FRESH POUR: Transformers – Age of Extinction (2014) / Tammy (2014)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal. 

transformers_age_of_extinction_grimlock-optimus-poster2-610x892Transformers: Age of Extinction
Dir. Michael Bay
Sony Columbia Pictures

By now, everyone’s made up their mind about Michael Bay’s Transformers pictures, and perhaps even Bay himself – for most, he’s a dumb ‘fratboy’ director who loves explosions and hot chicks, and is generally the whipping boy for the backlash against the big, dumb summer blockbuster. For some, he’s a deeply smart filmmaker who knows exactly what he is doing and is completely unabashed about doing it, especially when last year’s wonderful Pain & Gain proved just how adept he was at turning his own style back around to poke fun at the very values his prior films seemed to espouse.

Because of that film, I’m somewhat in the latter crowd; Bay is at least fascinating and interesting to watch as a filmmaker, as I’ve never seen someone with so consistent a style and approach elicit such polarizing opinions of each of his films. Transformers: Age of Extinction is no different – there are enough shades of the self-reflexive Bay found here to make it a fascinating watch, for better or for worse.

This new installment of the big-robot franchise effectively starts a new trilogy in the series; several years after the Battle of Chicago in Dark of the Moon, the Autobots are being hunted down by the CIA, led by Kelsey Grammar, and stripped for parts they can sell to military contractor/Steve Jobs analogue Stanley Tucci to reverse-engineer their own Transformers. Meanwhile, failed inventor/failed father Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) comes across a dilapidated Optimus Prime in an old movie theater, and soon must go on the run with her buxom daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her secret Irish racecar boyfriend (Skinny Irish Seth Rogan) to save Optimus, the other Autobots, and humanity from extinction.

First, the obvious: the movie is way too damn long. Even me, someone who is going to be very generous because of the oppositional reading I tend to take toward the Transformers films, started to get absolutely bored around the two-hour mark. Bay himself has tempered his normally-chaotic action scenes with a bit more finesse, producing some very fine action work. However, it all amounts to so much sensory overload, without any real breaks (particularly in the last hour of the film) to be able to make sense of what’s going on. The plot is incredibly convoluted, creating a redundantly international chase movie that juggles a million subplots and villains of dubious connection to one another.

Now, to the good stuff: the movie works as a wonderful follow-up to the original trilogy’s conceit that Optimus Prime is a hypocritical, murderous cult-leader psychopath who lies to get what he wants. His initial form in the first act of the movie is almost literally the scary rusty truck from Steven Spielberg’s Duel. There’s nary a scene in the film when he doesn’t threaten to murder someone (his first words in the film are “I’LL KILL YOU! I’LL KILL YOU! I’LL KILL YOU!” – he says this to the human protagonists, mind you), and his platitudes of “fighting with honor” and all that are almost immediately followed by ripping a Transformer’s face off. Any illusions that the Autobots are the good guys, and that Bay is making a ‘bad choice’ by having the ostensible hero be such a monster is missing the point; he is a monster. 

The biggest thing people seem to miss about the Transformers series is its inherent nihilism – no one in the series is a good person/robot, even the ones that claim they are. His methods aside, Kelsey Grammar’s character is right to believe that the Transformers only bring death and destruction to humanity. Stanley Tucci’s sudden third-act turn to ‘good guy’ completely ignores the fact that he’s a bloodthirsty industrialist who definitely tortures living robots in his labs. Whereas Shia LaBeouf’s character Sam in the first three films related most closely to Bumblebee’s impulsiveness and immaturity, here it’s Optimus and Cade who form the closest kinship – of course, this is because both characters are overbearing, aggressive control freaks who are deathly afraid of their “children” not needing them anymore. Optimus is placed in the same position he put Megatron in by the end of the first trilogy – a hurt, angry outcast on the run from overbearing state forces that simply want to hunt them down for being different. The fact that it’s not the typical Autobots vs. Decepticon fight, and instead the Autobots fighting industry and their own obsolescence, lends the major conflict a few more interesting shades of gray. (The main Transformer villain, Lockdown, alludes to ‘creators’ who desperately want Optimus Prime back, presumably for his apparent war crimes.)

Age of Extinction is also particularly self-reflexive in its status as a consumer product; Bay seems to find wonderfully tongue-in-cheek ways to remind the audience of the film’s status as something meant to sell you things, and the danger that represents. One interesting shot likens Transformers to a My Little Pony doll, which then morphs into a machine gun because of swirly Transformer magic – a toy literally becomes a weapon. On top of that, there’s an early scene in the old movie theater where an old guy complains about how it’s all “remakes and sequels” now, while looking at a poster for Howard Hawks’ El Dorado (itself a remake). The film itself takes on the attitude of blockbuster film executives, cramming in every possible product placement they can – all framed around scenes of horrific violence. A Bud Light van is toppled by an alien spacecraft, and our hero Mark Wahlberg shoves an alien gun in an innocent man’s face before drinking from one. A bus with the Victoria’s Secret logo is absolutely cored out by a Transformers fight. The entire third act takes place in Hong Kong, China, acknowledging the rising foreign market and pandering to it as well. These things and more couch the blatant consumerism of Hasbro and Paramount Pictures in a swirl of explosions and violence, explicitly likening the presence of consumerism to utter chaos and destruction.

