prime disguised as a run-down semi. Cue lots of explosions and showdowns with angry government officials, who (by virtue of the ubiquitously sinister military-industrial complex) have been working to assemble their own synthetic Transformers. Oh yeah, and there’s also a bounty hunter Transformer prowling around with motives of his own.

No one short of an outright masochist watches this series for plot coherence, so the less said the better.

But what matters, naturally, is not this film’s story, but rather its pyrotechnic special effects and massive levels of destruction. And this series does its action very, very well.

Last summer’s “Man of Steel” was intolerably destructive, vaguely nihilistic, and ponderous. The same cannot be said for this series: the last couple of “Transformers” movies have served up plenty of mesmerizing slo-mo images and gleefully kinetic action scenes, all designed specifically to appeal to one’s repressed inner child. It’s cheesy but also kind of great, like the Roger Moore era of Bond films. Very few other film franchises are willing (or have the budgets) to serve up this level of visual delirium, and things just keep getting more spectacular.

Most of this franchise’s egregious vices remain present. For instance, the product placement is so extreme as to be laughable. A full minute is devoted to watching robots blow up a Bud Light truck, after which Wahlberg pops open a bottle and takes a long drink. Moreover, it’s abundantly clear that Bay is pandering to the lucrative Chinese market – instead of relying on the patriotic tropes of its predecessors, “Age of Extinction” sets its final conflict in Hong Kong and pulls in a host of local film stars for cameos.

Yet oddly, “Age of Extinction” becomes watchable through its over-the-top commitment to the ludicrousness of its own central conceit. At this point, four movies in, it really wouldn’t be a “Transformers” film without relying on gratuitous absurdity and shameless cash-grabbing. It’s the Krispy Kreme Donuts of cinema – yes, you might have a stomachache afterwards, but it’s weirdly comforting in the moment. (As a plus, there’s far less crass humor and quasi-racism than in previous “Transformers” installments. It’s indulgent and bludgeoning, but not particularly offensive.)

If you saw the other movies, you’ll probably see this one. If your tastes are exclusively of the highbrow variety, you’ll stay far away. Maybe, just maybe, I still can’t believe I went to see this movie and am now writing this as a sort of cathartic absolution.

But still, robot dinosaurs. Enough said:

By this point, you probably know what you’re in for. It’s pretty satisfying, so long as one’s expectations are set at the proper level.

Movie Review: “X-Men – Days of Future Past”

Another year, another X-Men movie – as I’ve previously discussed, I’ll watch just about anything featuring Hugh Jackman’s steel-clawed Wolverine. That said, “Days of Future Past” is a particularly effective installment that throws the series back into high gear.

Sometime after the events of “X-Men: The Last Stand,” the mutant species has come up against an unstoppable threat: an army of “Sentinel” robots capable of adapting to – and assimilating – mutation-driven attacks directed against them. Facing unavoidable destruction, formerly rival mutant leaders Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen) concoct a plan to project Wolverine’s consciousness back in time and avert disaster. The rationale behind such a move: the Sentinel program originated after the 1970s assassination of scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, of “Game of Thrones” fame) by shapeshifting mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). In this decade, Xavier and Lensherr are played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender – successfully bridging the gap between the original trilogy and 2011’s “X-Men: First Class” prequel.

If it’s not already abundantly clear, this cast is pure dynamite – and undoubtedly the biggest and most talented ensemble ever assembled for a superhero film. “Days of Future Past” draws on its stars’ interpersonal chemistry for most of its propulsive energy, which makes the movie a consistently entertaining blockbuster. Think of this as the X-Men equivalent of “The Avengers” – except with higher-caliber stars.

Moreover, director Bryan Singer – responsible for the first “X-Men” film and its first sequel – clearly grasps the true heart of the X-Men franchise: the strained role of the Other in society. “Days of Future Past” asks the question, “when your friends and companions are being massacred, purely on account of immutable characteristics, is it morally conscionable to embrace a hands-off, education-centric approach, or is it permissible to fight back violently?”

On this note, it’s worth noting briefly that the series has always stumbled slightly when it plays up Lensherr/Magneto’s domination-oriented tendencies. It debases a complex character (who happens to be a Holocaust survivor, as “X-Men: First Class” depicted) to show him interested in merely turning the tables on humans and establishing a regime in which mutants are treated as gods. The effort to provide clearcut Hollywood-style moral dichotomies distracts from the real ethical tension at the franchise’s core: far more compelling – and unsettling – is the question of whether or not violent resistance to persecution can be morally justifiable.

This is complex stuff, and Singer handles it deftly.

Having said that, it bears mention that the plot – as one might expect from any time-travel story – groans under the weight of its internal inconsistencies and discontinuities with prior films. Little to no effort goes toward resolving these issues. Just a few questions: how did Magneto get his powers back after “X-Men: The Last Stand”? How did Professor Xavier survive that psionic explosion? How did Wolverine get adamantium re-bonded to his claws after “The Wolverine”? And perhaps most importantly…will anyone ever learn to keep away from Wolverine’s claws while he’s having traumatic mental experiences? (Seriously people, this is literally the fourth time someone’s gotten stabbed under similar circumstances.)

If you like this series – or superhero movies in general – this installment is definitely recommended, for its stellar cast alone if nothing else. Additionally, the requisite action set-pieces are gorgeous, as expected, but never come close to overwhelming the human drama. In a franchise that’s previously come precariously close to running off the rails, “Days of Future Past” places things firmly on solid ground.

VERDICT: 8.5/10
Forget the weak storyline, just focus on the actors and the action. That’s more than impressive enough.