Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection
Every two or so years, when the sun is at its hottest and summer blockbuster season is reaching its peak, a long shadow is cast over the movie theaters of the world, bringing with it dread, despair, and a week-long migraine. It is time for another Transformers movie. The latest one, which arrives in theaters on Friday whether we like it or not, does away with the established story of Shia LaBeouf, his trusty car and the gorgeous girlfriend who isn’t given much to do, and instead places the fate of the world in the toned arms of Mark Wahlberg.
There aren’t many people who are expecting Transformers: Age of Extinction to be a great film. In fact, most fans and critics are expecting the film to be torn to shreds by the press, many of whom had the pleasure of doing the exact same thing to its predecessors. Though most of the world now regards Michael Bay as the architect of the downfall of modern cinema, it’s worth remembering that there was a time when he wasn’t the most reviled filmmaker in America. But if you follow the reviews for the first three Transformers films, you can almost pinpoint the exact point of no return.
Transformers It might be difficult to remember – three very long, very loud movies later – but the first installment in the Transformers series was actually relatively well-received. By that, of course, we mean that it received mixed reviews rather than outright scathing ones. Still, there were plenty of critics who were never a fan of the franchise, and made their disdain for Bay’s most famous works clear from the beginning.
Some were upset over what had become of such a beloved part of their childhood:
“Transformers is a terrible film. It’s not even bad in a campy, funny way that is enjoyable in the right mindset. It’s bad in a horrible way that makes you wish you’d spent your evening doing something other than ruining your childhood memories.” - Sean Gandert, Paste Magazine
Many found it difficult to follow the film, which was somehow simultaneously overly-complicated and full of holes:
“The story has something to do with Autobots and Decepticons battling to be the first to get to what amounts to a giant battery pack (a "cube of infinite power," someone calls it, I think) that's been held for decades by the U.S. military in — oh, never mind.” – Bob Mondello, NPR
Or, they just had trouble looking past one glaring fault:
“Even by Michael Bay standards, this movie is vapid.” – James Berardinelli, Reelview
Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Because audiences failed to heed these early warnings, the first film made enough money to warrant a sequel, two years later. A sequel which took all of the worst parts of the first Transformers film, made them louder, more obnoxious and four times as long, pumped them full of steroids and then strung them out to create a full movie. A sequel which will one day be remembered if not for its quality, than for the exuberance that critics showed in tearing it to shreds.
First, they ripped apart the script:
“Describing the plot of Revenge of the Fallen pretty much equates to making “boom, crash, kablooey” noises, but I’ll attempt to distill all the boring, non-explodey elements into this bite-sized paragraph.” – Simon Miraudo, Quick Flix
“Much of this film was put together during the Writer's Strike, and I'm guessing Michael Bay never once worried about it.” – Drew McWeeney, HitFix
Then, they tackled the exhausting experience that was sitting through Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen:
“It’s like standing in the middle of a dust storm and opening your eyes to let the grit pour in.” – Josh Tyler, CinemaBlend
“Trying to take in this movie is akin to shaking up a snowglobe and paying attention to glitter shard No. 432,581: When two similarly-colored CG robots are simultaneously morphing and punching each other in the head, it’s impossible to figure out where one ends and the other begins, resulting in a visual cacophony that goes hand-in-hand with the bowels-rattling bassline and the shrieking, incoherent dialogue.” – Alsonso Duralde, MSNBC
Some put the blame squarely on Bay’s shoulders:
“Sweet Jesus! Does Michael Bay not know how to make a movie?” – Michael Edwards, What Culture
But nobody summed up the contempt that critics held for this movie quite like the legendary Roger Ebert, who was primarily concerned with helping moviegoers save their money:
“If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.”
Transformers: Dark of the Moon Just when we thought that we were free, that there was no way for Bay to come back from the torrent of abuse that was levelled at him as a result of Transformers 2, along came Dark of the Moon, because this is Hollywood, and it doesn’t matter how terrible a film is as long as it makes boatloads of money. On the whole, though, critics seemed to like the third movie a lot better, and focused on the positives:
“With his third, and by all accounts final, try director Michael Bay has made what is probably his best Transformers film yet. Which means that it is merely mind-numbingly bad rather than eye-gougingly bad.” – Joshua Starnes, ComingSoon
“There is more of a plot this time. It is a plot that cannot be described in terms of structure, more in terms of duration. When it stops, it's over.” – Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
“It's better than 2009's horrendous Transformers 2, but almost anything is.” – Claudia Puig, USA Today
“At least McDreamy gets sucker punched. Simple pleasures.” – Kieth Uhlich, Time Out NY
But there were still some who couldn’t look past the marginal improvements that Bay and his team made in the third installment, and instead remained focused on all of its loud, headache-inducing faults:
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon, a work of ineffable soullessness and persistent moral idiocy, concludes with Chicago taking it in the shorts for 50-odd minutes, at the hands of the Decepticons in an alien takeover scored, partially, to an emo-ballad mourning the "cataclysm" of it all.” – Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
“Transformers 3 is one of the stupidest movies I've seen since Transformers 2.” – Scott Weinberg, Twitch
And then there was one critic who managed to sum up the way that critics and moviegoers everywhere feel about Bay, his movies, and the Transformers franchise as a whole, in one pithy sentence. Never has something so scathing, so true, and so unbearably funny been said so succinctly.
