Curse of the Golden Flowers at Wulong

Sony Pictures Classics

Whether or not you have any desire to see Transformers: Age of Extinction, this week’s list of recommended movies is worth a look. I’ve even tried to avoid spoiler-y relevance for once, although I guess that doesn’t matter if you have no interest in the movie at all. Consider this a mere checklist of titles to catch up with after or instead of seeing the fourth Transformers. As usual, most of them are linked to something or someone in the new release in question, mainly for a better, earlier reference point for scenarios and tropes and themes. None of them require your viewing of Age of Extinction to appreciate them overall, though.

Before I get to the movies, I’d like to note some non-movie recommendations. One is the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley, unless you’re some person without a sense of humor who is glad actor T.J. Miller only has a little bit of screen time in the new Transformers. Another is any match featuring Olympic gold medalist turned professional boxer Zou Shiming, who plays an extra in an elevator who just happens to know martial arts (because Hollywood thinks all Chinese people do). Many can be found on YouTube. There’s also Transformers: The Premake, a video essay that I guess could count as a movie. I already wrote plenty about that recently.

Transformers: The Movie (1986)

I’m sure there are tons of fans of the live-action Transformers movies that haven’t seen this animated feature. Finally they have a proper reason to. In Age of Extinction, they’re introduced to Galvatron, who is sort of a reincarnation of Megatron thanks to a robotics company attempting to commercialize transformers. In Transformers canon, the idea of both Decepticon leaders being the same isn’t consistent, but I believe this early movie spun-off from the cartoon series is Galvatron’s first appearance and he is indeed a reincarnation of Megatron (courtesy of the Orson Welles-voiced Unicorn). But here he’s still a sort of gun, not a truck, and he’s voiced by Leonard Nimoy, not regular Megatron vocalist Frank Welker. Another connection between the old movie and the new is the death of Ratchet, plus Mark Wahlberg is in Age of Extinction, and in Boogie Nights he sang the song “The Touch,” which really was from the Transformers: The Movie soundtrack. Finally, one more reason to watch: Casey Kasem, R.I.P.

Car Transformation aka Rebuilt Cars (1958)

In this short documentary from the British Pathe archives, we see a real car transforming into something else. Of course, that something else is another car, not a robot. But it looks almost as magical. The dismantling of the jalopy in the beginning also parallels how Wahlberg’s character means to take Optimus Prime apart for scrap and parts. The best parts of the three minute film (which starts off in a way that seems like it’s not a work independent of any other) might be that the driver bears a striking resemblance to Michael Fassbender and the police box at the end that I can’t help but associate with Doctor Who.

Sleeper (1973)

I don’t know if we’re supposed to find it impressive that Wahlberg’s character has invented a robot dog, since there are toys out there as high tech as the thing guarding his house. And outside the context of the movie’s narrative, we shouldn’t think it’s that cool otherwise. More than 40 years ago we saw the greatest robot dog of all time, Rags, in Woody Allen‘s future-set farce. He’s just one of a bunch of hilarious bits in this silly movie, which I consider to be one of the filmmaker’s best (yes, I’m one of those who he jokes about preferring the early funny ones).

Gremlins (1984)

In the first act of Age of Extinction, Wahlberg’s character comes off as a younger version (by only three years!) of the dad played by Hoyt Axton in Joe Dante‘s mini-monster movie classic. He’s a terrible inventor who can’t support his family. Then he brings home something that he thinks will make a difference and it turns out to be creature who brings trouble instead. Yes, I just aligned Optimus Prime with Gizmo as basically the same character. Well, didn’t you know that Decepticons are made when Autobots get wet and multiply and then those new Autobots eat after midnight?

Rocky IV (1985)

I don’t know that this is a direct homage to the fourth Rocky movie or not, but in one early scene Miller’s character is sitting back and waiting for a robot to bring him a beer. Just like Paulie (Burt Young) with the much more sophisticated machine that he ends up having a weird romantic thing with. Miller is kind of the Paulie to Wahlberg’s Rocky. Meanwhile, as much as he may try, Michael Bay will never make a movie that screams “USA! USA! USA!” quite as well as this jingoistic boxing blockbuster.

