Starring: Mark Wahlberg (Deepwater Horizon), Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs), Josh Duhamel (Life as We Know It), Laura Haddock (Guardians of the Galaxy), Isabela Moner (Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life), Jerrod Carmichael (Bad Neighbours)

Director: Michael Bay (Pain & Gain)

Writers: Art Marcum & Matt Holloway (Iron Man) and Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down)

Runtime: 2 hours 29 minutes

Release Date: 21 June (US), 22 June (UK)

What is there even left to say about the Transformers franchise at this point? Every flaw that could be pointed out has been highlighted again and again for ten years now. I could pretty much just copy and paste my review of Age of Extinction here and it would still be a generally accurate summary of The Last Knight. I can’t even say I had any optimism going into this one, and for that I can say I at least wasn’t as surprised by how bad it is. I was just bored, exhausted, and in awe of how such a film can even be made in the current cinema landscape.

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Five films in, and they still somehow can’t come up with a new plot for a Transformers film. Once again, there’s some artefact from Cybertron hidden on Earth that the Decepticons want to use to destroy the world and only the humans and Autobots can stop them. There is nothing new here at all, and what the film thinks are new twists are just wholesale ripped off from the previous films. The movie may be the shortest and have the fastest pace of all the films since the first, but that’s mainly because it has the shortest attention span of all of them. The aborted hodgepodge of a plot races from scene to scene like an eight-year-old on a sugar high, blurting out exposition and throwing around action sequences without ever once stopping to realize nothing it is saying or doing makes any sense. If I were to describe exactly what happened in this movie to you without a shred of irony, I would sound like a delusional, conspiracy-believing mental patient. The humour may be less insensitive than usual but it’s still embarrassing to sit through, and though the product placement isn’t as torrential as before it’s still plainly obvious when it’s there. The film lacks any cohesive flow or an emotional core to latch onto, once again being nothing but two and a half hours of nothing but mindless spectacle. It boggles the mind that after this long, these films still can’t even follow the basics of narrative storytelling; you know, the kinds of things most stories have without even having to think about.

Mark Wahlberg’s performance in Age of Extinction was laughable, but at least it had this frantic sense of energy to it. Here, he just looks absolutely bored the entire time and doesn’t share an iota of chemistry with the rest of the cast; I can’t believe I’m pining for the days when he was shouting insults at his daughter’s boyfriend. Laura Haddock is probably the most respectable female lead the franchise has had, but that doesn’t mean she’s a particularly well-written character or that Bay doesn’t objectify her at every opportunity; even her comebacks to sexist remarks come off as kind of sexist. Isabela Moner is a decent new addition but the film pretty much forgets about her after spending the first act setting her up, then constantly strains to find ways to keep her relevant when the easy solution would be just to cut her character; the same sentiments go to Jerrod Carmichael. Josh Duhamel and John Turturro return from the original trilogy but both are pretty thankless roles, whilst Stanley Tucci is back but playing a completely different character. Why? Was there supposed to be some kind of connection between his character here and in the last movie? And then there’s Anthony Hopkins, who has somehow found a way to embarrass himself more than any other of his paycheck performances. The film is almost worth seeing just to behold how certifiable disturbed his performance is. You have not witnessed a career sh*t its own pants like this until you see Hopkins say, without any sarcasm, “That’s one bitchin’ ride!”

Oh yeah, and the Transformers are in this movie, I guess. Optimus Prime is barely even in it, with only a few scant scenes in the beginning before showing up in the climax, and that whole “Prime is now evil” thing all the marketing was about is resolved pretty quickly and conveniently. Bumblebee’s whole arc here is about getting his voice back (which is something he actually did at the end of the first movie which they then swept under the rug in the following sequels), and they reveal all this backstory for him to ostensibly set up his spin-off next year. The rest of the Autobots are pretty pointless, with the introduction of a fan favourite like Hot Rod being made a big deal of and then he never does anything again. The Decepticons don’t fair much better. Megatron is back to his old self with no explanation, as is Barricade, and all of the new minions are a bunch of gangsta stereotypes with literal gold chains and no personality. Hopkins has a sociopathic robot sidekick called Cogman who gets annoying really fast, and the main villain Quintessa is as vague an antagonist as her name is stupid: very.

Do I even need to explain Michael Bay’s directing aesthetic again? Everything’s pretty much business as usual. The cinematography is saturated to infinity and can’t focus on anything for more than a few seconds, the production design is overwrought and inconsistent, and the editing feels like a six-year-old playing with a pair of scissors did it in an afternoon. But adding to the usual sensory overload is a new visual quirk for Mr. Bay: constantly changing aspect ratios! Sections of the film were shot with IMAX cameras but, instead of just shooting a few select sequences in the formant and using normal cameras for the rest, the film frequently flits between three different aspect ratios, often in the middle of a scene; a simple conversation between two characters can have each character presented in a completely different shot ratio. It’s constantly distracting and makes no logical sense, and why they couldn’t just make a 2.35:1 version for regular theatres is baffling. When the only good technical aspect of the film I can think of is the few times Steve Jablonksy recycles music from the first movie made me ever so slightly nostalgic for 2007, there’s something seriously wrong.

