Transformers: The Last Knight

Last weekend I was in the mood to watch a poorly reviewed movie. The Mummy was playing too late, so, I saw Transformers: The Last Knight.

Before I saw the film, I perused some of the review online. It was truly astonishing how many claimed this was the worst film of the franchise. Maybe that lowered my expectations, but, come on, let’s be real. This is the fifth in a series of films about alien robots that can transform into cars and planes and (?) clocks, apparently. So expectations start low.

But, let’s break it down. In my review of Dark of the Moon, I analyzed which aspects of the films are best. Here, I’ll look at some different things, and analyze which are worst.

Most Embarrassing Appearance by a Respected Actor — The first film (and all the sequels) has John Turturro. He’s kind of fun, and at least gives it his all. Revenge of the Fallen has none! But in Dark of the Moon we get Patrick Dempsey (good), Frances McDormand (boring) and John Malkovich (fine, I guess). I’ve already explained how much I enjoyed Kelsey Grammer in Age of Extinction, and Stanley Tucci was at least funny. In this one, Anthony Hopkins brings the crazy. I enjoyed him thoroughly. Winner: Frances McDormand.

Most Useless Eye-Candy Performance by an Actress — When Megan Fox left the franchise I wasn’t saddened…until I saw her replacement (Rosie Huntington-Whitely). Yawn. And Nicola Peltz’s inclusion was kind of skeevy. Laura Haddock (playing a history professor in this one) is easily the best in this category, yielding what might be Michael Bay’s least sexist film! (It’s a low bar, people.) Winner – Tie: Rosie Huntington-Whitely and Nicola Peltz.

Most Egregious Flouting of the Laws of Physics — Okay, this is going to be a tough one. Every film has humans flying around in robotic carnage and not dying. Revenge of the Fallen had three “dead” characters (two robots, one human) get resurrected, not to mention that stupid Matrix subplot. Dark of the Moon had that “building falling down but everyone is okay” sequence. But both of the last two films had Cybertron (the home planet of the Transformers) appear right next to the Earth without anything realistic happening. (Enormous ocean tides, planet pulled out of orbit, moon crashing into it, etc.) Winner – Tie: Cybertron Proximity

Stupidest Historical Reimagining — I continued to believe that the alternate explanation for the building of Hoover Dam is awesome. The star killing machine inside the pyramid is weak. The secret mission of the Apollo astronauts was probably the least crazy of them all. Reimagining the death of the dinosaurs as caused by Cybertronian technology was not very interesting. Putting Transformers into the Arthurian legend was a middle of the road inclusion from this latest film. On the other hand, I would pay folding money to see an entire film about Bumblebee fighting Nazis! That flashback was excellent. (The actual Bumblebee spinoff is said to take place in the 1980s. Oh, well.) Winner — Star Killing Pyramid Machine

Bottom line, The Last Knight is a middle of the pack film. Better than Revenge of the Fallen, but not as good as the original.


Ghost in the Shell

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new film on the Thursday before release date, but I did here, so let’s see if I can unpack this complex film experience, topic by topic:

It’s a Remake

I did see the original Ghost in the Shell anime a couple of decades ago. I remember not liking it, and that’s all I remember. I couldn’t tell you if anything in the 2017 version is like or not like the original. So keep that in mind.

If you care about the premise, here you go. A woman’s brain is placed into a robot that looks eerily like Scarlett Johansson, and she kicks a lot of ass.

Personally, for the record, I don’t care if films get remade. Bad, good, indifferent. I don’t care. You want to remake Die Hard, more power to you. You want to remake it for a different culture or audience? Go for it. Personally, I’d love to see the film reimagined with the lead as a woman. An Indian woman if you want. Have fun.

Actually, the way they address the fact that Johansson is playing a character known as “Motoko” is pretty deftly done.

Okay, back to the review.

It’s Gorgeous

I knew from the previews this would be the illegitimate love child of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element in look. And it works. The futuristic-retro cars, the multi-layered roadways, the endless high-rises decorated with mammoth holographic ads, the robots, the computer interfaces. Everything worked for me. It was without a doubt the best thing about the film.

The Acting is Spotty

Johansson as Major, the central figure of the story, does good work, though there’s nothing in the performance that anyone familiar with her work in the Marvel films will find surprising. Major and Natasha Romanov have similar character arcs, actually.

Pilou Asbæk turns in the best performance in the film, as Batou, Major’s sidekick. He’s funny and heartfelt and effective in a fight. He has a great presence. I expect to see more of him in the future.

