Friday, 18 May 2012

CIA II: Target Alexa

“This is the kind of film that separates the occasional bad movie people from the hardcore sadists,” concludes Matt at DTV Connoisseur in his review of this film.

So, when I sat down to watch CIA II: Target Alexa (1993) I knew I was embarking on a journey of personal discovery. An inner truth was about to be revealed to me. Was I ready? Could I deal with the consequences? There was only one way to find out.

I hit play.

Our hero for this film is Lorenzo Lamas. He has to retrieve the film‘s McGuffin – inevitably some new-fangled weapons technology – that’s been stolen by terrorists.
Confusingly, another group of terrorists then pinch the weapon thingy off the first lot. Seems there’s no honour amongst thieves – nor international terrorists for that matter.

To get the McGuffin back, Lamas courageously sends his old girlfriend (and former terrorist) Alexa to infiltrate the criminal gang, which works a treat until she’s rumbled.

Now Lamas is in double trouble, having to both recover the weapons-tech and rescue his former squeeze. Supposedly a top CIA operative, at this stage everything Lamas touches immediately goes tits up. He’s a like an action version of Frank Spencer. Some Terrorists Do Ave ‘Em.
Now, I’ve taken a few liberties with my summary of the action. That’s because further detail wouldn’t make any kind of sense outside the hermetically sealed bubble of logic in which the plot exists. Let’s just say this movie takes a running jump off the high board of ridiculous, bangs its head on the incredulous board on the way down then swan dives into a deep pool of dumbly enjoyable fun.

There are vintage moments aplenty, not least the cat-fight between Kathleen Kinmont and the imposing Lori Fetrick, who sees herself as the terrorist gang’s number one pin-up. The camp karate of their inevitable showdown – all breathy panting and more swinging nellies than a Dolly Parton convention – is worthy of any Russ Meyer film.
Alongside the delightful hand-to-hand combat, there’s more automatic gunfire than the National Rifle Association could shake a M16 at. If he was still alive, Charlton Heston would probably write in to complain.

With a body count approaching WW2 levels, the extras are entertainingly given free rein to die in the most artistic ways they can imagine – comically jerking around as bullets riddle their body, or needlessly throwing themselves over tables and through windows. Of course, the budget only ran to so many extras so, with such a huge body count, it’s very likely the viewer sees each individual extra pop their clogs about six or seven times throughout a variety of scenes.

Of course, this review wouldn’t exist if there weren’t some explosive rotary action to enjoy as well. The sequence is actually quite tasty, occurring when the second group of terrorists – led by John Ryan – initially seize the McGuffin.

Ryan leads the raid on his rivals’ camp in a couple of choppers, blowing up huts and vehicles with the destructive abandon of a small, delinquent child (or peacetime American general). Finally, the meatheads in the camp get themselves sufficiently organised to return fire. A quick burst of machine gunfire and KABOOM! Strike one helicopter.



Artistic merit

One moment the helicopter’s there, the next it’s vaporised – going up quicker than a bride‘s nightie.
While there might not be much preamble, the fireball is mightily impressive, filling the screen with lovely, auburn orange hues.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Helicopter is shot, helicopter explodes. Industry standard. Like Ronseal, it does exactly what it says on the tin.

Positives

There’s a fantastic moment during the helicopter assault when John Ryan fist-pumps the air and goes: “Yeaaah!” after blowing up a tent.

In this moment he captures the very essence of the joy implicit in firing guns and blowing up stuff. Or at least, the simple joy of watching people in films do it.
Negatives

The opening scene is face-in-palm daft. Lorenzo Lamas arrives at the CIA’s weapons facility to test security, attempting to gain entry by telling the guard he wants to nip in and drop off his brother-in-law’s lunch.

If the idea of Lorenzo Lamas as some kind of sandwich chauffeur isn’t hard enough to credit, the scene also takes place in the middle of the night. I’ve heard of late lunches but this is ridiculous. Hey, Lorenzo: Worst. Excuse. Ever.

