Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Rapid Fire (1992)

'Rapid Fire' is one of those action flicks from back in the day where you have a wickedly cool title for the movie, that doesn't relate to the plot in any way. It just looks and sounds cool, happened a lot during the 80's and 90's. You don't seem to see it too much anymore because I reckon they exhausted all possible options. That's my theory anyway, feel free to question it.

So here we have a very oriental theme for the plot, aaand that's because Brandon Lee is the star. Heaven forbid they did away with stereotypical plot lines but hey, twas the 90's. So Lee plays this young dude called Jake Lo (Chinese on one side I presume) whose father was killed in a Tiananmen Square protest. I Presume the infamous 1989 protest but its actually not important in any way. He gets lured to a fundraiser for pro-democracy within China, mainly because both he and his father were at Tiananmen Square. Whilst there a drug kingpin called Serrano kills some bloke and Lo witnesses it.

So the first half of the film is basically Lo trying to avoid being killed by Serrano before he can testify. The second part of the plot involves another Kingpin called Tau who is in cahoots with Serrano, but is the bigger player. Jake joins up with detective Mace Windu...I mean Mace Ryan (Powers Boothe) mainly for protection but also to bring down Serrano and obtain information about a future shipment organised by Tau. The unlikely partnership must stop both Serrano and Tau.

OK so this isn't a buddy cop flick, but its close. The main protagonists comprise of Brandon Lee's young firm, muscles often glistening with sweat, martial arts expert Jake Lo. Alongside Powers Boothe's gruff stern, no nonsense cop who speaks through gritted teeth a lot. Sounds mighty familiar doesn't it, but trust me it really isn't a buddy cop/odd couple/double team fast food flick. Yes Lee's character does become good friends with Boothe's grumpy cop and does actually see him as a father figure in the end, but its not a buddy cop flick. In all honesty Mace tends to use Jake like bait on a string on most occasions, Jake even smacks Mace in the face at one point...but deep down they respect each other.

These type of movies are a little tricky to gauge really, the reason being they are cliched as hell but you gotta take into account the year they were made. Being the early 90's you gotta accept the fact that the 80's was still held a strong influence over action flicks. The remnants and relics of that cheesy bygone era were still there to be found in spades. For instance, in this movie all the western baddie henchmen are dressed in suits with greasy slick-back hair, ponytails for some, very Eurotrash. They all seem to have instance access to big guns whenever something kicks off or is about to (and boy are some of their guns impressive!), and they are all terrible shots. The main henchman is a huge lumbering bloke with a slick-back ponytail (ahem) and a penchant for violence and pasta. The main antagonist Serrano, played by Nick Mancuso, is your typical over the top villain with again slick-back hair, a nice suit and he spends all his time in his restaurant (his HQ).

On the flip side, all the eastern baddie henchmen are literally every single recognisable American actor of Asian descent you've ever seen in action flicks from the 80's. Al Leong and his Fu Manchu moustache are front and centre, Gerald Okamura, hell most of the background Asian actors from John Carpenter's 'Big Trouble in Little China' basically. Some epic levels of well known Asian character actors in here.

The action is actually better than your average dated action fest. Brandon Lee performs lots of kung-fu hocus pocus obviously, its his action vehicle so whaddaya expect. But the gun fights are actually pretty solid stuff truth be told. When the cops battle it out with Serrano and co outside his restaurant its really well shot. Dare I say it actually looks and feels a bit like Michael Mann's 'Heat' with the zooming close-ups, angles and quite impressively realistic action. Apart from that its admittedly cliched business as usual with lots of exaggerated gun porn and cars that explode bit by bit when shot. The obligatory cheesy as fuck sex scene accompanied by rock music, and the obligatory one on one fight scene between the hero and villain (with obligatory nasty death) for the finale.

Is this a cliched cheesy action movie? Yes I'm afraid it is. Is it a bad cliched cheesy action movie? Actually no it isn't. On a scale of cliched cheesy action fests this is genuinely one of the better offerings. But that's not because of Lee (who never seems to change out of a vest) or the plot, its mainly because of the action set pieces that engage, look good and are relatively realistic. In other words they aren't ridiculously over the top and require suspension of disbelief. The plot is simple as hell and offers nothing new (except maybe one surprise), the acting is acceptable and Lee shows us much potential which is both good and sad. Overall to look at this might come across as a silly chopsocky affair, no its actually much better than that.


Friday, 24 February 2017

Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991)

Now here we have a great action film title that does actually relate to the movies plot. The movies poster is also top notch, dare I say better than the actual movie.

So once again we have the typical 80/90's buddy cop/odd couple flick, combining two characters who are supposedly polar opposites. Well hold your horses there bucko, although this movie does appear to go down that route (it does essentially), director Mark L. Lester does actually throw a twist on this overused idea. At a first glance you think you know the score. Dolph Lundgren is obviously gonna be the heavyweight, bull in a china shop, all American trigger happy cop. Whilst his partner played by Brandon Lee will be the smart, sensible, calm, mystic Asian character that shows off his invincible martial arts skills.

