Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Swarm

So here we are: not so much a disaster movie, as a disastrous movie.

The Swarm (1978) is a film of such unspeakable awfulness that director Irwin Allen, scarred by the critical and commercial evisceration it received, banned anyone who worked with him from ever mentioning its name again.

Even The Swarm’s star Sir Michael Caine, one of the towering figures of bad cinema (and a man, incidentally, who makes no apology for Jaws 4: The Revenge), considers this the worst film he has ever made.

But before we speak about the disaster that is the film, what about the disaster it’s meant to depict?

As the film’s title suggests, the source of terrifying peril are bees. Not your honey-producing, flower-pollinating common or garden variety, but deadly African killer bees.

So, when a swarm of the lethal insects invades the USA, Caine’s top entomologist – or bug expert to the uneducated likes of you and me – is put in charge of saving the day.

Not a premise entirely without promise, you might think – especially with Irwin ‘Master of Disaster’ Allen, the producer of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno at the helm. Well, you’d be wrong. Very, very, wrong.

The film barely begins before taking the first of many catastrophic mis-steps. We enter the story with the swarm having overwhelmed a nuclear missile base. The military personnel lie dead and America’s nuclear arsenal sits unguarded and unmanned.

The nadir of Caine's career. Not a lot of people know that.
Having seen the cutting edge of Uncle Sam’s weapons technology rendered useless by one blistering attack, the viewer giddily waits to find out how the drama will be escalated.

Will there be a nuclear meltdown? Will the bees head for Washington to continue their assault on the USA’s military infrastructure? Perhaps they’ll take over the White House and transform it into a massive hive from which they can busily – and buzzily – rule the country?

No. Instead, Allen has the bees – and all the action – lurch sideways to a small, white picket-fenced town that, with ill-timed misfortune, just happens to be holding a flower festival.

Rarely has tremulous expectation been scythed so swiftly. One minute we’re worrying about the readiness of the United States’ intercontinental ballistic missiles, the next it’s all about whether the town’s mayor will have to call off the begonia competition.

This non-development is symptomatic of the way the film blindly staggers about under Allen’s scattergun direction. His previous disaster epics had the sense to confine their drama within, respectively, the walls of a burning tower block and an upturned cruise ship.

In this movie, without the natural constraints of a tight location, Allen seems clueless as to whether he should be providing grand spectacle or keeping the danger up close and personal.

Such confusion results in a unholy hodge-podge of scenes, seemingly from entirely different films. The story jack-knifes from large-scale destruction at a nuclear power station and the ensuing deaths of thousands, to picnickers impotently trying to fight off the swarm with a can of fly spray they‘ve puzzlingly packed along with the cheese triangles.

"It's behind you!"
This ever changing kaleidoscope of calamity simply serves to emphasise how none of the action is either a) frightening or b) remotely believable.

The whole thing enters through-the-looking-glass territory when our heroes, not content with having the deadly bees to deal with, start to inflict entirely avoidable disaster upon themselves.

For example, take the scene where Henry Fonda’s saintly old Professor – the only man in the world who can develop an antidote to the bee venom – tests out an experimental cure on himself. And promptly dies. Wasn’t there something a little less irreplaceable – a hamster, maybe – they could have tested it on first?

Or how about when the bungling soldiers, trying to fight off a bee attack, set fire to their own headquarters by using flame-throwers indoors. Like, totally, duh!

The same dunderheaded idiocy again rears its head in the exploding helicopter sequence. This occurs early in the film, before the nature of the threat has been established, when a couple of military helicopters encounter the swarm.

Unsure what to make of the black, buzzing mass in front of them, the hapless pilots naturally decide against trying to ascertain the potential threat from a safe distance. No, instead the gung-ho aviators choose to fly headlong into the swirling unidentified phenomenon.

While this recklessness does indeed allow the pilots to correctly identify their enemy as bees, the manoeuvre predictably causes an unspecified aerodynamic problem for the helicopters. The pilots lose control and the choppers plummet from the sky, crash into the ground and burst into flame.

Artistic merit

If you ever wanted to see a Airfix helicopter kit blow up, then this is the film for you’ve been waiting for.

Without any CGI, the filmmakers had to rely on scale models to create their special effects.

So, as the small plastic chopper meets its fiery demise, one should spare a little sympathy for the poor bugger who must have spent painstaking hours intricately gluing together the flimsy model. His handiwork is only briefly seen before the special effects team to blow it all to smithereens.

Sadly, it’s one of the least convincing chopper explosions on record: even the ground and the plant-life looks totally wrong.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Without doubt, the first known apiary-related destruction of a helicopter.

Positives

The single positive aspect of The Swarm is that it is so epically bad. Such ripe terribleness has a richness that elevates the film’s copious failings to the level of high art.

The only way to truly appreciate what a Herculean achievement of appalling awfulness this film is to watch it.

Negatives

That thought that repeatedly nags away at the back of your mind for much of the film, as death and disaster lays waste to whole communities, is this: why didn’t people simply stay indoors and keep their windows closed? Amazingly, despite the presence of so many top scientists and military generals, no-one ever seems to have thought of this.

Favourite quote

In a film filled to brimming with lumpen dialogue, my favourite exchange comes right at the end of the film. Caine’s plan to stop the bees involves luring the swarm out to sea where the army intend to blow them up. (Please, don’t ask.)

To do this, Sir Michael fits out a couple of helicopters with megaphones through which he intends to broadcast a special frequency the bees will be helplessly drawn to. Aware of the ridiculousness of such cod-science, the scriptwriters try to make a lame apology and have Caine’s helper say: “Won’t the noise of the helicopter drown out your sound?”

Caine’s reply is majestic: “No, it’s on an entirely different sonic level.”

Oh, okay. That’s alright then.

Interesting fact

Real bees were used to film The Swarm. Legend has it that Sir Michael, upon finding small yellow blobs on his clothes during filming assumed it was honey and began eating it, unaware that it was actually bee excrement.

Having inflicted this cack on the world, it’s probably only fitting that he had to eat some too.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast on The Swarm. Listen on iTunes, Podomatic or YourListen


Friday, 28 December 2012

The Secret Agent Club

Success breeds imitation. In Hollywood this means that, whenever a big box office hit rakes in the readies, it is swiftly followed by a slew of thinly disguised, cheap and cheerless knock-offs.

So when the Arnold Schwarzenegger spy caper True Lies became a global mega hit, originality-adverse Hollywood producers rushed to cash in, and The Secret Agent Club (1996) was born.

Inferior in execution and ambition, the film steals True Lies’ central premise, re-works it as a kids’ film, and replaces Arnie with Z-grade action star Hulk Hogan – possibly the only man alive who could make the lumbering Austrian look like Sir Laurence Olivier.

Hogan plays Ray Chase, the remarkably unlikely owner of a toy shop, who appears to be living a dull and innocuous life in small-town suburbia. When he isn’t selling water pistols and whoopee cushions, he’s the klutzy and bumbling father to Jeremy (Matthew McCurley) to whom he’s a permanent embarrassment. However, quelle surprise, Hogan’s day job is merely a cover for his secret life as an agent for a shadowy intelligence service called, erm, SHADOW.

Inevitably, Hogan’s private and professional lives become messily entwined when his efforts to retrieve a deadly laser weapon from a campy villainess (Lesley Anne Down) go awry. And when she takes Hogan captive, it falls to the Hulk-ster’s son and his pre-teen friends to rescue him and the weapon.

So, just to summarise: where True Lies offered Jamie-Lee Curtis frolicking in her drawers and being genuinely funny, this film gives you a bunch of highly punchable pre-teen brats. Genius.

The story limps along like a three-legged dog, the action having as much bite as a toothless chihuahua. In fact, if this film were a dog, most viewers would surely have little compunction about taking it for a long, one-way walk in the woods.

Hogan, in particular, reeks to high heaven. Rarely has so awkward a screen presence ever graced the silver screen (and remember, this is someone whose performance – by definition – is here being measured against that human oak-tree of inexprssion, Schwarzenegger). Slowed by his muscle-bound body and advancing years, he labours through each progressing scene with the grace and subtlety of a collapsing building.