Takeshi Kitano is also pretty good as Aramaki, Major’s boss at this police organization. Though, I suspect there’s some fan service for this well known Japanese actor that kind of goes over my head. There were one or two scenes where I could tell I was supposed to be in awe of this guy, and the film hadn’t really earned my awe. Still, though, nice performance.

Michael Pitt is entirely forgettable (and leaning into annoying) with his performance of Kuze, a mysterious terrorist figure that Major is chasing. Bleh.

Juliette Binoche is poorly used as Dr. Outlet, the scientist responsible for Major’s resurrection. Binoche has such a presence, casting her as this weak of a character seems dissonant.

Peter Ferdinando is pointless as Cutter, a honcho (the honcho?) of Hanka Robotics, the firm that seems to run the world with their robots. As a villain, he’s neither empathetic nor easy to root against.

The Story is Spotty

I loved the first, say, thirty minutes of the film. Then the middle third was okay. The finale was just boring. It’s rare for me to start checking my watch on a film that clocks in at less than two hours.

I didn’t analyze the story enough to really find plot holes, except for one. There is a point in the film when the robotics company guy has lost track of Major. She’s basically a robot he built, right? How can she not be lo-jacked? Dumb.


The Race Thing

I do have some thoughts on this. There’s been plenty of sturm and drang over the fact that they’ve whitewashed this property. As I said before, if you want to remake for a different audience and alter the race/gender/whatever of the characters, I don’t care. But the end result should be logically consistent. And this one wasn’t.

They never specify what city this film takes place, but there are plenty of hints that we’re in Asia somewhere. There’s Japanese script everywhere, the head of the police group speaks only in Japanese, most of the advertisements have Asian themes to them. There’s even a bit about Major being a refugee who came to this country, which I liked. The very Anglo-looking Johansson being a refugee puts this definitely into a different kind of world than we’re used to. All of that indicates we’re in an Asian (perhaps Japanese) place which is dominated by that culture.

But with the exception of Kitano, the Chinese guy from The Dark Knight, and one small role for a Japanese woman (which I won’t spoil here), everyone else is either European or African. (Mostly European.) So, does that mean we are in Tokyo, and Japanese culture and language continues to persist, but Europeans have taken control of the place? Or are we just lucky enough to be seeing a story that just happens to be about European characters.

I get that they were going for “colorblind” casting. But when the themes of race are baked into every aspect of the production design, you can’t simply wish away contradictions in your casting.

The Upshot

This film was diverting and enjoyable, but uneven enough that it’s hard to recommend unless you simply enjoy looking at amazing visuals.


I have a five-year-old daughter. Recently, my wife and I took her to her first in-theater movie experience. (Except for one of those thirty-minute-long IMAX documentary films.)

My daughter is a bit on the sensitive side. She finds the giant squid in Finding Dory too much. But it’s hard for me to argue with her on that one. Watching Moana she had to contend with a lava monster, an oversized crab, and a pirate navy of freaky coconut creatures. She spent a lot of the film in the hallway with her mother. But man, did she have a lot to say about it afterward. Her deconstruction of the character of Maui kind of took my breath away. It was insightful and likely accurate; and I never even thought about it.

Okay, enough about the target demo. How did Moana affect me?

Dang, this is a good film. One opening scene, with the title character Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) as a toddler, was astonishing. Not just gorgeous animation (which it is) but brilliant animation storytelling. You learn what you need to know without a single word of dialogue.

Soon enough Moana grows up to be a girl of indeterminate age, but likely a teenager. She’s being groomed to take over as chief of the island on which her people have lived for many years. (1000, if Maui is to be believed.) Her father (Temura Morrison) is adamant that what has worked this long–staying safe behind the reef–will continue to work. But an impending ecological disaster pushes Moana to take a risk and go out to sea in search of the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson).

The balance of the film is a buddy action comedy with these two (and a couple of enjoyable side characters who don’t actually speak) as they try to accomplish the quest steps needed to get everything back in order on Moana’s island.

Pretty much everything about this film works. The settings are lush and amazing. The performances are spot on. The story is straightforward enough for kids, but not simple and not dumbed down. The music is heartfelt and touching when its supposed to be, and hilarious at other times. (Kudos to Jemaine Clement for his portrayal of the most impressive crab in cinema history.)

This could be my favorite animated film.

2016 Movie Wrap Up

I didn’t see as many films as I would have liked, and I’ve reviewed even less. But, for what it’s worth, here’s what came out this year that I did see:

The Great

Captain America: Civil War

Zootopia — I like the direction Disney is taking their CG animated films. Frozen was okay, Tangled was great. This is a hoot, too.

