Transformers: Age of Extinction looks pretty…and that’s about it, really.

Michael Bay has done it again. The maestro of overbudget blockbusters filled with as much spectacle as they are devoid of logic has returned to the Transformers franchise that he swore he was done with.

Following a very solid first entry in the franchise, where the world was first introduced to robot-smash-robot, save the world with nice cars and pretty girls, Bay’s two sequels dared to utilize the exact same formula to underwhelming results, at least to the critics of the world. Bay remained an absolute darling at the box office.

So hey, those films made buckets of cash enough to save the starving population of Africa, so Bay’s patented formula has got to work, right?

Wrong. In short, the latest Transformers suffers from major formula recycling, major déjà vu, and a M-A-J-O-R-L-Y ridiculous runtime, and it suffers severely.

Not all hope is lost, though. For what many presume to be the first entry in a new Transformers trilogy (God help us), the producers have brought in a new leading man in well-liked Mark Wahlberg, a legitimately dark villain, and a more foreboding tone with fits the universe well. Perhaps Bay has learned from his previous film, the severely underrated work of art Pain & Gain?

Perhaps. But again…if nothing’s broke (in the eyes of the cash cows), why fix it?

With the Transformers franchise, Bay has taken upon himself to almost create his own genre. A genre that is identifiable with cliché personalities, predictable plotlines, logical gaps aplenty, and a great fetish for all things that go BOOM.

In the newest entry, humans have taken upon themselves to utilize the technology of the Transformers for their own gains. To do that, they hunt down any and all Autobots and Decepticons with the help of neutral Transformers Lockdown, who may or may not have his own motives.

A thing about Lockdown. He is the freshest breath of fresh air for this franchise in Age of Extinction. Similar to The Winter Soldier in Captain America 2, Lockdown is the first villain in the universe to really be terrifying, with an atmosphere so foreboding and ominous that he steals the scene when he’s involved in a fight. He is pulled off fantastically, certainly a high point in the film.

The baddie this time around, Lockdown, is easily the high point of the film.

The baddie this time around, Lockdown, is easily the high point of the film.

Optimus Prime is again back as leader of a whole new crew of Autobots, with personalities as diverse and fun as those in previous films. Only this time, Prime is isolated and in a weakened state of mind, hiding from humans at the start of the film who are hunting him down after thrice saving their race. This conflict between the Transformers and humans is a truly fascinating one, as we never really thought before how much of a threat humans could be to these huge hunks of metals with their outrageous guns and advanced technology.

The human characters…where to start with them. Let’s just say I feel for Wahlberg’s character, a determined but down-on-his-luck inventor who basically can’t get his way with even his own flesh and blood. His daughter has her own motives, and however pretty she is onscreen, it is just so so so difficult to ever be on her side. She’ll make you wish for Megan Fox’s character back. No, really. You’ll see what I mean. The other characters fill Bay’s clichéd personalities so extremely and excessively that we tire of them very quickly, as we do most of the film’s components. At points you kind of just want certain characters to bite the dust (and this wish is granted to one of the most annoying ever introduced to the franchise! Yay!). The human’s motives are thoroughly, utterly predictable, and some other scenes with minor characters legitimately feel awkward to have to endure.

All of that excess doesn’t help a film that is running at a ridiculous 166 minutes. The astounding thing is that Bay doesn’t make too many of those minutes count, especially when it comes to the humans and their simply flat, uninteresting, uninspired storylines.

Wahlberg (Ted, The Other Guys) replaces Shia LaBeouf as the lead of the franchise in Cade Yeager and he does a fine job amidst a time when his stronger performances are in comedies. He’s easy to like, he’s on point with the delivery of Bay’s trademark dialogue, and it certainly isn’t hard to root for him considering the people he’s surrounded by. Nicola Peltz(The Last Airbender, Bates Motel) Las does an okay job playing a bad character as Yeager’s helpless daughter who really doesn’t show any growth at all by film’s end. Jack Reynor (Delivery Man, Dollhouse) plays her squeeze, a Liam Hemsworth lookalike (sans the acting abilities) that I swear you’ll forget is even in the movie at times. He is that expendable.