That said, Hulk does bank some credit for being the only unapologetically bald action star. Not for him the designer pates of Bruce Willis or Vin Diesel – whose grade zero shaves almost look cool. No, Hogan frames his folically-challenged scalp with a lustrous, blonde mullet. Sir, we salute you. In many respects, the peroxide mullet gives the best performance of the movie.

Curiously, for such a flawed film, the supporting cast are surprisingly good. As the chief villain, Lesley-Anne Down eats up her role with pantomime gusto, providing what little entertainment there is to be gleaned.

There are also game performances from Jack Nance as a mad scientist, Barry Bostwick as a double-dealing secret agent, and the ever reliable James Hong. It’s just a pity the flaccid script gives them so little to work with.

The exploding helicopter scene opens with Lesley Anne Down auctioning off the laser to a roomful of terrorists and war-mongering dictators. (No, George Bush and Tony Blair aren’t present, before you ask.)

To demonstrate the weapon’s unique power, Down incinerates an expendable member of her retinue. (I hear he was a trifle slow circulating the canapés at the pre-auction soiree, but I digress). Unimpressed by the casual murder of a mere underling, one of the assembled audience of evil-doers calls for a more substantive demonstration.

Irritated at having the credentials of her wares questioned, Down walks to a nearby balcony and fries the baddie’s helicopter, which is parked in the courtyard outside. “I’ll guess you’ll be walking home now,” she quips.
Artistic merit

In common with much else in the film, this scene is entirely bereft of both artistry and merit. We don’t witness an explosion so much as a white cloud of smoke, which partially clears to reveal some non-descript, easy-on-the-budget wreckage.

Frankly, it was only professional diligence that made this reviewer watch the whole film. And had I realised at this point that there would be no further helicopter action, it’s unlikely the closing credits would have been reached. From woeful beginning to lamentable end, it is utterly uninspired stuff.

Positives

I'll have to get back to you on those.

Negatives

Jeremy’s friends – who band together to rescue Hogan – are the kind of central casting, identikit younglings (the nerd, the girl, the fat one, the cool one) that you’ll be familiar with from a thousand other teen-centric comedies and dramas.

Perhaps it’s just the advancing years, but I invariably find children in films irritating. Unless of course they’re tortured, killed and eaten.

Favourite quote

James Hong gets to utter the cod-Chinese proverb: “Even a one-legged man sometimes kicks butt.”

Interesting fact

The continuity in this film is risible. The most shockingly example comes at the end of the film when Hogan and his little helpers, attempting to escape from the villain’s lair, are confronted by Down.

All Hogan has to do to escape is blast Down with the laser. But suddenly the action jumps forward, missing out an entire sequence. We then resume the action with Down now holding the weapon, which has somehow been set to self-destruct.

How any of that happened remains a mystery to the viewer. Assuming they care by that point.

Review by: Jafo

Friday, 23 November 2012

Lasko - Death Train


Monks have never been stars of the silver screen.

Mostly commonly sighted in historical dramas, they act as a kind of period window dressing – generally portrayed as stout, jolly fellows, whose love of God is only matched by their love of mead.

True, Asian martial arts films in the 70s and 80s often featured monks of the Shaolin variety, kicking god-fearing ass while dispensing cryptic wisdom (usually with a badly-dubbed English accent). But in Europe, monks have only ever had a marginal presence – the only notable contribution being period murder mystery, The Name Of The Rose.

So, it’s against this unpromising backdrop that we come to Lasko: Death Train (2007), a film which bravely smashes the stone tablets of convention and preaches a new gospel: a ‘monk cinema’ for the 21st century. Say it loud: I’m a monk and I’m proud.

Naturally, though, our hero – Lasko (Mathis Landwehr) – isn’t just any old monk: that would be boring. Our man is a member of a secret order of deity botherers - known as the ’Fist of God’ - who are dedicated to protecting the church.

Just as well, really. Because, while accompanying a train-full of pilgrims on a trip to see the Pope, Lasko only finds himself caught up in a plot of international intrigue after terrorists steal a deadly virus.

Attempting to make a covert getaway after their theft, the terrorists - led by Arnold Vosloo - hitch a ride on the pilgrim train disguised as monks and nuns. However, when their plan is discovered it’s up to Lasko to stop Vosloo before he can release the virus.

Now, you might think a monk trying to stop terrorists poisoning a train full of nuns and priests sounds like a disastrous cocktail. But while these ingredients really shouldn’t gel together, the film – in some crazy, mixed up way – works. Proof, if ever you needed it, that God does indeed work in mysterious ways.

Fittingly for a member of a secret sect called the Fist of God, Lasko is a supernaturally good martial artist, and you’ll be unsurprised to hear he’s given bountiful opportunities to demonstrate his face-pummelling prowess as he tries to foil the terrorist plot.

This though, presents a problem: how to reconcile Lasko’s devout religious faith with the need to get biblical on villainous ass? Fortunately the scriptwriters, aware of this contradiction – and showing no little knowledge of the Catholic Church’s stance on confession and absolution – permit Lasko to briefly regret each life he takes by making the sign of the cross over the body while looking mournfully into the middle distance.

So, to recap: meet baddie, punch baddie repeatedly till face resembles a tenderised steak, snap baddie’s neck like it was a cheese-stick, stand over corpse and look a bit guilty for a second. Are we all up to speed? Good. On such logic are the great religions of the world built.

Director Diethard Kuster craftily takes the opportunity to run with various religious motifs throughout the film. So when Lasko has to dispense a vaccine for the lethal virus amongst the passengers, he administers it via holy wafers. Not so much the body of Christ, as the anti-bodies.

Despite the bonkers premise, Lasko: Death Train is a thoroughly entertaining film. As Lasko, Mathis Landwehr has got good martial arts chops and the fights are excitingly choreographed. Appropriately for a train-set thriller, the whole thing rattles along enjoyably, building up a satisfying head of steam courtesy of a director who keeps the story on track throughout.

Of course, as fun as this film is, I wouldn’t be telling you about it unless it contained an exploding helicopter or, in this case, two.

The first comes when the police attempt to stop Vosloo escaping with the virus. They order in a helicopter full of commandos to storm and seize the train. As the chopper hovers above the moving carriages, the brave commandos slide down ropes to try and get onboard.

Unfortunately, the villains are prepared for this eventuality and have sneakily brought along a rocket launcher as carry-on luggage for their journey. One of the baddies leans out a carriage window and fires a missile at the chopper. There’s no time for the pilot to take evasive action and the helicopter explodes in a huge fireball.

The second moment of chopper carnage happens near the end of the film. In order to make his escape, Vosloo whistles up his own helicopter to whisk him off the roof of the train and to safety.

Naturally, Lasko isn’t going to allow this, so after also clambering up onto the train’s roof the pair proceed to have their long awaited showdown.

Unsurprisingly, Lasko prevails in the fight leaving Vosloo (the scoundrel!) to resort to dirty tricks. He pulls out a pistol – rather begging the question why he didn’t do this earlier – to shoot our hero. But Vosloo’s aim is inexplicably bad and, in attempting to kill Lasko, he succeeds only in haplessly shooting the pilot of the chopper hovering nearby.

Vosloo leaps onto the rope ladder dangling from the chopper, in the expectation that he’ll be flown away. But the mortally wounded pilot can only manage to dimwittedly steer the chopper into the path of the onrushing train. Ka-boom.

Artistic merit

These are two absolutely first class chopper fireballs. There really isn’t anything like watching the real thing, and here the extravagantly huge explosions are clearly executed using pyrotechnics and without the use of CGI.

The second fireball is especially praiseworthy as we get to watch the train plough into the helicopter and, moments later, its debris. Lasko: Death Train was nominated for best action in a foreign film at the Taurus World Stunt Awards and it’s not hard to see why.

