Transformers: The Last Knight

For F*** Magazine

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT 

Director : Michael Bay
Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Anthony Hopkins, Stanley Tucci, Isabela Moner, Laura Haddock, Jerrod Carmichael, Liam Garrigan, Glenn Morshower. And the voices of: Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Gemma Chan, John Goodman, John DiMaggio, Ken Watanabe, Omar Sy, Jim Carter
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 29min
Opens : 22 June 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

It might be hard to believe, but it’s been a whole decade since the first live-action Transformers movie clanged its way into theatres. In this fifth go-round, the Transformers have been declared enemy combatants and are hunted by the Transformers Reaction Force (TRF). Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) is a wanted fugitive for aiding and abetting the Autobots, including Bumblebee. He rescues young orphan Izabella (Moner) from a firefight, and in the process, is gifted a talisman by an alien knight whose ship crash-lands on earth. Cade is summoned by Sir Edmund Burton (Hopkins), the guardian of a sect sworn to protect the Transformers’ secret history on earth. It turns out that the wizard Merlin (Tucci) was bequeathed a magical staff by alien robots; the mythical object long vanished. Cybertronian sorceress Quintessa (Chan) sends Optimus Prime (Cullen) in search of the staff, turning him against his long-time allies. With the help of Oxford literature and history professor Viviane Wembly (Haddock) and reluctant TRF soldier William Lennox (Duhamel), Cade and Burton must unravel an ancient conspiracy to prevent the destruction of earth.

No other franchise in recent memory has been more critic-proof than the Transformers films. This summer alone, we’ve witnessed King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and The Mummy feebly attempt to kickstart would-be franchises, while this juggernaut based on Hasbro action figures trundles along. The Transformers movies have long been easy targets for critics, and this entry is particularly frustrating for us. The Last Knight does what this reviewer has always wanted from this series: it explores the alternate history built around the Transformers’ secret presence on earth – though it’s hard to imagine how giant alien robots can stay secret for too long. However, this ends up being expectedly ludicrous, with plot contrivances that beggar belief scattered throughout the film. It turns out that there is a Da Vinci Code-esque secret society entrusted with guarding said history, its members including William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, the Wright Brothers, Harriet Tubman, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. How giant alien robots traipsing around are kept secret is anybody’s guess.

This film strikes us as a spectacular waste of resources – with its $260 million budget, it’s the most expensive Transformers movie yet. In a way, every big blockbuster is, but some are better at justifying that waste than others. The Last Knight unfolds on a spectacular scale, and like Age of Extinction, its story spans continents and millennia. The visual effects supervised by Scott Farrar are extensive and commendable, and the action set pieces are marginally easier to follow than in previous instalments. However, there are only so many ways one can depict giant robots punching each other, and there are only so many variations on a car chase. While rival car-based franchise Fast and Furious has been continuously inventive, the action in Transformers is concussive and numbing. There’s so much going on that it’s easy to tune out instead of staying focused on the mayhem onscreen.

We held out hope that this might be an improvement because screenwriter Ehren Kruger has been jettisoned, replaced by Iron Man and Punisher: War Zone scribes Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, and Black Hawk Down writer Ken Nolan. Alas, narrative coherence is in short supply and director Michael Bay’s oppressively juvenile sense of humour smothers anything resembling wit.

There’s a scene in which Megatron (Welker) negotiates the release of his Decepticon compatriots with lawyers seated at folding tables in the middle of the desert. We also find General Morshower poring over battle plans in the Pentagon basement, declaring “this is where I deal with the dark s***”. And yes, there are racial stereotypes aplenty – Bay is endlessly amused at those stuffy Brits, Hot Rod (Sy) has a thick French accent, gold chain-wearing Decepticon Nitro Zeus (DiMaggio) paraphrases Martin Luther King Jr. while being released from prison, and Decepticon Mohawk (Reno Wilson) is characterised as a violent street thug. Any accusations that critics are “reading into things” are rendered moot by Bay’s insouciant rejection of subtlety in any form.

