Movie reviews: 'Transformers: The Last Knight' values spectacle over story
Transformers: The Last Knight, Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm Entertainment Company Ltd.
Published Friday, June 23, 2017 6:00AM EDT
TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT: 3 STARS
Audiences complain that Hollywood has no new ideas, that everything is a rebrand, reboot or remake. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to!” they say.
The “Transformers” franchise should encapsulate everything that is wrong with summer blockbusters. It’s a story based on a line of toys, it values spectacle over story and the paper thin characters feel more like place holders for the action than real people and yet, here we are on episode five, with (according to director Michael Bay) fourteen more in the pipeline.
In fact, they do make ‘em like they used to. You could be forgiven for experiencing déjà vu while watching “Transformers: The Last Knight.” The “Transformers” movies are remarkably consistent. They are heavy metal filmmaking, all bluster and retina roasting visuals and people eat them up.
People go see “Transformers” for the robots—their transformation scenes remain the coolest thing about the series—and the new movie doesn’t disappoint, creating a new backstory for its mechanical stars. According to the new movie the Transformers were friendly with King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable and fought the Nazis during World War II.
A decade into Bay’s franchise good guy leader of the Autobots Optimus Prime has high tailed it back to his home planet Cybertron. Humans are at war with the Transformers—“Two species at war, one flesh, one metal”—and the future of the world is at stake. As a short prologue with King Arthur suggests, the key to Earth’s survival lies in the secret history of the Transformers and a 1600-year-old secret artefact. To unlock this mystery, enter Autobot ally, inventor and single father Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), Transformers historian and English lord Sir Edmund Exposition (Anthony Hopkins)—he’s got some mansplainin’ to do!—Oxford University Professor of English Literature (and descendant of the most famous wizard of all time other than Harry Potter) Viviane Wembly (Laura Haddock) and Autobot Bumblebee (voice of Erik Aadahi).
Director Michael Bay has finally taken the Transformers where they always should've been, to the Realm of the Ridiculous. Any movie based on a line of toys is bound to be silly but this may be one of the silliest films ever made. From a prologue set in the Middle Ages and robots hanging out on Cuban beaches to a wisecracking Merlin the Magician and a 700-year-old opera singing robot, this is wacky stuff.
Is it good stuff, you may ask? It doesn’t take itself as seriously as some of the other entries in the series, so that’s good, but like the other “Transformers” movies, it’s too long and gets lost in an orgy of action and gravity-defying stunts.
Hopkins seems to be having fun cavorting with his sassy C-3PO wannabe Cogman (Jim Carter) but it’s a thankless job. He’s there mostly to provide the convoluted backstory. As a member of the secret society to protect the history of Transformers, which also includes suck luminaries as Harriet Tubman and Stephen Hawking among others, he’s the keeper of the info and boy, does he over share. He scrolls through hundreds of years of nonsensical Transformers history but at least he does say thing like, “It was alien power or as they knew it in those days, magic,” in his distinctive Hannibal Lecter voice.
It’s all a bit much. With a story this convoluted why bother with the story at all? Those who want to see the Transformers battle will not be disappointed. The chunks of metal are cooler than ever before and when Hopkins isn’t explaining what’s going on, the robots are going at it.
“Transformers: The Last Knight” is Bay’s farewell to the franchise as director (he’ll stay on as a producer) and he has not held back. It’s heavy metal filmmaking, loud and proud, like a drum solo that goes on for just a hair too long.
THE HERO: 2 ½ STARS FOR THE MOVIE, 4 STARS FOR SAM ELLIOTT
Sam Elliott, he of the easy drawl, smoky voice and horseshoe moustache, has made almost fifty films but has rarely ever been the above-the-title star. In “The Hero” he plays Lee Hayden, an aging Western film star, diagnosed with cancer. He’s in almost every frame, bringing an easy charm that solidifies his leading man status while smoothing over the film’s rough patches.
“The Hero” is a story of a man who can see the end of the road. Well known but underemployed and living off residual cheques from his heyday, the one-time movie star now does voice overs for commercials to pay the bills. When he isn’t shilling for Lone Star BBQ Sauce—“The perfect pard’ner for your ribs”—he’s smoking dope with his friend, former “Cattle Drive” co-star and drug dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman). Through Jeremy the seventy-one-year-old meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a stand-up comic more than half his age.
As a new life of sorts is beginning with Charlotte’s cancer diagnoses—“One of the worst you could hope for,” he says—prompts him to look for a “chance to write another chapter” with his estranged daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter) and possibly find some career defining work to leave behind as a legacy.
Writer/director Brett Haley knows how to make the most of Elliott’s weary but stately presence. The pair worked together on Haley’s last film, “I'll See You In My Dreams,” another look at aging and legacy. Both films rely on clichés to forward their stories, but both films are saved by strong central performances from their stars—Blythe Danner in “I'll See You In My Dreams,” Elliott in “the Hero”—who bring warmth and believability, not to mention high powered and often untapped star power, to their roles.
When the film falls into the romantic / comeback template already established by films like “Tender Mercies” and “The Wrestler,” Elliott’s quest for redemption keeps it from becoming a maudlin look at Hayden’s twilight years.
47 METERS DOWN: 2 ½ STARS
In the opening moments of “47 Metres Down” a strawberry margarita is spilled in a swimming pool, leaving a blood red crimson cloud in the water. It’s a not-so-subtle bit of foreshadowing of what’s to come in a movie where two American sisters become chum for some hungry sharks. Appropriately the movie hits theatres during Shark Week and the 42 anniversary of the release of “Jaws.”
