Talking Movies

July 31, 2019

From the Archives: Transformers

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives brings us to where it all began with Sam Witwicky trying to impress his hot classmate by buying his first car, and not bargaining on that car being an alien robot or his grandfather’s glasses being key to ending an alien civil war.

Two warring factions of a race of sentient robots invade Earth searching for the powerful Allspark which alone can end their battle. A geeky teenager who holds the key to its location will be protected by one of the most iconic characters of the 1980s.

If that last sentence sounds a bit like a description of Die Hard 4.0 that’s because Transformers, like Die Hard, is a blockbuster that just scraped the American PG-13 rating but is really not aimed at kids so much as kidults. Transformers is the blockbuster that saves this underperforming summer of wet weather and wetter sequels. Which is quite something given that it’s directed by Michael Bay, the man who gave us Pearl Harbour, a cinematic atrocity that will live in infamy. But Bay, suitably chastened by the failure of The Island, has finally grown up. The fingerprints of his producer Steven Spielberg are all over this film. He has managed to make Bay stop editing his films like a 5 year old on a sugar rush and adopt a sceptical attitude to the godlike status of the American military. He has also, in a nod to another film he executive produced, turned the Decepticon Frenzy (the sneaky one who spied on people, here a small ghetto-blaster) into a robotic Gremlin who is mischievous as hell and even chuckles maliciously like the Gremlins.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is our typically nerdy Spielbergian hero, desperately trying to impress classmate Mikaela (Megan Fox) with his first car. The car though is the Autobot BumbleBee, sent to protect Sam, who can only communicate thru the car radio (frequently hilariously). Transformers is surprisingly funny. Between LaBeouf and John Turturro as a secretive government agent there are scenes in this film with so much neurotic bumbling going on that you half expect Woody Allen to show up demanding royalties. There’s a full very entertaining hour of Sam trying to impress Mikaela and failing miserably, and Bumblebee trying to keep Sam safe from Frenzy, Blackout and Scorponok (the Decepticons hunting him and hacking American military computers for the whereabouts of their leader Megatron) before the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, arrives on earth.

Prime, still voiced by Peter Cullen, is exactly as you remember him. Rendered in the colours of Superman, willing to sacrifice his own life to save others, he remains one of the pre-eminent Jesus figures of pop culture. When that truck-rig emerges from a mythical mist you know he will still have never-ending reserves of compassion. Sadly his nemesis Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) is given too little time to make the menacing impression he really should. The last 40 minutes are an utter orgy of destruction on freeways and city streets but as Bay has made us care deeply about all these characters, human and robot, this is the most gripping pyrotechnics he’s ever delivered.

4/5

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July 24, 2013

The Wolverine 3-D

Walk the Line director James Mangold salvages Hugh Jackman’s signature role after 2009’s ho-hum outing by injecting some genuine tension and feeling.

the-wolverine-hugh-jackman-rila-fukushima1-600x472Mangold’s trademark disruptive flashbacks enliven an opening which unexpectedly drops us into a POW camp in Nagasaki just as the bomb drops. Logan, incarcerated in a deep pit to contain him, saves the life of noble young Japanese officer Yashida (Ken Yamamura). He awakens from this memory to find himself talking to Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), but this is a hallucination… Despite 2009’s teaser Japanese bar scene this film is defiantly actually a continuation of X-3; with Logan living peacefully alongside grizzlies in the Yukon, still traumatised by his murder of Dark Phoenix. Forced by his sense of justice into a confrontation in a bar he is unexpectedly assisted by petite samurai Yukio (Rila Fukushima), an emissary of the dying Yashida (now played by Hal Yamanouchi). Logan arrives in Japan to find Yashida wants to capture Logan’s healing power for himself. Can Logan fight the Yakuza as a mere mortal…?

Wolverine’s repeated clashes with Sabretooth in the last instalment were ridiculous as they couldn’t kill each other. By contrast the moment here when Logan first gets a shotgun blast and staggers back in agony rather than taking it in his stride takes the breath away. The initially too busy script by Mark Bomback (Die Hard 4.0) and Scott Frank (The Lookout, Minority Report) layers family power struggles and mutant plots. Yashida’s son and heir Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada, Emily’s mentor in Revenge) is insistent that his daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) marry the justice minister, rather than her true love Black Hand ninja Harada (Will Yun Lee), for Shingen’s political advancement. Yashida though wants his granddaughter as his corporate successor, and has instructed Harada to protect her from the Yakuza, while his mutant biochemist Viper (Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova in increasingly outrageous costumes) works on crippling Logan, and furthering her own agenda.

