Films #120-122: Fast and Furious 4-6

film 120 121 122 fast and furious

Ratings: Fast and Furious, 3/5; Fast and Furious 5, 5/5; Fast and Furious 6, 4/5

Who’d have thought, fourteen years ago, that the fairly low-budget, kind-of exploitation movie Fast and Furious would have spawned six sequels, with another three to come? Now one of the hottest franchises around, part 7 promises to be ridiculous, and ridiculously entertaining – albeit tainted by the sudden death of Paul Walker in a real car accident. How they’ll deal with this remains to be seen, and how the series copes with the loss of one of its lead actors will largely depend on what direction the writers choose to take it. In advance of part 7’s release, however, I watched parts 4-6 – the revamped, rebooted portion of the franchise, following the less memorable Tokyo Drift. Back to back, it was a great afternoon/evening and, by the end of it, Vin Diesel had become one of my favourite bad actors. Bless his cotton socks, he tries. He really does – you can see the effort in every heartfelt scene, every moment of conflict. He so clearly takes his craft so seriously, but no matter what inner turmoil the character’s going through, none of it translates. He is the man with one face – blank, stoic, an empty void. Yet I can’t help but enjoy his performances, particularly when they’re watched one after the other. Somehow this franchise has survived despite the fact that I’m fairly certain neither of the leads (and most of the ensemble cast around them) can act.

And it’s not just about the cars. The F&F movies have succeeded for a few key reasons. One, the characters are simple and unremarkable, but they’re all likeable and, to the writers’ credit, each one has their own distinctive personality – however unimaginative and lacking nuance – and they all spark off each other well. I can’t even complain about the women, who hold their own while looking smokin’ hot. Two, the action sequences – of which there are many – are dynamic, explosive, absurd, and thoroughly engaging. These are such macho movies, but they’re not alienating, and that’s quite impressive really. Three, the cars themselves are a thing of beauty, if you’re that way inclined, and there’s something for every afficionado, from American muscle cars, to hot hatches, and even some proper supercars. Needless to say, everything’s really shiny. Four, Dwayne Johnson is now most definitely part of the F&F “family”. More on him in a bit. And finally – perhaps even more importantly than the inclusion of The Rock – these films are just plain fun. They do exactly what they say they’re going to: fast cars, fast driving, furious action, full-on entertainment. Having moved beyond the original street-car themes, these movies are now straight-up action, and all the better for it.

Although each film in the series does fit into the F&F universe, it’s the last three that have really moved directly on from each other – part 4 even finishes on a cliffhanger that opens part 5. Part 4 is good, but it’s nothing compared to 5, when all hell breaks loose in Rio and Dwayne Johnson turns up to out-Vin-Diesel Vin Diesel. Sporting a tough-guy goatee and some serious muscle, Johnson is the actor Vin Diesel can never hope to be – bigger, stronger, and infinitely more charismatic. Whereas Vin Diesel appears to think he’s starring in the next hard-hitting think-piece, Johnson knows full well where he is: slap-bang in the middle of a world where the laws of gravity no longer apply, where criminals are good guys but bad guys are super bad, where jail never really seems to be a possibility and money is rarely an issue. This is a world like the one that James Bond inhabits, where the bad guys’ cars instantly implode on impact, but the good guys can be taken out by trucks and walk away unscathed. It’s a world where, somehow, everyone seems to have a licence to kill, and no qualms about using it, where law enforcement is fully aware of this fact but does nothing, and there are absolutely no repercussions whatsoever following the majority of Rio being taken out by a giant runaway safe. Simply put, it’s my kind of world.