Here's hoping Nicola Peltz gets some better roles in the future....

Here’s hoping Nicola Peltz’s gets some better roles in the future….

The script, written by Transformers vet (uh-oh) Ehren Kruger is….exactly what you’ve come to expect. No more, no less. Some lines will make you laugh out loud when they absolutely don’t have the intention to do so. But that’s okay, because when has this franchise ever turned in a solid script? Moving on…

To Bay’s specialty! Yes, the action! The spectacle! The explosions! OH the explosions!

I’ve got news for ya. Unless you really crave the endless deafness of buildings falling, cars crashing, environments where seemingly just grass and wood can blow up…even Age of Extinction’s action is mundane.

Bay has no problems reaching new levels of ludicrous, but Age of Extinction suffers in the same areas as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (the most expensive movie ever made) did…there is no fine line to Bay’s destruction and absurdity. There is no end game…and it actually makes it kind of boring.

At least in previous installments, the action and destruction meant something. Here it just feels imperative and without any weight or levity. Oh, Age of Extinction looks pretty, don’t get me wrong. But any movie can look pretty. It doesn’t mean Bay can skip out on substance, which Age of Extinction is devoid of.

The final act alone is a whole hour of nonstop, mind-numbing madness where I commend you if you have any idea what is going on. Bay’s gotten to that point. He must understand that a little added desperation and slightly higher stakes don’t make for an original or better story. It needs more.

Here’s hoping the ending of the movie holds a legitimate promise, with that of a potential all-Transformer, no-human entry…

In a Nutshell

It’s loud, it’s jumbled, and recycling is the name of the game in Age of Extinction. Sadly, you never care for our human protagonists enough, and the Transformers are too busy fighting to see they’re in a franchise which has become mediocre at best.
It is gorgeous though.

5.5/10 or You’ve already seen this movie. Three times to be exact.

 

Transformers: Age of Extinction is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Nicole Peltz, Jack Reynor, Stanley Tucci

Directed by Michael Bay

2014

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Jersey Boys is a jumbled adaptation of mixing up passions and priorities. Also, music!

Jersey Boys is an old-timer movie with old-timer music and an old-timer atmosphere.

So, I guess it makes sense for an old-timer like Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, J. Edgar, Invictus) to go about directing this adaptation of the popular Broadway show….with an old-timer state of the mind?

If that’s the case, it doesn’t quite work for the modern age.

Jersey Boys is the story of four friends who grow farther apart the more successful they get. Oh, and music.

What? Oh, that’s not what you were expecting? Spontaneous breakout into song and dance a la Footloose, Fame, or – dare I say it – High School Musical? Is that what you paid $10 for?

Sorry. Better luck next time.

Here’s the thing about Jersey Boys. It’s been hit pretty hard with criticisms about allegedly being a musical that doesn’t  exactly emphasize the music. But cut Eastwood a break, who said that’s the kind of movie he was going for? Perhaps his goal was to create a drama using the idea of this iconic band and their music as a plot device. That’s totally okay.

But he doesn’t quite pull it off. Because Eastwood is going for the exact opposite of a fun, glamorous musical…the guy has been watching a lot of Goodfellas lately.

The atmosphere and tone of Jersey Boys is very ominous and dark throughout. Not morbid – it’s a story about The Four Seasons after all – but certainly foreboding. Indeed, early on before they achieved fame of astronomical levels, Jersey Boys tells of how Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, and Nick Massi risked run-ins with the law to get their way. Cue the dark color contrasts.

The direction Eastwood tries to take Jersey Boys results in a movie that is confusing and lacks a sense of clear…well, direction. Like the band’s members, Eastwood gets his priorities mixed up. First we believe the relationship between Valli and DeVito is the primary one, only to have the movie focus on songwriter Bob Gaudio for a short while, and then, to the audience’s relief, a small part to the spirit and soul of the band and their music.

Oh, and toss Valli’s family in there, the most frightening relationship in the film. Not only because Valli was seemingly never on good terms with his wife or kids before we get to yelling and frustration in the family, but because the film almost asks too much of us. We have to care about the band’s integrity, and then, out of nowhere, the film centers on Valli’s personal life, one part of which we are introduced to mere minutes before they are shockingly offed. It’s stressful to watch and even more stressful to understand what kind of movie we’re watching and who we have to care about when the film doesn’t do a good job at making us care for characters outside of the Seasons.

