On Transformers: Age of Extinction

Continuing from TransformersTransformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon is Transformers: Age of Extinction, a stand alone sequel to Dark of the Moon intended to be “the first of a new trilogy.” This might explain the noticeable redesign of Optimus Prime:

This film is also notable for having some pretty awful reviews. According to The Atlantic‘s article, “‘Transformers 3’: Sour, Sexist, and Salivary“:

The second Transformers movie, Revenge of the Fallen, was, as any viewer who failed to repress the experience will recall, astonishingly awful: a script of unsurpassed inanity, a pair of crude, jive-talking robots, a running time best measured in geologic terms—I could go on. (And did.) The latest installment in the epic tale of good Autobots, bad Decepticons, and Shia LaBeouf, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, improves on its predecessor in almost every obvious way. (Apart from length, that is: it clocks in at a brutal 157 minutes.) The plot—which posits that the midcentury U.S.-Russian “space race” was actually an effort to recover lost Autobot artifacts from the dark side of the moon—is much sharper. The special effects are more impressive, and the action considerably more intense. The movie even manages, in stark contrast to such summer duds as Green Lantern and the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, to make effective use of 3D.

Yet despite these manifest improvements, there is something so sour and unpleasant about the new film that it left me almost nostalgic for the innocent idiocies of its predecessor. As its title hints, perhaps unwittingly, Dark of the Moon is a journey into the angry, adolescent id of director Michael Bay. I, for one, could not wait to get out.

Let’s start at the beginning. Following a Kennedy-era prologue, the first shot of the movie is a closeup of the barely-pantied bottom of Rosie Huntington-Whitely as she ascends a flight of stairs. This is the second shot as well; the third, opting for expository variety, shifts to the front and works its way up her torso. Now, it is true that Huntington-Whitely has a fine bottom, as one might expect from a veteran Broadway character actress former Victoria’s Secret model. But Bay’s lens leers so emphatically, almost pornographically, that this opening can’t help but come across as a statement of his philosophy of gender. This is, after all, the man who fired previous franchise eye candy Megan Fox for being insufficiently sexy, which is a bit like firing water for being insufficiently wet.

Huntington-Whitely plays Carly, the new squeeze of returning hero Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf), which means that her narrative functions—apart from a scene near the end, in which she goads a Decepticon by calling it a “bitch”—alternate between being ogled and being held hostage. It’s a bit of a challenge to capture just how retrograde the film is on this score. Bay clothes Huntington-Whitely in a series of short dresses and, as often as is practical, films her from floor level, as if his camera were a mirror hidden in the shoelaces of a horny 12-year-old. Early on, a pint-sized Autobot, fresh from rooting around in her underwear drawer, pauses to peer up her skirt; shortly after, John Malkovich (in perhaps the most embarrassing performance of his career), tilts his head a full 90 degrees to stare ostentatiously at her ass. In what evidently constitutes a pun these days, it is Huntington-Whitely who is center screen when another character, commenting on the case a medal came in, gushes “What a gorgeous box.”

In keeping with this view of women’s proper role—Sartre, with whom Bay has more in common than one might imagine, would have called it the etre-pour-autrui—the director also supplies us with a pretty Latina who is ushered briefly onscreen to be berated for her “hoochie” outfit, and a hard-nosed National Intelligence Director (Frances McDormand) whose authority is gradually usurped by a renegade male agent (John Turturro) to the point where she ends up, literally, across his lap. A few circa-1980s gay gags are thrown in for good measure, notably a lisping German named “Dutch” (played by the far-too-good-to-accept-such-material Alan Tudyk). But credit where it is due: Bay has at least abandoned the outright minstrelsy of streetwise Autobots Mudflap and Skid. (There are two poodle-sized imbecile-bots thrown in for comic effect, but they are, so to speak, race-neutral.)

One might argue that this is merely par for the course for Bay, and one would not be entirely wrong. Where the director truly begins to break new ground is in the character of Sam, who is—how to put this delicately?—an asshole. Gone is the eager, All-American boy of the prior movies, his enthusiasm curdled into a mixture of entitlement, self-pity, and belligerence. (Yes, he does rather seem to suit the political moment.) As the film opens, Sam is unemployed, a circumstance he accepts with decidedly less equanimity than he did his near-fatal travails in the previous two films. He’s angry at the employers who don’t hire him, at the girlfriend who has a good job, and at her smarmy boss (Patrick Dempsey), who, like everyone else in the film, eyes her with undisguised cupidity. Most of all he’s angry, as he gripes on countless occasions, that he hasn’t gotten enough credit for already saving the world twice.

