29 July 2014

Capsule Review: Hercules (Brett Ratner, Paramount, 2014)

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B-

“Hercules” is the sort of film in which arrow supplies never diminish, a man tosses a horse and the hero spends a large portion of the final act topless. Directed by Brett Ratner, but delivering little of the pain usually inherent to such a statement, “Hercules” is a harmless, occasionally endearing hunk of steroidal cheese. The film-maker still has no discernable visual identity, but he allows this nonsense to propel at quite a clip, filling out the progressively more ridiculous set-pieces with a game cast. If you’re going to make blatant rubbish for the mass market, that’s just about the best way to do it.

The screenplay has at least one deft trick up its sleeve, coating the myth with cute revisionist inflections. In this “Hercules” his fabled labours are actually a massive PR tactic, used by the titular brute and his merry band of mercenaries to attract employment from besieged kingdoms. Need a hero to morph your mice (or unpractised farmers) into men? Then turn no further than Herc, brought to life with immense physicality and sporadic lashings of wit by the increasingly impressive Dwayne Johnson. There are plenty of battles to revel in, but the real texture of Ratner’s film can be traced to its oddly cunning commentary on A-list culture and the catty political manoeuvres swapped between dignitaries of Ancient Greece. I’m not saying “Hercules” is hugely insightful, but the engagement with contemporary culture is sly, using the protagonist to birth the media conjured façade of celebrity.

The needy King in this instance is John Hurt, clearly jobbing, but never less than entertaining. He hires Hercules and his disciples to help defeat a Centaur threat, using the hero’s might and artificial legend to encourage ferocity among the province’s timid brood. The action gets a little choppy in spots, Ratner eternally a fast cutter, but the spectacle of certain environments and lack of self-seriousness prove rather appealing. The film’s one potentially dark avenue is undermined by the fact it revolves around an underwear model; one occasionally is prone to fits of semi-nakedness. I guess that’s just the Ratner way. As Hercules’ best bud, Rufus Sewell is a shining highlight, playing good for a change, but not without welcome dollops of snark and typical British standoffishness. The actor appears to be having fun, and for the most part that’s what forgiving viewers get as well.  

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014




28 July 2014

Review: Boyhood (Richard Linklater, Universal, 2014)

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A

Boyhood
2014, 164mins, 15
Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater 
Cast includes: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater
UK Release Date: 18th July 2014

An intimidating amount of great writing has amassed on the subject of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”; to the extent that anything I add automatically feels arbitrary. It’s a film which obviously demands more than one viewing, and even then the responses it encourages are so personal that nobody’s perspective or viewpoint really matters other than your own. “Boyhood” is a rare feature that defies the purpose of mainstream criticism, and certainly I doubt anything truly important will be penned on it for some time. Consideration, contemplation and further exposure aren't just advisable, they’re mandatory. As such my few choice words here are simply reactionary, far from a complete or sufficiently thoughtful analysis of the piece. Had Linklater’s experiment been more sensationalised, or bought into its own grandiose designs, it would certainly be easier to dissect and boorishly celebrate. Instead the film-maker opts for something more restrained and deceptively ordinary than I anticipated; a well selected roster of “greatest hits” from the developmental reel of an American adolescent. “Boyhood” never hits a false beat, engulfing you within its subtle medley of identifiable drama over a sweeping 164 minutes.

The film was famously shot over 12-years, Linklater getting his cast together for a few brisk says of principal photography, before undertaking repeated annual leave. As a result the cast age believably before us, not just physically, but as characters. The most dramatic alteration obviously occurs in the form of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who transitions from 6 to 18 in fewer than three hours. If I was to methodically recount the events “Boyhood” traverses, you might think it all rather unspectacular, after all, little of what happens to Mason hasn't occurred to a thousand other traditional teens. But Linklater plays it all with such restraint and honesty, immersing each portion of the feature in its own distinct era. Every segment feels like a short in its own right, thoughtfully spliced together with the unforced essence and totems of youth sprawled subtly around the sides. What’s shocking is that these fascinating but modest vignettes should transform into such a natural coming of age yarn, ploughing through the years without wasting a single month. Mason’s growth feels real, so much so that it surpasses sound narrative judgement. “Boyhood” doesn't construct an arc, it presents a life. That includes all the flabby details, random images and clichéd rites of passage we freely disregard as mundane. But here they aren't. They’re part of a much grander and poignant picture.

Ellar Coltrane’s turn is initially astounding; although as the boy ages he becomes progressively stagier. This slight (but wholly unavoidable) misstep is the only stumbling block of the entire enterprise. Elsewhere nobody slips. As Mason’s parents both Ethan Hawke (probably giving the best turn of his career, although possibly unwittingly) and Patricia Arquette are sophisticated, evidencing hefty recalibrations of their own. Weight is gained, socio-economic fortunes vary, but ultimately both actors are able to override these facile components to deliver truly mesmerizing and complex portraits of responsibility, love and strife. These characters develop before your eyes in unpredictable but honest ways, leading to moments of heartache and happiness. With a slight twist in post, I have no doubt the film would have received just as rapturous a reception under the title “Parenthood”. But alas, Steve Martin cornered that market some time ago. Hawke in particular, shows so much life and involvement in the scenes with his children, his values and priorities upgrading but his love undiminished. It’s a pleasure to see the “Training Day” star provide such complete and earnest work, although again, Linklater’s consistent vision and unwavering editorial hand likely deserve the most praise.

Everything depicted is standard. What works is that it’s all done with such insight and attention to truth, allowing audiences to immediately recollect and bond with the material through their own memories. Every sequence in “Boyhood” is identifiable to an extent. Your reaction will depend entirely on what scenes mean the most personally, which brings me to my central point. The only reaction you should care about is your own, and vice versa. Your opinion on and relationship with the work will mean nothing to anybody else, its power nestled in the familiar and emotionally draining moments it recalls from your own existence. To explain why the film affected me would be indulgent. There are sequences exploring Mason’s friendships, loves and passions that sucker-punched me entirely, eliciting levels of engagement and feeling usually reserved for tangible sensory acts. “Boyhood” is in effect a tremendously choreographed and nuanced photo album, each section offering a new highly tactile point of attachment. Obviously there are scenes that skew broader than others, encouraging remembrance of universally relevant themes, including the uncertainty inherent to both present and future. Yet whilst these moments are executed with admirable maturity, it’s the individual triggers innate to the viewing experience which conjure the greatest reward. Any film that reignites past with explosive immediacy and genuine emotion is a winner. “Boyhood” does this consistently.


