square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Films of 2018

I’ve found it increasingly difficult over the years to condense my favourite films down to a top ten. But 2018 has been the hardest yet. There’s been so many gems this time around, despite the fact that I’ve definitely missed out on a few that will be amongst other people’s lists (The Phantom Thread, Halloween, […]

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square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Films of 2018

I’ve found it increasingly difficult over the years to condense my favourite films down to a top ten. But 2018 has been the hardest yet. There’s been so many gems this time around, despite the fact that I’ve definitely missed out on a few that will be amongst other people’s lists (The Phantom Thread, Halloween, … Continue reading “square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Films of 2018”

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Hailee Steinfeld in BUMBLEBEE (Paramount Pictures (c), photo by Enrique Chediak)
★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Well, here’s a Christmas miracle: after a decade of increasingly puerile heartlessness, the Bay/Spielberg Transformers franchise finds a heart. Hailee Steinfeld leads this 80s-set prequel as Charlie, a budding mechanic who discovers the titular robot in a junkyard. Disguised as a rusty Volkswagen Beetle, ‘Bee’ is on the run from a war on his home planet, Cyberton, and tasked by resistance leader, Optimus Prime, with finding the freedom-fighting Autobots a new home. 

Though placed chronologically before Michael Bay’s own efforts, this serves as a soft reboot/retelling of the 2007 original, with Steinfeld taking up the Shia LaBoeuf role (albeit with a total absence of masturbation jokes). Charlie is a far more sympathetic character, however, and allowed more motivation than Sam Witwicky’s simple quest to get laid. A once promising diver, she’s retired to the garage, obsessed with a broken corvette that she and her recently-deceased father used to cherish. 

Steinfeld brings lovable wide-eyed wonder to Charlie, providing not only this franchise’s first fully-rounded character, but one which young audiences can admire and sympathise with (her mother fusses needlessly, her stepfather is embarrassing, her brother steals their affections, and so on). When she sees Bee metamorphose from motor to mech for the first time, her closely-guarded sadness begins to transform (sorry) into something much closer to hope. One immediately feels echoes of E.T. and The Iron Giant which continue to emerge as the two form a delightful double act.

Christina Hodson sneaks more than one fish-out-of-water cliché into the screenplay, but that crucial presence of genuine pathos sets this prequel light years beyond what we’ve come to expect. The scenes of Bee attempting to navigate the family living room or learning to hide in plain sight are gems of physical comedy, and all based in the burgeoning emotional bond between teen and titan. Even John Cena (carving a great slice of ham in the undemanding role of ‘generic special forces man’) is gifted a neat moment of empathy. 

Perhaps more surprising still are the scenes of robo-rough-and-tumble. Director Travis Knight – whose last film was the wonderful animation Kubo and the Two Strings – knows how to make proper use of space in an action sequence, electing to pull the camera back and slow down the editing pace. A hectic opening skirmish on the robot homeworld – a landscape not short on spikes, girders, and other untidy metalwork – is still more tangible than anything glimpsed in the series thus far (a relief to those fearing the scrap metal orgies of episodes past). Our combatants have also been reduced in number by a factor of ten, and redesigned to more closely resemble the iconic action figures.

Painted in bright, primary colours, their retreat to the crash-bang-wallop of child’s play is symbolic of what this franchise should have been from the start. The heroes are heroic, the villains are villainous, the music is a joyful 80s mixtape, and at no point does Optimus Prime turn into a murderous zealot. Rejoice!

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AQUAMAN – Review

Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry in AQUAMAN (Warner Bros. (c), still photo by Mark Rogers)

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Jason Momoa’s effortless charisma and a rich score from Rupert Gregson-Williams are all that prevent the DC universe’s latest voyage from totally capsizing. In all fairness, neither Aquaman or its leading man can be blamed for the reverse-engineered structure of Warner’s attempted rivalry to the MCU – our protagonist has already appeared in two previous instalments before this, his actual origins story. Nor can they be blamed for the simple fact that digital technology – as powerful as it is – simply isn’t able to convincingly deliver the vast underwater world demanded by the premise. In a comic book? Yup. In animated form? Fine. In a 143-minute ‘live action’ film? Give it five years and a breakthrough in swimming simulations, then we’ll talk.

In the meantime, however, this overstuffed adventure will have to tide fans over. Despite saving the surface world in Justice League, Arthur Curry (Momoa) refuses to accept his Atlantean heritage. His mother, Atlanna (a quite literally washed-up Nicole Kidman), fell for lighthouse keeper, Tom (Temuera Morrison, rather shoddily de-aged). But beneath the ocean waves, Arthur’s half brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), rules with an iron fist, planning to wreak havoc on the human world for their crimes against the environment. With the help of sea sorceress, Mera (Amber Heard, in a wig that the cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race might generously deem “a bit much”), Arthur sets out to reclaim the all-powerful trident of Atlan and reclaim his soggy throne.

Director James Wan upturns the tech toybox to play out his kid-in-the-bathtub fantasy, but an enormous visual effects budget is all for naught when spread so unevenly. Giant seahorses, crab monsters and sharks with “frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads” are impressively rendered, but the compositing of human characters leaves much to be desired. There’s a difference between pushing the boundaries and simply pretending they don’t exist: watching the climactic showdown (two armies of pixelated humans astride copy-pasted monsters smashing into one another), I finally understood how audiences of 2002 felt, experiencing George Lucas’ unchecked digital ambition unfold. With the exception of one impressively physical fistfight in the bowels of a submarine, derring-do here is an entirely weightless, witless affair.

But that’s where similarities to the Star Wars prequels end. In 2018, such displays of extravagance are the norm, no longer the stuff of a single visionary auteur fusing Greek tragedy with the cutting edge of filmmaking. Plus, while clunky expositional dialogue wasn’t exactly thin-on-the-ground in Lucas’ trilogy, Aquaman positively drowns in its own storytelling. Besides Arthur’s main quest for the trident, we also have Orm’s uprising, numerous flashbacks to our muscleman’s childhood, and a second – more entertaining – villain in the shape of Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate with a score to settle and the laser-spitting helmet to prove it.

So, let’s take stock: a central hairy hero’s quest to show his worth by reclaiming an ancient weapon, a lush fantastical world, a super-powered royal family, a sibling rivalry that threatens to lay waste to the outside world, and a secondary antagonist with a penchant for face-based plasma. Yep, it’s Kenneth Branagh’s Thor…with drumming octopuses!

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