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Movie Reviews

Transformers: The Last Knight

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Director: Michael Bay

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel

Released: 22nd June 2017 (UK)

Reviewer: Van Connor

One decade and four films on from the onset of the cinematic Transformers series, fifth instalment The Last Knight sports a scene early on that threatens to finally pull the rug out from under us and offer us something different. It’s a sequence evoking the tone and demographic skew of recent Netflix hit Stranger Things, and – for about two solid minutes – lulls you into the false belief that the Transformers series – a series based on children’s toys – might at last be focusing on and aiming itself towards kids.

Alas, master of incoherent disaster Michael Bay swiftly puts paid to this notion with the reintroduction of the world’s least convincing inventor – Mark Wahlberg’s hilariously named Cade Yaeger – and assures us that this fifth go around really is nothing more than that. Albeit with a faintly engaging National Treasure element and the addition of the franchise’s first fully-fleshed out female character – something, again, it’s taken five movies to get around to.

Optimus Prime, you see, has been off in space trying to track down his race’s creators, leaving fugitive Cade as the human protector of the remaining Autobots in a world that has declared them illegal and routinely hunts them to the death. Except for in Cuba, where Castro has granted them asylum and Bay presumably has a vacation home. Coming into possession of an ancient Cybertronian relic however, Cade quickly finds himself and the Autobots on the run and in search of an all-powerful weapon that not only dates back to Arthurian times, but – with the help of an English lord (Anthony Hopkins) and a history professor (Laura Haddock) – will finally answer the question of why the Transformers are so attached to Earth to begin with.

Arguably one of the series’ better instalments – provided you’re grading on an extremely charitable curve – The Last Knight flickers to life on occasion in a manner displayed by no other instalment bar the 2007 instigator. Here, the fleeting use of a historically-fuelled scavenger hunt almost threatens to make proceedings somewhat enjoyable, though any hopes of it doing so are continually shot down by its script’s falling back into its default setting with the endless reliance on what can only be described as R-rated humour for children and borderline incoherent action sequences invariably involving yet more vehicle chases and the large-scale demolition of conveniently deserted locales.

Wahlberg offers up a second (and, reportedly, final) round of shouty bewilderment, while Haddock makes for a surprisingly likeable and (for this series) refreshingly developed co-star. Haddock’s at once representative of both the best and worst attributes of the film, offering up a woman of intellect, agency and femininity, yet simultaneously showing off that Michael Bay’s idea of a female academic looks like a Victoria’s Secret model in a pencil skirt and a pair of specs. Hopkins, for what it’s worth, livens up proceedings rather nicely, his outwardly old-school British lord quickly emerging as something of a snarky delight. That he’s paired though with an Autobot butler who could easily rank in the top three most annoying characters of the entire series, does dampen enjoyment of his presence more than you’d like.

Not that enjoyment is really much of an option with The Last Knight, which feels just as narratively flat as the series has ever been. Frivalous concepts such as character arcs are dealt out and cast aide like beer mats to the endless serving of mechanical carnage, the outward and internal logic of the film are finally on the same page as regards outright ridiculousness, and the continuous flickering between aspect ratios (hey, IMAX…) becomes even more annoying when it comes by way of a director who uses as many superfluous shots as Bay does. That it has no sense of geography and ends with an eye-rolling sequel set-up, ultimately, feels almost inconsequential in the weight of the sheer awfulness of the film already pushing critical mass. Worse, The Last Knight is merely another Transformers sequel to tantalise audiences with the notion of what it could be, before simply offering up more of the same – albeit with about 5% more interesting a story by way of half-inching one of this century’s better Nicolas Cage movies.

