Talking Movies

May 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

If not Lazenby, then who?

Almost anyone. But seriously, folks. There were any number of actors in England in 1968 who could have done a better job of picking up the keys to Sean Connery’s Aston Martin. A three-cornered discussion with Friedrich Bagel and The Engineer produced this shortlist of contenders:

Rod Taylor, Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Oliver Reed, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Terence Stamp, Anthony Hopkins

Patrick McGoohan, Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Lee, Nicol Williamson, David Warner, Edward Fox

Now, not all of these people would have been asked, in order to keep the budget down. And some of them would likely have refused (contemptuously in some cases) had they been asked. But Sean Connery was not unknown when he was cast. Far from it, he had already appeared in Darby O’Gill and the Little People and his supporting role in The Longest Day would have been appreciated by British TV audiences who, between 1959 and 1961, had seen him as Count Vronsky, Hotspur, Macbeth and Alexander the Great. He was not an unknown, he was quite well known to British audiences as a leading man playing historic roles. Lazenby by contrast was quite well known to British audiences for advertising Fry’s chocolate bars.

The critical rehabilitation narrative

I’ve been thinking recently about what we might dub the critical rehabilitation narrative. Nothing seems to please some critics more than to discover neglected masterpieces, to rescue from the discard bin gems that were unappreciated at the time. The only problem is sometimes the critics are very pleased with themselves, their wider critical narrative powers along, and it’s only a minor detail that the film in question is still rubbish. That’s not to say that it is wrong to revisit films and see if they were misjudged; after all Fight Club suffered hugely from being released so soon after Columbine. But sometimes there is much to be said for reading the original reviews and getting a bracing perspective, like disinterring The Cabinet of Dr Caligari from the reverence of generations of film students and discovering in Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture that its own writers disowned the finished film for changes made to its finale which they regarded as dangerously reversing its political message, and doing so at a time that imperilled the nascent republic. Or realising that Matthew Modine saying recently that Full Metal Jacket has aged better than other Vietnam films because it’s finale of urban insurgency could be in Iraq only proves the point of the objections made by critics on release. Because of the WB indulging Kubrick’s power-tripping laziness he had departed from the novel’s jungle war conclusion to instead depict the (easily manufactured in England) ruined city of Hue, because he couldn’t be bothered leaving England. And it would be hard to easily manufacture in England a jungle war. Just as well Vietnam wasn’t noted for being a JUNGLE WAR. Revolution was reviled on release and exiled Pacino to Broadway. But Revolution is an unfocused film of baffling decisions, like shooting it entirely in England and not having Annie Lennox sing, rather than an outright atrocity. Watching its depiction of the start of the American Revolution, the mob bullying, the expropriation, the self-interested and abrasive self-righteousness is oddly reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago’s portrayal of the Bolsheviks. It’s hard not to think that this enraged American critics at the time, who sublimated that rage into attacks from other angles. And yet the final minutes of Revolution feature a truly astonishing tracking shot, a technical marvel and a triumph of production design, that I have never ever heard anyone praise or even mention. If you can’t do the hard work of salvaging the good from amidst the bad then what is the point of critical rehabilitation?

April 7, 2020

Any Other Business: Part XLIX

As the title suggests, so forth.

RIP Honor Blackman

Honor Blackman has died aged 94; she was the oldest surviving Avenger. I wrote last summer about what a disconcerting experience it was watching True Movies’ scrambled late night re-runs of The Avengers. I had only previously seen a handful of Cathy Gale episodes late at night on RTE 1 over 20 years earlier. As True Movies jumped between episodes and seasons of the first three years of the show it became evident that it was something of a miracle that it ever became the classic show it did. It was only when Blackman debuted in the first episode of the second season, ‘Mr Teddy Bear’, that things really started to click. The chemistry between Steed and Gale, and her judo prowess, defined the show as The Avengers. In retrospect she fared much better than Diana Rigg in transferring from The Avengers to Bond. I remember watching On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for the first time after devouring Channel 4’s re-runs of The Avengers in the mid-90s, and being immensely frustrated that Rigg’s Bond girl was so damn passive. By contrast Blackman as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger walked from a TV role into a movie role and traded away none of her antagonistic strength, flirtatious charm, and judo prowess. And that is not something that can be said, even now, for many actresses making that transition; just look at Jessica Alba’s failure to ever find a film role to remotely equal her star-making lead in Dark Angel.

Donnie Dumbo

Trump Delenda Est

I think at this point we can say that Trump has not grown into the job; he has actually got far worse. What can be said about a man whose ego is so monstrous that he has transformed press briefings on a pandemic into virtual campaign rallies, who is so incredibly incapable of not making a pandemic all about him that it drives hardened journalists to profanity in their disbelief? This is his shooting people on 5th Avenue moment. People have died, are dying, and will continue to die because of Donald J Trump’s ego. The bragging, the bluster, the bullsh-t, the strong impression of functional illiteracy; a ten year old is trying to run one of the world’s biggest countries, and not a smart ten year old, but the type of bully who when called upon to read aloud in class painfully plods along not reading so much as sounding out the letters he sees as he sees them as if he’s never seen them before in his life. It explains much when you actually allow yourself to admit that Trump probably cannot read. He can pick out certain words, and improvise around them, with his simplified vocabulary. But he cannot read. If you forced him to deliver a well-known Bible passage at a Mass, he would endure agonies, because it would be made obvious thru cutting off his favourite tactic of paraphrase and riffing. His decision to weigh in on the firing of Captain Crozier, who was actually trying to do his job, makes a lot of sense from that perspective: the peculiar gripe that this was not English Lit, don’t write a letter, just call someone, makes perfect sense coming from a man who cannot read. Mike Pence probably wouldn’t do a stellar job of steering America thru this pandemic, but, freed of Trump and the need to continually massage Trump’s ego, he might not make things worse by actively promoting snake-oil remedies from the White House. Invoke the 25th Amendment now.

April 1, 2020

President Trump announces plan to 25 himself

President Donald J Trump will shortly be removed from office, writes B. Bradley Bradlee who talked to Trump exclusively; after he was mysteriously teleported from quarantine in Hubei province to the Presidential suite in Mar-a-Lago when Bill Nye’s attempts to prove Chopped do not slice salads to subatomic level backfired.

Trump said the idea came to him while watching Donald Sutherland as the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded

President Trump explained that he had decided to sign a letter invoking Section 3 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America; removing himself from office until such time as he shall write another pursuant letter reinstating himself in office; after catching the end of The Matrix Reloaded on Fox the other night. “I was watching that, with the Architect. You know the scene. Everyone knows it. Tremendous actor, Donald Sutherland. Great guy. Great American. Really loved him as the wise leader in the Hunger Games movies. You know the Hunger Games movies? Everybody does.”

Trump then came to the point – “And he says, this is what he says, in the movie, I couldn’t solve the problem, because I’m too perfect. Isn’t that something? I couldn’t solve the problem, because I’m too perfect. It wasn’t that he couldn’t solve the problem, it was that the problem, it could only be solved, by somebody who wasn’t as perfect. And I thought, My God, that’s me! You know?” When pressed Trump confirmed he was talking about the Wuhan Flu Coronavirus. “What the country needs now, Bradley, is for me to step away, because I’m just too perfect.”

Trump continued, at length –“Did you know it says it, right there in the Constitution, that the Constitution is there to form a more perfect Union? Did you know that? Most people don’t know this. But it’s right there. I know it. Nobody knows more about the Constitution than I do. And I thought about that and it makes sense, of course it makes sense. If I’m perfect, that’s what I should be focusing on – not just Keeping America Great Again, but making America as perfect as I am. So that’s where my focus should be for the next while.”

When pressed on when he would resume office Trump speculated “the 4th of July has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? I think that would be a good time. Mike Pence can handle this Wuhan Flu Coronavirus. I mean don’t get me wrong, he’s a great guy, very appreciative of what I’ve done for him, but he’s not perfect. If it wasn’t for me he’d probably have lost the election in Indiana to that kid Mayor. He’s exactly the kind of lesser mind you need to stop everyone from getting the common cold.” Trump then asked whether I was with Fox. He was puzzled as to why a German weekly had been granted access, and how I didn’t sound German. I explained I was American, writing for a German weekly, but had worked for — at which point the President instructed the Secret Service to “kick this bum to the kerb”. As I was being manhandled out of the suite Trump asked how I had got in. I protested that with quantum physics it’s hard to assign blame, but the bag should probably stop with Bill Nye, and he roared “The SCIENCE Guy?! You liberal elite ARE all working together!”