Successful Alcoholics (2010)

If you’re like me and really only enjoyed Age of Extinction while Miller was on screen, then in addition to watching Silicon Valley you have to watch this 25-minute short film by Kings of Summer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. He and Lizzie Caplan play a couple who initially appear to be the most enjoyable functioning alcoholics — albeit ludicrously so — since Nick and Nora Charles. Just as he does in the first act of the Transformers movie, Miller kills it here, and while it’s hard to steal a short that you star in, I’d argue that his bit in the boardroom qualifies. Miller and Caplan also co-star in Cloverfield, which is also recommended as a better movie about giant aliens destroying cities, and there too Miller isn’t on screen nearly enough (he’s the guy holding the camera throughout the found-footage material).

Watch it below.

Easier Said Than Done (2013)

Jack Reynor‘s character in Age of Extinction is a a rally-car driver. That gives the movie a little bit of Fast and the Furious feel during one chase sequence that previous Transformers installments lacked. If you’re not familiar with the sport of rallying, there are a couple documentaries to help you out. First is the 2003 British production Too Fast to Race, which looks at how “Group B” racing changed everything in the 1980s. For more of Reynor’s character’s speed, though, is last year’s Kickstarter-funded doc Easier Said Than Done, which focuses on current rally racers like  Chris Duplessis.

What Richard Did (2012)

You may recognize Reynor from the 2013 Hollywood comedy Delivery Man, but if you’re interested in seeing his real roots you’ll have to dig into some Irish cinema. His big breakout came about with this drama from Lenny Abrahamson, who also helmed this year’s festival hit Frank. He plays a sportsman of another sort, a rugby player with a bright future in the summer ahead of his start at university, until he makes a really bad decision and ruins everything. All for the love of a girl. Hey, his life dangerously changes because of the love of a girl in Age of Extinction, too! When you see his promise in What Richard Did, you’ll be disappointed that he went and did a Transformers movie or you’ll be glad he got a paycheck and hope that he’s given other opportunities now to show his acting talents.

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997)

Errol Morris directed this documentary about four fascinating characters and their eccentric professions. I recommend it through a Transformers movie mainly for one of the subjects, robotics scientist Rodney Brooks. Some of what he talks about in the movie goes well with Stanley Tucci‘s character in Age of Extinction, particularly this line: “I don’t tell the robot what to do… I switch it on, and it does what is in its nature.” But Tucci’s character doesn’t mean for that to be the case when he turns on his own personal Transformers. There’s a lot of other great quotes from Brooks in the doc, a few on evolution and how it’s hard to imagine what the intelligence and consciousness of robots will eventually be like since both will be higher and so much different from our own. That’s something the humans in Age of Extinction need to realize, that the Transformers aren’t just like humans shaped like robots that turn into cars.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

If you’re seeing the latest Transformers movie and still haven’t seen one of the best robot-centric blockbusters of all time already, your priorities are a little wonky. But it has been 23 years, and maybe it seems like an old relic to you. So much for that idea, because a couple of things in Age of Extinction seem straight out of the first Terminator sequel. There’s Tucci’s next level Transformers made of “transformium” that makes their transformation process look more like the shapeshifting abilities of the liquid metal T-1000, and of course they’re the next level villains. But Tucci’s company is also like Cyberdyne Systems in T2 for the way they’re developing robotics based on pieces of other found robots (aliens rather than a machine from the future) as if they’ve “invented” something themselves. At least for Tucci there’s no paradox involved.

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

From the same year, this sequel to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has another thing related to Tucci’s next level Transformers: evil robot versions of our heroes. Of course, in Age of Extinction it’s weird to call them evil robot versions because Galvatron and Stinger are simply intended to be better versions of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee and only wind up being evil versions by way of the original evil robot leader’s own scheme, not Tucci’s character’s. In Bogus Journey they’re robot clones of human Bill and human Ted, yet just as with the Transformers they’re built as replacements for the source models. And at first they seem to be of the same species.

Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)

While not one of Zhang Yimou‘s best movies, this is still a spectacular effort from the Chinese filmmaker. It’s one of the brightly colored wuxia epics of his that came in the wake of the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon success, and it has a lot of stunningly gorgeous moments. Much of that was thanks to cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, but there was also a natural component to some of it, because like a sequence in Age of Extinction, Curse of the Golden Flowers was filmed at the Three Natural Bridges in the Wulong Karst National Geology Park. The set built for the movie is still on site, in fact, and part of the tourism appeal. In shots and footage of the making of Transformers at the Three Natural Bridges you can see the crew around the Curse of the Golden Flower buildings.


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