Wahlberg may be a better fit as the franchise’s leading man than Shia LaBeouf was, but even then, Wahlberg’s getting annoying. It’s a relief, then, that this is supposedly his last Transformers film. By making the female lead an Oxford professor, the film goes down the predictable route of having Cade and Viviane bicker endlessly while being set up as a couple. Haddock is by far the best actress to have played the female lead in this series, but that’s a low bar. She’s also the least overtly sexualised and has the most agency of all the female leads in the series – but that’s also a low bar, seeing as Viviane struts around in tight dresses and stilettos for the first half of the film.

With Izabella and her sidekick, transforming Vespa Sqweeks, Bay appears to steer the film back to the “a kid and their X” roots, as embodied by Sam Witwicky’s friendship with Bumblebee in the first movie. This feels like an afterthought, and Izabella is one of several characters who feel like hangers-on.

After starring in HBO’s Westworld, Sir Anthony Hopkins hangs out with far bigger robots here. He looks to be having a grand old time, playing the eccentric earl with a twinkle in his eye. A lot of his dialogue is incredibly stupid, but it helps that it’s being uttered by Hopkins. Burton is given a sidekick in the form of an idiosyncratic robot butler named Cogman (Carter), who is frequently annoying and is pretty much a more annoying version of Rogue One’s K2-SO.

Duhamel, Morshower, Turturro and others return from the earlier movies, begging the question of why LaBeouf isn’t in this, at least for a little. Not that we want to see him in this at all, but given that Sam is Bumblebee’s best friend, it stands to reason that Bumblebee should seek him out over the course of this film.

To its credit, The Last Knight does feel shorter than its 150-minute runtime, and features a novel submarine chase that’s different enough from the standard action sequences we’ve seen from this franchise. It’s fine for blockbusters to be silly, but when nothing less than the end of the world is at hand, The Last Knight should be more impactful and less superfluous than it is.

Summary: Bombastic and bloated, The Last Knight’s convoluted mythos and tedious action is enlivened by the joyous presence of Sir Anthony Hopkins. Audiences with the fortitude to surrender to its thunderous stupidity might get a modicum of enjoyment out of this.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

For F*** Magazine

13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI 

Director : Michael Bay
Cast : John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Matt Letscher, Toby Stephens, Alexa Barlier, David Costabile
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 2 hrs 25 mins
Opens : 18 February 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)

It is 2012, the year after Muammar Gaddafi was deposed and killed in the Libyan Civil War. Idealistic ambassador Chris Stevens (Letscher), who is stationed in the Libyan city of Tripoli, makes a visit to Benghazi. On the evening of September 11th, a group of Islamic militants stages an attack on the American diplomatic compound where the ambassador is staying and the CIA “Annex” building situated nearby. A team of six Global Response Staff (GRS) security contractors hired by the CIA undertakes a desperate defence of the grounds as all hell breaks loose. This team comprises Tyrone S. “Rone” Woods (Dale), Jack Silva (Krasinski), Mark “Oz” Geist (Martini), John “Tig” Tiegen (Fumusa), Kris “Tanto” Paronto (Schreiber) and Glen “Bub” Doherty (Stephens). These men, veterans of the Navy SEALS, Marine Force Recon and Army Special Forces, defy the orders of their Chief (Costabile) to stand down as they repel the scores of attackers in a last-ditch attempt.

            A series of title cards begin the movie, the last one before the title itself declaring “this is a true story”. Not “based on” or “inspired by”, but a definitive “is”. Any time a film depicting an actual event is made, debates on its accuracy are bound to ensue. Given how relatively recent the Benghazi attacks were and the impact the incident still has on the American political landscape, what with this being an election year and all, the firestorm around 13 Hours is fiercer than usual, even if Hillary Clinton isn’t even mentioned in the film.

Furthermore, the man at the helm of the film is Michael Bay, who famously dismissed film critics’ opinions of him by saying “I make movies for teenage boys”. While there obviously aren’t any clanging robot testicles to be found in this film, it’s still abundantly clear that the director lacks the nuance and finesse to fashion a gripping, thought-provoking depiction of the Benghazi attack. Bay has proudly, gleefully put military hardware on display in many of his previous films, boasting that he was the first to film certain aircraft or types of weaponry for the big screen. Therefore, it seems less likely that he’s motivated by noble intentions and more likely that he’s motivated by a desire to play with big, loud, shiny toys.

