December 18th, 2009

HELLFIGHTERS (1968) **

Chance Buckman (John Wayne) is a fireman who specializes in putting out oil-rig fires. During a job, he accidentally gets a bulldozer in the back and winds up in the hospital. His estranged daughter (Katharine Ross) comes to visit him and falls in love with Chance’s business partner (Jim Hutton, father of Timothy); which predictably puts a strain on everybody’s relationship.


Hellfighters was loosely based on the exploits of famed firefighter Red Adair. While a movie about firemen SEEMS like a good idea (Backdraft was decent enough), Hellfighters doesn’t really cut it. The firefighting sequences are pretty spectacular but they are all more or less interchangeable. Also, most of the “dramatic” meat of the story revolves around Wayne and Hutton constantly telling Ross that an oil fire is no place for a dame. These sub-soap operatic scenes effectively put a damper on any kind of heat that the firefighting sequences managed to generate. It also doesn’t help that
Wayne’s character disappears for a good chunk of the movie.


Some things in the flick stood out though. I kinda liked the way Hutton brought girls over to watch him fight fires as a form of foreplay. There was also an OK bar fight scene; although admittedly The Duke has been in better. And dopey dramatics aside, Wayne and Hutton (who also appeared in The Green Berets the same year) have a good chemistry together; which keeps you watching, even when things slow down to a crawl.

AVATAR (2009) *** ½

After twelve years of waiting for James Cameron to get off his ass and make another movie.  After months of hearing that the special effects in this movie would be a “game changer”.  After weeks of seeing television ads proclaiming “Movies will never be the same”.  Avatar is finally here.  The question is:  Does it live up to the hype?  The answer:  For the most part, yep it sure does.

 

It’s the future and Earthlings are in the midst of invading the planet Pandora to drain it of it’s most precious natural resource.  Pandora’s indigenous inhabitants, the cat-like Na’vi make their home smack dab in the middle of a major ore deposit, so the corporate suits hire the military to “re-locate” the tribe.  Jake (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic soldier who works with the scientific unit on Pandora led by Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver).  Their plan is to gain the Na’vi’s trust and integrate themselves into the tribe by using “Avatars” (remote-controlled bodies that look like the Na’vi).  Because this allows Jake to walk around again, he doesn’t mind playing nice with the natives.  Predictably, Jake falls in love with one of the locals and ultimately chooses to stay in his Avatar body so he can help the Na’vi fight off the evil humans.

 

Cameron went a little overboard in the allegory department here and makes all his points in a heavy-handed an overly obvious manner.  The Na’vi are clearly modeled on Native Americans who also lived off the land only to have it stolen from them.  The way Earth muscles in on another nation in order to get their hands on a vital resource is not unlike America’s recent actions in the past decade and the sight of giant bulldozers leveling the Na’vi’s home is similar to the devastation of the rain forest.

 

But let’s face it; we didn’t come to see Avatar for it’s pandering, preachy, left-wing, hippie sermonizing.  We came to see a 3-D special effects smorgasbord of Sci-Fi action.  In that respect, Cameron delivers.

 

I’m going to break down the phrase I just used, “3-D special effects smorgasbord of Sci-Fi action” into four separate sections; then grade them each accordingly.

 

“3-D”:  It was kinda disappointing to walk out of Avatar thinking that there was not one single 3-D money shot.  There is no “Oh shit” moment where something pops out of the screen and lands in your lap.  There is no scene where Jason crushes some guy’s head and his eyeball pops out into the audience.  There is no scene where Jaws explodes and his teeth coming flying at you.  There is no 3-D Tom Atkins.  Nothing.  But upon further reflection, the movie itself is the money shot.  Cameron created a whole new CGI world here and just being able to see the scope and dimension of all the enormous trees, big ass flowers, and floating mountains is good enough to give the effects a solid ***.

 

“Special effects smorgasbord”:  As previously stated, Cameron created a fully CGI world.  Your brain knows that nearly all of the movie’s landscapes are made up of nothing more than 1’s and 0’s, but I’ll be damned if sometimes you don’t forget it.  The various monsters (Hammerhead Rhinos, Panther-Dogs, and Mutant Pterodactyls) are nicely rendered and realized as well; even though some of them look like refugees from Attack of the Clones.  The effects that count the most are probably the least convincing; and that’s the Na’vi themselves.  They are far too cartoony to be called realistic and often look like Aboriginal Aristocats.  Grade for Special Effects Smorgasbord:  *** ½

 

“Sci-Fi”:  Some of the scientific aspects of Avatar are downright dodgy and are held together with a bunch of clunky narration and exposition.  It also happens to be derivative as Hell.  The idea that you can hop in a high-price tanning bed and plug into another state of consciousness is a lot like The Matrix, the technologically advanced bad guys fighting off the nature-loving good guys isn’t anything George Lucas didn’t already cover in Return of the Jedi, and the grass that glows when you step on it is just like the sidewalk in Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video.  Some of the futuristic names are just plain stupid.  (The precious stone the Earthlings seek is called “Unobtainium”.  I shit you not.)  That’s okay though because the walking Armored Soldier Suits (or ASSes as I like to call them) are fucking awesome (they resemble heavily modified, fully armed versions of the Power Lifter suits from Aliens) and are just bad ass enough for me to give it ***.

 

“Action”:  You have to wait about two hours to get to the meat of the action but when Cameron finally gives you the full scale war between the Na’vi and the Earthlings, it kicks all kinds of ass.  Na’vi fly through the air on pterodactyls shooting arrows into soldiers while grunts in ASSes run around here and there blowing shit up sky high.  And when the pterodactyls grab hold of the gunships and toss those babies around like a rag doll… look out.  Stellar stuff.  ****

 

As a movie, Avatar is flawed.  It contains some great performances; especially Weaver (who is hilarious) and Stephen Lang as the scarred hard-ass Army general, but is hampered by some predictable plot twists (you already know who’s going to live, who’s going to die, and who’s going to stay in their Avatars) and a general air of preachiness.  As pure spectacle, it’s tough to beat.

 

Avatar lands on The Video Vacuum Top Ten Films of 2009 List at the Number 9 spot; putting it in between Watchmen and Zombieland.

FOUR ROBBERS (1987) **

Four thieves rob a jewelry store and make off with a ton of loot.  They then decide to rip off some mobsters and steal a suitcase containing a shipment of heroin they thought was full of money.  Now not only do they have to worry about the cops, but also the greedy gangsters.  The dishonest quartet then makes tracks to Taiwan where they hide out and try to unload the drugs for a fortune.

 

Four Robbers is not very good.  It’s slow moving and doesn’t feature a whole lot of action.  When the action does come, it’s all too brief and not very memorable (although the scene where they hid inside of a fruit cart was pretty amusing).  Speaking of stuff you’ll forget about by next Tuesday, let’s talk about the robbers themselves.  The biggest problem with the flick is that none of them become real characters.  In fact, I’m not sure I could tell you their personality types, let alone their names.  In the end, the four robbers meet their maker a la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, and the Wild Bunch before them.  The difference with these guys is, you don’t give a shit.

 

I will say this for the four robbers though; they are some pretty cold-blooded motherfuckers.  It’s nothing for them to shoot somebody in the throat at point blank range when they’ve been double-crossed.  Since you don’t see that kind of ruthlessness in your heroes nowadays, I can’t completely hate the movie.  Plus, the gratuitous disco dancing scene is good for a laugh or two.