The Transformers, too, have gotten surlier since their last outing. In particular, the Decepticons all seem to have sprung leaks in their mandibular hinges: their mouths ooze, slobber, and spray with a salivary vehemence that would shock H.R. Giger. I hadn’t seen such grotesque machinery since Pontiac discontinued the Aztek in 2005. On the battlefield, the brutality has been ramped up considerably, with Transformers good and bad alike spattering blood-like fluids as they are stabbed and dismembered. In one scene, an especially sanguinary Decepticon announces “We will kill them all!”—no wait, that’s a quote from Optimus Prime, heroic leader of the Autobots. How about the one who screams “You die!” as he savagely tears through his adversaries? No, that’s Optimus, too. And the bit near the end of the film, when someone flamboyantly executes a downed and helpless Transformer with a point-blank shot to the head? You guessed it, also Optimus. (The otherwise enthusiastic crowd at the screening I attended seemed a bit taken aback by this, with the few half-hearted claps quickly petering out.)

The last third or so of Dark of the Moon involves a battle for the city of Chicago that is notable in the extremity of its violence: screaming, fleeing civilians are blown to bits; the camera glides over toppled buildings and a busload of human corpses. The 9/11 echoes only grow louder once Sam and sundry commandos arrive on the scene—as, for instance, when our heroes, trapped on the upper floors of a smoldering, glass-and-steel skyscraper, are forced to jump out the windows. One need not consider such freighted imagery sacrosanct to feel that it probably doesn’t belong in a movie inspired by a bunch of Hasbro toys.

Indeed, Bay seems almost completely to have lost interest in the goofy premise undergirding the franchise—that legions of massive extraterrestrial robots would bother disguising themselves as backhoes and muscle cars in the first place. There are a smattering of de rigeur Transformations throughout the movie, but in this installment the mechanized protagonists spend less time morphing into mundane vehicles than they do piloting otherworldly ones: floating dreadnoughts the size of city blocks; a giant, burrowing contraption that looks like a cybernetic sandworm. The latter has stuck with me both as pure visual spectacle—it is a minor triumph of CGI—and as emblematic of the movie as a whole: massive, inexorable, and utterly devoid of humanity.

Also, according to Darren Reid History‘s post, “Transformers: Age of Extinction – Textbook Machismo“:

Transformers 4 drips with misogyny – it practically oozes from the movie’s every pore.  It is an utterly overpowering presence in this film, swamping even the titular transforming robots who serve as the canvas upon which direct Michael Bay paints his deeply, deeply sexist colours.  To be clear, the issue isn’t the raw objectification that normally infuses this franchise, though, rest assured, that is certainly present.  It’s the way Bay reduces women to objects who need to be looked after by the men in their lives.  There is a scene in which the female lead, Tessa, is discussed by her father and boyfriend, who, up to that point in the film, have been competing for primacy in her life.  The father, Mark Walberg’s Cade Yeager, tells the younger man, Shane, that it is now his job to protect his daughter – he must carry the patriarchal torch.  At no point in the film is Tessa redeemed as a complete, functioning human being in her own right.  She is never anything more than a pretty girl, utterly dependent upon her father or boyfriend to protect her.  She isn’t even an active contributor in the conversation about her own future.  She’s fast asleep, literally as passive as she figuratively is in the rest of the film.  It is a reprehensible creative from a choice from a film that openly and repeatedly declares its love of ‘textbook machismo’.  In this film the men ‘man up’ and the weak are, to use the words of the Autobots, the heroes of the film, ‘bitches’.  All remarks in quotations come directly from this film.  Its attitude is risible.  Michael Bay’s views about gender, at least as they are expressed in this film, are shocking.

