Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Can Optimus Defeat Lockdown, his Creators, Galvatron, Dinobots, the US Government, military, CIA, and Steve Jobs?

I am a genuine fan of Michael Bay, due in large part to his last three films: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), Pain & Gain (2013), and his latest, Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014). His fluid large scale set pieces covered in geometrical patterns by strategically placed cameras, dollies, and helicopters, saturated palettes, sexy surface beauty, larger-than-life Steve Jablonsky scores, cadres of tactical swat teams, and intercutting of overcranked cartoon imagery make his films entertaining, impressive, and inimitable.

The first two Transformers don't matter to me at all, but were written by Kurtzman and Orci, while 3 and 4 are written by Ehren Kruger. In part 3, Dark of the Moon, we get a quick revisionist history primer: the Apollo 11 moon landing was really President Kennedy's mission to explore some important Transformers wreckage before the Russians. And while the astronauts landed, they went to the dark side of the moon and encountered Sentinel Prime, who was planning a teleportation bridge to bring Cybertron on Earth--don't worry, Optimus prevented it.





Transformers: Age of Extinction in 3D (2014, Michael Bay) gives us a quick revisionist history primer: the extinction of the dinosaurs was actually the Transformers first visit to Earth and they destroyed all existing life and replaced it with themselves (forming Dinobots, but more on that later...).

This is the first film in the franchise with a serene opening. It's in space, quiet. Cool sunflares come at you in 3D. Then a simple font as the title appears and vanishes. Unlike the previous installment's trademark huge, eardrum-shattering metallic clanking and computer humming, buzzing and title that inexplicably transforms into the title card. I did like those.

We're then in the Arctic just like how The Thing (1982, John Carpenter) opens. Michael Bay photographs the shit out of locations like this.

Next we are in Texas.

One night I was at my Dad's house in Corpus and I came home late, drunk. I flipped the channels and found Dark of the Moon and decided to fall asleep to it. In my state of euphoria a scene played that occurs at 1 hour and 34 minutes into the movie right after the destruction of Chicago where 1300 were killed. It's early dawn and cheesy country music rock ballad music builds. Some poor, honest, real folks at a motel hop in their GMC pickup, then a black dude gets in his GMC pickup in an old commercial sector and as schmaltzy as this stuff is I devoured it. I did a Chevy commercial with Bob Richardson ("Chevy Strong," on youtube) that does this same crap and I'm susceptible as hell to it. I definitely feel that the CADE YEAGER (Mark Wahlberg) scenes in Texas with rolling green cornfields, windmills, weathered barns and blue skies does the trick.

TESSA YEAGER (Nicola Peltz) is Cade's 17 year old daughter and a toned down sexpot compared to her predecessors Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whitely. She does wear some short jean shorts and as she's introduced there's a shot from below and in her legs looking up from behind her as Cade gripes at her about washing her shorts in cold water and air drying them--this is kind of all we need to know about these characters.

Titus Welliver is way cool as the bad guy SAVOY, who is introduced at Cade's house in glorious Bay fashion. We get obtuse roaming coverage of his profile, weirdly off-timed shutter speeds and ominous sound design, along with his entourage of  6 blacked out Escalades and a helicopter. We also get the great Cade line: "We got a saying about messing with people from Texas...". Transformers 4 is darker and less silly than previous entries, as evinced by Savoy putting a gun to Tessa's head ready to execute her.

To escape the barn there's the first exceptional action sequence: the rally car driven by Tess's boyfriend LUCKYCHARMS plows through cornfields, and there's near misses with the Escalades, but really it's the overcranked shot of the rally car flying out of the mound and the wheel peels out on the badguy's face as spittle floats--see Pain & Gain for reference to Bay's previous shots with the Phantom camera and CGI spit.

There's a surfer TNMT type West coast burnout who is unessential, but as the first act ends there's that magnificent Bay shot of the plural protagonist walking slowly away from huge explosions, but the surfer is burnt alive--see, more darkly violent. He's left like the cover of the album "Enemy of the Sun." There's even some guilt acknowledgement as Tess chides Cade: "all you had to do is report it and now Lucas is dead."

Next we go to Chicago.

Stanley Tucci plays a significant lead character named JOSHUA JOYCE STEVE JOBS who runs a company called KSI APPLE that develops technology and has figured out how to make his own controllable matter, transformium, and do everything the Transformers can. I've always liked Stanley Tucci and I think this is great casting here. Steve Jobs is matched against a CIA villain played by Kelsey Grammer and they both "set out to do good," as young boys so they got a parallel-I think the script is pretty decent.

Bingbing Li plays Steve Jobs' business partner and represents interests in the company owned by China (like the movie itself, in real life). She doesn't speak much, and while gorgeous and formidable, Bay doesn't really use her as anything more like a doll for set dressing.

Everyone has a nemesis. Megatron is now GALVATRON, who hunts Optimus along with bounty hunter LOCKDOWN. Steve Jobs has the CIA villain. Wait, next complaint: LOCKDOWN isn't that cool because he's just like slim and built and mean. In Transformers 2, THE DEVASTATOR combined all of the construction vehicles and destroyed the pyramids with its huge spinning shredding metal vortex while he exhausts storms of debris in his wake. In Transformers 3 (my favorite so far) SHOCKWAVE is like the coolest villain ever, with his DRILLER and complex means of demolishing huge buildings, skyscrapers, and anything in his way.

And, Shockwave has that sinister one red glowing cyclops eye.

And, Shockwave makes weird animal noises sound effects when he appears. Man I love Shockwave. But, there's no Shockwave in Age of Extinction. Lockdown is lame and talks with a British accent. The scale of Lockdown's ship behind him in the Texas scenes are visually striking though.

But Bumblebee's nemesis, STINGER, has really cool sound effects, that screeching whistling insect siren.

There's a great downtown chase in Chicago. Man, how'd they get to film all that? Great location work.

Next we go to Beijing.

Geng Han is the dude playing guitar in the convertible that gets sucked up in Shanghai and he is a huge star in China in real life. I know some people who worked on this and there's a funny anecdote about Amir Mokri, the cinematographer, being instructed to offer special treatment to Geng and receiving an explanation about how famous he is, to which Mokri replied: "I don't care. I don't give a shit. I fuck Chinese Justin Beiber in the ass. He's nobody to me..." And there's another story I heard about Bay getting mad and throwing a walkie into the Grand Canyon.

The scenes downtown in Shanghai with the car wrecking while in the back ground an elevated train and ocean liners are pulled up to the sky by Lockdown's magnet are full on Seventies disaster genre homage done right. Wow.

Somewhere nearby Optimus has no chance left but to go recruit the Dinobots, travelling to a conveniently close for the sake of the plot location. Optiums fighting a fire-breathing T-Rex is almost ridiculous, but not when you get the logic of this franchise. It's what we've come to expect.

Back in China Bumblebee uses a pterodactyl buddy to fight Stinger and that's another great sequence.

The conclusion has some good arc. Cade is ready to die for Optimus by the end, as Tess is ready to die to protect her dad Cade, and Jobs buys them a disaster relief home because their's was destroyed.

It's kind of bullshit that Galvatron survives because it feels like we're watching a serial instead of a stand-alone movie. And that Optimus threat to his creators: "Leave planet Earth alone because I'm coming for you," lacks the closure one typically demands from a two and a half hour movie.

I saw this in 3D, twice. And I'm glad I did.

--Dregs





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