Transformers: The Last Knight is a terrible movie, but you probably didn’t need me to tell you that. What gives it its unique badness is just how banally insane it is. No other movie would get away with being this idiotic, sophomoric and lewd, but we always just throw up our hands and say, “Well, that’s Michael Bay for you.” That’s not good enough. I am willing to play devil’s advocate and say that Bay is far from being an untalented hack. He clearly has a distinct visual style, as well as a strong understanding of film language, and his films have had a huge impact on many aspects of modern blockbuster production. But he has also constantly shown an indifference towards his audience and a willingness to put as little mental effort into his work because he makes money either way. No one else can get away with that kind of arrogance in this business without astounding critical acclaim to back it up. Bay has said this is his last film in the franchise, but he said that after the last two movies as well. If he really means it this time, that’s fantastic. This is an opportunity to make something decent that doesn’t have to be smart, but can at least not insult my senses; if Transformers movies were at least as good as the recent Fast& Furious movies, I’d be satisfied. But if Bay comes back once again for whatever reason, then all we can do is perpetually wait for the general public to finally get bored of him.

FINAL VERDICT: 2/10

Starring: Tom Cruise (Jack Reacher), Sofia Boutella (Star Trek Beyond), Annabelle Wallis (Annabelle), Jake Johnson (Jurassic World), Courtney B. Vance (Office Christmas Party), Russell Crowe (Gladiator)

Director: Alex Kurtzman (People Like Us)

Writers: David Koepp (Spider-Man) and Christopher McQuarrie (Edge of Tomorrow) and Dylan Kussman (Burn)

Runtime: 1 hour 50 minutes

Release Date: 9 June (US, UK)

Marvel Studios really set the groundwork for how to make a cinematic universe, but no one else has managed to step up to the plate to meaningfully challenge them. DC has only just managed to make a movie that’s genuinely great after uneven results, whilst Legendary’s Monsterverse is young but still shows plenty of potential, but no studio has tried harder and failed more miserably than Universal trying to resurrect their classic series of monster movies. Their confused remake of The Wolfman and the abysmal Dracula Untold were both quickly swept under the rug after failing, but now they’re gunning harder than ever. Officially dubbing the series “Dark Universe” with a fancy pre-titles logo and a slate of movies set with major talent lined up, you’d think Universal had a movie as solid as Iron Man on their hands to plan out this intricately this far in advance. But you would be wrong. So, so wrong. The Mummy is an absolute disaster of a start for a potential franchise; a train wreck of bad decisions that makes Batman v Superman look like The Avengers in comparison and casts serious doubt on this franchise continuing beyond this point.

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Up front, the biggest problem with The Mummy is that it has no idea what kind of movie it even wants to be. You’d think they’d try to evoke the feel of the classic Universal Monsters movies and make a moody, atmospheric horror film. No major studio is making big budget horror anymore, and with the right vision they could carve out a new market whilst still cashing in on the movie universe trend. But rarely does The Mummy ever try to genuinely scare or even unnerve. Most of the time, it feels like an unholy mixture of the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, any of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, and the worst superhero movies of the past ten years. The film’s story is insultingly simple and yet needlessly complicated, with the plot then essentially coming to a halt halfway through so they can set up their universe in the most tedious way possible. You thought Bruce Wayne finding a flash drive full of info on metahumans stupid and contrived? Wait till you see Russell Crowe drone on about his secret society of monster hunters for ten minutes! The film is essentially two hours of exposition, action sequences and incompetent brand management, and when the film isn’t frustrating you with how tedious and lifeless the whole enterprise is, you’ll just be bored.

Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but the man usually has decent taste in film choices. What convinced him to star in this tripe is completely lost on me, because not only is the material not good, but also his character is so incredibly indefinable that the movie never even properly explains his occupation. Cruise’s Nick Morton has no clearly definable personality, history or motivation beyond what other characters tell us about him, and what little character is there is just Cruise acting on auto-pilot. There’s all this talk about him being a rebel and that he has demons to get over, but Cruise himself never really has a chance to exhibit any of this. This feels like a role that was written for a typical Hollywood bland man like Sam Worthington or Jai Courtenay, but Cruise somehow manages to exhibit even less charisma than the finest performances of those actors’ entire careers. Annabelle Wallis fares little better as a totally superfluous and vague love interest who’s only real purpose is the blurt exposition at Cruise, whilst Jake Johnson is relegated to being annoying comic relief and then ripping off Griffin Dunne’s role in An American Werewolf in London; if this movie was made in the 90s, Rob Schneider would have played this character. The only actors who shine at all in this mess are Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll and Sofia Boutella as The Mummy herself. Boutella works because she actually seems to be trying, delivering a genuinely nuanced performance with very little screen time or dialogue, whilst Crowe eats up the scenery at every chance he gets; I’ll take hammy Crowe over boring Crowe any day.

