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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September 18, 2013

Diana

Downfall Director Oliver Hirschbiegel reminds us he also directed The Invasion as he once again comes a cropper working with a famous blonde Australian actress.

Naomi Watts Diana

Diana opens with Naomi Watts’ Sloane Ranger getting into the elevator which will take her to a fatal chase thru a Parisian tunnel. It then jumps back two years to late 1995 with the unsettled Princess preparing for her ‘Queen of Hearts’ TV interview with Martin Bashir, and assiduously hiding this from her adviser Patrick (Charles Edwards). Diana, as she complains to her acupuncturist/psychiatrist Una (Geraldine James), is feeling detached from her children (by Palace meddling only co-ordinating their schedules monthly), hounded by the paparazzi, and generally unloved. When Una’s husband is hospitalised Diana rushes to visit, and falls for Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews). But though she visits his family in Pakistan to ask for their blessing can she really marry a workaholic who insists privacy is vital to maintain the concentration he needs as a surgeon?

This, unlike The Invasion, feels like a Hirschbiegel movie. Bookended by showy (and ultimately pointless) tracking shots, his camera roves constantly. But this style and Rainer Klausmann’s narrowly focused cinematography is brought to bear on Stephen Jeffrey’s stilted script. Despite being based on the allegedly true behind the scenes story, you never believe for a second this really happened. Dialogue like Hasnat’s “You don’t perform the operation, the operation performs you” should have been laughed out of the room at the read-thru stage, yet it remains; inciting unintentional hilarity. The longer the movie drags on the more it feels like a Mark Millar comic: history is a cover story, what we know about Diana’s romance with Dodi Al-Fayed was just an elaborate smokescreen created by her, in collusion with a favoured paparazzo, as part of her true romance with Hasnat.

Diana feels tediously endless because talented people are failing to achieve any insight. Watts’ head is pleasingly always tilted at an angle, but she and Andrews can’t make their characters escape the bad 1980s soap opera feel of their secret romance. Every one of their arguments is the same argument, rather like The X-Files: I Want to Believe, and so no dramatic momentum ever builds. The portrayal of Diana’s persona is just too much – especially as this is meant to reveal the woman behind the facade. A scene with a tearful blind man in Rimini joyously touching her face is the nadir: Diana as Jesus meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, power going out from her to console. Diana uses her children as an arguing gambit with Hasnat, but rarely seems to think of them otherwise; her full personality thus remains a mystery.

If you don’t believe that everyone in England was watching the Bashir interview, with entire pubs eschewing watching football or drinking for it, then Diana is not for you…

1.5/5

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