Moana — Loved this movie. Full review to come…

Deadpool — What is there to say about this film that hasn’t been said? From the opening titles to the after-credits scene, it’s just so much fourth-wall-breaking goodness. Loved it.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

The Good

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Doctor Strange

Jason Bourne — There’s no loss in quality of action, but the story this time seemed spare even for a Bourne film. Points to Alicia Vikander for her delightfully amoral character.

Star Trek Beyond


The Magnificent Seven — A fun ride that I’ll probably never revisit.

The Shallows — I considered bumping this to the “Great” section. It’s consistently nerve-wracking and almost makes sense. This is the highest possible praise for a creature feature.

Deepwater Horizon

10 Cloverfield Lane — I suspect I would have liked this more if not for the Cloverfield connection. The finale felt out of the place with the first four-fifths of the film.

Hail, Caesar!

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

The Okay

Finding Dory

Suicide Squad

X-Men: Apocalypse — There’s stuff to love and stuff to hate in this film. A full review will be along at some point…

London Has Fallen — I’ll give it this: it’s dramatically better than the original.

The Bad

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — This was right on the edge between “Okay” and “Bad” for me. Some of it was kind of interesting. A few moments were brilliant. But, man, way too many dream sequences, Snyder!

Independence Day: Resurgence — Blurgh.

Top Ten Podcasts

I’m relatively new to podcasts, but they’ve turned into a regular part of my daily routine. Here’s my current Top Ten, in order of how excited I am and likely to immediately listen to a new episode:

10) The Command Zone — I’m a gamer, and my favorite game is Magic: The Gathering. In particular, I prefer the Command variant. If that seems like a lot of inside baseball, it is. This is easily the geekiest thing on this list, and even then I don’t listen to every episode. But it does have one of the staples of the genre that I like: engaging hosts that have a fun chemistry. Jimmy Wong and Josh Lee Kwai are having fun, and I’m slowly learning some of their nerdy jargon.

9) The Nerdist — I get the impression this is one of the oldest podcasts out there, with Chris Hardwick pulling in a new celebrity every week for a long-form discussion of…whatever. Whether it’s Norm MacDonald talking about hanging out with Johnny Carson, or Jeremy Irons describing his seaside castle home in Ireland, or Anna Faris discussing the relative merits of pubic hair management, these are usually interesting and fun conversations. My main reason for skipping some is the time investment required. (They’re usually at least an hour long.)

8) How Did This Get Made? — Another oldie, this is somewhat in the mold of the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 shows, where three hosts (Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael) riff on some terrible movie. Some of the shows are studio-produced, others live. And they usually have a guest or two, but these three are really the core of the show. This is another podcast where the chemistry is important. I’d rate this one higher, but Scheer dilutes the brand by interspersing the movie takedowns with “prequel” episodes that are entirely filler.

7) Magic: The Gathering Drive to Work — This is old school podcasting. It’s one guy talking into a recorder while he drives to work. That’s pretty much it. However, Mark Rosewater is a long-time designer (and now head of that team) at Wizards of the Coast. He’s got fun (for the initiated) stories about the entire history of the long-running game, as well as some amazing insights into the more general concept of game design, a topic which fascinates me. Still, some of his more esoteric episodes (T-shirts? Really?) speak of a desire to generate content for content’s sake.

6) Revisionist History — Well known author Malcolm Gladwell is perfect for the podcast format. He’s got a soothing voice and a tendency to build his books around chapter long concepts which are strung together. Here, he takes a topic and does a deep dive for forty minutes or so. It doesn’t have the loosey-goosey structure of most of my other faves on this list. It feels more like an NPR radio show. But it doesn’t disappoint. Here’s hoping his first season isn’t his last.

5) Movie Fights — This is really just an audio version of what is primarily a YouTube series. I don’t have the time to sit in front of a screen to watch all of these super-geeky trips into the strange and bizarre world of internet film fandom, but listening is still fun. A rotating collection of “fighters” meet to argue over questions like “What is the worst Will Smith film?” or “Rogue One: Is it necessary?” Hidden behind the bombast is a strange sort of bromance between Dan Murrell (the reigning Movie Fights champion) and Andy Signore (the host and judge). It’s funny to me how very rarely they acknowledge the baked in nepotism that drives the show.

4) On the Media — Here’s another podcast that is repurposed from another medium. I was a fan of On the Media on public radio for years. When I realized I didn’t have to figure out when it was airing, I was so very pleased. There’s only a hint of interaction between the hosts, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield, but they are both interesting voices (both aurally and ideologically) to listen to as media grows and shifts in the digital age.