B. Bradley Bradlee is the fictional editor emeritus of The New York Times. He is currently a roving reporter breaking quarantine by strange physics for the German weekly Die Emmerich-Zeitung.

*Bill Nye wishes to clarify that his experiment slicing salad did not ‘backfire’, it simply disproved his hypothesis, and that is why science is science; failure always teaches you something – in this case that overly sliced salads can open wormholes.

February 21, 2020

Any Other Business: Part XLIV

As the title suggests, so forth.

“What a shocking cheap hat!”

Deja vu, all over again. Two years on from ‘Beast from the East’, as we suffer thru a month of storms every weekend, once again if you walk into Dundrum Town Centre and mooch through Penneys or M&S you will find woolly hats and rugged scarves and thermal gloves being shovelled out at the door at knockdown prices. You will find shorts, bikinis, polo shirts, and sun-hats as the new in thing to wear. The clothes on sale in our shops have, somehow, as always, changed seasons well in advance of the actual weather. We have just had the coldest days of the winter and are expecting more of the foulest and yet the clothes offered as just in at this moment will be unwearable until June. I need an economist to explain to me how this makes sense – do people really buy their wardrobes that far in advance? – doesn’t anybody suddenly need a new scarf or a heavier hat in February or March when it snows after the shops have shifted seasons? – do the shops not take a commercial beating selling clothes that won’t be needed for another five months? What’s going on, in short, and why does this happen season after season? In the meantime I shall be pulling on a trapper hat much like the one pictured above, bought at an outrageous discount last week at H&M.

The Gibraltar Gambit

Previously I’ve suspected there was a recurring Google Calendar alert somewhere in the Spanish civil service. This reminded them to enrage Michael Howard into threatening to cable out the entire Mediterranean fleet by periodically asking for Gibraltar back. Now it seems the Greeks are getting in on the act, if the return of the Elgin marbles really has been tacked onto proposals for trade talk tactics between Britain and the remaining members of the EU. Where might this all end? Yield Rockall? There are so many grievances that so many countries have with the lonely island that the list could get truly absurd. Mind you would it really be any more absurd than the American list topped by “– and agree to have all your chickens dumped in chlorine like they’ve been to a low-rent swimming pool”?

A bold artistic decision to ensure the future of the show … that cancels the future of the show

I feel like this is a corollary to the previous series of entries on attempts to make mucho money by terrible artistic decisions that ended up making predictably terrible art and then hysterically nada money. It appears Hulu have absolutely no plans whatsoever to continue their revival of Veronica Mars. Critics lauded the bold artistic decision creator Rob Thomas considered necessary to ensure the future of the show, but die-hard fans excoriated that bold artistic decision, which they saw as simply dynamiting Veronica Mars. And as the die-hard fans were the only reason a cancelled Zeros network show had such a curious afterlife in the first place this was a move that backfired spectacularly; quelle surprise but the brickbats of the fans matters more to Hulu than the garlands of the critics. I will probably never bother with the Hulu season because I don’t want to see the final five minutes. (And I had been intrigued to see JK Simmons, who was so good in Thomas’ unseen show Party Down, enter the world of Neptune.) I don’t check out of this universe lightly; I have both of the Veronica Mars novels and all three seasons on DVD. When I had to introduce Elliot Harris to Veronica Mars from scratch, before catching the Veronica Mars movie in the one cinema in Dublin showing it, I sent him six clips I thought would give him a flavour of the show and act as a ‘Previously on Veronica Mars…’  I told him if he only watched one that Logan’s ‘Epic Love’ speech to Veronica was by far the most important one. Rob Thomas’ justification for throwing that speech, that dynamic in the morgue bin was that for the show to continue as a noir mystery Veronica had to be a lone wolf. Well… offhand the existence of The Thin Man and Moonlighting suggests otherwise. Maybe simply have Logan appear from time to time, as the service permits, as in the novels. Anything but blow him to blazes so that the show can continue in limited runs whenever Thomas and Kristen Bell can fit it in their schedules. If nobody is left who wants to see the show then your damn schedules could be free enough to accommodate a network season but it doesn’t matter.

Starbucks doubles down in Dundrum

To return to Dundrum Town Centre and the laws of economics puzzling me, how the devil is Starbucks returning to its previous haunt by the Mill Pond? This was the smaller of their two Dundrum Town Centre establishments, and shared its space with Mao. After some mysterious happening an eternal refurbishment unsurprisingly led to the departure of both Starbucks and Mao and a dizzying array of temporary tenants (bean bags, arcade games, net cafe, Italian furniture) before now Starbucks has returned, to take just not its old slot, but Mao’s slot too!

iZombie, oDear

After two years or so of a break since finishing season 2 of iZombie I found myself utterly lost when attempting to start season 3 and so went back to the pilot and re-watched the show, enjoying it greatly. And then, as I finally made my way into new episodes, a sinking feeling started to take hold. Season 3 of iZombie is not all that great… There are several threads one could point to that unravelled the fabric of the show: the utter idiocy of the Peyton/Blaine/Ravi storyline, the utter idiocy of Major’s hooking up with a clearly unhinged Chaos Killer groupie, the utter idiocy of Ravi spilling the entire secret history of the zombie plague to a reporter unawares. All revolved around characters behaving like complete morons at odds with their previous actions on the show. The wider conspiracies surrounding the activities of Fillmore Graves and Zombie Truthers never quite exerted the magnetic pull of the Max Rager machinations of the previous season, and this less satisfying arc tended to swamp the case of the week mysteries which themselves became more hit and miss.

Mitt Romney: Profile in Courage

How unexpected. A year and a half ago I was remembering the 2012 election duel between Obama and Romney because of College Humour’s ‘Gangnam Style’ parody video ‘Mitt Romney Style’. At the time I referred to the robotic Romney, who surprised Obama in the first debate by having had a Reagan upgrade to the operating software;  beginning with a perfectly executed joke that left Obama so stunned that he staggered thru that entire debate punch-drunk. I had seen Romney’s sons appear on Conan O’Brien’s TBS show and had mused that George Romney’s charisma had skipped a generation. Of late, however, the interviews Romney has been giving to the Atlantic‘s McKay Coppins suggests a looser more devil-may-care character has emerged in the last job he will ever have. Eighteen months ago I mused that everyone had been glad that the RNC intimated to Romney that he should stop seeking to run again in 2016, but what people wouldn’t give now to have had Romney rather than Trump as the GOP candidate in 2016. And now it seems Romney, at eight years distance from his run when it was obligatory to demonise him, is revealing what he might have been like as a President in a crisis – voting his conscience though the heavens fall.

December 22, 2019

From the Archives: Talk to Me

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

This would be one of the films of the year, if it ended just 20 minutes sooner than it does. Petey Green was a DJ in Washington DC in the late 1960s and Don Cheadle is terrific as this ex-con keeping it real on the airwaves. Martin Sheen plays EG Sonderling, the head of the WOL radio station that broadcasts Green’s show. In one episode of Sheen’s political show The West Wing a character made reference to DC being one of the blackest cities in America, but that you would never guess it from the exclusively white faces of the corridors of power in Washington. Sheen is tremendous here in a supporting role as his character changes from utter hostility to Petey Green to a great respect for Green’s truth-telling about the city’s racial divide.

Cedric the Entertainer, who disgraced himself in last week’s Code Name: The Cleaner, has a wonderfully droll small role as a Barry White-voiced DJ in this film which offers an incisive interrogation of black American culture. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is Cheadle’s match as black radio executive Dewey Hughes. The dramatic crackle between these two men, especially in an electrifying pool game where they verbally dissect each other, is of the highest calibre. It is two great actors sparking off each other using a script that is literate, detailed and engaged. In a desperate attempt to avoid using the racial epithet that usually follows the prefixes field- and house- in American slang let us describe Hughes and Green as they do each other. Green regards Hughes as a collaborator with the white man, talking frightfully proper English, dressing in a suit and sucking up to merit a patronising pat on the head. Hughes regards Green as a willing victim, who will spend his life in and out of jail, while boasting about how ‘real’ he is, and asking for a handout.