            Screenwriter Chuck Hogan adapted Mitchell Zuckhoff’s book 13 Hours for the screen. Zuckhoff, who wrote the book with the surviving members of the security team, stands by their version of events and has fired back at the CIA officials who claim the movie contains multiple major inaccuracies. A key plot point, that the team was ordered to stand down by the CIA station chief in Benghazi, has been denied by the CIA. Bay has claimed that the film has no political agenda, but the marketing campaign aimed squarely at conservative audiences says otherwise. Bay made an appearance on The O’Reilly Factorand trailers were scheduled to run during the live broadcast of Republican debates. 13 Hours is couched as a celebration of courageous unsung heroes and is dedicated to the memory of the two security contractors who died fighting the attackers. This comes off as disingenuous and while this reviewer certainly cannot vouch one way or the other, it’s hard to shake the sense that a true story has been squeezed into the mould of a generic action movie.


            The film clocks in at 144 minutes, with the actual attack not happening until around the 45-minute mark. It stands to reason that all this time spent with the characters before the chaos ensues will help us get to know them better. Not quite. The men are shown having Skype conversations with their family back home and there’s a flashback set to a sappy piano score in which Jack’s wife pleads with him to quit his private military contractor job. We even get a burning family photo fluttering to the ground later on. Bay and Hogan resort to reductive shorthand: we’re supposed to cheer for the muscle-bound, gun-toting bearded dudes and jeer at the paunchy, bespectacled bureaucrat. The lesson here is that in the end, all the Yale and Harvard-educated intelligence agents in the world cannot compare to good old-fashioned action heroes blasting the bad guys to bits. Yee haw!


            The most worthwhile element of the film is Krasinski’s performance. Somewhat following in the footsteps of Chris Pratt and Paul Rudd, Krasinski is an actor known primarily for comedic roles who has completely transformed himself into an action hero. The difference between Krasinski and those two is that Jack Silva isn’t a wise-cracking rogue and some serious acting chops are called upon in addition to the running and gunning. Whatever faint glimmers of sincerity the film possesses are courtesy of Krasinski.

            There is possibly a hint of self-awareness here: earlier on in the film when the team are relaxing, they’re watching Tropic Thunder, a satirical comedy about clueless Hollywood types making a war movie and getting caught in actual danger. Typically, action movies are escapist entertainment and yes, it is certainly possible to imbue an action movie with deeper meaning, but Bay has not accomplished that here. With Bay, it’s clear who the victor in the war between flash and substance always will be.

Summary: A subject as complicated as the Benghazi attacks needs a defter directorial touch and doesn’t need to be as stuffed with action movie clichés as 13 Hours is. There are attempts at deeper meaning, but viewers who will come away most satisfied are fans of vehicles exploding and flipping over.

RATING: 2out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

             

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

For F*** Magazine

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES 

Director : Jonathan Liebesman
Cast : Megan Fox, Alan Ritchson, Johnny Knoxville, Tony Shalhoub, Pete Ploszek, Jeremy Howard, Noel Fisher, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Mos Def, Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Woodburn
Genre : Action, Adventure
Opens : 7 August 2014
Rating : PG (Some Violence)
Running time: 102 mins

Originally created as a one-off parody by comic book artists/writers Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became an unlikely pop culture phenomenon in the 80s and 90s. This film marks their first live-action big screen appearance since 1993.

Leader Leonardo (Ploszek/Knoxville), hot-headed Raphael (Ritchson), jokester Michelangelo (Fisher) and tech wiz Donatello (Howard) are the titular reptiles. Once ordinary box turtles, they were mutated into giant, intelligent humanoid creatures thanks to a laboratory experiment known as Project Renaissance. Their “father” and sensei Master Splinter (Woodburn/Shalhoub), a mutated rat, was also born from the same experiment. Reporter April O’Neil (Fox) discovers the existence of the turtles as they fight back against the militant Foot Clan, led by an armour-clad warlord named The Shredder (Masamune). The turtles befriend O’Neil and they work in tandem to bring down the Shredder and his partner in crime, industrialist Eric Sachs (Fichtner). Sachs’ plan? To engulf New York in a biochemical attack launched from his tower smack dab in downtown Manhattan.


