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

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

Monster Trucks (3D) ***

Don’t be fooled by the title; this is where machine and beast meet, not the kind of engine-driven trucks seen at Santa Pod and the like. Once you get your head around WHY such a monster would want to bed down within a clapped-out old pick-up, the daftness that is Monster Trucks is replaced by a certain fondness for the squid-like animal within, which the kids really do grow to love – once they’ve finished jumping out of their seats at its initial introduction.

Like any teen, Tripp (Lucas Till) is desperate to escape his small-town life and builds a Monster Truck out of scrapped cars at his local garage where he works part-time (run by Danny Glover’s character). An accident at the town’s oil-drilling site causes a ‘monster displacement’ and results in one taking refuge inside Tripp’s truck.

This oil-guzzling creature becomes an unlikely asset and friend to Tripp who makes it his mission to get the creature home – helped by Tripp-infatuated school chum Meredith (Jane Levy), after the oil company ‘baddies’ led by arch villain Rob Lowe‘s character try to prevent the beast and others like it returning to the lucrative, oil-rich drilling site.

This action-filled family adventure plucks at the heartstrings in many ways, unashamedly so too. We do sympathise with Tripp’s difficult family situation and immediately understand the developing bond between him and the monster as both needs protecting in their own special ways.

There is a lot of fun to be had while the film-makers berate greedy oil barons and America’s obsession with mining the liquid gold stuff. In a way, it’s a family adventure for the avid/budding environmentalist, with the mantra of ‘look at the damage caused by fossil fuels’ running right the way through, while strangely, worshipping petrol-head heaven in action.

For smaller kids, it has all that is needed to entertain; monsters, speed, trucks and chases, and the story is more than clear to any under five (as in my son’s case), especially as ‘Crank’ – as the monster is named – returns in The Abyss-style glory at the end. It is simplistic to the point of tedium for adults at times, but watched with small folk, can be quite exhilarating to experience together.

Monster Trucks is nothing profound – in fact, as to alerting young minds to environmental issues go, all-time classic WALL.E beats hands down. However, it does things in an immensely fun and loud fashion and in a way that kids will instantly connect to, guided by a young, good-looking hero-of-the-hour in Tripp. In an unexpected twist, it may just prove to be a school holidays’ box-office hit.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

Moana (3D) ****

We are getting quite used to strong animated female leads, and Disney’s latest hum-along entitled Moana – the name of the heroine in it – is no exception. She is headstrong, smart, courageous, adventurous and naturally, pretty. What makes her and her adventure more intriguing is the mythology surrounding the tale that anyone can enjoy, with songs that are emotive and toe-tappingly catchy, rather than pure schmaltz.

A terrible curse is triggered after a greedy Demigod called Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) steals a precious stone, causing all islands in the region to slowly perish. When the curse finally reaches Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho), an impetuous Chieftain’s daughter’s island, she answers the ocean’s call to seek out Maui and put things right.

Moana is a blaze of colour and a cool refreshing summer breeze on a chilly December day, with exotic island settings and characters that entertain all age groups. It also has enough subtle jokes for adults, rather than overkill of tedious ‘nudge, nudge, wink, winks’ that have to be explained in the darkness of a cinema as to why mummy or daddy is in a fit of giggles when something clearly unfunny has happened to small eyes.

Moana is also justified in her scolding nature at times, especially with the immature Maui, rather than damn right condescending like some other ‘Disney princesses’. She is very practical and full of wanderlust, which is infectious – though Disney can’t resist drumming home the ‘listen to yourself and follow your dreams’ mantra it survives on. Still, what’s wrong with that?

Again, the 3D is irrelevant for kids too young to keep their glasses on. The magic is in the colourful storytelling, the mood-raising songs and the fun characters that all have their minute of fame and purpose. There is even a Bowie-esque number by a crab that thrills.

Moana merchandise is in the shops, ready for Christmas. However, this time, you don’t resent the hard Disney sell as Moana is a role model any parent would actively encourage their offspring to have.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

Follow on Twitter

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ***

The J.K. Rowling imagination is always a treat to witness on screen – and on the page, so this magical ‘prequel’ to the Harry Potter series was bound not to disappoint on a creative level and be equaling immersive.

Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne is English writer Newt Scamander, a socially awkward intellectual who arrives with ‘animal baggage’ in New York to source more species. However, he gets embroiled in sinister witch hunts – by ‘Muggles’ called ‘No Majs’ – and power struggles within the secret community of witches and wizards, seventy years before school-boy Harry Potter reads his book.

