Thursday, 26 July 2012

Avatar


James Cameron is a man who doesn't like to do things by halves. His recent penchant for leviathan movies makes early output such as The Terminator look like twee Arts Council small fry by comparison. Not content with breaking box office records with Titanic, Cameron embarked on Avatar his most ambitious project to date. A concept he'd had to keep on ice since 1994 until the technology caught up with his expansive vision.

It might be the most expensive movie ever made, clocking in at a wallet busting $280 million, but wrapped up in all that beautiful CGI lies the heart of a bog standard outsider redemption story. A very, very expensive Dances With Wolves starring lanky blue alien hippies if you will.

In the future, mankind is running out of natural resources so nasty corporations have begun mining valuable minerals from the distant planet of Pandora - a lush jungle covered planet that has a very rare and valuable material called Unobtainium (Jesus, really!?).

In order to persuade the native Na'vi that raping their planet is in their best interests, scientists try to ingratiate themselves with the locals by creating Na'vi-human hybrids called Avatars. This allows them to blend in with the population and show them that we're not really greedy bastards, whose only interest is taking advantage of their planet for financial gain.

When the locals sensibly refuse to be bullied or bribed the troops are sent in to change their minds with some good old fashioned "shock and awe". Seriously, as an allegory for the Iraq war Avatar is about a subtle as a stiletto through the ball bag.

So when the brown stuff eventually hits the fan, Cameron goes absolutely bananas on the exploding helicopter front. I'm talking record territory here. As befits the most expensive movie ever made it contains no fewer than six chopper fireballs, of all of which are obliterated in the space of five hectic minutes.

I can see why over at EHHQ there who was much discussion as to who was man enough to review this behemoth. Lucky for you dear readers, I have big enough brass cojones to deliver on a payload of this magnitude.

Towards the end of the film the massed ranks of the Marines launch an all-out assault on the Tree of Souls, the spiritual home of the Na'vi. In their way is Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine, who has gone rogue and thrown his lot in with the tree huggers.

He and his new buddies face a squadron of heavily armoured attack helicopters on nothing more than a bunch of emaciated pterodactyls armed only with bows and arrows. Despite these unfavourable odds they manage to achieve one of the greatest ever feats of helicopter destruction committed to film. Who needs Stinger missiles eh?

The first, sees Sully flying a huge dragon called Toruk (the Bentley of dragons) into the melee of choppers and space ships that have arrived to dispatch a six pack of whoop-ass on the natives. He grabs hold of the chopper in the dragon's talons and swings it around like a hammer thrower, launching it into a floating island where it goes up in delicious ball of flame.

The second flicks across the screen so fast you almost miss it, but gets similar rock/flame treatment at the hands of another, smaller, Ikran.

The third and fourth are destroyed by what when they are flung into each other by an Ikran. Using a similar technique, one of the Ikrans grabs another chopper and flings it into the path of the other, making it split apart and fall to the ground in a plume of flame.

Lastly Hispanic-hardass turned deserter Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez from Lost) plays cat and mouse with Colonel Quartich's (Stephen Lang) spaceship behind a huge floating island. She manages to dodge and weave wave after wave of missiles and gunfire before inevitable succumbing to the colonel's fury. The stricken chopper is finished off with a missile that sends the machine to chopper-heaven in a rich tangerine burst of flame.

Artistic merit

I remember watching this at the cinema in 3D and, for the first time in a long time (and maybe not since Cameron's other groundbreaker Terminator 2), felt truly blown away by a film's special effects.

Part way through this film, I distinctly remember realising that my mouth had been open for the last 45 minutes. That is how immersive it felt at the cinema. Yes, much of the plot is hackneyed feel-good fluff with a lot of clunky dialogue thrown in for good measure, but boy is it presented with panache.

3D movies are almost always gimmicky cash-ins designed to squeeze another £3 out of the punter whilst forcing them to do their best Buddy Holly impersonation but this one really is worth the money. The CGI blends seamlessly with the live action and you have to look very, very carefully to spot any glitches.

All the helicopter explosions are richly textured and authentically realised even though they all started life on a computer. The nine Oscars it won in 2011 including awards for Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects and Best Art Direction show a lot of care, skill an attention was taken to realising this alternate universe

Number of helicopter explosions

Six, putting it level with Charlie Wilson's War as the film with the most helicopter explosions ever.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Take your pick. Most helicopters destroyed in a film, helicopter killed by a dragon and two helicopters destroyed simultaneously by each other.

Do passengers survive?

Even the good guys die here. Chacon is sacrificed in the name of pathos and the rest of the anonymous pilots will surely not have survived the flames and impact of falling thousands of feet into the jungle canopy. This isn't Air America.

Positives

The two performances that really caught my eye were amongst the supporting roles. Giovanni Ribisi's hilarious performance as Parker Selfridge has echoes of Paul Reiser's corporate scumbag Carter Burke in Aliens.

As is the norm with amoral corporate money men he really is only interested in the company's bottom line, no matter how many lives he has to ruin. His comic interludes inject some much needed humour in a script that does stray into cliché territory from time to time.

Sample line: "You throw a stick in the air and its gonna land on some sacred fern"

The other is Stephen Lang as Colonel Quartich a caricatured d*ck-swinging bullet-headed Marine who must be a distant cousin to Robert Duvall is Apocalypse Now such is his passion for "The Core" and his desire to blow stuff up. He is an irredeemably nasty piece of work with a nice line in military hard-arsery.

"You let me down son! So, you find yourself some local tail, and you just completely forget what team you're playin' for?"

Negatives

Whilst the movie ticks most blockbuster boxes it is overlong and there is a enough New age eco-bullshit to have even the staunchest of environmentalists regurgitating their mung beans

Favourite quote

Col. Quaritch: This low gravity'll make you soft. When you get soft Pandora'll sh*t you out dead with zero warning.

Interesting fact

On average each CGI frame of the movie, equivalent to1/24 of a second, took 47 hours to render. With a running time of 178 minutes and with 60% of the film shot using CGI you start to see why the film had such a high price tag.

Review by: Neon Messiah

Monday, 16 July 2012

Invasion USA

The Cold War. A chilling, decades-long period of history when the world lived under the twin shadows of nuclear destruction and Chuck Norris’ implausibly huge Hollywood stardom. Looking back, it’s hard to know which of these two factors marked a more terrifying sign that we were facing the end of the world.

So, in a Cold War-era action movie, what could be better than a scenario where the Soviets are hell-bent on the imminent destruction of America and the only person who can prevent Armageddon is – Chuck Norris! Writes itself, really.

Our Chuck plays Matt Hunter, a retired CIA agent who’s traded ‘wet work’, ‘dead drops’ and covert surveillance to become an alligator farmer. Apparently, the skills are very transferable.

Seemingly content with his business supplying gator skin to the handbag industry, Chuck’s tempted back into the CIA fold when he learns that his nemesis – a Soviet agent named Rostov (Richard Lynch) – is plotting to destroy America.

Rostov’s dastardly plan involves tricking the USA into destroying itself. Flooding the country with hundreds of saboteurs, Rostov organises a co-ordinated wave of seemingly motiveless terrorist acts. With the authorities unable to stop the carnage, the country begins to disintegrate as the good citizens of ‘Uncle Sam’ turn against each other.

With chaos on the streets, it’s up to Norris to stop Rostov before America collapses altogether under the weight of its own rotten, decadent, bourgeois, capitalism.

Quite why the CIA believe Norris is the only man who can protect western civilisation is never made quite clear. They‘re convinced he’s the only one who can find Rostov. But given that Chuck’s search mostly involves going into bars and asking, “Where’s Rostov?” it’s hard to fathom why no-one else could manage the job.

Still, it does allow us to spend plenty of time in the company of Chuck. He’s in fine form here, resplendent in full beard and rocking a bold ‘double denim’ outfit. Tricky to pull off at the best of times, here it makes the Chuck-ster look like a kung-fu Shakin’ Stevens.

It’s also a joy simply to look at Norris, quite the oddest looking man in Hollywood. He looks like what might have happened if a lion forcibly had sex with a squat female bodybuilder. It’s a crying shame he was never cast in the film he was made for: The Island of Dr Moreau. They’d have saved a fortune on make-up.

Never the most naturalistic actor, Chuck compensates by giving a pared down performance, much like Charles Bronson in his better work. As a result, he’s surprisingly effective – although there are some clunky moments where his utter lack of empathy with his dialogue jars the ears. (The average Spanish tourist, enquiring about the nearest facilities with the aid of a phrase book, would possibly convey more emotion than the monosyllabic Norris.)

However, given that Chuck does indeed single-handedly stop a Soviet invasion of the USA, surely this film cannot fail to be anything other than a slam dunk classic? How can a film where Chuck Norris spectacularly shoots up a shopping mall and dramatically saves a school bus of kids be bad? Especially when the climax involves Norris and Rostov going head-to-head armed with only a couple of rocket launchers.

Unfortunately, in the cold, dead hands of director Joseph Zito, badness is entirely possible.

