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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January 31, 2018

He Got Melody or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Love John Williams Again

It was while I was watching this John Williams BBC Prom at the end of last summer that I realised I had done him wrong.

John Williams gets stick in austere musicological circles for his tendency to write theme after theme with the same rhythm. And it’s certainly true that Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and E.T. all pomp along on more or less similar rhythmic lines. Well, so what? Danny Elfman writes interesting, varied, and energetic rhythms, and has barely written one melody in his entire career. What is his Spider-Man theme? Can you hum his Batman theme beyond the first five notes where the rhythmic variations kick in? You can’t really hum a rhythm without a melody, but, be the rhythms e’er so simple, everybody can hum any number of different Williams melodies. It was happenstance that I watched the John Williams Proms shortly after watching Neil Brand’s BBC documentary on the evolution of film music. As he got to the present day, let’s call it the Age of Zimmer, the all-pervading influence of modern synthesiser and digital programming and recording revealed the paucity of actual music written for actual instruments, as opposed to programming in a swathe of sound; a trick that works well for strings, brass, and percussion, hence the now trademark Hans Zimmer sound, but works less well when applied to woodwind instruments. Either you write a melody for the clarinets or you don’t, but you surely don’t need to throw 40 clarinets at a purely rhythmic ostinato developed from Zimmer at keyboard. And noticeable from early on in the John Williams Proms was woodwind instrument solos, everywhere.

I mentioned austere musicological circles, and I had in mind a particular academic faculty; but also a broader critical tendency. Discovering the Minimalists Glass, Reich, and Adams on BBC Radio 3 in the last five and a half years has been a joy, but has also left me retrospectively incredulous that my music theory education ignored them. I was taught that melody was debunked, Cage and Stockhausen were the heirs to Schoenberg, any other approach was Canute in staves, and that was that. Well, not quite, as it turns out. That tendency, to regard melody as an affront to modernity, is particularised in distaste for Williams’ scores. Jerry Goldsmith gets more love in such circles because he subscribed to their agenda of atonal experimental serialist dissonance. To a point, that is. And the point is interesting. Goldsmith wrote the immensely hummable themes for The Man from UNCLE and Star Trek: The Next Generation (first used for 1979’s The Motion Picture). He wrote a sinuous oboe for Basic Instinct, overpowering choral harmonies for The Omen, and a rambunctious march for Gremlins. But it is because he so often chose to write mood music not hummable melodies; prioritising dissonance over harmony, atmosphere over leitmotifs, and prepared percussion over woodwind solos; that he is esteemed a better composer. One might nearly say a more virtuous composer, because the valorisation is almost more ideological than it is aesthetic. And the result can be seen in a quick, easy, and telling contrast with John Williams.

Let us take some sci-fi classics. Goldsmith scored Planet of the Apes and Alien. Williams scored Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Having heard Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind suite in the National Concert Hall I can attest it is largely dissonant mood music that isn’t particularly rewarding detached from the accompanying Spielbergian imagery. It is therefore probably the closest Williams in large scale came to the more critically valued Goldsmith model. And yet it contains a five note melody that is hummable seconds after you first hear it. If I show you a still of Francois Truffaut at Table Mountain regarding the gargantuan UFO mothership and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, hum those five notes. If I show you a still of Mark Hamill regarding the twin sunsets of Tatooine and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, start humming a swelling string melody. But if I show you a still of Charlton Heston regarding the Statue of Liberty on a beach and ask what music you associate with it, you should hum and haw, and mutter there was some business with horns and drums earlier in the chase sequence. If I show you a still of John Hurt regarding his Chinese dinner with unusual indigestion and ask what music you associate with it, you should be stumped, and mutter there was something slow, eerie, and atonal in space at the beginning.