The pop-cultural zeitgeist captured is charming, including call-backs to the inception of Coldplay (as depressing a landmark as any), the name-checking of certain important cinematic events (“The Dark Knight” and err…”Pineapple Express”) and the cultural preferences which develop uniquely within every young soul, built upon a firm, almost unanimously adopted adoration of The Beatles. These touches not only help verify the proposed march of time, but also flesh Mason out to the point where’s he’s positively 3D; a breathing, evolving entity with tastes and fears both private and personal. I imagine that Linklater’s ultimate agenda back in 2002 was to make the child both known and unknown, to incur nodding recognition and awed surprise in equal measure. Nobody could have predicted how successful he’d be. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


27 July 2014

Summer at the Box-Office - The Films Left Out in the Cold

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Okay, so we've looked at the successes, and 2014 has yielded many. However it wouldn't be blockbuster season without a side-order of turkey. In fairness, failing late (but not impossible) slip-ups courtesy of “The Expendables 3” or “Hercules”, it’s hard to fathom a Titanic disaster emerging. Last year the sunniest months of the year broke records, but also boasted the financially cataclysmic trifecta of “The Lone Ranger”, “White House Down” and “R.I.P.D”. 2014 has been somewhat different, with movies underperforming rather than outright disintegrating. Money has been lost, but not in the millions bled by the aforementioned clunkers.


Blended
Budget - $40 Million
Worldwide Total - $104 Million

“Blended” is wholly indicative of what I’m talking about. The film hasn’t made any proper money, but it’s unlikely to have lost much either. “Blended” exists in a benign middle-ground, but for executives that’s little better than outright failure. The film reunited “50 First Dates” duo Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler, but audiences didn’t really seem to care, content to revisit their previous works as opposed to supporting anything new. Critics handed the feature a colossal beat down on opening weekend, despite the fact – by recent Adam Sandler standards at least – it’s not that bad.


What went wrong? – Sandler’s time as a marquee star has been on the wane for a while now, reaching a nadir with the spectacular capsizing of R-rated venture “That’s My Boy” in 2012. A “Grown-Ups” sequel propelled a little life back into his brand, but for the most part his incredibly low standards seem to have fatally wounded his goofy aura. With “Blended” Warner & Happy Madison have tried to conjure memories of past triumphs, but audiences were deliberately unreceptive to the attempt. The phrase “too little, too late” comes to mind. If Sandler were to endure another “That’s My Boy”, or maybe even the innocuous slip of a “Blended”, his career as a leading man could be over. As it is, he needs a hit, and needs it bad. It might also be to Sandler’s benefit if he didn’t lazily admit to his recent works being little more than paid vacations on primetime television. 

Jersey Boys
Budget: $40 Million
Worldwide Total: $57 Million

Clint Eastwood brought the famous stage-musical to the big screen, but despite an encouraging opening hour, the film quickly exhausted itself at the box-office. An unusual product like this is often more dependent on reviews/word of mouth than most, and whilst an A- CinemaScore from test audiences must have originally promoted hope, a tepid 54% on Rotten Tomatoes tells a different story. This was always a massive hit and hope from Warner, and had the film been better…well who knows. But in its current form the feature represents a stone-cold bomb.

What went wrong? – Fundamentally the stoic director doesn’t really feel right for the material, and the screenplay is mismanaged. There’s no mainstream hook, looking at other successful summer musicals (2007’s “Hairspray” and 2008’s “Mamma Mia”) audiences have responded to pizzazz and stunt casting.  Eastwood opts to avoid both, to the benefit of his integrity but also to the detriment of the end result. Marketing felt slack from an early juncture, so it’s also entirely likely Warner lost faith in the film’s potential moving into release. 

Edge of Tomorrow
Budget: $175 Million
Worldwide Total: $358 Million

Handily the most entertaining and thoughtful major release of the season so far, “Edge of Tomorrow” none the less stumbled badly in the domestic market. International numbers have been solid, but the vast budget coupled with a tame $96 Million gross stateside resulted in a severe mood dampener. Another keen indicator that critical notices are secondary to brand awareness, “Edge of Tomorrow attaining a fantastic 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, yet here we are. It’s unlikely the film will get close to the $450-500 Million needed to break even.

What went wrong? – Well the budget for starters. Evan at their peak it’s tough for a star to hit the numbers required of “Edge of Tomorrow” to succeed, and Tom Cruise is certainly past that point. He’s still an exceptional lead and a good script selector, but the man’s relationship with the public is troubled, as evidenced by the sub-$100 Million grosses on recent vehicles like “Jack Reacher” and “Oblivion”. Director Doug Liman has an industry reputation for splurging cash he doesn’t have, and whilst the film has the rich, textured spectacle of an unforgettable extravaganza, that won’t really allow the accountants to rest easy. Coming up against little-big movie of the year “The Fault in Our Stars” was an unlucky final nail in the coffin, but really, the fiscal logistics of this one never made sense. 

A Million Ways to Die in the West
Budget: $40 Million
Worldwide Total: $84 Million

There comes a point in life where every boy must set aside his teddy, but sadly for Seth MacFarlane said choice seems to have incurred a brutal sophomore slump. Reviews were fairly savage for the writer/director’s follow-up to 2012 high-roller “Ted”, failing to even inch in on the baseline $100 million achievement. By contrast “Ted” is one of the biggest R-rated earners of all time. Similar adult oriented comedies like “Neighbours” enjoyed pleasing totals this summer, but with its muddled agenda and indulgent DNA, “A Million Ways” tanked.

What went wrong? – I can’t help hypothesize that choosing to lampoon the old west automatically made the film a tough sell. It’s not a particularly lucrative genre these days, and lacks contemporary audience attachment. Universal certainly marketed the film heavily enough, but the soggy reviews and lack of obvious high-concept ingenuity appear to have undercut its chances. Opening alongside the over-performing “Maleficent” and at a point where “Neighbours” was still functioning as part of the zeitgeist can’t have helped.

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Budget: $145 Million Worldwide Total: $391 Million

In a summer sans Pixar you’d think “How to Train Your Dragon 2” would clean-up, especially given the love that’s gestated for the 2010 original over the years. In a shock move, the film was bested by “22 Jump Street” on its opening weekend, never really recovering and subsequently causing DreamWorks’ stock to take a notable dive. Critics have been kind (90%+ on Rotten Tomatoes), although audiences have been cooler with the picture, which frankly doesn’t approach the superlative standard of its forerunner. It was my bet to end as the season’s highest grosser, but is now almost certain to represent 2014’s biggest box-office WTF.

What went wrong? – The marketing didn't miss a beat, and the early reviews stemming from its Cannes debut seemed unanimously positive. Maybe this franchise is more niche than initially believed, with devotees keeping the DVD/TV sales at a peak, rather than any sort of wide conversion ever occurring. That sort of loyalty is presumably reserved only for Pixar and Minions. The first movie also endured a soft opening, but that movie recovered in a way the sequel hasn’t. Instead “How to Train Your Dragon 2” will likely amble toward orange, requiring home entertainment and merchandising to make It any sort of sustaining success. A third entry must now harbour question marks, especially given the toxic consequences this movie’s lacklustre showing foisted on DreamWorks as a company.

Also DOA – Just last weekend “Sex Tape” (WW - $25 Mill) debuted in 4th place and confirmed something that's been percolating for a while; Cameron Diaz really isn't much of a draw anymore. True, she headlined the spring’s deplorable yet moderately successful “The Other Woman”, but that movie skewed toward an entirely female audience and opened alongside little obvious competition. Sex Tape (also starring Jason Segel & Rob Lowe) is part of the rated-R renaissance that’s been in full force since 2009’s “The Hangover”, a commercial summer subgenre that permanently appears overpopulated. There have been sizable hits like “Bridesmaids” and “Horrible Bosses”, but those films had something that set them apart from the competition. “Sex Tape” seemingly doesn't. Cancerous reviews, unimaginative marketing and an A-lister on her last legs ain’t the cocktail most studios execs are ordering, and for the unfortunate crew at Columbia just served one, well, I expect they’re preparing to spit it right back out. Nobody will be mixing these ingredients again for a while.