There is a risk, of course, that the films will become stupid in their efforts to outdo themselves, and it’s already happening. Part 6 is a step down after the glorious stupidity and hugely entertaining heist scheme of part 5 – there’s more action, less story, more ass-kicking, less attention to physics, less The Rock, more London. By the time the plane started taking off on the runway, signalling the beginning of one of the most ludicrous final scenes in recent cinema memory (experts claim the runway must be almost 30km in length, exceeding the world’s longest by almost 25km), I had completely lost track of why they were there in the first place. Something about an international terrorist and a bunch of top secret “components”? Not that it really matters much – who cares about plot when you’ve got a tank taking out innocent drivers on a Spanish motorway, a street race through Piccadilly Circus, and a bad-guy plane (you know what that means!)? Well, in truth, me – a little bit. Part 6 is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t quite get the balance right. So it goes like this: Part 4 is them finding their feet (wheels?); Part 5 is them in their prime; Part 6 is trying just a bit too hard. As for Part 7? Well, the trailer looks pretty epic – and I expect nothing less.

Advertisements

Film #119: The Lego Movie (2014)

film 119 the lego movie

Rating: 4/5

“Everything is awesome!!!!”

Despite the fact that this film is the most blatant and shameless example of product placement, it’s a lot of fun. It’s also probably the only time we’ll ever get an ensemble cast quite as epic: Gandalf, Batman, Abraham Lincoln, Wonderwoman, Han Solo, and half of the LA Lakers together? When Wreck-It Ralph promised to feature all the classic video game characters in one movie, the results were crushingly inadequate. Here, The Lego Movie delivers, and the interactions between the various cameos – no matter how brief – are very entertaining. It’s the cameo characters that have some of the best running jokes in the movie – poor loser Green Lantern, for example, or 1950’s Space Man Benny desperately trying to build a spaceship. The voice cast is excellent too – kudos to Liam Neeson in particular, sending himself up as split personality Good Cop/ Bad Cop, one of the best characters in the movie.

As well as a seemingly endless number of super-awesome cameos to keep an eye out for, the movie itself is jam-packed. Visually it’s a treat – not quite as puntastic as Aardman’s stop-motion, but just as eye-catching. It’s like a regular movie that’s eaten six bags of sugar in under thirty seconds, washed down with five energy drinks: it’s chaotic, manic, delirious. The pace is non-stop and, quite brilliantly, acknowledged as being such – it’s revealed that the action is apparently playing out in real time. Jack Bauer would be proud (or green with envy at these characters’ productivity). It’s also truly vast in scope, with the action racing from a perfectly ordered city, to the wild west (complete with beautiful panoramic views), to the high seas and beyond. I wonder if the writers had watched A Town Called Panic for inspiration – the films share more than a passing resemblance. Both feature crazy stop motion, non-stop action, hugely ambitious landscapes, and a barely contained insanity. I have to admit, however, A Town Called Panic is the better film. I don’t mind the product placement in The Lego Movie (although it becomes a bit too explicit towards the end) – the biggest issue I have is its confused message about the product placement. Poor Lego seems very muddled about what its purpose and appeal is, and the attempts to unite the sentiment of the product with the most effective marketing ploys don’t really work.

The film itself focuses on Emmet, a generic construction worker who has boundless energy and optimism, but no friends. He likes to conform, to fit in – everything has its place and thinking outside the box is definitely a bad thing. Yet Emmet’s structured life leaves him feeling isolated and unfulfilled until one day, when everything changes. Accidentally becoming the fabled “Special” – the only person who can stop evil Lord Business’ dastardly plans for Taco Tuesday, whatever that is, Emmet finds himself working with a band of “master builders” – an assortment of characters, including Batman, love interest Wyld Style, and Morgan Freeman (sorry, Vitruvius, played by Morgan Freeman), who can create anything in seconds using the Lego pieces around them. The message is clear: conformity bad, creativity good. The structured world preferred by Lord Business is perfect, perfectly ordered, and perfectly boring. In contrast, Cloud Cuckoo Land, a place where imagination runs wild, is a veritable utopia. Meanwhile, Emmet has to unlock his imagination to become the “Special” and save the world. The potential for invention is endless, and the movie makes it very clear that this is the “right” way of thinking about Lego. This is great, and seems to really embody the original concept of Lego, which came in buckets or could be bought like bags of pick ‘n’ mix. It’s a wonderful idea: let your imagination run wild, using simple blocks of plastic that can become whatever you want – cities, animals, whole worlds, anything. Problem is, however, that Lego now comes in pre-packaged assembly kits. Do you want a pirate boat? Buy the pirate boat kit. Want a race-car, a farm, a house, a spaceship? Buy the kit. Most depressing about this whole situation is that now you can even buy kits for the creatures and objects made by the master builders in the movie – the things that work precisely because they don’t conform. Hell, you can buy a Cloud Cuckoo landscape and a Unikitty.

It’s this kind of basic inner conflict that makes The Lego Movie such a problematic product and, no matter how fun and entertaining it is – and it is, absolutely – I can’t help but feel that the creators have really proved how troubled the whole Lego world really is now. There’s another movie planned, of course, but it’s unclear what direction a sequel can really go in. This film loses momentum as it reaches its conclusion: there are hints throughout as to how it’s going to end, but the sudden shift from hyped-up craziness to solemn sentimentality is underwhelming. Yet until this point, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s just a shame that the product itself seems to be having a complete identity crisis.

Film #112: Southland Tales (2006)

film 112 southland tales

Rating: 5/5

“This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.”

Having attained cult status and acclaim for his feature debut Donnie Darko, writer-director Richard Kelly’s second film was eagerly anticipated by many – until it premièred at Cannes in 2006. Having already been significantly delayed, it received arguably the worst reception at the festival: audiences were not even interested in booing it, preferring to simply walk out. The film ended up with the lowest ratings of the festival, a meagre 1.1/5, and Kelly returned to the editing suite in a last-ditch attempt to salvage what was widely acknowledged as an incoherent mess. The work is visible in the film, which was eventually released at the end of 2007 – extensive voice-over, a mass of information at the beginning overloading the brain with facts and throwing the audience straight into the action, strange animated shots taken from the prequel comic books (another attempt to provide some coherence to the plot), new special effects. Characters who once possibly featured prominently now pop up for brief scenes – an unrecognisable Kevin Smith, for example, or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Janeane Garofalo in one of the final shots. It still barely makes sense – I’ve seen it dozens of times by now, and every time I realise something new, notice something crucial that I’d completely missed, lose track of the plot. It emerges like a fevered dream, hypnotic and surreal, a bizarre mixture of pop culture and theology, a supremely convoluted plot with a vast cast of eccentrics and weirdos spouting nonsense. It’s a marmite movie: you’ll either love it or hate it. I love it.

To recount the plot would, quite simply, take too long, but it goes something like this. It’s 2008, the future, and the government has become a paranoid Big Brother. Travel is restricted between states, but an actor with amnesia called Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, billed as his real name for the first time) has somehow ended up writing a screenplay with a psychic porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar) that foretells the end of the world. Meanwhile Sean Patrick Scott is identical twin brothers, one impersonating the other, while the Neo-Marxists, a rebel organisation, collect fingers in an attempt to bring down Usident, the government surveillance operation led by Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson), wife of senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne). Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a war veteran turned drug addict also monitors from his platform above Venice Beach, looking over the newly built Fluid Karma factory, a new technology developed by Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) that could spell the end of global fuel shortages. And so it goes on. In this confused, and confusing, tangled web of a narrative, characters come and go, scandals are revealed, and the apocalypse begins. No pressure or anything.

It could either be a criticism or praise (I mean it as the latter) that Kelly’s screenplay throws the audience right into the middle of the story. The film is divided into three chapters, which are parts four, five, and six, each one named after a song (Temptation Waits by Garbage, Memory Gospel by Moby, and Wave of Mutilation by The Pixies). The first three chapters have subsequently been released in comic book form, but they, like the Donnie Darko director’s cut, are a complete disappointment, revealing that, in reality, Kelly never intended his story to be incoherent. The comics are far more linear – still bizarre – and much of the film’s impact is lost as a result. A brilliantly bonkers scene in the middle of the film, when a large number of the cast meet and all accuse each other of betrayal, is made redundant if one has read the comics, for example. The beauty of the film is that, like Donnie Darko, the audience is expected to fill in the blanks, to reach its own conclusions – the comic books take away that authority, reducing the film’s power to something far more mundane.