The more cynical might say the latest story is milking the cash cow that Rowling has made so lucrative. However, fans of her wizard world cannot get enough of the super imaginative existence, and this is again delivered in spades, along with some comedy moments.

The film also appeals to animal lovers and preservationists, with a couple of ‘innocents’ at the helm trying protect the former. Redmayne is perfectly cast, but as Newt spends a lot of time in mumbled reflection and social awkwardness, it is down to Muggle ‘comic’ sidekick Jacob (a great performance by Dan Fogler), who Newt unexpectedly gets entangled with at the start, to be our guide and re-enforce this ‘wide-eyed innocence’ the film so relies on to further enchant.

Rowling cleverly ties in real-world beliefs, with America’s witch trials in the 1920s, giving the story foundation greater significance. Hence, context, setting and cast are all commendably established, ready for the next in the film installment. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same affliction as the first Potter films, with a lot of the space dominated by trying to set up the pre-Potter world (of how it all began) – even to the detriment of the fantastic animals – that the film’s story gets a little lost.

That said as a festive family offering, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them has all the charm needed to make it a satisfying viewing – and a must-see for Potter enthusiasts, kind of like a history lesson in Potter origins.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

Doctor Strange ****

doctor-strange

Any Cumberb*tch could have told you their idol Benedict Cumberbatch was on a higher spiritual level a long time ago. Indeed, the actor is famous for playing cerebral, influential men, so it’s no stretch of the imagination to find him a Marvel hit in the role of Doctor Strange.

When brilliant neurosurgen Dr Stephen Strange awakes from a serious car accident without the full use of his hands, he tries to find every means possible to recover, even pushing away support from fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), an old flame. His inability to accept his current predicament leads him on a journey to Nepal to find ‘The Ancient one’ (Tilda Swinton) who has helped another man make a full recovery.

As a man of science Strange finds it hard to take her advice and is skepitcal about the ‘magic’ of the mystic arts she performs. Little does Strange know that this newfound power will not only save his life, but also the whole world’s from the dark forces set to crush and consume Earth, under the command of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of The Ancient One.

Co-writer/director Scott Derrickson and team have brought the intriguing Steve Ditko character to life, helped by some excellent casting in Cumberbatch who is as egotistical and narcissistic in the role as he is very funny. There is a superb script to enjoy and some genuinely hilarious retorts, as Strange tries to navigate this magical new world with sarcasm and scientific doubt.

Swinton adds the gravitas required for a key spiritual teacher and is faultless as she is vulnerable in the role – and equally amusing. However, it’s Strange’s quips at the expense of po-faced librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) that steal the main laughs – the running joke being that the ex-surgeon thinks he is a funny man when clearly he is an acquired taste.

McAdams also gets in on the laughs to relieve her character’s tense interactions with ‘spiritual’ Strange upon his return, and can be counted on for a solid performance in everything she does. There is also an assured turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, another pupil who rejects the use of the dark powers in healing others.

Hannibal actor Mikkelsen fails to disappoint yet again as the bad guy, with his steely gaze intact and laudable focus on the mission. The film’s fight scenes are also very well choreographed, with a good balance between action and character development throughout.

Derrickson’s mind/eye-bending set, like something from Christopher Nolan‘s Inception, keeps the fantasy morphing and fresh as we navigate it’s Esher-like space before entering another plane. The effects are highly impressive, as is the creativity poured into them – just witness skeptic Strange’s first experience through the astral plane, which is like riding a psychedelic rollercoaster.

Doctor Strange makes for a promising entry into the Marvel world for the uninitiated – and stay to the very end of the credits for both sneak peaks of what’s to come, involving other Marvel heroes. Some of the slower parts of the film go unnoticed because Cumberbatch always commands a presence and is immensely enthralling to watch.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

Star Trek Beyond ****

star-trek-beyond

In a moment of irony right at the start of the latest Star Trek film, Star Trek Beyond, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) admits things have started to feel a little ‘episodic’ aboard the USS Enterprise, angling for a desk job in Top Brass. This could be said of the film franchise, regardless of a J.J. Abrams reinvigoration of it in 2013.

This Justin Lin (of Fast & Furious directing fame) version keeps the series zinging along in its own nebula of cosmic chaos but grounds it with some compelling character relationships, plus a generous touch of nostalgia and fun.