The Mummy contains far more action than horror, but it never gets either element right. The action sequences are loud, relentless, poorly directed, driven mostly by CGI, and lacking in creativity. The one close-to-original stunt, the much touted zero gravity plane sequence, is staged and directed without any original flair and is over far too quickly to impact. When it comes to scares, all they can really muster are some lame jump scares or some mildly creepy imagery, failing to capture either the moody ambience of the classic monster movies or the unnerving terror of modern horror films. There is some cool design work here, like how The Mummy reforms herself or how her mindless minions gait around like all their limbs are broken, but none of it is particularly outstanding. Not even Brian Tyler’s score for the film can muster anything past generic.

If Marvel established the textbook way of how to start a cinematic universe, The Mummy should serve as the example of how not to. It can’t decide on a tone or a genre, it doesn’t set up any interesting characters, it doesn’t tell a coherent story, it fails to deliver any memorable action or horror sequences, and its attempts to build a world are basically reduced to talking about it instead of letting the universe naturally unfold. It feels less like a filmmaker trying to create a good movie they genuinely care about, and more like a studio attempting to copy a trend and slapping one of their established brands on it. If Universal are genuinely serious about using this as a springboard for a whole series of movies, they are about to make Warner Bros and DC look like prodigies.

FINAL VERDICT: 3/10

Starring: Gal Gadot (Fast & Furious 6), Chris Pine (Star Trek Beyond), Connie Nielsen (The Devil’s Advocate), Robin Wright (The Princess Bride), Danny Huston (Children of Men), David Thewlis (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Lucy Davis (Shaun of the Dead)

Director: Patty Jenkins (Monster)

Writer: Allan Heinberg (The Catch)

Runtime: 2 hours 21 minutes

Release Date: 1 June (UK), 2 June (US)

Whilst I have yet to outright dislike any of the films in the DC Extended Universe so far, I will admit they have all had gaping flaws. Their characters lack charisma and development, their tones are grim and messy, and their stories have been convoluted and undercooked. But despite all this, I have remained optimistic because they do get enough right; their films have been visually fascinating, have a grandiose scale befitting of the god-like characters they present, and whilst their execution has been haphazard their goals have been mostly sound.

Whatever your opinion, a lot has been riding on the performance of Wonder Woman. Not only does it have the stigma of being a DCEU film, but female-led superhero films have been unanimously terrible in the past; their quality has had nothing to do with them being female-led, but it is a pestering statistic nonetheless. However, I am glad to say none of these supposed impairments have any affect on the final product. Wonder Woman is a triumph of a movie in many facets, and no matter your opinion on DC or the superhero genre in general you owe yourself the joy of witnessing it.

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In terms of the basic story elements of Wonder Woman, it doesn’t do anything astoundingly original. The film owes its most obvious inspiration to Superman in terms of structure and scale, but it also shares similarities with Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger along with borrowed elements from non-superhero fare like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan and 300. But with these familiar pieces has been crafted a film greater than the sum of those parts, telling a story not only more than worthy of the character but also of our times.

Not since Richard Donner’s progenitor of the genre has a superhero film felt like a cinematic epic, telling a tale of morality and strife in very broad but also cleverly nuanced strokes. It is a film of tremendous length but of even greater pace and entertainment, balancing out its varying elements of drama, action and comedy with impeccable craft. But Wonder Woman’s greatest strength should come as a relief to those dismayed by DC in the past: it’s fun and hopeful. Sure, it has some intense moments of darkness, but it balances it out with an optimistic flair that carries you through those moments. If I have any faults with the story, I will say that the third act isn’t as spectacular as the first two, but that complaint feels pedantic in the face of everything the movie does peerlessly. When all is said and done, I doubt you will find a blockbuster more engaging than this during this summer movie season.

Gal Gadot was one of the brightest stars to emerge from Batman v Superman, but her appearance there was brief and doubt still loomed as to whether she could carry a movie on her own shoulders. After seeing her in action, I can say she not only carries the movie but she holds it up as strongly as the tanks she throws around in battle. Again to make the Superman comparison, Gadot plays the role of Diana with the same grace and authority as Christopher Reeve, embodying both the strength and sensitivity that makes Wonder Woman such an iconic character. Her optimism and naivety do often get the better of her but they are also the qualities that motivate her, and the journey she goes on in this film epitomises the advantages and disadvantages of that outlook. She ranks up their with the best protagonists of the genre, and I am eager to see where they take the character from here.

But in another move taken right out of the Donner playbook, Gadot’s supporting cast help elevate her and the movie even further. Chris Pine makes for an excellent Steve Trevor, delivering not only a charming and swaggering performance that Harrison Ford would approve of, but also serving as a wonderful counterpoint to Gadot. Not only do they effortlessly exchange banter and chemistry, Trevor’s realist outlook helps to both ground Diana but also creates conflict; one is determined that they can definitively end war, but the other knows it’s not that easy. Connie Nielsen is excellent as Diana’s mother Hippolyta, providing our hero with the grace and courage she needs, whilst Robin Wright’s Antiope gives her the physical strength to be a warrior.

