Transformers: The Last Knight (3D) **

Relax folks, it’s Michael Bay back again for the fifth time to assault our senses. Go into Transformers: The Last Night with this in mind, and the outcome isn’t as painful as you might expect. There is less mangled mental in colourful whirl than in previous films – and this one is mildly better than the last. Indeed, love or hate him, Bay is a master at crafting an action blockbuster for the supersized screen, which is why people come back for more. It’s got nothing to do with plot and character development.

Action stalwart Mark Wahlberg returns for more of a beating as engineer and ‘inventor’ Cade Yeager who is in hiding from the Transformers Reaction Force, a military-run operation tasked with ridding the planet of Transformers. Yeager has a few hiding out in his scrap metal yard, including Bumblebee, right-hand robot to the Autobot’s leader, Optimus Prime (who keeps telling us he’s ‘Optimus Prime’ throughout, in case we missed it).

The latter is forced against his will to find the key – something to do with mythical wizard Merlin – to bringing Prime’s dead home planet, Cybertron, back to life, while Megatron and his Decepticons wait to destroy him and his crew. The problem is, in bringing Cybertron back, Earth must perish. It’s up to Yeager, an English history professor (Laura Haddock) and their allies (including Anthony Hopkins as Sir Edmund Burton, Josh Duhamel as ever embattled Colonel William Lennox and John Turturro as the exiled but returning Agent Simmons) to save our planet.

In a similar vein to the Fast and Furious franchise – both boast machines, babes and gravity-defying stunts (for humans), Transformers still fills cinema seats. The answer is in the easily digestible format as listed. You can switch off and go ‘oooo and ahhh’ at the spectacle, like being on an overpriced rollercoaster seat – and it affects the eyeballs too. If that’s not your bag, it isn’t going to delight or get any better. In fact, it’s going to be painful. That is where the problem lies in critics expecting greater things from Bay – he actually gives you what you crave in terms of an action blockbuster fix, nothing else.

Transformers is an utterly daft franchise, made crazier this time in The Last Knight by the excruciating upper-class English caricatures that are both ridiculous and unrealistic – much like its battle scenes. It always prompts much head scratching when humans believe firing rounds of bullets and rockets at superior alien life forms would eliminate the threat. Eventually they hit the bullseye, after some bright spark figures out how to.

The fact that writers Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan believe linking the kingdom of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table to the Transformers’ history is farcical in itself – like a last bid attempt at making the story franchise credible. If you can absorb and overcome this absurdity, it’s even more entertainingly silly to watch – a fact the cast seem to have grasped.

Wahlberg is designed for such films, returning for more. His character is always agreeable, testosterone-fuelled and smart-mouthed enough to get you on side. Like Fast and Furious, there are some nice motors to ogle too – in addition to pouty Haddock who is a Megan Fox clone, however unfair that is to the Brit actress. There is also the (frankly) pointless casting of young Isabela Moner as ‘Transformer protector’ Izabella, perhaps for the younger audience, but sinisterly ‘over sexed’ (and pouty) to set off parents’ alarm bells of 12 year-olds. Again, it’s Bay’s Fox obsession filtering through…

Transformers: The Last Night (3D) – seen in 3D but not necessary to be – is much of the same with a plot out of a Dan Brown novel, if you think of the secret society aspect. The familiar faces slog on to the last; indeed, the ending points to installment six. Yes, another Transformer siege is in the planning, and if you haven’t got fatigue already, there’s a Bumblebee spin-off too. If that grates by the end of this film, Optimus Prime telling us he’s, well, Optimus Prime, then be prepared for the onslaught of the bleedin’ obvious in round six. You just can’t keep a Transformer down, it seems.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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My Cousin Rachel ****

Daphne du Maurier novels are primed for screen use – just take Rebecca, The Birds and Don’t Look Now, for example. After all, she was a master of intrigue, dark imagination, and open endings, and was one of Hitchcock’s favourites to adapt. Hence, the second big-screen incarnation of My Cousin Rachel (the first made in 1952, starring Olivia de Havillard and a young Richard Burton) ought to be an enticing affair, starring Rachel Weisz this time around. It is, and just as moody in production as in acting as any ‘period film noir’ should be. It also retains the mystery right up until the very last frame, which some might find utterly frustrating.

After the sudden death of his beloved cousin/father figure in Italy, young Englishman Philip (Sam Claflin) begins to plot revenge against his cousin’s widow, the enigmatic and beautiful Rachel (Weisz), believing foul play at his cousin’s demise. He waits for Rachel’s imminent arrival, after news that she is to settle in England on her husband’s estate – which Philip has been running and will inherit at on his 25th birthday. However, the more Philip gets to know her, the more he falls for her charm and individuality. But what are Rachel’s real intentions?

The ‘did she, didn’t she’ yarn is engrossing enough to have you hooked throughout and continually looking for clues to solve the mystery. At the same time, it almost makes excuses for some of the lesser explained sub plots that writer-director Roger Michell leaves ‘hanging’. Perhaps, this whole mystery works because both Michell and his leads did not discuss who is to blame throughout filming? This certainly translates onto screen, as all the characters have is to react to the present situation they find themselves in, while they (and we) try working out what the devil is going on?