Compounding the idiocy, the guard shows not a flicker of suspicion until Lamas produces his genuine CIA identity card. Then the guard does get suspicious… You could spend a lunar month fruitlessly trying to find sense in this scene. Bonkers.

Favourite quote

“You can fall, but you can’t fly.”

Review by: Jafo

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Avengers Assemble

The geek shall inherit the earth – or so it seems these days, with every other cinematic release being a comic book adaptation.

So I'm sure you can imagine the drooling fan-boy anticipation that preceded Avengers Assemble, a nerd-nirvana featuring not one, but six superheroes, each fighting to claim the Oscar for ‘Best Use of Tights in a Movie’.

The Avengers assemble from around the world when the Earth is threatened by Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the Norse god of campness. Intent on world domination, he steals an energy cube of unlimited power – the Tesseract – which he plans to give to a hostile alien race in exchange for a subservient army he can use to subjugate the citizens of the earth. MWA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAA!!! All complete cobblers, of course, but what were you expecting – Schindler’s List?

At the start of the film, Loki steals the Tesseract from a remote research facility. Making his escape in the back of a jeep, he triggers a huge implosion that opens up the ground, swallowing up an entire army base. Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) escapes the devastation in time honoured nick-of-time fashion, and chases down the power-crazed Loki and his brainwashed team in a military chopper.

But when he catches up with Loki, the cheeky god sends up a plasma ray from his sceptre that whacks into the helicopter’s tail, causing it to lose altitude and spin wildly. The copter crashes hard, with rotors whipping into the mud as it skids to a halt.

Despite plenty of flames and loose shrapnel, the helicopter’s chassis stays in one piece, allowing Fury to scramble out looking a bit dustier then before. They obviously make helicopters a bit tougher these days.

Artistic merit

This is a terrible case of director Joss Whedon fluffing his lines. Goddamnit man, give the public what they want – a decent helicopter explosion. Worryingly, this seems to be becoming a trend, with far too many helicopters withstanding huge impacts and failing to go up in flames. If this genuinely reflects increased safety features on choppers, then it's clear evidence that not every advance in technology is beneficial.

Exploding helicopter innovation

None, really. If I had a pound for every helicopter downed by alien hordes with plasma weapons, I’d have six pounds.

Do passengers survive?

Yes, Nick Fury emerges dazed but resolutely alive. Rule three of exploding helicopter etiquette: if a major 'good guy' character goes down in a chopper – particularly in the first ten minutes – he will always live to tell the tale.

Positives

I didn’t enjoy this as much as Iron Man (which stands alone as a cohesive and entertaining film, irrespective of superhero fairy dust), but The Avengers is a fun movie.  With its smart dialogue and galaxy of A-listers, it comes across as a comic book Oceans’ Eleven.

Robert Downey Jnr is his usual charismatic self and steals most of the scenes he's in. Mark Ruffalo makes for a likeable and plausible Hulk, bringing back the vulnerability and nuances that Ed Norton fought for in the superior sequel to The Hulk.

The action sequences are, as you would expect, retina-searingly superb and the climactic mega battle over the NYC skyline does feel like a high octane rollercoaster ride. Although converted in post-production the film, it is well worth forking out the extra £2 to watch in 3D.

Negatives

While a solid movie, I felt Avengers Assemble – as is typical with much Hollywood fare these days – was overlong and flabby in places. The story is the standard convoluted fantasy nonsense that you would expect when shoe-horning all these great superhero characters into one story for teenage loners to jizz over. But it has got universally good reviews, so what the f*ck do I know?

Chris Hemsworth’s acting is as wooden as the handle on Thor’s hammer and the only special power Scarlett Johansen (playing Agent Natasha Romanov/Black Widow) has, as far as I can tell, is the ability to look foxy in a cat suit. She doesn’t even bother with a Russian accent.

