REVIEW: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Retro Review by George McGhee

Terminator 2 a nutshell: Ten years after the events of The Terminator and Sarah Connor is in mental asylum with no-one believing her story. Her son and the saviour of the future, John is a delinquent, living with foster parents. This time, two terminators arrive from 2029, one sent by Skynet to assassinate the Connors, another sent by John Conner reprogrammed to protect them.

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The Terminator was a surprise hit in 1984, introducing the world to writer/director James Cameron and turning Arnold Schwarzenegger into a bona fide star. Taking 1950’s pulp sci fi themes (time travel, robots, nuclear paranoia) and infusing them with a 1980’s punk-slasher-film aesthetic.  

Cameron learnt his craft under low budget maestro Roger Corman, so he knew various tricks on how to make a movie look more expensive than it should. The film exceeded everyone’s expectations and earned over $75m worldwide (from a $6.5m budget) creating well deserved demand for a potential sequel.  Thanks to this success Cameron now had his pick of projects so he decided to tackle another sequel instead, Aliens (1986). 

In the wrong hands, Aliens could have been a simple cash in, like many other horror sequels – same monster, different victims. Yet, among the hordes of xenomorphs and gun happy marines, was Ripley, a scarred survivor wanting closure on her ordeal. A grieving mother forced to become a surrogate mother and protect her new child by any means.

Aliens was a huge hit, proving The Terminator wasn’t a fluke and with a decent budget, Cameron could deliver a blockbuster spectacle, taking a story in new places with engaging characters. Like with The Godfather Part II, it was a film many would go on to claim (much to the displeasure of Sir Ridley Scott) actually improved on the original film. 

Expanding the Terminator universe…the right way.

With Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron changes conventions again. Damsel-in-distress Sarah Connor has become distressed-damsel-in-asylum and Arnie’s unstoppable killer now the comedy relief babysitter. Albeit one who will kneecap you to protect his charge.

It’s a smart move from Cameron turning the villain into the hero, but also a logical one. Arnie’s career had sky-rocketed since the first film and audiences were used to seeing him as the leading action hero.  One capable of defying expectations in family friendly comedies like Twins (1988) and Kindergarten Cop (1990) with both released in the run up to T2.

Cameron could have easily followed his Aliens template even closer and simply upped the numbers.  An army of Terminators get sent back to take out more cannon fodder. However, as the first film showed, with a decent amount of firepower or heavy machinery, Schwarznegger’s hulking Terminator could be stopped. So, how do you top that?

What about a villain who can’t be shot, crushed or blown up? One that doesn’t need any weapons, can assume anyone’s identity and runs like Usain Bolt? The T1000 is an inspired choice of villain that has never been bettered in the following sequels. Relatively unknown, Robert Patrick brings a brilliant mix of physicality and sinister charm that Arnie’s monosyllabic T-800 is incapable of.

Cameron had always wanted to use a liquid metal Terminator, but ironically, he had to wait for technology catch up with his vision. Effects legends, ILM (Star Wars, Back to The Future, Indiana Jones) are responsible for delivering ground breaking effects that still impress today. The film pushed CGI effects to it’s limit, though Cameron uses them to enhance the storytelling, making the T1000 a unique and very dangerous villain.

At the same time, it’s easy to forget how much stunning practical trickery is at play here –  prosthetic’s, animatronics, pyrotechnics or even some clever use of twins – check out the podcast episode where we discuss the several uses of twins and links with Gremlins 2 in more detail.

Raising the stakes

Much like it’s predecessor, Judgment Day deftly balances some chunky time travel exposition between some thrilling action sequences that maybe long, but the pace never lets up. In all of the key action sequences, Cameron cleverly dials up the tension before unleashing stylish action that still impresses.

The first big action scene (outside of the prologue) begins with both Terminators closing in on John in the Galleria. Despite the heavy marketing, the uninitiated don’t know which robot is hero and which is villain. Without any prior knowledge, you could even assume that Patrick is a human, like Kyle Reese.

Once the Terminators reveal their true colours, the extended action that starts with a brawl in a mall and ends in a thrilling storm drain chase. Following that set piece, Cameron gives us time to breathe whilst the T800 brings John (and the audience) up to speed on his mission whilst allowing some comic relief, as John realises the T800 must follow his every command.

“a fearsome mamma bear who’s willing to break a few bones to protect her son”

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Meanwhile back in the asylum, we get to spend time with the original film’s lead, Sarah. Gone is the clumsy waitress from the original.  We now are faced with a caged animal!  She’s a fearsome mamma bear who’s willing to break a few bones to protect her son and prevent the nuclear apocalypse. It’s a clever take on the Greek myth of Cassandra, a woman who can foresee the future, yet no one believes.  

Main differences from the original

The first film used the exposition a lot more economically, whilst our heroes are on the run. Yet, considering how action packed the last 40 minutes of the film will be, it’s a wise move to allow us to spend proper time with our heroes whilst adding some emotional heft.  Whether it be the key scenes of the T800 bonding with John or Sarah’s descent into a cold-blooded killer, as she decides to go after Miles Dyson.

The scene at the Dyson’s is also a stand out for it’s chilling menace, as Cameron briefly returns to the body horror of The Terminator. It’s an interesting move for John, essentially a child, to instruct the T800 to savagely reveal his true self, but it’s certainly gets the required reaction from Dyson.

The third act is another brilliant example of tension and action spectacle, beginning with the Cyberdyne break in, which quickly turns into a break out, escaping most of LA’s police force as well as the T1000. The final chase again has echoes of the first film but the budget ups the scale considerably before reaching another factory set climax. The tension is cranked up until the very end as it appears the T1000 is unstoppable, the T800 is beaten to a pulp and our heroes have nowhere to go. After finishing off the T1000, Cameron hits home with emotional sucker punch – Sarah and John must also put their beloved protector into the furnace.