Tellingly, the film actually begins with a static page actually listing the various Chinese companies funding it, and it’s a statement that you can’t help but feel echoing throughout your otherwise unoccupied mind for the first hour of this nuts n’ bolts mecha-smash ’em up. In fact, it genuinely begs the question of what kind of aftermarket modifications the Chinese production houses are making to the storylines and dialogue of these movies in the dub and/or subtitles that any audience so quite could willingly lap this nonsensical rubbish up. The internet churlishly refers to its overriding mentality as “Bayhem”, though – if The Last Knight proves anything – it’s that this term only exists because “the fetishisation and pornographisation of a children’s property” is at once both a mouthful and makes for a terrible acronym. It’s staggering to believe that we’ve now sat through a decade of this series, a series in which its characters (be they human and/or robot) can legitimately be regarded as spending more screen time sliding and skidding on their asses than they do actually walking upright. It’s exhausting, physically and psychologically draining to sit through, but with all the smug arrogance of a film series that really believes its better than anyone except the habitually lobotomised does.

That being said, if you’ve grown up with this (cinematic) series, odds are you’ll see nothing to complain about here – lord knows the franchise has a gargantuan global (re: Chinese) fan base. If you’re going to even try to view it as a work of cinema however, good luck – and remember to pack the Dramamine. Supposedly the start of an entire Transformers cinematic universe, The Last Knight is a tiring, headache-inducing bore of a movie that somehow – at two hours and twenty-five minutes – ranks as the second shortest of the lot. And that’s really it’s biggest saving grace – that, as bad as it is, at least it’s not as long as the last one.

Keeper of Lola M. Bear. Film critic for Movie Marker, TalkRADIO, and others. Producer of podcasts. Skechers enthusiast and blazer aficionado. All opinions my own.

Movie Reviews

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: David Yates

Starring: Jude Law, Johnny Depp. Also Eddie Redmayne.

Reviewed By: Van Connor

The magic’s well and truly faded with this second instalment of the erstwhile Harry Potter prequel series, as The Crimes of Grindelwald shifts the action to Paris, but its own sensibilities entirely too far into the franchise world-building spectrum that could threaten to unravel it. It never does quite unfurl from the exhaustion of it, that would, after all, suggest there were anything of note at its core. There isn’t. The Crimes of Grindelwald is precisely the patronising box-office-centric cash-grab any decent cynic’s always accused the Harry Potter series of being under the surface; all that’s changed is that, this time, they really can’t be bothered to attempt to mask it beneath any kind of fun.

One of those sequels you can rather obviously tell was never meant to exist, this very-much-a-part-two kicks off unceremoniously (it has no other setting, as you’ll discover over the course of a mind-numbing two and a quarter hours) by setting about undoing literally every closing plot mechanic of what’s come before. Did a character end up in Point A last time? Well, this time they’re going to be reintroduced via what’s either an interesting and poorly lit set-piece or clunky exposition in order to set themselves up at Point B instead, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for them to do so. Only then may the plot of The Crimes of Grindelwald begin. And plot it has. Lots of plot. Tons and tons of plot. In fact, it has very little else but plot. So, it’s somewhat mystifying that David Yates’ sixth venture into what’s evidently now branded as the Wizarding World should ultimately amount to so little.

From what little you’re able to glean of the plot, proceedings involve the immediate escape of evil wizard Gerrett Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) from the prison to where he was sent last time. On the loose once more, Grindelwald sets about exacting his master plan to ensure magical dominance over the human race, a plan that involves the formation of a dark wizarding army and the utilisation of one Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller), with the latter’s death evidently no obstacle for the likes of his contract’s sequel options. The only wizard capable of stopping Grindelwald, we’re told, is that rebellious master wizard Albus Dumbledore (now played in a younger form by Jude Law), but Dumbledore can’t, you see, because… reasons, and despatches a reluctant Newt Scamander to do so in his stead. Because, again, reasons.