Each breathless action set-piece is punctuated by long, arse-numbing, brain-melting periods of complete tedium where nothing, absolutely nothing, happens. It’s the sort of film Samuel Beckett would have walked out of on the grounds it ‘was dragging on a bit.’

The opening to the film is particularly execrable. Zito spends an ungodly 40 minutes setting up the plot, when it could easily have been done in ten. Enraged by the slack editing, I started to fantasise about doing my own cut of the film, then slamming it down in front of the man and declaring, “This is how you direct a Chuck Norris film!... Oh, and by the way, I‘ve taken most of the bits with Chuck Norris out.”

Having failed to stake out his directing credentials, I had grave concerns about how Zito would handle the film’s key scene – the helicopter explosion. Surprisingly, he makes a decent fist of it.

Towards the climax of the film, Norris comes across the villain’s getaway chopper parked on the roof of a building. On spotting Norris, the pilot desperately flips switches on the dashboard to start up the rotors. Unfortunately for the doomed pilot, the only thing slower than the opening to a Joseph Zito film, is starting up the engine to a helicopter.

Chuckie therefore has ample to time to put the rocket launcher he’s been handily lugging around with him to good use. Hoisting it to his shoulder, he aims and fires, blowing the helicopter to pieces.

Artistic merit 

Screen-filling fireball, good, flaming post-explosion wreckage: Zito ticks a lot of boxes, but the whole thing is lacking in inspiration. Still, while it’s hard to get excited about a scene where Norris destroys an unarmed, stationary, helicopter from point blank range, I must confess, I did enjoy the cold-blooded overkill with which Norris despatches the chopper.

Exploding helicopter innovation 

Rocket launcher chopper fireball – we’ve seen it before. However, it does remind us of the limitations of helicopters as escape vehicles. Pilots really should take a tip from getaway drivers, and always leave the engine running.

Positives 

You really couldn’t wish for a better villain that Richard Lynch, who plays evil Commie mastermind Rostov. Lynch has a wonderful line in cold, dead-eyed stares which he puts to good use when he‘s about to kill someone. He can also turn up the wattage for stares of unblinking, diamond hard, psychotic malevolence, which he saves in Invasion USA for talking about his hatred of Chuck Norris.

In a juicy sub-plot, Rostov is obsessed by Chuck Norris and tries to kill our bearded friend to settle an old score. Even though he’s planning the downfall of America, he just can‘t bear the thought that Chuck Norris is out there somewhere still alive. I kind of know how he feels.

Negatives 

While the final, rocket-launchers-at-40-paces showdown between Norris and Richard Lynch is undeniably a great moment of over-the-top action cinema, the choice of location leaves a lot to be desired. The climatic shoot-out takes place in a sterile, neon lit office block, and the aforementioned rocket launcher battle is staged in a bland, grey, anonymous corridor.

I guess it was a way of reminding us of the freedoms and liberties that Chuck was fighting for – the inalienable, God given right of every US citizen to do a boring, socially meaningless job for low pay. You almost start wishing the Russkies had won.

Favourite quote

Chuck intones the immortal: “I’m going to hit you with so many rights you’ll be begging for a left.”

Interesting fact 

Sadly, we were denied one of the most bizarre screen pairings of all time in this film. Apparently, Chuck Norris wanted Whoopi Goldberg to play the main female lead. However, the director had other ideas and cast Melissa Prophet instead.

Norris and Goldberg, though. In the same film. The mind boggles.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast show on Invasion USA. Listen to the show on iTunes, YourListen or Podomatic


Friday, 6 July 2012

T-Force

Roger Corman has just three rules for agreeing to produce a film.

One: deny any request for more money. Two: deny any request to make the film longer. And three: there must be a strip club scene or an exploding helicopter.

So, had T-Force (1994) been pitched to the legendary filmmaker, I’ve no doubt the king of schlock would have whipped out his cheque book immediately – and might even have been momentarily tempted to break his golden rules. For not only does T-Force have the necessary strip club scene, it’s also got an exploding helicopter.

Yes, it’s fair to say T-Force doesn’t really try to rewrite the rules of exploitation cinema. In fact, it scarcely even makes an effort to rewrite the films it’s so obviously, ahem, inspired by.

In the near future, the police have a special unit of kick-ass killer robots called the Terminal Force – or T-Force – who are used to deal with the most dangerous situations.

Sent in to a skyscraper to end a hostage situation (think Die Hard), the robots (think Terminator) end up killing some innocent civilians. With a public relations disaster on her hands, the Mayor (Erin Gray) orders the T-Force programme to be shut down. Unfortunately, the robots find out they’re about to have their batteries yanked, and through some crazy circuit board logic decide that the Mayor must die (think Blade Runner).

The only man standing in the way of all this cybernetic silliness is Jack Scalia, an old-school, robot-loathing cop (think I, Robot). He’s joined by ‘Adam’, the only tinny member of the T-Force who rejected the Mayor-murdering plan, thinking it clashed a bit with his programme to ‘protect and serve’ (think I, Robot. Again).

In the finest tradition of mis-matched buddy cop movies, Scalia and Adam team up and stop the rogue T-Force members before they whack the Mayor. That’s assuming, of course, they can stop irritating and arguing with each other for three consecutive minutes.
In typical PM Entertainment fashion, what follows is a riotously explosive 90 minutes of near non-stop action. Scalia is great as the grouchy, hard boiled, ‘shoot-first ask questions later’ cop, aghast at a future where the fun bits of his job – essentially, beating up punks and shooting people – are now done by robots.

Unlike Scalia though, we at EH headquarters aren’t fussed whether the real fun bits of films – exploding helicopters – are brought about by humans or cyborgs. Which is fortunate, as this is definitely what experts would term a robot-initiated chopper fireball.

And we don’t have to wait long for some ‘copter mayhem either, as the movie obligingly serves it up in the opening minutes. When the T-Force go in to deal with that initial, hostage-bothering skyscraper situation, the terrorists attempt to escape by fleeing to the roof where a helicopter is waiting to whisk them away.

They make it onboard, but the T-Force – having arrived on the job with enough weapons for a small war – fire a bazooka at the disappearing chopper. “Mission accomplished,” quips their leader as he surveys the whirlybird explosion.

Artistic merit

Unexceptional. The helicopter explodes, completely and thoroughly. No wreckage falls dramatically from the sky. Rotor blades don’t shear off and spectacularly spin away. There’s just a big, screen-filling explosion, and it’s gone.

Exploding helicopter innovation

None. The method of destruction certainly isn’t new, and we’ve seen robots destroy helicopters in Terminator 2.

Positives

The great Vernon Wells has a juicy little cameo as the terrorist who seizes control of the skyscraper at the beginning of the film.

A hulking, imposing figure, Wells has a nice line in flamboyant villainy, with memorable turns as a mohawked, S&M biker punk in Mad Max 2, and as the chain-mail vest wearing Bennett in Commando.

Here, somehow squeezed into a grey double-breasted suit, Big Vern looks rather ill at ease while trying to impersonate a suave criminal mastermind. Still, he retains the inimitable mad glint in his eye that’s the hallmark of his best work.

Negatives

Director Richard Pepin falls into the all too common trap of having the robots act like emotionless automatons. One of the reasons Blade Runner remains so eminently watchable is that Rutger Hauer and his cohorts get to act like real people, rather than flatly intoning their dialogue while maintaining a blank expression. If I wanted that from a movie, I’d just watch Keanu Reeves in The Matrix series over and over again.

Unfortunately, actors portraying the T-Force are required to give stilted performances, like lurching Frankenstein’s. Watching them act is almost as painful as having the old monster’s bolt shoved though your neck.

Favourite quote

“Get me six hostages into the chopper and then blow the rest to hell.”

Review by: Jafo

Also check out a review by our buddies over at Comeuppance Reviews

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Sender

To crudely paraphrase Kipling: “If you can stay cool when everyone else is losing the plot, then you‘ll be one hell of a man.”

This piece of doggerel came to my mind while watching Michael Madsen in The Sender (1998), in which the slouching star meets a succession of preposterous disasters with a phlegmatic languidness that Kipling himself would have marvelled at.

Madsen plays Dallas Grayson, an army intelligence officer investigating the mysterious death of his father 30 years ago. But, as is so often the case in straight-to-DVD thrillers, his search for answers is about to uncover a far more incredible truth about his family.

Big Mike discovers that his father, an air force pilot, was shot down by aliens who are now in contact with his young daughter. It seems the wee scamp has something called the ‘Sender’ gene, which gives her unworldly powers and the ability to “open gateways to other worlds”.

Unfortunately, a secret Government unit dedicated to hunting extraterrestrials – led by grizzly R Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket) – has got wind of all this, and they snatch Madsen’s daughter so they can learn the source of her powers.

Half an hour in, the film – exhausted by such plot detail – simply turns into an extended chase sequence, as Madsen teams up with Angel (the friendly female alien his daughter had befriended) to rescue his wee bairn from the nefarious clutches of the Government.
But how’s Big Mike coping? Facing such a distressing sequence of events, surely even a man possessed of the stiffest of constitutions might find themselves reduced to a jibbering wreck?

