Film reviews: Transformers 4 | Boyhood

Optimus Prime is hiding from the US government
Optimus Prime is hiding from the US government
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MICHAEL Bay never used to be such an epic bore. When he started out in the mid-1990s, his first couple of efforts – Bad Boys and The Rock – showcased an ability to deliver empty but entertaining multiplex fare.

Transformers: Age Of Extinction (12A)

Directed by: Michael Bay

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Stanley Tucci

*

It was cinematic junk food, to be sure, but there was just enough of it to be satisfying without being sickening. Unfortunately, his success allowed him to supersize his more-is-more approach to filmmaking – more carnage, more explosions, more cleavage, more sunsets – to the point where a two-hour running time could no longer contain it. As a result, his films started expanding, creeping up past the two-and-a-half-hour mark to become lumbering, gaudy spectacles, full of incomprehensible set-pieces barely held together by whatever story threads their writers concocted to justify them.

At 166 minutes, Transformers: Age of Extinction is Bay’s longest entry to date of his toyline-turned-world-conquering-movie-franchise. Alas, even though its three bar-lowering predecessors have given this one the illusion of coherence for its first hour – during which Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger introduce a bit of mythology (the alien creators of the Transformers were apparently responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs), a bit of plot (Optimus Prime and the remainder of the Autobots are in hiding from the US government) and a bit of character development (the introduction of new franchise hero Mark Wahlberg as a down-on-his-luck inventor struggling to keep his daughter on the straight-and-narrow) – it rapidly resorts to sense-pummelling business as usual. There are extended car chases, extended battles aboard spaceships and, for its extended climax, an extended box-office-boosting trip to China, where Transformers riding prehistoric Dinobots destroy buildings by the dozen as Wahlberg and co try to dispose of a bomb that could wipe out humanity.

The depressing thing is that Bay refuses to do anything interesting with the free rein he now has. Knowing discussions by the characters about the dismal state of modern cinema, for instance, don’t come across as 22 Jump Street-style gags, but as the prideful boasting of a filmmaker whose previous Transformers films ended up ranking among the highest-grossing movies of all time despite being so incomprehensible they were almost avant-garde. And there’s a horrible sleaziness in the film too, with Bay’s camera leering over Wahlberg’s 17-year-old daughter (Nicola Peltz) while Wahlberg and her older boyfriend (Jack Reynor) at one point discuss the legal loopholes regarding statutory rape. True to its title, then, Transformers: Age of Extinction does reflect something dying out: unfortunately it seems to be the inclination to make good summer blockbusters.

Boyhood (15)

****

Richard Linklater follows up the fascinating formal experimentation of his Before… films with an even more ambitious movie about the passage of time and the way in which the randomness of life can shape us as people. Filmed in 39 days over the course of 12 years, and featuring the same core cast throughout, Boyhood follows a kid called Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to age 18, catching up with his life at various stages over the years as he negotiates the path from being the child of divorced parents through to a grown adult ready to take his first steps in the wider world as he heads to college.

What emerges over the film’s nearly three-hour running time (unlike the new Transformers film, it fairly flies by) is a portrait of adolescence at once remarkable and utterly normal – remarkable for the way it casually captures social history as it unfolds; normal thanks to the way the potential gimmick of seeing cast members age before our eyes quickly becomes so subtle as to be almost imperceptible.

The latter seems to be the point Linklater is getting at here. Where the Before… films were built around the tantalising prospect of a life-changing encounter resonating through the years, Boyhood plays more like a collection of random snapshots that nevertheless become the building blocks of a life story, something that underscores the way inconsequential-seeming moments can often stick with us as much as the big melodramatic scenes we’re trained by books, songs and movies to identify as the key events in our lives. Thus while we follow Mason sequentially through his childhood, no real plot emerges: scenes in which he has his first awkward flirtations with girls or encounters with school bullies are left undeveloped, while the complexities of the adult world to which he and his older sister Sam (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) are occasionally party are often played out off screen.

The cumulative effect, though, is that Linklater manages to build a truthful picture of a character working things out for himself the way a kid would, with Mason gradually and intuitively piecing together what he thinks about the world even if he doesn’t fully understand what’s going on around him.