Exploding helicopter innovation 

While the quality of the helicopter explosions are beyond dispute, they’re not particularly innovative. Chopper destroyed by rocket launcher is a routine method of destruction and, though rare, we’ve seen helicopters destroyed by trains before, most notably in Blue Thunder.

Do passengers survive?

At least two commandos survive the first exploding helicopter. Realising that the chopper they’re dangling from is about to be destroyed, a couple of the quicker-thinking soldiers jump from their ropes. Two of them can clearly be seen in a later shot examining the helicopter’s wreckage.

Positives

Some comic relief is provided courtesy of two pilgrims travelling on the train – one blind and one with gout – who remain oblivious to the drama unfolding around them through a series of escalating coincidences.

The pair bring to mind the great double act of Caldicott and Charters from Hitchcock’s own train-based thriller, The Lady Vanishes. In that film, despite the murder and kidnapping taking place around them, the duo are amusingly only concerned with getting back to London in time for a cricket match.

While not in that league, the pair here do entertainingly compliment the main story.

Negatives

Unfortunately, director Diethard Kuster decides to use the film’s opening sequence to prove he’s completed a correspondence course in editing from the Michael Bay School of Retina Damage.

This renders the first action set-piece – the theft of the virus from a Government facility – into a dizzying, whirling, jumble of epilepsy-inducing edits.

The effect is compounded by Kuster’s love of showing the same event taking place from multiple camera angles. It creates a kind of Groundhog Day feeling, where you begin to feel you’re trapped in a permanent loop of the same events.

Thankfully, it looks like Kuster exhausted even himself with this initial effort and he reins in the technique a little for the rest of the film.

Favourite quote

“Look I joined a monastery. I didn’t think I was joining a paramilitary organisation.”

Interesting fact

Proving that God’s work is never done, a spin-off TV series appeared two years later, which chronicled Lasko’s further adventures defending the church.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Lasko Death Train. Listen via iTunes, Acast, Stitcher, Player FM or right here




Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Austin Powers in Goldmember


As Skyfall, the third Daniel Craig Bond film, provides a chopper fireball fix for cinemagoers, it seems an appropriate time to revisit the third of the 007 spoofing Austin Powers’ franchise.

Too tenuous a link? Perhaps. But the film does have the only ingredient necessary for a review on this hallowed website - the warming orange glow of a helicopter explosion.

We all remember Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). The series debut was hilarious, lampooning the sexual innuendo, contrived plots and simplistic henchmen of the Bond franchise.

With the public hungry for more, a sequel seemed an obvious winner. However, with the best gags used up, The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) quickly descended into puerile joke-making. They may have doubled the budget, but unfortunately they halved the humour.

It's against this unpromising backdrop that we arrive at the third installment, Goldmember (2002) which was presumably made for no other reason than a desire by creator/producer/writer/actor Mike Myers to have a final, pocket-lining, payday.

The story is simple. Blofeld parody Dr Evil (Mike Myers) hatches a plan to take over the world by using a "tractor beam" to crash a meteorite into the Earth, melting the icecaps and causing a global catastrophe of a scale normally only seen in Kevin Costner films (Waterworld, The Postman, et al).

To do this, he needs a key ingredient (that shares a name with popular Hemorrhoids treatment "Preparation H") from a Dutch scientist from the past, Johan van der Smut AKA "Goldmember" (Mike Myers again). However, Evil's plan is foiled early doors by British agent Austin Powers (take a guess, his initials are MM). Or so it would seem.

M equivalent, Basil Exposition, cock-blocks a potential threesome with Japanese twins to inform the newly-knighted Powers that his father, Nigel (played by the actually-knighted Michael Caine), has been mysteriously kidnapped. The only clue to go on is the Golden Members the kidnapper has painted on the overpowered guards. Can you guess who's behind this?

As the convolution reaches breaking point, Powers travels back in time (been there, done that in the preceding film), picks up Beyoncé as easily as she picks up the pay cheque for her role as Foxy Cleopatra, jumps back to the future, and after following a lead provided by Fat Bastard (played by, yes, you guessed it, Mike Myers) tracks down the recently-escaped Evil, Goldmember, and his Dad in order to save the day.

And if all that sounds exhausting you’d be right. Indeed, by the end, trying to follow the plot had become such a pain in the proverbial that I felt in dire need of Dr Smut’s Preparation H myself.

But you have to rewind to the opening scenes for the airborne explosive action. The film begins with what initially looks like an over-the-top action sequence. Actually it’s a fake trailer to "Austinpussy", a pretend Austin Powers biopic directed by Steven Spielberg.

It's a great moment of self-parody, with some brief but hilarious cameos from Tom Cruise as Powers, Gwyneth Paltrow as Powers-girl Dixie Normous, Kevin Spacey as Evil and Danny DeVito as Mini-Me.

As part of the sequence we see a chopper in pursuit of the motorbike-riding Dixie. Powers skydives out of a plane into his car, the Shaguar, in order to take care of the chopper and save Dixie.

Powers lines up the Shaguar to charge at the onrushing chopper, and then as it nears, launches into an acrobatic somersault - clearing the chopper and enabling him to fire at the bearded pilot, causing the helicopter to burst into flames.

Powers casually lands on the road by the rubble, before Cruise removes the glasses and utters the franchise catchphrase “Yeah Baby!”

Exploding helicopter innovation

Nothing special about the explosion, but the ridiculously implausible stunt does merit appreciation - the leap, somersault, gunfire combo, over an in-flight chopper. We know absolutely nothing about the reason why the helicopter pilot deserves to fall to a fiery end - we just know it's right, and bask in the resultant warm glow.

Positives

The opening trailer featuring the explosion is a genuinely enjoyable scene. I'm also sure I'm not the only one that has a soft spot for the shadow scenes from all three of these films. Simple. Childish. Hilarious.

Negatives

While a step up from The Spy Who Shagged Me, by the end you're left with the question of 'wouldn't it have just been better for everyone (other than Mike Myers) if this hadn't been made?' - the answer being a decisive 'Yeah Baby!'

Favourite quote

Nigel Powers: "There are only two things I can't stand in this world. People who are intolerant of other people's cultures... and the Dutch."

Review by: Joseph Clift

Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Austin Powers In Goldmember. Find it on iTunes, YourListen, Acast, Stitcher, or Podomatic.


Friday, 16 November 2012

Skyfall

The name’s Bond. Emo Bond.

Yup. Forget Brosnan’s lazy charm, Connery’s flinty coolness, crap Roger’s independently moving eyebrows. This time Sam Mendes – renowned for his emotionally wrought character studies – is in the directorial driving seat, so it’s all about 007’s angst and inner pain. We can only be grateful that Skyfall, unlike American Beauty, doesn’t open with our hero disconsolately cranking one out in the shower.

So, the story: Bond gets ‘killed’ in the opening scene (except of course he doesn’t) and cyber-terrorists steal a hard drive containing a list of secret agents’ names, which they then leak online. It’s Wikispooks, essentially.

We soon find Bond living in a beach hut, drinking heavily and even growing a beard to show us how much he’s really hurting inside. When the MI5 headquarters in London are blown up, he comes out the shadows so he can look pained and bicker with M (Judi Dench). During re-training, our struggling hero can’t shoot straight, fails the fitness tests and even throws a hissy fit during the psychological assessment. Are you getting the picture yet – he’s REALLY VULNERABLE, okay?

Given all this navel-gazing, Skyfall is unquestionably more talky-talky than most Bond movies, which in itself isn’t a bad thing. (Quantum of Solace, produced during the Hollywood writer’s strike, had about six lines of wonky dialogue). Most of the actors – Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear – are pretty solid. Young Ben Whishaw, as Q, is great in the single scene – a verbal joust with Bond – where he’s allowed to do more than rat-a-tat at a laptop, squeaking: ‘They’ve hacked into our system!’. (Note: this happens a lot.)

But we already knew Mendes could ‘do’ talking – the problem is he just isn’t really into the action stuff, and it shows. He’s the directorial equivalent of the brainy, speccy boy at school, and there’s a sense that the livelier scenes for him must feel like a double Games lesson in the rain.