“Deliver Us From Evil” (WW- $36 Million) was being pegged for big things a number of months ago, described by a glut of lazy wordsmiths as “2014’s answer to The Conjuring”. However whilst that film generated $318 Mill on a $20 Mill budget, “Deliver Us from Evil” has managed a paltry $36 Mill return on a $30 Mill investment. Director Scott Derrickson has decent pedigree in the horror genre, his 2012 shocker “Sinister” was fabulously profitable, but this latest foray has been a victim of overhype, heightened budgeting and poor word of mouth. Horror fans are notoriously chatty on the internet, and it would seem with a middling B- CinemaScore “Deliver Us From Evil” failed to cut the mustard with its chief demographic (“The Conjuring racked up a much stronger A- average). It also provides further indication that Eric Bana is still nobody’s idea of an alluring leading man, the actor hasn't played a large part in a commercially successful movie since the 2009 two-punch of “Star Trek” and “The Time Traveller’s Wife”.

There are a number of films that might find themselves in a tight spot over coming weeks. “Hercules” is set to fall well behind Luc Besson’s “Lucy" this weekend, the former on track for a $30 Mill debut. That number wouldn't normally be cause for concern, but the Dwayne Johnson vehicle will require around $250 Mill to reach profitability. That total feels a long way off, especially with “Guardians of the Galaxy” less than a week away. International sales will likely prove its salvation though. “The Expendables 3” also found itself in a uniquely troublesome position, with a DVD-quality leak of the feature plopping online, almost a month before theatrical exhibition commences. LionsGate have begun to get the regrettable scenario under control, but not before hundreds of thousands of downloads were netted. It’s particularly devastating for the studio, given that the chief consumers of pirated content are teenage boys, the same demographic they were hoping to pack theatres with on August 15th. The summer’s biggest wildcard has got to be the Platinum Dunes instigated revamp of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”. Reactions to trailers and casting has been fairly vitriolic, but this is a Michael Bay produced revamp of a classic 80s nostalgia piece, and you’d be a muppet to bet against it outright. I still suspect the film will struggle, but not nearly to the extent some prognosticators are suggesting. If reviews are anything other than horrible (or even vaguely amicable, along the lines of the first “Transformers” affair), then the Megan Fox and William Fichtner starring actioner could pass $100 Mill domestically, with international markets a veritable maelstrom of potential. I certainly anticipate the feature will assassinate “Into The Storm”, its direct weekend competition, which has so far looked a stale found footage debacle.


 An Article by Daniel Kelly, 2014


24 July 2014

Summer at the Box-Office - The Hot List

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The summer used to start later and last longer, but as we move into the forthcoming weekend, it’s obvious that the 2014 season has entered its twilight phase. Marvel still has “Guardians of the Galaxy” (a solid hope, especially given promising word of mouth), the ever dependable “Expendables” are at it again in a few weeks and before any of that Dwayne Johnson muscles up even more than usual for a new take on “Hercules”. Each of these features has the potential to enter the green, but not one looks enticing enough to pull 2014 out of a slump. Ticket sales and box-office are down from last year, and whilst studios will be relieved 2014 has yielded few “Lone Ranger” or “R.I.P.D”-esque catastrophes, the fundamental dip in  cash accumulated still bleats loudest. So what’s happened? Simply put, fewer people are making their way to see anything. The biggest film of the summer “Transformers: Age of Extinction” – despite strong global numbers – will doubtlessly finish its run with the lowest domestic gross of the now laboured franchise. “Godzilla” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” both posted healthy totals, but neither quite rose to the heights prognosticators initially foresaw. The rapturously reviewed “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is shaping up along the same lines. In many ways 2014 has been the summer of the almost smash, films threatening to break the coveted $600 million or even $1 billion barriers, but ultimately falling short. In the following piece I’ll take a look at some of this summer’s releases, focusing on the pictures that have managed to deliver for their backers.

Neighbours (Also known as “Bad Neighbours”)
Budget – $18 Million
Worldwide Total - $254 Million

“Neighbours was a huge hit for Universal and the benchmark against which to assess comedy credentials in 2014. The low $18 million budget proved an invaluable asset, but even then “Neighbours” far surpassed expectation, registering both colossal domestic and foreign impressions. It bolsters the high Seth Rogen’s been enjoying since “This is the End”, but it’s a much needed triumph for Zac Efron, who’s been surfing between flops for a number of years now.


What went right? - As I say, a budget that low is only going to pay dividends. Similarly Rogen’s as hot now as he’s ever been. But Universal and the film-makers deserve credit for crafting a raucous comedy with laugh value, the studio heaving the film out to festivals (the flick played well at SXSW) and pounding on the marketing bell to gain attention. It worked. Efron has played douchey as recently as this year’s weak “That Awkward Moment”, but where that feature crumbled, “Neighbours” emitted an encouraging rally-cry of decent dick-jokes. The early May release date is always a plus too, with the novelty of the summer only starting to flower. 


Godzilla
Budget - $160 Million
Worldwide Total - $492 Million

“Godzilla” is definitely a victory, but perhaps not to the extent initially envisioned. Early word was impeccable, but on release the film’s restraint drew mixed reactions. I personally found the feature a miscast slog, with occasional moments of worthy spectacle. Director Gareth Edwards’ dryer grasp of the material probably turned enough people off to make $600 Million an impossible stretch, but the king of the monsters still had enough star-power to treble his budget handsomely.

What went right? - The power of marketing has got to be central here. The trailers, the posters and the viral touches were exquisitely mounted, with “Godzilla” promoting a true feeling of awe and artistry. You could argue that whoever arranged the promotional content instigated more sensory excitement than Edwards’ himself. Again the early May window is a help, dodging the fatigue later summer fare has to contend with, but one must not overlook the pop cultural significance of the titular behemoth. He still packs enough clout to fill theatres. Heck, one of the key criticisms levelled against the feature was the lack of Godzilla across the opening 80 minutes. He may not quite have hit the high end of Warner’s expectations, but the scaly bastard clearly still gets business done. Expect him back sooner rather than later. 

Maleficent
Budget - $180 Million
Worldwide Total - $702 Million

“Maleficent” is the only massive movie of the summer that’s truly exceeded predictions. I haven’t actually seen the Joe Roth produced fairy-tale, but the numbers speak for themselves. Everything about the concept seemed bogus to me; embracing the hackneyed Disney reinvention angle, employing the production designer behind Burton’s abominable “Alice in Wonderland” at the helm and utilising a star who hasn’t had a hit since 2010’s “Salt” (yup, I’d forgotten that flick exited too). Rumours of a troubled shoot also leaked, with the budget swelling to nearly $200 Million. That’s a recipe for a total flop, right? Wrong. And I honestly can’t work out why. Critics weren’t even particularly impressed, the film amassing an unenviable 49% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But I guess audiences liked it.