There’s so much to praise about Southland Tales. The cast, largely comprised of character actors and those who had previously been typecast in specific roles, all ham up their roles to perfection. Gellar is great as Krysta Now, the porn star with lofty intentions. Timberlake excels, and features in one of the film’s finest scenes, a surreal drug trip that comes out of nowhere. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson took a chance here, but it remains my favourite role of his – he’s charismatic, ironic, twitchy, funny and sympathetic – none of his other roles to date have offered him the chance to expand his repertoire as much as this one.

Kelly’s style is evident as well. There are moments that are reminiscent of Donnie Darko: the importance of music (he has been criticised for basically delivering a series of music videos); the slow motion dance sequences that become unsettling and strangely sinister; the apocalyptic narrative with, at its core, one man’s opportunity for salvation; that stunning tracking shot in the mega zeppelin near the film’s end, as the camera follows Bai Ling through the crowd. Southland Tales is an assault on the senses, each scene filled with beauty and chaos and new things to look for. It’s hectic and manic, seemingly spewing forth without direction, but it all ties together just enough. With references to Revelations, Robert Frost, TS Eliot and others, the characters diverge together, each one responsible for bringing the end of days a little closer, yet all the philosophy is ultimately reduced to one simple question: are you a pimp or not? It’s this kind of audacious combination of high concept and low culture that emphasises the film’s tongue-in-cheek stance – it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously, but there’s plenty to think about regardless.

I have always maintained that, given enough time, Southland Tales will be reclaimed as a masterpiece. That has yet to happen, but time has been favourable for the most part. In its year of release, it was – like Only God Forgives last year – found on both the “best films” and the “worst films” lists. Its almost perfectly average rating on IMDb (5.5/10) is the result of extreme opinions – everyone either gives it one or ten. For me, this is precisely the kind of film that is interesting: not the average and mundane, but the divisive, the controversial. For better or worse, Southland Tales is the latter – a film that has so much to say it perhaps forgets to say any of it properly, a film that is messy and muddled, stylish and superficial yet complex. For me, it’s one of the finest films of the last ten years. I welcome the counter-arguments!

Film #96: Not Quite Hollywood (2008)

film 96 not quite hollywood

Rating: 3.5/5

Mark Hartley’s documentary, a unashamed fanboy look at Ozploitation movies, is fast-paced and frantic, and it’s a lot of fun. As someone who enjoys a good exploitation movie (here I’m using the term to describe the lurid 1970’s movies, filled with sex, gore and fast cars, rather than the classical exploitation films like Reefer Madness or Maniac) but knows little about the output from down under (Braindead is probably the closest I’ve come), Not Quite Hollywood plays out like a “best of” – it’s the kind of movie you feel you should watch with a pen and paper, just so you can make note of all the films to find on DVD later. Luckily for us, I’m pretty sure we have The Howling III: The Marsupials as part of a cheap double feature, but there were plenty more mentioned that looked just as ridiculous, and just as entertaining.

Among the various talking heads, mainly industry people who speak with both fondness and enthusiasm for their past lives, Hartley’s biggest name (for non-Australian audiences, at least) is easily Quentin Tarantino. He’s not listed as “filmmaker” or “director” but as “fan”, and he plays his role to perfection. Whether you’re a fan of Tarantino himself or not will probably influence your reaction to his segments – he drops bits of his own knowledge in, but mostly he comes across as someone emphatically trying to prove that he’s part of the gang. As a “fan” the anecdotes he details are the least interesting – it’s far more fun (and informative) to hear the stories from the people actually involved in the movies – but he does at least provide some context, and a recognisable face.

It is the films themselves who are the stars of the documentary, however. Hartley breaks up his narrative with sections focusing on specific strands of Ozploitation – the nudie pictures, the gore films, the racing movies. The general attitude running throughout is most definitely one of appreciation, with a healthy dollop of nostalgia thrown in for good measure: these were low-budget movies, made at a time when the Australian film industry was still a fledgling trying to find its place in the world, and for every Picnic at Hanging Rock, there were fifteen Turkey Shoot‘s being made to muddy the waters. It was a time of limited regulations, when stunt men risked their lives on a daily basis and women stood full frontal on screen and, while the rose-tinted glasses are definitely on, it’s difficult to not be slightly shocked at the hazardous working conditions rife in the 1970s. Even those involved must be quite surprised at how few deaths there were, considering what was going on.

While the films themselves are undeniably fun, compiled together in rapidly edited “best of” montages, Not Quite Hollywood starts to outstay its welcome a little bit. Perhaps it’s the obvious fan-nature of the movie that starts to grate – it’s interesting and informative, but at times feels a bit directionless, throwing another sequence of explosions and screaming women in rather than going beyond the surface. Evidently, while Ozploitation is not well known, there were a huge amount of films to emerge at the time, and Hartley seems to be trying to fit them all in, without really going into much detail about any of them. It is a fast movie, and it’s easy to be distracted by yet another reel of spectacle but, without my pen and paper at hand, the countless movies I saw clips of – the films I wanted to hunt down and watch in their entirety – have all blurred together to make one giant, mostly naked, slightly seedy, bloody, violent, apocalyptic road movie that only exists in montage. In fact, perhaps watching compilation videos of all the best bits of these films is actually the best way to watch them – surely I’ll be disappointed now, if I watched them; surely they’d never live up to the breakneck speed and apparently constant insanity that Hartley suggests?

After Not Quite Hollywood, Hartley went on to shoot the superbly titled Machete Maidens Unleashed!, another documentary, with the same formula (talking head segments interspersed with numerous movie montages), this time focusing on the American exploitation films shot in the Philippines. This is an area I’m more familiar with – Roger Corman shot several films there, as did Al Adamson and Eddie Romero – and the documentary was more fun for me as a result. However, my knowledge of the “Blood” series (Brides of Blood, Mad Doctor of Blood Island, etc) means that I am all too aware of the fact that many of these movies are slow, shoddy, and dull – until the few moments of outlandish stupidity. Is Ozploitation the same? If it is, Not Quite Hollywood does a good job at hiding this fact. And maybe really all you can do is watch the movies themselves to find out – if you do, I’m sure Hartley would consider his job done.

Film #89: The Raid (2011)

film 89 the raid

Rating: 4.5/5

“Pulling a trigger is like ordering a takeout.”

With The Raid 2 now out in cinemas, it seemed a good time to watch The Raid, an exhilarating and exhausting Indonesian martial arts thriller written and directed by Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans. After a tiny, brief moment of calm as Rama (Iko Uwais) quietly completes his morning prayer rituals, the film explodes with a flurry of insanely fast punches as he moves onto his exercise regime, and there’s barely a pause from that point on. On release it was met with critical acclaim, and has already found a place among some of the most highly regarded action movies – it featured in a recent Channel 5 list, Empire counted it as one of its top films of the year, and The Skinny writers voted it as their number one. Not bad for a little subtitled movie with a cast and crew of unknowns.

The plot is simple and, at least on the surface, fairly generic: rookie cop Rama is on his first assignment, set the daunting task of infiltrating an ominous high-rise apartment block inhabited by some of the city’s most dangerous criminals. At the top is kingpin Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy), a man who doesn’t even blink an eye as he executes those who have disappointed him, who will calmly swap a gun for a claw hammer when he runs out of bullets. He’s flanked by two men, one a seemingly peaceable, rational type, and the other appropriately named Mad Dog, a slight figure with seemingly boundless energy and an obliviousness to pain. As well as these two formidable characters, the small consignment of police have to face every other inhabitant, all of whom appear to be experts in martial arts, of course.