That also provides the film with a really interesting portrait of parenthood. As the film begins, Mason and Sam are living with their stressed-out mother (played by Patricia Arquette), and we quickly learn that she had them not long out of high school. Meanwhile, their father – played by Ethan Hawke – still has a lot of growing up to do himself: he’s a bit of a drifter with a vintage muscle car, a rock band and irregular employment that takes him out of town for long stretches. As characters, they’re almost clichés, but they’re also true to the roots of the generation Linklater astutely captured in his debut feature Slacker in 1991 and subsequently romanticised so thoroughly in Before Sunrise (which also starred Hawke).

What’s fascinating, though, is the way Linklater subsequently deepens these characters over the course of the film. Because we are shown the ways in which they continue to make mistakes as they try to get their lives in order in the pursuit of careers or other relationships, they become recognisable human beings at the very point at which Mason’s maturing perspective on the world enables him to start seeing his parents as people first, with all the strengths and foibles that entails.

Hawke and Arquette are great in their respective roles here, nailing the way life’s disappointments can occasionally register unwittingly on a person’s face, but also alive to the way small moments in their kids’ lives can be a source of incredible joy. They’re clearly there to do the dramatic heavy lifting, but Coltrane proves so good he ends up carrying the film. Arriving on screen as a cherubic, impossible-to-resist six-year-old, his casting was the project’s biggest wild card, but under the tutelage of Linklater – who has proven himself a deft director of kids and adolescents in films such as Dazed & Confused and School of Rock – he couldn’t have been better cast; his naturalism in front of the camera perhaps indicative of the way his generation is the first to come of age in the era of social media. Accordingly, while Linklater marks the passage of time with Coltrane’s changing appearance, he does so too by tracking the characters’ evolving relationship with technology: how casually it becomes an intrinsic part of their lives, as well as how much it becomes a source of anxiety as Mason begins to worry about life passing him by.

This is filmmaking almost as a living document, completely in the moment but fully cognisant of how precious those moments might turn out to be.

Begin Again (15)

*

Irish writer/director John Carney belatedly follows up his smash hit 2006 indie musical Once, not with a sequel, but with a sort of saccharine Hollywood dirge that uses the off-screen drama that unfolded between Once stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (the real-life couple whose break-up following the Oscar-winning success of the film was captured in the 2011 documentary The Swell Season) as a jumping-off point for a quaint piece of feel-good nonsense. Keira Knightley, below, takes the lead as Greta, a folksy English singer-songwriter who gets dumped by her musician boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave (Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine) after a film featuring his music propels him into the mainstream. Stranded in New York while he’s off gallivanting with record company interns, she’s spotted by a down-on-his-luck A&R man (Mark Ruffalo) who is convinced that her sub-Norah Jones ditties are the future of music – as opposed to the future of Starbucks playlists. What follows is twee in the extreme, with its most laughably earnest moment coming when the film starts championing the idea of artists taking control of their work and selling it for next to nothing to the public via the internet – something to think about when debating whether to fork out a tenner to see this commercialised pap.

The Golden Dream (12A)

****

The blindingly obvious irony of the title notwithstanding, this hard-hitting social realist drama about two Guatemalan teens and a non-Spanish speaking Tzotzil Indian attempting to migrate to the US is worth enduring. Stripped of the kind of cinematic sentimentality that can sometimes reduce poverty-stricken characters to clichés of noble suffering, this is a survival story, but one in which random horror is never far from its protagonists’ lives, something brilliantly echoed in the way debut director Diego Quemada-Díez (a protégé of Ken Loach and Alejandro González Iñárritu) offsets the majesty of the landscape with the desperation of their quest for a better life.

Under the Rainbow (15)

**

Frequently compared to Woody Allen, French writer/director/actress Agnès Jaoui has carved out a niche for herself as a creator of richly entertaining comedy dramas that explore the ways relationships and families sometime come together and break apart. It’s disappointing, then, to report that her latest effort falls flat, weighed down by an overly schematic premise that attempts to link the drama of real life with the magic of fairytales in an attempt to explore the positive and negative ways in which fantasy and reality can merge when it comes to matters of the heart. There are some nice performances, but too much time is spent with minor characters and the fairytale allusions are far too literal to be meaningful.

Love Me Till Monday (15)

**

This romantic comedy drama about a stuck-in-a-rut 25-year-old office worker whose amorous encounters with her co-workers repeatedly fail to progress beyond the status of a weekend relationship boasts a likeable cast and a not-bad premise, so it’s too bad nothing rings remotely true. The attempts at sweet-natured comedy feel forced, the efforts at whimsy are too halfhearted, and the diversions into drama have a whiff of Hollyoaks about them.