Monday, 17 June 2013

DTV: 'Stranded'

Hey, I’ll have you know there are plenty of good direct-to-video films.

... This is not one of them.

From Roger Christian, the director of Battlefield Earth, comes a brand new tale of interstellar horror and poorly lit corridors. A small team of Moon-based astronauts under the command of Col. Gerard Brauchman (ohmygodit’s Christian Slater!) suddenly find their lunar facility on the receiving end of a violent meteor shower that cripples the base and leaves them... Stranded.    

But they aren’t alone. Already threatened by gradual carbon monoxide poisoning (bear witness to THE RETURN OF SPACE DEMENTIA), they soon realise that something else came down with the meteors – a malevolent alien organism that takes physical form after impregnating one crew member and perfectly replicating another. As the creature sets its insidious plan in motion, Brauchman’s team must find a way to ensure not only their own survival, but the safety of Earth itself.

Yep. It’s gonna be one of those movies. Might as well get the disposable characters over with before anything else. First up is the young Dr. Krauss (Brendan Fehr). He’s all stoic and rational ‘n’ stuff. Then there’s Ava (Amy Matysio), who, in compliance with the Ripley Act of 1979, clearly has much larger testicles than any of her male co-workers... but she also displays incredible stupidity. Last, but surprisingly not least, Michael Therriault plays Johns, a twitchy alcoholic who suffers the misfortunate honour of having the otherworldly visitor form itself in his image. And honestly, in spite of Stranded’s terribad script (brace yourself for the depressurisation gag), Therriault’s double-act (two vastly different roles) is far and away the best thing in it.   

For many, Christian Slater will forever be that weirdo from Heathers. I’m more of a Broken Arrow fan, myself, but it’s always a nice surprise to see this humanoid 90s time capsule show up in the unlikeliest of places (loved his Bullet to the Head cameo). While I’m not entirely convinced he was 100% sober at the time of filming, Slater still puts in an earnest performance as Brauchman, even if all the role ultimately amounts to is frowning in confusion and yelling at computers (drinking game material). Of course, the REAL star here is Slater’s hairline, but that’s a whole other sci-fi horror for a very different review.

Believe it or not, but Roger Christian wasn’t always doomed to be remembered as the man who gave us John Travolta’s finest hour. Long before that incident, Christian was working in the art departments for such films as Star Wars and, more relevantly, Alien. Indeed, the Blu-ray cover is quick to point this out in such a manner that you’d think Dan O’Bannon had risen from the grave to pen one last screenplay.

Sadly, neither Alien nor Star Wars exactly spring to mind when watching Stranded. If anything, there’s more than a whiff of Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation hovering around the production. It’s got that same murky cinematography – all ruddy colours and overwhelming shadows – making the film look as though it was shot from one end of an unclean fish tank. Fair play if that was Christian’s intention (at least he’s toned down the Dutch angles), but save for one bizarre match dissolve incorporating a penny, I’m not sold on his creative vision just yet.

Worse still, it would appear as though this lack of aesthetic flair extended to the creature department... or lack thereof. While there is a killer alien, it spends most of the time in its Michael Therriault form. Towards the end, there are a few gruesome surprises (courtesy of some decent practical effects), but it’s a sad case of too little too late. You could say Stranded is geared more towards fans of Inseminoid than Titan Find.

None of this would matter too much if Stranded at least worked on a horror level, but that’s precisely where it disappoints the most. With the possible exception of when Ava wakes up to discover the Creepozoids baby breastfeeding off her, along with the very occasional unsettling moment (like a glimpse of said offspring watching from an air vent), this movie isn’t going to set pulses racing. Rest assured, there will be jump scares and there will be flickering lights. But there will be no surprises.

Oh well, you might be thinking, maybe it can make up for a lack of scares with some good old fashioned schlock? Nuh uh. The moment we’re told there will only be four primary characters, alarm bells start ringing. Already, you just know any gory demises are gonna be in short supply, and sure enough, there is a grand total of ONE novelty death to look forward to. I won’t spoil what happens (‘cos hey, it’s pretty funny), but it’s still not enough to warrant any self-respecting gorehound’s full attention. Things do start looking up when Ava’s uterus becomes unexpectedly occupied, but there’s no gruesome Xtro-styled birth sequence. Oh, there’s a birth sequence alright, but it happens mostly off-screen. And she lives. Why did I buy this movie again?  

If nothing else, Stranded is short. Without taking the end credits into account, its running time barely scrapes past 80 minutes. Irritatingly, this brevity turns out to be something of a double-edged sword. Yes, you don’t have to put up with Slater and co. for very long, but the ending turns out to be the film’s most interesting part – leaving us on a major cliffhanger. It’s almost as though Stranded was intended as the prequel to a far more entertaining movie! Chances are, that’s a sequel we’ll never get to see, and... I’m really not sure if I care.     

While Stranded was unceremoniously dumped in the UK video market a few weeks ago, it will apparently receive some form of theatrical North American release next month. I’m not sure I can technically recommend the film to anyone, but if, like me, you’ve ever wanted to spend an evening with Christian Slater on the Moon, now is your chance.

But you’ve been warned.        

Saturday, 1 June 2013

30 Years Later: 'Return of the Jedi'

Yub Nub indeed.

How about, instead of beating around the bush for the next few hundred words, I just take a chainsaw to it right now? I mean, I can only delay the inevitable for so long, and even though it’s been three decades, George Lucas still catches an ungodly amount of shit over it. So, cards on the table... I like the Ewoks. They’re cute, they’re cuddly, and I want one. I even own the Ewok Adventures spinoff movies on DVD, and should they ever receive a Blu-ray upgrade, I’ll be all over them too.

HOWEVER, that doesn’t automatically mean I’m willing to give Richard Marquand’s Return of the Jedi a free pass. Let’s face it, when your epic finale features a three-way-split between an emotionally fraught lightsaber duel, a perilous space battle... and a legion of fuzzy whatsits taking down a battalion of technologically superior Stormtroopers... then yeah, some objective thinking may be in order.

That said, you can defend the Ewoks. The most common excuses go something like: “Oh, they were just a distraction while the Rebels did all the damage!” and “The Ewoks were getting their collective asses kicked until Chewbacca commandeered the AT-ST!” or “Stormtroopers suck.” All solid arguments, but I think there’s an even better explanation we’ve never seriously considered before.    

Close your eyes, take a deep breath... and picture yourself as an Imperial Stormtrooper (bear with me). You have been trained as part of the elite force in the galaxy – ready to face anything from rampaging Krayt Dragons to giant, sewer-dwelling Dianogas. You survived the Battle of Yavin, assaulted Echo Base on Hoth, and now you’re patrolling the Death Star’s shield generator installation base on the forest moon of Endor. Suddenly, there’s a rustle from the bushes off to your left. You raise your blaster rifle, bracing yourself for whatever native horror might emerge... and a teddy bear waddles out. Oh sure, it’s clutching a spear and has that unmistakable killer look in its soulless, unblinking eyes (unless it’s a Blu-ray Ewok)... but it’s still a teddy bear... and it’s getting closer. So what do you do?   


Hell, I know I couldn’t shoot anything that cute; and I believe that, more than any other reason, is why the Ewoks emerged victorious.

Then again, need I remind you that in spite of their adorable superficial appearance, the Ewoks are still savagely primal beasts from beyond the stars?! Remember all those empty trooper helmets during the celebration scene? Yeah, well what do you think they did with the bodies? Hell, if Luke hadn’t intervened with the Force earlier on, then 3PO and R2 would’ve been forced to watch their friends get roasted alive and torn apart like Sean Pertwee in Doomsday! Want to try something? Go watch the Battle of Endor scenes while listening to THIS MUSIC and get back to me. Seriously, all that’s missing is an extended sequence where Wicket sexually assaults Leia with a spiked mud ball (guess I’ll just have to settle for when he humps the crap out of Han’s leg).

Oh man, this review got dark. 

... Moving on, another well documented issue is Harrison Ford’s serious lack of stuff to do except pull faces and step on Ben Burtt’s Foley effects. For the record, I think Ford does as good a job as ever, but Han feels criminally underwritten here. I dunno, maybe Lucas wanted to reduce the focus on Solo after all-but giving him the lead role in Empire (and Jedi is clearly more of a Luke Skywalker story), but it’s sad to see much of the spark that once made Han a clear fan-favourite now diminished. Though to be fair, he does get to shoot one unlucky Stormtrooper in the FACE. That was pretty badass.

 Again, I find myself wishing Paul Verhoven was the director.

You know what else was pretty badass? How about the whole first act, for starters. If the original Star Wars was the classic space adventure movie, and if Empire has the most heart and soul, then Jedi quickly cements its status as the most wildly imaginative saga entry to date.  Jabba the Hutt’s palace is a menagerie of weird and wonderful aliens (including the brilliantly realised Hutt crime lord himself), the Rancor remains a practical effects demonstration that rivals even the best of modern CGI (which you can read more about right here); and the Sarlacc Pit battle plays out like a sci-fi Indiana Jones set-piece. 

It’s not even a big deal when Boba Fett gets taken out by a blind man. Really, it’s a fitting end for a character who spends his time standing around doing, uh... not a lot. Viewing his surprisingly piss-poor skills in action at long last, before he finally tumbles into a fanged orifice (okay, so it’s not quite H.R. Giger, but it’s getting there) feels like a perfect send-off when all’s said and done.

Never Forget

Even with all this excitement, Jedi still manages to pull those heartstrings (due in no small part to John Williams’ score). A major blow comes straight after the enormously fun opening forty minutes, with the untimely death of Yoda. Watching the little guy’s final moments is goddamn heartbreaking, and the fact that I get choked up over a little green puppet speaks volumes for Frank Oz’s skills. Well, either that, or I'm a wuss.

The mood is alleviated somewhat once Luke discovers the truth about Leia (thanks in part to Alec Guiness returning for a quick paycheque). Their newfound bond ensures the human drama from Empire isn’t totally forgotten here (gotta say, though, the creepy incest vibe is a little hard to shake off), and helps elevate Jedi above simply being “that one with all the muppets”.

If there’s one other big problem a lot of fans have with Jedi, it’s the overall toning down of Darth Vader. You might remember his weird chocking fetish (no, not like that) from the first two movies, but the Sith Lord must have mellowed in the intervening years, as not a single Imperial oesophagus is damaged aboard the second Death Star (though Luke does Force throttle a couple of Gamorrean guards early on, so it must be a family thing).

Besides allowing the underappreciated David Prowse to give a more nuanced performance beneath the helmet, there’s a very good reason for this reduction in homicidal behaviour. If Vader was still choking bitches left and right, it would take much of the focus off Jedi’s new uber villain: The Emperor. Until the prequels (and I’m not counting the scary cabbage lady from Empire), this was our formal introduction to Ian McDiarmid’s wrinkly overlord of evil. As such, it was vitally important that his dominance be felt over the Empire, up to and including Vader himself. So even if Darth isn’t the exact same merciless cyborg from before, we’ve still got Palpatine ready to take charge and bust out the ol’ lightening fingers.

 "Well... looks like you've got this covered."
And don't forget, Jedi scores major points in the vehicular warfare department. I don’t know or particularly care if the folks at LucasArts are still going ahead with the 3D conversions, but I would certainly consider checking out the sixth film for the thrill of its speeder bike chase alone. On top of that, you’ve got one of the greatest space battles ever made. I reckon you could base your entire college dissertation on the execution of these masterful interstellar combat sequences. Just be sure to reference the importance of Admiral Ackbar’s sliding chair and quick, trap-based thinking. Don’t forget to spare a thought for Lando Calrissian’s alien co-pilot buddy either, ‘cos the little guy’s clearly baked throughout the whole attack.