It’s tragic because, buried beneath its archaic and condescending attitude is an action movie which, like this year’s earlier Robocop reboot, actually has something critical to say about America’s drone policy.  Setting aside the deep and fundamental sexism present –no easy task– the soul of this film can be summed up with one line from Optimus Prime.  Fighting a transformer built and, ostensibly, controlled by the American military he tells it, ‘you have no soul’.  Not exactly poetry but at least the inhumanity of drone tech is addressed – over the course of the whole film, that issue is handled with some degree of honest relevance and competency.  I do not believe that Bay is coming at the issue from a particularly enlightened angle (the film is practically masturbatory when it comes to its depiction of guns, traditional military technology, and old fashioned masculinity) but there is something in this film that is meaningful.  It is critical of states overreaching in the face of tragedy, recognising that military overuse can sew the seeds of future catastrophe.  That might not be the most revolutionary message but, considering what is happening in the world right now, it is a surprisingly insightful one.

Bay accomplishes something worthwhile; and Bay fails utterly – this is magnificent philosophical incompetence, utterly mesmerising in its catastrophic dichotomy.  Watching this film, particularly when seen in the same light as Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness, it becomes abundantly clear that the generation who are growing up in the midst of today’s media landscape will be utterly unable to escape the shadow of falling skyscrapers and decimated cities.  That is almost certainly an inescapable consequence of the world in which we now live, and Bay explores the implications of that, but the deeply misogynistic attitude laced into this film is much more difficult to deal with.  It is a conscious and sexist choice, one which demeans and cheapens.  It has no place on today’s silver screen.  It is stupid, immature, and pathetic.  Considering how many people flock to see these movies, Michael Bay needs to grow up.  People aren’t paying for sexism, they’re paying to see giant robots, good and evil, do battle.  Cut the former, keep the latter.  There is, after all, evidence here of thoughtfulness, perhaps even some sophistication, but little in the way of maturity.  ‘Textbook machismo’ is nothing to be proud of.

Additionally, according to Vulture‘s article, “7 Ways to Tell You’re a Woman in a Michael Bay Movie,” as specific to this film:

3. Every male character is discussing how hot you are
Nicola Peltz plays Mark Wahlberg’s 17-year-old daughter inTransformers: Age of Extinction, and her first two scenes are dominated by men who call her hot (including her dad’s friend … awkward!). Later in the movie, in what may be the longest dialogue scene in the film, Peltz’s older boyfriend explains to a horrified Mark Wahlberg why it’s legal for him to fuck her, thanks to the state’s Romeo and Juliet laws. This is how time flies: Somehow, Marky Mark is now playing the protective dad from Fear.

And:

4. You look kind of orange
As the other characters never fail to remind us, Nicola Peltz is a pretty young woman who was nevertheless blasted with Homer Simpson’s makeup gun before each of her scenes in Transformers. She’s lucky that all that bronzer didn’t leave any stains on her immaculate white blouses.

Finally, according to Comic Book Resources‘ article, “10 Things We Can’t Believe ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’ Got Away With“:

Transformers: Age of Extinction scored a $100 million opening weekend at the domestic box office, banking even more coin overseas. That’s a lot of money for a movie that the best people can say about it is “At least no one tried to murder me while watching it.”

In addition to making tons of money, Extinction has become Michael Bay’s worst reviewed movie ever — 16% on Rotten Tomatoes – and for good reason. As the film continues to prove that audiences love big robots destroying things, here’s a look at ten reasons why that love is very misplaced. (SPOILER ALERT! Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie.)

1. Autobots Really Want to Kill Humans

Remember in the cartoon – based on kid’s toys – when Optimus Prime and his fellow Autobots discussed at length their desire to kill humans? We don’t either, but Extinctionwould have you believe that after the events of Dark of the Moon, these so-called heroes would spend most of their interactions talking obsessively about how they can’t wait to kill some homo sapiens. That’s what happens when screenwriter Ehren Krueger attempts to invest the robots with personality.

2. Trademark Logic Issues

If only Michael Bay’s plots could be as consistent as that string of tree lights that appears in every one of his films.

The story, along with its action scenes, are violently allergic to the physical and emotional geography required to make them make sense. Our favorite offenders: Why do we attack Chicago again? Didn’t we get enough of this in the last movie? In one scene, Prime is racing down a street in vehicle mode, and a beat later, he is somehow in the middle of a rooftop brawl we never saw the beginning of. In another, Prime frees the enslaved Dinobots only to later beat their leader into submission under the threat of death and in the name of freedom. Because reasons.

