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.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★
Released: 20th July 2018
Directed By: Ol Parker
Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard
Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths
The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.
Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.
Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).
Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).
Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.
Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.
Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.
It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.
Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…
Hotel Artemis ★★★
Released: 20th July 2018
Directed By: Drew Pearce
Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.
On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.
On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.
On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.
Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.
Released: 12th July 2018
Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.
Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.
Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.
Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.
In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.
It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.
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