Is the sequel better than the original?

It’s a frequent debate between film fans, which is superior, The Terminator or Judgment Day? Similar to Alien and Aliens, there’s no straightforward answer. Both sets of film take the story in unexpected places, evolving characters and twisting conventions. Whilst I love, the gritty, no frills neo-noir chase movie of the original, I prefer T2 because it has a bigger story, amazing action sequences, humour and more humanity. Like many great philosophical sci-fi, the sequel dares to ask the popular question, “What does it mean to be human?”

Whilst the first film was a survival horror with a fairly forced love story, the sequel shows us the importance and complications of family.  A mother who will go to any means to protect her son, a hard-working family man destined to destroy civilisation and a boy yearning for a father figure. Amidst all the action, special effects, plot and character development there’s also a good amount of humour and just the right amount of emotion. John can be an annoying little shit at times but I always have something in my eye, come Arnie’s fiery thumbs up.

After several botched sequels, the rights to the Terminator franchise have ended up back with Cameron once more. Even whilst busy with Avatar sequels, Big Jim is currently crafting a new sequel, with Tim Miller of Deadpool in the director’s chair.  Arnie is back, as always and more interestingly, so is Linda Hamilton, as the film intended to be a direct sequel to T2. Will it be good? The future is not set…

Coulda Woulda Shoulda

Rock star Billy Idol for first choice for T-1000 but injured himself in a motor bike accident. Denzel Washington turned down the role of Miles Bennett Dyson

MVP

James Cameron – the man knows how to deliver a sequel.

REVIEW: Batman (1989)

In a nutshell: Billionaire Bruce Wayne spends his nights fighting crime disguised as the masked vigilante, Batman. As he tackles Gotham City’s crime and corruption, a new threat emerges in the form of psychotic criminal, The Joker.

No time to read the article? Listen or download the podcast episode here!

Reviewed by George McGhee

We are currently living in the “Superhero” Age of Cinema. This year alone (2017) features eight comic-book  blockbusters released in as many months with the same amount due next year. Whilst their source inspiration has been around since the 1930’s, the comic-book film genre never really took hold until the late 90’s, early noughties, with Blade (1998), X-Men (2000) and Spider-man (2002). The advance in CGI to fully realise these larger than life characters was one of the main reasons but for the studios, there’s the benefit of instant brand recognition, cross audience appeal and most importantly, merchandising opportunities.

Batman…begins

Key elements of what makes a successful superhero/comic-book film can be traced back to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). The film took it’s sweet time getting to the big screen, especially being over ten years after DC Comics stable mate  Superman (1978) which gave birth to the genre. However as the studios discovered, you can’t paint Batman with the same brush as Superman, the characters and tone are very different (a reason why they frequently cross paths).

The biggest challenge was how to re-establish Batman as he was originally written; a dark, brooding vigilante.  Especially when he was best remembered very differently – a 1960’s icon,  the bright, camp and batshit crazy, Batman TV series with the legendary Adam West. The television series only ran for three years, but ran on regular repeat rotation around the world meaning it would remain in the public consciousness for decades.

Despite going through the hands of various established directors like Richard Donner, Joe Dante and Ivan Reitman, studio Warner Brothers took a big risk and eventually handed the keys to the Batcave to a young and emerging director, Tim Burton. Burton’s background was one of comedy (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice) but he had a keen eye for stylised visuals with a dark gothic quality – he would go on to be a key influence on Goth culture, effectively becoming “King of the Goths”, if you will.

“Wait till they get a load of me!”

Burton’s hiring was the first of many risks the film took, the look of the character was changed, the origin story was ditched and the casting of Michael Keaton as the lead had comic book nerds screaming in disbelief. The director of Pee Wee and the star of Mr Mom?! Fans assumed the film would be just as camp as Adam West and company – as such, over 50,000 fans petitioned to have Keaton removed, which in a pre-internet era, is a lot of dedicated fan-boys!

With such unknown qualities, Warners needed to find a name that brought respectability to the production, much like Superman casting Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando opposite an unknown Christopher Reeve. Jack Nicholson’s casting was top of the studio’s wish list for The Joker and they were willing to pay good money to get him – Nicholson’s pay packet is still legendary today.

Unfortunately, the spot on casting of The Joker wasn’t enough to quell the wave of negativity.  So Warners decided to release a teaser trailer made from rough assembly of footage, to put these fears to rest. Thankfully people went nuts for the trailer (this time, in a good way) queuing at cinemas just to see it. It changed the whole concept of what a trailer could be. The Batman hype machine had begun and would dominate the summer of 1989, with the Bat symbol plastered across billboards, cereal boxes, t-shirts and even neckties, paving the way for every blockbuster film since. As producer Michael Uslan put it simply.“The wheel had been reinvented”

With such development troubles and the marketing hype in overdrive, could the film live up to expectations? Fortunately for everyone involved, it was one of the most successful films of the year (just behind Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade) and the highest grossing DC film until The Dark Knight (2008).

“I want you to tell all your friends about me….”

There’s a lot of reasons why the film works, from great casting, fantastic production design and a snappy script to gets straight into the action. The opening fools you into thinking you’re watching the Bruce Wayne origin story, with the mugging/attack of parents and their young son. However then Batman glides onto the rooftops like an Angel of Death to scare the bejesus out of the two criminals. Within minutes, any images of Adam West’s dayglo Batman are safely banished.

From there, we get a brief introduction to all the main characters; reporters Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) on the case of Gotham’s six foot bat. The struggle between the Mayor’s office, featuring District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy. Dee. Williams) and Commissioner Gordon (a bumbling Pat Hingle) and the city’s gangsters Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) and Jack Napier (Nicholson). These points are reinforced whilst at the charity ball held by the mysterious (or just plain weird) billionaire, Bruce Wayne.

