Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction” is the best, and the worst, of modern moviemaking. With eye-popping special effects and action-destruction sequences to rival “The Avengers,” the fourth installment of the franchise is at its best. But, Bay unwisely re-uses one of the best action stunt scenes, reducing the stunning visual impact of the first.
Add in a bevy of overt product placement shots and a Chinese government official spouting a seemingly nonsensical (at least to U.S. audiences) Chinese party-line political stance, the movie at times feels like a nearly three-hour paid advertisement.
When I first wrote about the making of the film last year — which included a 22-day stint in Central Texas — I learned that the Chinese government had decided to invest heavily in the Transformers series. The third film in Bay’s series grossed more in China than in all other international markets combined. The Chinese market for films stands to be the single largest growth market for Hollywood… if exploited properly.
And, therein lies the rub. In order to develop anything in China — especially a film that will portray the country, its industry, and its government to worldwide audiences — one must tread very carefully.At the macro level, “Age of Extinction” may be the best and worst of modern filmmaking, but within the film itself, there are dichotomies. The CGI, the script, and the human actors are all at their best when the movie hits its action peaks. Well, all of them except stand-up comedian and acting newcomer T.J. Miller, who plays the role of comic relief and sidekick to our human hero, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg).
Miller’s character provides much-needed moments of levity to help break up the relatively slow pace at the start of the movie. Sadly, Miller’s character isn’t around after the movie’s storyline leaves Texas. Perhaps the Chinese money ran out when it came to T.J.’s international airfare.
Though there hasn’t been an official disclosure of the amount invested by China into the making of “Age of Extinction,” rumors are that the government-operated China Film Group chipped in as much as $100 million of the film’s estimated $200 million production cost.
Bay went on record last year as saying that deals like this are the only way a movie can be made these days. Well… that and product placements, which now show up in everything from your favorite sitcom to the biggest blockbusters.
So what, exactly, did China get for their investment? I suppose that depends on whether you’re part of that vast Chinese audience, or you’re one of the rest of us outside of China — where few of the ‘special inclusions’ make much sense.
For what it’s worth, so much of the film was China-related, I found myself pleasantly surprised that the Austin-area filming resulted in more than 40 minutes at the beginning of the movie.
That Texas start seems an ideal move for U.S. audiences. There’s the country road, the pickup, the country music, the small town main street (set just outside of Austin in Taylor) and the farmhouse in the country (set in Austin suburb Pflugerville). There’s also an oppressive government, a black-ops military unit gone rogue (led by actor Titus Welliver, the guy who can’t get his order right in the Gentleman Jack commercial), a defense contractor led by a zealous entrepreneur (Stanley Tucci) willing to go to any lengths — killing, maiming, etc. — to develop new products to sell to a shadowy CIA type (Kelsey Grammer) who runs roughshod over a weak White House represented by a whiny chief of staff.
But when the film leaves the States and heads to China, things change quite dramatically. We see a shiny auto manufacturing plant designed to advertise the Chinese auto industry to the world. We get Stanley Tucci running for his life from U.S. black ops guys and evil robots, but taking a moment to stop and open a refrigerator on an apartment rooftop. Passing up all the U.S. brands, he opts instead for a juicebox… and then prominently displays the Chinese logo for us to see. At least Cade had the decency to grab a Bud Light lying in the middle of the road when he took a break from a deadly chase with bad guys brandishing guns breathing down his neck.
We get Tucci’s character Joshua Joyce standing in an elevator, breaking down in front of an impassive Chinese guy who clearly can’t understand the English diatribe. Then, when the bad guys show up, the formerly confused passenger springs into action and throws down some Grade A martial arts on the CIA bad guys. Because he’s Chinese Olympic gold medalist boxer Zou Shiming. Metaphorical?
Later, with the whole world hanging in the balance — and since the U.S. government represents the bad guys here, in league with an alien bad guy who has a terrible weapon capable of destroying life on Earth — it’s the Chinese government to the rescue.
While the Americans hunt down Optimus Prime and seek to exterminate the Autobots, wantonly destroying buildings and cars (and the people inside them) in the U.S. and China, the Chinese military is the picture of restraint. Never firing a shot at the Autobots, yet standing at the ready to help save humanity.
When a massive alien ship is destroying Hong Kong, the camera pans inexplicably over to a shimmering convertible, where — despite all the destruction going on around them — the car’s passenger is softly singing and playing his guitar. That guy is Chinese pop star Han Geng.
