Shrek the Third (2007)

2018 #101
Chris Miller | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / PG

Shrek the Third

Shrek the Third is notorious as The Bad One; the one where the bubble burst on the phenomenon that had sustained two well-reviewed and immensely financially successful films. The list of failed threequels is long — so long, you almost wonder why anyone bothers to make them — and while Shrek the Third does indeed do little to buck that trend, it could be worse.

The title isn’t just a variation from calling the film Shrek 3, but also hints at the plot: when the king dies, Shrek is next in line to the throne. But he’s been struggling so much at royal engagements that he wants out of that life anyway, never mind a promotion. Fortunately, there is a possible alternative: a young lad called Arthur. While Shrek, Donkey and Puss set off to find this spare heir, Princess Fiona and a cohort of other fairytale princesses must fend off an attack from Prince Charming, who still has eyes on the throne.

It’s not a terrible plot for a Shrek movie, but it’s not particularly original either. Thematically, Shrek’s disinterest in being royalty was covered in the last film, though at least this time it’s bolstered with a fatherhood angle. The choice of villain, however, straight up takes the last film’s secondary antagonist and recycles him as a primary antagonist — if there’s a more literal example of sequels representing diminishing returns, I can’t think of it.

Action princesses

As for everything else, there are some good ideas and funny bits here and there, but there’s also something that’s just… off. It’s not consistently amusing or creative enough. It doesn’t have the same effortless energy and pace as the first two. And some of its ideas sound decent on paper, but just don’t work in the film. For example, the fairytale twist on a high school where they find Arthur — Shrek’s got good mileage out of spoofing the real world before, so you can see the genesis of the idea, but it just doesn’t land here, with the setting being an irritant rather than an amusing parallel.

Although the film still credits Andrew Adamson, writer and/or director of both previous films, as among its executive producers, I reckon there must have been debilitating changes behind the scenes, because the whole production just comes up short. Like, where the previous films offered legitimately exciting action scenes, the ones here could be decent but come off flat. It shouldn’t matter — this is a fantasy comedy, not an action movie — but it’s just one part that’s emblematic of the whole. Another is the song choices, which, like the fairytale high school thing, are seemingly okay but actually just wrong. As in, most of them are good songs, but they so often don’t actually quite fit the movie — I mean, Live and Let Die during a funeral?

Shrek the Third isn’t entirely without merit, but something seems to have gone awry between conception and execution, and it doesn’t zing in the way its predecessors did.

3 out of 5

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

2018 #47
Michael Bay | 155 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.90:1 + 2.00:1 + 2.35:1* | USA, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Transformers: The Last Knight

Here we have the fifth Transformers film in 11 years from director Michael Bay. At this point you ought to know what you’re getting — the style hasn’t fundamentally changed since at least the third movie, arguably since the first, so if you dislike those then most probably there’s nothing for you here. I say “probably” because I’ve seen at least one review from someone who despised the fourth film but enjoyed this one, so clearly there’s always room for variability.

We’re dealing with variations on a theme, then, and The Last Knight brings a few fresh-to-the-franchise plot spins to add a different flavour and texture this time out. Firstly, a prologue tells us that Transformers were already in England about 1,600 years ago, when they fought alongside King Arthur and Merlin, the latter of whom didn’t wield magic but actually Autobot technology (and is played by Stanley Tucci, hamming it up something rotten). This relates to the present day because… well, I could explain it to you, but it gets fiddly and, frankly, if you care then you’ll find out when you watch it. But, basically, in present day America Transformers are hunted and Cade (Mark Wahlberg) is an outlaw helping hide some of them and rescue others. When a MacGuffin from Arthurian times attaches itself to him, he winds up on his way to England to meet Sir Anthony Hopkins, the last in a long order of… oh, yeah, I said I wasn’t going to explain it. Anyway, only Marky Mark and Clever English Totty (Laura Haddock, playing the kind of Oxford professor who dresses like a secretary in a porn film) can save the world. Who do they need to save the world from? Optimus Prime! Dun dun duuuun!

Now he's called Nemesis Prime, for no good reason

It’s all nonsense, of course, but then the inherent concept of Transformers never made any sense so what does it matter? Adding in Arthurian legend and making Optimus Prime a baddie doesn’t make it any dafter than it already was. And that’s only the half of it — there are more disparate story threads and subplots than a particularly complicated miniseries. Despite being shorter than the last movie, it’s still indulgently long — and needlessly so, too. There’s a ton of stuff that could be cut to streamline the plot, from individual shots and lines (the Arthurian prologue is probably twice as long as it needs to be) to whole characters (a street girl Cade basically adopts, Izabella, contributes nothing of major significance in the end). After about an hour, the story basically stops and starts again — that’s how long it takes to get to Sir Hopkins. Stuff from the first hour remains relevant, certainly, but I’m sure there were other ways to handle it. By getting through the first hour of the movie in half the time, for one thing. For another, don’t introduce major-seeming characters that you’re then just going to set aside and ignore for the next hour while you introduce whole new ones.