Mangold’s interesting casting of newcomers yields many very distinctive faces, with the instantly adorable Fukushima in particular shining as Logan’s self-proclaimed bodyguard. Visually the Yakuza assault on a funeral is impressively staged, especially in following Harada and his lethal arching along rooftops as he protects Logan and Mariko. The Wolverine’s highlight is a brawl atop a speeding bullet train as a wounded Logan strategically leaps to avoid dying by signal lights and scaffolding, while trying to also take out Yakuza assassins. Thereafter all momentum is lost for a second act in which Logan and Mariko fall in love at her remote cottage: a protracted sequence lifted from Elektra in which a lost assassin connects with someone and so girds themselves for the third act. The third act does deliver a tense medical sequence, a nicely choreographed samurai v mutant duel, and both wonderful imagery and visceral brutality at the snow-covered Black Mountain lair of the Viper. But you feel that Mangold is striving throughout for a level of emotional depth that the script simply lacks, and hasn’t noticed that Jackman is fed precious few good gags to deliver…

Mangold doesn’t quite deliver his gold standard, but silver Mangold is a substantial improvement on Wolverine; and the teaser for X-Men: Days of Future Past, following after Logan’s coming to terms with Jean’s death, bodes well for the franchise.

3/5

January 9, 2012

2012: Fears

W.E.
Madonna (!!!) directs Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson in a farcically sympathetic portrayal of the American who eventually became King Edward VIII’s wife. Edward is Master & Commander star James D’Arcy, who’s probably immensely relieved to have escaped from the ghetto of movies like Rise: Blood Hunter, but for us another trot around the bloody Abdication Crisis is a truly appalling vista. Edward VIII wanted all the wealth and privilege of being a King without the responsibility, and failed to challenge the absurdity of being forbidden to marry a divorced woman when the Church of England only existed because Henry VIII wanted to divorce a woman and remarry. Screw him…

Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close
Stephen Daldry tries to win yet more bloody Oscar nominations with an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a boy searching for the secrets left behind by the father he lost on 9/11. Daldry directs, Tom Hanks plays the father and Sandra Bullock the mother, the screenplay is by Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button scribe Eric Roth, it’s about a weighty subject, and is released within the three month attention span the Academy’s members have long since proven they possess – what’s not to hate about such a naked attempt not to make a good film but to make the sort of film that wins Oscars?

Battleship
Somewhere in Hollywood a studio executive called Delaney is about to crash his sports-car as he drives past a huge billboard poster for this movie. Delaney will stagger out of the wreckage, lurch into the traffic to stare at the promise of an incredibly fake-looking CGI alien invasion limited to the radius of an inexplicable force-field in the ocean being foiled by US Navy ships led by an equally inexplicable Liam Neeson, slumming it alongside Rihanna and shouting orders to Too Tall Skarsgaard while rattling thru an inane arc about responsibility with Taylor Kitsch, and Delaney will incoherently rave “Holy God Jesus! I thought I’d killed this movie in development!!”

Total Recall
Director Len Wiseman proved with Die Hard 4.0 that he has talent, but that does not mean remaking Total Recall is a good idea. 22 years after Arnie’s original our hero is now Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale (of course) is the dame, and there will be no mucking about on Mars because that’s not in the original story. But justifying your over-hasty remake by your fidelity to the source text is deeply suspect. Philip K Dick’s short story is clever, hilarious, and wonderful, but it’s a short story. It would barely sustain an episode of The Outer Limits. Wiseman’s foray may actually justify itself by being less ludicrously violent…

The Avengers
Joss Whedon co-writes and directs Marvel’s huge gamble to tie together the fate of all their various franchise characters in one huge blockbuster. I’ve voiced my doubts about this enterprise repeatedly and at some length. Whedon has experience writing the X-Men characters to superb effect, and he will draw great performances from his cast, probably insert a large number of good lines and hilarious moments, and may even pull off the truly great action sequence that has thus far eluded nearly all the in-house Marvel movies, but, this appears in Fears because of its lack of commercial and interior logic, and the artistic pitfalls of its choice of villains.

Snow White and the Huntsman
Kristen Stewart was once a very capable young actress. Then she became a global star almost overnight, and a horrible stiltedness overtook her. The question is now that the end of Twilight is nigh, can she manage to overcome the brittleness it inspired? Well, if she can she probably won’t start the acting comeback with this overblown nonsensical ‘version’ which sees Snow White as Warrior Princess teaming up with Thor Chris Hemsworth to take down Charlize Theron’s evil Queen with the help of a coterie of British actors of a certain age as the dwarves. Warwick Davis won’t be happy about that because Ricky Gervais will.

Men in Black 3
Will Smith seems to make a Men in Black film whenever he’s panicked about his career. I didn’t think Hancock and Seven Pounds not being well received constituted that big a crisis but apparently he did, and so here we are – once again with Smith travelling thru time in 3-D to fight aliens who are pursuing Josh Brolin aka Tommy Lee Jones in the 1960s. Four capable writers have fiddled with this script, and Barry Sonenfeld hasn’t directed a hit in a long time, so this one comes with ‘Approach with Caution’ stickers plastered all over it despite Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader’s presence in the cast.