Goldsmith’s opening titles for Alien are strongly influenced by a piece of music by, I think, Bartok or Shostakovich (I have aggravatingly misplaced my scribbled note). But the ur-text for Williams, especially for Spielbergian japery, is, I would argue, the 4th movement of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. And that is crucial. As a child Shostakovich was forbidding and austere to me, whereas Prokofiev was the beloved creator of Peter and the Wolf. (Shostakovich indeed has only truly come to life for me in the last five years.) And while Bartok and Shostakovich have the spiky rhythms and dissonant harmonies that make one modern, Prokofiev, like Gershwin, was held in less regard because of his continued devotion to melody; a mere melodist, not a serious composer. But that is why Peter and the Wolf works, because Prokofiev is effortlessly able to create memorable, instantly hummable melodies for each of the characters in his story. Leitmotifs – much like Williams’ old-fashioned approach to scoring character in action. When you hear Prokofiev’s music you can see in your mind’s eye the action the narrator interjects. And those melodies take on a life of their own beyond the production, in the same way that Williams’ melodies take on a life of their own beyond the cinema screen; appearing as ringtones, programming in classical concert halls, and literally hummed by people to one another at appropriate moments – much as people do their best screeching Psycho strings whenever a situation parodically calls for Bernard Herrmann’s equally screen-transcending moment.

As Neil Brand’s sweeping outline of the evolution of film music had it, everything begins with Korngold; bringing to Hollywood the leitmotifs of Wagnerian opera with an extra lush string-laded Romanticism. Bernard Herrmann introduced serialism, dissonance, and experimentation, but could equally effortlessly pen the frenetic and melodic North by Northwest title music. Jazz and atonal dissonance broadened the spectrum of sonic colours available; together in the case of David Shire’s music for The Taking of Pelham 123 in which the inimitable great rolling funk bass and percussion provided the mother of all propulsive and hummable hooks over which jazz trumpets blared in serialist sequence. And then the synthesiser began to take hold and film music became technological and thoroughly modern. … Until the biggest film of the decade, Star Wars, abjured all this for a return to Korngold. John Williams, then, was a titan, who forcefully and singlehandedly redirected film music back to the melodic orchestral track. A brief side-note: having previously thrown around the word ideological in the placing of Goldsmith over Williams it is meet to note here that Stockhausen himself was a man of self-regarding dogmatism, to the extent that a Hungarian composer stormed out of one of his fabled workshops volubly cursing that Stockhausen’s insistence that any return to melody and harmony was … counter-revolutionary … sounded all too unpleasantly familiar to someone who had lately run from Soviet tanks. But Williams’ counter-revolution would never have succeeded had he not had so many damn good melodies.

John Williams is 85, and still scoring the occasional movie for Spielberg or Lucas (sic). It is important that we treasure him while we can.

July 13, 2013

Too Cool for Film School

There’s a certain attitude towards cinema which drives me to despair, which I’ve previously dubbed ‘too cool for film school’…

HIPSTER SKETCH

This peculiar mindset is one that would rather watch an obscure bad movie ironically than spend that same 2 hours watching a universally lauded good movie. So, instead of sitting down to watch Southern Comfort you’d instead waste your life suffering thru Streets of Fire. Instead of enjoying Scorsese at his best with Goodfellas you’d be tortured by Scorsese at his worst with New York, New York, supposedly so that you could spend your time laughing at its awfulness (except that it’s too awful to even sneer at, you just sigh; depressed and confused). Preferring to watch an obscure bad movie ironically than a universally lauded good movie I find inexplicable. It’s the same impulse that would en masse see a faculty meeting to decide a Victorian literature course begin with “We can all agree, no Dickens”, and a cheer.

Is it a hipster mindset? This is The End has a wonderful barb when Emma Watson accuses Jay Baruchel of being a hipster by asking him if he loathes films that are universally beloved. And that is certainly part of the thinking that prevailed when the Screen cinema in 2010 did a season of 1980s action movies, and left out Die Hard. Now Die Hard was an obvious choice, but that’s because it’s so obviously better than every other action film from that decade; especially Red Dawn, which was screened, presumably because it’s so bad it can be watched with impeccable irony. We seem to have reached belatedly in the cinema the position literature reached years ago where to be popular is in fact a mark against a work in critical esteem, unless it’s a critical intervention elevating low culture.