3) Movie B. S. with Bayer and Snider — There is no better friendship on the internet (that I’ve found) than these two movie reviewers. They are good at unpacking recent film releases and giving them grades. They’re better at delivering a portrait of two men who seem so very different, but mesh so well. I want to fly to Portland and buy them lunch.

2) The West Wing Weekly — The West Wing is my favorite non-speculative drama. I have watched it way too many times. This episode-by-episode breakdown is a fantastic way for me to revisit them again and pretend it’s not just a waste of my time. The hosts are a podcast veteran (Hrishikesh Hirway) and one of the stars of the TV show (Joshua Malina). Hrishi has the work ethic and the fanboy love of TWW. Josh brings the snark, and such delicious snark it is. This is one of the few podcasts that I sometimes (but not always) listen to the ads, as opposed to just flicking past them at 15 second intervals. I enjoy these guys playing off of each other that much. Throw in amazing guest appearances by actors and other crew from the show, and I plan to listen attentively to this podcast until they burn through seven seasons of this great show.

Notice that there isn’t a number one on my list. I’m in the market for one more podcast. Feel free to make suggestions in the comments below.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

I’m a member of the generation for whom the original Star Wars films are foundational. They are what science fiction epic blockbusters are supposed to be. I’m also a guy who thinks Star Wars is a lot of fun, but the films aren’t going on any of my top ten lists. I also thought the first and third prequels were bad, and the second was pretty good. Also, The Force Awakens is my favorite Star Wars film, by a pretty dramatic margin.

roaswsRogue One is an odd bird, then. It’s not a “saga” film, and so it’s supposed to feel a little different. No opening crawl. No Williams score. And the Skywalker clan are reduced to cameos. I was okay with that. In fact, I kind of wish it was more different. But I’ll get to that.

First, the good. Good performances, particularly from Felicity Jones as Jyn, Diego Luna as Cassian, Ben Mendelsohn as Krennic and Alan Tudyk as K-2SO. (K-2SO is possibly my favorite droid now. Sorry, BB-8.) Everyone else is also fine, but not quite as amazing. Great effects. It’s the most beautiful Star Wars film, I think. Great story. I won’t delve into spoilers, but it does an admirable job of organically retconning more than one of the oddities of A New Hope. I liked seeing a ton of new planets. I loved seeing the darker side of the Rebellion. I even loved that one actor reprising his role from the prequels.

The problem is, I don’t know exactly. I mean, yeah, I got sick and tired of the references to A New Hope. Two or three would have been fine, but it was kind of overkill. Did we really need two digital recreations of actors? No, not really. (Only one of which was actually good, by the way.) And out of 8 Star Wars films, 6 of them specifically reference the Death Star. I know, the Death Star is critical to this film’s entire story, but that just underlines the sameness of the films.

But the main problem I had is that I just didn’t care very much. About anyone. Will Jyn be reunited with her father (Mads Mikkelsen)? Didn’t care. Will Cassian and Jyn come to terms? Whatever. Will the team manage to get the Death Star plans to the Rebellion? Well, yeah. They will. But how will they do it? However they’ll do it, I guess. I didn’t even much care about any character deaths. (I won’t spoil who dies.)

So, there’s certainly nothing to be embarrassed about in the film. It’s a fine addition to the franchise. But it just doesn’t connect with me on an emotional level.

Ghostbusters (2016)

gI have to admit that I’m the demo who thinks the original Ivan Reitman directed Ghostbusters is a perfect movie. But I also have to admit that I don’t have a reactionary view of remakes in general. Want to remake a film I love? Go ahead. Have fun. Maybe I’ll even like it. I’ll take a well-intentioned remake over a lazy sequel or prequel any day of the week.

The other thing I have to admit is that the fanboy backlash at remaking the film with women in the lead roles was so ugly (not to mention stupid and unnecessary) that I was more predisposed to like the film, just to spite the sexist buffoons.

All in all, the film is pretty good. The cast is (mostly) fantastic. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are the new ghostbusting team, with the dim-witted help of Chris Hemsworth. They all knock it out of the park. Neil Casey is a bit of a waste as the bad guy, and the cameos by actors from the original film are fine. (Bill Murray is the weakest, Annie Potts was the best.)

What does set the film apart are the effects. These ghosts are weird and scary and intriguing. There’s no attempt to try to explain why some of them look like people, and others look like dragons, and others look like parade balloons. You just go with it and enjoy the show.

Apart from the effects, every aspect of this film is inferior to the first, but not terrible by any means. I’m kind of sorry it didn’t do well enough for a sequel, because the tease in the after-credit scene definitely made me happy.