Which makes just about every scene without at least two band members in it pretty useless in a narrative sense.

Similar to The Social Network, Jersey Boys spends a lot of its time building up the tension between two best friends. It ultimately does a good job, as you can sort out who can handle the fame and who can’t, but the payoff isn’t nearly as rewarding as Network’s.

But when the band is together? The movie shines. No, they don’t break out in spontaneous song and dance with a multitude of dancing extras coming out of nowhere (save for the final memorable number), but Boys does a good job of portraying the impact that the band’s first hits had on them. You do learn the stories (however true) behind some of the songs, but a mere few are memorable origin stories.

The movie’s high points, however short they are, are when the band is on stage playing their tunes, and we are awash with nostalgia and fascination and the timeless music.

But while the band seemingly puts out No. 1 hit after No. 1 hit, Jersey Boys doesn’t do an amazing job conveying the band’s mounting success, save for bigger audiences, bigger stages, and more sophisticated dance moves. The movie lacks a certain amount of spectacle and ultimately doesn’t owe the band what it’s due.

Jersey Boys was cast well, with John Lloyd Young (in his first major role outside of an TV episode or two) and Vincent Piazza (Boardwalk Empire) leading the charge with memorable performances that are basically what we’ve come to expect from a 50s era film set on the East Coast, however exaggerated they may be. In short, their accents are on point. The legendary Christopher Walken and Mike Doyle provide fantastic performances, however brief they may be.

Boys moves along at a pretty brisk pace, partly – actually, mostly – due to some pretty merciless and sudden time gaps that catch you off guard. Without even stopping to catch our breath or pausing to download that latest Four Seasons song on iTunes, our protagonists are growing up, getting married, and getting beer bellies just when we’ve acclimated to where we are in the timeline. The movie is like a song without bridges or meaningful transition between its verses. Beware of whiplash.

But we do get an idea of how the band member’s lives are changing over the course of their success, and ultimately, that’s what the movie aims to do.

Thankfully, at the end of Jersey Boys when the band reunites in 1990 for a performance, each character tells us personally what their priorities were in the film. That’s Eastwood saving his butt, in case you couldn’t quite catch it in the film. But for a few minutes, the soul of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons is center stage, and it is wonderful.

In a Nutshell

Clint Eastwood attempts a mash up of different genres…and we are better off with a mash up of Frankie Valli hits. The story of The Four Seasons, and their music, is entertaining enough, but not all the notes are hit once you leave the theater.

7/10 or Would you pay ten bucks to listen to the music on your iPod?

Jersey Boys is rated R for language throughout
Starring: John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erick Bergen, Michael Lomenda
Directed by Clint Eastwood
2014

**note** This reviewer has not seen the stage play of Jersey Boys.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS DELIVERS AS A TEARJERKER WE CAN LEARN FROM

At one point in The Fault In Our Stars, cancer-ridden Hazel Grace Lancaster says “Sometimes people don’t understand the promises they’re making when they make them.”

Similarly, unless you read the widely popular 2012 John Green novel of the same name, you definitely, absolutely won’t understand what kind of movie you’re sitting down for until you buy a ticket and watch.

TFIOS is the love story of Hazel, a teenager with terminal thyroid cancer who doesn’t concern herself with anything long-term because she doesn’t think she’ll last that long, and Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor – albeit at the expense of a leg – whose only concerns are making an impact for the world to remember before he dies and ensuring that Hazel’s possibly limited time isn’t for naught.

But as your bookworm friends have probably warned you…this is not your average love story. As we are told at the start of the film – when you still have time to get your ticket refunded should you so desire – this is “the truth.”

Fiction vs. truth is one of the central themes of TFIOS, directed by Josh Boone (Stuck In Love). The film utilizes familiar sick story tropes of living in the moment and distractions from disease and a possible defeat of it…and then turns one of those on its head in a conclusion so tragic you’d think it’s Shakespeare. Hazel and Gus are conflicted in their views of what is really happening with their situation, and it is that argument of how the type of love that exists in fiction can possibly survive in their reality that is central to their relationship. At the film’s climax, fiction and reality are one in the same.