What went right? – I suppose the hyper-real Burton aesthetic still incurs some wonderment, or maybe the high-concept switcheroo at the film’s heart spiked a level of intrigue. Perhaps Jolie still is one of the world’s most coveted movie stars. Whatever the reason, “Maleficent” has commanded a strong financial standing. Probably the only film present in this article that defies expectation and pop cultural logic simultaneously. The singular X-factor I can attribute to the film is the preponderance of functional female characters, a rarity in any other tent pole. “Godzilla” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” are indicators that even mature blockbusters aren't overtly preoccupied with female input or exploiting the talents of exceptional actresses. This complaint can’t be aimed at “Maleficent”, and so maybe some of the success can be attributed to this worthy, gender conscious development. 

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Budget: $200 Million
Worldwide Total: $736 Million

Deep down in the darkest recesses of my being, I suspected this might be the “X-Men” film to finally trouble the billion dollar club. I also think deep down in the darkest recesses of their being, Fox were hoping the same thing. Alas, with $736 million it wasn’t to be, but those digits still register the time-travelling spectacular as a huge earner. Maybe the mutants just aren’t cut out for the same fiscal lustre as The Avengers, but if they continue to perform like this, then I don’t see them dissolving anytime soon.

What went right? - Just yesterday the 2000 series opener “X-Men” popped up on TV, and I decided to watch it for a bit.  It’s amazing to observe how much this series has grown, moving from a thematically ambitious pilot episode style kick-off, to the sheer breadth and scope evidenced in “Days of Future Past”. I know 14 years is a long time, but the leap in stylistic craft between the movies is insane. The one constant through the evolution has been a sterling cast, and to this day they remain the most important thing about the saga. Stalwarts like Jackman, McKellan and Stewart remain absolute draws, and new additions like Fassbender, McAvoy and so–hot-right-now Jennifer Lawrence have proved useful in fleshing out further detail and allure within the complex stories of prejudice and hate at the project’s core. Seeing these ideas progress and watching the actors improve with each vehicle is a rewarding experience for an audience, and definitely contributes to the success of this well received extension. Perhaps the reason the X-Men have struggled to hit the heights of other Marvel properties is they actually pre-date the superhero boom -which kind of took-off sometime around 2005/06 - reducing audience attachment to their once socially shunned universe. “Days of Future Past” is both the highest earning and best reviewed entry, so maybe 2016’s “Apocalypse” will be the film that allows these mutants to turn legendary, as opposed to merely celebratory coin. 

Transformers: Age of Extinction
Budget: $210 Million
Worldwide Gross: $893 Million (still gaining notable traction on a weekly basis)

“Age of Extinction” is an interesting case. It might still manage a worldwide cum of $1 Billion, but it’s almost certainly going to end as the slowest domestic performer of the franchise. Even 2007’s opening chapter cleared $300 million in the States. This fourth slice of Hasbro-tinged pie is now sitting at $229 Million, almost a full month after debuting in the charts. With a property this front-loaded, it’s hard to envisage the film managing to hit the lofty bar hung by its predecessors. At least in the USA. Internationally the picture has been a roaring success, behind only the ridiculously lucrative 2011 entry “Dark of the Moon”. So what can we take from this? Either international audiences adore Mark Wahlberg, or the American market is actually beginning to tire of the series. There’s a strong likelihood this will be Bay’s last dalliance with the robots in disguise (although placing a bet would be risky, he’s been saying similar things since 2009), which could lead to a fresher take on the material, but my gut would suggest it’s the material itself which audiences are now exhausted by. The first movie had a certain level of charm that none of the subsequent entries have tried to replicate with much conviction. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me thrice, fuck off Michael Bay. There’s a chance audiences are realising Bay has no interest in honouring the Spielbergian essence of the 2007 flick. It just took them 7-years to figure it out.

What went right? - The film is still a sizable money-maker for Paramount, and could viably become the year’s biggest earner. The domestic drop is an issue, but the international market is still gunning for Bay’s specific brand of nonsense. Critically “Age of Extinction” has been drubbed; in fact it statistically reads as the poorest reviewed Transformers splurge to date. That’s a little unfair, especially in the wake of the infamously horrible “Revenge of the Fallen”. I don’t think critical notices inform public attendance hugely when it comes to Bay’s oeuvre, but perhaps now audiences are beginning to register what was obvious to journalists 5 years ago. These films are toy commercials. Still, “Age of Extinction” proves that whilst waning, appetite for gargantuan and inappropriately sexual advertisements hasn’t vanished yet. “Age of Extinction” is a certifiable hit, but most of that owes to global box-office. For once, American audiences seem to have tired of explosion laden tripe first. 


Also Hits – There have been some other impressive success stories this summer. 22 Jump Street (WW - $270 Mill) has far surpassed the receipts posted by its predecessor in 2012, without the usual budget hike that accompanies such progress. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum continued to exhibit scintillating chemistry, the film stretching its post-modern agenda almost to breaking point, with pleasingly self-aware results. Anybody who has enjoyed the feature and its uproarious closing credits knows that this is likely the last “Jump Street” for messrs Hill and Tatum, or directorial duo Lord & Miller for that matter, but with numbers like these don’t expect the brand to die on its feet quite yet.

The Fault in Our Stars (WW - $250 Mill) might yet be the season’s most profitable wide-release, the heartfelt YA fiction adaptation recuperating its tight budget almost twenty times over. Fans and critics were kind to the admittedly well executed melodrama, but I don’t think the movie’s brio will override the otherwise erratic YA fiction subgenre. John Green’s source book has a unique place in the hearts of young adult readers; but Fox deserve plaudits for pouncing on the material and treating it with integrity. I’m not sure every misfire (“Vampire Academy” or even the only mildly profitable “Divergent”) bore the same potential, but few have been as respectful and character oriented as Josh Boone’s accessible romance.

I suppose The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (WW - $700 Mill) also just about sneaks into the hit category, carting up a sturdy worldwide take.  However much like “Age of Extinction”, the film’s domestic gross was 25% down on the 2012 original, and reviews were harsher. Just this week the third entry was delayed by a whopping 2-years, making me suspect Sony now have less faith in the character than they did 4 months ago. Still, Peter Parker comfortably made his sizable $230 Million budget back, even if audience enthusiasm for his dork tuned hero shtick is fading. On the indie end of the spectrum, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (WW- $5 Million) recently opened to the second highest screen average of the year. The unique, experimental and critically adored insight into youth seems to have piqued even mainstream curiosity, and should become a favourite when it expands over the coming weeks. Fox will hope Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (WW- $257 Million) eventually positions itself on the upper-tier of the summer’s financial standings, although with a bulky $170 million budget we’ll need more than the two weeks of business it’s undergone to arrive at a final word. However, if it adopts the slow-burn appeal of the earlier “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (which surprised analysts by crossing $400 Mill in 2011), the sequel could conquer $500 million. 