Can't you see he's hurting, he hasn't shaved
A big set-piece in a Shangai casino is a massive damp squib. Filming the scene apparently chewed up entire weeks and millions of pounds, but somehow it’s arse-numbingly boring.

Bond simply breezes into the enemy’s lair, announces his real name, chats up the baddie’s girlfriend, beats up some henchmen, narrowly avoids the obligatory deadly animals in a pit and breezes out again. So, when did that ever NOT happen? It’s all been done before with much more aplomb, and Mendes brings nothing fresh to the mix. It’s Karaoke Bond, essentially.

The movie’s big success is Javier Bardem, playing the bonkers, campish villain. He’s a truly bizarre sight, his big, meaty Spanish features topped with a straw-coloured wig that makes him look like a Catalan cousin of the late, unlamented Jimmy Savile. This unsavoury impression is heightened when he starts stroking a tied-up Bond between the legs. You half expect him to suddenly spout: “Now, then. Now, then...”

However, even a creature so magnificent as Jimmy Bardem is soon neutered by the lumpen direction and formulaic plot. Almost as soon as he’s introduced, the flaxen fanatic gets caught – with suspicious ease – and is taken to MI5’s new secret HQ. Once there, he trades insults with M, chews a bit of scenery then promptly escapes again. As Q helpfully exposites, while rat-a-tatting on a keyboard: “He’s actually been PLANNING this for years…”

Now, that shuffling, grating noise you can occasionally hear throughout this 20-minute sequence is the sound of Heath Ledger spinning in his grave, because the whole thing is a bare-faced lift from his identical stunt as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Except this time, obviously, the entire conceit is transparent from the outset – and thus a bit pointless.

Now then, now then, Mr Bond
However, it’s in the film’s final act that things really unravel. There are lots of uncertainties in the world, but one thing you could always count on was an explosive final half hour in a Bond movie, involving a huge set (preferably inside a volcano), hundreds of disposable extras, a cat-stroking maniac and some proper excitement.

Instead, Bond drives M to his bleak ancestral home in the Highlands so they can sort out his ‘mommy’ issues. There’s a misjudged, semi-comic turn by Albert Finney as the family retainer and, just as the movie should be cranking up to grand finale mode, the audience spends a full ten minutes watching what looks like out-takes from Emmerdale.

Finally, as night falls, Jimmy Bardem and a gang of goons arrive in a huge helicopter. It lands. The baddies jump out. They shoot big guns at the house, and Bond, M and Albert fire rifles back. The helicopter takes off again, ostensibly so it can resume shooting at the house, but really so Bond can blast it with a couple of gas canisters that happened to be hanging around in the kitchen (just next to the teabags).

Inevitably, the chopper crashes and a CGI fireball fills the screen, much as a palpable sense of anti-climax fills the mind of the viewer.

Exploding helicopter innovation 

Not much to report, really. Once hit, the big, Chinooky-type chopper slowly sinks and crashes into the side of the house, lighting up the night sky with a massive explosion. Mendes’ deft and realistic touch with an action scene is once more in evidence, as Bond and Bardem remain entirely unscathed by a huge volley of burning petrol and molten metal, despite standing right next to – and, in Bond’s case, virtually underneath – the unfortunate conflagrating vehicle.

Positives 

There are a lot of individual good scenes, and it’s a genuine pleasure to see talented actors in a generic movie raising the bar with more than the usual action guy tough talk…

Negatives

…but Skyfall often meanders and forgets that it is, after all, supposed to be a Bond movie. Despite all the critical hoopla, it reminded me in parts of Timothy Dalton’s discouraging turn as ‘new man’ 007 in the Eighties. Existential angst does not a good Bond movie make.

Favourite quote 

“Now, then. Now, then.” [Javier Bardem]. Note: I may have just imagined that, due to the wig.

Interesting fact 

What with Bond's 50th anniversary, Dame Judi's final turn as M, the celebration of British-ness theme, the celebrated home-grown director, post Olympics and Jubilee euphoria – this movie was never going to get anything other than a soft and comfortable critical landing. What most reviewers seemed to miss is that, for long stretches, it's actually pretty boring.

Review by: Chopper

Still want more? Then listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Skyfall. You can listen via iTunes, Player FM, Stitcher, Acast or right here...


Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Deadly Prey

There are good films, and there are bad films. There are even ‘so bad they’re good’ films. And then there is Deadly Prey (1987).

This movie exists in its own universe. Like a comet, it hurtles past the Good and Bad constellations, briefly orbits planet So-Bad-It’s-Good, before exiting our galaxy for as yet uncharted regions of critical understanding.

But, lest we become lost in deep space, let us pause to consider the plot, which is very much rooted in our own earthly world.

In the backwoods outside Miami, a team of mercenaries – led by ruthless Colonel Hogan (David Campbell) – is rigorously preparing for a covert mission. To hone his soldiers into finely tuned killing machines, Hogan has adopted an extreme and unconventional approach at his training camp.

You see, the Colonel is the type of man who laughs at mere assault courses, who snubs his nose at bayonet-holed straw dummies. Not for him the tired fakery of pretend military exercises, oh no: Hogan prefers to keep it much more real and lethal.

In fact, his approach revolves around having his soldiers hunt and kill ‘runners’ – ordinary people kidnapped off the street and forced to flee for their lives in a secluded wood before they’re caught and killed.

The film opens with the latest ‘runner’ being easily chased down and murdered. Unimpressed, Hogan orders his men to head into town and bring back some fresh meat. By a huge coincidence, the elite mercenaries make the mistake of snatching Mike Danton (Ted Prior).

Unbeknown to them, Danton is highly trained ex-soldier and Vietnam veteran, who doesn’t take kindly to being used as glorified human bait. Instead of trying to scarper out the woods, Danton turns the tables on his kidnappers and starts to hunt them down, picking them off one-by-one.

So, given these kill-or-be-killed stakes, only one question remains: can Colonel Hogan and his mercenaries kill Danton, before Danton kills them?

Now, this may not sound like a plot that you’d need a PHD in astrophysics to understand, but – much like the mysteries of our solar system – Deadly Prey asks questions baffling enough to leave even Stephen Hawkins’ electronic voice box speechless.

Why, for instance, does Danton spend the entire film running around naked, except for a pair of skin tight denim shorts cut so short they verge on the pornographic?

Why, despite fighting for his life against a team of elite soldiers, does Danton decline to pick up a gun? I made it fully 49 minutes before Danton, having fought off numerous assailants, finally thinks to picks up a weapon. (Having said that, Danton had in fact killed 20 people by this point with relative ease, so maybe that’s a moot point.)

And why does Danton’s girlfriend, having seen him kidnapped and bundled into the back of a van, call – not the police or any other recognisable form of law enforcement – but her freaking dad, for heaven’s sake?

I know I ask these questions, but your time would be better spent searching for the origins of the universe than trying to find answers in the plot. With Deadly Prey it’s not so much a case of suspending your disbelief, as completely erasing it.

This is nowhere more evident than in the credulity-shattering scene where Colonel Hogan, examining the crumpled corpses of two of his men, is suddenly struck by a chilling realisation.

“I know this, I know this style… It’s my style… Danton? Mike Danton, it’s gotta be.”

“Know him?”

“Know him? I trained him.”

Really, where does one start? With the fact that Hogan and Danton just happen to be old foes from the army? That, by complete chance, they find themselves pitted against each other courtesy of a random kidnapping?

I especially enjoyed the in-no-way-unbelievable revelation that the Colonel can recognise precisely who killed the two men by the nature of their butchery. What did our hero do, carve ‘Danton wuz here’ into their abdomens? Utter piffle.

Still, for all its brain-dead tomfoolery, Deadly Prey is a thoroughly enjoyable romp, particularly when Danton tears about the woods employing the kind of advanced cub scout skills seen in First Blood or Predator.