It’s remarkable how the Transformers movies can have way too much plot and not enough plot all at once. If you want to follow it you have to pay attention, not only because there’s a lot of mythology to take in, but also because Michael Bay chops it all up into bite-size chunks amongst frenetic action sequences. The film is cut like one long trailer — but that’s been Bay’s MO for a while, so, as I said at the start, no one should be surprised. It remains, in its own way, impressive. As I previously said in my review of Age of Extinction, it’s almost avant-garde: a tumble of images and sound that give you an impression of what’s occurring rather than straightforward traditional storytelling. And I say it’s impressive because it must be so much work to create — all the camera setups involved; events staged for a single, fleeting, couple-of-seconds shot; and then edited together with non-stop dynamism, rarely pausing for any notable period.

Non-stop Bayhem

And if you think that’s mad, wait until you see how Bay uses aspect ratios. Thanks to Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight blazing a trail, we’ve now had a fair few movies that use the IMAX format for select sequences, and emulate that on home media by allowing the aspect ratio to change — for laypeople, that’s when the black bars at the top and bottom disappear and the picture fills the screen. As I say, generally this is used for specific sequences, or occasionally for a particularly grand individual shot; and usually there are two ratios, approximately 2.40:1 (with the black bars) and approximately 1.78:1 (without). Bay uses… more than that. And he does so almost indiscriminately. They’re so all over the place that you can’t miss them. Like, there are standard shot-reverse-shot conversations between two characters, but each character has a different aspect ratio… and then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, halfway through the scene one side will switch to another ratio! It just leaves you wondering why and how it ended up this way. What was the intention? What was the point? Well, that’s not a new question with Bay — he still uses five shots when one would do, so why not extend that same thinking to the film’s aspect ratio?

Despite the faffing around, much of it still looks impressive in a purely visceral sense. Like every modern tentpole, it cost a fortune to make ($217 million), but at least it looks like it did: there are so many grand sets and large-scale set pieces, much of it built or performed for real — not the giant robots, obviously, but there are car chases and human stunts and so forth that they did in real-life rather than in a computer. The money is splashed all over the screen, to the nth degree. Is that inherently a good thing? Eh. But it makes you wonder where some other $200m+ movies spend their money — especially when you consider that apparently production difficulties resulted in a lot of material being filmed but never making it into the final cut. How much? Well, supposedly a whole hour of footage was ditched from the original cut to get to the theatrical version. As I’ve already said, the film’s too long as it is, but it’s a shame there are no deleted scenes available because I’d be kind of fascinated to know what more was meant to be there, and to see how much money it looks like they wasted on it.

They really did hang Marky Mark out the side of a speeding vehicle, donchaknow

In what we did get to see, the size of the endeavour and the impressive quality of the imagery is emphasised by how it was filmed. A large proportion of the movie was shot in IMAX 3D (apparently 98%, but I’m certain there was more than three minutes in non-IMAX aspect ratios), and there are innumerable moments that benefit from the depth and scope of the format. Post-conversion has come a long way, but I’m not sure it can always equal doing it for real, especially on a format with the quality of IMAX. That said, the visual splendour didn’t strike me as much as it did in Age of Extinction. Perhaps that’s because, as Richard Brody put it in his New Yorker review, Bay’s “sense of speed works against his sense of scale and of detail. All the best moments in the movie — pure images, devoid of symbol and, for that matter, nearly empty of sense — go by too fast, are held too briefly, are developed too little.” There are some great shots in here, but the rapid editing just races past them. If you wanted to find and appreciate the shots fully, you’d have to damn near go through the whole thing frame by frame. I’m not sure they’re that good.

Although Bay and his directorial style always get a critical slating for these movies (more so than others he’s made in the same period — Pain & Gain and 13 Hours both attracted a reasonable amount of praise), they let him keep making them, and he keeps wanting to. The former makes sense: although you rarely find someone who admits to liking them, they keep making money (The Last Knight is the series’ lowest grosser worldwide, thanks to a particularly poor US showing, but it still took over $600m). As for the latter… no, I don’t know why he keeps coming back. Can you think of another blockbuster-level director who’s made five films in the same series? No one instantly comes to mind for me, and even those who are close (Lucas with Star Wars; Spielberg with Indiana Jones) did so over a long period of time with many films in between. I mean, if Bay wants to do it then why not — it’s his life and career — but I don’t quite understand it.

The three-headed robot dragon that I almost forgot

As I said nearly 1,500 words ago (I never imagined I’d have so much to say about this movie — and I haven’t even mentioned the three-headed robot dragon, or the C3PO-alike comic relief butler), everyone should know what they’re getting with the Transformers films by now. The Last Knight shares the same pros and cons as the other entries in the series, to one degree or another — by which I mean that, for instance, I found the plot a little more coherent than last time (though still totally barmy), but I wasn’t quite as bowled over by the visuals (which are at least half the point of these films, I feel). On balance, I’d say it’s one of the franchise’s better instalments.