So that's it for the hot-list of 2014. There are other potential candidates (the aforementioned "Guardians of the Galaxy" being the most probable contender), but the films listed feel like the most important currently. In the coming days I'll publish a cold-list (for lack of a cleverer descriptor), and analyse the chances of 2014's final summer jaunts. Money y'all. 

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2014 

21 July 2014

Capsule Reviews: Jersey Boys, Bad Words & The Fault in Our Stars

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Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, Warner Bros., 2014)

Clint Eastwood’s musical gets off to a vivacious and energetic start, mixing warmth and wit with surprising aplomb, but goes off the deep-end somewhere around the halfway mark. The film’s characters weave in and out of the action satisfactorily, Eastwood using a potentially hackneyed but oddly effective “fourth wall” smashing address to keep audiences engaged. It’s as if he read Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, moving to maintain some of the theatre’s “aura” through a means of faux-immediacy and soul, allowing his characters to bust the screen and intrude on a space they shouldn’t be aware of. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but the concept works, especially when combined with the enigmatic likes of Vincent Piazza’s roguish Tommy, the most memorable of the film’s assortment of young dreamers. The ease and grace of the opening doesn’t carry much further though, Eastwood’s stiff direction of the musical numbers and a selection of ham-fisted subplots slacking the pace and sobering the buzz. When the end credits roll, we get a sense of what might have been, Eastwood unleashing a fearsomely executed encore, replete with fantastic energy and pageantry. It’s a pity that the hour leading up to that point should dither so aimlessly, and fill itself so distractingly with diversions aborted before they conjure up sufficient nuance. A curiosity peppered with worthy highlights, but hardly a certifiable return to form for Clint.

Grade - C

Bad Words (Jason Bateman, Darko Entertainment, 2014)

“Arrested Development” and “Horrible Bosses” star Jason Bateman makes an impressively vulgar directorial debut with “Bad Words”, a comedy that attempts to pack a little dramatic weight beneath its crass exterior. The high concept premise has Bateman’s 40-year old wastrel crash a national spelling bee for reason’s unknown, Kathryn Hahn’s desperate journo and young competitor Rohan Chand (a genuine find, stepping up from his work in err…”Jack & Jill”) in tow. The chief selling point is the relentlessly R-rated tone juxtaposed against the youthful innocence of the competition, the script capitalising with a slew of spiky but smartly designed gags, spanning scatological, racial and sexual boundaries. It’s an easy formula, but “Bad Works” executes it with such commitment and rancour that I struggled to stop smiling. The final act works Bateman’s character in an ambitious yet not entirely successful manner, the denouement distractingly tidy and hollow in comparison to the convincing revulsion of the preceding beats. Still, it’s energetic and often very amusing. If further practice allows the director to attain an eye for deeper human detail, Bateman might yet have a great film in him.

Grade - B

The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, 20th Century Fox, 2014)

Everything leading up to this YA fiction adaptation made me suspect I’d hate the finished article ; be it my limited exposure to the author, the predictable casting or the questionable marketing campaign (the tagline reads “One Sick Love Story”…cringe). However despite an unwavering artificiality and distracting narrative detour to Amsterdam (slowing the otherwise snappy pace to a halt), director Josh Boone and his talented young cast show an enviable aptitude for slam-dunking those “BIG” – none Anne Frank’s house related - emotional moments. After her bland work in “Divergent”, Shailene Woodley reminds us why she’s an interesting performer, honing a mature and appreciatively low-key turn as earnest cancer-addled teen Hazel Grace. There’s feeling in Woodley’s work here, bouncing believably and likably off Ansel Elgort, whose more flamboyant but equally charming bow as beau Gus all but abolishes the memory of his dismal contribution to the recent ill-fated “Carrie” rehash. It’s incredibly sensationalised (and even borderline manipulative in spots), but “The Fault in Our Stars” plays its hand so slickly that it becomes tough not to buy into its idealistic, melodramatic sweep. Unsurprisingly it’s on target to become the summer’s most profitable wide release. Drunk Willem Dafoe for the win.

Grade - B

Reviews by Daniel Kelly, 2013 

18 July 2014

What makes Adam Sandler tick?

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This article was originally published for The Boar. It can  be seen to expand on a previous piece I compiled on Sandler back in June 2012. 


Adam Sandler is something of an enigma. Even going back to his time on Saturday Night Live (he lasted five years before being ousted in 1995) Sandler was incredibly divisive, with the split tending to emerge between cultural voices and audiences. This truth has sustained through Sandler’s remarkably successful filmic career, until now.
His African set romantic comedy Blended has opened to foul reviews, but more worryingly for Sandler, a tepid $14 million haul. That’s the second lowest opening of his career as a leading man (That’s May Boy made an even softer debut in 2012), and suggests that whatever goodwill audiences have harboured toward Sandler is finally depleting. The quality of his comedic output has also declined, reaching a nadir with last summer’s loathsome Grown Ups 2. The sequel wasn’t just an unfunny or tedious miscalculation like some of the performer’s prior duffers (and there’s been a few), but rather a rancorous acid-bath of anti-plot, seemingly envisaged as revenge against the public who at one point allowed him to command a higher salary than Harrison Ford. Why is that? Audiences have clearly become attuned to the fact Sandler no longer cares, but what triggered his mounting disdain for them in the first place?
Drew-Barrymore-and-Adam-Sandler-reunite-in-Blended
There’s always been an undercurrent of anger to Sandler’s work. Billy Madison is the story of an alcoholic wastrel who holds a lucrative business empire to ransom. Happy Gilmore amounts to the painful odyssey of a man riddled with anger issues, failing to cope with the death of both his father and dreams. The Waterboy looks at the damaging effects maternal smothering and isolation can have on a person (sounds a bit like a movie Hitchcock made in 1960). And those are some of Sandler’s more beloved outings. Losers and hardship have proven a key commodity in Sandler’s oeuvre; rendering his craft accessible to a conservative western audience and helping the actor himself work through some of his own insecurities. In the public eye Sandler has never been at ease. He gets cagey in interviews (and won’t even consent to doing them in print) and uncomfortable when discussing anything other than cinema. In a 2007 appearance on the Jonathan Ross show, Wossy enquired about Sandler’s newfound role as a father. It was a simple, normal request, one the host has posed painlessly to countless guests over the years. But not for Sandler. Without upsetting his aura of affability, Sandler began to back-track, turning the dialogue into a dick joke, dodging the opportunity to appear vulnerable with a frat-boy façade. It’s just one example of Sandler struggling with his own fame. This at least goes some way to explaining the dark overtures and rage often inherent to his comedy, but why has the comedy itself suddenly become so lame?
Sandler-in-Happy-Gilmore-adam-sandler-19141862-800-600
During the noughties, Sandler began to advance into more dramatic territory. His collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson, Punch-Drunk Love, is a gem, probably the celebrated auteur’s most underrated feature. Underrated and underseen. In 2007 he gave a striking turn in the otherwise unremarkable 9/11 drama Reign Over Me, in one particular scene leaving his co-stars in the dust as he gives a devastating monologue on the personal effects of the tragedy. Nobody turned out to see it. Then in 2009 he gave a brave and self-aware performance in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, playing a cynical and depressed mirror image of himself. It’s the most truthful Sandler has ever been on screen, yet we rejected him, the film marching on to be one of that year’s larger flops. Just twelve months later Sandler starred in Grown-Ups, a lazy amalgamation of fart gags and grossly inflated paycheques. It stands as one of the biggest hits of his career. How can an artist be expected to retain a healthy working relationship with his audience when they refuse to let him stretch, applauding him when he belches but ignoring his measured attempts at soliloquy? The failure of Funny People was likely the last straw, the performer visiting a pestilence of terrible movies upon us as punishment.
He’s an appealing comedic voice, a yahoo with an old-timey devotion to the art of silliness.
I should state that I like Sandler. I’m a big fan of the reckless surrealism of flicks like Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and even the impossibly vulgar That’s My Boy. He’s an appealing comedic voice, a yahoo with an old-timey devotion to the art of silliness. But that unrestrained mania has now dissipated into nothingness. The failure of Blended may yet prove beneficial; after all, Sandler has collaborations with Thomas McCarthy and Jason Reitman in the pipeline. Prospects that actually encourage hope rather than a sigh. And here’s what I urge you to do. Go and see them. Embrace the actor’s attempts to expose something of his true self, to articulate his angst through a capable dramatic skillset. Reward Sandler for trying and acknowledge his bolder choices. Otherwise we may be doomed to a future littered with Grown-Ups continuations, and the whimpering demise of one of our generation’s key comedians. If we allow Peter Pan to grow-up, then just maybe we can finally understand what makes him tick.
Originally published by The Boar 25/06/14. 
An article by Daniel Kelly, 2014