3. Optimus Prime Is the Worst

Optimus Prime is one of the most simple (in a good way) heroes of the ’80s – the guy’s modeled after John Wayne – and the filmmakers’ attempt to edge-up Prime results in the character coming off as a 3-story, murderous gun thug. Inconsistent heroics and out-of-character homicidal desires drive a character the franchise has built as someone who, no matter what, sees the good in humanity even when humans can’t. Bet all the kids can’t wait to get their hands on that new Prime toy, “now with 100% more “killing the guy from Frasieraction!”

4. Transformium

That’s the name of the metal Stanley Tucci’s character uses to make his own army of Transformers. Really? Really?! Oh movie, you’re not even trying!

5. Most Unlikable Humans Yet

Mark Wahlberg’s Texas inventor Cade Yeager (which is a name that exists never) is a slight improvement over Shia LaBeouf’s Sam, but we question the choice of saddling the former with an unlikable daughter and her fantastically useless boyfriend. When these two characters do anything but remain silent, they make LaBeouf’s antics seem like a Golden Age.

As for Stanley Tucci as the supposed comic relief? Someone needs to remind both him and his director that comedy isn’t having talented actors yell ad-libs. That’s… just yelling.

6. Cade Yeager: Bad Inventor, Even Worse Father

We said slight improvement because the only thing Wahlberg’s character sucks at more than inventing things is raising children. He doesn’t want his teenager daughter to date, ever – so fresh! But all she wants to do is date! Clutch the pearls!

Conflict and lots of bad acting ensue, all of which stems from Cade’s genius plan to send his daughter to college by using his business partner’s money to buy a cab-over truck sitting inside an abandoned theater and then sell the truck for scrap. Hey, Cade? Instead of, uh, any of that, how ‘bout you use your business partner’s money to make a down payment on your kid’s education, sell your farm, move into an apartment and send her off to college?

Also, how come no one asks “why is there a cab-over truck sitting in the middle of an abandoned movie theater?!”

7. The Death of T.J. Miller’s Character

Silicon Valley’s T.J. Miller plays Cade’s aforementioned business partner, one of the few characters remotely approaching “likable” in the movie. But the script gives him a very hollow and unintentionally funny death. The script is unable to have its surviving characters take a beat – or even feign taking one – to mourn the loss, which ultimately denies the death any narrative value.

8. Wasting the Dinobots

Fans have sat through three movies to see Grimlock and Co. get ILM’d on the big screen. At the 2 hour and 15 minute mark, they get to see them – albeit in the form of personality-less things that exist to do to Hong Kong what Gallagher does to melons.

9. Aftermath of the Hong Kong-ocalypse

With the help of transforming dinosaurs, one of the largest cities in the world has been turned into toothpicks, by the same alien robots that not once, but twice, murdered Chicago. How does it all end? Not with the Chinese attacking their attackers, despite a scene showing military personnel ordering a military response. Nope, instead the Autobots and Dinobots stand at the edge of the city they destroyed for a happy ending, which involves Prime sending the Dinobots to roam free across China apparently like one would let dogs out in the backyard.

And there is no way that the Dinobots and the Autobots get to stand around on the edge of the city they destroyed for a happy ending – especially after showing key Chinese military officials order a military response on their robot attackers.

10. That dialogue!

We saved the best of the worst for last.

Our favorites? Cade, appealing to Tucci’s character to help them save the world: “You’re an inventor, just like me, so I know you care.” Also, his response to a ship-sized alien magnet: “It’s sucking up metal and then dropping it!”

But all of that is Sorkin-esque when compared to Optimus Prime’s parting words: “When you look to the stars, think of one of them as my soul.”

Although Joshua Joyce is already quite similar to Dylan Gould, this film is the first in uniquely establishing the United States Government as a primary enemy, as seen through CIA Director Harold Attinger.

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Finally, the sexually objectifying (a character depicted as) an underage girl (Nicola Peltz as Tessa Yeager) depicted is seemingly justified because we know there is nothing gay about this. (This scene looks pretty much The Graduate-esque, huh?)