How these men find common ground is brilliantly handled and the period setting is tremendously evoked while everyone deserves especial acclaim for the sequence that follows the death of Martin Luther King. Nowhere has that assassination been portrayed to such devastatingly emotional effect, the impact here is so great that you may well end up crying at an event that happened 39 years ago. Primarily though this is a very funny film, especially Hughes’ initial attempts to get Petey Green on the air. The last 20 minutes stray from the radio station, as Hughes masterminds Green’s transition to TV star and stand-up comedian, and act as an epilogue to the main drama. As epilogues go it’s involving but it destroys the film’s momentum so that the end becomes something of an anti-climax. For all that though Talk to Me is both entertaining and has an important message, it deserves a wide audience.

4/5

November 30, 2019

From the Archives: Rescue Dawn

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down on his first mission over Vietnam. Captured by the Vietcong he plots to escape and find his way home.

Christian Bale adds another impressive characterisation to his resume playing real life Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler. Rescue Dawn is inspired by events in Dengler’s life previously documented by the legendary (by which I mean famously bat-crazy) German director Werner Herzog in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Bale expertly plays a German who has become an American citizen and whose accent is American, but not quite genuine, and whose mental state could best be described as…peculiar. Herzog, the director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo is quite at home in this cinematic territory of insane heroes in the jungle and produces his best fictional feature in years. Werner Herzog is after all the man who dragged a boat over a mountain for the making of Fitzcarraldo, about a 19th century rubber baron in Brazil who wanted to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon.

Herzog brilliantly uses minimal dialogue for the first half hour to tell the story of Dengler’s capture and torture at the hands of the Vietcong thru the medium of pure cinema. He wordlessly conveys the utter terror of the Vietcong whenever an American airplane screams overhead. Herzog achieves a sense of location few Vietnam films have, even Apocalypse Now’s intense feeling for its locale is eclipsed by his extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography which makes the lush jungle almost another character. Bale’s time in the POW camp moves out of this art-house territory towards more mainstream fare, and the film slows down and becomes less distinctive. The men sit and bitch about being prisoners of war, plot escape plans (as all prisoners of war seem to spend most of their time doing, to the detriment of their guards’ nerves) and try to raise morale by fantasising over their favourite meals. Herzog inserts some excellent gags here but never lets you forget that Dengler is a very odd hero figure for these men to rally round.

The relationship between Bale and Steve Zahn as a fellow American prisoner in the small Vietcong camp is highly convincing but Jeremy Davies is endlessly irritating as the only other American POW. Davies has been using the same mannered tics since 1994 and has blighted films from The Million Dollar Hotel to Solaris. His popularity with casting directors continues to mystify. Steve Zahn, by contrast, grasps with both hands the chance to do something more substantial than his usual comedic sidekick roles and delivers a touching portrayal of man worn down by despair and malnutrition. Herzog’s languid pacing in this film, particularly in the second act, may irritate people raised on MTV editing but the majesty of the landscape and the emotional depth he achieves is more than adequate recompense, Rescue Dawn is an offbeat take on a familiar genre, welcome to the extreme as a matter of course.

3/5

October 15, 2019

From the Archives: The Invasion

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

A NASA shuttle disintegrates on re-entry transmitting a deadly alien virus which removes people’s emotions. Can Claire (Nicole Kidman) keep her son safe from her infected ex-husband while a doctor (Daniel Craig) seeks to find a cure?

“And how many times must a film be remade, before it can be remade no more?” Bob Dylan didn’t say that but he didn’t have to sit through this baffling mess. The Invasion is archly titled to hide the fact that it is the third (!) remake of 1956 B-movie classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Directed by Don Siegel the original was a master-class of forced economy as he eschewed effects, instead creating an atmosphere of creeping unease and paranoia as the truth emerged. Siegel’s film was a political metaphor so effective it could chill the blood whether you regarded it as allegorical of McCarthyism or Communism. The original “pod-people” were polite…but a bit off, as Stephen King noted, they had no community spirit. By contrast the pod people in this film are all about community, they have no emotions but only because they seem to have achieved a blissful state of nirvana. But that’s not the first change to be noted.

