Armageddon (1998)

2016 #133
Michael Bay | 145 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

ArmageddonSometimes you have to wait to see a film because it’s not accessible for some reason (no one’s put it out yet, or it’s out of print and costs a fortune, or whatever). Other times… maybe it’s just me, but there are some films that I wait years to watch for no particular reason. Not wait in the sense of “drumming my fingers waiting for the chance”, but in the sense that I’ll get to it someday, it’s just not a priority, for whatever reason. And then one day, with nothing apparently having changed, the time comes when it’s that movie’s turn.

So it was for me with Armageddon, Michael Bay’s 1998 sci-fi disaster epic. It’s a film I’ve been aware of since it came out (how could you not be?) but never cared enough to actually watch, other than a general feeling I’d get round to it one day because (a) it’s the kind of movie everyone else has seen, and (b) when Michael Bay’s good, he is good (at what he does), so it’s at least worth a look. It’s a pretty readily available film — the kind of thing I regularly see in TV listings or on streaming services and consider watching and end up deciding “nah, not today” — so quite what made me finally watch it now — what made me see it in a list and go “actually, yes, today” — I’m not sure. Such are the mysteries of life. Or of my brain, at any rate.

For the few people who haven’t seen it, then, it’s about a giant asteroid heading towards Earth, where its impact will cause an extinction-level event, and NASA deciding the only way to stop it is to send up a couple of spaceships to land on the asteroid, drop nukes inside, and blow it up (it’s a Michael Bay movie, of course the solution is “blow it up”). To learn about the kind of deep drilling this would require, they bring in the best driller around, Bruce Willis, to train the astronauts. But drilling isn’t something you can learn in a couple of weeks — unlike “how to be an astronaut”, apparently, because it’s decided it will be easier to train drillers to be astronauts than train astronauts to use a drill.

At least they know which way space isIf you’re a reader from outside the UK, I guess you’ve probably not heard of Tim Peake. He’s (quite rightly) been big news here for the last year or so because he was our first (official) astronaut. That it’s taken until now for there to be a British astronaut seems remarkable, but there you go. I guess we always let other people do the initial exploring, then come along later to own the place — I mean, that Columbus fella was Italian, and is Italian the official language of America? No it is not. Anyway, Peake is a qualified helicopter pilot and instructor, has a degree in Flight Dynamics and Evaluation, was selected to be an astronaut in a process that involved academic tests, fitness assessments, and several interviews, and then received six years of training, including a mission as an aquanaut, before he went into space. But no, you can totally train a group of drillers to do that in a fortnight.

Many Hollywood blockbusters have ludicrous concepts, but Armageddon feels designed to plow new furrows of ridiculousness. Apparently NASA show the film to new managers and ask them to spot the errors. There are at least 168. It only takes a few minutes before it’s already so OTT that it seems like a spoof of Bay — I mean, the title card explodes for crying out loud. When the president makes a speech just before the launch, the quaint shots of the world listening in make it look like the film’s set in the 1950s. Despite being a full two-and-a-half hours long, Bay manages to make the whole film feel like a plot-summarising montage. The average shot length must be Moulin Rouge-level crazy, though where that film weighs super-fast-cut scenes against more measured ones, I think Armageddon is out-of-control-freight-train fast for every last second. Bay is so impatient, the credits start rolling before the film has even finished! And why the fuck does the drilling vehicle have a fucking great machine gun on it?!

Bruce Willis flashesApparently Michael Bay thinks it’s his worst film. In 2013, he said, “I will apologise for Armageddon, because we had to do the whole movie in 16 weeks. It was a massive undertaking. That was not fair to the movie. I would redo the entire third act if I could.” The problems stretch further than that, Michael.