It’s a mindset of two halves. What is important is that, having eschewed what is popular, the people who are too cool for film school reveal their superiority of taste to the easily pleased and shallowly-informed rabble by unveiling an alternative which few people have either heard of and which may be offbeat or just plain awful. What’s truly terrifying is that it really doesn’t matter whether the film is either offbeat or just plain awful – the difference between good and bad, garbage and quality has been erased; it just needs to be something that few people have either heard of in order to get the kudos of really knowing your movies. It seems the advent of Netflix, and its padding of its catalogue with terrible old films they were able to scoop up, is only encouraging this viewing mindset.

Hollywood Babylon, Dublin’s Midnight Movie Film Club, is tonight once again hosting a Saturday night screening at 10:45pm at the Lighthouse cinema focusing on 1984. Their schedule is somewhat baffling. There’s good movies to be sure; Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom (September 14th), The Terminator (October 19th); but there are also questionable choices; Dune (August 17th), Revenge of the Nerds (July 13th); and then there’s the plain ghastly picks – Purple Rain, Streets of Fire (October 19th). What exactly is the purpose of choosing Purple Rain or Streets of Fire? Or even Dune or Revenge of the Nerds? There are better films from 1984… For a fun Saturday night why not pick Ghostbusters or Gremlins? For something more offbeat why not pick Luc Besson’s freewheeling debut Subway? Is it impossible to have fun without being ironic?

I’m not saying that if we want to watch movies from 1984 that we have to watch The Killing Fields, The Natural, and 1984 and nod our heads respectfully before turning to Broadway Danny Rose for some relief. I’m just saying we should exhaust the good movies that we all know are out there first before we all start scrabbling around to find justifiably forgotten bad movies to watch ironically.

September 21, 2010

The Hole 3-D

Joe Dante, director of The Howling and Gremlins, helms a kid’s film as scary as most adult horror films…

Nietzsche’s “And remember, if you stare long into an abyss, the abyss also stares into you” is a more apt tag-line than “What are you so afraid of?” which implies a jokey approach to the material largely absent from the film. Sure, Dante inserts parodic “Ha! Made you jump…” moments where people unexpectedly pop out of nowhere to deliver their lines, but he’s such a good horror director that he’s achieved the jump in technique that Anne Radcliffe defined as the difference between horror, make an audience jump and groan with buckets of gore, and terror, the purer feeling induced by sheer dread, which is infinitely more disturbing for a young audience. Whether such pure gore-free scares are suitable for children at all is a very serious question and one which the Irish censor has answered with a definitive ‘No!’ courtesy of a 15s cert.

Sullen teenager Dane (Chris Massoglia) and his younger brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) move into a new house, dragged 2,000 miles from their beloved Brooklyn by their flakey single mother (Teri Polo). It’s not all bad though as they quickly strike up a friendship with the cute bookworm next door (Haley Bennett). Exploring a mysterious hole in their new basement together, however, proves a very bad idea. Life-lesson: if you find something heavily secured with pad-locks for no apparent reason, for the love of God trust whoever put them on and lock them again when you’re finished gawking. As Bennett surmises “You have a gateway to hell in your basement”. Her next line “Cool” is quickly retracted when it unleashes a dead girl, dripping blood from one eye, who limps after her in unsettling digitally manipulated motion. Gamble meanwhile follows up playing Gordon’s son who was terrorised by Two-Face in The Dark Knight by being terrorised by a court-jester puppet – a mini-Joker. This puppet moves when he’s not looking, before winking, and eventually traps him in the basement and chuckles maliciously as it slowly walks towards him….

Impressive sound design makes the scenes where the unseen stalking puppet’s bells ring absolutely terrifying as they rattle all around and even behind you. By contrast the third dimension is as superfluous as always and lends an air of unreality to proceedings which only becomes interesting in the funhouse set at the end where the outsized and crazily twisted furniture leaping off the screen enhances the perilous mental state of the hero finally sucked into his worst nightmare. Massoglia’s endearingly mumbly hero leads an impressive central trio of performances by young actors who hold their own against Bruce Dern’s scenery-chewing cameo.

The Hole is a very well constructed Hallowe’en chiller that sadly falls between two target audiences by virtue of its own effectiveness.

3/5

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