This all sets up the origin of the villain, rather than the hero, who is fully formed but still a myth in Gotham. We quickly get to the first main action sequence at Axis Chemicals where a betrayed Napier and his goons are escaping the inept police, only to be picked off by one by one by Batman. Napier’s ego gets the better of him, and he ends up falling (or is he dropped? Discuss.) into a vat of chemicals to become the Clown Prince of Crime.

The film has a great sense of pace, despite juggling various subplots of romance, mystery, and terrorism amongst some well choreographed action where Batman gets to show off his wonderful toys, including a heavily armed but incredibly inaccurate Bat-plane, (aka The Batwing).

In true Burton fashion, the surreal climax is suitably gothic and over the top, with a battered Bat taking out goons (in the tallest cathedral you’ve ever seen) before the Joker can make his escape to…somewhere. It’s not exactly clear what Joker would do if his plan to kill most of Gotham succeeded – but let’s remember that he’s psychotic, so he may not have thought this through.

One weakness is the film is guilty of being the Jack/Joker show, with Nicholson gleefully devouring every scene he’s in – even when he’s the only character in a scene. That said, it’s a real shame he gets killed off, as he’s a such an important villain to Batman and part of the fun is their duality and seeing their ongoing encounters.

Love That Joker!

The Joker has never been a subtle character, he’s crazy, twisted, unpredictable but most of all, he needs to be funny and Nicholson delivers on all points. Whilst the film was deemed “dark” at the time, with hindsight The Joker is in danger of approaching Cesar Romero (the Joker in the 60’s show) levels of camp.  On balance, you could argue such theatricality adds more heft to Keaton’s brooding near silent take on Batman/Bruce Wayne.

Despite being far from anyone’s first choice, Keaton turns in a strong and nuanced performance as a man struggling with his past. Gone is the swaggering playboy that we’re familiar with. Keaton’s Wayne is a reclusive, aloof and introverted billionaire that people struggle to recognise. One of the reasons Burton wanted Keaton was his expressive eyes and intensity and it works, once he’s in the suit, it feels like a totally different character. His take on Bruce Wayne may stray from the character (sleeping like a bat, “You wanna get nuts?!”) but it’s role he would better define in the sequel, Batman Returns.

Danny Elfman delivers an iconic soundtrack that is only bettered than John Williams legendary work on Superman. Elfman’s operatic themes add extra credibility to this serious take on The Dark Knight would go on to influence the terrific Animated Series of the early nineties and sorely missed in the Schumacher sequels.

In classic 1980’s blockbuster fashion, the film also features a plethora of pop courtesy of Prince. The two big scenes of the Joker trashing the art gallery or the city parade climax that feature Prince songs are a lot of fun, but basically borderline music videos which really date the film (along with Keaton’s choice of turtleneck sweaters).

“Gentlemen! Let’s broaden our minds!”

The film has some fantastic (not to mention Oscar-winning) production design – Gotham City with it’s endless skyscrapers bathed in near permanent night and the now infamous Batmobile (a bugger to park, one imagines) all courtesy of the late Anton Furst. The choice to radically change Batman’s costume from blue and grey tights to black body armour is another bold (yet practical) choice that would go on to influence many other films including X-Men, Blade and arguably The Matrix.

Burton infuses the gothic sensibilities with a mix of 1950’s kitsch and eighties consumerism, a style he would go on to refine in his next film (arguably his best) Edward Scissorhands (1990) as well as many others throughout his career.

In the years since it’s release, many people now see the definitive take on Batman as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan does get a much better feel for Batman and the characters that surround him and I agree that The Dark Knight is a better film – however, Burton’s Batman is a lot more fun. What makes Batman so appealing is his flexibility, he can be camp, gothic or realistic, all have their strengths but the less said about the Joel Schumacher sequels, the better!

Ultimately, this film is a key chapter in Batman’s history and a defining film for Tim Burton who over the years following would deliver some of his best work, Edward Scissorhands , Batman Returns (1992) and Ed Wood (1994) . The film proved to the genre that you could be flexible with the source material as some things just don’t work on-screen. Along with Star Wars, it also changed the perception of what a blockbuster could be, how it could be merchandised, which changed the industry forever. Now, who’s up for a delicious bowl of Batman cereal?

Coulda woulda shoulda – Robin Williams was studio’s back up choice for The Joker, apparently he was used as bait to secure Nicholson.

MVP: All the bold choices lie with Tim Burton.

Alternate Title: Goth-man v Nicholson: Dawn of the Franchise

 

REVIEW: White House Down vs. Olympus has Fallen (2013)

Due to their retro roots, George reviews the recent Die Hard rip offs, White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. Are they guilty pleasures or crimes against the action genre? Read on to find out…

White House Down v.s. Olympus Has Fallen – Two Dragons?

There’s a recurring Hollywood phenomenon where, sometimes in the space of a few months. Two big pictures were released with near identical plots. In the 1990’s, this happened a lot. You may remember two disaster movies from 1997; Volcano and Dantes Peak. A year later we had Deep Impact, an asteroid movie that’s not as good and nowhere near as fun as Armageddon. We also had two animated films about an insecure ant who becomes a hero – Antz or A Bugs Life. A couple of years later, saw Mars set sci-fi Red Planet released in the same year as the similar, if slightly more intelligent Mission to Mars.

Due to the blatant similarities, on release naturally we’re inclined to make a decision on which of the two films is better. With hindsight, most of those films are pretty forgettable, with only Armageddon making a deep impact (ahem)… Mainly due to it being the noisiest and most ludicrous (back when Michael Bay was more “restrained”).

In 2013, the phenomenon made a comeback with two films tackling a terrorist attack on the White House –it appears that Hollywood felt enough time had elapsed since 9/11 to make light entertainment about terrorist attacks on American soil.

Who brought us these two action flics?

Olympus Has Fallen (for simplicity referred to as OHF) directed by Training Day and The Equalizer helmer Anton Fuqua and White House Down (WHD) from Roland Emmerich, a director famous for destroying American landmarks  (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, etc). 

Whilst the competing films usually share a familiar plot premise – volcanoes, asteroids and Mars landings, plucky bugs etc. These two films appear to share a sole film as inspiration – genre classic Die Hard (1988). Obviously there have been many attempts to copy the Die Hard formula over the years. As I discussed in my review of Air Force One the film had Harrison Ford’s President of the United States (POTUS) going all John McClane by deciding to tackle the terrorists mid-flight on his private 747.

However, in both these “Die Hard in The White House” movies, this time the POTUS is not the hero but instead paired with a John McClane clone. WHD has John Cale (Channing Tatum), a wannabe Secret Service agent. An underdog trying to earn his daughter’s respect and get his dream job of guarding the POTUS.

Are either a new take on a well-known genre?

OHF has Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) a disgraced secret service agent who failed to save the first lady. Banning may not be a father, (he’s too busy being a goddamn patriotic hero) but acts a surrogate to the President’s son, so we’re covered on that front.

Tatum is tasked with protecting Jamie Foxx’s president, a younger spin on Obama; likeable, warm and witty. The film’s main strength is the odd couple/buddy cop rapport between Foxx and Tatum. Whilst Tatum could be accused of coasting on his trademark underdog charm, it’s a nice change of role for Foxx. I sometimes forget how versatile he can be. In just over a year, he had made Horrible Bosses (one the few highlights) Django Unchained and this.

In the other White House, Aaron Eckhart is playing the POTUS in a performance that’s a mix of square-jawed charm and earnestness, but it’s not a million miles away from his character Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight (2008), you know, before he goes mental and becomes Two-Face.

OHF aims to set up an interesting dynamic between the hero and the President – the fact the President’s only hope is the man who failed to save his wife. A good storyline that unfortunately never really plays out. It’s more of a plot device to keep Banning on the outside as an unknown quantity when it all kicks off. It doesn’t help for all the good acting chops Eckhart has, he spends most of the movie tied up on the floor of his bunker.

What to say about Gerard Butler? The Shouty Scot brings his usual macho mix of gruff authority and a dodgy American accent. Despite his shortcomings, Butler can be a convincing action hero and does a good swear, having one of the best one-liners in years, “Let’s play a game of Fuck Off, you go first”

How do the two films differ?

Both films feature dramatic opening attacks to seize the White House but it’s really OHF that registers with a gripping and brutal opening assault on Washington. Where Fuqua displays some, at times, uncomfortable scenes of collateral damage. I would argue that it’s the old school action violence that allows OHF to triumph over the outrageousness of WHD. Don’t get me wrong, OHF is completely over the top too, with John Wick (2014) levels of henchman fatalities. Butler stabs at least two bad guys in the head!

WHD, with it’s lack of bloodshed, is clearly going for the more family friendly/tween vibe. There’s even a sub-plot about Cale’s daughter’s vlog and how her YouTube videos help identify the terrorists and I’m like, not even joking. As previously mentioned, the film’s strength is the banter between the two leads. While it’s funny seeing the President struggling to handle a rocket launcher – a similar joke that was done a lot better almost 30 years previously in Commando where Arnie’s sidekick (Rae Dawn Chong) accidentally fires one backwards.

Unfortunately neither film is able to fully escape the shadow of Die Hard. They rely too much on plot beats established in the 1988 classic. In both films, we get to see the hero and villain trading wise-cracks over walkie-talkie and a final act involving a failed rescue attempt via helicopter.

Characters & Casting

WHD even has it’s mercenaries pushed through the Die Hard mould. Instead of intense henchman Karl, we get Jason Clarke’s disgraced Black Ops soldier. For the camp geeky tech guy like Theo, we get Jimmi Simpson in full Graham Norton mode. It’s clear they’re both working with limited material as they’re both capable of turning in better performances. Clarke is solid in Zero Dark Thirty and Dawn of the Planet of The Apes. Simpson was one of the standouts in the recent Westworld series .

However the films don’t just rip off Die Hard,  they even go as far as even borrowing from other Die Hard knock offs! From the war room scenes from Air Force One, where OHF wins points for using a near identical set to having Angela Bassett getting as close to Glenn Close as a gal can. WHD even features Air Force One (the plane) as a major plot development. However, when you see the plane is full of obvious cannon fodder, you know something is likely to go wrong.

WHD also borrows from The Rock with a supposedly tragic villain and his disgruntled mercenaries.  In it’s most ridiculous scene, goes as far as having Cale’s daughter heroically waving the American flag to warn off the impending air strike – urgh, I felt nauseous just writing that! Obviously harking back to Nic Cage and his green flares (NB. smoke beacons opposed to his choice of trousers) in The Rock.

Which film is better?

In the end, I found myself getting more annoyed with WHD, which feels like a poor man’s Die Hard 4.0 with it’s 12A (PG-13) levels of action violence. Emmerich’s films have always relied on spectacle, usually interspersed with some trite sentimentality from two-dimensional characters and this film is no different.

Whilst there’s less CGI destruction than usual and despite having twice the budget of its rival, there seems to be a lot of blue screen backgrounds (due to restrictions of filming on location) and the cartoon violence becomes laughable. My favourite being the car chase involving presidential support vehicles that come with retractable miniguns – you never know when they’ll come in handy.

OHF goes all guns blazing/knives stabbing to harken back the action thrillers of the 80s and 90’s that I enjoyed so much growing up. It’s far from perfect, it’s not even close to the other Die Hard rip offs I’ve mentioned but after a few beers, it fits the bill for mindless entertainment. It’s safe to say that Fuqua has more form than Emmerich in the action film arena, The Equalizer (2014) being an improvement and plays like an unofficial Jack Reacher film. Yes – much better than any of the Tom Cruise efforts.