Believe it or not, it’s not all bad. The bit where Bruce Willis’ life flashes before his eyes is actually really good — ten seconds of artistic moviemaking in a 150-minute movie! Visually it looks great throughout, meaning DoP John Schwartzman is possibly the only person who comes out of the whole thing entirely unscathed. The special effects are excellent for 1998. I thought Independence Day’s were still effective when I re-watched it earlier this year, but Armageddon’s feel much less dated, and it was only made two years later. As an effects showcase, it absolutely still holds up today. That said, the top of the Chrysler building falling off, complete with plummeting screaming people, is considerably less palatable since 9/11. And just a minute later there’s a shot of the World Trade Center with burning holes in it. It’s a wonder it hasn’t been re-edited to remove those shots, especially as it’s a Disney-owned movie and they have a history of self-censoring stuff that is no longer considered acceptable.

Armageddon was, famously, released the same year as Deep Impact, which I watched many years ago but remember as a character-driven drama about an asteroid threatening the end of the world. Armageddon’s action-packed bluster was more successful at the box office, of course, but Deep Impact was the more mature movie. SPACE EXPLOSION!Maybe I’m wrong — it has a lower rating on IMDb. But then, that is IMDb. I should probably watch it again, but even without doing that I feel pretty confident saying it’s the better film.

If Michael Bay knew he was making a comedy, Armageddon might be a great movie. But he didn’t. While it’s definitely bad, I did kind of enjoy it… but mainly to laugh at. Make of that what you will.

2 out of 5

Space Station 76 (2014)

2015 #103
Jack Plotnick | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Space Station 76Liv Tyler is the new first officer on a space station commanded by Patrick Wilson in this retro-future-styled film, which is both a spoof of/riff on ’70s genre movies, and a character drama about people’s relationships. No, really.

The most obvious aspect, especially as it’s played up in the joke-focused trailer, is the former. The film’s visual aesthetic is a loving recreation of classic SF, from the set design to the gorgeous model-like CGI exteriors. I don’t think anything in particular was being referenced — at least, not obviously so — but it’s all reminiscent of the likes of the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Space: 1999, and so on. It’s been created with such care that it borders on the beautiful.

The film itself is not really a genre spoof, though. It’s not taking the mick out of the storylines or acting style or what-have-you of productions of that era, but has adopted the era — the character types, their social interrelations, the familiar design style — to do its own thing. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t find humour in that adopted era: one of the most memorable moments involves a videophone (though, of course, that’s now riffing on something many of us are familiar with from the likes of Skype), and there are some genuinely laugh-out-loud-hilarious bits from the awesome Dr Bot, the station’s robot psychiatrist, perfectly voiced by Michael Stoyanov (also one of the screenwriters). For me, Dr Bot pretty much justified the film’s existence.

It’s not just a silliness-based comedy, though. It’s masquerading as that, with the aesthetic choices and the joke-focused trailer, but I think what it really wants to be is a character drama about people not connecting, almost in the vein of something like Magnolia. While the characters’ relations play out through the prism of ’70s values, and are occasionally Everybody loves Dr Botused to feed into the humour, that’s simply what makes it, a) a period movie (just a period movie set in the future), and b) a comedy-drama (as opposed to a drama). I think this is the real reason for its lowly regard on sites like IMDb: those expecting Anchorman in Space are going to be disappointed; but you can’t blame anyone for such expectations when that’s more-or-less how it’s trailed.

Critics are kinder: 67% on Rotten Tomatoes sounds low, but it’s not all that bad (it’s enough to be “certified fresh”, certainly); and I tend to agree with Matt Zoller Seitz when he says that “the movie is ten times lovelier than it needed to be… The art direction, costumes, effects, lighting and camerawork are committed to beauty for beauty’s sake, to the point where you might respond to Space Station 76 not as a sendup of its sources but as a lucid cinematic dream about them.” Seitz concludes, almost poetically, that he has “no idea who the audience for this film is, beyond the people who made it, and that’s what makes it special.”

