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

Follow on Twitter

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

Follow on Twitter

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

Follow on Twitter

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

Follow on Twitter

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

Follow on Twitter

Fast and Furious 8 ****

As much as we all miss the late Paul Walker as the all-American boy Brian in the car-chasing series, Episode 8 proves the franchise hangs on muscle – in the human and auto sense, driven by Vin Diesel’s camp posturing as car nut Dom Toretto. It has even bigger biceps as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson flexes the ever-expanding pecks again as law-enforcing Hobbs. But as Toretto always says, it’s ‘family’ that keeps it together and the momentum on track once more, in more wittier ways than before.

When mysterious cyber villain Cipher (Charlize Theron) forces Toretto to join ranks with her against his ‘car family’ of wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Ludacris) and newbie member Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), the merry band join forces with Hobbs and unlikely ally, former nemesis Deckard (Jason Statham) to find rogue Toretto and stop him in his tracks. The question is what hold does Cipher have over him?

The latest saga has all the required throbbing engines, nubile ladies wearing ‘belts’ as skirts, sneers and jeers and testosterone-fuelled racing to prove a point that any fan expects. It also has the gravity-defying stunts, including the series’ most crackers one yet that involves breaking ice and Russian military hardware. Director F. Gary Gray is new to the F&F directing chair, but has stayed loyal to the franchise’s style that there is no obvious difference this time.

With a nice subtle nod to Brian when Toretto goes AWOL, the rest of the characters behave as billed – even Toretto in his new compromised position. The actor, who steals every scene he’s in though, is Statham – drawing on his comical turn in Spy (2015) and a blend of his Transporter/Expendables/Mechanic/Crank roles all in one gravelly delivery. The actor is certainly getting softer in his old age, the hard edges to his characters smoothening out – even with Deckard. Strangely, you will grow fond of him in the end.

Fans can expect a couple of old faces popping up throughout from previous escapades too – they just refuse to go away, nicely illustrating previous plots’ relevance to current events, so there is a lot of thrills to be had there, in addition to the collateral damage.

Get on board again for the ride with Version 8. Expect nothing new, just bigger, dafter ballsier fun with egos the size of tanks on the loose. This latest film just adds more fuel to the saga’s tank and keeps it running. Paul, you’d be proud.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

Smurfs: The Lost Village ****

From The Hobbit’s Shire to the Smurfs’ mushroom village, big and small kids love the idea of a place of serenity, harking back to simpler living. Ironically, defending territory from an external ‘terror’ threat by those wanting to change an existence strikes a chord in today’s unsettled world – one way to use Smurfs: The Lost Village to explain world affairs to curious little minds. So, however simple in plot the new Smurfs film first seems, it does combine in one story a positive sense of self-preservation with a healthy dollop of adventure, all for the benefit of kiddies in glorious multicolour with intrepid gnome explorers. It also attempts to shine the spotlight on Smurfette and mould her (pardon the pun) into a lead character in her own right.

Voiced by Demi Lovato, Smurfette is still trying to figure out what her unique skill is, four years on from the second film, and where she fits in in the Smurfs’ world? A chance encounter with a masked stranger in the forbidden forest and a map leads the only girl gnome and her best buddies, Brainy (Danny Pudi voices), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) and Hefty (Joe Manganiello), on an adventure to find a lost village. However, Smurfette has unwittingly led the Smurfs’ sworn enemy Gargamel (voiced by Rainn Wilson) and his beastly crew to the new location – and an untapped source of ‘blue power’ the sorcerer needs to be invincible. It’s up to Smurfette and co to warn the residents before it’s too late.

This time creator Peyo’s Smurfs are re-immersed in their own animated existence – no real-world shenanigans like in the 2013 film or creepy-looking ‘human-featured Smurfs’. Sadly, this also means no Hank Azaria in panto as Gargamel – nor in voice, though Wilson is just as entertaining. It does mean the filmmakers have full creative licence to explore the Avatar-styled world, equally bathed in blue. This film bounces along with 100 per cent enthusiasm and is very much about the gnome personalities, the introduction of which at the beginning wastes no time in reeling off a list of character traits in fun-filled, erratic fashion that younger viewers delight at. The rest of the frenetic pace follows suit, as expected with present-day kids animation.

As the momentum roller-coasters on – requiring a certain degree of concentration, as not to miss any ‘adult puns’, there is plenty of silliness, honesty, vulnerability, bravery and morals for kids to latch onto, absorb and ultimately cheer on their diminutive heroes. Admittedly, some of the funnier scenarios are touched on in the trailer, but the little personalities more than make up for this. Indeed, curiosity pays off as we’re all rewarded with plenty of ‘girl power’ in the end – hardly surprising given the writers are women and the scope for potential storyline spin-offs (and merchandise) could run on for years to come.

The fact is youngsters delight in the idea of little people saving the day in their narratives. The Lost Village delivers this thrill, with a few hiccups along the way. There’s also a nostalgic animated innocence to the whole affair that helps the Smurf personalities shine through – something the very busy, effects-heavy 2013 film lost. Smurfs: the Lost Village even has scampering dayglow bunnies, ready for Easter family viewing. There’s enough cinematic cuteness for everyone; if the plight of Smurfette doesn’t win you over, the bunnies will, while keeping the youngsters entertained for 90 minutes.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

Follow on Twitter

John Wick: Chapter 2 ****

If you could ‘feel sorry’ for an assassin, John Wick would be one such case. Desperate to get out of the deadly profession, he just keeps being dragged back into it. Keanu Reeves on the other hand – who again stars in the title role – is more than happy to revive this troubled brute who makes Rambo’s bodycount look pitiful. Reeves/Wick makes a welcome return in Chapter 2, not losing any of his previous appeal or looking worse for wear. There is also a dog in this one, but the situation has changed so animal lovers can breathe a sigh of relief.

This time, Wick is asked to repay a debt by crime boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), which involves a hit very close to home. The trouble for John is carrying out this request puts a global bounty on his head and will have him shuned from the decadent criminal underworld network – managed by Winston (Ian McShane) – he enjoys protection in. However, a debt is a debt, and John Wick must obey the code of honour.

This feels more ‘Bond’ in production and style than the first film, which had a grittier, edgier crime caper feel. It still has its colourful gloomy scenes but the global trek feels more akind to a 007 storyline, which is not necessary a bad thing. Chapter 2 boasts the same writer (Derek Kolstad) and director (Chad Stahelski who co-ordinated Reeves’s stunt on The Matrix), which also gives the character and the story some much needed continuity. Indeed, Kolstad came up with the character so it’s good to see he hasn’t abandoned him – there is talk of a third escapade anyway.

Reeves plays emotionally distant characters exceptionally well. John Wick works because he is a man full of secrets trying to redeem himself, while acting like a wounded animal on a self-defence mission. All of this is played out in an environment that does not take itself too seriously, with glimmers of deadpan humour mixed with a campness that certain Bond films enjoy. With a stunt co-ordinator in the director’s chair, the hand-to-hand combat sequences are exhilarating and commendable alone. There is a gaming sense behind the action, although without first-person play available, so it widens the target audience.

The motivation to kill is a simple one to grasp – there is no convoluted plot. Hence, this all ties in nicely with what John Wick’s strengths are; rawness, honesty, survival and loyalty. This is clearly what makes the series popular. Trying to cloud this are the mysteries and lore surrounding the ‘brotherhood’, though Kolstad gives fans more to chew on this time, but still leaving more for us to ponder over too. When John meets Winston at the end, it’s just like something out of The Matrix – even Laurence ‘Morpheus’ Fishburne stars in this film as a resistance-type character to add to the thrill. More questions upon questions feed an ongoing saga. At the same time, Wick dispenses with undesirables, even those higher up the food chain.

John Wick is another triumph for Reeves, just like Neo, with the same movie mileage, as Wick uncovers yet another underworld cancer that needs removing while trying to buy closure. Chapter 2 is every bit as satisfying and thrilling. Wick has to come back again for a hat-trick, if only to finish the job – a happy thought indeed.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

The Lego Batman Movie ****

For those worried the Batman might lose his clipped, gravel-toned, conceited edge after the success of The Lego Movie (2014), fear not: Will Arnett gives his little black-clad Lego character an even bigger presence once again in an equally funny but far darker film, The Lego Batman Movie.

Bruce Wayne – aka Batman – must deal not only with Gotham City’s criminals and arch enemy The Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), but also a new police commissioner (Barbara Gordon, voiced by Rosario Dawson) with different ideas to his own crime-busting and an orphan child he ‘forgets’ he’s adopted (voiced by Michael Cera). Is Batman going soft in his old age, and will he and his long-suffering butler and ‘surrogate dad’ Alfred (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) finally get the family unit they crave?

While Batman revels in his notoriety on screen, DC and Marvel aficionados are thrilled by the blatant mockery of the Batman-related characters from over the years, accumulating in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight versions (for example, Bane). While the first half hour of the film is sheer glee for the adults, the kids are equally thrilled by the whirling colour, jarring movement and crackers pace as they see the Lego come alive. It’s a win-win for family entertainment this half term.

However, be warned: there are some very dark moments and characters in peril that might upset younger viewers. That said everything else is fairly tame, as expected with Lego, so there is no guts and gore, but little bricks flying all over the place. Kids will always love the explosions and mayhem, as adults marvel at the evolving creativity in front of them. A lot of the best lines are in the trailer, such as why does the flying Batmobile only have one seat? Answer: last time Batman checked he only had one butt. However, there are plenty more scattered around the film to enjoy, so you are either continually smirking or laughing throughout. That’s not to say there are not flatter moments where the same jokes are over-peddled, having seen their sell-by date, but the momentum is so erratic, you are propelled onto the next scenario to truly care.

Also, from a family perspective, there are morals aplenty to subconsciously be embedded in your little one’s psyche. This film is all about the importance not only of family and not being able to do it all on your own, but also (eventually) mutual respect – so important in today’s political environment. However, you don’t feel like you’re being bombarded with condescending messages like in some Disney flicks to the point of nausea. Little orphan Dick – who becomes ‘pantless’ Robin – is so adorably chirpy and excitable that you can’t help but be swept up in his gratitude as Batman gives him a chance in life. Of course, there are lots of delicious moments to savour as Batman tries to adapt to fatherhood while Alfred tries to control his ward’s inner child – cue wrong PC password moment that will have you rolling your eyes in recognition and in stitches.

The Lego Batman Movie is a Lego rollercoaster of a ride with highs and lows, and perhaps too many characters than it can handle on one screen and use to full comedic potential. Nevertheless, it is a marvel of an animation with a good pounding heart – plus you’ll all be quoting Batman in Arnett’s gruff tones for days to come.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

Follow on Twitter