Sunday, 22 December 2013

Why haven't you seen.....?

All of us know important and famous films that, for one reason or another, we've never actually seen. You know, the kind of film that when you sheepishly admit to never having watched, is met with an  incredulous, "What do you mean you haven't seen......?"

Well, Bubbawheat who runs the great Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights has decided to do something about it and start filling in the holes on his cinematic CV. Each fortnight he invites someone to introduce him to a famous film that's he's yet to see, recording the experience in his Filmwhys podcast.

Exploding Helicopter was recently a guest on Filmwhys and we took the opportunity to introduce Bubbawheat to the classic film noir Double Indemnity.

In return, Bubbawheat introduced us to The Pumaman, a low budget superhero movie considered by the esteemed users of IMDB to be the 29th worst movie ever made. Although it's not all bad, as The Pumaman does have an exploding helicopter in it. Listen to the Filmwhys episode and hear what we made of both movies.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Green Berets

“I don’t do westerns,” said legendary composer Miklos Rozsa when approached to write the soundtrack for The Green Berets (1968).

“It’s not a western,” came the disingenuous reply from the film‘s producer. “It’s an eastern.”

Such semantic sleights may have tricked Rozsa into taking the job, but nobody watching the finished product will be so easily deceived. While ostensibly a war film about the Vietnam conflict, this couldn’t look more like a Western if you stuck a stetson on its head and attached spurs to the opening credits.

But we should hardly be surprised. The film’s producer, director and star is none other than John Wayne, a man who spent so much time in the saddle that eventually he walked as if he was still in one.

It’s entirely possible that the Duke (or Marion, as he didn’t like to be known) set out to make a realistic and contemporary account of America’s most divisive conflict, rather than a terrible faux-Western. But hey, guess which we got?

The Big Guy obviously had enough sway in Hollywood to get this funded – put simply, his name sold movies – but even the least savvy studio exec must have known in advance it’d turn out to be a spaghetti-shambles. Here are two reasons why.

First, Wayne was so rabidly, over-the-top patriotic – allegedly hating commies, liberals, fags, and pretty much anything not wrapped in a star-spangled banner – that this was never going to be a nuanced affair.

And as someone who is reported to have once told Playboy magazine: “I believe in white supremacy…I don’t feel guilty that five or ten generations ago these people were slaves”, there was no chance he’d give a fair depiction of the Vietnamese War. In fact, he couldn’t even get any actual people from Vietnam to be in the film: the enemy combatants are actually Japanese.

Second reason: the only thing Wayne could do was Westerns, and he’d been uniformly terrible in all but a handful of them. His best Westerns tended to be made with director John Ford who, wisely, told him ‘act with your eyes’ and quickly learned to cut most of the lines that the big man routinely murdered.

So when you consider the premise of this film – a bad actor in simplistic Westerns takes on possibly the most morally complex war of the century and turns it into a simplistic Western – you begin to see how problems might emerge.

And boy, do they emerge. Using one of his old cavalry pictures as a template, the Duke simply swaps horses for helicopters and replaces the Apache with the Vietcong. The cast, following their director’s lead, strut around as if they’re still in a cowboy movie. The plot’s shakier than a saloon bar door. At any moment, you half-expect to see a wig-wam in the background or a comic scene with a redskin ‘native’ looking for ‘firewater’.

Still, there is one thrill in this film that no western ever provided: an exploding helicopter.

Flying back to base, ’Charlie’ opens fire on the helicopter Wayne’s riding in. There’s a small explosion that causes the pilot to lose control. After plunging through the night sky, it crashes into the ground where the burning fuselage rolls over dramatically.

Several passengers just manage to scramble out of the wreckage, before the shattered remains fully explode. Ye ha!


Artistic merit

This is a great exploding helicopter scene, especially when you consider the technical and special effects limitations everyone worked with way back in 1968.

When the chopper is hit by gunfire they’re clearly using a model, but as the scene takes place at night the trickery is cleverly hidden. After watching the whirlybird spin round trailing flames, we cut to a shot of a real helicopter (presumably attached to a crane) that swings across the screen before the flaming fuselage is dropped to the ground to complete the sequence.

While it does all look a bit, well, fake, you have to salute Wayne’s efforts to make the scene work with a clever combination of model and camera work.

Exploding helicopter innovation

There’s nothing new in the manner of destruction, but The Green Berets can lay claim to be the first Vietnam war movie related helicopter explosion.

Do passengers survive?

The Duke, naturally, survives. The only disappointment is he runs away from the burning wreckage rather than slouching away in his trademark grizzly-bear-with-haemorrhoids manner.

Positives

Janssen: resplendent in his safari suit
David Janssen is a delight as a journalist opposed to the war who’s been embedded with the Green Berets. He looks majestic as he swaggers through the film in an unbuttoned safari suit, firing off cynical barbs at John Wayne and his men.

However, given this is a John Wayne stars n’ stripes affair – and achingly pro-Vietnam War – it’s painfully clear from the outset that our resident cynic is being primed for a clunky Damascene moment, where he’ll finally realise the glory of freedom and the American way.

It occurs when the Gooks launch a big assault of the Green Beret’s base and appear in no mood to spare the life a bleeding heart liberal – even if he can flash a press pass and an editorial condemning the war.

Before you can say ‘unconvincing conversion’, a lifetime’s considered pacifist beliefs are tossed away and Janssen‘s happily off firing mortars at those damn, dirty Gooks. Gawd bless America!

Negatives

The Green Berets is a clunking piece of propaganda with an unequivocal ideology. It’s the sort of thing Dick Cheney probably used to masturbate to before medical concerns forced him to turn away from the joys of onanism. And while we may not all agree with its rabid right-wing world view we can surely all concur that this film is a stinker of the highest order. Certainly, nothing in the story justifies the torpid, almost two and a half hour running time, as the story trundles along like an overloaded prairie wagon.

Favourite quote

“What happened?”
“He bought the farm, but he took a lot of them with him.”

Interesting fact

Apparently, John Wayne turned down the role of Major Riesman (played by Lee Marvin) in The Dirty Dozen in favour of making The Green Berets. Another sound decision from the Big Man.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then check out our Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on The Green Berets. Listen on iTunes, Podomatic, YourListen and Sticher

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Piranha 2: The Spawning

There always was something a bit soggy about James Cameron.

Certainly, the ocean has been a curiously recurrent theme in his career. The bearded wonder gave us watery weepie Titanic, submerged sci-fi thriller The Abyss, and not one but three award-winning oceanic documentaries. The man probably goes to bed in a life-jacket.

Even before all those Oscars and smashed box office records, he was out there sniffing the cinematic briny with his directorial debut: Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981). Unfortunately, it would appear the critics smelled something else entirely.

This cheapo Italian exploitation flick was one of a shoal of fishy thrillers churned out in the wake of Jaws’ all-consuming box office success. Predictably, given it’s origin as an unashamed cash-in, no-one wanted to rock the boat by having the plot swim too far from the formula of its carnivorous forefather.

So, in an entirely intentional parallel to Steven Spielberg’s mega-hit, the action takes place in picturesque coastal resort town. With cynical similarity, the seaside idyll is shattered when bodies start mysteriously floating ashore just as the town’s holiday season is about to begin.

Afraid of scaring off the tourists, would you believe the town’s unscrupulous bigwigs are reluctant to take action? Zounds. And so it falls to local sheriff Roy Scheider-sorry-Lance Henriksen to save the day.

So far, so seen it all before. But conscious of the jaundiced ennui of sofa-bound critics, the producers have lined up a surprise to jolt jaded viewers from their bored complacency. And that surprise is: these piranhas fly.

"Fly my scaly friends, fly!"
Yup, you did read that right. Where Jaws managed to get through a full movie without sprouting wings and Godzilla – to the best of Exploding Helicopter’s knowledge – never grew gills, Cameron clearly felt his fish absolutely needed to fly, goddammit.

Unlike your average piranha – equipped only with razor-sharp incisors – these fishy fiends use their fins to burst from the waves, zip about in the air, and dive-bomb unsuspecting sunbathers on the beach.

It sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. But it’s actually an inspired way to significantly up the jeopardy, since no-one, even if they’re on dry land, is now safe from the meat-hungry critters.

Attempting to swim against such a rising tide of silliness would leave most actors hopelessly lost at sea. Fortunately Lance Henriksen exudes an air of unperturbed cool in the face of increasingly implausible events.

It helps that he looks the part. Supermodel thin, with a baked-on tan and straggly unkempt hair tied back by a bandana, he roars around the ocean in a police speedboat looking more pirate than chief of police.

Luckily, Lance brings his trademark louche insouciance to the film’s primary attraction: the helicopter explosion.

Henriksen: More pirate captain than police chief
Piloting the police chopper (small and sleepy this town may be, but it‘s got a full complement of official vehicles), Henriksen flies out to sea to help a boat which has got into trouble.

Not having one of those fancy whirlybirds with floats that can land on water, Lance has to figure out how to get down and lend assistance to the distressed mariners.

Demonstrating the old adage that the best ideas are always simple, Henriksen solves the problem by simply leaping from the helicopter. With no-one at the controls, the chopper veers off, out-of-control, and crashes into the waves before exploding.

Artistic merit

The helicopter that’s destroyed is clearly a model, but the scene is well enough staged and, when it comes, the fireball is big enough to hide all sins.

What’s particularly winning is the casual way in which Henriksen, having no more use for the chopper, simply abandons it to meet its doom. People have thrown away Styrofoam coffee cups with less abandon.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Henriksen's police chopper meets its watery demise
Helicopters have exploded after crashing into water in other films – for example, in The Guardian and Men Of Honor, but it’s a pretty infrequent occurrence. This is perhaps the earliest known example of a chopper meeting a watery demise.

Do passengers survive?

Obviously, Lance Henriksen survives as he still has to save the town. And help Ripley destroy the Alien in several later, unrelated movies.

Positives

You might be wondering how the piranhas in this film developed the ability to fly. Luckily, here comes a crowbarred-in scene of clunking exposition to shed light on things. As a bit-part actor robotically explains, the flying piranhas are the result of that hoary old plot standby: the experiment gone wrong.

Apparently, during the Vietnam war the US military top brass came up with a plan to win the bloody and intractable conflict by releasing genetically-engineered super piranhas into the Mekong Delta. And people wonder how America lost.

Negatives

Already struggling to be taken seriously, Piranha 2 makes the galumphing mis-step of attempting some moments of ill-advised comedy, which fall horribly, horribly flat. Exploding Helicopter would rather be gnawed to death by the titular fish than sit through these gruesome gags again.

Favourite quote

There’s not a line here that bears repeating. Instead, let’s re-visit James Cameron’s own verdict on the film. Aware that this perhaps wasn‘t his finest directorial hour, he later offered the following tongue-in-cheek appraisal of his own work: “I believe The Spawning is the finest flying piranha movie ever made.”

Interesting fact

While this is officially where Cameron’s career began, our Jimbo was reportedly sacked during the making of the film. Accounts vary as to what stage he collected his P45, with some saying Cameron completed photography on the film but was locked out of editing, while others insist Jim was fired after a week with the film’s producer shooting the film. He must have been heartbroken.

Review by: Jafo

Friday, 22 November 2013

Battleship

Who hasn’t wanted to be a soldier? Running around in the mud with a machine gun and a camouflaged, paint-smeared face. Wot larks.

If you didn‘t, then you probably wanted to be a pilot, scorching through the skies at Mach-2 while locked in a deadly aerial dogfight.

Odds are, however, you never longed to be in the Navy, meandering slowly around the world’s oceans doing, doing…..what is it they do, exactly?

Yup, there’s no hiding it: the Navy is boring.

It’s just a duller world – geared towards the complexities of fleet management, integrated modern weapon systems and sophisticated engineering mechanisms. Sorry, did you drop off for a moment there..?

When the brains behind Battleshit (and no, that’s not a typing error) came together, they no doubt swiftly realised they had a problem. How the hell do you make the dull logistics of modern Navy life thrilling to cinema’s key audience: pimply-faced teens?

Their answer, while not pretty, does have a certain base logic to it: give ‘em aliens, sex and guns. So they make the Navy repel an alien invasion, squeeze Rihanna into a booty-licious sailor outfit, and get Liam Neeson (cast here as a grizzled Admiral) to gruffly shout ‘Fire!’ a lot.

And that’s it, frankly. In the face of such brutal reductionism, nothing so flagrant as a coherent plot was ever going to make the cut. Everything here is about maintaining the attention of pubescent boys. That’s probably why – and try to keep a straight face here – the alien trouble starts when scientists try to contact another world by tweeting them. (Presumably something like: @E.T. r u aliens LOL.) See, kids, the movies are just like your life!

Rihanna: "Bring me a baby panda to cuddle NOW!"
Incredibly, this genius idea backfires. (Maybe one of the scientists got drunk and sent a snapchat pic of their knob.) Whatever, the cousins from outer space send their reply in the form of five heavily-armed attack ships, rather than an amusing video of a cat repeatedly falling off a sofa.

As intergalactic conflict breaks out, Hopper, the buff hero, flexes his pecs and starts saving the day. It’s never explained why a work-shy pussy-hound is in the Navy, where slacking-off and fraternising with women are court martial offences, but that’s the least of this film’s inconsistency worries.

Oh, yes. Very soon, a much bigger question looms: does this day actually need saving? Weirdly for an alien invasion movie, these evil spacemen don’t actually seem too bothered about global conquest. For long stretches, they do na-da. Like intergalactic pikies, they just shuffle up, make a big mess of the ocean, then loaf around doing nothing.

This boring stalemate continues for ages, leaving the audience in the awkward position of having to watch actors hired for how buff they look actually trying to speak. (Neeson, the sole capable thesp, looks pig miserable in these scenes.)

It’s snore-worthy fare, though Exploding Helicopter was impressed by how they got Rihanna to stay in front of a camera for two consecutive minutes without baring her arse.

On and on it goes, like a leaky old boat taking on water. And by the time an old WWII battleship performs a handbrake turn (The Fast and the Funnelled, anyone?), everyone’s too weary to point out that ships don’t really do that.

Neeson watches his own soul die as he delivers
another deathless line of dialogue
And yet, just as the eyelids start to close, Battleshit comes up with chopper fireball action aplenty.

In a honking great blockbuster like this, one exploding helicopter was never going to be enough for the film’s conflagration-hungry teen audience. Instead we're treated to a record breaking eight helicopters being blown to smithereens in one short orgy of rotor-bladed mayhem.

It begins peacefully enough, with the octuplet of helicopters parked innocently at their base posing no threat to anybody. Nevertheless the aliens head straight for them, providing a visual treat as the weird spherical spaceship devices barrel through the parked whirlybirds.

At times like this, one bemoans the lack of a collective noun for exploding helicopters. If a murder of crows or a conspiracy of lemurs, then why not a con-flame-gration of choppers? Hey, it could catch on.

Suffice to say, the eight vehicles explode spectacularly.

Artistic merit

There’s much to be said for exploding helicopter scenes that are unnecessary and gratuitous – and this one is the very apogee of needlessness.

The helicopters here aren't strategically important, they're not fitted with secret anti-alien devices. There's no reason to think they pose any kind of danger.

This palpable lack of threat lends the scene an aesthetic purity. It suggests exploding helicopters are an elemental property of film, above the mere petty demands of plot or logic – a phenomenon to be appreciated on its own terms and in reference only to itself. Which is to be applauded, of course.

Number of exploding helicopters

A historic and record breaking 8.

Exploding helicopter innovation

The destruction of helicopters by aliens in this kind of actiony, sci-fi movie has become a yawn-inducing commonplace. (See Independence Day or Battle: Los Angeles for just two examples).

Given the choppers always get absolutely pummelled – and that such a contest is the aerodynamic equivalent of Macaulay Culkin vs Vinnie Jones with a nailed club – it’s actually refreshing to see the lumbering helicopters not even make it off the ground. And more realistic.

Positives

Watching Rihanna trying to act never gets old. Even mid-line, she looks about ready to throw an insta-strop and demand one of her ‘people’ bring her a truffle smoothie and baby panda to cuddle NOW.

Throughout Battleshit, many of the cast wear t-shirts saying ARMY or NAVY, presumably so she can tell the difference. (In earlier cuts, rumour has it the invaders also had to wear ALIEN t-shirts for the same reason.)

Negatives

Almost everything. In particular, there’s a depressing certainty of knowing that, at some point, someone will have to drop the famous tag-line. So when Liam Neeson, of all people, finally says ‘You sunk my battleship!’ you can almost see his soul die a little inside.

(Fair enough: the film’s pay check probably bought the big man a swanky Malibu beach house. But if so, you can bet every time he sits out on the deck and suddenly remembers how he paid for it all, that iced cocktail will curdle in his mouth.)

Interesting fact

The most famous review of this lumbering, over-long mess was a model of economy from which the film could have learned much.

It was, simply: ‘Miss’.

Review by: Donny Pebbles

Still want more? Check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast on Battleship. Listen to the show on iTunes, Podomatic, YourListen, Stitcher, or Acast.


Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Expendables

After a run of box office duds in the early Noughties (Get Carter, D-Tox, Driven), Hollywood decided that Sylvester Stallone was himself expendable and consigned him to the movie scrapheap.

Unable to get an acting gig, Sly licked his wounds for a few years before rebooting his career with sequels to the two franchises that had established him as a star in the first place. And while critical reaction to Rocky Balboa and Rambo was lukewarm, both films made handsome returns at the box office.

Counting purely on his own firm resolve – and some industrial-sized injections of human growth hormone – Sly proved, against all expectation, that there was indeed a market for watching pension-age action stars creak arthritically through the butt-kicking moves of their youth.

No surprise then that, for his first venture into ‘original’ material since the great comeback, Stallone opted not to stray too far from the profitable formula. If nothing else, The Expendables (2010) has no shortage of ultra-violence dispensed by doddery old folks.

The token plot (and let‘s be honest, this isn’t a story that invites scrutiny) has Stallone as the leader of a bunch of mercenaries for hire. They’re paid to assassinate a military dictator who is running a massive drug operation. Other than the obligatory rogue CIA agent, that’s about it.

Technically, this is an original work. However, despite his dopey features, Sly is much too sharp to have not recognised that the success of Rambo 4 and Rocky 6 lay in their nostalgic groove. Audiences don’t want him to move with the times, so much as go back in time. Retro, therefore, is the order of the day.

The style, mood and even cast – action stalwarts Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, and Gary Daniels are exhumed from their DTV careers to co-star – are all classic vintage. The film couldn’t be more Eighties if you permed it’s hair, dressed it a shell suit and made it dance to Kajagoogoo.

Despite all the snapping bones and non-stop fighting, a warm, feel-good vibe permeates the film – one that trades heavily on the audience’s affection for these grizzled old bears going through the motions all over again. After all, besides baddies and grenades, they also now have to contend with lumbago and the possibility of losing a bit of wee mid-action scene.

In many ways, with its familiar cast of ageing reprobates getting up to no good, it’s like a peculiarly violent episode of Last Of The Summer Wine. At any given moment, one almost expects the Stath to slip on a woolly hat and start eulogising about Nora Batty’s saggy tights. (As it is, he instead opts for repeatedly pummelling someone’s face into a scarlet mush, but you get the general idea.)

Cheap bon mots aside, there is a serious point to be made. The Expendables works because Stallone understands why people love Eighties action movies – because they featured larger than life characters who visibly enjoyed their ass-kicking antics.

Compare, let’s say, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando (1985) to the po-faced seriousness of the Bourne films, where Matt Damon blankly beats the bejaysus out of everyone with the bored indifference of a supermarket checkout worker. It’s easy to admire the Bourne films, but pretty hard to love them.

The Expendables may be full of genre clichés, but they’re delivered with love and affection rather than being cynically trotted out as a tick-box exercise. As such, it’s no surprise to see the movie delivering on the ultimate genre staple: the exploding helicopter.

At the end of the film, Stallone and his men launch a huge assault on the villain’s HQ. Realising the game is up, Eric Roberts attempts to make a getaway in a helicopter. And with Sly prevented from reaching him by a wall of fire – and the whole base going up like a fireworks display – it’s looking like he’ll succeed.

Fortunately, Old Stroke Features comes up with an inspired piece of improvisation. One of his unfeasibly musclebound cronies throws an artillery shell (that conveniently happens to be lying around) towards the chopper and, as it arcs through the air, Stallone fires his pistol at the shell. Ba-boom! One flambéed helicopter coming right up.

Artistic merit

The explosion is a whopper, big enough to satisfy every red-blooded chopper fireball fan, even if the CGI is a trifle too noticeable.

There’s also a good shot of Stallone diving away from the explosion in classic action movie style as he‘s nearly dismembered by a piece of flying shrapnel.

Exploding helicopter innovation

The ‘MacGyver style’ improvisation with the artillery shell and the pistol is a nice touch. While helicopters have been destroyed in more unusual ways, it’s rare to see a character being so intellectually creative in the execution of his plan. (And of course, having the words ‘Sly Stallone’ and ‘intellectually creative’ in the same sentence is a novelty in itself.)

Still, such ingenuity is not unprecedented. That renowned intellectual heavyweight, Steven Seagal, once used only a knife, paint-stripper and some advanced cub scout skills to blow up a chopper. (The film was Under Siege, fact fans). But then, you can tell Big Steve really clever by the way he almost says his lines.

Positives

The plot is commendably simple: kill the baddie and rescue the girl. At some point around the late Nineties, filmmakers started worrying that this formula had become exhausted and started throwing in lots of arsey sub-plots involving double and even triple crosses.

One day, Exploding Helicopter will get its protractor out and draw you the graph showing the inverse relationship between plot complexity and audience interest.

Negatives

As much as we love the ensemble cast it does create a problem: how to squeeze everyone in?

Eric Roberts, ostensibly the main villain, has to share too much screen time with David Zayas’ inferior evil General and his character feels a bit undercooked as a consequence. Roberts’ henchman (played by Gary Daniels and Steve Austin) are also left with little to do other than scowl in the background before becoming human punch-bags in the film’s extended showdown ending.

Still, you can’t say Sly isn’t a learner. In The Expendables 2, which has a similarly sprawling cast, everyone is given a suitably memorable moment in the spotlight.

Favourite quote

In a movie that celebrates action cinema, it’s pleasing to hear Randy Couture utter perhaps the genre’s ultimate cliché: “We got company”.

Interesting fact

Dolph Lundgren’s character was originally killed off, but audience reaction to the blonde lunk in test screenings was so positive that scenes were re-shot to show he hadn’t died.

Review by: Jafo

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Omega Man

Charlton Heston was always either yesterday’s man or tomorrow’s man, but never a man for today.

That at least was the conclusion of the Hollywood producers who, when they tired of casting him in historical epics set thousands of years in the past, catapulted him into the future via a string of sci-fi films.

Chuck may have ached to star in humdrum contemporary dramas, but the poor sod always ended up either struggling with wedgie woes in tight spandex or trying to hide his gnads as he undertook action scenes in a skimpy toga.

By the end, he must have been desperate to just put on a pair of chinos and be done with it. Sadly though, it seems no-one could find a home for his lantern-jawed visage and hulking, rangy frame in a modern day setting.

In The Omega Man (1971), Heston plays the sole-ish human survivor of a terrible biological war that has killed most of the human race. All that remain are marauding gangs of albino-looking mutants who can only emerge at night due to their light-sensitive eyes. (For reference, think of pasty-skinned, nightclubbing Brits in Ibiza during the high summer.)

When Heston discovers other human survivors and realises there might be a cure for the virus, the stage is set for a deadly confrontation against the mutants with the survival of the human race at stake.

Crikey! That would be enough jeopardy to turn most men into quivering jelly but, for Chuck, this really is just another day at the office. After all, this is the kind of man who laughed at the might of the Roman Empire (Ben-Hur), who commanded oceans to part before him as a party trick (The Ten Commandments), and freed the human race from simian slavery barely without breaking a sweat (Planet Of The Apes).

Yup, with Charlton on the job we already know the fate of human civilisation will be safe. So, to keep things interesting, the film – set in an imagined 1977 – weaves in a little contemporary social commentary.

Chuck enjoys the absence of gun control legislation
in post-apocalypse Earth
First, there’s a barbed critique of Sixties hippy idealism, most apparent in the scene where Heston sits in an empty cinema watching the 1970 Woodstock documentary. Clearly viewing the film for the umpteenth time, Chuck mechanically recites the interviewees’ aspirations about peace and brotherly love. We’re left to appreciate the irony between their vision for the world and the one Heston now lives in.

It’s also probably no accident that the mutants organise themselves into a group called ‘the Family’ – a not so subtle nod to beardy psychopath Charles Manson’s murderous cult.

Interestingly, even racial politics find their way into the film. Several clearly black mutants (remember everyone’s made up to look albino) refer to the world’s ills as a product of the ‘great white way’. Coming just a few years after the assassination of Martin Luther King and at the height of the radical activism of the Black Panthers, these words would have carried a resonance that’s easy to overlook today.

That’s what makes the romance between Heston and Rosalind Cash – one of the other human survivors – so striking. Inter-racial relationships onscreen were a rarity in 1971, and the film seems determined to shock by including a redundant scene where Heston and Cash shop for birth control pills.

Viewed today, the only jarring aspect of the romance is the large age gap and entire lack of chemistry between the two actors. But presumably when you’re the last man and woman alive on earth, you take it where you can find it. And, in fairness, such obvious obstacles didn’t stop Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones from being married for over a decade.

It's not fun being a mutant
Anyway, enough of such sociological ramblings. Let’s concentrate on the far more socially significant aspect of the film: the helicopter explosion.

This occurs in a flashback to events when the virus is first taking hold across America. Heston, an army colonel, is rotoring along to a military base.

As the helicopter is mid-flight, the pilot suddenly succumbs to the virus and slumps down dead in the cockpit. Heston is unable to control the ailing chopper, which plummets from the sky and crashes at speed into the ground with explosive effect.

Artistic merit

Judged against the standards of the day, pretty good.

Director Boris Sagal employs a small cheat and has the helicopter disappear behind a low ridge so we don’t actually see it hit the ground. However, Sagal rapidly cuts to lots of burning wreckage so it‘s not like we‘re completely denied our pleasures. For 1971, this is an above average helicopter crash

Do passengers survive?

Yes, Heston crawls clear of the wreckage. The pilot, if he wasn’t killed by the crash, was presumably finished off by the lurgy bacteria.

Positives

The opening scenes, which feature Heston driving through the desolate, deserted streets of Los Angeles, are as atmospheric an opening to a film as you could hope to see. It’s a powerful, eerie and disorientating entry into the film.

Negatives

It’s entirely possible that film composer Ron Grainger was scoring a made-for-TV romantic drama at the same time as Heston’s movie, and accidentally sent in the wrong tape. In places, the whole enterprise is nearly ruined by his awful soundtrack. Imagine Jaws with the Sound of Music score and you’ll get the idea.

Favourite quote

At one point, Heston says: “Take your stinkin’ paws off me you damn dirty mutant!” Okay, maybe I just wanted him to say it.

Interesting fact

Filmmakers really did struggle to find modern day characters Charlton Heston could play. Between Ben-Hur in 1959 and The Omega Man in 1971, Heston made just two films which had a contemporaneous setting.

Review by: Jafo

Thursday, 10 October 2013

White House Down

Action movies set in the White House are like buses: you wait ages for one then two trundle along virtually at the same time.

Following the lamentable Olympus Has Fallen, in which Gerard Butler saved the free world largely by stabbing people in the head and neck, here comes an altogether breezier take on the kidnapped President trope.

The plots of the two films are spookily identical. Both boast a washed-up hero, traitorous agent, ‘cute’ kid and secret bunkers. Even the fake money demands to mask dastardly nuclear ambitions are carbon copied. But where Olympus was set in rainy darkness and gloried in its wearisome uber-violence (there’s a lovely scene where a pension-aged lady is repeatedly kicked in the stomach), White House Down takes place on a sunny day and is, for all intents, halfway to being a comedy.

Certainly, Channing Tatum is much more likeable than Gerard Butler. (Having said that, Pol Pot was more likeable than Gerard Butler.) Normally, one should never trust a man whose neck is wider than his head, but Tatum lollops around the White House like a big, enthusiastic puppy and, between the cartoony fight scenes, gamely plays along with the film’s fromage-laden tone.

President Jamie Foxx, it turns out, is planning to withdraw troops from the Middle East so baddies storm the White House. Absolutely everyone is either killed or taken hostage – except Tatum and his precocious young daughter, natch.

While Tatum creeps stealthily around the corridors, still getting into scrapes at every turn, his tweenie offspring blunders around the entire building for ages without being spotted. She even records the baddies on her smartphone and posts the clips to news stations.

Tatum: owner of Hollywood's most ripped neck
(Incidentally, it’s a chief failing of action movies that kids are always plucky, resourceful and insanely tech-savvy. One longs to see a kiddie hostage just sobbing in a corner in a puddle of their own urine, which is clearly what would actually happen.)

It quickly transpires that President Foxx has been betrayed by his head of secret service, James Woods. (Presumably, Brian Cox was busy). Tatum manages to spring the First Dude and, with the pair trapped in the building among hordes of terr’ists, all is primed for a classic buddy action movie. Which, against the odds, is broadly what you get.

Of course, this being a Roland Emmerich movie, half of Washington has to be destroyed first. Bye, bye, Capitol Building. So long, White House roof. (There’s also a self-reverential quip about buildings going up ‘like something from Independence Day’, which no-one but the director will have enjoyed.)

There’s a weird mixture of acting chops on display. Jamie Foxx, aware that this won’t be the movie to bag him a second Oscar, has fun with his faux-Obama role. Lance Reddick, a former big hitter from The Wire, puts on his best game-face and frankly brings more gravitas to his lines than they deserve.

Indie darling Maggie Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, barely bothers to hide how bored she is with her role. In Secretary, she became famous for having her bottom spanked. Here, it’s just her face that looks like a slapped arse.

Most weirdly, Jason Clarke – who spent the first 30 minutes of Zero Dark Thirty exuding genuine menace as he water-boarded an Iraqi captive – is here stared down by the 13-year-old moppet. (Many in the auditorium may have been wishing someone at this point had handed him a bucket of water, flannel and small plank of wood.)

James Wood: Brian Cox was unavailable for this film
One thing is certain: White House Down contains the finest collection of cod-military jargon to grace a screen in some time. Rather than merely see something, this is a world where people ‘have a visual’ or ‘have eyes on’ them. No-one wearing a uniform seems capable of getting through five words without mention of ‘wetwork’, ‘black ops’ or ‘payload delivery’. People with straight faces say things like: ‘Eagle is 30 seconds from the vault: we are coming in hot’.

Of course, not everything is good. The moppet daughter, Scrappy Doo in human form, is allowed to squander way too much screen-time. The fight choreography is ropey: numerous bad guys can be spotted patiently awaiting their turn to get shot or punched. Worst of all, while tussling over the nuclear button at the climax, super buff Jamie Foxx is comprehensively banjoed by 66-year-old James Woods, playing a man who’s terminally ill with cancer.

And yet, it works. Most action movies either play it straight or lazily point to their own crapness with a post-modern wink, as if that excuses everything. (Snakes on a Plane, anyone?) It takes genuine skill to make the audience guffaw at the daftness of the whole endeavour and yet still root for the good guys.

Happily, the film’s producers also seem to have put some thought into the exploding helicopter scene. It occurs when the reliably useless military bigwigs, unaware that the baddies are armed with ‘Javelin’ surface-to-air missiles, send in three choppers under the radar. (‘We have Black Hawks!’)

I hope this isn’t spoiling things, but they all get blasted to smithereens. Once hit, the first casualty careers in low over the White House roof and clips off the American flag, which flutters broken and twisted to the ground. (See what they did there? That’s called a ‘metaphor’, fact fans.) As tradition dictates, the second chopper then hovers around politely waiting to be hit – but it too crashes in a winning fashion, splurging into the White House pond to serve up a rare explosion and big splash combo.

That’s good, but it gets better. The third chopper has time to hover directly over the White House roof, and a dozen marines are already shimmying down long ropes when, oops, the final missile hits. Cue splendid shots of a huge Black Hawk swirling helplessly with flailing marines hanging on to the ropes like its some demented fairground ride, before the whole thing crashes into the roof and explodes.

Exploding helicopter innovation 

It appears that some people actually sat down and spent time debating how they could most entertainingly splatter a few helicopters over the White House. Compare with Olympus Has Fallen, where the cinema audience literally couldn’t tell what was happening for most of the chopper scene.

Positives

Probably the most innovative thing about the whole scene is that Emerich has the brass nuts to let it unfold during a bright, sunny day. Most action directors, painfully self-conscious about the limitations of CGI, hide their chopper conflagrations behind cover of rainstorms or murky darkness. Our Roland has the sense to realise that if you only serve up the explosions in a fresh and quirky way, no-one’s going to be arsed about a bit of unlikely-looking pixilation.

Negatives

When the third chopper crashes through the White House roof, its back rotor blade ends up spinning dangerously up against someone’s face and then stopping…just in time. This tired old trick, first deployed in Mission Impossible and repeated in countless films since, should surely now be allowed to see out its final days in the Exploding Helicopter Rest Home for Overused Scenes.

Interesting fact

Despite creaking unsteadily towards his seventh decade, James Woods turned up at the film’s premiere slobbering all over his latest girlfriend: a 20-year-old moppet. That wasn’t creepy at all.

Review by: Chopper

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Half Past Dead 2

How bad does a film have to be before Steven Seagal won’t star in it?

It’s a question to which the numbed witnesses of such rank offerings as Against The Dark or the execrable Flight Of Fury probably feel there is no answer.

But, it would appear, the sceptics and naysayers are wrong. Impossible as it may seem, such a work does indeed exist: a film of such utter wretchedness that even Old Totem Face (an actor, let’s not forget, whose copious use of stunt doubles and over-dubbing means he’s often barely in his own films) felt unwilling to grace with his immobile presence

Ladies and gentlemen I give you: Half Past Dead 2 (2007).

As the brighter ones among you may have already deduced, this is a sequel to Half Past Dead, in which the ‘divine ponytail’ played a policeman who gets sent to prison on an undercover mission. Ironically, given the title, the film completely flat-lined at the box office, killing off Big Steve’s Hollywood career.

Now, no-one’s going to argue Steve is bursting with MENSA potential – but even he realised that appearing in the follow-up to such a galumphing turkey wouldn’t be the best way to resurrect his ailing career, and duly passed. (Though allegedly, when he told the producers he wouldn’t be fighting, speaking or playing any meaningful part in the sequel, they initially thought he’d agreed to take on the role.)

Kurupt wondering if it was wise to star in this sequel
Without Whispering Steve, the producers of Half Past Dead 2 had a problem: how to provide at least a tenuous semblance of continuity? Their solution came in the form of rapper turned actor Kurupt.

I’m sorry? Who he?

Painfully average rapper Kurupt (responsible for such timeless classics as Tha Streetz Iz A Mutha) had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in Half Past Dead. It would appear that, on the strength of his non-performance as a gobby, irritating convict in the original, the producers duly decided to promote him to leading man status for this outing. (For an idea of how ludicrous this is, imagine making Argyle - Bruce Willis' limousine chauffeur in Die Hard - the star of Die Hard 2).

While such casting makes the film’s claim to sequel status rather dubious, the story does dovetail surprisingly neatly with the events of Half Past Dead. How so? Because it turns out Kurupt wants to escape from prison so he can recover the gold everyone in Half Past Dead was looking for. Unfortunately, a riot breaks out in the prison before he can put his plan in motion.

As anarchy spreads throughout the jail, one of the inmates seizes two hostages. In a plot contrivance too tiresome to explain, the captives happen to be Kurupt’s girlfriend and the daughter of another prisoner (more non-acting talent in the shape of wrestler-turned-thespian Bill Goldberg). Thrown together by circumstance, the two prisoners team up to rescue their loved ones.

Bill Goldberg getting 'dangerous'
This setup isn’t without potential. With Kurupt playing a cocky, motor-mouthed street punk and Goldberg as a taciturn, lumbering hulk who just wants to peacefully serve out his time, you have the makings of a classic mis-matched double act. (See Murphy and Nolte in 48 Hours, or Gibson and Glover in Lethal Weapon.)

Sadly, the fractious relationship that should power the movie emerges as a giant damp squib. While Kurupt holds up his end of the equation, injecting livewire sass into proceedings, the hapless Goldberg – despite his gigantic frame and shaven head – wanders through the film with an air of genial befuddlement, exuding all the danger of a giant teddy bear.

Equally limp are the fight scenes that punctuate the film. With veteran stunt co-ordinator Art Camacho handling directorial duties, one would have hoped for an A&E-tastic parade of neck-snapping, bone-crunching brawling.

What you get is a bunch of extras standing around waiting for their designated extra partner to throw an unconvincing looking punch at them. You’d likely see better – and, crucially, faster – blows delivered at a sherry-fuelled pensioner brawl down the bingo hall.

The overall effect is depressing – and the absence of any inspiration or spark makes watching this prison movie feel curiously like a 92-minute sentence of hard time. They say capital punishment is inhuman but, given the alternative of sitting through this drudgery again, I’d take the electric chair in a second.

Given the paucity of thrills elsewhere in the film, it’s no surprise to learn the exploding helicopter scene is a similarly dispiriting affair.

It occurs during an expository scene where, in an effort to get viewers up to speed with the plot, we see snippets from Half Past Dead. Readers with good memories will recall that the original film ended with an exploding helicopter and it’s this rotor-bladed conflagration we witness in flashback.

There’s only a brief shot of the chopper before the bomb on board explodes destroying the aircraft.

Artistic merit

This is a tough one to review. On the one hand I enjoyed the chopper fireball in Half Past Dead. It’s a good explosion and the wreckage races dramatically towards the camera, so why couldn't I just enjoy it again?

I guess it's because for a movie enthusiast the whole scene feels like being palmed off with mouldy offerings from the reduced section after having paid for something box-fresh.

As Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten famously observed: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

Exploding helicopter innovation

If your cup is half full, you’d say this was the first time a chopper fireball sequence from one film has guest starred in a sequel.

If your cup is half empty, you’d say this was the diametric opposite of innovation. ‘Unnovation’, if you like.

Positives

Robert LaSardo adds a touch of class to proceedings
Among the prisoners, it’s a joy to see perennial cinematic jailbird Robert LaSardo, whose weasel-faced and heavily tattooed body you’ll doubtless recognise from umpteen films.

He only has a few scenes, but LaSardo is such a charismatic presence he immediately injects much needed drama into proceedings.

His distinctive appearance inevitably means he’s spent a full career playing crooks, gang members or prisoners. But what I like about his style is that he can be genuinely menacing or, if needed, bring a brittle kind of vulnerability to his characters. It’s this versatility which makes him more interesting than the majority of character actor heavies.

Negatives

Rarely have I seen a film take place in such stygian gloom. Whole sections of the film take place in virtual darkness. The effect is not so much film noir as film opaque. Still given the quality of what I could actually make out on the screen, this may not have been entirely a bad thing.

Interesting fact

No one has, as yet, made Half Past Dead 3. We should be grateful for small mercies.

Review by: Jafo

Friday, 20 September 2013

Annihilation Earth

I like to think I’m an intelligent man. Nothing special you understand, but I can tackle a Sudoku and dent the cryptic crossword.

It also means I can follow most films. Sure, I might not understand every last nuance or layer of subtext, but I can generally follow the broad sweep of plot and theme.

Or at least, that’s what I thought. But after watching Annihilation Earth (2009), I’d absolutely not a scoobie what was going on.

Normally, I wouldn’t even bother to try and make sense of such a mangled cinematic experience. However, my obligations as a reviewer for a micro-genre film blog require me to at least attempt a brief synopsis. So here goes….

In the near future, the world’s energy crisis is about to be solved. A global network of Hadron Colliders are about to come online to provide the planet with all the clean energy it could ever need.

Happily, though, this is a disaster movie and not a promo video for the environmental movement. So predictably, there’s a fly or two in the ointment.

First, there’s the regulation-issue shady politician (Marina Sirtis) leading a high-level conspiracy to stop the technology being shared. And –  try not to fall off your chair from shock – but would you believe there’s also  a terrorist who’s hell-bent on blowing up the super-colliders? The film never  troubles itself to cast any light on the motivations of these shadowy characters, leaving the viewer clueless as to why anything is happening.

At first, I was going to quibble this point but, given how buttock-clenchingly poor the motivations of most movie villains are (remember the goon in Olympus Has Fallen who cited ‘Globalisation. Wall Street.’ as the trigger points for his traitorous actions?) that a dignified silence might well be the best option.

After the terrorist blows up one of the colliders, the whole power-generating network becomes dangerously unstable, threatening to destroy the entire world. Only a top scientist, played by Luke Goss – the distressed Levis-wearing, Grolsch bottle top-bothering former singer from Eighties pop moppets Bros – can stop the annihilation of the earth.

Goss and his team don protective suits to shield
themselves from the fallout from of a dire script
Now, if this sounds straightforward, it’s only because I’ve left out the guff where the Earth’s magnetic poles switch, earthquakes shake cities to the ground, and everyone faces the prospect of disappearing into the void when a black hole forms. Oh, and that’s not to mention the ‘doomsday equation’: some sort of mathematical flaw in the colliders that means oblivion was inevitable from the moment the damn things were turned on.

The effect of all this woeful incoherence is to leave the viewer caring not so much whether the world will end, but simply when the film will.

Perhaps embarrassed by its failure to make any sense, the film hastily gets on with the main disaster movie business of blowing stuff up – which entertainingly includes half of France. (Hollywood’s long-standing grudge against the cheese-eating surrender monkeys is a gift that keeps on giving).

Inevitably, amid such widespread destruction, the film-makers gamely throw in a chopper fireball to keep our flagging interests from waning.

The rotor-related mayhem occurs when Goss and a small team of scientists fly in to investigate the site where the first collider blew up. Conforming to disaster movie type, the helicopter develops a mechanical problem at the worst possible moment and plummets from the sky. Crashing to the ground where, it lies broken and smashed for a moment before exploding.

Artistic merit

The crash is decently staged. There are lots of shaky camera shots from within the helicopter as the pilot battles for control.

The explosion though, is a dull CGI affair. It makes me wonder if, like the pre-programmed rhythm settings on a cheap keyboard, there’s a default ‘explosion’ setting that comes with all CGI software. If so (and straining the analogy to its breaking point), this conflagration had a definite ‘bossanova’ feel to it – cheesy and predictable.

Exploding helicopter innovation

I’ve wracked my brains and genuinely can’t come up with anything. Not a bean.

Do passengers survive?

Naturally, main guy Goss and his team of scientists manage to scramble from the chopper’s wreckage and survive. But oh no! The pilot’s trapped in the cockpit.

With the helicopter about to explode, Goss tries to free the unfortunate aviator. However, realising that the chopper is only seconds away from fiery oblivion the pilot nods wordlessly at Goss, giving permission to abandon the rescue effort and save himself.

It’s meant to be a moving moment of self-sacrifice, but plays more like the actor simply lost all enthusiasm for being associated with Annihilation Earth any longer. I know exactly how he feels.

Positives

If the thought of a former boy-band lip-synch specialist as one of the world’s top scientists seems unlikely enough, the rest of Luke Goss’ scientific team is made up of silicone and collagen-enhanced dolly birds.

Still, science must be exhausting work. In no time at all, our lady professors are stripping down to their vests for no discernible reason. Cue much cleavage-focussed camera activity.

Later when one of the bimbos dies, she makes her final wheezing breaths look and sound suspiciously like an orgasm – which, in retrospect, may offer a clue as to the nature of her previous cinematic outings.

Negatives

Curiously, in this American made-for-TV production, all the leads are British. Perhaps wisely, given he often struggled to convincingly lip-synch songs with only two lines in them, Goss is permitted to retain his standard Cock-er-nee accent. Colin Salmon, on the other hand, tries to disguise the clipped diction of his RADA-trained baritone with an accent that can only be described as ‘generic American’. By someone who’s plainly British.

Meanwhile, Marina Sirtis (Star Trek: The Next Generation) appears to be aiming for a Southern Belle twang. Unsurprisingly though, it keeps chaotically switching on and off, as if someone behind her was twiddling a giant knob and desperately trying to find the correct vocal setting. Edifying, it is not.

Favourite quote

In a film where the script is made up entirely of deathless dialogue, no line epitomises the profound lack of danger or excitement better than: “David - we have to get back to Geneva.”

Interesting fact

In his Eighties pop heyday, Luke Goss once sang: ‘When Will I Be Famous?’ Not any time soon, if this piece of prime cinematic merde has anything to do with it.

Review by: Jafo

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Arctic Predator

It would be very easy to confuse Arctic Predator (2010) with The Thing, but be assured they are very different films. While one’s about a shape-shifting creature that’s defrosted by scientists in the arctic, the other is about scientists who accidentally defrost a shape-shifting…. oh, never mind.

Make no mistake though, there are notable and crucial differences between the two films. For example, one film’s called Arctic Predator and the other is titled The Thing. It’s possible there may even be other differences but, overcome with a sense of déjà vu, you’ll probably find them hard to spot.

In Kurt Russell’s role, we now have former TV Superman actor Dean Cain, whose career seemingly went up, up and away at some point in the early Noughties. He’s leading a mission to find the wreck of an old sailing ship, which mysteriously sank in the Arctic nearly 200 years ago.

Inevitably, when they find and defrost the vessel they also thaw out the titular Arctic Predator. As the newly unleashed creature starts killing off the small team one-by-one, Cain must stop the monster before everyone is put permanently on ice.

So far, so similar, you might think. However, it would be unfair to accuse this film of doing a straight rip-off of The Thing, if only because it would appear that plundering just one suspense classic wasn’t quite enough for the movie’s ‘creative’ team.

How so? Well, just as you’re getting used to watching a flaccid re-run of Kurt Russell’s classic, up pops the homicidal ice monster – which looks uncannily like yon dreadlocked Predator chappie who gave Arnold Schwarzenegger so much trouble all those years ago.

In essence, you’re watching the movie equivalent of a ‘ringer’ car – a wonky, barely-operating whole made up from distended bits of other blockbuster vehicles.

Dean Cain and definitely not Kurt Russell
Although largely bankrupt in terms of ideas and budget (just get a load of that Atari-level CGI), the film’s penurious approach does promote a strange strain of originality.

So, when they need a device to carefully defrost the delicate, centuries old artefacts from the sunken ship, a heat gun – yes, the standard type generally used for stripping paint – is pressed into service as if it were a sophisticated piece of scientific equipment.

There’s also a glorious scene where, after an impromptu amputation, someone cauterises the gaping wound using an iron. Yes, an iron. (Apparently, you can find the ‘wound-cauterising’ setting just between nylon and cotton steam.

Sadly, such moments of low-fi inspiration don’t stretch to the helicopter explosion which is the dictionary definition of routine.

Looking to escape the arctic base one of the team flies out in a helicopter during a violent storm. As he’s about to take off, the pilot is stabbed by our icy hunter but still manages to fly the chopper a short distance away from the facility. Alas, all too quickly he succumbs to his injuries so the whirlybird crashes to the ground and explodes.

Artistic merit

Risible. The ‘explosion’ is a yellowy CGI smear that the director chooses wisely not to linger over.

Exploding helicopter innovation

None. We’ve already seen helicopters explode in the Arctic. Funnily enough, in The Thing.

Positives

Amid a veritable tsunami of rank cliché and banal rip-off, there is actually one genuinely good idea fighting to be noticed. It turns out the sailing ship that Cain searches for was captained by his distant relative, so there is a nice story arc about his life paralleling that of his forefather.

To avoid plot spoilers I won‘t go into specifics, but this idea goes off in a potentially interesting and dark direction at the end.

Negatives

As a veteran viewer of low-budget, made for cable productions, I’m well used to hearing actors deliver execrable dialogue – but the Arctic Predator script is a whole new kind of bad. In fact, it’s not so much bad as just plain wrong. Let’s look at the prosecution’s ‘Exhibit A’, which occurs when the crew eventually realise they’re facing a homicidal ice monster.

“We got ourselves a situation here.”

[With panicked expression] “I’d say ‘situation’ underlines it.”

For pity’s sake. It doesn’t ‘underline’ anything; it ‘understates’ the situation. Shakespeare, this ain’t.

Favourite quote

There’s a glorious lack of empathy in this brief exchange:

“Where’s the doc?”

“He sacrificed himself.”

[Immediately] “Did his plan work?”

The concern for the poor, departed doc is touching.

Favourite helicopter-related quote

“Make no mistake, we’re flying out of here on this chopper.” (Unfortunately, as action movie genre rules state, the inverse of any emphatic statement given by a minor character must turn out to be true.)

Interesting fact

Having grumbled through this review about how Arctic Predator is a rip-off of The Thing, it’s only fair to acknowledge that John Carpenter was also reinventing an earlier film, The Thing From Another World (1951).

However, whereas Carpenter was clearly producing a remake and bringing his own ideas to the film, Arctic Predator settles for nothing more than lazy plagiarism.

Review by: Jafo

Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Guardian

With the Oscar-laden Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner made a big splash in the Hollywood pond. Then over the next few years he surfed a tidal wave of critical and commercial success, until nearly sinking his career (and an whole studio) with watery disaster epic Waterworld.

With that film’s title now a cautionary byword for excess and folly – a kind of Heaven’s Gate, with gills – you’d have thought Tinseltown producers would be wary of bankrolling any project that placed Kevin anywhere near so much as a bucket of water, never mind an entire ocean of the stuff.

But, proving the wisdom of William Goldman’s warning that Hollywood is a town where ‘nobody knows anything’, incredibly someone decided to chuck $70m at The Guardian (2006), a tale of heroism on the high seas.

Big Kev plays Randall, a legendary rescue swimmer with the US coastguard. Haunted by the death of his friend during a dangerous rescue (a staple of these movies – see Sly Stallone in Cliffhanger’s opening scene), he’s forced to take a gig at the coastguard training school whilst he regains his sea-rescuing mojo.

At the school, Kevin has to whip a class of new recruits into shape – including cocky high-school swim champ Ashton Kutcher, who is similarly hamstrung by personal tragedy. Can both men let go of the grief that’s holding them back? Can they achieve their coastguard dreams? Does a bear answer the call of nature in the woods?

Costner: treading water
The answer, of course, is ‘yes‘. However, we must first sit through an extended hard-training montage and an equally punishing (for the viewer, at least) cathartic scene where Costner and Kutch, lips a-trembling, share their hokum stories of inner pain. There won’t be a dry eye in the house after this scene: certainly, I nearly drowned crying with laughter.

As he recently demonstrated in Man Of Steel, Costner was born to play these humble mentor roles. With his slow hokey drawl, folksy wisdom and solid Joe persona, he’s in many ways the natural heir to James Stewart – even if here he isn’t required to do anything more demanding, in acting terms, than tread water.

Kutcher though, as the arrogant ingenue, is plainly not waving, but drowning. While he might have been comfortable playing second fiddle to an older, more established actor in his marriage, it’s a role he visibly struggles with onscreen.

Still, despite the achingly predictable plot arc and familiar array of cardboard cut-out characters, the two big sea rescues that bookend the film are excitingly staged by veteran director Andrew Davis (Under Siege, The Fugitive). And, while the almost two and a half hours run-time is over generous, this is a slickly made and harmlessly enjoyable piece of work.

The sure directorial touch is evident in The Guardian’s opening action set-piece, where you don’t need the weather eye of an old sea captain to forecast there’s an explosion brewing for the featured helicopter.

Amid a massive storm, the Kev’ster is flown out to help the crew of a cargo ship which has started to sink. Kevin dives into the sea to help the sailors who’ve abandoned ship. Just before they can be winched to safety in the helicopter, a huge wave flings a piece of wreckage from the stricken ship into its tail rotor.

Kutcher: not waving but drowning
Out of control, the chopper spins around before crashing into the sea and exploding. In a macabre final twist, the sinking helicopter wreckage pulls the man who was about to be winched to safety beneath the waves and towards a watery grave.

Artistic merit

As the centrepiece of the film’s big opening sequence, the helicopter explosion is effectively and dramatically staged. As the fatally damaged helicopter spins towards its doom we see the panic and chaos within the helicopter, as the alarms sound and the pilots battle with the controls.

While one of water’s more notable properties is an ability to extinguish flames, this is conveniently ignored and the chopper explodes like a kerosene soaked tinderbox upon impact with the sea.

Exploding helicopter innovation

There’s nothing particularly innovative here. Helicopters have met watery demises in other, earlier, films such as The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and Piranha 2.

Do passengers survive?

Costner, obviously, survives. As does Kev’s buddy, but only so that he can then die a short while later in Costner’s arms and provide him with the hefty emotional baggage he carries throughout the rest of the film.

Positives

If you’ve seen Waterworld, you’ll be relieved to know there are no scenes involving Costner drinking his own wee in this film.

Negatives

During the training school sequences, it feels as if someone has switched channels to a promotional film for the coastguard.

I can’t help suspecting there was an awful lot of co-operation with the actual US Coastguard in the making of this film, and the price of all that access to locations and equipment was a slavishly drooling portrayal of the service.

Favourite line

Throughout the film, Costner dispenses little epithets of sage advice. One though, rather misses the mark and shows that the coastguard’s gain is counter-terrorism’s loss: “Sometimes you got to shoot a hostage.”

Review by: Jafo

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Land Of The Free

Jeff Speakman. It’s not a name to quicken the pulse or thrill the imagination. It’s not a name to inspire derring-do or strike fear into an enemy‘s heart. And it’s certainly not a name with which to pursue a career in martial arts cinema.

Incredibly, one man sought to defy the odds. One brave, lone wolf dared to throw off the shackles of a monicker which spoke less of face-pummelling prowess and more of middle management tedium, soporific sales conferences and quarterly reporting. Inevitably, that remarkable man was named Jeff Speakman.

For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre (and let’s be frank, we’re talking big numbers there), ‘The Speak’ was a second tier action star who ploughed a yeoman-like straight-to-video furrow during the Nineties. But by the end of that decade, the dim lustre of Jeff’s star was fading and so he found himself in Land Of The Free (1998) a project which, ironically, freed him from the prospect of having a future career.

In the film Jeff plays Frank Jennings, campaign manager for a smarmy politician played with self-satisfied smugness by the high priest of preening narcissism, William Shatner. It’s worse than that, he’s over-acting, Jim.

Predictably, the schmaltzy patriotism of Shatner’s public image is merely a façade behind which lurks a crazed right-wing lunatic with secret links to a bunch of extreme ultra-nationalists hell bent on seizing control of the country. (Remember, this was made before George Bush Jr and the Tea Party, so such an idea might well have seemed fantastical and frightening at the time.)

After Jeff stumbles on the conspiracy, the story becomes a race against time - can Speakman reveal the truth to the world before Shatner’s militia goons silence him?

Jeff Speakman exuding danger, or possibly not 
At this point, new initiates to Speakman might be picturing our hero as a chiselled colossus who, like his VHS-era peers, was all ripped abs, taut biceps, and bulging pecs. But even a cursory glance quickly dispels any such notion.

I’m not saying Jeff’s overweight, but the only thing bulging in this movie is his waistline, and the only things in danger of being ripped are the buttons on his tautly-fastened shirt. In fact, other than DTV-era Steven Seagal or Big Lol Fishburne in Matrix Revolutions, we can confidently surmise no other martial arts guru has had to strap themselves into karate pyjamas of such tent-like dimensions.

Curiously for a socky-choppy violent thriller, there’s a distinct lack of any sense of danger in Land of the Free, and that’s largely due to Jeff’s friendly, placid, almost bovine demeanour. His sappy face, coupled with such a well-upholstered physique, makes him look less like an action star and more like the ‘dad’ figure in some middling TV sitcom about suburban family life. Say what you like about Big Steve Seagal’s acting skills, at least he always looked as if he’d like to kick somebody in the face, if only his girdle wasn’t so tight.

Still, Speakman’s unthreatening and un-athletic appearance serves one useful purpose. Given his opponent in the film’s climatic, mano et mano showdown is the 67-year old Shatner (hairpiece and corset in place), our roly-poly hero’s lack of physical presence at least makes the bout seem slightly less one-sided and ridiculous. But only slightly, mind.

And, while we’re talking of predictable outcomes, it will doubtless come as no surprise that the helicopter featured in this film meets a sudden and explosive end.

William Shatner the high priest of preening narcissism
The crucial scene comes near the end of the film. Tracking Shatner to his ranch, Speakman tries to stop him once and for all. Shatner tries to escape in a helicopter, but Jeff – displaying an improbable agility – leaps onto the helicopter’s runner.

Unsurprisingly, with Speakman’s considerable girth dangling beneath it, the chopper struggles to gain altitude. Speakman plants a timed explosive on the aircraft, but Shatner spots the device and both men leap to safety before the helicopter explodes.

Artistic merit

In a film which rarely misses an opportunity to underwhelm, the helicopter explosion is effectively staged. A realistic looking chopper is destroyed and the fireball fills the screen with a delicious liquid hue of reds and oranges.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Slow motion footage of the helicopter exploding - check. Repeated slow-mo playbacks of the explosion from multiple angles - check. Wreckage crashing to the ground in dramatic fashion - check. A shot of the hero silhouetted against burning debris - check. Yes, it’s fair to say that this film breaks no new ground in the art of exploding helicopters.

Still, while there’s no effort at innovation, at least the director delivers every staple of the helicopter explosion genre with gusto. It might not be original, but it sure is satisfying.

Do passengers survive?

Speakman survives having briefly been a passenger of sorts. Shatner though, only enjoys a temporary stay of execution before he boldly goes where many villains have gone before.

Positives

Given that Speakman has been trying to help put a swivel-eyed loon into elected office, it’s fair to say our boy isn‘t the sharpest tool in the box. This may help to explain a scene where Jeff hacks into Shatner’s computer to find his secret plans.

How will he break into the password protected files you ask? Will Jeff use a hitherto unknown expertise in cryptography? Or some whizzy, algorithm-crunching gizmo that’ll make the computer spill its secrets?

No. Jeff’s plan involves nothing more complicated than simply guessing the password. And what inspired guesses they are. Top of our boy’s list are ‘predator’, ‘deceit’ and ‘conquest’. What about trying ‘crazed neo-Nazi nutcase’ Jeff? The safety of the free world couldn’t be in better hands.

Negatives

Perhaps embarrassed by its attempts at high-tech, techno-thriller chicanery, the Land Of The Free quickly heads for the safety of that reliable action movie genre trope, the car chase. But this poses a problem: how to freshen this hoariest of movie clichés?

The answer here is commendably simple and involves nothing more complicated than putting a sofa on top of one car and a canoe on another. It’s certainly never been done before, if only because everyone else thought it a terrible idea.

Favourite quote

An FBI agent tries to reassure Speakman about his safety: “Trust me, the witness protection programme works.”

With half the film remaining, the hollowness of this promise makes a deafening echo.

Interesting fact

Made at the tail end of the Clinton administration, Land Of The Free serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of a right wing loony coming to power. Two years later, George Bush Jr was elected President.

Review by: Jafo