Shailene Woodley (Hazel) and Ansel Elgort (Gus) are the film’s bread and butter. It’s hard to imagine two more fitting actors for these characters who go through the widest range of emotions in the film. Woodley (The Spectacular Now, Divergent) continues to establish herself as a dynamic young actress with more charisma than, say, Chloë Grace Moretz. She’s simply believable with a powerful performance, one which peaks at the movie’s most soulful moments. You can see the conflict and doubt in her eyes every time Gus gazes at her, and feel her pain when she struggles with her sickness. Elgort (Carrie, Divergent) as Gus is every young woman’s dream and then some. Confident but not cocky, his presence lights up the screen whenever he is around Hazel, completely convincing us of his feelings for her. He’s predictably swoon-worthy, from the way his yearns for Hazel to the way he’s scared of airplanes.

The supporting cast of Nat Wolff as Hazel and Gus’ blind friend, Willem Dafoe as the young couple’s favorite, yet troubled, author, and Laura Dern as Hazel’s mom also give great performances. Dern’s in particular stands out in an appropriately exaggerated performance as a mother who yearns to see the positive things in her daughter’s life, despite her terminal illness.

The screenplay, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber is another strong aspect of TFIOS. The sarcastic but charming nature of Hazel and Gus’ first conversations are balanced by the more ominous and serious ones they have later on, in appropriate fashion. Their dialogue is brimming with quotes that have infiltrated Instagram as selfie captions; this time they hold weight and levity.

That is another driving force of TFIOS; the conversations that Hazel and Gus have. As the film goes on, they grow more and more intimate and you believe the words they are saying, thanks to the script and delivery of the two actors. They evolve from ones in which they don’t really take the other one seriously when they first meet to discussions of pure adoration and determination; namely, Gus’ determination at making Hazel’s limited time mean something. They are young kids dealing with grown-up situations, and they way they go through that journey together alone will have you breaking out the tissues.

The third act of TFIOS lives up to its infamous dark nature. There is a point where the film does take quite an abrupt turn for the eerie, almost to the point where the characters are different from those we’ve adored for most of the movie. You can see it in the way they now dress, in their first real argument, and their faux eulogies. Boone does a fantastic job conveying the melancholy, somber realities that TFIOS takes pride in; after all, we’ve been warned multiple points up to this point it would happen. And it is quite a jarring experience when it finally does.

And the award for Couple of the Year in the tragic category goes to....

And the award for Couple of the Year in the tragic category goes to….

The one real weakness to TFIOS is a small one, but a weakness nonetheless. The filmmakers obviously want to do a service to fans of the novel, and one way they choose to do that is by having Hazel narrate much of the beginning of the story, of her story. It’s not as much that it doesn’t work, but, in similar fashion to 2013’s The Great Gatsby, it serves at a bit of a distraction at some points. One wonders if the filmmakers could have found a way to omit certain faceless dialogue by Woodley and make the movie feel more natural. Along with that, there are certain points where there is awkward delivery by either Woodley or Elgort of a line where even non-readers of the novel can tell it’s from its pages, and sometimes it just doesn’t translate well. But that’s a trifle complaint for a script that’s overall on point.

The thing that makes TFIOS unique is its villain. Every film needs one, and the one we have in this film is stubbornness. You see it in the two young lovers, in different ways. You see it in Hazel’s parents, unwilling to see the glass half empty for a change. You feel it in the film’s dark realities, perhaps too stubborn to give Hazel and Grace a happy ending. For a moment, the film’s villain even triumphs.

It’s hard to understand what kind of movie The Fault In Our Stars is until you sit down, endure through it, and watch. That task is easier said than done.

But if you do reach the end mentally stable, The Fault In Our Stars tells us that it’s okay to have to endure. In the end, it’ll be worth it as long as we were in the moment.