Speaking of accents, the licence fee is being pretty well spent if Asgardians are able to receive BBC World Service – which is surely the only explanation for the perfect diction and received pronunciation that the alien hordes speak with.

Favourite quote

(Tony Stark to Bruce Banner on his ability to keep the Hulk under control):
“You really have got a lid on it, haven't you? What's your secret? Mellow jazz? Bongo drums? Huge bag of weed?”

Interesting fact

Ed Norton is known to be a ‘challenging’ actor, and it's common knowledge that he made director Louis Leterrier rewrite the script to The Incredible Hulk in order to reduce the action and focus on the emotional elements of the film. He was all set to reprise his role in The Avengers until Marvel got cold feet. Studio head Kevin Feige released this statement.

"We have made the decision to not bring Ed Norton back to portray the title role of Bruce Banner in The Avengers. Our decision is definitely not one based on monetary factors, but instead rooted in the need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members.”

Ouch. In effect, he was saying Norton is a prima donna and they wanted to work with someone who was cheaper and less hassle.  Norton, being a class act, resisted the temptation to be dragged into a war of words but his agent came back saying Marvel’s statement was “unprofessional, disingenuous and clearly defamatory”.

The lesson here? Don’t p*ss off Ed Norton’s agent. You won’t like him when he’s angry.

Review by: Neon Messiah

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Matrix

As Churchill almost said: never in the field of contemporary cinema has so much [money] been given for so few [facial expressions].

Ah, Keanu. It’s easy now to forget just how big a deal The Matrix was when it came out: the sharp outfits, the blistering special effects, the quasi-mystical plot, the enigmatic director brothers.

The movie was a phenomenon so huge even Keanu’s balsa-wood presence couldn’t sink it. And when it emerged the boy’s profit-share deal meant he’d made £56 million for sleep-walking his way through a few dozen scenes of wonky dialogue and indifferent kung fu, that – if anything – only seemed even more impressive.

The plot, while bonkers, certainly has ambition. It suggests the real world is a ravaged post-apocalyptic wasteland, where dastardly machines live off the electrochemical energy of cocooned and comatose humans. The world we think we live in is actually just an artificial reality – a jumped up computer game – known as the Matrix.

Keanu plays a computer hacker (Neo Anderson) recruited by a tiny band of rebels who know the truth and are fighting to overthrow the evil robots. They are led by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who thinks Neo may be the mystical ‘one’ prophesised to save them all. Like, woah dude.

The rebels ‘wake’ Keanu from his gloopy cocoon and reveal to him the real future world, a desolate rockscape with no signs of human life. Except presumably a branch of All Saints, going by the trendily distressed clothes they all seem to wear.

Morpheus puts Neo through a vigorous training regime, involving lots of gun-play, leaping tall buildings and implausibly-fast kung fu. These all occur within a virtual computer programme where participants appear as idealised versions of themselves. (Keanu’s ‘real’ shaved head, for example, is replaced by his lustrous bouffant). All of which begs the question: why has Laurence still got a big gut sticking out his karate pyjamas?

It’s fascinating to trace the Fishburne weight trajectory throughout his cinematic career. The ripped, powerful father figure of Boyz in the Hood has started to swell out impressively by this movie, giving Big Lol’s participation in action scenes a slightly strained effect.

Inevitably, as the Matrix franchise took off and the bucks flew in, he just got bigger. By Matrix: Revolutions, only Steven Seagal could hold a candle to him in the comedy-fat-man-doing-kung-fu stakes, and edits of the fight ‘action’ became so rapid epileptics were reputedly scared to step into the auditorium.

Incidentally, Big Laurence has a priceless cameo in the recent Predators revamp, playing a veteran who’s been hiding from the monsters for months in a disused spaceship. When asked how he’s survived Big Lol, chins swinging and belly straining at a tent-like hessian smock, stirs a watery-looking soup and replies: ‘On whatever scraps I can find.’ (Deliciously, the Schwarznegger hero figure in this scene is Adrien Brody, an actor who presumably had to ‘bulk up’ for his turn as a WW2 ghetto inmate in The Pianist.)