Mashing up two such disparate styles of moviemaking means Space Station 76 won’t — indeed, doesn’t — work for a lot of people. Anyone after out-and-out comedy will only find a smattering of such scenes; anyone after a thoughtful comedy-drama with emphasis on the drama will not be looking here in the first place, and even if they did, may despair at some of the more (shall we say) juvenile comedic beats. Regular readers will know I have a fondness for awkward mash-ups, though, so I rather loved it. Special special effectsThe characters and their relations are well enough drawn to make it passably engrossing, even if not a stand-out contribution to any such genre, while the comedy pays off handsomely at times.

If you feel you can get on board with such a style mishmash, then I’d say Space Station 76 is cautiously recommended.

4 out of 5

Space Station 76 is available on Netflix UK from today.

Robot & Frank (2012)

2015 #66
Jake Schreier | 89 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Robot and FrankIn “the near future”, Frank (Frank Langella) is an ageing jewel thief in denial about his dementia, contenting himself with visits to the local library, which is being taken over by a bunch of yuppies to turn into “the library experience”, and shoplifting from the beauty store that used to be his favourite restaurant. Concerned for his wellbeing, his son (James Marsden) gets him some home help in the form of a humanoid robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Initially reluctant to accept its presence, when the robot attempts to help by also shoplifting from the beauty store, Frank senses an opportunity…

Ostensibly a science-fiction movie, complete with futuristic-looking cars, a casual robotic presence, and glass-like tablets and smartphones, Robot & Frank is really a drama about, amongst other things, old age. The SF elements provide an interesting angle, of course, and this is a well-imagined very-near-future world (it was inspired in part by current attempts in Japan to develop robots specifically to care for the elderly), but the film’s joys and illuminations lie outside the sci-fi elements. Asimovian concepts of robot self-awareness/consciousness are touched upon, but they’re in service of one of the film’s central themes/stories rather than as an end to itself.

Where the film is most effective is in the friendship between Frank and his robot. Some have described it as a buddy movie, and while it doesn’t offer the rollicking action and humour that tag normally implies, it’s not a wholly inaccurate label. When Frank’s daughter (Liv Tyler) suddenly appears home halfway through and turns the robot offLibrary love (part of a half-realised almost-subplot about robot rights, or something), we not only feel Frank’s (temporary) loss of his friend, but also urge the film to turn the robot back on and get back to what’s really making the movie work. The event serves a purpose (it’s the point Frank realises he’s stopped just putting up with the damn robot and actually come to appreciate its presence), but still.

The heist elements, played up in some of the film’s marketing, probably to make it sound exciting, are actually rather low-key. Burglary would be a more accurate term. What I’m trying to say is, don’t expect Ocean’s Eleven with an old man and his robot sidekick. There are altogether different delights, including a wry sense of humour that surfaces rarely enough to lend the ‘gags’ extra emphasis but frequently enough to keep the amusement ticking over (avoid the trailer, it contains one of the best laughs). The emotional bond that develops is affecting, in the subtly-built way that you may not see coming. When the end rolls around, you may even feel a tear in your eye.

Robot & Frank is the kind of film that should appeal outside of apparent genre constraints — heck, the way technology’s going, it might not be that long before it’s just a straight-up drama. Frank and robotEqually, this is of a branch of science-fiction we see all too rarely on the big screen, but which is fertile ground for those wishing to explore it: using fantastical concepts to explore and enlighten our own world. Even if you learn nothing revelatory about old age and the rigours of dementia, the friendship between the robot and Frank is reason enough to enjoy.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Robot & Frank is on BBC One tonight at 11:15pm. It’s available on BBC iPlayer until 1:40am on Thursday 28th May.

Super (2010)

2011 #71
James Gunn | 96 mins* | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

SuperIf Kick-Ass was the fantasy version of “ordinary man becomes superhero” then Super is the hard-hitting, suitably-silly, ‘real’ version. And it’s not often you get to describe a film in which God rips the roof off a house, reaches down with anime-inspired tentacles, slices open a man’s head and plants an idea in his mind — literally — as “hard-hitting” and “real”.

It stars The Office’s Rainn Wilson as odd diner cook Frank, whose wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a local drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). Inspired by a cheap TV show starring Christian superhero the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) — and the aforementioned finger of God — Frank sets out to fight crime as costumed hero the Crimson Bolt. Researching power-less heroes at the local comic shop, Frank meets Libby (Ellen Page), whose equal weirdness leads to her helping him and becoming his sidekick.

Super seems ready-made for cult status. Not in the self-conscious way of something like Snakes on a Plane, but in the genuine way of a film that’s quirky and different. It’s a comedy, but one with brutally realistic violence and visions of demons and faces in vomit. Unlike Kick-Ass (the blatantly obvious point of comparison, not least because they were made and released around the same time), He's in your hoodwhich moves fairly swiftly into the fantasy of being a successful superhero, Super stays quite grounded. The ending allows itself to be a little more triumphantly heroic, but not far beyond the bounds of realism (unlike Kick-Ass).

It emphasises the likely real-life difficulties of being a ‘superhero’. Frank has to get out books on sewing to make his awkward patchwork costume; he goes out on patrol, only to find no crime whatsoever; when he finds out where the drug dealers are, he gets beaten up; other crime he fights include “butting in line” (or, as we’d call it on this side of the Atlantic, queue jumping) or car-keying; and half the people recognise Frank despite his mask. No mob-level gangsters played by Mark Strong here.

Realism is the overriding principle throughout, from characters to dialogue to acting to fighting to direction. Obviously Frank’s visions (the tentacles, the demons, the vomit-face) are extremely not-real, but as representations of his mental delusions thy get a pass. Gunn’s direction has a rough, ultra-low-budget feel, yet can be quite stylishly put together when it needs to be, suggesting he’s made a choice rather than isn’t capable of something slicker. It’s even more effective at making the film seem real-world than the usual Hollywood handheld-and-grainy schtick that passes for realism.

Gunn says that his film is “about the deconstruction of the superhero myth. Who is Spider-Man or Batman? We assume that they are heroic characters but, Messed-up heroesreally, they are deciding something is right and something else is wrong”. The psychology of superheroes has been a factor to one degree or another for decades now, not least the Batman films making the parallel between the hero and his villains, but the difference in Super is it’s not a parallel — it’s primarily the heroes who are messed up. The villains are criminals and quite nasty at times, but they’re mostly quite normal. They may deserve their comeuppance, but wisely — and interestingly — they’re not over-written or over-played to heighten them to the level of the psycho-hero. The Crimson Bolt is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, even more so than Batman in Begins or (of course) Kick-Ass. Those two are at least going up against the top of big organised crime; Crimson Bolt just faces a local drug dealer.

The heroes are disturbed even outside their chosen vocation: Frank has weird visions, odd catchphrases, extreme reactions to relatively trivial things; Libby is secretly ultra-violent, gets off on their costumes, etc. Gunn says the film asks if it’s “psychotic for someone to put on a mask and a cape and go out and battle what they perceive as being ‘evil’?”, but I don’t think it sets out to specifically psychoanalyse these people. Still, it makes clear how barmy you’d have to be to give the superhero thing a go yourself. That said, Gunn argues that “I don’t think [Frank] necessarily is crazy.Boltie Super is about a troubled human being and his relationship with faith, morality and what he perceives as his calling… I think that is part of why we gave him Ellen Page as a sidekick — because her character, Boltie, actually is insane. The Crimson Bolt is not doing what he does because he enjoys hurting people but Boltie is and that is the difference between the two of them. It starts to become a concern when you enjoy the violence.”

A great cast brings these factors out with ease. Wilson does deranged hero well, not overplaying the comedy side of it. Page is suitably hyper as Libby, capturing a particular facet of The Youth of Today perfectly (again). Bacon is a fantastic villain, not so much menacing or psychopathic as just… I don’t know. That’s almost why it’s so good: it’s hard to say where he’s gone with it. Also worth singling out is Michael Rooker, playing Bacon’s top henchman, Abe. It could have been quite a basic henchman part, but he makes it more with expressions and line delivery (certainly more that than the lines themselves). He’s the only one on the villain’s side who realises the Crimson Bolt might actually be a threat. You kind of want him to cone through in the end, to turn good and live; but he does his job, which is probably truer.

All-action climaxFor all its grounded reality, Super lets loose in the final fifteen minutes, creating a punch-packing sequence that’s the rival of any comic book movie. It’s emotionally-charged action, all the more powerful for its semi-amateur-ness and realistic brutality. It climaxes in a face-to-face between our hero and the villain which is as good as any you’ll find in such a film. Is it revelling in the extremity of its violence? You might argue it is, but I don’t think it’s celebrating its gore so much as the triumph of its hero. And that’s followed by a neat epilogue, which I won’t reveal details of but is a kind of ending I’ve been wanting to see for a while.

Between the comedy, the ultra-violence, the rough edges, the slick climax, the characters’ silly catchphrases, the well-worded climactic face-off, you could argue Super has an uneven tone. I would disagree, as would Gunn: “I agree that the structure and tone of this film is very atypical… I enjoy films that surprise me and which are not formulaic and take twists and turns that I do not see coming. My life doesn’t roll along to just one ‘tone’ — one day it might be a comedy and the next a tragedy”. I’ve said in the past and I’m sure I’ll say it again: I wish more po-faced dramas would realise this.

All the technical elements come together to support the film’s main thrust. There’s a great soundtrack, mixing some choice bits of score by Tyler Bates, finding the appropriate quirky tone generally but adjusting to an action vibe for the climax, with an obscure selection of songs that seem well-chosen but not too heavy-handed. As an example, it includes Good eggsa decade-old track by Sweden’s 2007 Eurovision entry (they came 18th of 24. Don’t laugh — we were joint 22nd). And, despite the low budget, there’s great special effects. The tentacles are the rival of any big-budget movie; the blood and guts are all gruesomely realistic, not filmicly censored or reduced or cheaply fake; handdrawn-style Batman “kapow”s (etc) are very effective. The title sequence, in a similar style as the latter, but with a dance routine, is also a ton of fun.

So, to the big question: is Super better than Kick-Ass? I’m not sure. Personally, I loved them both. Some people will hate both, perhaps for different reasons. Gunn acknowledges there’s a definite connection: “I understand why people keep mentioning Kick-Ass… but let me clear this up. I wrote the script to Super in 2003 and worked on it for a long time… I think that the similarities are apparent, but I still wanted to get this story out there. I think what works in our favour is that people think it looks like Kick-Ass on the outside but when they see it they realise that we are less cartoonish and maybe a little more unpredictable.”

I certainly agree that it’s to Super’s advantage that it’s quite different to a regular film; more uniquely styled than Kick-Ass’s mainstream aims. Indeed, as Gunn also says,Fight! “I think that so many movies today try to be everything to all people and I’m a little sick of it. Super is not for everyone. It is for some people.” And for the people it’s for, I think it’s exceptional. If you were to compile a list of the greatest superhero movies, I believe Super’s unique style and perspective — plus its excellent climax — would earn itself a place right near the top.

5 out of 5

Super is on Sky Movies Premiere from tonight at 12:15am, continuing all week.

Super placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

All quotes taken from an article by Calum Waddell in Judge Dredd Megazine #313.

* I first watched Super on the UK Blu-ray, where it runs 92 minutes thanks to PAL speed-up. The US BD (my second viewing) runs the correct 96. Image quality was better too, I thought, though if you’re considering a purchase do note it’s Region A locked. ^