Many kids who grew up in the 80s and 90s hold TMNT very dear, the 1987 animated series still a pop culture staple. As such, shellheads understandably seized upon this new iteration. Everything was troubling, from the revised extra-terrestrial-linked origins to the casting of Megan Fox as April O’Neil to the drastic re-designs to Michael Bay in the producer’s chair. Throughout the film, one gets the sense that director Jonathan Liebesman and producer Bay are smugly going “see fanboys? William Fichtner isn’t Shredder after all. They aren’t exactly aliens. Nothing to worry about, we got it all 100% right!” Well, of course they didn’t, but there is just enough in Turtles ‘14 for some to consider it a sufficiently enjoyable ride. 


The new origin story has shades of The Amazing Spider-Man and, perhaps not coincidentally, the climactic action sequences of both movies take place atop the Condé Nast Building. Thankfully, the defining personality traits of each of the four turtles have been preserved, even though they are often played up to unnecessary extents. Michelangelo doesn’t have to spend the entirety of the film leering at April, does he?  The new looks for the turtles are quite over-designed, not unlike how the Transformers are in the live-action film series. They are hulking, top-heavy, loaded with accoutrements such as shell necklaces, sunglasses and communications backpacks and have unsettling noses and lips. The turtles are meant to be endearing if not downright cute. Here, their appearances are just disturbing. The character animation on the turtles is often dynamic but lacks the photo-realism just put on display in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Some may argue that the versions designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in the 1990 film look dated and silly today. You can rest assured that by 2038, the designs of these turtles will look even more ridiculous than they already do. Shredder comes off poorly too, looking like he was designed by a 12-year-old exclaiming “the more knives, the scarier he’ll be! More knives, more knives!”


Megan Fox is a self-proclaimed TMNT fan and actively pursued the part of April O’Neil, but that does not change the fact that she is woefully miscast. Fox’s acting range is as limited as ever and her eyes seem disconcertingly dead. Malina Weissman, who portrays Young April in flashback scenes, acts better than Fox does. Jane Levy, Anna Kendrick and Elizabeth Olsen were considered before Fox got the part – any of those actresses would’ve been a better fit. The yellow jacket is a nice visual reference to O’Neil’s original costume though. Arnett provides hit-and-miss comic relief as the tagalong cameraman Vern and Minae Noji goes all dragon lady as Karai. William Fichtner hams it way up as Eric Sachs. He’s a dab hand at playing slimy villains but fails to make much of an impact as the baddie here, saddled with such lines as “time to take a bite out of the big apple”.

            On the plus side, the film’s 101 minute running time is way easier to stomach than the 165 minute duration of Transformers: Age of Extinction. The action sequences are also more coherent and entertaining here and an extended chase down a snowy slope involving rocket snowboards, an avalanche and a jack-knifing semi-truck is actually quite impressive. That sequence also contains some neat 3D effects. While some of the jokes are annoying, several do land. This reviewer enjoyed a bit in which Michelangelo attempts to serenade April with an off-key rendition of Happy Together – which, of course, was sung by 60s group the Turtles. The film also has a sweet flashback sequence showing the turtles as babies under Splinter’s care and we get a quaint stop motion-style time-lapse image of the turtles growing up.


            In spite of the violence and sexual references, this movie is a whole lot less inappropriate for children than the Transformers films and can be considered a passable action adventure flick for tweens. It should also be some small comfort that the characters of Leo, Mikey, Donnie and Raph haven’t actually been butchered past recognition (even if their appearances have been). It’s silly, but a film called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has every right to be. That said, Guardians of the Galaxy does the irreverent, pop culture-referencing, action-comedy thing with a whole lot more wit, heart and style.
Summary: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has its moments but on the whole, it’s still lagging behind a good number of other blockbusters this summer.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong