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

December 16, 2018

From the Archives: Australia

Baz Luhrmann’s genre-wrecking epic was a late in the day blockbuster of 2008 as I discover diving thru the pre-Talking Movies archives.

“A Life lived in fear is a life half lived” is the motto that appears at the start of Baz Lurhmann’s chaotic epic and he is indeed fearless/foolhardy in attempting to smash together a number of different genres.

The film begins with Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) flying to Australia to sell the farm belonging to her ne’er-do-well husband and drag him back to dear old Blighty. This should be an obvious homage to films like Giant where the heroine marries into an exotic lifestyle in sweeping landscapes except that Lurhman has written the first 30 minutes in the high camp style that worked so well for Moulin Rouge! It’s so out of place here though that you fear for your sanity if a 2 hour 45 minute western epic is to continue like this…

Thankfully the film settles down after a confrontation with Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), the racist villain running the farm, and becomes an archetypal western in the mould of Red River as Sarah joins force with the rough-hewn Drover (Hugh Jackman) to save Faraway Downs by driving the cattle herd to Darwin to sell them to the army for supplies. The action here is superbly choreographed and the diabolical plotting of Fletcher to protect his boss King Carney’s  beef monopoly is thrilling, but the mix of obvious CGI shots with beautiful landscape vistas undercuts the effect of the location shooting. At this point magical realism rears its head as Lurhmann endows the aboriginal characters with magical powers over animals and their native outback.

This is well intentioned as a riposte to the racist disregard for native culture that was the official Australian policy of the 1930s but the mashing up of genres makes it very problematic. Sarah attends a society ball which doubles as a homage to Titanic, when a clean-shaven Drover crashes it to the horror of the upper crust and the swooning of the female audience, and a Rabbit-Proof Fence style debate on the rights and wrongs of the forced assimilation of the stolen generation of Aboriginal children into white society. You will wince every time a character uses the word “creamy” to describe half-Aboriginal half-Caucasian children in this film but such incisive politics sit uneasily in a supposed romantic adventure movie.

The film finally ends as a collision of Pearl Harbour and Empire of the Sun as the surrogate family of Sarah, Drover and the Aboriginal orphan Nulla (Brandon Walters) is torn apart while Japanese forces destroy Darwin. Historical fact is outrageously altered here and Lurhmann veers uneasily between cliché and heartfelt moments before a very fitting ending of national reconciliation. This film is an over-reaching mess but it has very good sequences and its intentions are very honourable, if perhaps just expressed in the wrong genre, and it is well worth seeing.

3/5

June 14, 2012

How Endings Start

The lyrics of a Metric song set me considering exactly what a movie needs to do so that you can’t leave early because you need to know how it ends.

I’ve only walked out of two films in the cinema, and both of those were because I had to be somewhere else urgently. Oddly enough, both of them were also films that were so out of whack with the three act structure that I didn’t feel I was going to miss a revelation by leaving early. Perhaps the devotion to the three act structure which I’ve rampaged against previously on this blog is down to that notion – that if you start with a beginning, move on to a middle, and finish with an ending, most of the audience will feel unable to leave before the end because they’ll have been sufficiently hooked by the narrative structure to need to follow it to its logical conclusion, even if they don’t like the film, indeed, especially if they don’t like the film.

I have given up on two acclaimed films after 100 or so minutes because of a complete lack of interest, despite their three act structure. The meme-monster Downfall I found to be tedious beyond repair because every 10 minutes seemed, like a variation on a musical theme, to bring a scene in which the paranoid Hitler ranted about whoever had ‘betrayed’ him this time “Of all the people who could have betrayed me at this moment in time, INSERT NAME would have been the last I would have expected.” The English Patient saw me switch off during the scene where Willem Dafoe had his thumbs cut off, as I realised that not only did I not care what happened to any of the characters, but that nothing that happened next could recompense me for the boredom of getting that far.

I’m not sure why I didn’t respond to these films, which some good friends adore, but the simple fact is that they failed to hook me. So, what is the hook? I think the hook of a movie might be usefully compared to the cold open of a TV show. An episode of CSI or Criminal Minds can often force me to watch it, almost against my will, by hooking my interest with a bizarre cold open – my mind shouts not to change channels because it wants to know how such an odd crime could have been committed and by whom. The great opening of a TV show is not that dissimilar to the first 10 pages of a movie script which is tasked with introducing a world, some likeable characters, and how that world is now going to change.