Review: Begin Again (John Carney, Weinstein Company, 2013)

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C+

Begin Again 
2013, 104mins, 15
Director: John Carney 
Writer: John Carney 
Cast includes: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Mos Def, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, James Corden, Adam Levine
UK Release Date: 11th July 2014

It took me a regrettable number of years to embrace John Carney’s 2007 musical “Once”, a small street-tale informed by heartbreak, yearning and a refreshingly honest portrait of urban life. The vivacious but uncompromising Dublin at the movie’s core proved the perfect backdrop for the film’s beautifully pitched look at second chances and emotional resurgence, underpinned by several intoxicatingly bittersweet songs. The feature’s popularity has endured; profitable box-office and a subsequent stage-show proof enough of its consistent allure and worth in cultural circles. It’s been seven years and people are still talking about “Once”, as good a sign as any of a work’s longstanding virtue and merit. “Begin Again” reunites Carney with the musical, taking the action from modest Dublin to a sensationally fictitious portrait of New York. “Begin Again” boasts a more polished look and is stocked with recognisable talent, but despite revisiting themes of redemption and rebirth (the title’s a dead giveaway) the truthfulness of “Once” is absent, resulting in an affable drama that plays like a victory lap for independent musicians.

Music executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is out of work and separated from his family, nurturing a series of destructive habits to mask encroaching emptiness. Whilst drowning his sorrows, Dan comes across Gretta (Keira Knightley), a young British woman about to flee NYC in the aftermath of a disappointing relationship. Convinced of Gretta’s talent, but unable to secure a deal, Dan takes her to the streets, recording an album on the fly against the backdrop of the City’s buzzing landmarks. The music and subsequent friendship prove beneficial for both parties, healing the wounds of their pasts.

Following my viewing I vowed to avoid comparing “Once” and “Begin Again”. A slavish devotion to contrast can suffocate the art of criticism and deny access to the individual merits of a piece. But on second thought that’s a pipedream. The films share such a similar DNA that they appear almost like siblings. “Once” is the rustic but thoughtful son, the boy whose prolonged impact is determined by connection and understanding, the consummate friend, the generous lover, the deep thinker. “Begin Again” is a more initially prodigious child, all handsome features, effortless ease and a gallery of friends, but with the expectation of greatness outweighed by underwhelming reality with each transitory evolution, until all that’s left is an affable yet unmemorable outline of untapped promise. “Begin Again” is somebody we can all get along with; a person that occasionally spouts a curious insight over their fourth beer, but who ultimately doesn’t have the stamina or substance to affect the world beyond frivolous pleasantries. Sound harsh? Perhaps it is, but that’s what any parent gets when they raise a game-changer, only for the next nipper to readily adopt ordinariness.

Carney adopts writing duties here, the underlying spirit of the piece in support of independent artists and guerrilla creativity. The film fixates on the music scene, but it wouldn’t take much imagination to see the improvised, street bound album the characters work on as a metaphor for film-makers outside the studio system. Either way, “Begin Again” clearly wants to damn the pocket-emptying bigwigs intent on profiting off rare, low-fi talent. Given that the film stars a number of A-listers, it’s a commendable stance to take, but the writing lacks the finesse or roundedness to instil the debate with complexity, instead positing an obvious good/bad dichotomy between money and spirit. No character showcases this more clearly than Adam Levine’s pretentious ex, a potentially sweet figure seduced and destroyed by LA Studios and superficial style. The character exists purely as a cautionary tale, juxtaposed with Knightley’s inscrutable angel. Carney uses a variety of flashback techniques to conjure up the image of a past perfection in their relationship, but the fallout pivots around a broadly articulated commentary on artistic integrity. Characters feel informed purely by theme, rather than character informing theme, which extracts a necessary human spark from the piece. Ruffalo’s slob is much the same, set on an obvious path of redemption before we even really get to know him. On the other hand, through a forgiving but tense altercation with a thief, the lead in “Once” immediately registers as a complex but decent man, a human-being plighted by regretful circumstance and hurt. Watching Ruffalo refuse to get out of bed in the morning fails to incite the same standard of engagement.

The musical component aims for grace and easy-going accessibility, succeeding in providing a concoction of pleasant melodies. “Once” definitely integrated its tunes more poignantly, and there’s nothing in “Begin Again” to match the sweep of “Falling Slowly” or the grounded beauty of “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy”. Still, the soundscape washes over “Begin Again” agreeably, and Knightley in particular proves an accomplished and delicate vocalist. The added allure of Adam Levine means the soundtrack should handily shift units, even if it lacks a big central number. The tunes are spliced organically into the narrative, as the characters roam around New York breathing in its impossible autumnal grandeur. Where “Once” used an earthy Dublin to heal and grow its adrift leads, “Begin Again” opts for more fantastical narrative pursuits, healing families, promoting personal fortitude and building unsophisticated friendships within its stretched fairy-tale palette. The script is likable and its characters fundamentally decent, but their recoveries are mapped with none of the intimacy “Once” so effortlessly mustered. Solutions arise with the signature ease of a standardised Hollywood rom-com.


“Begin Again” is basked in a golden glow, Carney availing of his heightened budget to imagine perfect streets and cosy bars ideal for depressed A&R men to uncover twee, indie princesses. It’s an inherently inoffensive film, and harbours a soundtrack of definite worth, but it’s impossible not to feel slightly cheated in the wake of the majestic “Once”. There’s something missing, and I’m inclined to believe that thing is truth. “Begin Again” is hopeful yet slickly artificial wish-fulfillment. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

Instead of leaving you with a trailer, I thought I'd deposit the musical highlight. 