Still, there’s much to love in this film. The baddies are great – all cynicism, shades and sharp suits – and chief villain Agent Smith’s refrain (‘Miss-ter Ain-der-sunn...’) is still good fun. There’s loads of inventive visual trickery and the trademark Matrix special effect (someone jumps in the air, then the camera travels round them in slo-mo) was a real game-changer.

Despite – possibly because of – its earnest ridiculousness, The Matrix is stomping good fun. And the fact that the two sequels were, and let’s not mince words here, arse-clenchingly bad doesn’t detract from the genuine inventiveness on display in this first outing.



Artistic merit

Not bad. Three agents have Morpheus chained to a chair in a skyscraper, when Keanu pops up in an open-sided helicopter and empties a howitzer into the room. Big Lol jumps from the building and the chopper swings away, Keanu dangling from a rope with one hand and holding onto his mentor with the other.

The chopper is piloted by Trinity (poor Carrie Ann Moss who was shortly to find that, like the matrix itself, her acting career didn’t really exist). As she veers off, Agent Smith holes the fuel tank and helicopter mayhem looks inevitable.

But wait! Keanu lands himself and Morpheus safely onto a skyscraper roof then, holding the rope, actually slows the descent of the chopper. Meanwhile, Trinity detaches the other end of the rope and, as the the faltering machine finally hits a building, swings away from the explosion. Huzzah!

Does the passenger survive?

Trinity does indeed climb to safety and into Keanu’s waiting ‘guns’. It’s a fine example of the infrequently seen helicopter-explosion-survival-scenario.

Positives

It’s all done rather well. When the chopper first hits the skyscraper, the building itself morphs and semi-envelops it – as a reminder we’re in the matrix – which is a nice touch. There’s also a neat overhead shot of the rotor blade actually buckling against the building in slo-mo and a great image of Trinity swinging towards the camera as the chopper explodes behind her.

Negatives

The one obvious letdown is asking us to believe that Neo, for all his power, would be able to hold on to Laurence Fishburne with one hand. Or two, for that matter.

Favourite quote

‘Woah.’ You’ll never guess who said that.

Interesting fact

Famously, Keanu made even more squazillions for the lamentable Reload and Revolutions – reputedly over £200 million – despite looking barely conscious for much of them. In terms of actual work input, he’s perhaps the only professional in recent memory to make Fred Goodwin look good value for money.

Review by: Chopper

Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast review of The Matrix on PodomaticiTunes, YourListen or Stitcher.


Thursday, 3 May 2012

The Peacemaker

I like George Clooney. I also quite like Nicole Kidman. Both are generally likable on screen and have made some excellent films. Unfortunately, The Peacemaker is not one of them.

In fact, this beige little film is a triumph of blandness. I suspect it’s one that Clooney and Kidman, in their dotage, will suddenly remember as a fleeting fancy that seems barely believable and best forgotten, like Tab Clear or when Gordon Brown was prime minister.

Opening in a war-torn nation (insert name of Eastern European country, in this case Bosnia but it could have been anywhere), there is a mysterious assassination in a church. (It's odd how Hollywood scriptwriters seem to think Europeans spend an all their time lighting candles in vast medieval churches).

Next we see a rogue Russian general stealing a train loaded with nuclear warheads, and using one to wipe out a section of rural Russia in order to hide the theft. No potatoes in Volgograd for 300 years or so, methinks. Which might have made for a more interesting premise.

Instead, what follows is a global hunt for the missing warheads before they can be used to obliterate the UN building in Manhattan.

The plot is ultimately thwarted by the unlikely pairing of a White House nuclear scientist (Kidman as a bookish desk jockey, although pre-Botox so at least she can smile properly) and Clooney’s hardened, unruly military man.

