Thursday 25 December 2014

Monsters vs Aliens

The Fifties: a time when smoking was good for you, women knew their place, and nuclear energy was glamorous and exciting.

The bold, new atomic age promised a future of unlimited energy, new medicines, and world peace. Of course, what we actually got was a Cold War, Chernobyl and bemused-looking sheep glowing away like a Ready Brek advert.

But there was at least one silver lining to the radioactive cloud: monster movies.

Hollywood, never slow to exploit the money-making potential of total global annihilation (witness pretty much the entire oeuvre of Roland Emmerich), found in radiation the perfect cinematic foil. At a stroke, atomic energy made plausible the existence of a series of terrifying, never-before-seen threats to humanity.

Just think of the excitement: movie producers were suddenly free to create monsters as outlandish and weird as their imaginations could command. (Provided, of course, said monsters could be made from rubber and have enough room inside for a stuntman to blunder around unconvincingly).

From these more enlightened times, such ideas seem patently childish. Which is probably why Dreamworks thought they’d be fertile ground for a gentle, family-friendly parody: Monsters vs Aliens (2009).

Our hero is Susan, an everyday small-town girl living a blandly anonymous life. However, her bucolic suburban existence is shattered when she’s transformed into a 49-foot-tall version of herself after being hit by a meteorite containing ‘quantonium’: the baffling-and-clearly-bollocks science element. (See also Scotty’s famed ‘dilethium crystals’ in Star Trek.)

Captured by the military, Susan is whisked off to a secret facility where other mutants are kept under lock and key. But then, wouldn’t you just know it, Earth only goes and gets itself threatened by some aliens (that other staple of Fifties sci-fi).

Susan: Attack of the '50s sci-fi cliches
Hey, it suddenly looks like Susan and her rag-tag collection of freakish friends – having been mistreated so badly – are going to have to save the day. We can only hope that those rotten suits who judged people by their appearance have learned their lesson, kids.

Given Monsters vs Aliens’ vintage inspirations there’s fun to be had in playing ‘spot the movie reference’. While 12 inches shorter, Susan is clearly a homage to Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

And you don’t need the brain power of an atomic scientist to work out that ‘Bob’ - an indestructible blue gunge – is inspired by The Blob. The classic-era origins of the entertainingly waspish Dr Cockroach (The Fly) and the charmingly simple Missing Link (Creature from the Black Lagoon) are similarly easy to spot.

Enjoyable, as this good natured mimicry is, a nagging doubt gradually grows into an all-consuming question: does this film have an original idea of its own? Such doubts are thrown into sharp focus when, having exhausted the entire canon of Fifties classics, the film starts ransacking other famous sci-fi films from across the decades. Star Trek, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T are all gleefully plundered as the scriptwriters desperately search for more tropes to poke fun at.

And herein lies the problem. While it has a fun premise and is beautifully animated, the film is effectively one massive in-joke. And not a particularly clever one at that. The effect is rather like watching one of those dreadful ‘Top 100’ shows, where a kaleidoscope of familiar scenes are served up devoid of context and meaning.

Still, at least Monsters vs Aliens doesn’t have Jodie Marsh and Bryan from Big Brother 2 sharing witless (and made up) anecdotes. Small mercies and all that.

Thankfully, there’s also an exploding helicopter scene to maintain our interest. This takes place early in the film. After she’s captured by the military, the newly 49 foot tall Susan is escorted to her cell by two helicopters.

As she protests her imprisonment, pleading that she poses no danger to anyone, she accidentally slaps a helicopter. With its rotor blades crumpled, the damaged chopper spins round out of control before crashing to the ground and exploding. Sorry Susan, you were saying?

Artistic merit

It’s well enough done. The helicopter explosion is really just a punchline to a joke, and not the climax of a dramatic scene, so it’s fairly perfunctory.

Exploding helicopter innovation

First known helicopter explosion in an animated movie. First helicopter to be destroyed by a petulant 49-foot-tall-woman.

Do passengers survive?

No. The camera lingers on the bloody and charred remains… Of course the pilot survives. This is an animated children’s film, for heaven’s sake: not Apocalypse Now.


Appropriately for a film about invaders from outer space, a galaxy of Hollywood stars lend their vocal talents to the film. Personal favourite was Kiefer Sutherland turn as the grizzly, gruff, and gung-ho General W.R Monger – a name guaranteed to raise a smile with weak pun enthusiasts everywhere.


You have to wonder whether the scriptwriters, giddy with so many in-jokes, actually forgot they were writing a children’s film. It’s hard to imagine most six-year olds would have a working knowledge of Fifties B-movie sci-fi.

Pixar has built a multi-billion dollar empire from remembering to throw in a few decent jokes for the grown-ups, but here it’s definitely the kids who are the afterthought.

Favourite quote

After learning of the alien invasion of Earth, the President announces, “Boys, set the terror level to code brown ‘cause I need to change my pants.”

Interesting fact

Despite a less than impressive critical reception, the film has curiously – four years on – spawned an animated TV series charting the group’s further adventures.

Review by: Jafo

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Black Dynamite

Nothing sends an Arctic cold shudder of fear down the spine of a film fan quicker than the prospect of watching a movie spoof.

Sure, the genre has seen its share of laughter-filled classics over the decades (Airplane, Austin Powers, The Naked Gun to name but a few). But in recent years, an unending torrent of feeble efforts has thrown this once proud comedy niche into disrepute.

Ordure such as Meet The Spartans, The Starving Games and Epic Movie – not to mention the execrable Scary Movie franchise – have left traumatised witnesses mute in stony-faced horror. They’re the cinematic equivalent of Ebola – dangerous, lethal and to be avoided at all costs.

(The witless Wayans brothers have been responsible for much of this ordure. Anyone anyone brave or foolish enough to sit through a sofa marathon of their oeuvre would witness a veritable Groundhog Day of crapness – the same pratfalls, ‘Say wha’’ expressions and fart jokes on a perpetual, unfunny loop.)

So understandably, it was with bowel-twitching trepidation that Exploding Helicopter approached ‘blaxspoitation’ send-up, Black Dynamite (2009). Was this to be another grim, gag-free, misfire? More lame slapstick and crude innuendo? Dear reader, all is not lost. Black Dynamite, against all the odds, will have you exploding with laughter.

Martial arts star Michael Jai White plays the film’s eponymous hero, an ex-CIA agent turned ghetto Samaritan. Everything is good in the hood until his brother is murdered in mysterious circumstances. Vowing revenge, White begins an investigation to unmask the killer only to discover an outrageous conspiracy aimed at keeping the black man down.

Michael Jai White as Black Dynamite
So what makes this movie succeed where so many others have failed? First, this is obviously an affectionate parody. It’s clear that White – who also wrote and produced – loves the films he’s poking fun at.

This can be seen in the actor’s pitch-perfect performance, which cleverly pays tribute to the film’s inspirations even as it sends them up. White deftly combines the swaggering cool of Richard Roundtree’s Shaft and the chop-socky moves of Jim Kelly’s Black Belt Jones, while subtly satirising their super-confident, super-stud personas.

There are other nice touches. The film’s authentic feel, for example, is heightened by subtly weaving in footage from original blaxsploitation flicks. While not taken to extremes of Rob Reiner’s private eye spoof Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (where Steve Martin‘s down-at-heel shamus appeared to act alongside Humphrey Bogart) it helps create a warm, nostalgic vibe.

Black Dynamite stands in stark contrast to the recent glut of movie spoofs, little more than cynical cash-ins on popular franchises. And let’s face it: when a spoof film pointing to the shite-ness of the original is even more lame and disappointing, there’s not much to laugh about for anyone (except, of course, the shysters who made it).

And if wit, good writing and savvy acting weren’t enough, Black Dynamite also throws in a decent chopper fireball towards the end of the movie.

In order to stop the conspiracy, Black Dynamite flies a chopper to the White House for a showdown with the President. Fearing an attack on POTUS, guards from the ‘Honky House’ (as it’s amusingly called throughout) fire on the helicopter with a rocket launcher.

Our hero manages to bail out and parachute to safety, but his buddy remains at the controls as the helicopter is hit and explodes like a fourth of July firework display.

The classic 'hero illuminated by exploding helicopter shot'
Artistic merit

An aesthetically pleasing chopper fireball: this is a good, fiery explosion. Even better, the skydiving White is artfully fore-grounded against the exploding helicopter for a classic ‘hero illuminated by conflagration’ shot – a true favouriteof the action genre.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Hey, who needs innovation when you can pull off the classic genre moves so convincingly? Like Tony Bennett covering a Kajagoogoo song, this scene takes an old staple and adds a bit of class.

Do passengers survive?

Yes, Black Dynamite survives via his parachute jump. While this may seem an unlikely means of escape, Ewan McGregor performed exactly the same trick in preposterous fashion during the turgid Angels & Demons. (Fact note: while the dour priestly thriller is technically not a spoof, McGregor’s leap is by far the funnier of the two.)


The soundtrack is a crucial element of any blaxsploitation film, and Black Dynamite boasts a top-notch score courtesy of composer Adrian Younge.

Many of the soundtracks for the original Seventies films were recorded by legendary artists like Bobby Womack, Isaac Hayes, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. Even measured against these intimidating benchmarks, Black Dynamite’s soundtrack can strut and swagger with the best of them.


It’s not often that Exploding Helicopter fails to find at least one fault, but this is happily one of those rare occasions.

Favourite line

Nothing, aside from getting into a helicopter, is more fatal in a film than pointlessly explaining how much you love your wife and children. Sure enough, after needlessly sharing a family anecdote one of Black Dynamite’s friends is suddenly shot dead.

“Who saw that coming?” quips Black Dynamite with tongue firmly in-cheek.

Review by: Jafo

Want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast on Black Dynamite. Listen on iTunes, Podomatic or YourListen.

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Iron Thunder

We get no pleasure from saying this, but Iron Thunder (1998) is the worst movie we’ve ever reviewed.

The really sad part is, it’s not without promise. The film has a cool title (so cool that there’s already a movie with the same name starring Anthony ‘Amy’ Elmore) and stars Richard Hatch of Battlestar Galactica fame.

Well, let me tell you. It is all bad. Iron Thunder has nothing a viewer wants: likeable characters, an interesting story, or even just stupid fun. All copies of this cinematic abortion should be eradicated from the earth.

Richard Hatch plays a guy with a plug in his head. This allows him to plug-in to a new experimental tank, supposedly forming a perfect union of man and killing machine. Unfortunately, as anyone who’s watched a film involving testing a new super-weapon will suspect, it’s not long before Hatch’s mental screws come loose causing him to go rogue with the super-tank.

Keen for the return of their expensive hardware, the military despatch a team of soldiers to track down and stop Hatch. Will most of their number be killed before one plucky soul finds a way to circumvent the tank’s superior technology? I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you……

Chief among Iron Thunder’s failings is the rock-bottom budget which give proceedings an ugly, junk-like look. From the horrible CD-ROM-style graphics to the toy tanks that are laughably used as miniatures, every expense has been spared with miserly enthusiasm.

Punctuating the sub-crud action are a series of interminable, ball-achingly dull scenes where characters talk to each other to no great effect. Compounding both these problems is the films punishing runtime – a brutal, inexcusable 110 minutes. Why? What were they thinking?

Try to imagine a more stupid Digital Man (1995) crossed with the mentally challenged Bulletproof (1988). Now imagine the whole thing playing out for almost two full hours and you might have some clue as to how unbelievably bad this movie is.