And then, the film delivers its Chinese benefactors their coup de grâce, as the Chinese central government’s defense minister staunchly declares that the central government will protect Hong Kong at all costs. To many worldwide audience members who aren’t aware of the history between China, the British government and Hong Kong, this line might seem just a bit strange and out of place. It sounds like it might be a translation error from a foreign language film. But, it’s not. It’s exactly what the Chinese government wanted. The return on their multi-million dollar investment, designed to assert control over the long-disputed territory that is now classified as a “special administrative region” of China, after the Brits relinquished control of their former colonial holding in 1997. That line was a message delivered squarely to the residents and the government of Hong Kong.
Even the robot characters show the split personality of the film. Amazing special effects, cool cars and top-of-the-line mid-air transformation sequences make “Age of Extinction” worth seeing. But, inexplicable and stereotypical robot characters, including a Japanese samurai complete with metal cape and swords, and an obese robot with a beard and cigar who looks remarkably like John Goodman — who voices the monstrosity — stop just short of full-on stupidity.
We do get a little more of the Transformers’ history, and their history on Earth. We find that, like us, there is much more to these robots than we know. While despite the title “Age of Extinction,” little attention is actually given to the prospect of ‘extinction’ in the film. Sure, there’s an alien weapon which, if detonated, could cause the extinction of the human race. But that’s really a sub-sub-sub plot, buried underneath glossy CGI special effects and myriad criss-crossing character arcs. The only ‘extinction’ that really comes to the forefront in the film is that of the dinosaurs, which appear in the film’s opening when the film suggests that a group of transformers already on earth during the time of the dinosaurs were hunted down by an alien bounty hunter, with the result being the extinction of the dinosaurs… and that bounty hunter has now returned to grab Optimus Prime and return him to his ‘creators’ — who want him back, because he has superseded his creators’ programming by staying on Earth and befriending humans.
Yep. It’s that complex. Maybe that’s why Bay and company think it will take three hours to tell the story. Unfortunately, they should have de-cluttered the script and cut it down to something more manageable. A shorter, less clunky film may have resulted.
I always try to review movies based on the world they create. I’ve often said, “Hey, we are talking about a movie where robots from outer space come to Earth and transform into sports cars, so we have to suspend our disbelief for a bit.” That said, much of what lies within “Age of Extinction” defies even that standard.
However, the fact that it isn’t really a very good film won’t matter. Paramount Pictures will make a mint, and thanks to their relationship with… err, sellout to… the Chinese government, Paramount not only got a lot of money to make the film, they gained a huge built-in fanbase in the world’s most populous country. The film opened with more than $300 million — the best opening of any film so far in 2014. And, nearly $100 million of that in China, where “Age of Extinction” is threatening to become the biggest box office draw in Chinese history.“Age of Extinction” isn’t the best new movie at the theatres over the weekend, but it’s not the worst, either. Those awards go to the gripping horror-thriller “Deliver Us from Evil” and the simply abysmal “Tammy,” starring Melissa McCarthy.
After a pretty good outing with Sandra Bullock in “Heat,” McCarthy joins up with her husband Ben Falcone, who co-wrote and directed “Tammy.”
A film with star-power the likes of Susan Sarandon and Dan Aykroyd should be a whole lot funnie than it is. In the end, McCarthy and Falcone give us a mangled mess of a film that just serves to waste McCarthy’s considerable talent and the audience’s time and money.
However, the same can’t be said of “Deliver Us From Evil” — based on the true-life accounts of New York police detective Ralph Sarchie, who wound up leaving his job with the NYPD after nearly 20 years to become a self-proclaimed ‘demonologist’ following the events portrayed in the film.
Both suspenseful thriller and supernatural horror film, “Deliver Us From Evil” is without a doubt the best of the crop of new films out last weekend.
Director Scott Derrickson (“Sinister” and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) also co-wrote the screenplay with “Emily Rose” screenwriter Paul Harris Boardman. Derrickson proved with “Sinister” that he knows how to build tension and keep a little mystery to how the story will unfold. He’s also becoming a master with supernatural-based horror films.Part of what makes “Deliver Us From Evil” intriguing is the story’s roots in the real-life accounts of Sarchie, whose bigger-than-life persona was toned down quite a bit for the film. Australian actor Eric Bana, whose work in 2011’s “Hanna” was oustanding, plays Sarchie just right here.
Perhaps the most interesting — and satisfying — casting decision is funny man Joel McHale (satirical pop-culture show “The Soup”) who bulks up as Sarchie’s partner, Butler. McHale is simply fantastic.
Sarchie’s 2001 book, “Beware the Night” is an interesting read, and even more interesting interviews with the former cop are readily available on the internet.