My Cousin Rachel cleverly swings between sympathy with and suspicion of Rachel, partly due to the great acting talents of Weisz – without her, this film might have been a non-starter. Weisz delivers just the right amount of torment and teasing, composure and melodramatics to keep you guessing, playing the full spectrum of emotion. She is entrancing to watch even when she says nothing, dressed in mournful black most of the time, like some ever-present dark menace in the room, even in her lighter moments.

Michell does make full use of the Rael Jones music score to prompt changes in mood perhaps a little too frequently, but Claflin’s ‘lesser acting experience’ compared to Weisz’s actually plays to his character’s advantage in dealing with the more worldly-wise woman. Claflin says he did not know what Weisz’s next move would be on set and this certainly shines through.

The actual surprise for those fans of Austen and Dickens-adapted films is the modern vein of humour coursing through it, even the language that My Cousin Rachel employs – cue the moment Philip’s butler deals with men wrongly dressing the Christmas tree. This is a feature of du Maurier’s written word which Michell has captured well, and it feels quite in place and ‘fresh’, punctuating languishing moments in such a period drama, even though the time’s decorum is still maintained.

Game of Thrones’ star Iain Glen and Holliday Grainger are brilliant support to Claflin’s Philip as the Kendalls (father and daughter), who worry about his position and mental health. As onscreen mentors and wiser figures, even they are susceptible to Rachel’s lure, making for an intriguing dynamic.

My Cousin Rachel is a curious one to describe to those who haven’t seen it. It creeps up on you slowly and makes you think before frustrating the hell out of you in the end. It has love, mystery, drama and comedy, without all the stuffiness of period drama that might turn some off. It is a period ‘coming-of-age’ film too, where the ‘bad guy’ is female – or is she? Is she just very independent and sexually liberated for her time? As Philip asks in the end: who is to blame? Perhaps, that’s where du Maurier’s opening line in the novel might help: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days”… You decide.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Rock Dog ***

Another animation, another animated ‘hero’ full of good intentions, this time the moral in Rock Dog is: ‘follow your dreams and don’t let anyone deter you’, with talking animals, akin to Zootropolis. It’s not the latter though (unfairly judged against a larger studio release in some respects), but has its own indie charm, full of funny, cute moments. What is does have is a highly catchy theme tune in ‘Glorious’, which the kids were humming all the way out of the cinema and down the street afterwards. In that respect, it makes its mark through music.

After a radio falls from the sky, guitar-loving Tibetan Mastiff Bodi (voiced by Luke Wilson) hears rock music for the first time from ‘superstar rocker’ Angus Scattergood (voiced by Eddie Izzard), and realises his dream is to be a musician. That goes dead against what his father, guard dog Khampa (voiced by J.K. Simmons) wants for him – he ought to be guarding the sheep of the village against their ancient enemy, the wolves. Khampa reluctantly lets his son go to the big city to fulfill his dream – and maybe meet Scattergood in the flesh.

Rock Dog has some good-hearted, fun characters to ride along with, and a certain easy charm that makes it totally consumable. Although Bodi is the star and certainly resonates with the kids, Scattergood is for the adults. Izzard is hilarious as the cat ‘music demi god’ who finds most things in life tedious and has run out of inspiration. He is the epitome of ‘Brit music cool’ though and that alone is enough to make him a memorable character.

Indeed, the plot can be seem coming a mile off before the film has even started – we know Bodi will be successful, somehow. The film is about the journey he takes, with its quaint innocence from not only Bodi but also the sheep. It’s also a refreshing take, set in the Tibetan hills, from the usual city affair, though it ends up in the Big Smoke.

The other thing is it is all good clean fun for a younger child to watch – even though it involves a rock star. Even the wolves are not too scary for youngsters (not jumping in mum/dad’s lap this time), and are like poor imitations from a tame Guy Ritchie gangster flick (minus any swearing). Centre stage is given to the fledgling Bodi-Scattergood relationship, and the highs and lows of it. In that sense, kids get to see humility in the end, in addition to the rise to stardom.

Rock Dog has a lot of lessons for all viewers of all ages to learn from – after all, it’s never too late for anyone to follow a dream. Some of the humour is a little slapstick and déjà vu, but utterly harmless, nevertheless. It will make you walk away with a smile and a hum, so that’s not a bad thing.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Baywatch ****

This could have been an expensive gamble that didn’t pay off. Seth Gordon has guided the reboot of popular TV series Baywatch onto the big screen with expertise, making sure there are oodles of silliness, as well as buff bodies clad in red Lycra to enjoy. Position popular actor Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson at the helm – who has proved his ease at moving between comedy, family and adventure films, and there is a recipe for success.

Johnson plays the iconic character, lifeguard Mitch Buchannon, brought to life on TV by David Hasselhoff (who makes a cameo in this). While butting heads with cocky new recruit Matt Brody, played by Zac Efron, who used to be an Olympic swimming champion, fallen on hard times due to booze, Buchannon uncovers a criminal plot headed by hotelier mogul Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) that threatens the future of the bay.

