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Out in Theaters: TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

Einstein said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

You have to be insane to be a Minnesota Timberwolves fan. Heading into tonight’s NBA Draft, I was resolved for the worst, because you can expect nothing more from one of the worst professional franchises in sport, an organization that’s run like a penny-saving ma’ and pa’ store with Enron savvy.

This is a team that’s drafted a guy they vowed not to draft because they hadn’t planned for a scenario where they wouldn’t get the guy they wanted. This is a team that puts players they don’t want into a so-called “S Box.” This is a team that drafted a 21 year old player who turned out to be 26 years old. This is a team run by Flip Saunders, a GM/Owner who hired himself as coach and wrote down his draft pick on a sheet of paper like Kevin Costner in Draft Day. And yet, here I was thinking we could get it right this time around.

We ended up getting Zach LaVine, a Point Guard from UCLA who didn’t start this year and seems to have all the qualities that would make one good at being a gazelle, and none of the talent that lends to being an actually good basketball player. He responded to being drafted by banging his head on the table and saying “Fuck me,” then proceeded to call Minnesota a “great city.” This guy’s a gem.

Somehow, I expected something better from Transformers: Age of Extinction—something sane. Maybe because Director Michael Bay’s on his fourth installation in the franchise, maybe because Mark Wahlberg is starring in it, maybe because the girl that plays Wahlberg’s daughter, Nicola Peltz, is super hot. Instead, Bay’s two and a half hour robokkake elicits the same response as Zach LaVine: “fuck me.”

In Transformers: Age of Extinction, Bay spends his seemingly endless time pouring salt on the barren wounds left by Transformers 1, 2 and 3, but this time it’s with a smirksome eff you to the audience. Everything is turnt up past 11 in this $165 million film: the jean shorts shorter; the sweat sweatier; the muscles more rippling; the cars more decadent; and worst of all, the Transformers are souped up. Dinosaur. Transformers.

Thankfully, we don’t have to struggle through another Sam Witwicky slog because Shia LaBeouf and his head-sack are nowhere to be seen. This time, we’ve got Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) as a ripped inventor whose inventions don’t work. He fixes up neighbors’ old trash for cash and builds malfunctioning robots that explode and combust, like a guard dog that couldn’t guard Zach LaVine.

He’s also an overprotective father of a gorgeous 17-year old (don’t worry I checked: she’s actually 19!) because he knocked up his wife when he was 17 and doesn’t want the same problems to befall his soon-to-be-graduated daughter. Turns out she’s hooking up with an incredibly handsome Irishman behind his back, Shane (Jack Raynor), who races cars for Red Bull. T.J. Miller (HBO’s Silicon Valley) is Wahlberg’s comic relief buddy who quickly gets burnt to a literal crisp and displayed on-screen as a carbonated trophy for a traumatic twenty seconds.

When Wahlberg finds an old rickety truck and discovers that it’s Autobot leader Optimus Prime in disguise (gasp!), the story starts to unfurl. The good Transformers who fought to save the world in Transformers 3: Revenge of the Bots are almost extinct as the government—headed by evil agent Harold Attinger (a bearded Kelsey Grammer)—tries to kill them all. Now there’s only five left.

In the mind-numbing two hours of battling and running and slow-moing and close-upping that follow, Wahlberg and friends team up with Optimus and his crew (notably John Goodman voicing a fat cigar-smoking Transformer and Ken Watanabe as a super-offensive NinjaBot) to ride some dinosaur Transformers and fight Kelsey Grammer, Stanley Tucci, a bomb called “The Seed,” a Transformer whose face is a huge gun, and some mechabot thing called Galvatron. None of this shit made any sense to me either.

MY FACE IS A GUN!!!

Granted, visually, this film is probably the most gorgeous thing that’s ever graced a silver screen. To his credit, Bay has perfected the Transformer graphics to the point that now he’s just playing with it like an infant with a toy chest of action figurines. Explosions boom in IMAX 3D. The cars, planes, alien ships and Transformers glimmer and shriek as they come apart and fit back together. The gun-head Transformer and the DinoBots are definitely the craziest, most preposterously incredible creations Bay has ever come up with. Bugattis and Ferraris flip and twist into robots. It’s astronomically cool.

Despite the glorious IMAX 3D monster that Bay’s created to top the box office charts for months, this flick reeks of #2. He’s trolling us now: Victoria Secret ads are blown up, US Banks are crushed under a Transformer’s boot, and Wahlberg stops in the middle of all the chaos to drink a Bud Light. There was even a quick intro before the movie where everyone involved just talked about how awesome Michael Bay is. Really, Age of Extinction is one big commercial, and the product placement made it seem like Transformers had accidentally wandered into a GQ photo-shoot and just decided to blow everything up.