According to the IGN review:

Transformers: Age of Extinction delivers essentially everything one would expect from a Transformers movie; both the good and the bad – and plenty of it. Michael Bay introduces his “redesigned” take on the morphing bots in a film that seeks to exceed its predecessors in scale, global scope, and runtime…certainly runtime. Depending on your perspective, that is either an attractive or entirely repellent proposition.

As anyone who’s been on the Internet, watched TV, or gone to the cinema recently knows, the basic premise is that failed robotics engineer Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) “finds a Transformer” – Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) himself, in fact – while he’s hunting through junk. Unfortunately, the government, via Kelsey Grammer’s villainous Harold Attinger, has declared an unofficial war on the alien shape-shifters. The Earth-saving Autobots are not excluded from the search and execution crusade. Cade, his 17-year-old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), best friend/assistant Lucas (T.J. Miller), and Tessa’s secret lover/professional race-car driver Shane (Jack Reynor) get caught in the crossfire between Attinger’s minions – the most vicious of whom is the ruthless Savoy (Titus Welliver) – and the fleeing Autobot leader.

Meanwhile, Attinger has commissioned tech tycoon Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) to create man-made and controlled Transformers via his company KSI. The aim is to use the manufactured robots as military weapons in this and all future wars, which as you can imagine is a totally flawless idea. Joyce utilizes the fallen (yep) Decepticons, including Megatron, and several captured Autobots to reverse engineer his new-world-order machines. In a bid to end “the age of the Transformers”, and in keeping with the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, Attinger has agreed to an uneasy alliance with Lockdown, a Transformer who swears allegiance to neither Autobot nor Decepticon.

Lockdown, who just may be the best and most bada** baddie this franchise has ever seen, seeks Optimus for his own purposes and cares little for the safety of the insignificant humans. To combat this new threat and protect his endangered brethren, Prime calls upon his own personal band of brothers: Bumblebee, Hound (John Goodman), Drift (Ken Watanabe), Crosshairs (John DiMaggio), and later, Brains (Reno Wilson).

Thus concludes the basic plot conceit and the extent of the story that contains a logical through-line. Ehren Kruger’s script is often predictably senseless and can feel like a hodgepodge of plotlines lifted from a bevy of recent, and some not so recent, blockbusters. The drive to annihilate the Transformers is akin to Days of Future Past; as both friendly and enemy “other” are hunted down, experimented on, and remade. There’s even a fundamental new story twist that quotes Prometheus, but in order to avoid spoilers, we won’t delve into the details at this time.

Those who don’t care for (read detest) Bay’s take on the Robots in Disguise will be far happier if they remain miles away from the IMAX 3D endeavor, as it serves up triple doses of  the director’s brainless lavishness. Audiences who are game to board the extravagance train will find that Age of Extinction hits all the notes that a Transformers movie ought to. Bay’s signature elaborate explosions and remarkable effects work are on tap, of course. ILM has outdone itself on this one and added an innovative diversity to what the Transformers are and can be, which is to say nothing of the attention to detail included in the truly stunning visual effects. In addition to impressive aesthetics, the soulful machines are endowed with a wide range of personality traits; some straight-up silly but others legitimately appealing. Also, you can tell who’s who when they’re brawling. Have we mentioned giant robots fighting?

The story provides some tantalizing hints at the Transformers’ backstory, and they ultimately outshine the humans. The much anticipated Dinobots, on the other hand, are not as present as some might have liked. Additionally, their re-awakening is entirely absurd and will leave you with more questions than answers. Having said that, Optimus charging ahead on a fire-breathing Grimlock’s back, sword-waving as they roar a battle cry is just as gloriously outlandish as you’d hope it would be.

Purists may take umbrage with the changes, but most audiences will likely enjoy the human-crafted and “upgraded” method of transformation, which is innovative and entertaining. There are some Gen 1 nods that will likely please life-long aficionados, but there is also a radical shift in the Transformers mythology. The evolutionary “seed” and a newly imagined creator take the place of the Allspark, here.