Never throughout its 116 minutes run-time does Baywatch ever drop its tongue-in-cheek stance and try to be anything more than a current send-up of the TV series. This is ALL about delivering fun, fun and more fun, along with plenty of action and undercurrents of serious social topics. Just take Jon Bass’s Ronnie character’s embarrassing ‘entanglement’ on a beach lounger, and how Buchannon and co deal with that particular ‘rescue’, and you get the gist. Think Judd Apatow does Baywatch in fact. Every scene mocks the pseudo seriousness of the TV drama, so it’s a tonic to watch if you were a fan.

Johnson and Efron make a great team – alpha male verses alpha male, which, interestingly, turns into a father-son relationship of mutual appreciation. This is played below the radar as not to revert from the campness going on – no surprises there really. Of course the females play second fiddle to the male leads – as expected, but all characters are there to be ogled, precisely the incentive of the TV show. The girls just get to tease more in this. The fact the baddie is a femme fatale stereotype is nothing new either, but Chopra is a sultry delight in the role, like watching any Bond villain at play on a Baywatch set.

It’s important to remember Baywatch is not out to smash stereotypes but embrace and mock them for pure pleasure. It’s self-depreciating too, allowing anything to happen without judgment. Throw in some explosions (and fireworks), stunts and pecs and buts, plus a strong cast who deliver comedy effortlessly, and it’s one of the best box office nights out on offer at present – something that surprised even this reviewer!

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (3D) **

The thought of Captain Jack Sparrow returning to the big screen will always bring a smile to the face of some. However, what latest installment titled Salazar’s Revenge (or as it’s also know, Dead Men Tell No Tales) proves is you can’t rely on him alone to carry a film. The biggest winner on the night were the impressive special effects, even though new female lead Carina, played by Kaya Scodelario, fairs better than Ms Knightley ever did – a better-drawn character all round.

Carina is thought to be a witch but is actually a ‘woman of science’, a self-taught astronomer who is on the hunt for Poseidon’s Trident, along with Henry (Brenton Thwaites), the son of previous characters Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann – Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley who both pop up in this. They have to recruit the help of Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and his crew of the Black Pearl to do so. However, all are being pursued by deadly ghost pirates led by Sparrow’s old nemesis, the terrifying Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) who is on a mission to kill every pirate at sea after escaping from the Devil’s Triangle.

Salazar’s Revenge tries to return to the swashbuckling glory of yonder years, even with scenes of a baby-faced Depp as Sparrow to help reignite our interest in the character. Sadly, the most rounded character here is the return of Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbosa who ends up steal many of the scenes and gets the most interesting character arc.

Gone are the days when we gleefully sniggered at Depp’s sozzled Sparrow who crashes around port towns he lands in and leers at pretty ladies – including Carina. It’s becoming a little embarrassing, like seeing the same sozzled uncle at Christmas repeating the same actions. Thankfully, Scodelario’s Carina is more than apt at rebuffal and charting her own course at sea. Although Scodelario is very good in the role and tries to make Carina a solid female part at the beginning, the problem lies in the lack of character development as the story (and adventure) progresses – a problem all but Rush’s character has.

The characters begin to be caught up in the whirl of special effects – the only thing really fascinating to watch here, just see the dead sharks in action. Even natural ‘screen baddie’ Bardem can’t summon up enough malice to truly terrify and looks as deflated as we are towards the end, like he’s battling for screen-time with the CGI, which says a lot about effects taking over plot.

You really do look forward to each new Pirates tale as they are pure adventure-fantasy pleasure. However, Salazar’s Revenge is a CGI triumph and a character fail, with a story/adventure worth telling far, far better.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Alien: Covenant ***

After the lukewarm response to director Ridley Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus, there was real cause for concern with his latest instalment Covenant – did it have a new bite (no Alien pun intended). Thankfully, because of Michael Fassbender’s mysterious and creepy android David, Scott had a new terror on offer to the human crew.

It’s ten years on since the demise of the Prometheus crew, and another craft called Covenant with 2,000+ hibernating colonists is cruising through Space. After a malfunction, its crew is woken early and receives a signal from a nearby planet that suggests human life. They go to investigate and find a surprise from Prometheus on its surface. They also discover their worst nightmare still breeds: the alien.

Covenant follows the same trajectory as the other Alien films, while you wait for the first alien strike. However, where this film then differs is two forces of evil at play, the question being which is more imminently terrifying.

Fassbender as David – and more ‘empathetic’ Walter – is the driving force, as established in the very first scene, and shows the actor at his finest, playing a synthetic psychopath with shades of light and dark and keeping us grip. In fact it’s almost as though the alien is a sub plot of malice and the real disturbing question is man’s reliance on (and submission to) machine.

Praise too, to Fantastic Beasts actress Katherine Waterston as Daniels, the first serious Ripley contender since the earlier films. She has enough fight to take on David and the aliens and be the human saviour – or not, perhaps?

Covenant may not satisfy all fans, such as those wanting to see lots of alien attacks – indeed, Scott does make sure there are some gory chest (and back) bursting scenes, but it does inject new blood and purpose into the Alien series with the focus on character rather than effect. It’s still just a nail biting.

3/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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