Optimus Prime is awesome as usual, but there’s just so much crazy and absurd stuff happening to really get anything more than a headache. Plot points are brought up then completely dropped, like when Optimus is said to need repairing and then just magically repairs himself. Close-ups of actors were too jarring in 3D, and Bay too often forces the shots in. Though Tucci and Grammer are outstanding in their villain roles, it’s problematic when you find yourself hoping the good guys lose.

Though Mark Wahlberg is great at playing Mark Wahlberg, anything involving him, Peltz and Raynor is utter garbage. We’re subjected to almost three hours of “you can’t date boys until you’re 18” discourse that never ends. Peltz’s outfits get increasingly tighter, so much so that they look—as the country-folk say—painted on. Luckily she’s really hot, which distracts from how utterly annoying the overprotective Dad shtick gets. Otherwise, my main complaint comes with hotty racer Raynor: why couldn’t he be fat and nerdy and play League of Legends? Why do these guys always have to be way too good-looking?

Age of Extinction is just too long. It’s arduous work just watching because so many things are crammed in. This film could have been an hour long, and it might’ve been fantastic. Too often it dragged out unnecessary plot and confusing battles. There’s a Jaw-like wait just to see the DinoBots. Wahlberg amps up the Wahlberg, and seems to be made out of the same stuff as the Transformers.

At the end of the night, you wonder how you ever expected anything more. History repeats itself and so does Transformers, ad nauseam. One has to wonder if Flip’s “S Box” stands for “Shit Box.” If so, cram Age of Extinction in an S Box and never let it out.

D

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Out in Theaters: GODZILLA

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Gareth
Edwards just sucker-punched Guillermo del Toro in his Chewbacca face, punted him right in his spectacle-pushing schnoz, and gave him a big old titty-twister for the whole world to see. To return to 1995 lingo, Godzilla rules. Pacific Rim – the asthmatic cousin panting to keep up, the ADHD-striken, Ridilin child who can’t keep his stories straight – you can go back to your rift where you belong. Godzilla is the alpha predator, the white whale, the great reckoner.

While my throwing down the gauntlet and continued pointed admonishment of Pacific Rim might not be the best means to celebrate Godzilla, I think the two films are wholly representative of where I – and collectively we – should draw the line on monster movies. It’s the triumphant versus the trash; what works and what doesn’t.

Evan’s story begins with a fascinating opening credit sequence setting 1940s-era footage of nuclear testing, and a water-cloaked Godzilla, behind the names and titles of those involved with the production. This is usually a time to tune out but here the names are intersected with brief easter eggs and exposition that are hastily redacted by quick-draw movie ink; it’s Evans’ look at government sanitization meant to keep us “safe”. Peering from one portion of the massive IMAX screen to another to try to take it all in, from the very get go, we’re racing to keep up. Even in the short context of these opening moments, Alexandre Desplat‘s brooding score quickly sinks its hooks in, his foreboding strings painting immediately iconic soundscapes. The stage is set. Let the mayhem begin.
 
We soon meet Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) a seismologist working at a nuclear reactor site in Japan. It’s his birthday but he’s too wound up in a phone conversation with a co-worker to notice the happy birthday banner his son Ford proudly set up. Sad face. “We gotta shut it down,” Joe barks. Without much spurning, we know trouble is a brewing. Cue an “unnatural” geographical anomaly that knocks out the plant, smothers Joe’s wife in a cloud of toxic waste and makes for some heart-rending Craston tears while effectively turning the city the Brody clan occupies into a cordoned-off, toxic wasteland.

15 years later, Ford Brody (now Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is an army man – an elite soldier specializing in bomb disposal. He’s Sergeant First Class William James without as deep a chip on his shoulder and the boob-padding spacesuit.  “How’s the bomb business?” his father tiredly, maybe scornfully, asks. “I diffuse them, not drop them.” Like the portended atomic bombs of Godzilla yore, Edwards squeezes ample allusions to Ishirō Honda‘s 1954 original. But they find their place naturally, settling into this modernization without feeling tacky or copy-pasted in.

And while the original is an exercise in metaphorical philosophizing that so happens to feature a man in a rubber suit stomping model cities, Evan’s Godzilla is about magical realism: what if a gigantic monster surfaced from the depths of the sea to wreck havoc on the world’s biggest cities? While lesser movies skimp on exploring the implications of destruction to shower FX-heavy candy a la wanton carnage – think Rampage World Tour: The Movie – Godzilla is all about implications. Before he emerges from the ocean, the tides ominously draw back, whipping into a tsunami that pummels the mainland. Before Godzilla even arrives on the scene, his wake is already collecting a body count. Like Honda’s film, Godzilla is no malevolent presence but a force of nature. In his notes, Evans has likened Godzilla to a God. Part the seas, for He is coming.