All of which sounds like familiar thriller territory, but there are some plot constructs for which you simply can’t suspend belief. For instance, it’s never made entirely clear why an office-bound nuclear expert suddenly finds herself the commanding officer of a global military operation, accompanied only by lantern-jaw Clooney and a few token soldiers.

The opening scenes and grim politics of the former Yugoslavia serve only as a convenient device to segue into the ‘nuclear chase’ element of the film. At this point Clooney, for some reason, ditches his seemingly appropriate combat gear and dresses up like an estate agent playing golf at Augusta.

Aside from the storyline, which is fairly cookie-cutter, it’s the protagonists poorly constructed plastic characters that really grates here. The two leads are textbook ‘cut from different cloth’ characters, struggling to understand each other’s values and motives, before eventually realising 'Hey, we actually hold the same values underneath'.

The problem is that both leads utterly fail to even reach the giddy heights of functional stereotypes. Clooney, supposedly a roguish, maverick special forces lieutenant (as if such a thing exists) instead seems to do a very thorough job, more John Major than John Rambo.

There are no violations of the Geneva Convention, no flagrant disregard for standard operating procedures, no performing of unauthorised fly-bys that have officers spilling coffee over themselves. Clooney is basically a very good, and deadeningly dull, army officer.

Kidman’s character is equally vanilla-flavoured. After witnessing a death first hand, she is initially shocked and traumatised by George's disregard for human life. Minutes later, she's gazing moodily out the window wearing her best ‘Am I bovvered’ expression as Clooney mechanically mows down a car full of terrorists.

In fact, Clooney and Kidman appear to be acting in totally different films – neither of them particularly good. I was left wondering if there’d been a mix up in the mailroom at the studio, with Clooney sent an early version of Three Kings and Kidman sent the script for PS I Love You or some other god awful tear-jerker. 

Anyway, to the money shot. Chasing the rogue general through the Balkans, Clooney and his special forces extras, sorry I mean team, have to enter Russian airspace in three helicopters. With an illegal entry into their airspace, the Russians fire a surface-to-air missile, neatly catching the middle chopper plum on the nose. “Instant chopper fireball,” as Alan Partridge would say.

Artistic merit 

It’s a good explosion, fully visible and neatly executed with one chopper in a formation of three clinically picked off and plummeting out of sight. Disappointingly though, the action doesn’t linger or dwell on it, and simply moves on. Mimi Leder clearly isn’t an exploding helicopter enthusiast.

Number of exploding helicopters

One.

Exploding helicopter innovation

None. I think it’s fair to say surface-to-air missiles have knocked out many a rotor blade, probably quite a few over Russian airspace.

Positives 

The Peacemaker is a monument to the fact that no-one is perfect. It’s nice to know that, like the bottom drawer of my bedside cabinet, Clooney and Kidman also have things they are probably ashamed of. 

Negatives 

The pure aesthetics of putting Clooney in shapeless cream slacks and a baggy polo shirt. Even Sir Roger Moore would have baulked at that.

Parting thought 

Although commercially successful, this film hasn’t aged well, which is unsurprising given how doggedly it goes through the motions. Consider, for instance, that it was released in the same year as Men in Black. And there aren’t even any exploding helicopters in that.

Review by: Jindy

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

2012: Ice Age

“Wow.”
“Use words, Nelson.”
“I don’t think I can.”

This brief exchange of dialogue neatly sums up the brain-numbed stupefaction I felt after watching 2012: Ice Age, a typically poor ‘mockbuster’ from those masters of the art, The Asylum.

The film owes a huge debt – not least for copyright infringement – to Roland Emmerich. Having pinched the title to his end is nigh blockbuster 2012, the film then shamelessly ransacks the plot of his earlier disaster opus The Day After Tomorrow.

The apocalyptic storyline involves volcanic activity in the Arctic, which causes colossal glaciers to head towards America at 200mph. Yes, 200mph. I just wish the film had moved at a similar speed rather than its interminable, endurance sapping crawl.