Well the twist (I guess its a twist) here is its actually Brandon Lee's character who is the all American, trigger happy, bull in a china shop type bloke. Whilst Lundgren's character was born in America but raised in Japan and is actually a very spiritual person preferring Japanese culture. Oh and he's kickass at martial arts too, of course. In fact the only thing these two guys have in common is the fact both are highly skilled in martial arts because action flick vehicles. So the stereotypical roles have been somewhat flipped on their head.

Right so what do we have then? Well you got this cop called Kenner (Lundgren) who seems to work alone and dress as he wants despite being a regular cop? Well he gets teamed up with Murata (Lee) who also wears what he likes (so I guess these guys are detectives?) and together they must bring down the evil drug kingpin Yoshida (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) in Little Tokyo, LA. That's pretty much the deal here, no frills, hell the two cops meet each other during an action sequence for flips sake! We don't even get the obligatory introduction in the grumpy police Chiefs office or anything.

So lets take a look at this action romp from the early 90's, a time still feeling the effects of the glorious late 80's. Lets look at protagonist number one, the main character, Kenner (Dolph). I say the main character because Brandon Lee's character is virtually a background sidekick for the most part. Yeah Lee might have been a big name on paper but in Hollywood at this time he was still small fry and this was a Dolph action flick. OK firstly, what the literal fuck is Dolph's character wearing in this movie?? Suit trousers, a vest and a black studded leather jacket on top, for the most part. Its almost as hilarious as his Japanese attire which he dons for the finale complete with bandana. Secondly, this movie calls for Dolph to speak Japanese. Now I know Lundgren is an intelligent man but Japanese just doesn't sound right coming out of his mouth with his deep tones. His character was raised in Japan and he clearly likes Japanese stuff. But just to reinforce that narrative we discover that Kenner owns a Japanese style house complete with Japanese furnishings, in the middle of nowhere. It all comes across as a bit forced ya know, OK we get it, Japanese tastes, check.

In contrast we then have Brandon Lee's smart-arse Murata. Now this character is the comedic relief in the movie, he throws out quips, one-liners and jokes around at inopportune moments. He's essentially like James Belushi's character in 'Red Heat'. The problem is this character isn't really very funny and Brandon Lee isn't really very good with his comedic deliveries. I'm sure this shit may have come across way better back in the day but these days its more cringeworthy than anything. This guys only fallback is the fact he's entertaining in a scrap with his hong kong phooey.

The movie flits from one shabby action set piece to another barely taking a pause for, you know...plot. No time for any interesting story or character elements, there's ass to be kicked and things to be blown up! So as you might expect this basically means endless sequences of Dolph being a one man army and shooting the shit outta every bad guy going. Lee's character is also good at shooting crap bad guys but he mainly beats them up with his chopsocky. Naturally all the bad guys are utterly useless, couldn't hit the side of a barn door that was painted shocking pink whilst stood right next to it. Even the appearance of action stalwart Al Leong didn't change anything, he came and went very quickly.

The action sequences are really quite badly executed and unexciting to be honest, hell Dolph's character even lifts an entire car and flips it onto its side at one point! All this just for some cover when he didn't really need it anyway, but surely that superhuman strength could be used more often no? Not only that but this movie also suffers from terrible action flick cliches. Firstly there's the obligatory sex scene with Dolph and the damsel in distress, a very 80's looking Tia Carrere giving a very amusing sex performance. Secondly there's actually a training montage, I shit you not. A flippin' training montage where Dolph pounds a punchbag whilst looking all muscular, sweaty and pretty.

The big predictable finale is unfortunately just as bad and cliched as the rest of the movie. The duo attack the drug kingpins factory headquarters with a full on assault, no stealth, just a full frontal assault, guns blazing. You do ask yourself why they didn't just do that earlier. This of course means tonnes more faceless henchmen for the duo to kill because they have their invincibility cheat mode on. The hilarious thing is this attack spills out onto the streets where, coincidentally, there's a Japanese parade going on...well blow me. What follows is just...some fantastically bad and funny shit I can tell you. Dolph's character faces off against Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa's scowling villain.

They decide to fight like men and in doing so grab swords from some of the people in the parade who are dressed in traditional Japanese period attire. But of course these swords are actually real, because people carry real lethal weapons when dressing up in costume for a street parade (ugh!). Both men fight it out to the death while all the people (men, women and children) watch in glee, no police anywhere. Of course Dolph's character wins and Tagawa's drug lord is killed horribly by being run through with a sword and then burnt to a crisp on some large fireworks Catherine wheel thing. Still no police to be seen. At the same time the people cheer and enjoy the frolics and violence, hurrah! They have no idea what's happening or why but for some reason they all cheer for the good guy Kenner, because he's the good guy. Then once the job is done the heroic duo walk off down the street with the rescued Tia Carrere whilst all the locals bow down and honour them...for some feckin' reason. Its all so damn stupid, they have no clue what just happened or who these people are, but yeah sure lets bow down and worship them. Shall we call the police? nah!

Yes this movie is a disappointment to be sure. With such a great looking poster and with a cracking title its a real shame. The main issue is really how tacky and low-rent everything looks, its not gritty either its just really average looking. The plot is painfully predictable, cliche and unoriginal, its basically a rehash of 'Lethal Weapon' (weren't they all). Despite Dolph being a big action star its still questionable as to why this actually is. Well obviously its his yuge rippling physique, lantern jaw and overall good looks, but this guy could never really act and virtually all his movies show this (he also can't run because he's clearly too heavy and wide). Lee does OK but is merely a background player showcasing his moves; whilst Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa chews the scenery beautifully but is ultimately more silly than intimidating.

A good way to see how the quality of this movie compares to other action flicks, is to simply watch Lee's following action movie 'Rapid Fire'. The step up in overall quality is plain to see with this movie. Alas this Dolph/Lee team up is a throw-away flick.


Saturday, 18 February 2017

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

Well here we are with the ninth movie in this franchise, if you include 2016's 'Deadpool', and with a tenth on the way! So many plots, sequels, prequels, different actors playing the same characters, alternate timelines which may or may not count anymore...Jesus Christ! I'm not a fanboy of this franchise (or the comics) and I'm probably in the minority here but...what the hell is going on in this franchises timeline?? I have no clue anymore. I can't remember the older films and I can't be bothered to rewatch them all in order to keep up with this one (because they're mostly boring and repetitive). And that's the main problem with this movie series, you kinda gotta know stuff from the previous movies.

Anyway so we're still following the timeline that started in 'X-Men: First Class' which was a prequel/reboot to the entire franchise (ugh!). This time we are first whisked back to ancient Egypt where the first mutant ever rules supreme. His name is En Sabar Nur, more commonly known as Apocalypse. So old Apocalypto is betrayed by his followers and gets buried alive beneath a pyramid (I think). Back in the present of 1983 dusty old Apocalypto gets discovered by locals and is awakened, or re-energised or brought back to life, whatever. Surveying the new world before him, the big purple one decides that he does not like the modern age of 1983 and all those damn Cabbage Patch Kids. So off he goes to recruit some other mutants (his four horsemen, or whatever) and destroy the world so he can build a better one. The X-Men have to stop him...and that's it.

OK right off the bat, what the literal fuck was that makeup job on Oscar Isaac for Apocalypse?? I heard and read the rumours all about his visual appearance being somewhat kooky and rather reminiscent of some kids flick villain, but I didn't really think much into it. What I saw was shocking, absolutely shocking...and hilarious. Now up to this point these movies have been relatively solid visually, not great but they have tried to give these comicbook characters a realistic look which has worked OK, apart from one or two. Considering this is a new movie in 2016 I simply could not believe how poor Isaac looked in his baddie outfit. For a start it looks nothing like Apocalypse, not even close. His entire bodysuit looks terribly rubbery and squishy, no weight to it at all. Isaac isn't a particularly large person and you can also tell here, Apocalypse is way too short and has nowhere near enough bulk to him. And finally we have the makeup job on his face, Jesus Christ! Please explain to me what went wrong! what were they thinking?! Its awful, plain and simple, you can almost see the joins, the lines, it looks fake and rubbery, and again it looks nothing like Apocalypse. In short he looks like a big purple dildo from a kids flick or TV show.

But wait there's more terrible outfits, the cartoonish garbage keeps going. The four horsemen that Apocalypse recruits look almost as dumb as he does, well three of them. First up we have Psylocke, a sexy brunette with a skimpy costume that actually looks like something straight outta 'Mortal Kombat: Annihilation', or a tacky Halloween costume. Next its Angel and his big CGI wings that Apoc transforms into metal which somehow fires metal shards? He never wears a shirt it seems, he's kinda chunky, bit too much timber, and just looks plain idiotic. In this flick Storm is a villainess and looks more like yet another Mortal Kombat character, no the mohawk doesn't look 'cool'. Magneto is the final errr...horseman I guess. Of course its Michael Fassbender again but we all know he is one of the better factors in these films, and he looks good in his suit too.

On the goodie side of things its the usual story, same actors, same characters, same look. Nicholas Hoult is Beast and again just looks like a bad makeup job. They haven't yet managed to equal or better the look used on Kelsey Grammer in 'X-Men: The Last Stand' in my opinion. Evan Peters as Peter Maximoff might be a popular character right now but Quicksilver also looks ridiculous with his silver outfit if you ask me, and he just does the same shit as before (obviously). Nightcrawler literally just looks like a regular skinny teen with blue face paint on, possibly for Halloween again. I mean I know that's kinda the idea but it just looks so bland and cheap. And lastly the Godawful Jennifer Lawrence is back as Mystique, although you wouldn't think it because she's hardly seen in her famous blue visage. Obviously she didn't like the process or thinks she's too big to be hidden away behind so much makeup or whatever. All the rest are fine, nothing special, usual stuff, they don't look like clowns in other words.

Lets take a look at what we see. Apocalypse is supposedly a super powerful mutant of the ages....right? Yet he really doesn't come across like that, hell he doesn't even look intimidating. At one point he decapitates some local Egyptians with...sand? Yes the deadly terror that is sand, its coarse, it gets everywhere and it can apparently cut human heads off. He then merges some other local into a wall or something, eh? He does this again later with another X-Men character (can't recall). Tries to like...meld them with a wall, because that's a thing apparently, that's one of his mutant powers, wall melding. He can also turn people into dust or sand, I dunno. But he only does this here and there, like why doesn't he just turn all the X-Men into dust? (or sand).

At one point the big purple one wants to send a message to every human, so he requires Professor X. But surely he's powerful enough to do that himself no? I don't know all the facts about these characters but I just got the impression a mutant like Apocalypse would be able to do things like that himself. In fact I must question why he even needs any assistance from the mutants he recruited, they're all pretty useless anyway. I'm sure the shirtless dude with metal wings will be a big help to you.

We see Magneto lose yet another family, ugh! Yep we gotta sit through a whole load of schmaltz with the metal powered one and another faceless family that is obviously just there to be killed off and make him angry. So when these communist Polish militia accidentally kill Erik's wife and child, he kills them with...a necklace? Oh, his wife and child get killed accidentally by a fatal arrow shot. But this arrow must be damn big because it manages to penetrate his wife, and into the child (they were holding each other).

The entire Wolverine/Weapon X cameo sequence was another laughable waste of time. Apart from being completely pointless and of no use to the plot, its obviously just crowbarred in there to appease the fanboys who probably all spaffed in their pants over it. Wolverine, in his kegs, with a load of wires and crap all over him, killing faceless soldiers in a rage. Twas in the comics and thusly recreated here to appease and possibly gauge the reaction for a violent R rated flick.  I mean lets be honest here, that's all we've damn well heard about for so long now, 'I wanna see Wolverine kill people in an R rated movie' whine whine whine. And that's why we have the new tenth instalment 'Logan', because people just wanna see Wolverine kill people with graphic violence.

In the end everything is tied up with a nice little predictable bow that we've all seen before now. One big cliched battle at the end where various bad guys are defeated but not killed off so they can become good guys later on. Professor X has mind battles with Apocalypse because that's all Professor X can do in these films. Magneto was a villain here, but switches back to the good guys...again. Jean Grey unleashes her full Phoenix Force powers (I'm guessing it was) to defeat Apocalypse, she did very little else up till that point. Various X-Men use their various specific mutant powers for this and that, its all very convenient with shittonnes of deus ex machina moments. And finally the X-mansion gets obliterated...but is completely rebuilt perfectly in the end by Magneto and Jean Grey. How very safe and convenient.

This movie in general is so so poor in almost every way, its literally as if Singer and co took a large step backwards. I feel like this movie might have done way better had it come out prior to the very first X-Men movie, way back in 2000. Its virtually on par with 'X-Men: The Last Stand', 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine' and 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' in terms of an overall substandard product or offering. This movie feels totally jokey, a absolute sin in terms of modern comicbook flicks, its incredible how this got by without any warning lights (or were there?). At this point I really can't see where you can go with this franchise and these characters, this all felt so cliched, mundane and repetitious. Its been done, the moment has past.


Monday, 13 February 2017

Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys (2014)

I came across this documentary purely out of the blue whilst minding my own business online one merry day. I saw an image, I clicked the link, it took me to some site which then informed me all about said doc. I instantly knew I had to see this, mainly out of pure morbid curiosity if anything. I mean really, how interesting could a documentary about action figures really be?? (even though those figures are Star Wars figures).

So at the time I write this review I am currently 38 years of age, pushing 39. So basically I'm a middle aged man to all the young hipsters and hepcats out there with their newfangled technology and whatnot (the f*ck is all this iCloud business?? whatever). Anyway, I am of the generation that lived through the original releases of 'The Empire Strikes Back' and 'Return of the Jedi' (although I only recall RotJ), and consequently I grew up during the main period of the original Kenner Star Wars toy line. So to someone of my age who is or was a fanboy (or girl) of George Lucas' space opera, this documentary will probably be a glorious trip down memory lane, or not, kinda depends dunnit.

So what does this doc do other than show you nice shots of loads of vintage Star Wars toys and their packaging. Well firstly and most obviously we meet a group of people, mainly blokes, who are in their mid 30's and have impressive collections of the now vintage toy line. Each person describes how they got into the franchise, how it changed their life forever and of course how the toys were the centre of their lives throughout their childhoods. Each person generally sits behind a glorious glass cabinet display of figures, ships, action sets, original complete packaging, posters, trinkets, tat etc...the full monty so to speak. These guys know their shit, they know all about the toys and they treat them like chunks of rock from Mars, probably even better than that.

From there we move into the real gritty stuff, the Kenner company and how they came to be the centre of the toy world. Basically before Star Wars there was no real licensing for merchandise based off movies, no one had ever really tapped into that cash cow because no one ever really thought it would/could do anything. Kenner (based on Kenner Street in Cincinnati, Ohio) was originally part of a soap company in 1947 and came up with a toy gun that fired bubbles. This simple idea sold over a million units and got Kenner on the right track for children's toys. Fast forward a bit to 1975 and Kenner starts to have success with toys based off TV shows like 'The Six Million Dollar Man'. Then in 1979 along came 'Star Wars' and everything changed. Gone was the nice clean polished look and feel of science fiction, sci-fi was now dirty, grimy, damaged, worn in, weathered etc...The doc introduces us to various people who worked for Kenner at the time and they explain how the Star Wars movie presented a whole new world to them, a new challenge, basically entering new territory both for their work and film in general.

The guys (who range from the designers to managers) talk about how they all saw the movie to see what they were up against. They discuss how the movie blew them away, whilst at the same time how it got them excited due to the sheer wealth of imagination on display. They then had to go away and translate this explosive new movie into a new toy range with little time and not enough resources. This leads into talks about the surprisingly successful 'Early Bird' set of figures which was basically an empty cardboard box with a gift certificate for the actual figures when they were released. They discuss which characters were originally used and why, they show early figure concepts, early designs for spacecraft and vehicles, ideas for retractable weapon sections on some figures etc...In other words a whole lot of chat about toy prototypes with the final results.

There is generally a lot of talk with old Kenner designers and how they turned the movies now legendary spacecraft into highly popular toys. The ships were pretty straight forward obviously but seeing original models and designs for the Ewok village playset was neat. We also see various sketches of unused designs, most of which were for vehicles that weren't actually in the film. Some of these actually got made which I'm sure people will recall (they looked crap and were so obviously not from the real Star Wars universe), but we do see lots of designs for land vehicles, droids and whatnot that didn't get the green light. Ironically many of them do actually look pretty good...as sketches anyway. One toy that got the green light that wasn't in the movies was the troop transport, a shitty excuse for a toy which looked way better in the design stage. Oddly it was Joe Johnston and Lucasfilm that didn't like the original design, they revised it and, in my opinion, made it look crap. One of the biggest unused designs was for a large toy of the now famous Rebel blockade runner, the Tantive IV. This was really disappointing to discover as the Tantive IV is such a badass ship, fantastic design and it probably would of been a sweet toy. Hard to judge of course but the early design  sketches looked great. The figures were cool but the original Kenner Star Wars spacecraft were always a big deal, easily some of the best toys ever created (check the Imperial Shuttle toy, best and biggest toy ever!).

One segment featured a chat with the original photographer of the toys for the original packaging. Now I know this might sound completely naff but it was actually really cool. The original Kenner packaging is just as famous and collectable as the toys they contained. Why you ask? well because they were so bright and colourful, they had that classic 70's/80's vibe (naturally), and the images used were simple but highly effective in capturing your imagination (at the time). Obviously there is a large prescription of rose tinted specs going on here but believe it or not, those images on the packaging are virtually seen as collectable art now. Hell even to this day that Kenner packaging design still evokes strong emotions and memories for me. The design truly was that powerful and influential, both now and back in the day. The packaging and some of the toys even had a certain smell about them. Whether or not smelling those toys was a good idea health wise I dunno, but the aroma was strong with some of those toys (especially the black TIE fighter pilot figure for some reason).

Towards the end the doc looks into various Star Wars toys from other countries. Most of these being genuine items that just had different packaging and languages obviously, such as the European figure packaging with French, English and Spanish on them (always hated how that looked). Twas interesting to see various changes and alterations to some toys in different countries such as Mexico for example. But then there was also the unlicensed stuff that either went under the radar or got shut down. Its incredible to see just how much garbage has been flogged with the Star Wars brand on it. From there the doc starts to explore the newer range of Star Wars merchandise, mainly figures and spacecraft. This is where it becomes uninteresting as the newer toys look shit compared to the classic stuff, so tacky and overblown, just makes you feel sorry for kids these days really.

Overall it was a shame that they didn't delve deeper into specific character figures (for the classic range). I was kinda hoping there might be some cool insights into some of the alien characters and why they didn't make figures for many background characters. Probably because they were background characters I guess but I always thought some of the choices for figures were odd. Like how some background characters were used and other more prominent background characters weren't. For example, why did they make a figures for Yak-Face, Amanaman, Prune Face and Snaggletooth when these guys are hardly seen in the movies. Why were there no figures for the Devaronian, Biggs, Wedge, the Bith cantina band, Mon Mothma and various others from Jabba's palace?

As I said originally, this is essentially for people of a certain age who remember this stuff, who actually grew up playing with it. I certainly recommend it to any Star Wars fan of course as it is an interesting little documentary. But lets not beat around the bush here, this is simply toy porn, in your face toy porn for guys who never really grew up. That's not a bad thing! I myself still have various Kenner Star War toys from back in the day, including a couple ships, I include myself in this. But I still can't lie, just seeing all those shots of rows upon rows of classic Kenner Star Wars figures, rows of all the ships and vehicles, every single piece. All the ones you wanted back in the day but never got, just sitting there in massive wall to wall displays. Yeah...total toy porn, but oh so good.


Friday, 10 February 2017

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (UK/US, 2005)

Ah Mr Douglas Adams and his legendary cosmic comedy, dare I say his unfilmable legendary cosmic comedy?

Much like Monty Python or Fawlty Towers or many many other classic British comedies, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is the absolute epitome of our humour. The story of how hapless Arthur Dent is saved from the destruction of planet Earth by his alien friend and whisked across the universe on a bizarre adventure that even to this day I'm not entirely sure what's its all about. It involves meeting various aliens species, robots, venturing onto other worlds, learning about alien cultures, the meaning of life, and generally how to survive in the universe as long as you've got your towel.

What started out as a simple radio broadcast back in 1978 on radio 4, quickly turned into a successful small series of five books from 1979 onwards. Douglas Adams simplistic radio broadcast which simple involved people talking against sound effects, took the comedy sci-fi world by storm. Since then there have been audiobooks, computer games, stage shows and of course the now legendary 1981 BBC television series. It was this small successful series that really brought the franchise home (so to speak) for many people including myself. This was the main format that originally grabbed the attention of many younger people (now middle aged) that may not have been aware of the book, mainly because of its visuals and sheer lunacy. Back in the day this show was quite a challenge, a real feat of craftsmanship and ingenuity. Sure these days it looks like complete crap in places but its that all important charm factor that still endures.

So onto the 2005 movie adaptation, was this another feat of craftsmanship and ingenuity? Hmmm. Well firstly this movie isn't an exact adaptation from the original novels. I believe almost every different format of Adams work is slightly different because Adams liked to change things up (although I could be wrong here). Between the radio, TV and novel adaptations various bits of material were either left out or changed by Adams, and this is no different in the movie. We get the basics, the groundwork, but much has been left out (probably due to time restraints) and some has been tweaked, updated or is new. The first clue to the new material is the rather pointless song in the opening credits and some pointless backstory for Dent and Trillian ( I think).

So onto the cast. Well how can I put this, Hitchhikers is an all British affair, the comedy is very British, its all from a very (dated) British point of view, much like Fawlty Towers (or whatever). To this degree I personally think the casting in this movie was bad, a terrible case of miscasting to appeal to a worldwide audience (never a good move with something so niche). On the Brit side, Martin Freeman is a solid choice here but unfortunately merely comes across as his previous and well known 'Office' character of Tim Canterbury. It just kinda feels like you're watching a crossover. After the events of 'The Office' Canterbury goes into space. Bill Nighy does make an acceptable Slartibartfast but comes across as too weak and feeble really, I'm not sure why he played the character so ineffectually.

On the American side we had Mos Def as Ford Prefect (oh Christ!). This is where I feel the people behind this flick really didn't understand the material, they just didn't get it. Besides the most obvious case of simply trying to encourage a wider multicultural audience (which was never going to work here), they chose someone who couldn't even act! Mos Def (an African American rapper) is so so SO far from what the character of Ford should be its literally cringeworthy. You only have to read the book and watch the original TV series to get it, but essentially that means being British and of a certain age so...Clues come from his attire and name, but think of him as a Doctor Who-esque type fellow. Anyway Def was tragically bad in this role, not funny, couldn't act and oddly very quite too, can hardly hear the guy.  Then you had Zooey Deschanel playing Trillian...ugh! Look there was nothing wrong with trying to mix things up a bit (I'm sure Adams might have approved considering he did the same), but they could of at least cast people who could act in comedies.

The only person from the US that actually did fit their character was Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox, incredible I know. With this news (at the time) many fanboys/girls of the Adams universe were probably holding their head in their hands by this point I'm sure. But amazingly Rockwell's performance is spot on, in fact its possibly better than Mark Wing-Davey's original TV offering. Rockwell absolutely nails this ultra vain, narcissistic, overly flashy space cowboy type pretty boy with ease. The long flowing blonde hair, perfect gleaming white smile, dapper attire, trendy facial hair and that brash American attitude. It all fits together perfectly to create this young dumb full of cum, space bound Elvis-esque, legend in his own mind type. Rockwell not only nails the look, but he nails the quips, the poses, the failed action hero moves and his comedy timing.

One major issue I had with this character update, his two heads. In the original TV series Beeblebrox has two heads on his shoulders, one being Wing-Davey's, one being a really bad motionless but hilarious puppet. In the movie, for some reason they decide to have Beeblebrox's second head beneath his main head, presumably sitting in his throat. Now I imagine this was probably down to making the character easier to play for Rockwell and easier in the long run because they wouldn't have to stick a CGI head on him in every shot. But I think it was a bad decision really because they took away the characters main hook, his two heads.
Plus I really think it would have worked wonders with Rockwell's good performance, seeing these two narcissistic heads snap at each other. They could of done it, it might have been a pain and it might have looked a bit ropy but that's all part of the Hitchhikers charm (or it should be). But the way they took it was pretty shit if you ask me, made no sense either, how does his main head stay attached when the second head pops up? What causes the head to pop up? And how exactly did Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) remove Zaphod's second head without killing or decapitating him??

So onto effects. This where this movie does tend to shine because this universe REALLY benefited from some modern day special effects. It was genuinely a real joy to actually see some of Adams creations come to life properly for the first time. Naturally being a 2005 movie the CGI is not up to scratch these days, its not terrible or anything but it does have that typical plastic look that a lot of early CGI displayed back in the day. But its not the CGI that grabs you, its the wonderful use of real puppetry, costumes, sets and props that help sell this bizarre cosmos.

Twas the highly skilled craftsman and women of the Henson Creature Shop that supplied the Vogon alien race and by golly how beautiful they were. Fantastic full sized alien suits with actor inside, along with fully animated prosthetic faces bring the Vogon's to the big screen with A grade results. Along with the Vogon's we also see various other quirky real time alien suits with animated features (I liked the big white furry thing with teeth) and a small cameo from the original robot suit used for Marvin. Speaking of Marvin, this time the depressed robot is a rather tubby full sized suit complete with a huge planet sized head. Warwick Davis is the performer inside the suit whilst Alan Rickman provides the voice in a typically deadpan manner.

Speaking of CGI, this also gave the material a real boost for the guide sequences. The famous animated segments from the guide (or the book) that explain all the unusual things within the universe for a beginner (humans). Basically how to survive when travelling around the universe. Originally the TV series effects were simple animated wire-frame-like coloured images with text and narration from the book (Peter Jones), they were actually the highlight of the series and looked great. For the movie CGI was incorporated and the coloured images were obviously way more advanced. Even though I do prefer the original wire-frame images because they actually look more realistic in a way, the new CGI animations were still nicely done and looked sharp. Stephen Fry provided the voice for the guide and he was the perfect choice to do so with his well spoken dulcet tones. My only quibble would be there simply wasn't enough of the guide in the movie. In the original TV series there were lots of small segments which provided tones of exposition, backstory, flashbacks etc...Obviously the movie couldn't incorporate as much so alas we don't get so much, you can tell because they cram a load in the end credits.

So onto my final all important thoughts that you've all been waiting for with bated breath. The film is visually pleasing and does include some lovely touches of imagination that bring Adams creations up to date whilst also expanding on them. There are some good looking set pieces amongst some solid  sets, nice costumes and even the odd new bits of added material work well, such as John Malkovich's creepy alien character of Humma Kavula. But here's the problem, the film just isn't particularly funny nor is it particularly special. Now I'm not saying that all films must be 'special', but with something like this, a rich cult with an large historic fanbase, frankly you just expect more.

Instead we get a very average, run of the mill sci-fi flick that is clearly trying to be its own unique thing but simply can't escape the gravitational pull of the ever menacing Hollywood tractor beam (the casting didn't help this). They just couldn't really decide if they wanted to make a quaint British flick or a quaint British flick with heavy Hollywood influences. Looking back it just kinda felt like they saw the opportunity to wheel out another movie adaptation and try to spin it into another sequel spewing cash cow. Can I say that now? Well yes I can because the movie failed to succeed and has since been lost in the dark abyss of crap movie oblivion with so many others of the same ilk. Who the hell talks about this flick now?? no one! because it was yet another bland production rolled off the highly mediocre modern movie conveyor belt at a time when CGI was the be all and end all. So in the end it was a disappointment and a wasted opportunity, mainly because I doubt we'll be seeing any more movies based on Adams famous sci-fi universe, because of this.


Friday, 3 February 2017

The Bounty (UK, 1984)

So for those who might be unaware, this movie recounts the actual events of the HMS Bounty and its crew in the year 1789. The movie is actually told in flashbacks from the perspective of William Bligh (Anthony Hopkins), the Commanding Lieutenant of the ship, during his court martial in England.

History tells us that in 1787 the HMS Bounty set sail from England, destination Tahiti, with Bligh in command. The mission to collect breadfruit pods for transplantation in the Caribbean. During the course of the voyage everything is generally fine and dandy on-board, all shipshape and Bristol fashion. The Bounty reaches Tahiti in 1788 and is welcomed by the natives with open arms. The crew spend five months on the island (more than intended) and slowly became infatuated with the freedom and general carefree lifestyle the natives and their home offered. During this time Master's Mate Fletcher Christian falls in love and marries a native girl. When the time came to leave the island many crew members simply did not wish to, including Christian, which lead to obvious massive problems. Under a lot of pressure Bligh managed to whip the crew back into shape to continue their mission. Alas it wasn't long before Christian cracked and along with 18 crew members they took the ship and set Bligh adrift with his loyal supporters.

The film follows the story in stages which are interspersed with small segments of Bligh's trial. Whilst watching I was actually surprised at how fast the plot moved. There is little to no time in England prior to the voyage, and then before you know it the ship has reached Tahiti with very little time at sea. Now this isn't a bad thing per say, the main crux of the film surrounds what happens on Tahiti and of course what follows so the film does skip along to those points. The only main bit of plot for the outgoing voyage is the attempt at rounding the Cape (Cape Horn), which fails due to the treacherous weather conditions.

What we see for the first stage of the movie is essentially short bursts of character driven sections to show us who we are dealing with. Bligh is clearly a good fair man, a moral man who does actually care about his crews welfare. He simply wants nothing more than to successfully complete his mission and a personal goal of circumnavigating the globe, is that too much to ask? Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson) is a family friend of Bligh. He appears to be an up and coming young naval officer in the making. Devoted to his role, his Lieutenant, well spoken and again fair and moral. Sailing Master John Fryer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is another young up and coming naval officer in the making. Much like Christian he is devoted to his work and superior, but is clearly more stern and happy to dish out punishments.

Down below you had the usual rabble of able seamen that varied in personality and movie stereotype. Churchill (Liam Neeson) is the ship's Corporal, a brutish thug of a man that seemed quite happy to start a fight over very little. William Cole (Bernard Hill) the ship's Boatswain, very loyal to Bligh, could be seen as overly keen, a company man type fellow. John Smith (John Sessions) the meek ship's steward. Ned Young (Phil Davis, the British Gary Busey), the quite calm Midshipman and weird Sting-esque looking fellow. Add various background sailor characters played by other British names such as Neil Morrissey and Dexter Fletcher.

Of course visually the film is epic in scope, there's no question about that. The ship is shot from various angles throughout that are truly beautiful, sunsets on the skyline, approaching Tahiti , leaving Tahiti, cruising the ocean waves etc...Real locations used in French Polynesia along with New Zealand add authenticity along with the already authentic general look of the film as a whole. Yes this film most definitely offers a realistic and gritty-esque look at life on the high seas in the late 1700's. Yet at the same time somewhat overly romantic and sumptuous.

