Friday, 23 June 2017

Film Review: Michael Bay's franchise hits rock bottom with Transformers: The Last Knight

Quite often with poor films you can pinpoint the moment you lose hope in enjoying everything yet to come. When David Hasslehoff popped up in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I gave up hope. When Michael Fassbender started seductively teaching another Michael Fassbender how to play the flute in Alien: Covenant, I gave up hope. The Last Knight, the fifth (yes, fifth) film of Michael Bay's Transformers franchise, offers no such moment. That might sound like a surprisingly positive way to begin this review - alas, I simply mean that a moment like this was impossible to begin with. In order to lose hope you must have hope to begin with, and nothing - and I really mean nothing - in this movie gave me the faintest slither of hope that I could find something, anything here even remotely enjoyable.

But first, some history. Bay's first Transformers isn't a great film, but it's likeable and filled with a kind of giddy, childish excitement that somehow makes it work. The sequel, Revenge of the Fallen, loses all sense of this - it's plodding, overlong and borderline irredeemable. The third in the series, Dark of the Moon, is my personal favourite - it serves up a surprisingly high number of great action set pieces, and finally locates a somewhat interesting story after two failed narratives. Film four, Age of Extinction, ultimately abandons any notion of sense, taking forever to get going and, when it does, it eventually goes nowhere. Somehow, The Last Knight is worse than all of these films.

This time, Megatron has a new plan to literally bring Cyberton to Earth in some egotistical bid for domination. Y'know, pretty much what he tried in Dark of the Moon, just a different tactic - gotta give the guy credit for consistency. Optimus Prime has popped off to the shops or something, leaving a bunch of stranded Autobots essentially useless until Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) gets caught up in the mix. He soon finds himself - along with Oxford University professor Vivian (Laura Haddock) - recruited by historian Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), who knows the long history of Transformers on Earth, and together they kickstart a plan to prevent Megatron's evil scheme.

And yes, it's all about as long winded and bland as it sounds. If it isn't bad enough that the base plot of the film is merely a retread of film three's narrative (I did say Dark of the Moon has the only good story of the bunch, I can't blame the writers for picking that one to fall back on), it's worsened by the fact that The Last Knight can't even tell a ripped off story well, let alone an original one. The Transformers franchise is hardly known for compelling, thoughtful storytelling, but this fifth film represents its most pitiful excuse for a plot yet - it's woefully thin, and stretched so far across nearly 150 minutes that you could snap it with a feather's touch.

Within the poor storytelling, we're forced to endure characters that still lack personality or likeability. Wahlberg does his best, but Yeager remains a hollow entity - if he isn't whining over his daughter being at College he's just shouting at people for disagreeing with him. At least in Age of Extinction we had a father/daughter bond at the core of the film, some kind of heart to bind the story around even if it wasn't exactly beating. Transformers film doesn't need to be emotionally resplendent, granted, but every film needs a soul. The Last Knight has no such core, this is a film so hollow that it plummets into sheer ugliness.

The Transformers themselves are just as lacking, they feel dull and lifeless. It makes you long for the days of Blackout and Ratchet and Jazz. These were hardly multidimensional characters, but they had distinct personalities and roles - their combat styles matched their identities, you felt who they were even when they weren't speaking. In The Last Knight, Autobots exist seemingly to absorb stereotypes and throw one liners around like a tennis match while the Decepticons are about as threatening and interesting as tarmac. These giant, incredible creatures should be the selling point of the film, but you'll just greet each and every one here with either an eye roll or a sigh.

As well as being narratively and thematically inept, The Last Knight can't even serve up a decent action sequence - there's not one display of effective, well choreographed action across all two and a half hours. There's no imagination on screen here, no new ideas or even one standout set piece. The original Transformers has that terrific opening battle with Blackout at the Army base, Dark of the Moon has the unforgettable skyscraper sequence. The Last Knight is wholly devoid of anything memorable - a submarine set sequence should be the film's strongest action moment, but Bay stages it with the energy and enthusiasm of a sleep deprived sloth.

VFX is really all that's left to save The Last Knight, and on a technical level it is admittedly flawless - but it's put to bad use. The CGI is undeniably impressive but what good is that when you know this already? Bay can't find anything new to do with his huge budgets now, mesmerising CGI is wasted away on bland cinematography. The film finally brings up a stunning VFX shot involving the moon - and, trust me, it's breathtaking - but Bay doesn't have the courage to hold on it. Instead he merely teases the idea and then, like an excitable kid hyped up on Smarties, runs off to the next scene - he spends the whole film chasing a plot that he has no intention of ever actually exploring.