“I am no expert in theology, but I'm pretty sure evil looks a lot like Transformers 3 – Will Leitch, Yahoo Movies
Well, on the bright side for Transformers: Age of Exctinction, it truly can only go up from here.
Do the Bourne movies make any sense? Enough. The first three films — The Bourne Identity Supremacy and Ultimatum — throw in just enough detail into the covert ops babble and high-speed action that by the end Jason Bourne comes out an emotional character with an evident mission. That's where Bourne Legacy drops the ball. A "sidequel" to the original trilogy Legacy follows super soldier Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) as he runs jumps and shoots his way out of the hands of his government captors. The film is identical to its predecessors; political intrigue chase scenes morally ambiguous CIA agents monitoring their man-on-the-run from a computer-filled HQ — a Bourne movie through and through. But Legacy has to dig deeper to find new ground to cover introducing elements of sci-fi into the equation. The result is surprisingly limp and even more incomprehensible.
Damon's Bourne spent three blockbusters uncovering his past erased by the assassin training program Treadstone. Renner's Alex Cross has a similar do-or-die mission: after Bourne's antics send Washington into a tizzy Cross' own training program Outcome is terminated. Unlike Bourne Cross is enhanced by "chems" (essentially steroid drugs) that keep him alive and kicking ass. When Outcome is ended Cross goes rogue to stay alive and find more pills.
Steeped heavily in the plot lines of the established mythology Bourne Legacy jumps back and forth between Cross and the clean up job of the movie's big bad (Edward Norton) and his elite squad of suits. The movie balances a lot of moving parts but the adventure never feels sprawling or all that exciting. Actress Rachel Weisz vibrant in nearly every role she takes on plays a chemist who is key to Cross' chemical woes. The two are forced into partnership Weisz limited to screaming cowering and sneaking past the occasional airport x-ray machine while her partner aggressively fistfights his way through any hurdle in his path. Renner is equally underserved. Cross is tailored to the actor's strengths — a darker more aggressive character than Damon's Bourne but with one out of every five of the character's lines being "CHEMS!" shouted at the top of his lungs Renner never has the time or the material to develop him.
Writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton Duplicity and the screenwriter of the previous three movies) is a master of dense language but his style choices can't breath life into the 21st century epic speak. In the film's necessary car chase Gilroy mimics the loose camera style of Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass without fully embracing it. The wishy washy approach sucks the life out of large-scale set pieces. The final 30 minutes of Bourne Legacy is a shaky cam naysayer's worst nightmare.
The Bourne Legacy demonstrates potential without ever kicking into high gear. One scene when Gilroy finally slows down and unleashes absolute terror on screen is striking. Unfortunately the moment doesn't involve our hero and its implications never explained. That sums up Legacy; by the film's conclusion it only feels like the first hour has played out. The movie crawls — which would be much more forgivable if the intense banter between its large ensemble carried weight. Instead Legacy packs the thrills of an airport thriller: sporadically entertaining and instantly forgettable.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a decent ninja flick. When the Golden Age of Ninja Cinema (also known as the Dudikoff Era) ebbed at the close of the ‘80s the black-clad martial artists retreated to the shadows. This week director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) aims to resurrect them with Ninja Assassin a hyperkinetic gorefest starring Korean pop star Rain.
But these ain’t your daddy’s ninjas. Though they boast the familiar wardrobe (black on black) and weapons (swords throwing stars etc.) the ninjas in this flick are thoroughly nasty buggers. Members of a super-secret international syndicate of assassins-for-hire they can dodge bullets turn invisible heal wounds and communicate telepathically. And for the low low price of 100 lbs of gold they’ll kill anyone you want no questions asked.
It’s that latter aspect that draws the scrutiny of law enforcement — specifically agents Mika Coretti (Naomi Harris) and Ryan Maslow (Ben Miles) of Europol (which appears to be a division of Interpol staffed exclusively with imbeciles). Fortunately for these hapless twits they find a potent ally in Raizo (Rain) a renegade ninja of unsurpassed ability who nurses a nasty grudge against his cruel former master Lord Ozunu (Sho Kosugi).
Fueled by childhood memories of the abuse he suffered while at Lord Ozunu’s ninja sleepaway camp Raizo will stop at nothing to bring the entire operation down. Which is good because his former chums are a persistent lot arriving in ever greater numbers to snuff out the powerful apostate.
McTeigue’s dizzying shaky-cam combined with the identical appearance of most of the ninja combatants makes the action difficult to follow at times in Ninja Assassin. It’s probably why he felt compelled to accentuate every fight scene with exaggerated bursts of CGI blood. Still as disembodied heads limbs and torsos fly across the screen in quantities not seen since Kill Bill it’s nigh impossible to determine who they belong(ed) to. Much easier to pinpoint are the glistening six-pack abs of Raizo a fighter so badass he can ward off his pursuers while wearing little more than a thin layer of baby oil.
It’s a pity Raizo couldn’t have applied his blade to the Ninja Assassin script which encumbers the first half of the movie with endless flashbacks gratuitous training sequences and pointless political squabbling. Or perhaps he could have imparted some of his skills at deception to McTeigue who exhibits all of the subtlety and unpredictability of a kamikaze pilot.
This is one ninja flick that should have remained in the shadows.