 "We're goin' to a galaxy far, far away, DUDES!"

As the war around and below the Death Star rages on, Luke and Vader engage in one last, inevitable lightsaber duel. Whichever episode you start from, they’ve all built to this final confrontation, and it’s been worth the wait. While it lacks the overall finesse you’d find in the acrobatically choreographed prequel trilogy, it makes up for style with raw power, as Luke is forced to unleash his feelings and risk losing himself to the Dark Side – resulting in a gripping climax that makes us question why the hundreds-of-kilometres-deep lift shaft wasn't covered up prior to Palpatine’s arrival.

C'mon, nobody thought this might be a problem?

Up until a matter of months ago, we’d all figured Star Wars was over (from a cinematic point of view). After all, the Empire was defeated, Han and Leia officially hooked up, Chewbacca seemed okay with this, Luke became a true Jedi, Anakin had redeemed himself and there was much Ewok dancing. Return of the Jedi may not have been perfect, but you couldn’t hope for a more conclusive, feel-good end to the saga. Now, however, it turns out we’re still only two thirds of the way through. I don’t know what Kathleen Kennedy and JJ Abrams have in store for us, but I hope it doesn’t completely sully the happy ending our heroes deserve.   

Huh... can’t believe I got through this without ranting about the Special Editions or the DVDs oncccarghblargle-


Friday, 17 May 2013

Late Review: 'Iron Man Three'

I'm not that good at making excuses... but like Lance Guest once told Mario Van Peebles in Jaws: The Revenge: when you fall off the horse, you get right back on again.


Directed by Shane Black (who co-writes with Drew Pearce), Iron Man 3 finds Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) still coming to terms with the otherworldly events of The Avengers. All that’s keeping him from a complete mental breakdown is an obsessive desire to perfect his Iron Man armour (he’s up to MK. 42), and the woman he loves, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). But when a terrorist mastermind calling himself ‘The Mandarin’ (Ben Kingsley) surfaces and reduces Stark’s life to rubble, the vengeful billionaire is forced into action against his most dangerous adversary yet.

The immediate challenge facing Iron Man 3 is just what to do with Tony Stark. After five years of us getting to know the character, finding interesting new directions to steer him in without solely relying on Downey’s performance (still an uncanny bit of casting genius) can’t be easy. So to counter this, part three is all about getting Stark as far away from his comfort zone as possible, and seeing how he fights back (it very much harks back to his stint in a Middle Eastern cave).  

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise by now, but just like in the first two films, Stark spends the very, very, very large majority of Iron Man 3 sans power armour. Okay, so your inner 13-year-old might let out a barely pubescent sigh over it, but what sets the Iron Man films apart from other summer blockbusters has always been a strong focus on story and characters over spectacular action (although there’s plenty of that to go around as well).  Jon Favreau’s original film is widely considered one of the best comic book adaptations ever for this very reason, and Black continues the tradition with barnstorming results.

What’s more, Paltrow continues to rise above the clich├ęd damsel in distress archetype as Pepper Potts who, without giving too much away, soon finds herself in the most extraordinary of positions. Since the beginning, a core component of Iron Man has been the bond Potts and Stark share. If it weren’t for the two (and a bit) films of watching their relationship grow, then seeing it practically demolished here wouldn’t have packed nearly the same impact that gives Iron Man 3 its emotional drive.

With Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) back in action, and sporting his swanky new Iron Patriot armour, there’s a fair deal of (Iron)Man Love in the air too. Cheadle is given his meatiest role in the series to date, while the sharply scripted banter between him and Downey often feels lifted straight out of Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which, by the way, if you haven’t already seen, please make a point of doing so). I’m talking full, bickering married couple-grade bromance - AKA: The best kind.