And it’s here that the film really triumphs, bringing a new form of fighting, pencak silat, to UK audiences. Developed by Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, it’s insanely fast and eye-bogglingly intricate, not to mention utterly brutal – there’s even a corridor sequence to rival the classic scene in Oldboy. While Oldboy‘s fight really portrays the physical toll on the body in a distinctly realistic, unglamourised way, The Raid‘s fight scenes are unrelenting; it seems impossible that these people would be able to carry on, but they do, and the exertion is felt in every punch and kick.

It may seem like a repetitive concept – the young cops, their sergeant and the morally-dubious lieutenant gradually making their way higher up the building, meeting gang after gang of drug-addled maniacs with an impressive arsenal of machetes and guns. Yet it’s never boring: each set piece (of which there are many) is carefully choreographed to offer something new and innovative that obliterates any sense of complacency. There are strobe-filled gun fights, overwhelmingly outnumbered hand-to-hand combat sequences, chases, knives, hell, there’s even an exploding fridge. It’s ludicrous, gratuitous, and entirely riveting. There’s a real flair in Evans’ directing, and the rapid editing drags the viewer into the centre of the action, keeping everything turned firmly up to eleven yet never appearing frantic or out of control, all the while acknowledging that the real star of the film is the fighting itself. The score emphasises this – the soundtrack, by Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park) and Joseph Trapanese, works perfectly, punctuating the action and ramping up the tension even more.

Uwais’ physicality is undeniable, and his performance is captivating as a result, while the rest of the cast (not including the general fodder) bring personality and glimpses of depth to even the less developed characters. Mad Dog in particular is a truly formidable foe; in some ways he’s no more than a crazed Bond villain’s henchman, but despite his stature, he’s easily the most intimidating opponent. The sergeant and lieutenant are also prominent, with the latter in particular proving to have some ulterior motives for his decisions. This brings some intrigue to the narrative, and it twists and turns in some unexpected ways – or, rather, perhaps not quite unexpected, but definitely not unsatisfying.

One of the (few) criticisms of The Raid was its lack of female characters – Rama’s pregnant wife is only seen in bed in the opening scenes, and the other two females that I can think of are entirely irrelevant. Yet this is an unashamedly masculine film; the brute force of the male body on show, while themes of family, revenge, loyalty and respect run along as (admittedly unsubtle) undercurrents. And, it must be said – male or female, martial arts fan or not, it’s difficult to not get caught up in The Raid: it grabs a hold of you and barely lets you breathe until it’s over. As a last thought, I leave you with this question: who would win in a fight, Bruce Lee, Tony Jaa (Ong-bak), or Iko Uwais?

Film #87: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)

film 87 power rangers the movie

Rating: 2/5

“You egg-sucking purple pinhead! The Rangers are going after the Great Power! I thought you said this guy was the master of disaster. He’s nothing but a slime-infested jelly donut!”

It’s nostalgia time! Much like Masters of the Universe, Power Rangers: The Movie holds little appeal for anyone who didn’t make the mighty morphin’ teenagers a part of their youth. Watching this on old, secondhand (or thirdhand, or fourthhand) VHS, with the sound fading in and out on a regular basis, I was transported back to the mid-90s, when everyone wore colour-coordinated crop tops (including the guys), roller-blading was the coolest thing ever, and all dialogue had to be heavily punctuated by emphatic ninja-esque hand gestures. Yes, the Power Rangers were camp and daft, but they were hugely successful – over the years there have been many new incarnations (with the show still airing on television), but the movie charts the latest exploits of the original, and best, bunch.

Power Rangers: The Movie has the standard, generic plot of most childhood movies: our heroes’ lives are suddenly thrown into turmoil with the reawakening of Ivan Ooze (Paul Freeman), a fiendish villain who had been trapped in a giant buried egg full of gunk for the last six thousand years. Finally freed, he quickly traps the television show’s resident baddies Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd, trashes the Rangers’ command center and leaves their leader, Zordon, for dead. Summoning the last bit of power available, loyal C-3P0 rip-off robot Alpha 5 pauses in her constant flapping to beam the Rangers off to a remote planet in search for the Great Power, which may restore Zordon and stop the nefarious Ooze from taking over the world.

While most of the staple characters and locations from the television show are acknowledged, this makes pains to distinguish itself as something new (and bigger), and it doesn’t always work. Angel Grove’s resident bullies Bulk and Skull get a few cursory scenes, which seem particularly out of place if you’re not familiar with the tv series. Although it appears that none of the Rangers have parents, the adult population of the fictional town are given some more screentime, becoming oozified zombies thanks to Ooze’s ooze (yes, really) – luckily he still cares about health and safety and gives them all matching outfits and hardhats while they dig up the giant Ectomorphicon Titans (the film’s full of this kind of pseudo-scientific dialogue) that will help him conquer Earth. The titans, when they are finally unveiled, turn out to be giant, shiny, metallic, and supremely dodgy early CGI creations.

The CGI doesn’t stop there, and nor do the alterations. Most disappointingly, the Power Rangers, stripped of their powers early on in the film, never get a chance to fight with their established Zords (the big robots they call from afar to help them fight their battles). In the series, each Ranger would call its Zord, which were cool creatures like Sabretooth tigers, Tyrannosaurus Rexes, and Mastodons, at which point the stock footage from another Japanese show would kick in. Here, on the distant planet Phaedos, the kids are given new animal guides, and the film’s final set piece back on Earth sees them fighting with these new Zords – Crane, Ape, Bear, Falcon, Wolf and… Frog. Even the most ferocious of these is no match for the much cooler prehistoric Zords they’d started of with, and the lack of familiarity is disappointing. The CGI doesn’t help – the fight scenes are a jumble of shoddy effects and rushed imagery, revealing the film’s age more than even the naffest of 90s tropes.

And what of the Rangers themselves? Like He-Man in Masters of the Universe they are the blandest bunch of teens imaginable and, despite being the film’s protagonists, have a mere handful of lines and no character development whatsoever. Tommy, the former brainwashed Green Ranger-turned White Ranger and leader of the gang, and Kimberly (the hot Pink Ranger) at least seem to be vaguely human; the rest interchangeable, distinguished (and characterised) solely by the colour of their outfits, and are only relevant when fighting the latest group of bad guy minions. While the film takes great pains to show the reactions of each individual Ranger at all times, as a group they are utterly devoid of personality. As usual, it’s their evil nemesis who brings some theatricality to the story; Ooze is flamboyant and wicked, generic but a perfectly acceptable (and expected) kind of villain for a family-friendly kids movie of this kind. It’s just a shame that Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd are so quickly consigned to miniature form and sidelined – each individually easily matches Ooze’s camp personality.

Despite the various problems and, it must be said, disappointments that come along with the film, Power Rangers: The Movie races along – there’s plenty of action to make up for the lack of personality, and the soundtrack in particular really works to convince the viewer that what they’re watching is impressive and important. The pacing is brisk and the various set pieces offer some new (generally mediocre) spectacle to distract from the fact that the story is ridiculous, the acting is sub-par, and the effects are fairly terrible. Admittedly, it’s not actually as camp and fun (in a badfilm sense) as Masters of the Universe, but the nostalgia value was high (this was the very first movie I saw at the cinema without my parents – probably because they’d have done anything to avoid having to sit through it) and, for that reason at least, I left my cynicism (and criticism) at the door and enjoyed the stupidity.

Film #86: 2012 (2009)

film 86 2012

Rating: 2.5/5

“You’re telling me that the North Pole is now somewhere in Wisconsin?”