11 July 2014

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, Fox, 2014)

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B+

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
2014, 130mins, 12
Director: Matt Reeves 
Writer (s): Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa 
Cast includes: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebbell, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Judy Greer 
UK Release Date: 17th July 2014

There weren’t many level-headed insiders rooting for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” in 2011. A prequel to a now flagging sci-fi series, the film boasted a first-time director, wearisome production troubles and an unenviable August release date. For Twentieth Century Fox “Rise” represented an instance where limiting losses usurped turning a profit in their list of priorities. The rest is history. The movie opened to strong critical notices and healthy box-office, luring audiences in with the promise of quality over gimmicky pyrotechnics. As a result, its sequel, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” opens with a very different set of expectations; Fox hoping the project will round out the year as one of the studio’s bigger hits. Based on the standard of the final product they’re probably in luck. “Rise” surpassed its runtish pedigree through audience engagement and word of mouth - cinephiles were eager to share the delight of a surprise package with their kin - and the same should apply here. “Dawn” equals its predecessor across the board, building a fabulous apocalypse atop the dystopian promise of the last movie’s finale. The attention to character and theme has also been preserved, incoming director Matt Reeves (replacing the jettisoned Rupert Wyatt) continuing to evolve the art of performance capture with remarkable thespian contributions and visual wizardry.

Ten years have passed since the hyper-perceptive Caesar (Andy Serkis) liberated the apes of San Francisco, the intervening period catastrophic for humanity. Simian Flu has ravaged the globe, leaving only small pockets of survivors battling to maintain civilisation. Caesar and his vast family of Apes are unbothered, left to peacefully maintain their nurturing homestead amidst the vast forests running in tandem with the city. All is upended with the arrival of Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a human sent to convince Caesar to help him utilise a potential power source for the nearby populous. Caesar and Malcolm form a bond based around the cornerstones of trust and optimism, but others including vengeful ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) and pragmatic human Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) are less convinced by the prospect of unity, encouraging a burgeoning sense of animosity between the factions.

“Rise” was a revelation for a number of reasons, but chief amongst them was its phenomenal use of motion capture technology. The ensuing freedom for actors like Serkis to mimic and build personalities around the titular species provided the prequel with a soulfulness oft denied by CGI overload. The creatures felt real and their struggles skilfully communicated to an audience through impeccable performative flourishes and commitment. It would be untrue to state that Serkis is better in “Dawn” than “Rise” (although his complex and sympathetic work is certainly no lesser), but the standard of creature design and VFX is. The animals in the initial entry look primitive compared to what’s on offer in the sequel, a living, breathing and impossibly textured colony of photo-realistic simian characters.  A large part of the creative agenda is in the world-building, Reeves conjuring a nihilistic platform for the narrative, one not far removed from our approximation of possibility. Life continues for mankind, but it is an uncertain and troubled one. In the first film, the sun beat down on San Francisco as a constant, in “Dawn” the rain pours from overcast skies relentlessly; a mirror for diegetic circumstance it seems. Returning to issues of character, this heightened desire for expansion proves welcome, particularly in the construction of monkey politics. There are enough memorable and well realised faces in both camps to incur insular drama, but watching Caesar’s inner conflicts stoked by the rage of former-comrade Koba (depicted with heart-breaking pain by Toby Kebbell) proves deeply satisfying and unusually sophisticated for this time of year. It’s only been a week since the roars and whams of Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction” left me fatigued, a film that overtly favours innocuous digital spectacle over human interaction, with frustrating results. Here the CGI manages to emanate as much heart as flesh and blood, and I intend that as a hearty compliment.  

“Dawn” has a social conscience much like “Rise”. The “Apes” brand has always carried a weighty expectation for cerebral activity beneath the conceptual hoo-hah, the 2011 film using our cruelty toward other inhabitants of Earth to demonstrate man’s capacity for self-destruction. It wasn’t subtle, but there was true conviction. Once again the franchise is happy to parade its ideas with a certain heavy handedness, but “Dawn” supports a familiar degree of sincerity. Aside from exploring the exterior and interior pressures of tribal living, the picture also asserts a powerful and resonantly realised portrait of fear begetting more fear, of hate leading to poisoned minds. Even as Reeves amps up the action in the final third, “Dawn” stays character driven, with special focus applied to both Koba and Caesar. The film-maker arranges some startling and often artfully constructed shots to draw maximum purpose from his feature, including a haunting long-take with Kebbell’s embittered Ape atop a tank. Using the machine for murderous practise, the sequence wonderfully (and with rare delicacy) showcases the character’s corruption, inflicting pain using the very tools he adamantly opposes. Touches like that ensure we take things seriously, which based on the humourless veneer is exactly what Reeves and company want.

The human cast are solid, but as was the case last time, they feel bettered by their digitally cloaked peers.  Jason Clarke steps into the Franco void with minimal fuss, although his earnest family-man isn’t as interesting as the last movie’s well-intentioned but fatally overambitious scientist. Gary Oldman holds his end of the bargain reasonably, but only has a few choice moments to shine. Still, few actors working today can deliver either a monologue or twinge of lonely tragedy like the Brit. The screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (reprising their duties from 2011) organically works the ten years later angle through a parade of losses. It’s no surprise “Dawn” is such a severe work, every character is combatting profound personal sacrifice. The virus has decimated families, humans have eradicated Koba’s reasoning and Caesar even has to face the ghost (not literally, thankfully) of Franco’s likable but misguided mentor. New lives have begun in a darker period, this combination of raw past and uncertain future affording the piece an advanced narrative prowess and naturalism.


The in-jokes have been culled (no “damn, dirty ape” business here) and the scale enlarged, with a myriad of effective subplots papered around the central march of war.  Reeves has done a fine job with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” a gorgeously produced sequel, and the promise of an epic trilogy-closer is tantalising. Once again it’s the character work that has kept this otherwise outdated franchise stable, and for the second consecutive time ensured it remains at the forefront of a summer’s most dynamic programming. Nobody is doubting the credentials of these monkeys any longer. 

A Review  by Daniel Kelly, 2014


6 July 2014

Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay, Paramount, 2014)

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C-

Transformers: Age of Extinction
2014, 165mins, 12
Director: Michael Bay 
Writer: Ehren Kruger 
Cast includes: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Peter Cullen, Stanley Tucci, Jack Reynor, Kelsey Grammer, John Goodman
UK Release Date: 11th July 2014

After exiting my screening of “Transformers: Age of Extinction” it felt like summer. I don’t mean the sun was beating down, birds were singing and beer adopted the appearance of chilled nectar. No, I’m talking about the nostalgic, seasonal vibes associated with mainstream cinema. Over the past few years a cavalcade of bleaker film-makers and properties have rooted themselves in the calendar’s most bankable quarter, including recent earthy rebirths of Godzilla and the X-Men. These movies play with our expectations of blockbusterdom in often intrepid ways, but they don’t ignite the playful escapism one associates with balmy July evenings at the cinema. Since Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” and Nolan’s celebrated Batman cycle, studios have been happy to engage with the bitter realities of our fragmented world, but what’s more audiences have been stomping up to digest this grittier breed of tent-pole releasing. Very black is the new black it seems. Michael Bay’s “Transformers” saga has never adhered to this tonal shift in popular entertainment, adhering to the same silly, sub-Spielbergian mantra that launched the franchise to north of $700 million with its amicable opening chapter in 2007. The subsequent entries have depreciated vastly in terms of quality, but the box-office receipts keep ringing and the go big or go home school of film-making has remained front and centre. Don’t get me wrong, most of these movies are bad (2009’s “Revenge of the Fallen” was thoroughly deplorable), but there’s a certain charm in watching Bay spend $165 million like a 12-year old with a particularly heightened penchant for onscreen ruination. By the finale of “Age of Extinction”, it becomes utterly exhausting, but heck, there are no qualms about what time of year it is.