Simply put, Transformers: Age of Extinction is far from a perfect film, and all the exhausting Michael Bay overload is still present. Still, the film presents the odious facets of its world (and our own) so brazenly and confidently that I find it very difficult to write it off as ‘dumb’ or ‘lazy.’ It’s a movie that self-reflexively examines its own relationship as a consumerist product, and points out the hypocrisy of its own conservatism. For that alone, I can’t help but admire it on some level.

Clint’s Verdict: Worth a Watch

Transformers: Age of Extinction Movie Drinking Game:
1) Drink every time someone falls out of a vehicle or building
2) Drink whenever Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) tells someone not to do something
3) Drink any time you see large text or logos for product placement, whether American or Chinese
Finish Your Drink When:
Tessa (Nicola Peltz) says, “We don’t have a home. It blew up.”

Dir. Ben Falcone
Warner Bros. Pictures

I’m just going to start this review by repeating a refrain I know all of us have been saying since Bridesmaids: Melissa McCarthy,  you can do better than this. In all of the films I’ve seen her in, McCarthy proves herself a deftly comic presence, with a wonderful sense of charisma and honesty that can help carry her through some dire material. Her biggest problem, though, is that she plays the exact same character every time – the sloppy, disheveled, crass woman who falls down a lot and self-deprecatingly jokes about her own sexual confidence. Now that we’ve got Tammy, a film co-written by McCarthy and directed by her husband Ben Falcone, it’s starting to feel like McCarthy herself has an inferiority complex.

In this latest foray into safe redneck comedy, the titular Tammy (McCarthy) is a poor, naïve obese woman who, in the opening minutes of the film, wrecks her car, gets fired from her job, and finds out her husband is sleeping with their neighbor. Seeking a change, Tammy takes her alcoholic grandmother (Susan Sarandon) on a road trip to Niagara Falls. Vaguely comedic hijinx ensue.

Let’s take a minute and delve into the weird age stuff that’s happening here. First, the only way the Melissa McCarthy-Allison Janney-Susan Sarandon family tree could possibly work is if each of them had each other when they were 12 (Sarandon is about 15 years older than Janney, who is only 11 years older than McCarthy). Apparently, Shirley Maclaine was the original choice for Tammy’s granny Pearl, which makes more sense – while Sarandon is always fun to watch, it’s so strange seeing her aged up in a curly white wig and deliberately unflattering granny clothes. Don’t get me wrong, one of the few cool things about this movie is that it’s a summer movie that lets actual adult women take center stage (along with Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh’s lesbian characters), but it makes for a strange, uncanny feeling to the film.

The stink of repetition is readily apparent in Tammy; there’s little here that wasn’t covered in Identity Thief (including the same unseen stint in prison late in the film!) or The Heat, or even when it was actually fresh in Bridesmaids. Each scene takes the same basic premise – that Tammy will bumble and awkwardly screech her way through an unfortunate situation, usually stemming from her weight or clumsiness – and lets it sit there limply, relying on McCarthy’s natural charisma to carry it. This only really works once, in an attempted robbery of a Carl’s Jr.-like fast food place with sunglasses wrapped in a paper bag; the robbery ends up being fairly mild, even ending with the promise of friendship between Tammy and the cashier.

In almost all other instances, the film never knows what to make of Tammy. Does she deserve all this bad luck? A heart-to-heart scene with Kathy Bates where her lack of ambition is called out seems to think so. Up to that point, though, it just seems like the world is needlessly cruel to a naïve young woman whose only crime is being overweight and a little annoying. The film still rewards her in the end with a nice young man (Mark Duplass), but the relationship feels strangely forced, particularly as Duplass is initially repulsed by her. Even after that, their only interactions are mumbling, navel-gazing fits of nervousness that feel more like junior-high flirting than actual romance. By the time the movie figuratively slams on the brakes and remembers it wanted to go to Niagara Falls, I couldn’t help but feel it was all supremely unearned.

All in all, Tammy is just a mess, giving us nothing new even in the auspices of road-trip comedies and Melissa McCarthy movies (or even Melissa McCarthy road-trip movies). The jokes are limp, the pacing is off-kilter, and the movie never really shows any sense of ambition beyond its occasional moments of innocuous charm. I think it’s about time McCarthy takes a dramatic step away from these kinds of characters before it’s too late.

Clint’s Verdict: Skip It

Tammy Movie Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever food or drink is consumed
2) Drink any time Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) is inconvenienced or hurt
3) Drink every time Pearl (Susan Sarandon) discusses or otherwise expresses her sexuality
Finish Your Drink When:
Pearl flashes a crowd and says “Happy birthday, America…Beep!”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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