Yes, the acting is universally horrendous but, combined with the lamentable editing which leaves everything happening a beat too slow, the film gradually begins to take on an odd, mesmeric charm.

This works best in moments of inspired gonzoid genius – such as when Danton severs an opponent’s arm during a fight, then uses the dismembered limb to beat him to a bloody pulp. It’s like the famous Monty Python and the Holy Grail black knight scene, only played straight – and all the funnier because of it.

So there’s certainly plenty to enjoy, and that’s even before we get to the exploding helicopter.

Intent on finishing off Danton, Hogan deploys a chopper to track down and kill the pesky veteran. Caught in open ground, it doesn’t look good for Danton as he desperately tries to evade machine gunfire from the aerial vehicle.

Finally, after ineffectually firing his own machine gun at the helicopter, Danton remembers his weapon is also fitted with a rocket-propelled grenade. One shot later, and Colonel Hogan has no more air support for his manhunt.
Artistic merit

One moment the chopper is there: the next it’s a dirty great fireball. It’s almost like they didn’t actually blow up a real helicopter. That’s low budget filmmaking for you.

Exploding helicopter innovation

First, and only, known destruction of a helicopter by a man wearing stone-washed, skin-tight denim shorts.

Positives

While it makes precious little sense, Danton’s refusal to pick up a gun until halfway through the film does have some benefits.

Sans gun, Danton has to improvise weapons and traps out of sticks, branches and whatever else is lying around the woods, making for some highly entertaining methods of despatching bad guys.

Negatives

The music in the film is bizarre. A keyboard heavy ballad, it sounds like the score for a daytime soap opera rather than a testosterone-fuelled, macho action movie. Again, cost considerations probably played a part in all this.

Favourite quote

Exposition is an art. When it’s done well, it can effortlessly give the viewer vital information about the story without getting in the way of scene. Conversely, when it’s done badly an actor can be left slowly chewing big chunks of indigestible dialogue.

Deadly Prey’s scriptwriters imaginatively opt for a third way and seek to short-circuit the whole process. So when Danton unexpectedly runs into yet another old army buddy, we get to hear the immortal zinger: “Mike Danton? I haven’t seen you since you took a bullet trying to save my life.”

Were there any other important details you needed about their relationship?

Interesting fact

The cult around Deadly Prey’s has steadily grown over the years. So much so, that it appears a sequel Deadliest Prey with Ted Prior himself is on the cards for next year.

Review by: Jafo

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Surrogates


Imagine a world where you can sit on your arse all day in the comfort of your own home and get someone else to do your work for you. Sounds great doesn’t it?

In fact you could argue that people living on benefits in this country currently enjoy this luxury (ooh, little bit of politics there). But wouldn’t there be a price to pay for creating a bland and safe facsimile of society? What would happen to our self-esteem and social skills? Wouldn’t we all just end up sitting around in our pants, stuffing our faces with crisps, looking like Elvis circa 1977?

This is the dystopian future envisioned by Jonathan Mostow in the surprisingly cerebral sci-fi actioner Surrogates (2009). In the future people don’t go out in the real world. Instead, they sit at home, remotely controlling idealised robotic versions of themselves, living out their lives vicariously through these “surrogates“.

Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is one such sluggard. He’s an FBI agent called in to investigate the deaths of two people who mysteriously die when their surrogates are destroyed - something that should be technically impossible.

Greer’s sleuthing leads him to the anti-surrogate movement whose leader The Prophet (a bizarre mix of Bob Marley and Martin Luther King, played by a virtually unrecognisable Ving Rhames) wants to wipe out surrogacy. He wants to get everyone back to experiencing life directly, or at least washing once a month.

Ving Rhames: With a wig dafter than Bruce Willis'
But, just in the same way you can never be sure that the 18-year old underwear model you think you’re talking to in a chat room isn’t a 44-year old truck driver from Burnley, nothing is quite what it seems. Slowly Greer realises the murder is part of a vast and terrible conspiracy.

In a genre dominated by dumbed down studio fare with no intellectual returns, I found Surrogates to be an unexpected pleasure. The film reunites the team behind Terminator 3, writers Michael Ferris and John Brancato, along with director Mostow. They create a fully realised, plausible universe with great touches such as robots “jacking” with electronic “drugs”, beauty salons that resemble garages and roadside surrogate battery chargers.

Willis is not his usual bullet proof self and shows a refreshing vulnerability when dealing with some of the movies philosophical themes. Similarly, his flawed relationship with his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike) elevates the film above the standard sci-fi action fare that normally relies on fancy effects and a blue tint for its authenticity.

Mostow keeps the action moving and at an economical 90 minutes the film doesn’t outstay its welcome either. Fortunately, amidst all the futuristic fun there’s still time for the retro thrills of a helicopter explosion.

Willis is in a police chopper tracking the murder suspect. The police on the ground move in and corner the suspect not knowing he is in possession of a developmental weapon which has the ability to kill people through their surrogates. After using it to wipe out the pursuing police the weapon is unleashed on chopper, overloading the pilot’s circuits and blowing his eyes out.

The out of control chopper spins wildly for what seems an eternity, clips the top of a building, before crashing down, flipping over like a child’s toy until it explodes.

Artistic merit

Whilst you have to appreciate the way Mostow’s prolongs the suspense, the helicopter was only ever heading one way - and that was down.

The crash itself looks surprisingly cheap and CGI’d compared to some of his previous efforts. The washed out yellows looked uncannily like the old Amiga game Persian Gulf Inferno.

Exploding helicopter innovation

None

Do passengers survive?

Survive is perhaps not the most apt verb in the scene is a robot. The chopper pilot does not surface after the fireball but Willis escapes with his arm torn off seeping some sort of green fluid which may or may not be absinthe.

Positives

The fact that in this fantasy world everyone has flawlessly beautiful surrogates to hide the fact that in the real world they are so ugly they couldn’t get a date from a calendar is a concept anyone familiar with Second Life will well appreciate.

Negatives

As with most sci-fi you can pick holes in the minutiae until the cows come home. Why, for example, have coffee shops for robots that don’t need to drink coffee? Don’t be a smart arse, its called artistic licence.

I won’t spoil it for you but the dénouement is too farfetched to be plausible for such a massive company with undoubtedly hundreds of fail safes to prevent their units from malfunctioning on a monumental scale.

Favourite quote

(Willis questioning an attractive female surrogate lawyer)

Female Lawyer: Agent Greer, we're not doctors. Tom Greer: Honey, I don't know what you are. I mean, for all I know, you could be some big, fat dude sitting in his arm chair with his dick hanging out.

Interesting fact

Oddly, Disney did not hold any press screenings for Surrogates. This is normally the sign of a studio in full damage limitation mode with an absolute turkey on their hands that they don’t want universally panned before it’s had a chance to see the light of day.

Perhaps Disney should have had more faith as subsequent reviews have been, at worst, “mixed”. Disney’s failure to back a sci-fi film with brains does the film and the movie industry in general a disservice.

The future isn’t particularly dangerous, in fact crime is virtually non-existent, but there is no underestimating mankind’s desire to do as little as possible. First came the remote control and now this.

Review by: Neon Messiah

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Day The Earth Stood Still


Keanu Reeves is an artist who divides opinion. Some say he is a rubbish actor with the emotional range of a pork pie and the personality of an Easter Island statue, whilst other more generous critics merely refer to him as “bollocks”.

Whichever side of the fence you reside, it is surely a mystery how the man has managed to cultivate such a long and illustrious career (whose zenith is still arguably Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) with a delivery as flat as Keira Knightley’s chest.

His ability to act with an almost zombie-like detachment was probably what drew casting directors to award him the part of the robotic alien Klaatu in Scott Derrickson’s remake of the B-movie classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Humans are raping the Earth so Keanu and his tree-hugging alien chums touch down intent on wiping our destructive asses off the planet in order to preserve the Earth’s unique flora and fauna for the benefit of…well, no one.