Unlike Emmerich’s films, 2012: Ice Age forsakes awe-inspiring special effects in favour of human drama – not least because that’s infinitely cheaper than expensive CGI wizardry. Its doomsday scenario revolves around the Hart family’s efforts to rescue their daughter from New York, which is slap bang in the path of the ominous, oncoming glacier.

Such is their overwhelming love for their progeny, Dad, mum and irritating teenage son are compelled to jump in a car and drive eight hours to the Big Apple, telling their daughter to wait for them at her apartment. They then risk life and limb making a cross-country dash as violent arctic storms and plunging temperatures precede the glacier’s advance.

Fortunately for the Harts, however, the success of their journey appears preordained, as they seem unable to encounter the merest difficulty without finding yet another car with the keys conveniently left in the ignition. Such acts of good fortune are mere trifles though, compared to the biblical miracle that occurs later.

The Hart’s receive a garbled phone call from their daughter, who tells them she can’t stay at her apartment. With no information as to where their daughter could now be, the Harts push on regardless to the disaster-struck city of 20 million people. “We’ll find some sort of clue,” Papa Hart assures his brood.

After arriving in New York, reality momentarily intrudes on the plot, and they temporarily fail to find any clues. Without a plan worthy of the name, they fall back on a disaster movie failsafe and simply run around shouting their daughter’s name.

With icy Armageddon enveloping New York and the streets of the sprawling metropolis filled with panicking citizens, one might be sceptical about the potential for success with this strategy. Oh, cynical you. Naturally, their daughter happens to be within earshot and the family are happily reunited in minutes. Just to re-cap: the Harts enter the equivalent of three Londons during a world-ending panic and finding someone in two minutes. By shouting. Nice.

Now, as distracting as this preposterous sequence of events is, a nagging thought may be troubling you. And it’s this: why didn’t the Harts just tell their daughter to leave New York, and use all that time she spent twiddling her thumbs to get safely away from the forthcoming disaster zone? I don’t know either, and I’ve bloody watched this rubbish.

Anyway, while all this is playing out, the US military declares war on the glacier. The newly christened ‘war on ice’ sees the super-power’s entire arsenal mobilised to halt the icy advance. Never in the field of human conflict has so much firepower been used against a giant ice cube. I almost wanted to chant “U.S.A, U.S.A...”

The military response gives the filmmakers the perfect excuse to add a chopper fireball to the ‘end of days’ action, when a military helicopter is hit by icy debris following another bombing run on the glacier.

Artistic merit

Low. If you’re familiar with The Asylum’s film output you’ll know what kind of CGI quality to expect – broadly akin to an child‘s crayoned drawing that‘s been crudely animated.

The chopper pilot makes the all-too-familiar error of hovering too close to the blast zone. Realising his fate, he meets his doom with a heroic, impassive stoicism. Either that, or he can’t act.


Exploding helicopter innovation

First known destruction of a helicopter by flying ice cubes.

Positives

There’s one hugely enjoyable scene in the film, albeit for the wrong reasons. The Harts encounter a family stuck by the roadside, who will freeze to death unless they’re picked up.

Papa Hart compassionately argues they should let the family come with them, even if it means being diverted from the task of reaching their daughter.

Mama Hart selfishly insists they can’t afford to be distracted from their goal, even if it means a chilly demise for the poor unfortunates. This fascinating moral quandary is unexpectedly ended when, as they continue to bicker, a giant chunk of ice falls from the sky, squashing the family to death.

The Harts drive on. The incident isn’t mentioned again.

Negatives

But for some bungled directing, there could well have been two exploding helicopters in this film.

As the volcanic activity rips the arctic ice shelf apart, a scientist idiotically hovers too close to the sulphurous emissions and appears to lose control of the chopper.

Just as you’re expecting to discover the grisly fate of the pilot and the helicopter, the action cuts away, never to return.

Favourite quote

“So, you’ve declared war on the glacier?”
“That’s right.”

Review by: Jafo