Transformers: Dark of the Moon had the best teaser trailer of the year: a brilliantly suspenseful recreation of the first Moon landing and the Apollo 11 crew’s discovery of a crashed alien spacecraft on the hidden side. It was two and a half minutes of superb cinema and I allowed myself a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, this third Transformers movie might not be the total disaster that the other two have been.
Well, I have been to the Dark Side now and can report that all that hope was tragically misplaced. Transformers 3 is as stupid and out of control as all the others. Even considering the franchise’s negligible commitment to its own tortured internal logic the film is an utter shambles.
This past week may have been the most consistently satisfying week of cinema-going since I started this journey with you back in 2006: seven very different films, all with something to offer. And no turkeys this week, so I’ll have to put the acid away until next week.
In completely arbitrary order (of viewing in fact), let’s take a look at them. In The Invention of Lying British comic Ricky Gervais directs his first big screen film (working without the creative support of usual partner Stephen Merchant) and it turns out to be a little bit more ambitious than most Hollywood rom-coms. In a world where no one has any conception of “untruth”, where the entire population makes each other miserable by saying exactly how they feel all the time and where there is no storytelling or fiction to give people an escape, Gervais’ character discovers he has the ability to say things that aren’t true and is treated as a Messiah-figure as a result. Everything he says, no matter how outlandish, is believed but he still can’t win the love of the beautiful Jennifer Garner.
Gervais is solidly funny throughout, and demonstrates even more of the depth as an actor that he hinted at in Ghost Town last year, but the direction is uneven – perhaps because both Gervais and co-writer-director Matthew Robinson are first-timers.
If you are on the look out for an intelligent, serious and impressively well-made drama that will stimulate and move you (and of course you are, or you wouldn’t be reading this) then The Reader will fit your bill perfectly. The last of the big Oscar contenders to hit our shores, this is a version of the best-selling novel which put the German struggle to come to terms with the crimes of the Nazis centre stage. The adaptation (by British playwright and screenwriter David Hare) also does this but something else as well – it becomes a meditation on all kinds of guilt and shame as well as the complex interaction between the two.
In 1958, schoolboy Michael Berg falls ill and is helped by a stranger (the extraordinary Kate Winslet). After his recovery, three months later, he returns to thank her and they begin an affair that lasts the final summer of his childhood. Between bouts of lovemaking she demands he read to her, telling her the stories and plays he is studying at school. Several months later she disappears, breaking poor Michael’s heart, only to return to his life eight years later in a Berlin courtroom, on trial for war crimes.
“He was a strong character with strong ideas,” Mr. Puiu said of Mr. Fiscuteanu. “Every day he told me how much he hates Bucharest, how much he hates his character, how much he hates playing this character, but he accepted it and had to go to the end.”
Above the proscenium arch at the Embassy theatre, on either side of the screen, there are two flashing red lights. They’ve been there ever since the Return of the King refurb and I thought they were something to do with the security system – motion sensors perhaps – but after watching Michael Bay’s Transformers on Friday night I got the idea that maybe they are eyes, you know, winking at us.
The Embassy as sentient sentinel – protecting us from evil, ready to transform at a moment’s notice into a giant robot with a really deep voice: as a vehicle for justice, its no more preposterous an idea than the muscle cars, hot rods, tanks and 18-wheelers featured in the film and it might explain that feeling of security I get sinking in to the leather seats.
In the film, Earth has become the battleground for two warring races of robots: the good guy Autobots and the not-so-much Decepticons. The cube that is the source of all their power is hidden somewhere here and the only clue is a pair of antique glasses in the possession of horny high school kid Shia LaBoeuf who the Autobots enlist to help. As you might expect with 30 metre tall robots, keeping their presence secret proves challenging and the attention of the authorities (including a very hammy John Turturro) is soon in full force.
Transformers is big and loud and mostly fun but the age of its target audience seems to change from scene to scene and the more-than-casual racism of the characterisations (every non-white character seems to be a buffoon or a coward or both) is a sour note, thankfully rare these days.
Equally white bread, but not quite as insulting, is the latest incarnation of the Nancy Drew stories about the famous teenage girl detective. This time Nancy is played by Julia Roberts’ niece (and creepy Eric’s daughter) Emma and while she’s got a little presence she doesn’t seem to totally know what she’s doing. It’s a fish-out-of-water story as Nancy leaves her small mid-western storybook town for the wilds of Los Angeles and anyone who has ever seen an episode of Scooby-Doo knows what’s going to happen next.
The ubiquitous James McAvoy (Last King of Scotland and Becoming Jane) plays Brian Jackson, a working class boy on his way to Bristol University in 1985, in Starter for 10. Determined to get the most out of the experience he trials for the University Challenge tv quiz team, getting a massive crush on the beautiful but shallow Eve in the process. His two best mates are played by two actors from The History Boys which, as they were set at the same time and much of the music is interchangeable, feels like you are watching a weird alternate universe at times. Recommended, but unchallenging.
Two minor entries from Europe to finish. Eden is a fable about a brilliant but lonely chef who falls for the unattainable waitress at his favourite café: Food porn with a surprisingly ugly twist at the end.
Colin Nutley’s Heartbreak Hotel is about two 40-something divorcées in Stockholm who strike up an unlikely friendship as they try and navigate the world of the newly-single. Heartbreak Hotel itself is the name of the nightclub they go to, a neon cocktail of the worst aspects of the Courtenay-Blair combination on a Wednesday night.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times, Wednesday 4 July, 2007 (Eden and Heartbreak Hotel cut for space, Starter for 10 moved to the Picks section for the same reason).