The creeping unease and subtle exposition of Siegel’s version has been thrown out and replaced by an indecent haste to cut to the chase, which ironically makes the film less exciting as there’s no escalating paranoia. At points it looks like The Invasion was originally meant to be an intensely first person narrative from Nicole Kidman’s point of view with the presence of the pod people on the streets becoming ever more obvious and menacing. Sadly such subtlety, if that was the original intention, has been lost in the welter of changes made to Oliver Hirschbiegel’s original cut by the Wachowksi brothers. The constant jumpy cutting though betrays the heavy hand of studio executives as Hirschbiegel’s Downfall was replete with extended tracking shots while the Wachowkis have an elegance in visual storytelling entirely absent here.

Who knows who wrote what but it’s a safe bet the hilarious political message comes from the terminally confused Wachowski brothers whose V for Vendetta can easily be read as a paen to neo-conservatism if one was so michievously inclined….Here the pod people confront Nicole Kidman with the world they offer: no wars, no poverty, no rape, no murder, no exploitation of others because there are no others, we are all one. She promptly shoots them dead….as you begin scratching your head trying to figure out what on earth the film is trying to say. News reports show us Bush and Chavez signing trade agreements, the US occupation in Iraq coming to a joyous end, and generally world peace is breaking out all over. All of which will end if Daniel Craig’s doctor can find a cure for the alien virus. Craig gives the best performance but by the end even he looks defeated by the film’s logic…

1/5

September 10, 2019

Made in the USA, for Export to China

I’ve been mooching around the notion of writing a piece about the impact of China on Hollywood for long enough, here are some speculative musings.

Bret Easton Ellis on his Podcast some years back observed that gay characters were being quietly pushed out of blockbusters, and places reserved for them in cheaper movies intended as domestic fare only, and generally they could rampage around television. I’ve noted that in passing in a review of Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and a piece on Independence Day: Resurgence. The latter was particularly telling because Roland Emmerich had penned Harvey Fierstein’s role in 1996’s Independence Day, which was exactly the kind of character Ellis had observed was disappearing. But while Emmerich made Brent Spiner’s character gay, the gay couple could still pretend to just be good friends, while Emmerich laughed up his sleeve at the Chinese censor not understanding that male friends do not call each other baby. Also laughing up their sleeve that summer were Simon Pegg and Justin Lin when they made Star Trek Beyond’s Sulu gay, but in a similarly nod and wink fashion.

But these nods and winks are necessary because the American studios live in terror of locking themselves out of the Chinese market. Transformers: Dark of the Moon made 69% of its money overseas, so Michael Bay is now purveying American bombast to a non-American audience; which is quite something. But that creates a weird feedback loop. People in America don’t go see Transformers: Age of Extinction, and they’re sublimely irritated by its very existence because they didn’t go see Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Then Transformers: The Last Knight rolls along, on the back of international revenue (especially Chinese revenue as Transformers: Age of Extinction pandered so extensively to the market), and they howl in anguish that Hollywood is making terrible films, and they go on strike from seeing anything at all… And so Hollywood continues to be immensely profitable, but possibly at the cost of alienating its home market, so that American cinema becomes an export-led industry.

After all, James Gray said on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast that the removal of the 40 million dollar film from the equation has removed Hollywood from the conversation around water-coolers; that’s now been taken over by TV shows like Game of Thrones. The habit of paying money on Saturday night to go sit in a theatre and watch Jimmy Stewart, as he put it, has been lost.

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

July 4, 2019

5 Works of Americana

For the day that’s in it here’re five pieces of 20th Century American music to score the 4th of July from sunrise to midnight. Shake off your drowsiness with the tremulous clarinet glissando of Gershwin, roll up your shirtsleeves with the frontier rambunctiousness of Copland, go for lunch (will you just go to lunch, George!) with the bustle of Bernstein, greet the evening with the alternating amplitude and frenzy of Gershwin (again), and then hit the energetic streets after dusk with the chromatic, romantic but nervy energy of John Adams.

Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

Rodeo by Aaron Copland

Candide Overture by Leonard Bernstein

Piano Concerto in F by George Gershwin

City Noir by John Adams

 

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