Aptly, the director (or to be more accurate, perpetrator) of this movie is one Jay Woelfel. It is funny how people live up to their name for everything about this film is indeed woeful. It’s a wonder to think that he was ever allowed to unleash this atrocity on the public. How come there were no repercussions? Avoid this movie like the plague.

Still, our duty to cataloguing the world of exploding helicopter movies compels us to provide a review and detail the chopper fireball on display.

The whirlybird conflagration occurs towards the end of the film. A chopper flies with some top military honchos flies out to where Iron Thunder is trundling round.

The crazed Richard Hatch though has decamped from his tank and is now running around with a machine gun. He takes aim at the chopper hovering overhead and fires off a volley of bullets. Naturally, otherwise we wouldn’t be writing about this, the helicopter explodes

Artistic merit

In keeping with the z-grade production standards of the rest of the film, the chopper fireball is a shoddy piece of work. The footage of the actual helicopter explosion looks like it might be nicked from another film. Director Woelfel tries to liven up proceedings by having flaming wreckage cascade to the ground. Adding to the lack of believability are the unconvincing reaction shots of people on the ground.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Only known destruction of a helicopter by a man with a plug in his head.


While the film often feels like it’s never going to end, we can confirm that it does have a conclusion.


Every minute between the opening and closing credits.

Interesting fact

People involved in the film actually managed to find work again.

This review is a guest post by our friends Brett and Ty from the great website Comeuppance Reviews. They're dedicated to celebrating action movies from the eighties VHS era. Check out their website and discover some forgotten gems.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Spy Game

There was a time when it seemed Robert Redford would stay forever young.

While his contemporaries slowly wrinkled and went bald, Redford remained supernaturally preserved. His boyish face, framed by that lustrous golden fop of hair, seemed to elude the ravages of time.

But eventually, Father Time did catch up with him. The craggy lines came, his sturdy posture started to hunch a little, and gradually that perfect, bouncing blonde coiffure started to look like a mockery of the ravaged features below.

Sadly, the only person who didn’t seem to notice any of this was Bob himself.

Oblivious to the fact that his face was starting to resemble a wedding cake left out in the rain, he kept right on choosing classic young man roles. First, there was The Natural (1984), where a 48-year old Redford (already 15 years too old for the role) outrageously appears in a flashback as his character’s 18-year-old self.  Less Sundance Kid, more ‘Sundance, who are you Kiddin’?’

Worse was 1990’s Havana (the famously duff Cuban rehash of Casablanca) where viewers were asked to believe the beautiful young starlet Lena Olin would be powerless before the raw magnetism of Redford – whose face by now was looking as worn and leathery as a battered chesterfield sofa.

It wasn’t until Indecent Proposal (1993) that Redford himself finally realised the game was up. When the only way you can get Demi Moore into bed is by offering her a million dollars, you know your days as a twinkly-eyed lady-killer are over. Following this, Bob promptly took his crow’s feet behind the camera to continue his film career as a director.

All of which, by round-about route, brings us to Spy Game (2001), a film which saw an older, wiser, age-appropriate Redford return to acting. He plays a veteran CIA agent who’s just about to toddle off into retirement.

But on his ‘last day at work’ (see Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, Robert Duvall in Falling Down etc), he learns that his protégé (played by Brad Pitt) has been captured by the Chinese government while carrying out an unauthorised mission.

Fearing a diplomatic incident, the CIA’s spineless bosses want to wash their hands of Pitt and let the dastardly Chinese execute him. Will Redford find a way to rescue his friend? And can he do it before the leaving speeches and carriage clock presentation?

Given that Redford is playing a retiree, some viewers might be tempted to sit back and relax, happy in the knowledge that any age-related embarrassment will not be on the menu. Over-confident fools!

Ever enthusiastic to grapple with such an elastic concept as time, it turns out our Bob has picked a film that’s riven with multiple decade-spanning flashbacks. So, we’re barely out of the opening credits before Redford's teleported back 20 years to events during the Vietnam War.