Madsen, though, is no ordinary man. Having found out in quick succession that extraterrestrials exist, that they butchered his father, and that his daughter is now some kind of genetic freak who’s been kidnapped by the Government, he adopts the expression of someone just told they’re all out of bacon so he’ll have to have the cheeseburger.

The boy is made of stern stuff. Surprise, shock, anger, fear – emotions which might trouble lesser mortals – are unknown to the man. His only reaction to each increasingly fantastical development is to slightly furrow his brow or, if it’s really bad news, tilt his head.

Indeed, so impassive is Madsen before unfolding events, not even the actual event of his own death can garner an observable reaction.

Yes, you read that right – not even his own death. In one corker of a scene, Madsen is shot dead by R Lee Emry, only to be brought back to life shortly thereafter by Angel. And yet, even after having his life miraculously saved by an alien dressed as a Seventies disco dancer, Big Mike is unable to muster any sign of relief, nor even mild curiosity.

Where lesser men might be hysterically exclaiming: “Who are you?”, “Why aren’t I dead?”, or “Why are you dressed in tin foil and wearing a silver wig?“ Madsen just drolly gazes into the middle distance. Perhaps this sort of thing happens to him all the time.
Given such imperturbable implacability, you begin to wonder what it might take to wring an emotional response from Madsen? Sadly, we never get to find out. Because even when reunited with his supposedly dead father, our Mike still doesn’t bat an eyelid. Instead, he casually suggests to his long-missing dad that they go and get some ice cream. Now that really is cool.

Given this laidback approach to the drama of life, it’s no surprise to find Madsen remains equally nonplussed by a near fatal run-in with a couple of military helicopters.

Having teamed up with Angel, Mike is aboard her spacecraft when they are pursued by two heavily armed choppers. Badly damaged, the spacecraft is unable to return fire, so dodges and weaves amid skyscrapers to evade their pursuers.

Our heroes are in a tight spot – not that you’d know it from the way Madsen lounges around in the spacecraft’s cockpit. Fortunately, the helicopter pilots are two of the dumbest fools ever to have taken to the skies.

Given a clear shot of the spacecraft, one chopper pilot unleashes a volley of machine gunfire, only for the spacecraft to niftily dodge out the way. The bullets hit the other chopper which has obligingly come round the other side and boom! Scratch one helicopter.

The remaining whirlybird continues the pursuit, as Madsen and Angel fly under a bridge. Despite it being clearly observable and entirely avoidable, the pilot – perhaps overwhelmed by the number of safe options he could take to avoid an imminent death – chooses to fly straight into it. Kaboom. End of chase.
Artistic merit 

The sequence is rendered in low budget CGI, so wisely director Richard Pepin doesn’t linger on any of the explosions too long. Unfortunately, as a connoisseur of helicopter explosions, we like to linger over them. Overall, unsatisfying.

Number of exploding helicopters 

Two.

Exploding helicopter innovation 

No great innovation, unless we’re prepared to count idiocy, and the new level of dunderheaded stupidity we witness in this scene. The chopper crash into the bridge heralds a new nadir in failing to avoid the bleeding obvious.

Positives 

Michael Madsen is perhaps the greatest sunglasses actor of all time, rarely, if ever, appearing on-screen without a pair of Ray-Bans.

He takes them off, he puts them on – often several times within the same scene. Yes, it is hard to think how Madsen would function on-screen without this convenient prop.

And with Big Mike generally loathe to actually do any demonstrable ‘acting’, his sunglasses adjustments are about the only evidence that he hasn‘t just fallen asleep with his eyes open.

My favourite sunglasses moment in The Sender though, is one astonishing scene in which Madsen engages in a fist fight on the top of a moving lorry still wearing his Ray-Bans.

Despite taking numerous punches to the head, Mike’s sunglasses remain undamaged and perfectly balanced on his face.

While it may seem a little churlish in a film with aliens, kidnap, miraculous resurrections and reappearances, this was the most unrealistic moment in the entire film.

Negatives 

The former Mrs Cary Grant, Dyan Cannon, appears in the film as Michael Madsen’s double-crossing mother-in-law. Clearly she’s been no stranger to the plastic surgeon’s knife as her face looks like a melted marshmallow.

In an act of kindness, director Richard Pepin never shows her face in close-up. Either that, or he was worried that the close proximity of strong lighting would cause her face to drip completely off her skull.

Favourite quote 

I particularly liked this perplexing line: “All great discoveries are violent - like volcanoes.”

Review by: Jafo