After landing in Central Park, Klaatu is met by a hostile welcoming committee of stereotypical hoo-ha-ing marines who set about interrogating him Guantanamo style. With reluctant scientist Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) in tow, Klaatu uses his extra-terrestrial powers to affect an escape and finish his mission destroy mankind.

Dr Benson attempts to change Klaatu’s mind about wiping us out by taking him deep into the forest to see Nobel prize winning Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese). He persuades Klaatu that we aren’t all bad eggs and that mankind has the capacity to change. Just as he is about to buy that baloney Dr Benson’s brat-ish stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith) ruins the argument by grassing up Klaatu to the cops and leading them to his hideout.

As the law move in, a pair of police choppers loom over the tree line and home in on Klaatu. Before they can mow him down, he uses his powers of telekinesis (or bad acting) to fry the helicopters circuitry causing the pilots to clutch their heads as their telecoms unit malfunctions in a cacophony of high pitched interference.

With the pilots disabled their helicopters go into a traditional tailspin before smashing into each other and breaking apart. The debris plummets to the ground and goes up in a delicious ball of flame.

Artistic merit

The film is chock full of choppers so it was only a matter of time before one went to helicopter heaven. The explosion here is nicely realised with some rich and satisfying oranges and is all the more impressive for silhouetting Reeves in much the same style as Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It would have been nice to see the wreckage hit the floor but there is no doubt about the chopper’s demise.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Helicopters destroyed by alien mind control - this is quite an unconventional take-down.

Do passengers survive?

We don’t know for sure as Derrickson refrains from showing us the impact of the stricken choppers on the ground but chances are the pilots are barbecued to a crisp in the chunky fireball.

Positives

For a film that relies so heavily on special effects it is just as well Weta Digital made the visuals plausible. I particularly liked the swarms of tiny nano-machines programmed to wipe out every man made device and bring the earth back to its natural state.

Oh, and James Hong (Big Trouble In Little China) turns up for a cameo in a bizarre scene which only really succeeds in reminding you that this film isn’t as good as any of the other films you’ve seen him in.

Negatives

The film has very few interesting elements to distract you from a pedestrian plot chock full of genre clichés, product placement and forgettable performances. It is a by-the-numbers blockbuster lacking wit or imagination and unforgivably ends up being a bit preachy and up its own arse.

Substituting the original film’s anti-war message for the remake’s environmentalist guff really doesn’t wash within the parameters of the original story, and by the end you couldn’t care less if the world’s population lives or dies.

I was forced to watch it due to contractual obligations imposed by the litigious hierarchy at Exploding Helicopter H.Q. It was either watch this and write a half-arsed review or engage in sexual activity (not the good kind) with a senior member of staff. If anyone knows any good employment lawyers please email me their details.

Favourite quote

Helen Benson: "Have you done your homework?"
Jacob Benson: "School's cancelled on account of the aliens."

Interesting fact 

A photo of GORT the humanoid robot and purveyor of destruction alongside Ringo Starr dressed as Klaatu graces the cover of Ringo’s 1974 Goodnight Vienna album. Rumour that purchasers of said album wanted the world to end after hearing it could not be verified at the time of going to press.

Review by: Neon Messiah

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Morlocks


“Let me see if I’ve got this straight: you want me to travel through a rift in time, find and repair a device you lost and broke, while all the trying to avoid rampaging creatures from the future – that about sum it up?”

It most assuredly does. And even I, in my lofty position as the editor of a micro-niche film blog about exploding helicopters, couldn’t have put it better.

Credit for the above succinct summary of Morlocks’ plot goes to its hero, a certain Dr Radnor (David Hewlett). He’s a top boffin scientist who, much like this viewer, seems to be struggling to make sense of things in this turgid time-travelling saga.

With America’s economy on its knees, a top secret military unit – led by the shady Robert Picardo – has developed a time-travelling device called ‘the latch’. They plan to preserve Uncle Sam’s industrial might by bringing technology back from the future, thus preventing the US from becoming an insignificant and irrelevant bit player in global politics, an impotent shadow of its former glorious self. In other words: Britain.

Unfortunately, the grand plan runs into a hitch when the future turns out not to be the giant Apple Store they’d hoped for, but an apocalyptic wasteland inhabited only by murderous creatures (Morlocks).

Things go from bad to worse when the latch – now missing somewhere in the future – begins to malfunction, threatening the present-day world with obliteration courtesy of a massive time rift that no-one can be bothered to explain. That’s presumably because, by this point, even the writers were exhausted by garbling up so much nonsensical pseudo-science.

David Hewlett, looking as happy
as I did after watching Morlocks
As the one scientist with the cranial capacity to save the day, Radnor is sent into the future with a team of soldiers to fix and retrieve the device. Will he succeed? Or will the world end in…in…an undefined, non-specific way. Oh, the drama!

Sadly, given this is a film about travelling to the future, I was left wishing I could travel back in time: ideally to a point 90 minutes earlier, when I first decided to watch this torpor-inducing piece of tomfoolery.

One never likes to be unkind to made-for-cable fare – with all the limitations on time, budget and talent that the genre inevitably involves – but this was just toss. It was so bad, that even those familiar genre clichés, normally guaranteed to raise a smile, failed to entertain.

Normally, there’s nothing I love more than watching a film’s dead meat, sorry, unfortunate extras (here fatally cast as soldiers sent to the Earth’s apocalyptic future) meet predictable and pointless deaths. Note: Star Trek raised this phenomenon to the level of high-art, with ‘landing parties’ proving deadly for anyone who wasn’t a regular character.

However, in Morlocks the senseless extras carnage all has a routine, by the numbers feel. If you’re going to serve up a cliché then it should be delivered with gusto and brio, not sloppily ladled out with the bored disinterest of a school dinner lady.

Denied such pleasures, my only interest comes from trying to work out whether certain characters have crossed the ‘immunity threshold’ – namely, have they established themselves sufficiently to indicate they’ll make it to the end of the film unscathed. Such pursuits provide about the only glimmers of entertainment amidst the dross. Still at least there is an exploding helicopter to talk about.

Yes, the special effects are this good
At the end of the film, the surviving characters have returned from the future. Unfortunately, a bunch of Morlocks have tagged along and are with causing havoc at the military base.

Two of our remaining heroes jump aboard a helicopter to attempt an escape. Hovering just off the ground, a couple of Morlocks jump onto the tail of the chopper, causing the pilot to lose control.

The helicopter crashes into ground and partially explodes, but fortuitously the cockpit remains intact allowing the two occupants to flee the wreckage and dive inside a nearby tank. With the Morlocks occupied on the wreckage of the chopper, our heroes fire the tank’s cannon destroying the Morlocks and what’s left of the chopper.

Artistic merit

This was an every-expense-spared helicopter explosion rendered in grade Z CGI. Much like the rest of the film, it is distinctly underwhelming.

Exploding helicopter innovation

This helicopter explosion is directly caused by Morlocks (who it turns out are actually genetically mutated humans). That’s definitely a first.

Do passengers survive?

Yes, the two occupants of the helicopter who scramble to safety had long since passed the immunity threshold by this point in the film.

Positives

Sorry, I just can’t think of one.

Negatives

As films about time travel are written by Hollywood hacks and not quantum physicists, there’s usually an irresolvable paradox lurking somewhere in the plot: Morlocks is no exception.

Here the insoluble question is: why bother to save the present, when the future’s totally buggered? Inevitably, no-one stops to consider this.

Interesting fact

Morlocks is a very loose adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, which begs an interesting question: if Wells had possessed the power of time-travel and seen what a mangled dog’s breakfast someone would make of his novel, would he still have written it?

Review by: Jafo

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Dark Knight Rises


If it were a comic book villain, Hollywood would be a snide little shite whose superpower was sucking the creativity out of innovative film-makers.

And so it is that, with The Dark Knight Rises (2012), bright spark wunderkind Christopher Nolan finally succumbs to the lowest common denominator demands of a Hollywood franchise. More characters! More explosions! More stuff! Less interest.