You might have noticed that each Tony Stark adventure has steadily increased the need to suspend disbelief. We’ve gone from terrorists and Jeff Bridges in a mech suit, to automated robot drones and a sweaty, semi-naked Mickey Rourke brandishing laser whips (in a mech suit), to a full blown alien invasion of New York. Here, the opposition comes from genetically mutated mercenaries sent out by suave scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) to do Mandarin’s bidding. Fuelled by the Extremis formula, these guys can emit intense heat and regenerate whole body parts, making them exceptionally hard to kill. Now, if you were to jump straight from the original film to this threequel, that shift in realism would come off as a serious case of shark-jumping. Taken as part of the overall Marvel movie continuity, however, this turn towards pure science fiction makes for some truly exciting action sequences just right for a trilogy-closing endgame.       

As for the main villains, it’s hard to talk about Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of ‘The Mandarin’ (a major Iron Man baddie that many comic readers have waited an age to see in cinematic action) without getting into ruinous spoilers, but yeah... I liked what they did, I think it worked and I would even go so far as to call it a tasteful creative decision. While this ballsy move may have split viewers right down the middle, I reckon we can all at least agree that Kingsley nails it in his own inimitable style.

Plus, who doesn’t love the ongoing Guy Pearce career renaissance? I was already impressed by Pearce’s evil turn in Lawless, but watching him get his slime on while decked out in expensive suits and a slicked back beginner’s mullet (if only they’d delayed filming by a few months) was second only to the religious experience that is Lockout (pure junk, but the man is awesome in it). Pearce damn near steals the whole picture from right under Downey’s goatee, making Killian yet another strong addition to his recent acting canon. If he keeps this up, I expect The Time Machine 2 to be given the green light any day now.

I’ve made it this far without getting into the whole Shane Black factor, but it’s a biggie and can’t be ignored. The writer of such manly classics as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, his signature style is very much felt in Marvel’s latest opus. Alongside his trademark Christmas setting and that aforementioned Stark-Rhodes buddy cop interplay, you get an uptick in foul language, bumbling comedy henchmen, a third act kidnapping, and even extreme violence towards women. He may have had to wrap it all up in a PG-13 ribbon, but this is still the edgiest Iron Man yet.

Black’s involvement would also likely explain the film’s tone. This is not a superhero movie which takes itself all that seriously. For instance, there’s one supervillain moment that’s so over the top and out of left field... it’s deliberately played for laughs. In another case, this might’ve been a deadly demonstration of power, but here it’s funny as hell! Again, I want to avoid spoilers, but it is so refreshing to see this kind of approach taken in a major Hollywood franchise production, especially after the hilarious sincerity of last year’s The Dark Knight Rises (no doubt the greatest unintentional comedy of our time). Unfortunately, I know this borderline irreverent take on the Iron Man brand has only contributed to its divided critical reaction, so I guess you simply either ‘get it’ or you don’t.

That said, not everything clicks like you’d hope. For one thing, the Extremis-powered super soldiers are only ever as powerful as the film needs them to be at any given time, leading to some glaring inconsistencies with their abilities; and despite playing a notably pivotal role, Rebecca Hall feels underused (oh by the way, she’s in this). Most of all, I’d be lying if I said Iron Man 3 doesn’t have one of those plots that relies heavily on movie magic and immediately crumbles under an iota of logical thought (a la Jurassic Park or Prometheus).

So while Iron Man 3 doesn’t quite supersede Jon Favreau’s first stab at the franchise, Black nevertheless serves up a highly enjoyable trilogy capper that boasts a crowd-pleasing concoction of lovable heroes, gnarly villains, pitch perfect comedy and plenty of computer generated spectacle (Weta Digital and a multitude of studios worked their socks off on this). While it feels like a natural end to Tony Stark’s story, the film’s billion dollar box office takings means this likely won’t be the case.

Just don’t ask me where they could take it next.

... Cyborg Zombie Jeff Bridges?