Which film performed Better at the box office?

Looking at box office and critical reception, White House Down was deemed the loser in this film face off. Olympus Has Fallen with it’s relatively small budget, was more popular with audiences and the studio quickly churned out a sequel – London Has Fallen (2016).  Despite poor reviews and apparently being downright offensive, another sequel, Angel Has Fallen (2018), has also just been announced.  This time, Butler is taking on the terrorists mid-flight on Air Force One. Hang on, that sounds familiar…..

 

REVIEW: The Goonies (1985)

In a nut shell

In order to save their homes from being turned into a golf resort, a group of misfits, known as The Goonies, set out on a dangerous adventure to find a pirate’s hidden treasure, all the while, being pursued by a family of criminals, known as the Fratellis.

Would you like to know more? Listen to our podcast review here!

Everyone that was a child of the eighties remembers growing up with The Goonies.  Like Back To The Future, it seems like it was a mandatory rites of passage, forever etched in our hearts. It’s not hard to see why, it’s a straightforward adventure story with kids as the heroes, like an Enid Blyton tale seen through an 1980’s American lens. For me it was definitely a relatable experience – like Mikey and co, I grew up in a quiet village where nothing interesting happened, hanging out with my mates and riding bikes, yet sadly we never found any pirate treasure.  Even watching it now, in my thirties, the film has a strong pull of nostalgia, with moments, be it musical cues or lines of dialogue that echo back to memories of enjoying it as a kid.

Looking at who’s involved, it’s clear that this film is no fluke. Firstly it’s a Richard Donner film, a director who was able to tackle any genre – The Omen, Superman, and the Lethal Weapon series – it’s so diverse I was tempted to write a feature and call it “Donner Kebab”….(sorry)

Every director needs a good team behind him, including a solid script, courtesy of Steven Spielberg and Chris Columbus (Gremlins, Home Alone, Harry Potter) as well as reliable production staff – Spielberg (again), Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall have had a few hits between them over the years (Star Wars, Back To The Future, Indiana Jones, Bourne, Jurassic Park to name a few) so it’s no wonder this film was such a success- it’s like the Avengers of blockbuster filmmaking!

With Spielberg and Donner’s involvement, it’s surprising that John Williams isn’t on scoring duties, however composer Dave Grusin – (The Graduate, Tootsie and The Firm) provides a catchy and rousing soundtrack. Cyndi Lauper on hand to provide a hit song (and even popping up as a cameo on a TV in one scene) and is one of the few things to timestamp the film – well that and Brand’s shorts over jogging bottoms combo…

With so many characters, good and evil, to introduce, it’s a feat that the film manages to introduce and establish them so quickly. Within 10 minutes, we have a daring prison escape (from some very inept police),introducing the bickering Fratelli’s, as well meeting the Goonies themselves and their topline traits. In this day and age, it was pleasant to rediscover that whilst this is a beloved kids film, it’s still one filled with drug references, swearing and dick jokes – again, all in the opening act.

The Spielberg values that worked so well in E.T are apparent here too – squabbling siblings, absent parents, friendship, and youth rebelling against their elders/the establishment. Instead of Elliot and co on the run from government goons, it’s the Goonies against the fat cats and spoilt brats of the Astoria Country Club. We even get a recurring motif of a group of kids on bikes that was such an influence on recent nostalgia fests, Stranger Things (2016) and Super 8 (2011).

Despite the Spielberg touch, it’s a testament to Donner’s skill of working with actors that he gets great performances from such a mainly young and inexperienced cast. It’s bizarre to think it’s both Josh Brolin and Sean Astin’s film debut – they seem so at ease in their lead roles – some people even fail to recognise both actors in more recent films like No Country for Old Men or Lord of the Rings. Whilst the characters are mainly lovable, I found myself getting a little annoyed with Astin’s character, Mikey who becomes a little whiny and grating – whether it’s motivating the others or having a one sided dialogue with One Eyed Willy.

Donner manages to pace the laughs and thrills much like a well crafted theme park ride. From the dramatic opening, to the slow build up to introduce the characters, the stakes and their quest but once the Goonies discover the tunnels, it’s a ride that never lets up. Much like Raiders of the The Lost Ark, the reliance on mainly practical effects for the various traps and challenges all enhance the films’ longevity and nostalgia factor. There’s a fairly well known deleted scene involving the kids fighting a giant octopus, and it’s an example of the quality control on display – the effects obviously didn’t look good enough to be included and would stretch the believability even further.

Speaking of monsters and effects, what to say about Sloth? He still terrifies me now, though by the end, just like Chunk, we’re all fond of him. It’s safe to assume that you wouldn’t get a character like Sloth in a kids film today, what would the PC brigade say?

Essentially a moralistic story – the importance of friendship and family triumphs over greed – but like its companions Back to The Future and E.T. it’s that delicate balance of sentimental schmaltz and thrills. The Goonies could chase after the ship for more treasure, but the point is that they have enough to save their homes, and that’s all that counts. If it were me and my friends however, we wouldn’t be whimsically watching the Inferno sail off into the sunset, we’d be desperately trying to charter the nearest boat to chase after it.

Why don’t they make films like this anymore? If you take a look over the last twenty years, the highest grossing family friendly blockbusters have either been comic book films or animation – Despicable Me, Shrek, and Frozen. The only thing that comes close as a classic adventure film is Pirates of the Caribbean and that’s because, well mainly, it features pirates. Where are all the kids movies about kids?

The film is very good at conveying the various relationships succinctly – we get that Mikey and Brand are always bickering, but in a quick scene, there’s also genuine affection. With all the differing characters on display, it’s easy for the viewer to identify with at least one of the Goonies. We’ve all known a jock like Brand, an unreliable friend like Chunk, the, a fast talker like Mouth and like Mikey, even now, I occasionally get my words mixed up.  At the end of the day, we’re all Goonies and that’s why it’s such a joy to revisit this film – it’s like catching up with an old mate.

Coulda Woulda Shoulda – The other famous Corey of the 1980’s, Corey Haim, auditioned for the role of Mouth, and that’s when he first met Corey Feldman. The two would go on to make a number of films together, most famously being The Lost Boys (1987).

MVP – A tie between Donner, Spielberg and Sloth.

Alternate Title: The Search for One Eyed Willy.

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Ridley’s back! Again!

Should he have bothered?

Warning – contains light spoilers for Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.

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I typed “Alan Covenant” as the title of this article by mistake. May be a better title…

Prometheus really split audiences. After an amazing promotional campaign (though later trailers ended up revealing the entire plot) the film fell between two stools – an intelligent sci-fi pondering our existence and an Alien prequel – just what happened on LV-426 before Ripley and co answered the distress call?

Prometheus looked great – every Scott film does, it had a great cast and some interesting ideas – sadly it was let down by some idiotic plotting and character development. E.g. The guy with the hi tech maps gets lost, the scientist afraid of everything decides to pet the space snake and Guy Pearce is old and stuff. It also left too many questions; Why did the engineers create humans, leave clues to their existence and get all grumpy when we turn up to say hello? What were the engineers running from? If the Alien xenomorph did not exist yet, why are their murals of it on the walls of the temple? Why is it Charlize Theron can only seem to run in a straight line?!

So does Covenant answer any of these questions or at least correct the mistakes? Does it steer the title ship back on course…..Yes and no.

In some ways, it’s the film Prometheus should have been, yet it’s still a long way from joining the dots to the original Alien and suffers similar plot contrivances – essentially the crew are mostly idiots and robots are evil because…conventions say so.

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Waterston explains her choice of haircut to the crew. They’re idiots, mostly.

Covenant has some strengths – a bold opening that ups the stakes, slow burn tension, plentiful gore (I’m easily scared, by the way) and some beautiful cinematography. Like its prequel predecessor, the films starts well, then unfortunately descends into Alien fan service, going through the familiar beats that have been done better elsewhere, with Scott seemingly abandoning plot logic and rules he laid down in Alien.

Whilst the dynamic of Covenant’s crew being couples should add an element of empathy, they’re all fairly bland characters I couldn’t really care about. I’m still yet to be convinced by Katherine Waterston (after this and Fantastic Beasts) as an actress and despite being sold as a lead, she’s a bit part until the film decides to hammer home the Ripley comparisons. She’s no Ripley, she’s not even Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace’s character from Prometheus) for that matter. The crew collectively make so many stupid decisions, I’m surprised they were cleared to head up a billion dollar colony project, but I’m probably splitting hairs.

The only actors that do register are Michael Fassbender and Danny McBride. Fassbender is clearly having a ball in his two roles, one android chewing on the scenery (David) and the other chewing on a misplaced American accent (Walter). Don’t get me wrong, Fassbender is one of the best actors of his generation, but he still struggles with an American accent! I was pleasantly surprised at how good McBride was at playing it straight, maybe because his character is more in line with the disgruntled space truckers from Alien, than the optimistic colonists we’re supposed to root for.

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“Can we get some more blue flashing lights here, please?”

Ultimately it’s a frustrating film – though admittedly less so than Prometheus. The most frustrating thing is having Scott at the helm still – it’s a trophy wife of a film, stunning to look at but no personality. It’s as if he’s gone full George Lucas with his prequels and no one has the heart to tell him that claustrophobic space horror and philosophical ramblings don’t really mix.

It’s obvious he’s making it up as he’s going along with him discussing different titles (Paradise Lost/Alien Paradise/Alien: Covenant) and multiple drafts over the years since Prometheus, even stating back in 2014 that he found the xenomorph boring, “The beast is cooked, done…I think you’ve got to come back with something more interesting.” Well Sir Ridley, I think the same could be applied to yourself – at approaching eighty years old, shouldn’t you be doing something other than derivative Alien prequels?

The Martian (2015) shows that with a good script Ridley Scott can still deliver tense and engaging sci-fi – to quote Luke Skywalker, “There is still good in him.” Sadly Scott has promised (threatened) us with at least one more prequel before we catch up with the Nostromo crew from Alien, so it looks we’ll have to ensure some more philosophical space horrors for the time being.

In space…no one can hear you sigh.

What are your thoughts on Prometheus and Alien: Covenant? Let us know in the comments!

REVIEWS: The Rock (1996)

Check out George’s full review below (click here to listen/download the podcast episode)

In a nutshell

Alcatraz is taken over by terrorists with chemical warheads and a rescue team go in to save hostages and defuse the weapons, with the help of a former inmate and a chemical specialist.

No time to read the article? Listen or download the podcast episode here!

Retro Review by George McGhee

When I mentioned we were going to cover The Rock in the next Retro Ramble episode, most people would take a moment before answering. “The person or the film?” was the response on more than one occasion. Understandable as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appears to have a new film out every month and apparently the nicest man in Hollywood.

It’s sad to think that some may have neglected the film, as there’s much to enjoy- a cracking cast led by Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris, some stylish over the top action and some memorable one-liners.

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Whilst not as snappy pitch as “Die Hard on a Plane” or “Alien in the Jungle”, The Rock has a solid premise – a great setting of Alcatraz – the (near) inescapable prison, an interesting twist on the buddy cop formula and a compelling villain with some very nasty weapons.

Brought to us by 80’s and 90’s powerhouse producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer – it’s everything you’d expect from the makers of Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Bad Boys. Stylised action, cheesy music, military hardware and beautiful sunsets.

Simpson/Bruckheimer had a mostly successful formula and whilst this was the last as a partnership (due to Simpson’s death mid-production) Bruckheimer has continued to have a midas touch at the box office (Con Air, Armageddon, Pirates of The Caribbean) and all the small screen (the many, many CSI series).

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The producers definitely had a talent for sniffing out…talent. Whilst the plots, on the whole, are cheesy, patriotic and over the top, you can’t help buy into it because there’s usually competent people in front of the camera. It’s hard to deny that these guys turned Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy and Will Smith into box office stars.

The Rock is no different, by wisely casting Cage, fresh off his Oscar win for Leaving Last Vegas (1995), quickly turning him into a credible action hero. Whilst Cage was known for his more twitchy, eccentric types, it didn’t stop audiences lapping up Con Air, Face Off, Gone in 60 Seconds over the following years.

Cage brings a real energy and heart to the role of Stanley Goodspeed, making him him a great foil to a grizzled and grumpy Connery, playing Bond in his twilight years – 0070, if you will. Their casting and relationship are the main reason I keep coming back to this film, their zingy dialogue cuts through a lot of heavy exposition throughout the film.

Whilst our heroes are great fun to spend time with bickering, you also need a compelling villain and the ever-reliable Ed Harris certainly delivers. His General Hummel is a genuinely sympathetic and believable character, a man fighting for recognition of his fallen comrades and Harris seamlessly shifts from hardened soldier to a conflicted leader who realises he may have gone too far.

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Like a lot of our favourite films at Retro Ramble, there’s no shortage of great supporting actors on the sidelines: Xander Berkley (24, Air Force One, Terminator 2), Michael Biehn (The Terminator, Aliens,), John C McGinley (Point Break, Scrubs) and Stuart Wilson (Lethal Weapon 3, The Mask of Zorro, Hot Fuzz) are just a handful of familiar faces amongst the good and the bad.

The visual template of Simpson/Bruckheimer films has been pretty much determined by two directors, Tony Scott and Michael Bay, both who come from a background in commercials and music videos and carry that frenetic editing style to their features. Bay’s calling card was Meat Loaf’s I’d Do Anything For Love (1993)  video which practically plays like a short film for Bruckheimer & Simpson.

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A lot of people give Michael Bay stick, and after some of his recent films rightly so. That said, it’s hard to argue that he has an eye for action sequences, much like Zach Snyder who comes from a similar background.

The Rock is fairly well paced with great sequences – Hummel’s raid on the weapons depot, a Humvee/Ferrari/Police chase that makes The Blues Brothers look tame and a tense final act which cuts between Connery and Cage taking names and diffusing rockets. Bay and his production team have fun with Alcatraz’s architecture, sewers, shower blocks, industrial furnaces etc, but frankly the mine cart sequence is one action scene too far.

Like a mine cart, the Bayhem is helpfully guided along on rails by a good story and witty one liners – apparently Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin and the writing team behind Likely Lads, Porridge and Auf Wiedersehn Pet! all did polishes on the script as well as some improv from The Cage.

Bar regular doses of pyrotechnics, the film doesn’t have the need to dissolve into the CGI-fests that Bay is now renowned for – the 90’s were a simpler time when most special effects were practical. Whilst the films of Bay and Bruckheimer can be fairly formulaic, I’d argue The Rock holds up as it’s a delicate balance of spectacle and character. I think it’s safe to say that it’s Connery’s last good film and Michael Bay’s best film.

His best?! Losers always whine about their best….

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MVP

Admittedly a cop out but all three leads – Connery, Cage and Harris are key to the films’ success.

Coulda Woulda Shoulda 

Arnold Schwarznegger was initially approached as a lead (conflicting reports say for both Mason and Goodspeed). Arnie claims he regrets not getting involved but he was approached when the script was in it’s earliest stages. Years later, Arnie would go on to play a similar role in Escape Plan (2013) with Stallone (worth a watch)

Fun (or terrifying) fact 

In 2016, the Chilcott report on Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War noted that one agent had falsified claims about observing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and had based his description of them on the VX gas missiles featured in The Rock!

 

REVIEW: Point Break (1991)

In a nutshell: Ex semi pro footballer turned FBI recruit Johnny Utah is assigned on his first mission to learn to surf so he can infiltrate a group of bank robbers who call themselves the ex presidents.

No time to read the article? Listen or download the podcast episode here!

When you try and describe the plot to Point Break, (with a straight face) it sounds like an amazing cheese dream – FBI agents, surfers, sky diving bank robberies and err, ooh some Buddhism too! Apologies, I haven’t even got to the ridiculous character names, Johnny Utah, Angelo Pappas, Bohdi, Tyler, Warchild…seriously! It’s almost too silly, but yet, somehow it works. The defining reason is likely to be is that it’s all whipped into shape by the most highly awarded female director working today* – Kathryn Bigelow.

It’s hard to believe the director responsible for two of the greatest War-on-Terror thrillers of recent times, The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is also responsible for this silly genre film starring the bloke from Bill and Ted’s…., and that dreamy guy from Dirty Dancing – but everyone has to start somewhere. On closer inspection, you can see the threads – the tightly edited, tense action from her more recent films have their foundations in some of the key set pieces on display in Point Break- the raid on Warchild’s house, the car to foot chase and that tense, ill-fated bank job.

As crazy as the plot was, it was enough to get noticed in Hollywood, Ridley Scott was initially attached before it fell into the hands of James Cameron, who was looking for a new project for his then wife, Bigelow (it seems Cameron has as many ex-wives as he has Avatar sequels in the pipeline). Bigelow herself having just come off the back of Blue Steel (1990); a Jamie Lee Curtis cop thriller and hidden gem Near Dark (1987), a neo-Western involving vampires.

Bigelow treats the ludicrous set up – apparently dreamt up by producer Rick King as he read an article about the rise of bank robberies in LA whilst sat on the beach – with enough energy and slick cinematography to keep you thrilled that you don’t have the chance to question it.The film’s longevity is also due to the fact it taps into the emerging trends of grunge, surfing/extreme sports that would go on to help define the 90’s – and don’t forget this was only at the beginning of the decade – summer of 1991.

The film also captures a feel for California without having to resort to the kind of stock footage that you’d find in a Beverly Hills Cop montage – instead, we get something more domestic and ground level – beaches, back streets and storm drains. Bigelow (along with her Director of Photography, Donald Peterman) displays a real eye for the city, something that would be better defined in her next film, the lesser seen Strange Days (1995), an excellent sci-fi thriller which shows a near future LA on the eve of the Millennium in decay and on the brink of race riots….scarily precient, considering recent events across the US.

Unlike most action films, there’s plenty of eye candy on display for the ladies, and female eye is definitely evident here, which potentially adds to the homoeroticsm – from the get-go, the camera lingers on Reeves in a wet t-shirt and being a movie about surfers, there’s plenty of studly and buff men on display. I was introduced to this film by a girl – it was a movie that both sexes could say is cool – admittedly something of a rarity in the canon of films in the Retro Ramble vault.

A lot of the film’s appeal is the casting of the main stars Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves and their growing romance friendship. Swayze brings a balance of charm and gravitas that his role requires and makes his surfing-philosophy “feel it’s energy, tap into it” digestible. There’s a twinkle in those blue eyes that makes him a compelling anti-hero and reminds you that he’s a talent we all miss. It’s not just Johnny who get’s seduced by Bodhi – the audience does too.

Onto Mr Marmite, himself, Keanu Reeves. I’d argue he’s the reason this film endures to be a cult classic and or guilty pleasure. Love him or hate him, Reeves approaches the majority of his roles with enthusiasm, while many will joke about his wooden mannerisms, in real life he comes across as a very funny and animated person. Indeed, his CV prior to this shows a background in comedy, admittedly broad strokes with a bunch of stoner/ juvenile delinquents, but one can argue there’s talent in comic timing.

As the film begins, Utah is a machine, 100% efficient at the gun range, a yes-man man who “takes the skin off his chicken” and is dubious of his surfing assignment. As he learns to master the waves and falls under Bohdi’s spell, you get to see him soften around others. He’s still that driven agent that is determined to get his guy, but he’s also more human. Obviously, there’s a limit to his acting range, if you want slow burning undercover cop drama, go watch The Departed (2006) or Donnie Brasco (1997)!

Today, we take Keanu’s ass kicking for granted, it’s hard to remember that this was his first action role. Without Point Break- there would be no Speed (1994), no Matrix Trilogy (1999 – 2003) and no John Wick (2014) – it’s that simple.

Reeves revealed in recent interview that Bigelow fought for him to be cast, and to her credit, she has a canny knack for casting. From discovering new talent like Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker or Jason Clarke in Zero Dark Thirty or surrounding your stars with great character actors in supporting roles. Gary Busey, John C McGinley and Tom Sizemore all give the film grounding, they’re all happy to chip away at Utah’s quarterback background, ensuring the film doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Outside of the action scenes, there’s some fantastic cinematography for both surfing and skydiving sequences, scored with an atmospheric score from Marc Isham that delivers an almost dreamlike and majestic feeling. Admittedly the first skydiving scene almost outstays it’s welcome but I’m sure it inspired many people (myself included) to try it out. The 90’s would go on to feature two more action thrillers featuring sky-diving – 1994 gave us both Drop Zone (with Busey on bad guy duties) and Terminal Velocity, like Point Break, they have ludicrous plots, yet no one talks about either in the same way (probably because they’re both terrible).

I also have to point out that the original The Fast And The Furious (2001) is a carbon copy of Point Break’s plot, only the extreme sports is replaced with street racing. Shockingly, no credit was given the makers of Point Break – you imagine that they could be annoyed considering without it, we may not have eight (and counting) Fast & Furious installments, films that are out-grossing Star Wars on their opening weekend!

However, as I say Bigelow has moved on to weightier, more credible projects, including upcoming race-riot drama, Detroit (2017). I for one would love to see what she could do with a franchise, especially a Bond or Batman film, however, that would likely be a waste of her talents.

To summarise, Point Break is a great piece of 90s action cinema that still stands the test of time. There’s many factors that make it such an enjoyable watch – be it a guilty pleasure or action treat – the chemistry between Reeves and Swayze, the one-liners and some thrilling action sequences. It’s an action film that’s not afraid to break some rules, it’s homo-erotic, it’s a bit silly but “Why be a servant to the law, when you can be its master?”

MVP: Kathryn Bigelow, who makes the ludicrous plot work whilst inspiring a generation to try surfing and skydiving.

Coulda Woulda Shoulda: Originally, Matthew Broderick, Johnny Depp, Val Kilmer and Charlie Sheen were all considered to play Johnny Utah. Most crazy is the fact that Willem Defoe was also considered for Utah. Wait, what?!

Fun Fact: Whilst Patrick Swayze’s surfing stunt double is rather obvious, he performed most of the skydiving stunts himself, completing hundreds of jumps in the process, what a legend! We miss you Swayze!

*With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow became the first, and only woman (to date), to win the Academy Award for Best Director, the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing, the BAFTA Award for Best Direction, and the Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Director. She also became the first woman to win the Saturn Award for Best Director in 1995 for Strange Days.

FUNNIES: Snatch Wars

With the first trailer for The Last Jedi dropping last week it seems only fair to remind everyone of this little comedy classic that combines Darth Vader from A New Hope and Bricktop from Snatch in a way you never thought possible.

This is comedy genius, but we should point out that it’s over 8 minutes so make yourself a cup of tea sit down and enjoy the show!