Working in 3D has – thankfully – once again forced Bay to slow down, and he’s played with its restrictions, allowing us to really see what’s happening to the humans as they are tossed through the air in the midst of giant robot fights. Though the editing still dips into a kinetic pace here and there, Bay has introduced a wider swath of action. The car chases are, ironically, not the film’s strong suit, but the helmer does offer hand-to-hand (both human and robot) combat, gravity manipulating spaceships, gunfights, sufficiently weird non-sequitur swordplay, world-altering destruction, slo-mo running, and oh, yes, grand-scale explosions.

If you’re going to indulge in a Bay film, you know you’re strapping in for detonations that are entirely removed from reality. At several points in the film a colleague turned to me and said, “What is blowing up right now!?!” Grass, concrete, or the ocean…it doesn’t matter; if we can see it, it can be blown up. Very early on in the film, Bay essentially creates his masterpiece, his Mona Lisa of explosions, which will likely leave you laughing – with your jaw agape – by the conclusion of the sequence. As to the scope, the Hong Kong and mainland China locations add flavor and a global scale to the devastation. They also invite one of the franchise’s largest markets (China) to enjoy massive robot carnage on their home turf.

Unfortunately, to say that the runtime is self-indulgent is an understatement of Cybertron-sized proportions. Never one to hold back, Bay’s glutted himself on this one, and the length is by far the weakest aspect of the film. It’s also potentially this entry’s undoing. Even those who enjoy the director’s relentless spectacle will find 165 minutes to be a herculean endurance test. Twenty-minutes could easily be shaved off by having Wahlberg profess his desire to protect his daughter just once rather than 200 times. The repetitive nature of the combat ultimately dilutes the strength of those sequences. Eventually, the viewer is left craving an end to the onslaught.

Having said that, Lockdown’s introduction, an embittered Optimus, and the human/Transformer hostility all serve to create a somewhat refreshing, slightly darker tone to the series. The often annoyingly manufactured humor is still there, but is toned down for the most part. It felt like Tucci was responsible for the bulk of the zany comedy, which is fine, as he understood what was needed and delivered. Grammer is terrific as the evil Attinger, as is Welliver as his henchman, but they ride the same tonal line throughout. Li Bingbing, an executive in Tucci’s company, functions mostly as eye-candy, but she is given one invigorating, if over-the-top, fight sequence. In general, the characters are broadly drawn – to say the least – and the film occasionally veers into misguided and stereotypical representations.

Wahlberg brings every ounce of his often endearingly goofy charm, as well as a relatable action appeal. He really does feel like a man in extraordinary circumstances rather than an inhuman force of nature the way some action icons can. Newcomers Nicola Peltz and Jack Reynor are disappointingly flat, though. They fail to pop the way – love him or hate him – former franchise lead Shia LaBeouf did.

Additionally, I have no clue why the Yeagers are meant to be from Texas, as there are no region-appropriate accents in attendance. Perhaps it was to make the overwhelming incidence of American flags make sense? Ultimately, the Transformers take center stage in this one, and for some that will be a very good thing. The Autobots do tread into wacky terrain, but that’s somewhat to be expected in a film that’s entirely designed to sell toys to little kids. This is, at its core, a three-hour Hasbro commercial, after all.

As mentioned, Lockdown is absolutely the most successful new aspect of this franchise. He is an attractive combination of rogue Navy Seal, gunslinger, Boba Fett, Clint Eastwood, Jason Statham, and the Terminator all rolled up into one giant robot with a massive Decepticon-sized chip on his shoulder. The interior of his ship is an awesomely strange and utterly fascinating house of alien horrors. The gravity generators create some of the most attention-grabbing spectacle as planes, trains, and oil tankers are sucked into the atmosphere only to come crashing back down to earth. His first appearance is marked by a ruthlessly brutal encounter with an Autobot on the run and marks the film’s only genuinely emotion-provoking moment.

Could the story of the Transformers be told differently and better? Sure. At four movies in, however, you know what you’re getting and if you buy the ticket, well, you’re going to take the ride. This one is overlong, but it otherwise meets expectations with some neat new twists and additions. Though not entirely original or thoroughly thought-out, the fresh take on the mythos that Lockdown introduces is delightfully bizarre and fun. It also leaves the franchise in a potentially intriguing new place by the film’s conclusion.

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4 thoughts on “On Transformers: Age of Extinction

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