Friday, 31 May 2013

Transformers: The Movie - Nelson Shin - 1986

Back in the days when power ballads were still fashionable, Transformers toys were all the rage and the children’s cartoon was going from strength to strength, it seemed only natural that the ceaselessly warring robots, Autobots and Decepticons should have a big screen outing and so, long before Michael Bay had even blown up a matchbox, we had Transformers: The Movie. Chronologically acting as a bridge between series two and three of the cartoon, The Movie is often fairly hard to follow with so many brightly coloured robots dashing across the screen that its almost impossible to keep track of who’s who, especially after several classic characters are killed off in a move that initially seems like a surprisingly mature storytelling twist but is quickly revealed, when their places are quickly filled with brand new robots, to be a cynical marketing ploy to help sell a new line of Transformers toys. Far better then to just kick back and enjoy what is now delightfully retro animation and a zany adventure that doesn’t make a lot of sense but contains a lot of fun little quirks. Both Earth and the Transformer home planet of Cybertron are under threat from a vast planet-eating robot called Unicron (bizarrely voiced by Orson Welles in what was almost his last screen credit, though sadly his voice is treated to be almost unrecognisable) and the only way to stop him is with an Autobot macguffin that naturally the Decepticons want too and so it plays out in fairly predictable fashion for the next ninety minutes. Optimus Prime fans will be pleased to hear he continues to speak in nothing but destiny-laden epithets, delivered with gravelly charisma by the great Peter Cullen. Fun is to be had from a pit full of robot piranhas and an overblown coronation for the permanently slippery Starscream (some things never change), less to be had from obligatory human sidekick Spike and the lumbering dinobots whose initial appeal quickly wears off once it becomes clear they serve no purpose beyond getting people excited about robot dinosaurs. Although The Movie is arguably set in a more detailed world than Michael Bay’s more recent trilogy, fewer people are likely to take to its more simplistic action, dialogue and design beyond those in search of a nostalgia trip and so whilst it will always be a significant part of the franchise history its staying power as a movie is questionable. Even without the eighties power ballads…

Monday, 27 May 2013

Transformers - Michael Bay - 2007

Beginning life as a range of toys, the transformers – robots that can turn into mechanical devices – became a hugely popular eighties cartoon that span off into several comic series and an animated feature but seemed destined to stay in a nostalgic niche before one day Hollywood came calling. Good and evil giant robots (Autobots and Decepticons) fighting epic battles over Planet Earth had obvious appeal for an industry currently thriving on special effects heavy blockbusters and in the hands of Michael Bay, the king of big dumb action movies, that’s exactly what we got. Like usual Bay introduces human storylines to the action in an effort to try and engage the audience on an emotional level and like usual little things like plot and character get dropped by the wayside in favour of Bay’s favourite occupation: flinging explosions around like there's no tomorrow and assuming everyone will still care. As nominal hero Sam Witwicky Shia LeBeouf is at least an engaging presence, bringing a nervous energy to the part that is amusing at times and keeps the film ticking along nicely whilst everyone waits for the robots to show up but no-one is convinced for a moment that he has a chance with the impossibly beautiful Mikaela. Megan Fox who became an international star on the back of this film, pouts her through the character, trying to ignore Bay’s camera drooling over her like an excitable puppy but at least gets more to do than Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson who do nothing but run around and fire guns for two hours. Happily this is a Michael Bay film so robot based mayhem is never far around the corner and like every Michael Bay film the action is big, glossy and (shamefully) a little bit cool. The problem with having giant robots as your main characters is that most of them look quite similar (especially the villains) and so apart from bright yellow sidekick Bumblebee it be can hard to keep track of them all. However once Autobot leader Optimus Prime makes his entrance – at the climax of an epic sequence complete with flaming meteors and soaring choirs – nothing else matters; Optimus, voiced with gravelly charisma by Peter Cullen from the original series and shot to CGI perfection by Bay’s special effects team quickly (ironically) becomes a far more interesting character than the puny humans we’re meant to care about. The whole film is as shallow and beautiful as Megan Fox and full of plot holes Optimus Prime could drive through and so it is easy to dismiss Transformers a as waste of time but Bay creates enough moments that are undeniably cool to ensure that this will always be a guilty pleasure. 

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - Michael Bay - 2009

The first Transformers film was a classic summer blockbuster: loud and dumb, it was nevertheless filled with enough action and excitement to happily pass away a couple of hours. The inevitable sequel however sadly struggles to reach even this absurdly low standard. Longer and filled with more plot that makes even less sense, Revenge of the Fallen does have its moments but these are so few and far between that the film becomes an example of studio filmmaking at its worst: hurling the budget at the screen with literally no thought behind the nuances (such as they were) that made the first film a guilty pleasure. The prospect of discovering more Cybertron mythology is initially very exciting but the plot takes so long to develop and is fleshed out with so many crass humping dog jokes that by the time we get to the macguffin (a ‘Matrix’ hidden in the ‘Tomb of the Primes’) that it starts to feel suspiciously like the story was scribbled down on a napkin during Michael Bay’s lunch break. Similarly about half way though there is a surprisingly emotional moment when Autobot leader Optimus Prime takes on three evil Decepticons single-handedly to protect Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a moment that is only spoilt by the realisation that the giant CGI robot is more charismatic and engaging than the nominal human hero. LaBeouf was an engaging and amusing protagonist first time around, serving as suitably bland audience voice in this world of cool giant robots but Bay seems to believe that the audience actually cared about  him enough to wonder what happened to him and the beautiful Mikaela (Megan Fox) after the sun went down on them canoodling on Bumblebee’s bonnet. Thus vast tracts of the film are given over to Sam’s move to college, unfunny scenes with his irritating parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) and a tempestuous relationship that largely seems to consist of Fox pouting grumpily, time-wasting that wouldn’t matter so much if only similar care was put into the robot storylines. Instead all we have are interchangeable Decepticons that come and go with out really registering, a pair of would-be-comic Autobots whose ‘jibber-jabber’ style dialogue borders on the offensive and a human robot (Isabel Lucas) that breaks the few pieces of narrative logic that the first film did at least get right. The Transformers films are of course simply meant as crowd-pleasing summer blockbusters, but to maintain credibility even a blockbuster needs to establish and maintain its own internal narrative rules in order for the audience to sustain interest. In one shot of the Decepticon Devastator climbing the Great Pyramid of Giza with a giant pair of wrecking-ball testicles, Revenge of the Fallen blows all that to the winds. 

Transformers: Dark of the Moon - Michael Bay - 2011

In 2009 Michael Bay drew anger, disgust and critical disdain with his overblown mess of a Transformers sequel, Revenge of the Fallen and so naturally Dark of the Moon, the third entry in the franchise, was greeted with less excited anticipation and more arms folded in grim expectation of the worst. The signs are hopeful when the film opens with a prologue set in 1969 ‘revealing’ that the Apollo moon landings were a secret mission to discover a crashed Transformers spacecraft but the excitement rapidly dissipates as Bay spends the best part of the next forty minutes following Sam (Shia LeBeouf) struggling to get his first job. “Nobody cares” people scream at the screen as Sam has awkward and unfunny encounters with his new boss (John Malkovich hamming it up in what must be a career low) and a deranged ex-scientist (Ken Jeong recycling his Hangover shtick) in scenes that would all be on the cutting room floor if Bay had any interest in a decent running time. Yet more time is wasted on Sam’s new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whitely) which gets a little frustrating as it is obvious from the moment that Bay’s camera follows her bottom up the stairs that she is not there for her personality. Huntington-Whitely is astonishing in that she has less talent and a bigger pout than the fired Megan Fox (a feat hitherto thought impossible), although she does have one unintentionally hilarious conversation with Megatron that makes it worth buying the ticket. Happily when Bay finally remembers what people paid to see and cranks up some robot action the film takes off. The plot is as ridiculous as all previous efforts but at least makes more sense than Revenge of the Fallen, even daring so far as to put in a couple of twists, and with the introduction of Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy!) manages a character that is actually interesting and easy to follow. The action climax in which an Autobot/human alliance must take back Chicago from the Decepticons goes on too long but maintains better control of the characters amongst the awesome special effects and actually shows off some of the best stunts, camera work and 3D seen for a long time. The highlight however comes earlier when a Decepticon chase down a Washington freeway culminates in an unexpectedly emotional reversal, proving that when Bay gets it right, he can create characters, even characters that are giant alien robots, which can emotionally engage the audience. Dark of the Moon never manages to claw back to the levels of lazy fun attained by the first film but it is at least more watchable than Revenge of the Fallen. Not that that’s hard.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Somewhere - Sofia Coppola - 2010

Drifting is the word that first leaps to mind whilst watching Somewhere, the latest film from director Sofia Coppola. The film follows the daily routines in the life of Hollywood star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) as he recovers from an injury and drifts from meaningless sex to dull publicity and technical work for a film, indulging in all the delights afforded to the fabulously wealthy but never finding anything to excite a spark of real life, leaving us with an acute sense of how empty his existence is. The one ray of hope, his one personal connection is his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) and after the estranged mother skips town Johnny is forced to try and bond with a child he has only ever really known in passing but who is equally desperate for some sort of connection. From the first meeting most of the film consists of a touching series of vignettes as Cleo spends time with her father and experiences Johnny's lifestyle to the full and all though nothing much happens in these moments the characters are strong enough to hold our attention regardless. Dorff is an actor largely forgotten by Hollywood whilst Fanning is currently the town’s finest child star so they don’t seem an obvious fit but on screen they have a natural chemistry that makes the father/daughter relationship completely credible and both deliver incredibly subtle performances that express in a single glance all the unsaid feelings that the characters don't know how to share. Eventually however the pace gets problematic as Coppola, who has been simply letting the camera drift along with the characters, seems determined to string this out for as long as possible, even to the point of apparently ending the film two or three times and then carrying on rather than giving the audience the closure that their emotional investment needs. Its arguable of course that this approach is more true to how such awkward relationships would play out in real life and it probably is meant to be indicative in some way of how fabulous wealth cannot give you the emotional closure Hollywood would like to suggest but unfortunately in filmic terms this doesn't necessarily work. The audience is left to drift inconclusively away from the film without any real connection, which given the delicate and touching performances on show is a shame.