Of course the simplest way in a movie to hook the viewer is a trick still used quite often on TV shows of starting with an outrageously high-stakes or simply baffling scene, and then flashing ‘2 days previously’ as the episode builds to that conclusion. A trick inherited from the noir movies of the 1940s. Think 1948’s classic suspense The Big Clock which begins with Ray Milland on a window-ledge of his own building trying to evade capture and narrating the question the audience is asking, ‘How did I get here?’ Safe’s previously discussed opening flashbacks are a good deal more complicated than the usual noirish hook but it was still devoted to presenting an overly dramatic high-stakes scenario so that after some mucking about in time we mutter like a 1940s cinemagoer ‘Ah, this is where we came in’.

But if presenting a snippet of the ending at the beginning (almost an ironic anticipation of Godard’s dictum about a movie needing a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order) is the surest way to hook the audience to want to know the ending it must be admitted that some films are so disastrous that they can be enjoyed anyway you care to. I for instance have never seen the first or last hour of Pearl Harbour, but I have repeatedly laughed myself sick at the absurdist hour of CGI bombast in the middle where Tom Sizemore fires at attacking Japanese planes with a shotgun and someone sincerely yells “I think WWII just started”. Likewise I’ve long since reduced The Matrix Reloaded to a number of de-contextualised action sequences with no Frenchmen or Architects anywhere.

As the Prophet Chuck on Supernatural said “Endings are hard”, but hooking the audience so they care enough to want to know the awesome/atrocious ending is an equally dark art.

September 1, 2011

5 Reasons to salute Captain America

If its abrupt drop in showings in Dundrum is anything to go by Captain America is not getting much love from Irish cinemagoers. But here’re 5 reasons why it should…

“A Good Man
GK Chesterton memorably quipped that Nietzsche had never convincingly explained why, other than to gratify Nietzsche’s own perverse desires, anyone should desire that an ubermensch be modelled on Cesare Borgia rather than on Parsifal. This sentiment underscores all the scenes between Chris Evans and Stanley Tucci; “Do you want to kill Nazis?” “I don’t want to kill anyone, I just don’t like bullies, wherever they are”; but the scene in which Tucci explains why he chose Evans over the physically stronger candidates and entreats him to remain the same – “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man” – is the best fictional articulation I’ve seen of Greg Garrett’s joyous reading of the creation of Superman by two Jewish comic-book writers as a rebuttal of Hitler’s Aryan psychosis – protecting the weak is what a real ubermensch would do.

“Dr Herzog I Presume
I thought I was losing my mind and simply hearing Werner Herzog everywhere when Hugo Weaving’s boo-hiss Nazi villain first appeared, but it turns out that he did base Dr Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull’s accent on everyone’s favourite German auteur. It’s an uncannily accurate impersonation, and nice because it delivers an odd musicality to Weaving’s delivery, as well as being an actual German accent; not one dreamt up by RADA trained British actors in the 1940s…

Tommy Lee Jones
Tommy Lee Jones Fassbenders his way thru the film in his accustomed role as old Texan grouch. His fantastic one-liners include “I’m not kissing you” after the climactic clinch, “I better find two more then” after shooting a Hydra stormtrooper mid-way thru his ‘Cut off one head, and –’ mantra, and “He’s still skinny” after egregiously failing to make his point by throwing a dummy grenade at the potentials to see which are the brightest and best.

Doomed Romance
Hayley Atwell is becoming quite the specialist in doomed affairs after The Duchess and Brideshead Revisited. Her tentative romance with Evans here is a terrific antidote to Bay’s Pearl Harbor nonsense, and makes for a quite upsetting finale when the flagged from the beginning suicide mission finally comes to pass, complete with their final stoic radio exchange. The Captain’s despair that he’s woken up to a world in which she’s been dead for 30 years could be absolutely heartbreaking in The Avengers. Presuming Whedon manages to learn how to write again. I’m still bitter about Buffy Season Eight

Steampunk Nazis
From the first appearance of the Red Skull’s jaw-droppingly stylised car, there’s a determination to grant Hydra technology too advanced for the era, especially their District 9 rip-off guns, to heighten the threat they pose. Admittedly the steampunk element gets a bit out of control towards the end of the film, but it’s quite a nice addition to the Captain America mythos for most of the proceedings, and feels less contrived than most of Del Toro’s clockwork nonsense.

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