The Dark Knight Rises
If this film isn’t a disaster I’ll be very pleasantly surprised. Anne Hathaway as Catwoman seems vindicated as a casting choice from the trailer, and there are pleasing hints from the chants being translated for Bruce Wayne as ‘Rise’ that perhaps Ras Al’Ghul’s methods really are supernatural, but, the Bat-wing seen hovering above the Bat-mobile at the end of the trailer looks like something out of Rocobop (by which I mean 1987 special effects in a 2012 movie), and the destruction of the football pitch by Bane is embarrassingly fake-looking. Perhaps Nolan has crammed in so damn much to this final instalment that he couldn’t find time to pull it off more practically, but such obnoxiously obvious CGI is the polar opposite of the legion of compositing shots he used in The Dark Knight. Would it really have been so hard to film the football player running in the stadium in Pittsburgh, then build a replica grass pitch set and blow it up in Hollywood, and composite the two together so that it looked real because what you were seeing was real – just from two different places at two different times cunningly yoked together by digital trickery. I think this is a film that no one will like, but that some people might admire; because Batman dies at the end. Bane can’t kill Batman and get away with it, audiences would rebel. But, I’m convinced that Nolan’s watched Sherlock and the end of the movie will see Batman sacrifice himself in order to rid Gotham of the intolerable evil of Bane. Batman and Bane will topple off Gotham’s Reichenbach Falls locked in eternal combat. But I think along the way to this unforgettable and traumatic finale the sense of fun that must be part of what keeps Bruce Wayne being Batman will be entirely absent, the level of grotesquery from the brutal villain will be unbearable, and everyone will start muttering about how it ruins the first two movies.

The Bourne Legacy
The Bourne franchise is really starting to really resemble the world of Robert Ludlum now, in the sense that the great man has passed on and yet still work emerges bearing his name. Jeremy Renner plays an agent who is not Jason Bourne, but has a tenuous enough link to Bourne’s world to justify the attention grabbing title. Renner is a fine actor, and it’s nice to see him headline a big summer blockbuster, but this has pointless cash-in written all over it. Tony Gilroy, writer on all previous three films, now directs this one as well in the knowledge that Damon will only return for Greengrass directing…

Django Unchained
Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz star in Quentin Tarantino’s movie about escaped slaves, underground railroaders, and bounty-hunters battling for freedom and money. Sounds good! So why is a Leonesque adventure in a nonsensical 19th Century in the Fears side of the ledger rather than the Hopes? Because just once I’d like Tarantino to make a film where you didn’t have to wince at the prospect of the unspeakable violence that was undoubtedly about to come your way along with the great dialogue, cut-up structure, and bravura directing. Is it too much to ask that he rein in his sadism for a PG-13 story one of these days?

Lincoln
Spielberg had been making this movie for a decade with Liam Neeson before he finally actually started making it and abruptly went with Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th POTUS. No longer based on 2008’s immensely long book of the moment Team of Rivals, this is now a details biopic of a working President, as Lincoln in his final months tries to legislatively copper-fasten the victory against slavery. Day-Lewis will powerhouse his way thru proceedings, leading a strong cast including the peerless Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but what worries is Tony Kushner’s script. Munich obsessively shied away from discussion of the causes and conduct of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Can Kushner really do ‘details’?

300: The Battle of Artemisia
Zack Snyder has co-written with his original 300 compadres this sequel for another director to helm while he’s busy trying to make Superman soar again at the box-office. The fact that all of the 300 Spartan warriors died in the first movie bar the narrator, who went on to lead the hilarious charge in the next battle that closed the original film, doesn’t stop Snyder & Co making a sequel – about different characters, at a different battle, before Thermopylae. Apparently sequel has some new and strange meaning that Snyder will instruct us in thru an epic, unintentionally hilarious, battle between freedom-loving Americans Athenians and tyrannical Persians.

The Great Gatsby
I venerate F Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, but that is why I can’t think Baz Lurhmann’s film of it can be anything but a disaster. Leonardo DiCaprio is a good choice to play the enigmatic titular old sport, as is Joel Edgerton as his nemesis, but the blanker-than-thou Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway may narrate us all into a coma, and Carey Mulligan for all her strengths will struggle with the eternally thankless role of Daisy. My great fear is Lurhmann’s inability to handle subtlety. Gatsby is all about Fitzgerald’s prose, which flows like sparkling champagne, not swooping thru raucous parties and zeroing in on high camp comedy scenes…

Breaking Dawn: Part II
The decision to split Breaking Dawn into two films would hopefully be unwise after the awfulness of the padded Part I, but the need to see how things end will defeat any desire to punish such commercial crassness. What now for the rapidly ageing Renesme and her creepily smitten werewolf protector Jacob? How will Bella adjust to being a very, very thirsty newborn vampire? Can Michael Sheen Fassbender this film to campy heights as the Volturi travel en masse to Forks to abduct her? Or will director Bill Condon’s bizarrely perfunctory approach produce another bloated, inert, embarrassing disaster and end the series on a very low note?

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