3 out of 5

Transformers: The Last Knight is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* The listed ratio for The Last Knight is 1.90:1, because that’s the tallest, but its shifts into various other ratios are very obvious, as I discuss in the review. The three I’ve listed are the most obvious, but one of the trailers was shown to use eight slightly different ratios, so who knows how many there really are? ^

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

2018 #15
Guy Ritchie | 126 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

After years of making fundamentally similar movies, director Guy Ritchie found renewed success reinventing Sherlock Holmes for Warner Bros. I presume that’s directly responsible for the studio tapping him to kickstart this long-gestating project: a series of films inspired by the legends of King Arthur. Unfortunately for them, plans for a six-film series were scuppered when this initial entry went down like a lead balloon with critics and consequently was a box office flop. Nonetheless, some people who I think are worth listening to reckoned it was actually pretty good. Turns out… eh…

Set in a vaguely-defined historical Britain (the capital is called Londinium, but the king resides at Camelot, which is… somewhere else…?), Legend of the Sword begins with King Uther (Eric Bana) being deposed by his scheming brother Vortigern (Jude Law), with only his young son Arthur escaping. Arthur grows up in a brothel and on the streets, going from a weedy kid to… some kind of, like, gang boss type figure, I guess? Basically, we’re in familiar Guy Ritchie territory: lads up to criminal hijinks with a London accent, only now in medieval costumes. Anyway, long story short, Excalibur — the eponymous sword — reveals itself stuck in a stone, every young man is forced to try to pull it out, which obviously Arthur succeeds at, marking him out for death by Vortigern but also as the true king to those who remain loyal to Uther, who now have a Robin Hood-esque underground army — and so they begin a Robin Hood-esque campaign against Vortigern. Seriously, it wouldn’t take too many tweaks to make this as passable a Robin Hood film as it is a King Arthur one.

King Arthur and his merry men

So, to no one’s great surprise, if you’re looking for a broadly faithful adaptation of Arthurian legend then you’re out of luck here. There are obviously famous bits of the legend thrown in — the aforementioned Excalibur and its stone; the Lady of the Lake pops up too; and… um… other than that it’s pretty much just people’s names, really. I don’t know how much critics were hoping to see a more recognisably Arthurian tale, but I have to wonder if this massive deviance from the well-known stories of the eponymous hero is at least partly responsible for the film’s poor reception.

Part of why I wonder this is that, if you approach Legend of the Sword less as a King Arthur film and more as a Guy Ritchie-flavoured fantasy movie, there are bits of it I think are really, really good. Some of it’s great, even, like an efficient and exciting montage that shows Arthur growing from child to adult. Or any other time there’s a montage, really — that’s the best one, but others are equally as effective. Second best, for instance, is one where Arthur has to go on a quest in some alternate dark dimension or something, battling giant bats and other such nasties. That’d be the whole of act two in other films, or at least a significant action sequence, but its basic content is all so rote — so Ritchie instead burns through it in a montage, which feels like a nod and a wink to the audience: “you know how this goes”. Editor James Herbert certainly gives his skills a workout making these sequences fast, clear, and cinematically thrilling.

He's gonna need a montage

Of course, if you really dislike Ritchie’s trademark style then him slapping it on the fantasy genre isn’t necessarily going to enrapture you. Reportedly the project was pitched to the studio and cast as “Lord of the Rings meets Snatch” and they’ve pretty much delivered on that promise, transposing Ritchie’s modern London laddish schtick onto medieval Londinium plebs. Personally, although I’ve somewhat tired of his recognisable approach in a contemporary setting, the temporal disjunct was a fresh enough variation for me, breathing new life into both Ritchie’s MO and fantasy tropes.

Unfortunately, for all the verve of his own style that Ritchie injects, there are also bits that typify CGI-blockbuster blandness — the final fight is a nothingy blur. The speedy, montage-driven style also allows for only so much character development. What time there is gets focused on Arthur and Vortigern, which I suppose is appropriate enough, with a large supporting cast fighting over the scraps. It seems obvious to me that a mysterious female character known only as “The Mage” was meant to be revealed as Guinevere (a conceit broadly nicked from the Jerry Bruckheimer King Arthur, I think), and indeed that was apparently nixed in post-production. I guess they thought they could bump it to one of the five sequels… which now aren’t happening.

Come and 'ave a go if you think yer 'ard enough

My final three-star rating is maybe a bit harsh, but then maybe I’ve been too generous with my fours lately (or always). If Legend of the Sword had been able to carry through on the impetus of its best bits then it may even have been looking at a full five stars, they’re that good, but it doesn’t come together as a whole. It’s not the failure mass opinion painted it as, but it’s not quite a success either — it’s an interesting “good try”.

3 out of 5

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is available on Sky Cinema from today.