Set during a fun-and-sun vacation in Mexico, sisters Lisa (the lovesick, uptight one) and Kate (the fun loving one), played by Mandy Moore and Claire Holt, are on a quick get-a-way to heal Lisa’s broken heart. Her fiancé has dumped her and she hopes to make him jealous with social media pics of her whooping it up on a resort. One night in, the sisters hit the club and meet two handsome locals (Santiago Segura and Yani Gellman) who convince them to go diving with sharks the next day.
Despite Lisa’s misgivings they go ahead with the dive, which essentially sees them dumped into the ocean protected only by an old rusty enclosure. “It's like you're going to the zoo only you're in the cage.” At first everything is fine. “It's so cool,” says Kate in another obvious bit of foreshadowing. “I could stay down here forever.” The winch snaps, sending them plummeting 47 metres to the ocean floor. Panic and bad decisions ensue, leaving them with just minutes to find a way to navigate through the sharks (and red herrings) to the surface.
Described as “Gravity, but underwater,” it’s a race against time before their oxygen runs out.
The amount of times people say, “Relax you're going to have fun,” to Lisa is directly proportional to the amount of trouble she encounters. That is to say, she’s in a heap of trouble and we’re down there with her. Director Johannes Roberts submerges the camera about twenty-five minutes in and keeps the action waterlogged for the remainder of the tight eighty-nine minute running time. As an anxiety-inducing soundtrack grates in the background, he plays on primal fears, the dark, the unrelenting power of the ocean and women against nature.
It’s fairly intense although I couldn’t help but think that it might have worked better as a silent movie. Moore and Holt spend much of the film grunting, yelling and making sounds of distress but, to paraphrase another movie tagline, deep underwater, no one can hear you scream. Imagine the deafening silence and the horror of not being able to communicate in such dire circumstances.
“47 Metres Down” is an underwater exploitation b-movie that plays up on the archetype of the shy character who finds hidden reserves of courage. But, and there will be no spoilers here, it makes just enough unexpected choices along the way to keep things interesting.
THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN'S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY: 4 STARS
Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris has travelled the world chronicling the famous and infamous. To find the subject for his latest film “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography,” he looked closer to home. Next door in fact, to the home of his friend, portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman.
It’s a film as simple and unpretentious as its subject. In 76 quick minutes, Morris lets Dorfman narrate the story in her thick Massachusetts accent. A friendship with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg opened the door for her to take photos of many literary and music stars, including W.H. Auden, Anais Nin, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Local heroes like Jonathan Richman also found their way before her camera but it is the pictures of her family and friends that define her work. “What you’re wearing is OK,” she says. “Who you are is OK. You don’t have to be cosmetized.” It is, she says, an acceptance of “everydayness.”
Much of “The B-Side” takes place in Elsa’s cluttered archive. “A lot of these are mistakes but because they are 20x24 they are too expensive to throw away,” she says. “The ones they don’t take I call the B-side.”
In 1980, she found a format that came to define her work, the Polaroid Land 20x24 camera. Producing large-scale photos became her trademark, although by her own assessment, her straightforward approach never brought her fame or media attention.
Perhaps it’s because the pictures aren’t slick and neither is Elsa. Her work is almost folk art, an outsider’s look at the world. She captured her subjects as they are the moment they stood in front of her camera. No touch ups or after effects. The pictures are documents of moments in time, plain and simple. “I am really interested in the surfaces of people,” she says. “I am totally not interested in capturing your soul. I am only interested in how they seem.” Her method was effective. In one newspaper article the mother of a subject raves, “It looks more like Faye than Faye herself.”
“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography” is a quiet look at Dorfman and the art and life she created. “I was lucky in a way to find the cameras and to like it,” she says. “It’s a real way of being a quote artist and having an offbeat life. Inventing a way of living that is comfortable. It worked. I feel very grateful that it worked.”
THE BAD BATCH: 1 ½ STARS
If the word ‘lurid’ didn’t already appear on page 489 of my Oxford English Dictionary it might have been coined to describe “The Bad Batch,” a new slice of misery from director Ana Lily Amirpour. This dystopian cannibal freak out isn’t really very good but if Amirpour’s intention was to make an unpleasant, slackly paced look at life after a calamity, she has succeeded spectacularly.
Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is part of the Bad Batch, a large group of murderers, drug dealers and other deplorables no longer wanted in the United States. In Amirpour’s post-apocalyptic world the unwanted are numbered, tattooed, escorted to a wasteland in Texas and dropped off outside of an electric fence to fend for themselves. Arlen’s new, dusty world is a wasteland, a dangerous place where Keanu Reeves is a Jim Jones figure called The Dream and if you’re not careful, you might end up as a main course for the cannibals who now eat humans to survive.
Soon she is kidnapped, carved up, her arm and leg becoming an entrée for vicious flesh eaters who keep her in chains until she escapes with the help of a gnarly old hermit played by Jim Carrey. She lands at Comfort, the ironically named compound run by cult leader The Dream. On the outskirts of Comfort Arlen exacts revenge on one of the cannibals who turned her into a midday snack. Grabbing the woman’s child she returns to the compound. When the little girl disappears, her father, the mountainous and muscly Miami Man (Jason Momoa) comes looking for her. Arlene, high on acid, meets him and the two form an unlikely bond as they search for his daughter.
Amirpour is a gifted director—her “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” is like no other vampire movie—but her ideas here echo a little too loudly with reverberations from “Mad Max” and other dystopian movies. “The Bad Batch” starts strong with startling images but every time it works up a head of steam it veers off track. Its languid pace and stretched-out story makes the two-hour running time feel much longer.