Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Angels & Demons

After The Da Vinci Code inexplicably made money, Hollywood was always going to squeeze a bit more out of the Dan Brown cash cow. But there was a problem. Having already used the big – and famously nonsensical – bestseller, they had little choice but to go back to an earlier, even more incomprehensible novel.

There’s possibly not enough room on the internet to explain the full plot of this impenetrable book, but here’s a dummy’s guide. The Pope’s been murdered and the four cardinals most likely to succeed him kidnapped by a shadowy, sinister sect called the Illuminati. They are threatening to kill one cardinal each hour then blow up Vatican City at midnight. How? Simples. By using a powerful anti-matter bomb they nicked from priestly scientists who had been constructing it to help find the ‘God’ particle.

If that doesn’t make any sense to you, don’t worry – it’s because it doesn’t make any sense.

Enter expert symbologist Tom Hanks, sporting the kind of hair only ever seen on Hollywood men of a certain age. (Yes, we’re talking about you, Nicholas Cage and Sly Stallone. Indeed, Cage coiffure-watching is almost a spectator sport these days – his hairline seems to bob backwards and forwards like the tide. And, as mentioned in this website’s review of The Expendables 2, it was often hard in that film to tell when Stallone was or wasn’t wearing a black woollen beret.)

The Hankster’s barnet here is a prime example of the ‘Hollywood hair’ form. It’s dark, it’s impressively lustrous, but not really like any recognisable follicle arrangement you and I have ever come across. It’s more like a hair-hat, really. And styled in a demi-mullet, no less.

Sad to report, the problems don’t end with mere tonsorial matters. There’s a fundamental flaw at the heart of this non-movie, which is thus: Angels and Demons is a plot-heavy, labyrinthine novel – virtually a puzzle, in fact – with next to no characterisation. As such, and it’s hard to overstate this point, it’s a terrible fit for film adaptation.

Hanks' hair: an unrecognisable follicle arrangement
This sequel could easily have been called The Exposition Code. As soon as the Hankster meets his obligatory foxy Italian sidekick (Ayelet Zurer), they start busily explaining plot points to each other in a way that doesn’t remotely resemble a human conversation. And they don’t stop for the whole film.

For a deadening first hour, the pair simply rush from church to church, spouting saints’ names and other religious gobbledygook to each other. It’s literally impossible to keep track of what’s happening, and the scriptwriter was clearly as confused as anyone.

All this expository tomfoolery tips over into the absurd during a bizarre scene about half-way through. Tom (a peaceable academic, remember) enters a church to find a cardinal strung up and literally burning alive, then sees his cop friend viciously gunned down and only escapes the assassin’s bullets by diving into a scary, pitch-black cellar. Ye gods.

Finally rescued by the police, he stands in the wrecked church, bruised and battered, his dead cop friend at his feet and the smell of spit-roast cardinal heavy in the air.

So what does he do: collapse into tears? Crumple into a ball on the floor? Show the merest sign of emotion? Nope, he just says: “Right, we’re looking for a statue of a cross-eyed angel pointing westwards next to the Holy Chapel of Saint Badger…” (or something. I may paraphrase slightly) and bounds off to find the next clue.

And that’s it – no hint of upset or trauma: of anything, in fact. The truth is, there’s so little character to Hanks’ ‘character’ – and just so much plot to get through – that director Ron Howard has clearly thrown his hands up in the air and not even bothered to try.

So the whole thing is a (ahem) unholy shambles, but aerial conflagration enthusiasts are given a whiff of potential early on when Ewan MacGregor, dressed in a priestly cassock and with hands clasped in prayer, announces for no earthly reason whatsoever that he knows how to fly a helicopter.

As mentioned previously on Exploding Helicopter, our Ewan never saw a bad script he didn’t like the look of: his cinematic CV has more turkeys than a Tesco refrigerated shelf in mid-December. But even by his own high standards, this is a colossally bad choice. He plays the Vatican’s Camerlengo, a top Vatican official who, following the Pope’s murder, is actually the acting Pope.

That means, after Obi Wan Kinobi, Nick Leeson and numerous other bad choices, we finally get Pope Ewan the First. Truly, the Lord does work in mysterious ways. No wonder Benedict resigned.

But what about that grinding plot? After an arse-numbing amount of time, the action does finally reach a climax of sorts. We’re in some catacombs! They’ve found the bomb! There just happens to be a helicopter parked outside St Peter’s! Pope Ewan is a trained pilot! Surely he’s not going to take off for the high skies with the bomb and sacrifice himself in a spectacular explosion? Oh, yes!

Artistic merit

Given the chopper is already up beyond the clouds, the explosion itself takes the form of a night sky lighting up over the Vatican. The producers haven’t shirked on the tasteful CGI, and there’s something aesthetically pleasing about a ghostly light hovering over such a spiritual location. But then Pope Ewan suddenly ‘appears’ on a parachute and the whole thing turns unintentionally hilarious.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Exploding Helicopter has carefully checked the records, and there’s definitely not a previous entry under: holy man goes straight upwards in a bomb-laden chopper until it explodes, then unfeasibly drops back down on a flimsy piece of tarpaulin. That’s innovation in action, folks.

Positives

Scarcely the only entertainment to be gleaned from this mess comes from following the progression of MacGregor’s accent. In his introductory scene, he’s clearly aiming, badly, for an Irish accent, but five minutes later has fallen into the default Alec Guinness clipped English setting he uses for all non-Tartan outings.

A little later, he gets angry and it all goes a bit Trainspotting for a minute, but next thing he’s telling the Hankster ‘I was orphaned at nine years of age by a bombing in Ulster’ and suddenly it’s like the Reverend Ian Paisley has been given a five-minute cameo.

Ewan’s grandstand scene, when he appeals to all the cardinals for more understanding between religion and science, is in itself a model of inclusivity, containing as it does a rich array of accents – including, at one point, possibly Cornish.

Negatives

Given the profundity of choice on offer here, it’s perhaps best to focus in on the single greatest error – namely, that someone showed Ron Howard the script for Angels and Demons.

Favourite quote

“You’re talking about THE moment of creation…”
This fatuous line, pompously delivered by Hanks in his most sonorous tones, neatly captures all that is hammy and terrible about the movie.

Interesting fact

This movie portrays the Catholic Church as a sinister and introverted organisation beset by deadly rivalries, which will stop at nothing to hide its dirty laundry from the public. So, entirely fictional, then.

Review by: Chopper

Listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast on Angels & Demons on iTunes, Podomatic, Stitcher, or YourListen. Or hear it right now on the embedded player. 



Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Doomsdayer

For every hero, there must be a villain. And, as the cinematic canon expands, the need for ever more colourful baddies – with grander and more ingenious schemes with which to threaten the world – only grows.

Bravely rising to this challenge, Hollywood has exploited every possible reason and unlikely motive for villainous skulduggery, giving us a memorable rogues’ gallery of scoundrels in the process.

We’ve had terrorists out for a spot of nuclear blackmail (think Art Malik in True Lies), disgruntled ex-employees out to avenge themselves with oriental elaborateness on their old boss (Javier Bardem in Skyfall), even attempts by intergalactic-beings to enslave the human race (Terence Stamp in Superman II). 

Why, we’ve even seen Nazi war criminals try to recreate the Third Reich by populating the world with infants cloned from Hitler (hats off to Gregory Peck in The Boys From Brazil, featuring a plot so epically bonkers you almost want it to succeed. Well, almost). 

So where could Hollywood’s dark, twisted imagination go next? Surely the pool of poisonous evil-doers intent on destroying the world has been exhausted?

Oh, happy day – it is not so. There does remain, it would appear, one last group whose potential for unspeakable evil has yet to be utilised on celluloid. A twisted coven whose veneer of respectability harbours a secret desire for global Gotterdammerung.

But who are these evil masterminds, I hear you ask? Well, let me tell you. They are…philanthropists.
Yes, that’s right: philanthropists. Do-gooders. Charity types. People with spectacles and no shoulder muscles. Who, according to Doomsdayer (2000), apparently want to tear the world apart – presumably between tea breaks and reading The Guardian.

Udo Kier: millionaire and mentalist
Meet Max Gast (Udo Kier): a millionaire businessman and bleeding heart liberal who has already spanked away great chunks of his fortune funding good causes aimed at preventing disease, protecting the environment, promoting global peace and saving furry little animals.

Nothing to worry about there, you might think. But unfortunately, the world’s population are proving to be an ungrateful lot. And, much to Gast’s frustration, they’ve continued waging deadly conflicts and plundering the planet’s resources.

Now, men of more limited imagination would simply mutter bitterly about the ingratitude of mankind, put away their cheque book and get on with racking up a few more ka-squillion quid.

But our Max isn’t afraid to think big, and instead conceives of a bigger and altogether more radical plan. The basic idea, taken from page one of the Megalomaniac’s Guide to Really Getting Your Point Across, is thus: to create, first one must destroy.

To this end, Gast develops the ‘doomsdayer’ – a device capable of causing the simultaneous meltdown of every nuclear weapon and power plant on Earth. According to Gast’s wonky logic, the few thousand souls who manage to survive the subsequent cataclysmic Armageddon will be so chastened by the experience, they will build a new, better world - one more in tune with his own utopian vision.

It’s a lot to take in. And if you’re struggling to get your head round the rotten madness of this idea, just try and imagine Bill Gates suddenly deciding: ‘To hell with curing polio, what I really want to do is blow everything up, kill billions of people, and keep my fingers crossed that somehow magically solves everything‘. Think of it as a kind of ‘control, alt, delete’ moment for the human race.

Fortunately, a secret security unit run by the United Nations learns of Gast’s plans. Naturally, given the literally world-threatening nature of the evil plan, they opt for a softly-softly approach and send their top agent Jack Logan (Joe Lara) to infiltrate Gast’s base and stop the launch of the ‘doomsdayer’.

Cool African poster design
With a villain this unlikely, it’s obviously going to take one hell of an actor to sell the whole lunatic premise to the viewer. Luckily, in Udo Kier (Blade, Iron Sky), Doomsdayer has the perfect salesman for the job.

With an eerie, aloof demeanour, Kier delightfully portrays his character’s slowly-pickled evil.  His mellifluous German accent and purring delivery are wonderfully complemented by his pale grey eyes, which have all the humanity of a paving slab.

There’s an excellent scene early in the film where Kier chairs what turns out to be the final (in fact, very final for some) meeting of his charitable foundation. After running through its assorted failures, he outlines with chilling placidity his ‘doomsdayer’ scheme to the assembled trustees.

The earnest charity types are naturally appalled and start to protest. But Kier – having no further use for them – has had the forethought to poison their drinks. Before they can start droning earnest objections to his homicidal scheme, they all slump down dead on the boardroom table. It’s a hell of a way to chair a meeting. I guess they should have read the agenda more carefully.

Unfortunately, the vivid camp of Kier’s performance contrasts sharply with the hero, here played by Joe Lara. He’s a thoroughly bland presence. In fact, he rather started to remind me of a toaster: something that pops up every couple of minutes with a dry, plain, and unutterably dull product.

Still, aside from saving the world, Lara does serve one useful function in the film – and that’s to help explode that all important helicopter.

Trying to break into Gast’s headquarters, Lara is discovered and pursued by the villain’s private army. To stop the pesky protagonist, Gast despatches his attack helicopter – the sexily named Black Widow.

The rather white looking 'Black Widow' chopper
Quite why the chopper is called the Black Widow is somewhat mysterious. Not least because said whirlybird is completely white in colour. Anyway, the viewer has little time to quibble over this as the chopper fires a succession of rockets at Lara, who tries to escape in a truck.

It looks like only a matter of time before our hero is cremated. But luckily, the Black, White or Whatever Widow is fitted with a remote control, the purpose of which (like the confusing colour of the livery) remains obscure.

Still, said device does allow Lara’s buddy to hack into the chopper’s controls and command it to dump all its fuel. Sans petrol, the pursuing chopper plummets from the sky and crashes into the ground. No more Black Widow.

Artistic merit

Disgraceful. Despite an impressive amount of pyrotechnics throughout the film, the producer’s piggybank was clearly empty by this point.

Given that they couldn’t even afford a coat of paint to make their white helicopter look a little more, well, black, there was obviously little prospect of them being able to afford to blow the thing up properly.

To avoid showing a crash or explosion, the director cuts to what’s supposed to be the view from the helicopter’s cockpit. We see trees rushing towards the camera, while some poorly dubbed in, off-camera voices shout in fear, before we cut to a generic explosion which we‘re supposed to believe is the helicopter exploding. 

It’s a sorry, shoddy, sequence. In the general canon of chopper fireballs, Doomsdayer stands out as a larcenous crime, a permanent stain on the rich tapestry of cinematic helicopter explosions. Shocking.

Exploding helicopter innovation

The destruction of remote-controlled helicopters is not without precedent. We’ve previously seen it in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cloning thriller The 6th Day and dire sequel Lawnmower Man 2.
But in the Black/White Widow, we do have the destruction of the most misnamed helicopter of all-time – a first of some sort.

Positives

Time was that no car chase would be complete without one of the pursuing vehicles smashing into a petrol tanker that just happened, with startling convenience, to be pulling out of a side road. This generic trope provided the perfect excuse to deliver many an audience-pleasing huge explosion.

Sadly, there then came a time, around the mid-Nineties, when even Hollywood – never usually overly embarrassed on the subject of clich├ęs – felt even they couldn’t get away with that one anymore.

So, imagine my retro delight when Doomsdayer served up a superb, late example of the art, having a car crash into a fuel truck which was inexplicably parked in the middle of nowhere. Some pleasures never get old.

Negatives

Brigitte Nielsen or possibly Dolph Lundgren in drag
Brigitte Nielsen plays Gast's wife and co-conspirator in the ‘doomsdayer‘ scheme. Unquestionably a striking beauty in her Eighties heyday, the Teutonic Titaness always had an imposing physique which made her look just a little bit like a man.

Made at the turn of the millennium, there's noticeable rust round the Nielsen chassis. It’s probably the last time we see Brigitte before her looks completely disintegrated into the ‘Dolph Lundgren in drag’ look we know and love today.

Favourite quote

I loved this statement of the bleeding obvious when a top brass military type answers a telephone call in a packed conference room: “Yes, Prime Minister…Certainly, Prime Minister…Of course, Prime Minister…At once, Prime Minister.”

Grizzled general then replaces handset, before announcing to the surprise of no-one: “That was the Prime Minister.”

Review by: Jafo