Having already destroyed most of the northern hemisphere in The Day After Tomorrow, writer-director Roland Emmerich set his sights on a disaster movie on an even bigger scale: the result is 2012, a film that, unfortunately, attempts to tell a story simply too ambitious and vast to work. Cashing in on the interest in Mayan prophecies, which foretold the end of the world (a prediction that a surprising number of people really believed), and twisting genuine science to provide a “plausible” explanation – an abundance of neutrinos that cause the Earth’s core to heat up as a result of extreme solar flares, or something – Emmerich delivers a film that contains all the classic elements of a good disaster movie, but ultimately fails to truly excite.

The plot is standard fare, focused predominantly on one man’s attempt to keep his family safe. Nice-but-bland Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) features to provide the audience with an everyman to relate to; recently divorced, his attempts to reconnect with his children (incomplete family unit, check! Chance for father to redeem himself in the eyes of his son, check!) conveniently lead him to Yellowstone National Park, where the first of many coincidences allow him to realise what the government has neglected to publicise (nasty officials, check!). Soon he and his family are mere seconds away from death, as they repeatedly find themselves situated precisely where the newest major catastrophe is occurring (wrong place, wrong time, check!) and have to quickly flee (ridiculous displays of heroism, check!). Oh, and yes, there is a dog involved and yes, it survives (cute animal, check!).

Emmerich presents a rather cynical view of the government – not only have they chosen to keep the imminent end of times a secret, they’re selling off spaces in the specially designed Arks to anyone with a spare billion dollars. Just compare this to the far more intelligent Deep Impact, one of the more underrated disaster movies of the last fifteen years. While there are brief scenes of various people from around the world (although not a single mention of Australia, for some reason), as usual the American government takes the lead, with the rest of the G8 trusting Uncle Sam to save the day. As is to be expected, the US president (Danny Glover) is an inspiration (heroic US president, check!) – like in The Day After Tomorrow, it’s the second in command (here played by Oliver Platt) who’s the “villain” of the film. It’s all rather generic and unsurprising, with an unpleasantly bitter edge – Jackson might get the chance to reunite his family, but not everyone’s as lucky. The death count is ridiculously high; arguably the largest in any film that doesn’t feature entire planets being completely obliterated, so inevitably at least some of the people we follow throughout the film aren’t going to make it, but some of the ways in which it happens are just plain mean.

Of course, in any disaster movie the plot serves more as a vehicle for the set pieces. Emmerich packs these into the film’s lengthy running time, and it plays like a disaster movie best of: earthquakes, volcanoes, airplane crashes, sinking cruise ships and tidal waves all feature, the most impressive of which occur fairly early. The first major catastrophe – a massive earthquake that leads to half of California being tipped into the ocean – is by far the largest on screen event, although the eruption of Yellowstone is the most exciting, largely because of Woody Harrelson’s conspiracy-theorist-wacko’s commentary. These set pieces are at the centre of the film’s appeal, and they are impressively bonkers, but somehow underwhelming: perhaps they are simply too catastrophic to really believe. This vast scale is not helped by CGI that looks disappointingly unconvincing – it’s not terrible, but there is an obvious flatness to the whole thing.

More problematically, around the hour-forty mark most of the world has been destroyed, yet Emmerich continues for almost another hour, dumping the Curtis family in Tibet where they almost bring about the deaths of some hundred thousand people because they dropped a hose pipe into some hydraulics. In an attempt to bring some last minute action to the film, the survival of all these people relies on, you guessed it, Jackson (everyman saves the world, check!) – it’s as stupid and illogical as Jeff Goldblum’s plan in Independence Day, and monumentally underwhelming after the carnage that’s preceded it. Disappointingly 2012 significantly starts to droop in the final hour; perhaps yet another indication that Emmerich has seriously bitten off more than he could chew. 2012 is evidence that bigger is not always better – it’s doubtful that any disaster movie will ever top it in terms of destruction and ambition, but even now there are plenty others that are more entertaining and impressive.