Even the smaller side characters are fun and memorable, which is afforded to them by the talent playing them. Ewen Bremner, Saïd Taghmaoui and Eugene Brave Rock make for a colourful band of soldiers Diana and Steve embark on this quest with, and Lucy Davis provides some fun comedic relief as Etta Candy. If there are any faults on the character side, it is in the usual area for superhero films: the villains. Danny Huston and Elena Anaya are fairly broad antagonists as General Ludendorff and Doctor Poison respectively, but deliciously so and in a way I think was intentional, whilst big bad Ares is satisfying once he finally shows his face but his screen time is imbalanced compared to the amount of build-up they give him.

After three DC films with muted palettes and dreary modern environments, it’s refreshing to see Wonder Woman embrace colour. The film’s first act in Themyscira is gorgeously realized on the scale of Thor’s Asgard with ancient architecture and luscious greens, whilst Wonder Woman’s stunning costume shines brightly against the murk and dirt of World War I battlefields. Speaking of battle, the action sequences here are incredibly well staged and choreographed. There is a lot of CGI and Zack Snyder-style slow motion involved, but at all seamlessly flows with the motion of combat filled with soon-to-be iconic moments. The score by Rupert Greggson-Williams is also phenomenal and filled with the bombast required of such an epic, incorporating the already iconic theme established for the character in Batman v Superman into much more classically heroic pieces of orchestral music.

Wonder Woman is not just the first great female-led superhero movie or the first great movie in the DC Extended Universe, but an astounding example of modern blockbuster filmmaking in general. Patty Jenkins and her crew have pulled off here a film that is both the quality all films in this franchise should aspire to and the benchmark for every superheroine flick in development right now. It understands its main character and their intrinsic philosophy better than many of its genuinely good peers, all buoyed by Gal Gadot’s star-making performance that all women who pick up this mantle in future interpretations will be judged by. It is not a film that is necessarily impactful because of what it does, but because of how it does it and who is doing it. So to those of you reading this who have been disillusioned by the DCEU or have little interest in the genre entirely, Wonder Woman is the film that may sway your opinion. Make this film the success it more than deserves to be and break every preconceived notion about women in blockbuster cinema in the process. It has been a long time coming…

FINAL VERDICT: 10/10!

Starring: Dwayne Johnson (Central Intelligence), Zac Efron (Bad Neighbours), Priyanka Chopra (Quantico), Alexandra Daddario (San Andreas), Kelly Rohrbach (The PET Squad Files), Ilfenesh Hadera (Chi-Raq), Jon Bass (Loving)

Director: Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses)

Writers: Damian Shannon & Mark Swift (Freddy vs. Jason)

Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes

Release Date: 25 May (US), 29 May (UK)

Does anyone actually like Baywatch for any reason other than irony or TNA? It was a cheesy show that managed to stay on the air because it had scantily clad women running in slow motion in a pre-Internet age, and beyond that it didn’t have much going for it. But in spite of or perhaps even because of that, the series has managed to remain in the pop culture zeitgeist, and so a film adaptation was inevitable. Playing the entire thing as a joke was probably the best idea, nobody wants to see this material played straight, but there is such a thing is bad satire. Unfortunately, Baywatch is very much in the bad satire camp.

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The plot of an average episode of Baywatch was always something ridiculous and well out of the bounds of a lifeguard to handle, and the movie understands that. There are some prime targets to rip apart and satirize in a 21 Jump Street-style way, which is clearly what this movie is aiming for. However, the film version of Baywatch has nowhere near the amount of wit and ingenuity that film had. Whereas the Jump Street films took the clichés of the source material and twisted them to its own means, this film plays the generic plot completely straight and just has characters point out how nonsensical it is. The story is a textbook cop movie with obvious twists and very little unique assets, and its method of “satire” only highlights how trite the material is instead of making any actual jokes out of it.

When it’s not doing that, the gags are cringe-worthy and sophomoric on the level of a horny teenager and they stop the movie completely dead. For example, there is a five-minute sequence where a character gets their genitals trapped in a deckchair. It’s not funny, it goes on far too long, and nothing important to the plot even happens. The whole movie lacks any kind of logical flow, with the first act consisting of our “heroes” just trading jibes whilst occasionally cutting to the villain for no real reason other than establishing that there is a villain. By the time the film is over, it clearly thinks it has set up the next big comedy franchise, but no statement could be more false.

Dwayne Johnson is a man who seems to have an abundance of charisma and can overcome even the weakest material, but for the first time his charm has failed him. Johnson is clearly trying, but he and the rest of the cast fall victim to the exact same issue: none of the characters have any consistency in regards to function and intelligence. Johnson’s Mitch is supposed to be the charming leader who always knows best and saves the day, but whenever the plot comes into play he turns into a buffoon. Zac Efron’s Brody is always the one pointing out how ridiculous it is for lifeguards to be investigating a drug ring, but then he becomes reckless and idiotic whenever it wants to make Johnson look good. Even Alexandra Daddario as Summer, who for the most part is played as the logical straight woman, will go along with bad plans and play the fool for the sake of a gag.