In a Nutshell
The movie adaptation of The Fault In Our Stars is a mature, philosophical film about how we spend our limited days, and successfully conveys feelings of melancholy and yearning for simplicity which, as Hazel Grace implies, just isn’t reality. Woodley and Elgort shine with a humorous, mature script, and you won’t leave with a dry eye.

8.5 / 10 or Go see this movie and cry, or i’ll cry over your poor choices.

The Fault In Our Stars is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort
Directed by Josh Boone
2014

**note** This reviewer has not read the book.

Favreau’s latest serves up a full course of wit and sentiment with “Chef”

Just as the savory meals that the titular Chef creates over the course of the film evolves, so too will your views of Chef Carl Casper.

Jon Favreau directs, writes, and stars in his latest film, in which a reputable cook must rediscover what it is he loves about his craft while attempting to maintain a meaningful presence in his son’s life.

Casper (Favreau) believes he is at his prime as a Chef at a prestigious LA restaurant at a time when nothing else in his life is going quite right. But when a reputable food critic brings him crashing back to reality, it becomes quickly apparent that Chef is going to be one of those common Hollywood “finding yourself” stories of old.

But Favreau knows what we love, and we love food, so for better or for worse, we don’t mind the clichéd themes.

It becomes quickly apparent that while the most important relationship in Casper’s life – at least in the film’s beginning and middle act – is between him and his food, the one that the audience is most invested in is the frail connection he has with his son, Percy (Anthony), who spends most of his time with Casper’s ex-wife (Vergara). Percy yearns for meaningful moments with his father aside from the obligatory fun days at theme parks and the movies, but no matter how hard he tries, he always comes second to Casper’s cooking. In fact, it’s hard to root for Casper at the start of the film and how blind he is to Percy’s loneliness. Sometimes we think Percy is smarter than the adults he is surrounded by.

It isn’t until Casper returns to his roots in Miami, where he first fell in love with the delicious possibilities of food, that we begin to root for Casper as he finally sees what his life can be when everything is cooking just right.

Chef does a wonderful job of illustrating how we sometimes focus a bit much on the small things in life, only to utilize them for the betterment of those around us. In a similar way, the movie shows – with the evolution of the relationships in the film – how fixing the broken parts of our lives must start with fixing ourselves first.

chef 2

One of the strong points of the film is its strong performances by a powerful ensemble of actors. After recently appearing in cameos in his Iron Man movies as well as The Wolf of Wall Street, Favreau turns in easily his most energetic performance yet as a flawed cook and family man. There is nothing but delight at a certain point not far into the film in which he completely loses his mind to the delight of the Internet.

The strong Sofia Vergara (Modern Family) turns in a fantastic performance as Casper’s ex-wife, as does the criminally underrated John Leguizamo (Ice Age, Moulin Rouge), who plays Casper’s best friend, Martin. The young Emjay Anthony is excellent as Percy; we feel his sadness when his dad rejects his pleas to come see his work and are elated at his joy later in the movie as he tries to learn his Dad’s methods. The always reliable Dustin Hoffman and Scarlett Johansson have great scenes, and a certain Marvel hero continues his scene-stealing ways in a cameo that’s one of the highlights of Chef. All in all, the film will serve up many “Hey, I know that actor!” remarks in the viewer and to no disappointment.

Chef is funny, too. Favreau’s talents at writing witty one-liners are clearly on display and he and Leguizamo excel at delivering them. Once the movie is in full roadtrip mode, it’s hilarious to see how Percy attempts to assimilate himself not only into the cooking world that Casper and Martin live in, but in their adult culture as well.

And, oh the food. Has there ever been a more dire need for good cinematography in a movie than in one calling for cooking scenes that’ll make you hungry even if you grabbed dinner before the movie? Slight exaggeration, but no matter, because what you see on screen in frying pans, on cutting boards, on silver platters – along with excellent sound editing – absolutely makes you realize why Casper loves his hobby so much.

Chef’s bare weakness is in its pacing, and in its rushing of the movie’s payoff and the character that Casper evolves into. The movie runs slightly under two hours, but it easily feels like 140 minutes, mostly due to the fact that the roadtrip portion of the movie can almost be its own film. You definitely see the growth of our Chef over the course of the journey, but there is almost nothing to show for it in a six months later Continue reading →