This bloated conclusion to his gritty Batman reboot is a misfiring attempt to tie up the trilogy’s loose ends by burying them in a morass of a plot, and hoping the audience will be too distracted by Christian Bale’s grating Barry White impersonation to notice.

Batman (Bale) is now a Howard Hughes-esque recluse, having retired from the crime-fighting game following the death of Harvey Dent and the misguided backlash from Gotham’s citizens. He cuts a pitiful figure as he mopes about Wayne Mansions eating Coco Pops in his pyjamas.

He’s awakened from his reverie by muscle-bound psychopath Bane (Tom Hardy) who, in traditional comic book fashion, has an inexplicable urge to blow up Gotham City – perhaps to compensate for his steroidally shrunken genitalia.

The pontificating beefcake steals one of Wayne Enterprises very own fusion reactors and holds the city to ransom. Of course, only one man can save them. Cue much chop-socky action, car chases and close ups of Anne Hathaway’s PVC-covered derriere.

This is a very long film – into which much plot, action, location-hopping and plot-twistery is squeezed – but precious little of it engages the audience, and there’s a rudimentary, by-the-numbers feel to much of it.

Similarly, the attempts to inject a meaningful credit-crunch zeitgeist into the carnage-strewn plot – with Bane’s socialist masses rising up to crush their bourgeois oppressors in a sub Occupy Gotham angle – feels largely like an clumsy attempt give the numerous fight scenes a worthy edge.

Finally, just as Gotham is about to be reduced to rubble, Batman hooks the nuclear bomb by cable to the underside of his one-of-a-kind Batcopter (a design inspired by crossing a V-22 Osprey and an AH 64 Apache) and rushes away from Gotham out to sea. As the timer ticks down, Batman gets further away until he is a mere speck on the horizon. Just then, the foreground is filled with a familiar mushroom cloud and it’s goodnight Vienna.

Artistic merit

There is no massive explosion, no aftershock, no carnage – just a puff of white smoke in the distance. The destruction of this helicopter and the hero within could have been the mother of all fireballs yet we are left with an almost zen-like explosion. The scene is completely at odds with the general ethos at Exploding Helicopter HQ, but in a perverse way you have to admire Nolan’s restraint and avoidance of cliché.

Exploding helicopter innovation

A helicopter killed by nuclear explosion. Seen it before, but perhaps not like this.

Do passengers survive?

That would be telling, wouldn’t it? But there are some clues towards the end that indicate there’s more cash left in the cow yet.

Positives

As you would expect from a mega-normous action blockbuster there are some adrenalin-pumping set pieces – such as the opening mid-air hijacking – which are delivered with Nolan’s customary directorial panache. The last five minutes of the film almost redeem Nolan’s reputation with the plotline twister par-excellence, but by this point you may have already slipped into a deep sleep.

Negatives

Despite a $300 million budget and a raft of top-notch actors, it renmains a severely underwhelming film. It’s way too long, pretty po-faced and contains some of the least plausible behaviour since Bean: The Movie.

For instance Bane, instead of stealing the bomb and detonating it immediately, decides it’d be more practical to just meaninglessly drive it round the city in the back of a transit van until the good guys have time to track it down before detonation. To further assist the good guys, there is a handy red LED countdown timer on the bomb conveniently informing the world how long it has until its impending combustion. Do they make these things at Argos?

Anne Hathaway is no Michelle Pfeiffer and really should stick to The Devil Wears Prada fluff leaving challenging roles to real actresses who are able to do more than just look good in a catsuit. Why Batman trusts her, despite being repeatedly double-crossed, can only be attributed to either deep-seated mental illness or an overwhelming urge to get into her pants.

Tom Hardy is a great actor but tragically wasted playing the one-dimensional Bane in a face-covering mask that forces him to act only with his eyes (I acknowledge Roger Moore did make a career out of similar restrictions). His voice is also overdubbed in post-production so really they could have just hired Ross Kemp and saved a few quid.

Favourite quote

Lucius Fox (on Batman’s one-of-a-kind helicopter): “Nothing like a little air superiority.”

Interesting fact

Nolan said that each of the Batman films have a central theme underpinning the story. For Batman Begins it was ‘Fear’, The Dark Knight deals with ’Chaos’ and this film's overarching emotion is ‘Pain’. After three hours trying to make sense of this mush with a surly 11-year- old absent-mindedly kicking the back of my chair, I couldn't fault the director for not delivering his promise.

Review by: Neon Messiah

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

True Lies

Looking back, we can see True Lies (1994) as the zenith of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 30-year career.

A deft blend of entertainment and action, the film was a critical and commercial success. Moreover, it was the culmination of Arnie’s efforts to become a genuine box-office star rather than a simple purveyor of violent action thrillers.

Here, Schwarzenegger plays Harry Tasker, seemingly a dull office equipment salesman living out a bland suburban life with his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter. In reality though, he’s a top secret agent out to stop Art Malik’s terrorist group setting off a couple of stolen nuclear bombs.

Unfortunately, Arnie’s personal and professional lives become messily entangled after he is forced to reveal his double life to Curtis. It’s then up to Arnie to save the world and his marriage – a feat the maid-bothering philanderer was sadly unable to repeat in real life.

True Lies was the Governator’s third film with James Cameron. Unable on this occasion to cast him as a monosyllabic robot – and no doubt aware of the potential embarrassment that might ensue when Arnie attempted to ‘act’ like a human being – Cameron was confronted with a problem: what to do with the lumpen one’s ungainly presence?

His solution was both genius and admirably simple: stuff the film with cartoon-ish supporting turns and hope to God no-one notices him.

And so we have Bill Paxton’s loony sleazeball, Jamie Lee Curtis’ awkward housefrau persona and Tom Arnold’s motor-mouthed sidekick – all of them smokescreens to distract you from the Austrian word-mangler’s presence at the centre of the film.

Top that off with a surprisingly foul-mouthed Charlton Heston, a vampish Tia Carrare, and Art Malik’s pantomime terrorist and the overall assault on the senses is almost enough to distract you from the lumbering beefcake’ performance. Almost, but not quite.

Arnie is so wooden, watching him leaves you tugging splinters from your eyeballs. It’s lucky that his role requires so much running and jumping around since, if he stood still too long, someone might be tempted to sand and varnish him.

That said, I don’t imagine anyone in this film ever imagined they were going to be troubling the acting nominations at the Academy Awards. True Lies aims to be nothing more than an unashamed piece of entertainment and in that regard it‘s a rip-roaring success.

The film’s two major action set pieces are superbly handled. The extended opening is a thoroughly enjoyable Bond pastiche, as a tuxedo-wearing Arnie infiltrates an embassy soiree and steals some computer files before escaping with a small army on snowmobiles in hot pursuit.

However, Cameron saves his best work for the film’s final act – an almost continual action sequence, complete with shoot outs, car chase, and crucially an exploding helicopter.

With his scheme unravelling fast, Art Malik absconds to the top floor of an under-construction skyscraper with some stolen nukes and Arnie’s daughter, who he’s kidnapped as a little extra insurance. With the deadline for detonation fast approaching, Arnie borrows a fighter plane and jets off to halt Armageddon and rescue his daughter.

While the terrorists are temporarily distracted, Arnie’s plucky progeny steals the trigger for the nuclear bomb. With nowhere to flee, she clambers onto the girders of one of the cranes constructing the skyscraper. Pursued by Malik, it looks like she’s about to meet a sticky fate, either at the end of Malik’s machinegun or courtesy of a hundred storey fall to the street below.

From here, the precise sequence of events would be fiendishly difficult to explain so I’m going to hit the fast-forward button. Suffice to say, Arnie arrives in time-honoured nick of time style and, before you can say ‘Aaaah’ll be beckkkkk’, his daughter is clinging to the jet’s cockpit and Art Malik is left dangling from one of the fighter jet’s missiles.

If this wasn’t enough jeopardy for the former Mr Universe to contend with, Malik’s henchmen turn up in a helicopter and fire at him before darting round the back of the partially built skyscraper. Spying the chopper through a gap in the building, Arnie hatches an ingenious terrorist two-for-one deal to extricate himself from the situation.