Kelly Rohrbach’s role is pretty much just being the Pamela Anderson stand-in for Jon Bass’ Ronnie to ogle at, whilst Ilfenesh Hadera doesn’t even get a distinguishable personality. Bass’ role in the story is weak and poorly justified, and his relationship with Rohrbach has potential but they never do enough with it; they just sort of hang around awkwardly with each other until the third act just kind of resolves it out of nowhere. Priyanka Chopra as the villain Victoria Leeds is given nothing interesting to do and barely even any funny lines, with her only real purpose being to drag the paper-thin plot behind her. The only person who is consistently funny is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a frustrated cop that Johnson is always messing with, basically serving as an amalgam of Ice Cube and Nick Offerman’s roles in the Jump Street films, but they don’t do nearly enough with him. The film even wastes its cameos from original Baywatch stars, giving them a brief scene each and only one obvious gag when the gold material just sits there begging to be handled.

Baywatch could have been a genuinely funny send-up of a cheesy TV show and it is given every opportunity to do so if it simply tried, but it bails at every hurdle. It is ultimately a simple case of a comedy not being funny, mainly because it goes for the easy joke every time and can’t even do that right. The occasional funny line slips through (usually an ad-lib rather than any of the set piece gags) the performances are at least charismatic when they’re not inconsistent, and I wouldn’t say of the humour is awful or offensive, but none of that can save what should be a laugh-a-minute summer riot. I’d say skip the beach for now and wait for the next seasonal comedy to come around. You’ll probably be stepping into much safer waters than this.

FINAL VERDICT: 3.5/10

Starring: Johnny Depp (Black Mass), Javier Bardem (Skyfall), Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech), Brenton Thwaites (Gods of Egypt), Kaya Scodelario (The Maze Runner)

Directors: Joachim Ronning & Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki)

Writer: Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can)

Runtime: 2 hours 9 minutes

Release Date: 25 May (UK), 26 May (US)

Yes, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is still a thing. To think that The Curse of the Black Pearl was that film no one expected to be good but turned out great, and now all the sequels are films everyone hopes to be good but never quite are. Dead Man’s Chest was decent but only barely, At World’s End is a bloated and incomprehensible mess, and On Stranger Tides pretty much no one even remembers. But they’ve all been massively successful regardless, and so a fifth film has finally sailed its way into theatres. Can it redeem the franchise back to its brief moment of glory, or is it going to sink to the depths of our subconscious like most of these movies have?

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Salazar’s Revenge (as it is called in Europe for some reason, instead of the much less generic Dead Men Tell No Tales) thankfully cuts down on a lot of the needlessly complex storylines going on in the other Pirates sequels, bringing it back to a more streamlined premise of “let’s all go find the MacGuffin”. That doesn’t mean the film has completely stripped the fat, as the film is still a tad too long with pointless characters and plot cul-de-sacs that contribute nothing, but it’s at least simple enough to follow from beginning to end. The problem is what’s left is pretty much a grab bag of every trope of this franchise with very little new material added on. The story down to the structural level is a rehash of The Curse of the Black Pearl, but not in that knowing homage way like The Force Awakens did. It just feels like a vain attempt to recapture the magic of the first film by essentially repeating it with a new coat of paint. But even though for the most part these attempts at nostalgia fall flat, there is the occasional character moment that works, and the film concludes in a way that feels like an appropriate end to the franchise. It’s perhaps not the best executed, but it at least has a sense of conclusiveness to it…at least until the post-credits scene hinting at a potential sixth film that will once again go back to the rotting well of ideas instead of generating new ones. Sigh.

Remember when Jack Sparrow was a charming and likable character, one so original and well-performed that Johnny Depp actually got an Oscar nomination for it? Fourteen years later, the character has grown tired and, other than his amusing entrance into the film, so clearly has Depp considering how much he is going through the motions here. After failing to work as a lead in On Stranger Tides (because Sparrow was never meant to be a lead; he’s a wildcard character after all), the fifth film wisely lets the other characters progress the plot whilst Depp fools around in the background. However, instead of being far too prominent, now Sparrow lacks any real purpose other than being the centre of the villain’s motivation; without that, you could write him out of the film with little difficulty. There’s an attempt to flesh out Sparrow’s history with a flashback, but it doesn’t establish anything more important than how he got his name and outfit (yes, his costume requires a back story!) Javier Bardem is fine enough as Salazar, but he’s barely any different from any of the other antagonists of the franchise; he’s yet another undead villain with a vendetta against Sparrow out to find the MacGuffin and break his curse. His motivation for hunting down Sparrow is only a hair above nebulous, and Depp and him barely share any screen time until the third act.

In terms of fresh faces, Brenton Thwaites somehow manages to be even more of an uninteresting leading man than Sam Claflin in On Stranger Tides, having an understandable but underdeveloped motivation and a frustrating lack of personality. Despite supposedly being the anchor of the story, he’s such a non-presence that he constantly ends up taking a back seat to the far more interesting Kaya Scodelario. Sure, her relationship with Thwaites is forced and the whole “a woman scientist?” routine is a gag that runs out of steam fast, but Scodelario feels like she is genuinely putting in a performance and she’s far more convincing doing the “woman in a man’s world” thing than Keira Knightley ever did; I’d honestly rather see her continuing adventures than Sparrow’s at this point. The only other cast member who still feels like they’re trying is Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa and he is having a ball as usual. He comes into the story a little too late and an interesting relationship he sparks up with Scodelario is way too underdeveloped to fully impact, but by the end you’ll be glad he was there to remind you of the good old days.

Even in their most convoluted moments, the Pirates series has delivered a lot of memorable action sequences and the fifth instalment is no exception. There are a lot of the usual exchanges of swords and cannonballs, but it feels like all the inventiveness of the movie went into creating some impressive set pieces. The first big action sequence plays like a pirate version of the climax of Fast Five, and as ridiculous as that sounds it’s a well-executed mix of action and comedy that get the film going after a dull prologue. From there, it only gets crazier. There’s a ship that basically eats other ships, a ship’s figurehead that comes to life, the sea splitting Ten Commandments-style, and then there’s ghost sharks; you can’t accuse a movie of being completely uninventive when it has ghost sharks in it. As played-out as the concept of Salazar and his undead crew is, they are at least backed up by some pretty cool designs; the way pieces of them float in the air around them and how Salazar’s hair moves like he’s underwater are nice visual touches. A pity then that the CGI is never particularly convincing; even when compared to the skeletons from the first movie, they look fake. Hans Zimmer unfortunately doesn’t return to score the film, but Geoff Zanelli does a decent enough job picking up his recognisable tunes and giving them a new spin.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge ultimately sits in the middle of the pack in this franchise, learning from some of the mistakes of its forbearers but certainly not enough of them. What little magic it does manage to recapture of the original film is outweighed by what it inferiorly copies and otherwise fails to innovate the tired formula in any important way. It does nothing incredibly poorly by any means and it’s got enough solid moments to be entertaining whilst you watch it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve forgotten most of what happened in it by this time next week. I sincerely hope they decide to discontinue the series from here and leave whilst they still have a semblance of dignity, because what they’re hinting at for the next instalment honestly feels more like a threat than a promise.

FINAL VERDICT: 5/10

Starring: Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Michael Fassbender (X-Men: Apocalypse), Danny McBride (Pineapple Express), Billy Crudup (Watchmen), Demain Bichir (The Heat), Carmen Ejogo (Selma)

Director: Ridley Scott (The Martian)

Writers: John Logan (Skyfall) and Dante Harper

Runtime: 2 hours 2 minutes

Release Date: 12 May (UK), 19 May (US)

The Alien franchise hasn’t really had anywhere to go in the last twenty-five years. Alien 3 may have initially ended the story on a dampened note, but it was at least definitive. Everything since then has either just repeated what came before or taken it in radically stupid directions. Resurrection was a mutated sore dragging down an otherwise solid trilogy, Prometheus seemed embarrassed to even be associated with Alien when it wasn’t ruining it, and don’t even get me started on the Alien vs. Predator movies. Alien: Covenant seemed like the last shining hope for this series to get back on track; a chance to fix or forget the mistakes of the past and give the fans what they’ve been asking for. Unfortunately, Covenant is ultimately not that movie.

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Covenant functions as both a sequel to Prometheus and a prequel to the original film, though it doesn’t resolve everything from the former or lead directly into the latter. The basic set-up is fairly standard for the series thus far: a distress signal brings a crew down to an unknown planet, leading to death and destruction at the hands of an extraterrestrial monster. The film, however, does eschew a lot of familiar concepts to keep the story fresh. The locales are far more open and natural than the usual confines of spacecraft and industrial facilities, a wider variety of alien species are exhibited, and the whole “evil corporation” angle is finally abandoned. The first half of the film isn’t anything special but it does resemble an Alien film without feeling too derivative. However, once the story brings in all the connective tissue between Prometheus and Alien, that’s where it begins to fall apart. The themes about creation and God get dragged out again in lieu of isolation and dread, the third act liberally lifts elements from across the franchise, several obvious twists fall flat, and the film finally answers the question of the Xenomorphs’ origin in a way that is not only lame but completely disregards huge pieces of series lore. I’m not talking about obscure pieces of expanded fiction that were probably never canon. These are concepts that contradict what has been established in even the original film; huge fans of this series are going to notice, and they will not be happy. I can’t say much without spoiling, but this is mythology-f*cking on the level of midichlorians.

The characters of Covenant are a step-up from the cast of Prometheus, but only because they aren’t as frustratingly idiotic. They are instead a merely bland but inoffensive crew that aren’t even as memorable as the characters in the latter half of the original Alien movies. Katherine Waterston puts in a decent performance as lead Daniels, but she’s ultimately yet another Ripley copy with all the gruff edges shaved off. Billy Crudup shows some initial promise the conflicted captain Oram, but by the film’s second half he ceases to have a reason to exist. Danny McBride is the only other interesting crewmember, downplaying his comedic chops to deliver a blithe but suitably dramatic performance; I’m interested to see what he could do in other serious fare. The rest of the crew is a series of redshirts with varying levels of development, who are neither vexing like in Prometheus or memorable enough like those in Alien or Aliens to get any major reaction when they bite the dust. And then there’s Michael Fassbender as the android Walter. Going into his character in depth is major spoiler territory, so I’ll keep it brief: like in Prometheus his acting is good but his character is lacking, and even if you enjoyed his previous performance I don’t think the direction they take it here is a particularly satisfying one.

Ridley Scott isn’t quite the director he was nearly forty years ago when he made the first Alien, but he certainly hasn’t lost his eye. Like Prometheus, a lot of what redeems Covenant is all in the technical achievements. The film looks gorgeously grim, bringing back some of the grit and murkiness of the original film. The production design is grand and earthy with its ships and temples absorbed under the foreboding vines and rocks of the natural planet; it feels almost like a Miyazaki film at points. The classic Xenomorph design triumphantly returns along with some original variants that, whilst not as creative as some concepts explored in expanded fiction, do feel like a natural part of the species’ ancestry. There is a disappointing lack of practical creature work in favour of CG, which takes away a lot of the menace during the intimate horror sequences, but the gore effects all look genuine and they are fantastic; this might be the most blood-happy Alien film to date. Finally, Jed Kurzel’s score for the film is suitably low-key and haunting, along with a lot of cues from Jerry Goldsmith and Marc Streitenfeld’s compositions from Alien and Prometheus respectively woven in at appropriate moments.

Alien: Covenant is a passable sci-fi horror on its own merits, but explaining why it doesn’t work as an Alien movie without completely spoiling it is tricky. Remaining as vague as I can, I think the reason the film ultimately irks me so is because I get the impression that Ridley Scott really resents everything that happened to the series after Alien. He already began steering the ship in a different direction with Prometheus and, as much as many fans disliked that direction, at least he did so without messing with the main series. In response, Scott has effectively given the fans what they wanted whilst on the surface taunting them with everything they didn’t like. Covenant isn’t just Ridley Scott taking his toys and going home. Covenant is Ridley Scott taking not only his toys but also the toys of James Cameron and David Fincher, going home, smashing those toys to pieces, knocking himself over the head until he falls unconscious, waking up in a daze, rebuilding the toys with the missing pieces replaced with stuff nobody asked for until they look enough like they did yesterday, then taking them back to the park and saying, “Here, play with these instead.” This film really sums up why the Alien franchise should have been left alone ever since Ellen Ripley took that final leap into the furnace, but it seems like Scott has plans to power on regardless. Next time, I don’t expect him to listen to his fans properly. I say let the man do what he wants, but that doesn’t mean we have to enable him by seeing these movies anymore.

FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/10

Starring: Chris Pratt (Jurassic World), Zoe Saldana (Avatar), Dave Bautista (Spectre), Vin Diesel (Fast & Furious 8), Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Michael Rooker (The Walking Dead), Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), Pom Klementieff (Oldboy), Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby), Sylvester Stallone (Creed), Kurt Russell (Escape from New York)

Writer/Director: James Gunn (Slither)

Runtime: 2 hours 16 minutes

Release Date: 28 April (UK), 5 May (US)

It’s still hard to believe three years later that Guardians of the Galaxy became such a huge hit. What seemed like a film that would appeal only to the most diehard of comic book fans has become a movie that even those otherwise uninterested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have grown to love. It was my favourite film of 2014, my favourite film in the MCU so far, and one of my all-time favourite comic book movies in general. Topping that is a task that I don’t think anyone would feel up to, but James Gunn proves to be more than up to the task of trying. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 by no means surpasses its predecessor but, thankfully, it is a more-than-worthy sequel that makes all the right choices in all the important places.

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Like its forbearer, Vol. 2 doesn’t factor too heavily into the rest of the ongoing Marvel storyline, but it does rest heavily on your connections to these characters from the first film. The story gets off to a breakneck start and quickly gets into the meat of the story, answering pretty much all of the lingering questions left at the end of the previous movie, and it results in something far more personal and emotionally driven than you might expect. There’s still a lot of action spectacle with the fate of the galaxy at stake, and even more of James Gunn’s unique and exaggerated sense of humour, but it feels far more intimate than before due to its multi-strand structure and a bigger focus on the theme of family. The story splits up the Guardians for a majority of it and, whilst this does allow for the team to sink into new situations and interact with different characters, it does take away some of the unity of the group.

The focus feels spread a little too thin between the various story threads, with some getting more focus than they should when more vital stories feel lacking. There are a lot of scenes of characters sitting down to explain their neurosis and hang-ups and, whilst a lot of the character depth drawn from these moments is extremely satisfying and well executed, it’s a beat that gets repeated far too often; the entire cast might as well be sitting in a trust circle as they spout their inner issues. Gratefully, it all does come together eventually into an extremely satisfying finale on both an entertainment and emotional level. I’d say it’s slightly more comparable to The Wrath of Khan than Empire Strikes Back, but it’s a flattering comparison nonetheless. All in all, it’s still an constantly hilarious and delightful experience that I can see many enjoying even more than the first film, and in many respects it does surpass it in terms of scale and depth, but it doesn’t have quite the same sense of focus and simplicity as the original that allowed its idiosyncrasies to stand out.

The characters are what ultimately made the first Guardians so immensely enjoyable, and here everyone gets more time to develop and add more quotable zingers to their repertoire. Chris Pratt is as lovable as ever as Peter Quill and he obviously gets the most focus as he learns to connect with his father (Russell). It’s a powerful and touching journey that he goes on which pays off in dividends by the climax, one that really drives home why Quill is the way he is, but it does come at the cost of some of his humour. His story is so serious and grave that it sometimes robs Pratt of chances to be the dopey and charming Star-Lord we love, but it’s a payoff that just about balances out before it gets too grave.

Rocket feels like he gets the next-best development as learns to be more of a team player, forming a relationship with Yondu (Rooker) that I wish had more time to develop, and Bradley Cooper’s performance once again helps make this foul-mouthed raccoon come to life in endearing fashion. Dave Bautista continues to be the film’s secret weapon as Drax, providing even more laughs with his blunt honesty and literalism, and he even forms a lovely bond with newcomer Mantis (Klementieff). Zoe Saldana’s Gamora can feel a little sidelined at points, spending her time either trying to reconcile with her sister Nebula (Gillan) or playing hard-to-get with Quill, whilst Vin Diesel’s Baby Groot is pretty much relegated to comic antics and being adorable. Admittedly, that’s not too far removed from his role in the first, but he doesn’t get a “we are Groot” payoff moment in this climax that makes him more than just the butt of jokes.

Michael Rooker is the real show-stealer here as Yondu, building immensely on his character and defining his relationship with Quill in a really honest and heart-warming way; he is the true core of what this movie is about. Karen Gillan continues to be a fun presence as Nebula, especially since she spends way more time with the Guardians here and bouncing off their antics with her bitterness, but she ultimately seems a bit superfluous. She gets some great scenes, especially any moment with Gamora and a really funny bit with Kraglin (Sean Gunn), but it doesn’t connect cohesively back to the main plot like the other side stories do.

In regards to new faces, the big draw is of course Kurt Russell as Ego and yet, even though Russell’s performance itself is as charming as you might expect, the film never quite sells you on the character’s motivations. The moments where Quill and him begin to bond and learn about each other are fantastic, but his ultimate turn lacks the emotional justification he had built up to that point. He’s meant to be misguided and disconnected, yes, but the story doesn’t quite do enough to explain why. Pom Klementieff makes for a great foil to Drax as Mantis, countering his brusque straightforwardness with an endearing emotional honesty and innocence; this is one relationship I hope continues to blossom. Elizabeth Debicki makes for a distinct secondary antagonist as the highly conceited Ayesha, and the film leaves plenty of room for her and her Sovereign followers to grow in future instalments, but their presence feels more like more conflict for the sake of scale rather than anything that connects deeply with the main narrative. Sylvester Stallone’s role (which I won’t spoil here) is basically an extended cameo but it’s fun while it lasts, mainly helping to give more depth to Yondu’s storyline, but it’s a role that also has plenty of potential for expansion in future instalments. There are even more fantastic cameos throughout that I won’t ruin here, but if you’re seriously into your deep lore cosmic Marvel characters then you won’t be disappointed.

Everything you love that made Guardians of the Galaxy such a distinctive film in the superhero landscape on an aesthetic level returns here on an even bigger scale. There are oodles of imaginative designs here for aliens and planets and spacecraft and weapons, all captured with mounds of brightness and colour that make it feel like a comic book come to life. The action sequences are gigantic in scale and they run the gamut from intense one-on-one scraps to intergalactic dogfights that look like a game of Galaga come to life; the break-out sequence on the Ravager ship and the final destructive showdown on Ego’s planet really take the cake. Guardians wouldn’t be anywhere near as memorable without its music and, along with yet another rousing score from Tyler Bates, the soundtrack selection for Awesome Mix Vol. 2 is an interesting selection of 70s and 80s tunes. There aren’t quite as many well-tested classics as in the first mix, opting instead for more offbeat choices, but they feel more intimately connected to the story at hand; a finely tuned emotional playlist rather than a jukebox of party hits.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doesn’t quite match up to the original, but it’s still a fantastic movie well worth seeing in the cinema for anyone who loves these characters even in the slightest. What it perhaps lacks in originality and focus is a result of a slight adjustment in priorities, and instead delivers a touching and intimate story about the nature of family; it’ll make you cheer, it’ll make you laugh, it might even make you cry (I certainly did). It feels like a distinctive beast from the first film, a natural evolution rather than just a bigger version of the same movie, and that ultimately helps me to forgive some of its shortcomings. The Guardians still have a lot of interesting places to go and this film certainly sets up a lot of possibilities for a whole new slew of cosmic adventures they could go on, but more imminently it’s going to be interesting to see how they fit in when Infinity War finally rears its head next summer.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10