When a rescued crew member reports that her ship has been destroyed and her crew taken hostage, James T. Kirk and his crew, Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), Doctor ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban), Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott (Simon Pegg) venture back out into space, but become stranded and divided on an alien planet. With no means of communication, they must work together to reunite and find a way to get back home.

The same cast returns three years on, having already convinced us of their credentials back in 2013, and not failing to engage us again with a solid combination of solidarity and fun. They are helped by a script penned by Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung, with the smart quips certainly having that trademark Pegg sarcasm.

The best lines are delivered by Urban as Bones, who comes across as the funniest, unfunny guy of the moment, constantly sticking his space boot in it with pure relish for us. Pegg naturally reserves some humorous lines for Scotty too, though assisted by an unusual comedy sidekick in Sofia Boutella as warrior rebel Jaylah who rebuffs his comments and is perhaps the most striking and exciting character in this episode.

Qunito’s Spock still has an aura of understated wisdom and awe about him. The actor has made this iconic character his own, reiterated by the defining moment he hears news from home of his mentor (played by the late Leonard Nimoy). In fact, in a moving note, it’s good to see the late Anton Yelchin back as Chekov one last time.

Idris Elba makes an appearance as the token baddie Krall, though is virtually unrecognisable until the very last battle scenes. Still, his character has a nice story arc, like all the others, allowing us to connect with them on a deeper level and care about their personal and collective troubles. Again, another success of the film is its big emphasis on ‘team spirit’, which doesn’t require you to be a Trekkie or to have seen the other films to fully engage. It is a standalone space ride of thrilling entertainment.

With gravity-defying effects – some nauseating, like revisiting Nolan’s Inception, this film’s momentum carries you along in a whirl, while pausing to address a character’s reaction at any single moment. This great marriage of sci-fi fantasy and characters we care about will guarantee the Star Trek movie franchise lives much longer and prospers.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

Alice Through The Looking Glass (3D) **

Alice

The wonder that is Lewis Carroll returns with the loveable Alice in Wonderland characters, but minus his clever, quirky storytelling in director James Bobin and screenwriter Linda Woolverton’s 3D creation, Alice Through the Looking Glass. Thankfully, the visuals capture the imagination and deflect from the lacklustre adventure.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska returning) comes home from her sea travels on her late father’s ship to find her mother, Helen (Lindsay Duncan) being forced to sell the ship (and family business) or forfeit the family home. This threatens to end her independence and adventures.

Alice returns to Wonderland through a looking glass, only to discover that dear old friend Hatter (Johnny Depp) has gone into a deep depression because nobody believes his family are still alive. In order to prove they are and change the cruel course of history, Alice must ‘borrow’ a vital time machine device from Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) and face an old adversary, Iracebeth, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).

Bobin has big creative boots to fill in Tim Burton’s absence, and he does an adequate job here, gaining the most he can out of a sparse tale with the acting talent on offer. However, the fault lies more on the writing side. Although Hatter’s family demise is interesting – as is the family breakdown and back story of another key character, there just doesn’t seem to be enough to carry the film past the eye-boggling visuals.

It needs to be brain-bending too, translatable to youngsters but fascinating for adults. The key being main character Alice and why she feels compelled to put it all on the line to uncover Hatter’s mystery and save her own sanity. It just feels too superficial, lazily aimed at the effects-hungry youngsters who should not be underestimated for craving substance either.

That said the likes of Depp, Cohen and Bonham Carter fill the story void, each expertly portraying a wonderful animated character, though lacking the narrative space to fully blossom as we are whisked away on the next whiz-bang effects sequence to solve the Hatter riddle. Wasikowska is again commendable as headstrong Alice who is crushingly vulnerable and immature at times – hence retreating into Wonderland.

Attempting to tackle Alice’s personal struggles, including her mental health and society’s expectations of privileged women of that time is stuff of another more ‘grown up’ film version. However, Alice does wake up in an institution so these aspects are still very relevant and lacking the explanation they deserve – the kids will still ask why she’s bed bound. Just as well the arresting visuals come to the film’s rescue to stop you spending any more time contemplating this oversight.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a feast for the imagination, so the design team has well and truly done its job. It’s Carroll’s eccentric storytelling that’s woefully missing, even while revisiting the individually unique characters.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter