Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Underrated Found Footage Horror: The Last Broadcast (1998)

The recent Paranormal Activity series have created something of a gold rush in “found footage” movies since the first film hit in 2007. Oren Peli's low budget jump-fest single-handedly made Paramount set up a whole division (Insurge Pictures) purely focused on micro-budget horror films that would cost around $100,000 each. The appeal for a studio is obvious, it's low risk but can reap huge rewards at the box office. There's at least 5-6 of these movies released every year now - The Last Exorcism, The Devil Inside, [REC] to name a few. And the genre is starting to really expand and show its potential with even non-horror movies like Chronicle and Project X amassing huge success.

Despite Paranormal Activity's success, it's still overshadowed by The Blair Witch Project which was a cinematic milestone when it was released in 1999. Whether you thought it was good or bad, the film revolutionised ideas of online marketing, word-of-mouth buzz, and what sort of effects could be achieved on a low budget. But it was hardly the first found footage film ever. That honour more likely goes to something like Cannibal Holocaust. One film that predated Blair Witch was The Last Broadcast that was released in 1998, and in a lot of ways I feel it's a superior film.

The Last Broadcast is a fictionalised documentary that mixes in a lot of found footage to tell the story of a group of men who went out in the New Jersey Pine Barrens to try and capture the mythical Jersey Devil on camera. The documentary is told after the events and sees a filmmaker interviewing various people to reconstruct exactly what happened to the men. You see, three of them died during the trip and only one, a supposed psychic, survived but he was arrested and hung himself in his cell before he could be properly questioned. Did the Jersey Devil really kill them? Or was it the psychic? Can the filmmaker sift through the footage to find the truth?

Honestly, this film is a lot of fun. It's a small cast and a very low budget (around $12,000 reportedly) but there's a pleasing amount of professionalism all round. None of the actors come off as anything less than genuine. This is particularly surprising as many of the interviewees were just ordinary folk off the street. Also, the film holds the honour of being the first professional release that was completely edited on a desktop computer using consumer software.

The best performances come from the two leads Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos (also the writers and directors) who play the hosts of a cheap public access “Fact or Fiction” show. The fact that they are obviously friends in real-life already makes their passive/aggressive double act on the show very convincing. Also, having it be a public access show is a very canny way of keeping within their budget and explaining why the group are so small and under-equipped for their trip. Jim Seward also does a great job as the schizophrenic psychic, painting a convincing portrait of a troubled young man.

Having it be a documentary rather than just found footage also allows for the documentary maker to comment over some of the action. For instance we watch a bit where the psychic Jim performs a trick to convince Lance and Stefan he's genuinely gifted meanwhile the voiceover explains exactly how he faked it. What's also impressive is that the film/documentary genuinely builds an brooding atmosphere of dread from about the mid-point. We slowly get revelation after revelation which gives the whole thing nice, traditional three-act structure.

I can't really pinpoint much that the film does wrong per se. The fictitious documentary maker David Leigh perhaps gives a little bit of flat performance when he's on camera compared to the rest of the cast but other than that the documentary is well paced and genuinely intriguing. Perhaps the ending doesn't strike the note of terror that Blair Witch did but it does do something very innovative. Without spoiling it the film goes in a very creepy left field direction towards the end.

All in all, The Last Broadcast very underrated little film and it's a shame it didn't get more notice. What I like about the film is that it's more than just some shaky footage with a few creepy shots and jump scares, it's a sustained narrative with clever comments on voyeurism and the human appetite for answers.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Completist Guide to the Under Siege series (1992-1995)

Under Siege (1992)
Under Siege was, and probably still is, the career high point for Steven Seagal. The film was directed by Andrew Davis who also gave us the ponytailed one's debut Nico (aka Above the Law) and would later direct the Oscar nominated The Fugitive and boy, did he nail the perfect vehicle for its star. Under Siege was Seagal's biggest box office taking catapulting him to the status of major Hollywood action hero alongside the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, both of who's careers, at the time, were looking decidedly shaky.

Under Siege sees Seagal play Casey Ryback a former Navy SEAL who has been busted down to ship's cook for insubordination. While his vessel, the USS Missouri, is out at sea a group of terrorists use the captain's birthday party as cover to take the crew hostage and unload the ship's entire compliment of nuclear weapons. However, they don't realise they've missed Ryback and once he discovers what's happening he teams up with a small group of survivors (including the stripper that was ordered for the party) and starts to sabotage the terrorists plan.

First things out of the way, yes this film is a complete rip off of Die Hard - with only a few alterations such as the setting and the fact that Ryback has a few other people helping him rather than saving the day on his own. Despite the fact its a retread of an action classic it still all works and rarely feels tired. Seagal has genuinely never done better acting than in this film. He actually shows a sense of humour at the beginning and seems pretty naturalistic with the dialogue.

It should also be noted that he's probably in the best shape he's ever been in too. It's a shame seeing him in all these direct to DVD films recently where he's obviously put on a lot of weight but then again, the guy is 60 this year, we should probably cut him some slack. What Seagal did well in this film is give himself a recognisable gimmick to separate him from other action heroes – the hand-to-hand knife fight. I can't really think of any action film that had such a long and carefully choreographed knife fight before seeing this film and it really gives the film some flavour.

You can't just credit Seagal though, as well as his great performance the supporting cast all pull their weight too. Gary Busey is great as the slightly unhinged Commander Krill, gamely cross-dressing his way through many scenes with a goofy grin on his face. If anything though his performance is overshadowed by Tommy Lee Jones' scenery chewing turn as the terrorist leader Strannix, a guy who launches missiles while reciting nursery rhymes. It would be so easy for Davis to try and repeat the Die Hard formula and have a very level-headed villain like Hans Gruber. Hats off to him for pushing Jones in the opposite direction.

Elena Eleniak makes for a great bit of eye candy. Her character is a little annoying but she makes for a good sidekick .You think back to Die Hard, how many times was Bruce Willis just talking to himself. Seagal just doesn't look like the kind of guy who would do that. Plus the fact he's got to team up with a stripper adds a nice quirky, humorous element that keeps the film from ever getting too serious and self-important.

One last thing to say about the film is that this is the first of Seagal's flicks where they have a “terrorists-find-out-who-Seagal's-character-really-is-and-start-talking-about-how-tough-he is-and-that-maybe-they-should-abort-their-plan” bit. It gets used in almost every subsequent Seagal film after this. Again, it's a nice gimmick that separates him from other action heroes. Gruber in Die Hard was never really scared of McClane, more just infuriated by him. As much as it stretches credibility, it's a lot of fun watching the superhuman Seagal lay waste to the terrorists well orchestrated plan. McClane was definitely the underdog hero of Die Hard but in Seagal's movies the roles are switched and it's actually the bad guys who are the underdogs.
All in all, Under Siege is still a great movie that's perhaps been overplayed on TV to the point where it doesn't feel special any more. But it is. Go and grab a cheap copy on DVD and give it another watch.

Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)
If I'm honest the reason I'm writing up the Under Siege movies this week is because I gave Geoff Murphy such a hard time on Fortress 2 last week and wanted to review one of his good ones (yeah, I know I probably should have done The Quiet Earth instead of this). For me Under Siege 2 surpasses the original in every way (with the exception of swapping a topless Erika Eleniak for Morris Chestnut's porter). I know that's a controversial viewpoint for some but stick with me and I'll try and explain.

Okay, so we pick up with Casey Ryback some time later and he's picking up his niece Sarah (Katherine Heigl! Really?) to take a cross country train to visit his brother's grave. Unbeknownst to them evil ex-weapons designer Travis Dane (Eric Bogosian) and his team of mercenaries are planning to hijack the train and use it as a mobile base of operations while they use the military's laser satellite to threaten and extort money from the US Government. Foolproof plan, except for one thing. They took Ryback's niece hostage. Prepare for a lot of people getting knifed and slapped in the face over the next two hours.

What I love about Under Siege 2 is that the makers take themselves even less seriously than the previous installment. There's a whole bunch of goofy elements in the film, from Seagal driving a 4x4 down a near vertical slope to catch up with the train to Seagal mixing up a bomb from kitchen ingredients in a cocktail shaker. And the cherry on the cake: he also straps a pager to the front of the bomb that reads: “You're F**ked” so when the bad guy catches it, he just has time to read the words before it explodes in his face. It's so corny but so cool at the same time.

Also, I know I'm in the minority but I thought Eric Bogosian was brilliant as Travis Dane. Completely manic and twisted. These computer hacker villains, that were highly popular in the 90s, often came off as boring, underwhelming nerds but Bogosian really revels in the role. Maybe not coming off as very intimidating but definitely short-tempered and sarcastic. Again, there's an excellent supporting cast, in particular Everett McGill as Dane's second-in-command whose hulking frame and skeletal face make him truly intimidating. He also gets a great scene where Sarah pepper sprays him in the face and he treats it like breath fresher. One thing that I always found strange is that Patrick Kilpatrick is one of Dane's other mercenaries but he doesn't get any lines. Why hire such a great character actor and then just have him stand around in the background.

Of course the main star is Seagal and again he's pretty good but he's lost a little bit of the humour the character had in the original. Still he's far more engaged in the film than some of his recent DTV flicks so I can't complain too much. Under Siege 2 was the first film that came out after his disastrous (but highly amusing) directorial debut On Deadly Ground. I can't help but feel a little that he wasn't interested in making any sequels and wouldn't have made this had that earlier film not bombed. As I mentioned, again Seagal gets another sidekick, Morris Chestnut, who plays a porter on the train who manages to avoid being taken hostage. With sidekick characters in these types of movies, they are usually either really annoying or just okay. Luckily Chestnut's fine and doesn't rock the boat. The two would reteam for the lacklustre (but hilariously titled) Half Past Dead in 2002.

What I like about the film is just the fact that the train is constantly moving. As cool as the ship was in the original it just wasn't as exciting a setting as this. There's some great bits of Seagal running along the top of the train and getting knocked underneath where he deftly hangs on despite the train's high speed. And the fact that all the carriages are two storey means there's loads more opportunity for Ryback sneak around and out-think the villains.

The plot also gets nicely split between Ryback on the train, the villains hatching their plan and the General and his men back at the satellite's mission control trying to stop Dane's plan. And this really keeps the film moving at a great pace, there's not a wasted frame of footage.

So for me, Under Siege 2 is just a fraction better than its predecessor and probably the last truly great Seagal film. Sure some of his subsequent stuff have had decent bits here and there but none of them compare to his first seven flicks.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Completist Guide to the Fortress series (1993-1999)

Fortress (1993)
I guess your enjoyment of Fortress really hangs on whether you like Christopher Lambert or not. For me Lambert is an infectiously fun actor who elevates every project he's involved in but I can see how his thick French accent and hammy acting can turn some viewers off. For anyone in the latter camp, avoid this film because it's almost non-stop, wall-to-wall Lambert action. But for those who liked his performances in the Highlander series or the first Mortal Kombat flick definitely check this one out because it's easily in his top five career best.

Fortress sees Lambert and Loryn Locklin play John and Karen Brennick, a husband and wife living in a futuristic United States where strict laws state that you can only have one child. Having lost their first child, they attempt to cross the border into Mexico to have their second child. However, they are caught and both sent to a new underground super prison run by the Men-Tel Corporation and its sadistic warden Poe (Kurtwood Smith). Determined to get out Lambert starts to devise an escape plan with his fellow prisoners. Meanwhile Poe takes an unnatural interest in Karen and her unborn baby. Can Brennick escape and save his wife?
I guess the best way to describe the film is that it's a futuristic version of The Great Escape. Once inside the prison, there's a number of seemingly impossible obstacles that Lambert has to figure his way around. Roving cameras, explosive devices placed in prisoners' stomachs and even a device that scans your dreams. I think there's two terms for science fiction: hard sci-fi which is grounded in realism and escapist sci-fi. This is very much the second type. Much of the prison and they way it's set up is completely illogical but if you're looking for realism from a movie that has a company called the Men-Tel Corporation you're looking in the wrong place.

This is just really fun, unpretentious b-movie that never gives itself enough time to become dull. The film was directed by Stuart Gordon, who did the classic 80s horror films Re-Animator and From Beyond and well as the very underrated sci-fi films Robot Jox and Space Truckers. In this film he emulates Paul Verhoeven's wildly violent sci-fi flicks Robocop and Total Recall both in terms of their glossy looks and their graphic violence. There's also pleasingly large amount of model work and matte paintings that reminds you how great those techniques were. 
Fortress also contains some some hilariously dated 90s elements. For instance, at one point Lambert is tortured in a... gyrosphere. Man, there were so many movies in the early 90s that used gyrospheres as futuristic sci-fi devices just because people hadn't seen them before, like The Lawnmower Man. You'd never get away with that stuff now. There's also some very ineffectual gun-toting cyborgs that seem to get destroyed very easily. For those who have seen Space Truckers, they look kind of similar to the ones in that film.
Christopher Lambert is very good in the lead. Apparently the original plan for the film was to have a far larger budget and Schwarzenegger as John Brennick (which would make sense since the film's produced by John Davis who did the original Predator). Lambert may not be a massive musclebound hero but that almost makes it better as it makes the odds against him even bigger. Kurtwood Smith is also pretty great as Poe. He's nowhere near as good as Clarence Boddicker in Robocop but he still makes an effectively creepy bad guy. And there's some top notch support from Jeffrey Combs and Vernon Wells rounding out the cast.
One thing that people often complain about is that the ending is really abrupt. I think in quite a lot of versions on TV and DVD they severally truncate the ending. It should end with John, Karen and Gomez stealing the truck and driving over the border where they stop for a rest because Karen's about to give birth. Meanwhile the truck's remote piloting comes on and starts driving itself, running over Gomez and forcing John to blow it up with his bazooka/chain gun. Then he rushes back to Karen's who has given birth. It's pretty baffling as to why this keeps getting shown on TV with John and Karen driving over the Mexican border and cutting straight to credits.
Anyway, Fortress is a great science fiction film (just shy of being a classic). It's full of action to enjoy, gore to wince at and silly implausible bits to laugh at. You really can't go wrong.
Fortress 2: Re-Entry (1999)
Fortress 2 came out in 1999 around the same time as the fourth Highlander movie. I guess producers were starting to notice that Lambert was getting on in age and wanted to ring a few more sequels out of him before he got too old. I've got to say Fortress 2 is a pretty unnecessary sequel as sequels go. He escaped prison once, what are they going to do capture him again and throw him in a new prison. Well... yes, yes they are.
Fortress 2 picks up several years later with John Brennick living with his wife and kid in the wilderness, still on the run from the Men-Tel Corporation. When a group of freedom fighters ask John to help them take down the Corporation for good he agrees but he's quickly captured. He wakes up in another futuristic prison and learns he's to be sentenced to death very soon. Quickly, he decides to hatch another escape plan only to learn that the new prison isn't underground... it's in space! Surely, there's no way he'll escape again? That would be a massive PR disaster for the Men-Tel Corporation!
This is a definite step down from the original but that's to be expected from DTV sequel. As these kind of cash-ins go this close to being a good film but falls down on a few aspects. Firstly, there's some really horrible, cheap CGI for the shots outside of the space station that look like they're from a budget-release video game. Normally I'm okay if cheap CGI is integrated with live action but these shots are so jarring they really take you out of the film. Secondly, the violence levels are really toned down, there's no exploding stomachs here. Instead prisoners get headaches when they go out of bounds which isn't as gory or scary.
More or less the film repeats the same formula of the original with slight twists. For instance, instead of the dreaded gyrosphere the ultimate punishment on the space station consists of being locked in a glass bubble on the outside where you get badly sunburnt when the station is facing the sun and frost bitten when the station faces away. This was a pretty neat idea. One thing that kept the first film quite interesting is that it had a double plot of what was happening to John and what was happening to Karen. Here it's all about John, Karen gets left on earth, which gives Lambert a lot of heavy lifting to do that he clearly struggles with.
Lambert is still pretty enjoyable though but I've found the older he's gotten, the less enthusiastic and energetic he seems to be in his films. He seemed to reach his peak (disappointingly) somewhere around Highlander II: The Quickening. The supporting cast isn't as good this time around either. Willie Garson (who due to my fiancee's love of Sex and the City I can recognise as Stanford, Carrie's gay friend) is the only one who stands out as one of the Brennick's fellow oddball prisoners. And Pamela Grier turns up for a few minutes of screen time as a Men-Tel official but mostly looks as though she's reading off a cue card. I guess Jackie Brown didn't help her career after all.
I think part of the problem with the sequel was the fact that the original prison was this enormous underground labyrinth whereas the space station is just that, a space station. There's nothing particularly memorable about its setup. I'm a big fan of directors who can do cinematic geography well - ie. be able to show the viewer in clear detail how location is structured or where a car chase is taking place. It actually takes a lot of skill to do and I think Gordon pulled it off really well in the original but the sequel is just an endless parade of anonymous hallways and rooms.
Also the escape method is far less ingenious this around however there is one superb bit of silliness, that briefly brings to mind the original's tone, in which Lambert gets thrown out of an airlock into space without a suit and manages to hold his breath for a few seconds and get to another airlock and let himself back inside. If only the film had more crazy, physics-defying bits like this I might have enjoyed it more. The film was directed with a fair amount of anonymity by Geoff Murphy, who also did Under Siege 2 and Freejack. It's a little disappointing that the film isn't better considering I really like those two films.
All in all, Fortress 2 is a pretty inessential sequel but it's nice to see Lambert back in one of his classic roles. So if you're a fan of his acting you might as well give it a quick spin. The film doesn't do much wrong it's just it really doesn't wow either.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Forgotten 90s Action: The Big Hit (1998)

Though Mark Wahlberg did “hit big” with Paul Anderson's Boogie Nights in 1997 like a lot of actors that film was just one of several that he used to discover his niche. The year previous he'd tried playing a psycho boyfriend in Fear and the year after he tried his hand at action comedy with The Big Hit. The film was the American debut of Hong Kong director Kirk Wong who had directed Jackie Chan's Crime Story in 1993 (not to be confused with the short lived Michael Mann TV show).

The Big Hit sees Mark Wahlberg play Melvin Smiley, one of a group of hitmen who work for a mob boss called Harris (Avery Brooks). Despite being a badass at work, Melvin is a pushover at home alternating between a mistress who hates him and a wife Chantel (Christina Applegate) who is clueless as to what he actually does to afford their lavish suburban home. When one of his colleagues Cisco (Lou Diamond Phillips) convinces Melvin and the group to do a freelance kidnap job everything starts to wrong and before long Melvin has a hostage in tow, a group of hitmen after him and worse of all his in-laws are due to come over!

The Big Hit is kind of an overlooked film in Wahlberg's filmography. It didn't make much of a splash at the cinema and went straight to video in the UK. It reminded me a little of the Skip Woods flick that came out the same year Thursday, but more fun and a little less sadistic. Some plot points also seemed quite similar to Timur Bekmambetov's Wanted with the shrew-like girlfriend of a slightly neurotic hitman. Unlike those two films The Big Hit has a goofy (and I mean really goofy) sense of humour.

The film sets the tone from the start in which Melvin and his team take out a group of guys in a building leaping through the air and running up walls in a seemingly deliberate piss take of John Woo. In actual fact, Woo was one of the executive producers along with Wesley Snipes so I'm sure he took it in good humour. The action scenes are really well handled with the exception of a couple of shots that rely on some ropey 90s CGI but it's nothing that you can't forgive.

The main attraction is a rather bizarre scene towards the end in which Melvin arrives at an enormous video store to return an overdue copy of King Kong Lives and engages in a lengthy kung fu fight with Cisco. That probably gives a good guide as the kind of offbeat humour this film gives you. It's a strange hybrid of high energy action, meet-the-parents comedy antics and black farce. For example one sequence sees Melvin try to stop his neighbour's dog get near a bin bag full of body parts. It's played completely for laughs.

Though I've never completely warmed to the artist formerly known as Marky Mark as a actor he's actually quite enjoyably low key in this. The real acting honours though have to go to Lou Diamond Phillips. I always used to think Phillips was kind of a dull actor but he really goes all-out awesome in this flick as the charismatic live-wire Cisco. Though the character slowly turns into a bad guy you can't help but still root for him. The rest of the supporting cast don't get a lot to do. Applegate makes an ideal nagging Jewish wife and Elliott Gould as her hen-pecked father is highly amusing. Both are welcome additions.

In terms of pointing out anything bad about the film, there isn't really a lot wrong with The Big Hit. It is what it is. If I could pinpoint why isn't not a better known film it's perhaps that the story is really quite flimsy and the cartoonishness does become a little grating after a while. I mean at least the Lethal Weapon films flipped back and forth between comedy and seriousness to keep you interested.

Overall The Big Hit isn't an important film but it is quite an enjoyable film. It's a shame Wong never really directed much after because he shows a lot of inventive skill in this. And Wahlberg shouldn't have taken 12 years to do another action comedy (The Other Guys) because he's actually pretty good in this role, far better than other films where he's played straight action roles like Planet of the Apes or Max Payne.