While Guillermo’s Rim job is happy to service you at the beginning – hell you paid for it, you’re getting the goods upfront – Edwards makes you wait. He’s like the girl you want to marry: he doesn’t put out on the first date. But he’s not above flirting.

Our first sneaking glances at the behemoth are shrouded by scale; a whipping tail, those imposing, prehistoric scales cutting through the waves; but it doesn’t take long for Evans to yank up on the scope and offer halting panoramas of the God lizard in his towering enormity. So what if Godzilla is a little fat, because good lord is he epic.

Bringing to life a towering deity of this size, Edwards cranks everything to 11. The sights, sounds and theater-shaking signature roar are the product of diligent planning and fiercely ambitious blueprints. With the support of Toho Co. (responsible for 28 Godzilla features) Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures – which first teamed up with Batman Begins – have taken a great risk on Godzilla. They’re betting audiences will be patient, that they don’t need each bite spoon fed to them robot-punch by robot-punch. For critics, the gambit has mostly paid off. Hopefully, general audiences feel the same. All I know is that I was won over. Hook, line and sinker. And even though the characters never transform into the complex people we hope to populate this otherwise consummate spectacle, Edwards is still a saintly architect.

Now with Monsters and Godzilla under his belt, Edwards is here to usher in a new era of monster movie. Long may he rein. He borrows heavily from his earlier work with creeping shots in the jungle essentially replicating the same sights and feel from his inaugural film. He’s a man who knows his talents, who’s confident enough to homage himself. But with so much more to play with from a budgetary stance, his sandbox is that much more fun and the result that much more jaw-dropping. But while he’s able to crank up the dial in terms of special effects, the intimate character study that characterized Monsters withers to something far more flat.

Taylor-Johnson is sufficient as the “hero” type but he has very little to work with outside of running around or looking scared. Playing the role of Asian scientist, Ken Watanbe is equally ineffective, more a stereotyped homage than a character in his own right. He’s having fun chewing through these lines but he’s no Cranston, who, for his limited role, is able to milk most. But no one gets the shaft more than Elizabeth Olsen who is relegated to a shamelessly customary wife in distress role. It’s tired characterizations like these that remind us that we’re watching a blockbuster but those complaints ought to be laid at screenwriter Max Borenstein‘s feet. His characters are archetypes; Army men with young wives and younger children. Anything else just wouldn’t do, would it?

Though the performances are often showed up by the 150-foot beast stomping through the midst of Evans’ film, it is still a certifiable triumph, an idol of what studio films should – and can – do. If Pacific Rim made you feel like a kid again, all the more power to you and your dated nostalgia. I’m quite happy watching Godzilla and cherishing my adulthood, marveling at modern technology. Thankfully, Godzilla is the rare sort of big-scale entertainment that doesn’t dumb down to middle schoolers.

B

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GODZILLA Returns to the Big Screen In Style, Watch the Provocative First Trailer

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Ever since last year’s Comic Con, fanboys have been going nutso for the upcoming Godzilla reboot. And while many, myself included, didn’t understand where all this enthusiasm was coming from, looking back at the history of the monster icon reveals why he’s had such a massive cultural impact throughout the world.

Originally made in Japan, 1954, Godzilla was a dressed up metaphor for nuclear warfare, achieved by a mostly immobile man dressed up like a monster in a big green latex suit. Since the 50s, Godzilla has been on a continuous silly streak, battling other big baddies like Mothra (literally just a big moth) and King Kong and has since had a run, backed by Japanese production studio Toho, that sees minor Godzilla movies ever couple years. At this point, there are 30 official Toho Godzilla films.

Roland Emmerich re-imagined Godzilla for American audiences, in his 1998 film that takes the name of the monster, as a big preggo lizard to not so glowing results. Gareth Edwards looks to right that wrong with a much more classic take on the Godzilla design.

With a cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe, Edwards seems to be on the right track and this first trailer does exactly what a trailer should (but nowadays hardly ever does) – it teases. Instead of giving away the events of the first, second, and third act, it drops us into the situation and let’s us see the horror, confusion, and madness for ourselves. Surely, this doesn’t mean that Godzilla will be a guaranteed layup but it looks far better than I would have first thought.

Take a look at the trailer and see if, at this point, you’d be onboard to check it out in theaters.

Godzilla is directed by Gareth Edwards and stars Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe. It hits theaters May 16, 2014.

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