With Malik still hanging from the jet’s missiles, Arnie fires the rocket – complete with the sometime Casualty doctor – at the enemy chopper. Stuck to the missile, Malik is sent whizzing through the under-construction building towards his cohorts, who are only briefly able to register their surprise at the sudden and unexpected reunion with their leader before the helicopter explodes.

Artistic merit

A bravura helicopter explosion. Elaborate, inventive, and executed with verve and panache. Truly superb.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Helicopter destroyed by rocket-propelled terrorist: if you weren’t already sure, I can confirm this is unique in the annals of helicopter explosion.

Negatives

True Lies is as much a comedy as an action film. While most of the jokes still tickle the funny bone, the passage of history has rendered the gags at the expense of Art Malik’s Islamic terrorist group the equivalent of comedic tumbleweed.

Clearly, the mid-Nineties were a simpler political age for America and the idea that a bunch of religious fundamentalists could hurt Uncle Sam in his own backyard was, well, laughable. Unfortunately, the events of 9/11 and the consequences of two subsequent wars have dispelled that notion. Were it proposed today, it’s hard to imagine True Lies getting made.

Favourite quote

“Have you ever killed anyone?”
“Yes, but they were all bad.”

Interesting fact

There’s a few. True Lies is actually a remake of French film La Totale! (1991).

To many admirers of the female form, the highlight of True Lies will no doubt be Jamie Lee Curtis’ sexy dance scene. Supposedly a demure housewife, Curtis is initially slow to get into full pole-dancing diva mode. But just as she seems to be getting into the swing of it she makes a misjudgement and falls over, much to the viewer’s amusement. Possibly the funniest moment in the film, this was actually a genuine goof which James Cameroon decided to leave in because it worked so well.

I also had a moment of déjà vu while watching the helicopter explosion in True Lies. It was done so well that the makers of straight to video actioner Executive Target re-used a brief shot from it, of the helicopter wreckage crashing to the ground onto a police car.

Review by: Jafo

Listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast on True Lies. Find the show on iTunes, Stitcher, Podomatic or YourListen


Friday, 31 August 2012

The Expendables 2


If The Dirty Dozen and Cocoon had ever had a drunken one-night stand, this is what the baby would have looked like.

The Expendables 2 (2012) is such a bizarre mash-up of styles and demographics – oh-my-aching-sides oldie gags and uber-violence – that it frequently leaves the viewer perplexed: “Aw, look at all the old people, still so sprightly and full of zest. Wait no, what’s he doing? Oh god no, he just shot somebody in the face!”

Following the respectable box office of The Expendables (which proved the adage: it’s never too late to put old dogs through exactly the same tricks), old stroke-features Stallone here rounds up the boys again.

Eschewing a state pension, the 66-year-old has gathered Schwarzeneger (65), Willis (57), Lundgren (55), Van Damme (52) and junior partner the Stath for another medley of tongue-in-cheek heroics and stomach-churning blood spillage.

(To fully appreciate just how downright weird all this is, just consider that cameo assassin Chuck Norris, at a coffin-brushing 72-years-old, is a full 20 years older than Cocoon actor Wilford Brimley was when he starred as a pensioner in that film.)

The ‘plot’, in which the team rescues some plutonium, blasts the baddies and saves the obligatory village, is so by-the-numbers we need not go into detail here. What really impresses is the gusto with which the screenplay (co-written by Sly) embraces every possible action movie cliché.

What, the team has to do an impossible mission or GO TO JAIL? You mean, the young buck who’s doing ‘one last job’ to raise enough money to marry his sweetheart ACTUALLY DIES? You’re kidding me: the glamorous female who’s foisted on the reluctant team turns out to be so kick ass and gutsy she eventually WINS THEIR RESPECT?

It sounds awful, but it actually works. The whole movie is essentially one gigantic wink to the audience, a cinematic karaoke of old action movie favourites. This can become wearing when the action pensioners repeatedly blurt out self-reverential soundbites (‘I’m back’, ‘Yippee-ki-yay’ etc) but it’s mostly cartoonish good fun.

In fact, the film only really falters when it tries to up the drama and get serious. Chief villain Jean Claude Van Damme’s opening soliloquy – a rambling, four-minute homily to ‘respect’ – is literally incomprehensible, and there’s a palpable sense of relief when he finally shuts up and kung-fu kicks a dagger into someone’s chest. (Yes, he really does.)

Despite all the guns, bombs and crashing planes, the most fascinating view on display – especially on the big screen – is the cast themselves. Stallone, arrested several years ago for smuggling his personal supply of human growth hormone into Australia, scarcely even looks human anymore.

He alternately wears a thick, black woollen beret and his own hair, but you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. The bulging veins on his forearms are just terrifying, and those HGH injections haven’t quite reached down to his legs, which are now comically old man skinny. It’s like there’s two different bodies waddling across the screen – Tom Hardy on top and Steptoe at the bottom.

Arnie, meanwhile, looks like a semi-melted waxwork of his younger self, his face tight and surgical-shiny in places, but hanging off his jowls at the sides. Van Damme wears sunglasses for 95 per cent of the time – even while underground – presumably because there are bags under his eyes you could carry your shopping in.

Of the others, Bruce Willis merely looks even more like a smug testicle, while septuagenarian Chuck Norris – with his magnificently white teeth and lustrous brown beard/hairdo combo looks like a human beaver. It’s like he’s accidentally strayed into the action from an Island of Dr Moreau set next door.

At a sprightly 45-years-old, it’s left exclusively to the Stath to provide all the actual action in this action movie. Director Simon West shows a good sense of the ridiculous for the most part with this movie (he made Con Air, after all), but his choreography of the fight scenes is lamentable. The clunky edits make abundantly clear that the baddies are obediently queuing to get biffed one at a time; I’ve seen queues in Lidl’s with more sense of danger.

Still, that’s a minor gripe about a largely entertaining yarn which, in its eagerness to please, throws us an exploding helicopter in the very first scene. Our crew, armed with all kinds of armoured vehicles, bust into a walled compound to rescue Arnie.

Before you can say human growth hormone injections, Sly’s somehow on a low rooftop with his tanky vehicle, which has a motorbike strapped to the back. A chopper swings low, ready to fire, so Sly revs up the bike and sends it blasting into the helicopter cockpit, causing an inevitable crash and, yes, explosion.

Exploding helicopter innovation

The driving-a-moving-automobile-into-a-chopper gambit has been used before (Willis in Die Hard 4 provides a worthy demonstration of the form) but the good thing about this example is that it doesn’t make a meal out of things. There’s no Michael Bay multiple-cut, slo-mo, shite CGI business going on: it just happens. One minute Sly’s shooting someone repeatedly in the chest, then he throws a motorbike at a helicopter, then he punches someone else to death. Simple.

Positives

I love how, with each movie, less and less of what Sly says is comprehensible, especially when he’s angry. There’s a whole scene where he castigates Bruce Willis down a walkie talkie that I didn’t catch a word of.

You can picture the director asking him to go through it seven times before just throwing his hands into the air. In the latest Batman film, Tom Hardy often can’t be understood because he’s wearing a big mask: Sly now achieves much the same effect with just the burden of his own slopey mouth.

Negatives

The gutsy woman character is – probably deliberately – neither that young nor that glamorous, presumably to avoid providing too sharp a contrast with her doddering co-stars. However, she is one cack actress. When you’re in a scene with Sly where he’s stutteringly growling out some half-baked ‘backstory’ and YOU’RE the one whose acting is noticeably bad, it’s time to start worrying.

Favourite quote

Van Damme’s colossally nonsensical: “Without respect, we are just people.” What?

Interesting fact

The collective age of the main cast a very high figure indeed that would have impressed you if I could have been bothered to work it out.

Review by: Chopper

Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on The Expendables 2. Listen via iTunes, Stitcher, Acast, Spotify or right here.