For some bizarre reason the film's aspect ratio seems to change every other shot too but, quite frankly, there's little more I can say about this film's ineptitude that hasn't already been said. Bay's franchise was running on fumes back in 2014, but if Age of Extinction represented a car's engine spluttering on its final lick of petrol, The Last Knight finds that car upturned in a ditch somewhere far away. Transformers is beyond hope now, it can't be salvaged. Bay has supposedly confirmed that this was his last dovetail into the franchise, so (assuming he sticks to his word), to whoever has to pick up the pieces and craft film number six, I say this: good luck buddy, you're gonna need it.

In A Sentence

Thinly plotted, devoid of personality and unimaginative to the point of insult, Transformers: The Last Knight is the magnum opus of awfulness in Michael Bay's long lost franchise.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

TV Review - A nuanced script from a classic era writer brings Doctor Who back to top form

S10E10 - "The Eaters of Light"

Contains Spoilers.

Now this is what I'm talking about.

After a few weeks of episodes that weren't eventful enough and abandoned the characters we thought we knew and refused to properly dive into the thematic material they were offering, Doctor Who is back on track, and it's all courtesy of one woman: Rona Munro. Munro is the first writer to serve up episodes in both the classic and revived era of the show, and, if "The Eaters of Light" is anything to go by, she certainly knows her stuff.

We begin with a fairly standard opening. The Doctor and Bill have gone back to 2nd Century Scotland to track down the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army - the Doctor believes the army was wiped out while Bill is adamant it wasn't. They split up to find their answers, but after Bill stumbles across one survivor of the Ninth Legion and the Doctor finds a whole different kind of tribe, it becomes increasingly possible that neither of them will be right about what happened all those years ago.

Splitting the Doctor and Bill up seems like a frustrating choice given how underused Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie have been for a high percentage of this series, but Munro balances her episode perfectly. It's without question the sharpest script of the series in how it divides the episode into two halves but doesn't let any key cast member fall beneath the surface. For the first time all series, I feel like I watched Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie at the top of  their games.

We'll look at Mackie first. Separated from the Doctor, Bill is forced into trusting other people - something she's learned to do across Series 10. Bill as a character still feels frustratingly underdeveloped but that isn't too big of an issue if she's still likeable, and Mackie simply oozes likeability. She makes Bill fun and giddy - listen to the excitement in her voice when she asks the soldier if he's from the Ninth Legion - but she carries a heavy weight on her shoulders when the table turns. Mackie struggled with the more hard hitting scenes earlier in the series, but she's come a long way - there's real, honest heartbreak on her face when Bill has to tell the other soldiers that Simon has died. It's a remarkable performance, unquestionably Mackie's strongest work on the show to date.

On the other end of the episode is Capaldi, who has felt so far separated from the calibre of acting he gave us last year that it's frequently been tough to identify him as the same Doctor we saw in Series 9. This year's scripts just haven't given him the material to work with, but Munro does - albeit subtly. There's no giant speech here, but Munro adds significant depth to the Doctor's words - the wise, thoughtful man we once knew makes a comeback here. The Doctor rousing the two opposing armies to come together is a notably powerful moment, and his potential sacrifice of guarding the gate for all eternity would feel empty in the hands of a lesser actor. It's thrilling to see him on top form again.

As well as being terrifically performed, Munro's episode is benefited by a real willingness to tackle the themes it offers. When Bill first begins to understand the TARDIS translation trick it feels like a fun little throwaway, but Munro soon transforms it into something infinitely more powerful. "The Eaters of Light" tackles the futility of war in a quiet way, looking at something as simple as understanding your enemy's language and how that can change your whole perspective.

The notion that when you can understand the whole Universe everyone sounds like children is a moving sentiment, and one that fits the Doctor Who brand perfectly. Munro even plays it through to the endgame, as two rival tribes come together to defend a force more powerful than them both. After last week's under baked look at war, Munro hits the nail on the head. It's exactly what's been missing from Series 10, an episode of strong performances and nuanced ideas that understands show to shine a spotlight on them both.

"The Eaters of Light" isn't the strongest episode of the series - supporting performances are questionable and there's a few too many moments that don't quite add up - but it brings the show back to reliable ground before it heads into what promises to be a delightfully weird and over the top finale. Doctor Who hasn't been operating on the same level this year as its past two seasons, but "The Eaters of Light" is an episode that stands high in the Capaldi era if only for how it lets the man be himself again. It's about damn time.

Notes - 
  • Can Rona Munro become a regular writer for this show during the Chibnall era? I'd love that.
  • This episode was gorgeously directed, too. Charles Palmer relishes in both the night and the day, capturing the scenery with beauty.
  • Nardole remains a highlight of this series. From his popcorn antics to his Scottish accents, Matt Lucas has been effortlessly enjoyable in every last scene. I was sceptical to his presence this year, but boy was I wrong about that.
  • "She's not a soldier, she's an embryo. What are you gonna do, throw your action figures at them?"
  • Missy is proving better used this year than ever. Next week's penultimate episode looks very Missy-centric, here's hoping it lives up to what we've seen of her so far.
  • This was probably the last outright standalone episode we'll have with Capaldi in the TARDIS, so what a treat to end with something inherently Scottish.