Facing this challenge, most actors would use a little judicious hair-tinting or forgiving soft-focus camerawork to help portray their younger self. Not our Bobbie. He simply dons a Seventies-era flared collar shirt in the ironclad belief that he still doesn’t look a day over forty. (Note: at this point, he was 65.A pensioner. More Cocoon than Platoon material.) It’s patently ridiculous, but all you can do is sit back and admire the chutzpah of the man.

It’s hard to fathom where such copper-bottomed self-confidence comes from, but we perhaps touched on the real reason earlier – it’s that incredible bouffant.

While every other male Hollywood barnet has slowly thinned or greyed over the decades, or simply grown implausible (Stallone, for example, looks like he’s wearing a black woolly cap), Redford’s magnificently-coiffured mop has remained perfectly preserved atop his head.

Each time he looks in the mirror and sees that golden thicket, he must think he’s immortal. Perhaps somewhere in an attic there’s a painting of a balding, greying Redford, but with a face as smooth as a baby’s backside.

And speaking of things that don’t get old, what more timeless movie thrill is there than an exploding helicopter?

This takes place during the infamous Vietnam flashback where Redford orders Pitt to assassinate a top NKVD official. While Pitt lies in wait for his target, he’s spotted by a gook helicopter which opens fire on him. Pitt returns fire with a machine gun, damaging the chopper’s engine.

The wounded whirlybird spins slowly towards the ground before disappearing behind a small hill. We hear a crash and a huge fireball suddenly erupts into the sky. Charlie don’t surf, and after this chopper fireball, he don’t fly either.

Artistic merit

You can’t fault the explosion which is a spectacularly large mushroom cloud of reds, yellows and oranges. But, marks have to be deducted for not actually showing the helicopter explosion.

Having the chopper disappear behind a convenient piece of geography is a tired old cheat we liked to see ended. Surely, there’s a Hollywood special effects union that could take action?

Exploding helicopter innovation

Both method (gunfire) and location (Vietnam) have all been done before. Even the fact that helicopter explosion takes place in a flashback has been done before.


Viewers of a certain vintage (particularly those dumbfounded by modern gadgetry) will experience a retro thrill at seeing a real-life pager play an integral role in the film.

For younger readers, a pager was a bit like a mobile phone on which you could receive, but not send, very limited text messages. Until the early 1990s, they were seen as the height of twentieth century communications technology. But kids, before you start feeling smug, in 20-years everyone’s going to think all this Twitterbook and Facetweeting you do is a bunch of backward tomfoolery. You’ve been warned.


In recent years, James Bond and Jason Bourne have popularised a whizz bang view of the espionage world. One where agents hack into top secret files with a few seconds of computer wizardry, dispose of the guards with their mixed martial arts skills before parkouring their way to safety.

Spy Game, though, paints a decidedly old-school picture of the world of espionage. One where fragments of intelligence are painstakingly pieced together after hours spent poring over dusty brown folders.

Which therefore makes the choice of Tony Scott to direct utterly perplexing. Famed for his fidgety camerawork, rapid cutting and over the top approach to filmmaking, he would seem the perfect choice for the latest Tom Clancy rather than this Le Carre-esque tale of spycraft.

Interesting fact

The exploding helicopter sequence isn’t the only scene in the film where the producers looked to save money on the chopper related budget of the film. According to IMDB, Tony Scott wanted extra money in order to use a helicopter to film a scene that takes place on the roof of a tower block.

When the producers refused, Scott used his own money to pay for a helicopter. I just wish he’d thrown the money at the chopper fireball scene instead and given us a better thrill.

Favourite line

In one scene, Redford’s character dispenses a little advice to his young protégé: “When did Noah build the ark? Before the rain.” Given Redford creaky appearance, it’s fair guess he was talking from first-hand experience.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Spy Game. You can listen via iTunes, Spotify, Player FM, Acast and Stitcher. Or right here and now....