Set five years after “Dark of the Moon”, “Age of Extinction” picks up in a world where the government are hunting Transformers and Shia LaBeouf is an unmentionable spectre of the past. Instead we get struggling inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), clashing over financial troubles and Tessa’s burgeoning adulthood. Basically, she really needs to put on some less short shorts. Whilst excavating an old movie theatre (Can you say Meta?) for useful parts, Cade comes across a truck. Said truck transpires to be leader of the Autobots Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, who has no non-“Transformers” credits on his résumé since 2009), which promptly catches the attention of scheming bureaucrats including Harold Attinger (a threatening Kelsey Grammer). So begins a wild goose chase across the globe, in which Cade and Optimus attempt to assert their innocence and nobility, whilst the American politicians act like dopey cocks. Throw in a pinch of inappropriate sexual comedy, racially questionable characters, some mechanical dinosaurs and a host of spectacular explosions. Voila, you have a Michael Bay joint.

With Sam Witwicky presumably off shoving his cranium into a paper bag, it’s up to Mark Wahlberg’s fantastically named Cade Yeager to fill the void. If “Age of Extinction” does one thing right (and in fairness it does a few) it’s in the assemblage of a genuinely amusing cast. Bay has Wahlberg play to his strengths, breaking out the endearing comic blankness and biceps synonymous with his non-dramatic repertoire. The actor has a humility and charisma far above LaBeouf’s, and it does the opening salvo of “Age of Extinction” tremendous good to have him on such cartoonish and livewire form. It certainly helps that what tumbles out of Wahlberg’s mouth seems inherently funny, as opposed to the plethora of duff sight gags Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger stack up. Stanley Tucci is the other substantial acquisition, his physical comedy and line readings the only oasis amidst Bay’s stampede of noise in the third act. He even sort of makes his caricature business mogul likable, tough going in a screenplay that asks him to do little more than endure pratfalls and sneer. In fact, leaving aside the vacuous Peltz, most of the casting here is good fun. John Goodman gets to voice a cigar chomping Autobot, TJ Miller is a rare goofy presence that works and talented Irish actor Jack Reynor doesn’t disgrace himself on his big Hollywood debut.  Kruger’s screenplay puts the most stock in humans since the 2007 original, at least until the halfway point. There’s an openness to introduce non-CGI characters in “Age of Extinction”, a facet missing from either of the other sequels. I’m not saying it amounts to an odyssey of disciplined introspective cavorting, but for chunks of the story you almost know enough about the fleshy incumbents to care about their eventual fate.

If “Age of Extinction” was 50 minutes shorter, I’d like it a lot more. The movie reaches a point at which one character becomes trapped on an Alien spacecraft, the sequence feeling like an effective and appropriate transition into a slick third act. This occurs about 70 minutes into the near three hour slog. Up to this point Kruger’s screenplay has done just enough human work to keep some stakes functional, and even if Peltz’s open-mouthed nothingness sparks little sympathy, Wahlberg does enough heavy-lifting to maintain some substance in their father/daughter dynamic. The problem is the movie doesn’t know when to quit. With each progressive sequence “Age of Extinction” dares itself to become stupider and less coherent, abandoning characters in favour of digital creations and the carnage technology allows them to wreck. Bay’s ability to compose an action frame for maximum firework lustre is still one in a million, but he loses a grip on the story as a consequence. The final 40 minutes are akin to a montage of explosions, replete with desperate fan teasing touches like Robot dinosaurs. They’re a vapid addition to the tale, well designed and spectacular to behold, but divorced from the particulars of good screenwriting. True, the movie touches on prehistory in its first few minutes, but it abandons the theme completely, until Bay addles his audience so much that their inclusion just becomes another unexplainable source of masturbatory dork-jerking. It’s the ending in a nutshell.

The sound design is impeccable, Bay rallying a volley of succinctly integrated blasts into his orgy of teenage wish fulfilment. Technically the “Transformers” movies are remarkable feats, the digital creations melting naturally into the material sets. I’ve never particularly cared about the Transformers as characters, but they do look phenomenal contorting and combatting in big-screen 3D. The scope Bay weaves into “Age of Extinction” plays a large part in its summery disposition; this is a feature with scale. I’m not sure if it’s me aging or the movies getting smaller, but each summer’s releases tend to leave me increasingly aware of their limitations within a screening room; even with 3D they can only consume me so far. With Bay’s work, I’ve never had that problem. Hollywood doesn’t make ‘em larger.

Some of the seedier sexual stuff is dialed down with “Age of Extinction”, although the inclusion of a subplot revolving around statutory rape is a baffling misstep. Bay has hardly established himself an auteur enslaved by moral taste, but even for him the “Romeo + Juliet” gags spark concern. Of course broad racism also penetrates the picture, including a collection of daft Asian stereotypes (they’re all Kung-Fu literate don’t ya know) and Irish slurs so juvenile they don’t even approach offensive. I’m sure more discerning viewers will have little issue disregarding such baloney, but it pays to remember this is a series marketed at children. I’m not sure I’m completely comfortable with young kids being taught about other nationalities and age of consent loopholes by Michael Bay. I’m happy to let them embrace his ability to detonate Decepticons (nobody does it better), but let’s leave the other stuff to our many professionally vetted schools.

I didn't really like “Age of Extinction”. It’s pretty much over-produced nonsense with a side-order of thespians I’m inclined toward. So why does it get me feeling a little giddy, a little misty-eyed about summers past? To be honest I’m still not entirely sure. My best bet is probably the feature’s earnestness; it’s honesty about what it is. It’s a flick photographed like a car commercial, filled with beautiful faces, dazzling set-pieces and a constant twinge of Americana. Bay shoots his home nation drenched in the picturesque sweat of the magic hour; the only beverage available is Budweiser, heroes might as well be called Stretch Armstrong and characters love to go patriotic when the situation demands it. I’m not sure why all this screams summer to me, and I’m even less sure why it triggers affection. I guess “Age of Extinction” is exactly the sort of party only a kid can fully appreciate, its clumsiness locking much of the adult viewership away under the pretence that it’s a sucky movie, which to my eyes it largely is. Still, part of me likes the idea of an old-school blockbuster so vast, fantastical and foolish that only the most indiscriminate, imaginative and youthful of viewers can truly tap into its potential. Man, I miss that.


A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014