Now, you can be forgiven for taking that plot in and wondering just how in the hell Eddie Redmayne’s Newt need in any way be present for any of this, and, frankly, you’d be right to do so. Certainly, Eddie Redmayne appears to be wondering the same – his contingent of the cast (essentially the main four from the last movie) each make what can charitably be described as diminishing returns, offering more outright effort in their performances to a film that really can’t be bothered to do much with them. They’re not important, you see, Dumbledore is. Grindelwald is. And creator/screenwriter/living cash hoover J.K. Rowling genuinely cannot be bothered to pretend otherwise. That movie snotty naysayers claim they always somehow see whenever there’s a new superhero movie out? The one that’s nothing but nonsense, world-building and a half-hourly set-piece? That movie actually does exist. And its title is The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Losing the magic of even its own musical arrangement, The Crimes of Grindelwald is an outright disaster not just of a seasonal tentpole release, but of a franchise picture full stop. Its script works exhaustingly to tie itself in knots to go essentially nowhere, its culmination consisting of literally nothing more than two pieces of unceremonious lore being shouted about in canon, each essentially lionised by Rowling so that at least one of them can no longer be called out as the laziest, most cynical, and ethically bankrupt product of the entire franchise. She fails in this endeavour, as, indeed, does Yates in delivering a dreary and uninvolving film to which his cast aspire to inject life, only to reanimate the narratively dead instead.

Legions of Potterites will doubtless flock to the nearest multiplex the moment the doors open, and, to be fair, that is absolutely the power the brand has and ours is not to question. If the priority of this series, though, genuinely is the continued pumping of revenue into the Rowling estate landscaping fund, would it really be too much to ask to even attempt to make it a good time? Can we not at least get some enjoyment out of this? A big ask, I know. But it’d behove Rowling, Yates, and everybody involved in this shill of a series to at least consider we might want some excitement next time around. Maybe when the second act stops dead for ten minutes to give us a canon origin story for the damned sorting hat.

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Featured Review

Hell Fest ★★★

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: Gregory Plotkin

Starring: Amy Forsyth, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards

Reviewed By: Van Connor

In the pantheon of cinema, the slasher movie sits alongside only really Die Hard and the western as being unfathomably easy to retrofit for any occasion with “…but with this unique location instead!” Hell Fest is a textbook case of this. It has no ambition beyond merely being a slasher movie set within a specific gimmick-driven environment, no desire to offer up anything more than stock Hollywood teens being violently murdered one at a time, and is under no illusion about whether or not you’ve ever seen this movie before or even care. What it is concerned with, though, is fun. And it has that in spades.

It’s literally nothing more than “the slasher movie at an adult horror theme park”. A concept, it turns out, that you can make a fair amount of mischief with, as our group of six abhorrently gorgeous twenty-eight year-old teenagers find themselves fixated upon by a sinister figure in a wooden mask and brandishing a kitchen knife. This being the eponymous theme park, naturally there are a multitude of places for our teens to hide, but, as is par for the course in Hell Fest, where you hide could just as easily be the very means by which our masked murderer will gut you. Fun!

Though none of the cast leap out as being particularly noteworthy (Arrow’s Bex Taylor-Klaus and MacGyver’s Reign Edwards are arguably the biggest geek pulls here), each serviceably handles their limited place within the story. Amy Forsyth’s a perfectly fine Final Girl, not memorable, but likeable enough, and the rest of the cast conduct themselves to more or less the same standard. Blumhouse alum Gregory Plotkin shifts to the big chair for this one, proving he’s got pretty lively chops for a good ol’ down n’ dirty slasher flick, and Seth Sherwood and Blair Butler’s script knows just how to play with the mechanics of the formula that everyone involved can unashamedly enjoy themselves without the overwhelming need to reinvent the genre wheel.

By virtue of being set within a merchandised horror world, Hell Fest has great fun in exploiting that set up for some wonderfully cheap scares, making for an enjoyable and OTT bloody night at the pictures that will never challenge, but certainly entertain. There’s no mythology to this, no franchise being built before us, and there’s even a genre icon making an almost obligatory appearance to sanctify it all. Sure, you won’t lose your head with Hell Fest, but you will whoop and cheer. It’s just a shame it had to arrive three weeks after Halloween.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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