Sep 162017
one reel

Optimus Prime (voice: Peter Cullen) has left Earth to return to Cybertron where he meets an evil mother robot who turns him evil and sends him back to Earth to swipe Merlin’s staff so the planet of Cybertron can suck the life out of the Earth. Really. But forget about that as we won’t hear any more about it for two hours. Instead we’re on Earth with Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), who’s a fugitive because all transformers are now “illegal.” Cade protects them in his huge but somehow hidden junkyard. He picks up a replacement daughter, but she ends up doing nothing. He is given a talisman that makes him the thirteenth knight of the round table, which also ends up as nothing except it causes Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) to summon him to England to meet Vivian Webley (Laura Haddock), the last descendent of Merlin who happens to be both a professor and ridiculously hot so Michael Bay can focus on her ass. As Sir Burton and his super steampunk robot explain—and explain and explain and explain—only Vivian can find and use Merlin’s staff and if she doesn’t in two days, the world will end. No, I’m not kidding. That’s the plot. Honest. That and a lot of generic stuff with the military and a subplot of Transformers playing ball in Cuba (still not kidding) and a bitchy scientist who exists because Michael Bay doesn’t like scientists. Then they all run around a lot and there are many, many explosions.

What’s the point? This is a Transformers movie and Transformers movies are all the same. There’s no good one. Nor is there a bad one. They are all ugly. They are all noisy. They are all nonsensical. They are all overly serious with a lot of lines that should be jokes if they weren’t delivered with great pretension. The difference in quality between the films—or in plot, or in character development, or in number of explosions—is trivial. And no one will, or should, start with the 5th. So if you hated the others, you’ll hate this one. And if you liked the others, there’s no helping you.

So what can I say? What’s different? Well, it is less racist then other outings (which means it is only a little racist). So…that’s good. The sexism is also dialed back a bit. The “jokes” are less cringe-worthy than in the second film, though still not funny. We have longer segments than usual without transformers doing anything, which I really can’t say is good or not, but it is a thing. The dino-transformers do more fighting and the dragon transfomer looks pretty cool by 1990s standards. Micheal Bay’s military fetishism is still on display, but his libertarian-anti-government side is stronger so we are more often meant to dislike the military. Product placement is down from the last film, though still obvious. And Anthony Hopkins can somehow say his ludicrous lines without embarrassing himself, and that’s real talent.

And that’s it. Otherwise, it’s the same garbage that Bay has spat out for ten years. This is supposed to be Bay’s last Transformers film, but it is also supposed to be the birth of a Transformers Universe of films, starting with a Bubblebee movie, so there’s no good news to be had, except, maybe, in the box office. Last Knight made over 400 million less than Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, and at least 200 million less than studio expectations. It still made a profit, but that’s not a sign of health for the franchise and the accountants won’t have missed that. It’s too much to hope that they’ll stop making Transformers movies, but I am a hopeful kind of guy.

The previous films were Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), and Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014).

Sep 152017
  September 15, 2017

I was asked by a friend (yes, a real one, not just a Facebook one) what the Best ‘50s—early ‘60s science fiction films were. I asked if we were talking “best” or “most important” and he said “Why not both?” As I’ve just finished a panel at Dragon Con on the subject, and making that distinction, it is a pair of easy lists for me.

Explaining what makes each of the best, “the best” would take complete reviews, so I’ll link my previous reviews to the titles for the ones I’ve reviewed, and for the rest, you’ll just have to believe me (and you should). For most important, I’ll give the briefest of reasons. And these are sorted by date.


The BEST ‘50s—early ‘60s SF films


The MOST IMPORTANT ‘50s—early ‘60s SF films

  • Destination Moon (1950) — Restarted American studio SF after the failure of Just Imagine (1930).
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) — Cultural milestone. The liberal statement to counter the far more prevalent conservative SF statement.
  • The Thing from Another World (1951) — The right-wing statement, but one with good dialog. It gutted an important short story, but it did bring an important story to the screen.
  • The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms (1953) — The first atomic monster film. The mother of the many Western ones to follow as well as the entire Daikaiju sub-genre. And another step in Ray Harryhausen’s career.
  • The War of the Worlds (1953) — Cultural milestone that brought money, spectacle, and color to film SF.
  • Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) — The last of the Universal monsters.
  • Forbidden Planet (1956) — Ended the age of cheap B&W SF and ushered in a time of smarter, literate SF film.
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) — Combo anti-Soviet rant and examination of isolationism; it was incredibly effective at both. Has been copied many times.
  • On the Beach (1959) — Brought post-apocalyptic films to the masses. Made it clear that SF is best not as adventure, but as political or philosophical message-holders.
  • The Day of the Triffids (1962) — The precursor to the modern zombie film.
Sep 142017
three reels

Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) wants to save his father Will (Orlando Bloom in a cameo) from his curse of being the captain of The Flying Dutchman. To do this he needs the aid of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to find the Trident of Poseidon. Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), who is always being accused of witchcraft because she’s smart, wants to find the Trident in honor of her missing and unknown father. Jack needs the Trident to stop a ship full of ghosts, lead by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), who want him dead. And Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is around because this is a Pirates movie.

The fifth film in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is both enjoyable and unnecessary. It beats the previous entry, the unfocused On Stranger Tides by moving Jack back into the elaborate sidekick position and making the story once again about two appealing young lovers. Yes, that makes it a retread of the first trilogy, but as that structure works it was the best choice Disney could make short of doing something original, and that wasn’t going to happen. Since it is three films compressed into one that’s shorter than each of the others, it suffers from too much material. There are whole subplots of the nasty British empire and witches that go nowhere and are tossed away. There’s at least one major character too many (Barbossa was the obvious one to drop, even if he is the only one that develops) and everyone, except Jack, could use a touch more screen time.

But, for a CliffsNotes version of the earlier films, it isn’t bad. We get lots of ships blowing up, sword fightes, CGI ghosts, and wacky hijinks. Jack Sparrow is still fun, if a bit less fun with each outing and now more of the oaf he appears to be rather than the brilliant pirate hidden by his eccentricities. Brenton is more charming than Will and Carina is stunning, giving the film core characters worth rooting for. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg lack the flair of original Pirates director Gore Verbinski, and his understanding of physical comedy as some bits—like Jack stepping off of a crashing building onto a bridge—should have been hysterical but instead elicit smiles at best. Still, a smile is a smile. It doesn’t measure up to The Curse of the Black Pearl, but that was something new and clever and is asking too much of a sequel. In a summer of franchise entries like Alien: Covenant, Transformers: The Last Knight, The Mummy, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, and The Fate of the Furious, Dead Men Tell No Tales stands tall for not being an embarrassment.

But I can’t help nitpicking its place in the Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise. Will and Elizabeth’s story was done. They had their love, though they could only see each other infrequently. But sacrifices had to be made as The Flying Dutchman’s mission of ferrying the drowned to the afterlife was vital and Will had taken on that sacred mission. He wasn’t “cursed.” So why does he start this film with a touch of the infection that had infested Davy Jones in the earlier films? It was clearly stated that the deformities only came from diverting The Dutchman from its duty. And if Will is de-cursed, doesn’t that screw things up for everyone who dies at sea? OK, so the films are inconsistent. I can live with that. However a sequel shouldn’t mess up the ending of a story from a previous film (See Alien 3) and that’s what Dead Men Tell No Tales does. That would be more of a problem if this was a better film. But it is candy floss—enjoyable enough and easily forgotten.

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