Empress of Mars - Previous | Next - World Enough and Time

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

TV Review: Even Victorian soldiers on Mars can't liven up Doctor Who's current mini-slump

S10E09 - "Empress of Mars"

Contains Spoilers.

Arguably the biggest problem facing Doctor Who this year is the show's refusal to "go big". Series 10 has been praised by many as a return to the basic format, but while that worked nicely with episodes one through four, we're nearing the end of the series now and there's a frustrating lack of real danger going on. "Empress of Mars", the latest story penned by polarizing writer Mark Gatiss, is a passable entry to the series, but it's not one you'll be remembering any time soon, and it certainly isn't strong enough to pull the show out of the mini-slump it's been stuck in since we visited a certain Pyramid.

In short, the Doctor and Bill find themselves on Mars. Weirder than that, they find Victorian soldiers on Mars. And an Ice Warrior, which soon leads to an Ice Queen and an Ice Warrior hive. It's a story with great potential but, as with most Gatiss scripted episodes, it doesn't really deliver on a lot of what it sets up. The sheer anachronistic joy of seeing Victorian soldiers on Mars with a giant futuristic cannon can only suffice for so long, and Gatiss doesn't do enough to keep things interesting once the novelty starts to wear thin.

Credit where it's due, "Empress of Mars" is more focused and tightly wound than the two episodes that preceded it. While dialogue is rarely his strong suit, Gatiss' penchant for great ideas cannot be disputed, and this episode continues that trend. He also succeeds in nicely splicing his episode with humour (although I could've done without the Frozen reference during the climactic moment) and the way the story builds from act one into act two into act three is some of the most seamless plotting the show has seen this series.

Gatiss' scripting isn't a runaway success, though. At the core of this story is an interesting dilemma - whose side is the Doctor on when the humans, the race he always sides with, are for once the invading alien? It's a brilliant concept, but one Gatiss seems ill prepared to tackle. His script raises the moral issue, lets it linger on Peter Capaldi's face for a few moments, and then hurries on. Where is the complex mind battle the Doctor must endure to solve this problem? Where is the thought, the emotion, the ambiguity? That speech just last season seems a far cry away from whatever this was.

"Empress of Mars" is benefited by its wacky premise, with Capaldi and Pearl Mackie clearly having fun in such an absurd story, but the episode needs something more concrete to really drive its ideas home. "Empress of Mars" successfully builds to a tense final act- helped by the solid direction from Wayne Yip - but everything slowly begins to fizzle, slipping into predictable answers and tidying itself up far too neatly come the resolution. The episode needed something bolder, something to up the stakes. This is a story set on Mars, a story featuring a whole hive of Ice Warriors. It shouldn't have felt this inconsequential.

Perhaps it's just me. Perhaps, after the unmitigated triumph of Series Nine, I'm just expecting too much. Doctor Who's tenth series got off to a flying start - it turned the ordinary into something enjoyable again after two series' that felt very different to anything we'd seen before - but everything post "Extremis" has struggled to reignite the flame that was lit when Capaldi stepped aboard the TARDIS. These last three episodes, for me, have seen the show at its weakest during Capaldi's tenure.

I guess what I'm missing is the big, emotionally complex story lines. Episodes that allow an actor of Capaldi's talents to really show off what they can do with a role like this. Pearl Mackie has demonstrated remarkable range as Bill, herself a strong character model, so why isn't the show exploring that? At present, Doctor Who seems to just not realise the potential its core cast are offering. "Empress of Mars" is just about fine, but in the series' final act - and the final act for both Moffat and Capaldi - it isn't really good enough.

Notes -
  • The supporting performances were all round great here. Doctor Who may be under-using its lead stars, but the guest performances all series have been terrific. Anthony Calf, Ferdinand Kingsley and Adele Lynch were on top form.
  • It wasn't hard to tell that this episode was written prior to Nardole joining the core cast. His little thread in this episode seems to be building to something, maybe, but it felt inconsequential here. Even Missy couldn't save it.
  • Out of the nine episodes Gatiss has written for Doctor Who, I'd say this is probably middle tier stuff. His worst is "Victory of the Daleks" back in Series Five, and his best is either Series One's "The Unquiet Dead" or Series Six's "Night Terrors".
  • Next week's episode is written by Rona Munroe, who also scripted the last episode of the classic Doctor Who series. Hopefully she can be the one to pull the show out of this frustrating mini-slump.
  • ("Slump" was too strong a word. "Mini-slump" will suffice)