Essentially this version of the classic incident offers more insight into the relationship between Bligh and Christian. Relatively close family friends at the start, Bligh offering Christian a good position on the voyage at his side, then promoting him midway. Its very interesting to watch Hopkins play this father figure of sorts to Gibson's Christian. Bligh clearly wants to help Christian go far in his career and shows on numerous times he is willing to hand out lighter punishments that might normally be far more serious. He would scold instead of flog, flog instead of hang. Its also interesting to watch Bligh observing his men in Tahiti as they frolic with the natives. One could assume he was jealous, and that could be a reason. But its far more logical to think he was concerned about how he would get his men back into the right frame of mind when it was time to leave. Its obvious to see that all the topless native women, sandy beaches, sunshine and apparent lack of work and discipline would be cause enough to keep Bligh up at night.

At the same time Gibson's Christian is almost a bit of a non-entity in the movie. Obviously this is because the story is told from Bligh's perspective but its clear Gibson is merely added in to look pretty on the beach and in a uniform (which he does). Whilst Bligh has always been seen as a possible tyrannical monster in the history books, Christian was portrayed as a more heroic character breaking free to live his life. Dare I say a bit of a Romeo and Juliet situation. Well that is not what you see here. Gibson's Christian is a good man for sure, but young and easily influenced. Like some of the crew, having found a woman to bonk endlessly, getting tattooed, getting a tan etc...Its all too much for the impressionable young man. He rebels against his father figure, his position and basically goes off the deep end in a bit of a tantrum really. You can see it hurts Bligh deeply to see this, he tries to stop Christian by offering leniency when things go too far, he does try! But Christian had already made his mind up.

Obviously its hard to know what really happened and what triggered all this. The film takes a certain direction and it does seem the most logical, we're all only human. Would an older, more experienced seaman be able to handle to temptations and look at the situation more sensibly? After all it was only Christian from the top ranks that mutinied, or got it all going. The lower ranking men had more of a reason seeing as they were treated like crap all the time.

Its definitely Hopkins movie for the most part, his performance is big, bold and commanding (fancy that). We get the whole range from Hopkins, the softly spoken gentleman, the stoic leader, the angry father figure and now amusingly, the Hannibal Lecter grin complete with lots of glistening sweat at one point. As already said Gibson is pretty but not much else, he is totally outclassed by Hopkins at every stage. His one moment of real acting sees him kinda blow it frankly. When Christian takes the Bounty and holds a sword to Bligh, the overblown rants just come across as cringeworthy more than anything. You can see quite clearly, here is a man, a Hollywood star, who basically can't really act too well...unless its in some one-liner filled action flick. In the end Gibson's Christian comes across more like a spoilt schoolboy who sulks when he doesn't get his way. I mean come on, we all have those moments when you just wanna quit everything and run away to some idyllic location. But most of us are able to calm down and think rationally, put things into perspective.

For a British production back in 1984 this is certainly a massive achievement, I didn't even know it was a British movie. The entire movie really has a glorious Hollywood feel to it, in a good way, but at the same time it can't escape cliches and stereotypes. Take a look at the native women on Tahiti, they all appear to be rather cute don't they. Long flowing dark hair, perky breasts, full lips, nice and slim, and apparently perfectly happy to have sex with all the sailors. The thing is most of these guys aren't much to look at and considering they've all been at sea for so long, I'd guess very dirty, smelly and unhealthy. But who cares! sex party on the beach everyone! The film also shows life on Tahiti as pretty absurdly sweet frankly. All Christian does all day is bonk, get tattooed and get lavished upon by his new bird. Its like no one on Tahiti does any work or anything. Plus none of the sailors ever appear ill or skinny or anything, you'd think they would be rather malnourished. Don't even go there with Gibson's Christian, the man is an Adonis at all times, the journey has zero affects on him.

I must mention the score by the legendary Vangelis, of electronic orchestral musical fame ('Blade Runner', 'Chariots of Fire'). Even without knowing who composed the score you can tell straight off the bat its a Vangelis score. Those recognisable electronic chimes and haunting ethereal melodies that seem to touch your inner spirit. Now I will admit that at first I didn't like it, my reasons? well I just didn't think it fit the film. Firstly the score is very very similar to Vangelis' work on 'Blade Runner' I think. Secondly, because of its similarity to that particular futuristic score, it kinda felt out of place in an 18th century setting and a bit samey. However, after going back to the film to rewatch and listen, I can confirm that the score has indeed grown on me.

'The Bounty' is on one hand a bit special, the film is actually pretty darn accurate as far as I'm aware, bar the odd snippet. It goes by a version of events as recorded from Bligh's perspective, and does so very well. Whether or not that account is accurate or not, we will never know. However, far be it for me to take sides in the argument, what we see and what you can research does seem entirely likely. On the other hand (there's always another hand), the film is very much of its time (that being the 80's) with regard to certain stereotypes, the usage of pretty boy Gibson and the portrayal of the natives and their homeland. The film is completely engaging but at times a tad slow and very very obviously over romanticised, to the point of corny. Nevertheless this British movie is highly enjoyable from start to finish with relatively gritty realistic visuals, big performances and a sweeping tale of love and freedom.