Sunday, 10 March 2013

Exploding Helicopter Review - Skyline (2010)

In the 50’s, genre films that were shot on a budget were all the rage. In the US, to cope with the boom in drive in theatres, studios churned out movies with simple plots, stock themes and reliable shock effects to satisfy punters more interested in copping a feel rather than character development. Let’s not mess about. Most of these films were crap.

Alien invasions were a popular staple of the genre, tapping as they did into Cold War hysteria and the feeling that dirty Commies were lurking in the laundry basket and about to take over. Amongst much of the B-movie dross a few classics did emerge. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came From Outer Space and War of The Worlds are enduring examples of the genre.

I’m waffling on about B-movies because that is broadly what Skyline is: a pedestrian retread on War of Worlds with added effects. Aliens descend from the heavens and try to take over the planet using a strange light that transforms the populace into zombies which they then proceed to gobble up.

You’ve seen this scenario played out with more thought, wit and panache a million times already. Despite the fact that whole scenes are practically ripped from War of The Worlds the film is neither scary, funny or remotely thought provoking. Emphasis has undoubtedly been placed on the smorgasbord of special effects yet the aliens look fake, poorly designed and are unconvincing.

The whole film has a “straight to DVD” quality about it like an X-files spin off. To cover up the entertainment vacuum the directors have used the piles of CGI like a budget fast food joint would use melted plastic cheese to mask the flavour of your three day old donkey burger.

I was utterly disinterested in the whole sorry affair and struggled to write even a single page of notes. Fortunately I was jerked out of my torpor as an army helicopter hovered into view. Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson) are holed up in an up-market apartment complex but with aliens closing in decide to take their chances and hail down the passing chopper from the rooftop.

As it approaches a large alien climbs up the side of the building and shoots two sticky tentacles from its claws onto the chopper’s chassis. There is a short tug of war until the chopper succeeds in overpowering the alien with a volley of gunfire. The problem is that as the alien tumbles off the side of the building it drags the chopper down with it. The chopper is pulled into the glass and concrete and goes up in flame, its rotor blades spinning off and wedging just above the heads of our protagonists. Shot from the ground the rest of the fiery debris plummets to earth and crashes through a glass foyer.

Artistic merit

The set piece is competently executed and I liked the way the shell of the helicopter comes straight at the camera from above, adding to its impact.

Exploding helicopter innovation

As a mostly innovation free film it comes as a surprise that destruction of a chopper is executed in this unconventional manner. Until a giant chameleon sticks out its tongue and brings down a helicopter this will remain a unique set-piece.

Do passengers survive?

Rule 1 of the helicopters pilot’s character arc. If you haven’t got any lines and you tangle with a bad guy you will end up as slightly charred worm food.


Apart from the helicopter explosion there is absolutely no need to watch this film.


Where do I start?

A no mark cast of actors are understandably unable to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Donald Faison (Turk in Scrubs) pops up as rapper Terry and is mercifully dispatched half way through the film before he can tarnish his resume any further. David Zayas (who you might recognise as latino gang leader in prison drama Oz) plays a strangely aggressive concierge who has some awful lines “Vaya con Dios, you son of a bitch”. He decides to turn on the gas and light himself up when the aliens coming calling. After watching this turkey you might want to do the same.

Despite being an effects driven movie nothing much interesting seems to happen for the bulk of the film. The dialogue is flat and as most of the film is shot in the confines of an apartment block, with the aliens mostly outside, there are swathes of the film that are just plain dull. The film misfires on almost every level. A one location shoot is not a barrier to a good film. Phone Booth, 127 Hours and Glengarry Glenross show movies with smart dialogue can use their restrictive environments to ratchet up the tension. The directors could have tried to show a siege mentally or show evidence of cabin fever but all of this is overlooked for more clunky looking aliens floating about outside.

No exploration of the wider themes of interest like the public reaction to an alien invasion, possibilities for anarchy or why the aliens are even here in the first place. No allegories to the modern ills of commercialism, secularism or politics are discussed let alone contemplated. Perhaps I’m expecting too much.

To top it off the ending is complete and utter baloney. The aliens use human brains as fuel and when Jarrod is captured and his brain harvested he amazingly has the power to control the alien his brain is inserted into. None one else has this ability. THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO F*CKING EXPLANATION FOR HIS SPECIAL POWER! It comes apropos of nothing. Just accept this important plot point like the moron the directors expect you to be.
Favourite Quote:

(As the aliens revive themselves after being blasted by a rocket)

Jarrod: “They’re not dead. They’re just really p*ssed off!”

Interesting Fact:

A special mention should go to directors The Brothers Strause. They have a background in effects work having been involved on the visuals to the Fantastic Four, The Day After Tomorrow and Terminator 3. They then moved into directing having been responsible for the sh*tfest that was Alien v Predator: Requiem. They have an unenviable record of making routinely bad films.

Out of the $20m this cost to make (chicken feed by today’s mega-budget standards) only 2.5% of the budget went on physical production. The vast majority went on the effects costs. Despite the thoroughly negative reviews the film made over $78m at the box office and you will probably see a sequel as a result. It goes to show the movie going public are mostly made up of f*cking idiots.

Friday, 1 March 2013

TV Review - Storyville - I Will Be Murdered - BBC4

Fact is often stranger than fiction, but if the real life story of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a successful Guatemalan lawyer gunned down by hit men in 2009, exceeds that of even Hollywood's wildest imaginations. If it's not currently being made into a Hollywood blockbuster, it certainly will be.

Whilst we wait for the airbrushed version, director Justin Webster's documentary I Will Be Murdered (part of the excellent Storyville series on BBC4) unravels the complex nature of his death and lifts the murky lid of Guatemalan society. A mix of interviews and CCTV footage it views like a real life CSI Guatemala whose Machiavellian cast feel like extras from a John Le Carré novel.

Guatemala is a country with a murderous past whose decades long civil war only finished in 1996. 36 years of abuse and wide scale brutality has indoctrinated the population into adopting the "life is cheap" maxim as the country's official motto. Violence is deep rooted in Guatemalan society and seen as a viable solution for the poorest subsistence farmer to powerful heads of government.

The country is now riddled with corruption, cover ups, conspiracy, propaganda, assassinations and coups. Mexico may be considered by some to be a no-go zone following waves of narco killings but in 2009 the Guatemalan murder rate was four times higher. Statistically you would be safer going on holiday to Baghdad.

In 2007 the UN even went as far as saying:

“Guatemala is a good place to commit a murder, because you will almost certainly get away with it.”

In the UK we complain about our politicians fiddling their expenses but Guatemalan politics take it to another level. Public life seems to be polluted by a malevolent criminal oligarchy. As a nation Guatemala is about as stable as a three legged table.

I was there in 2005 and warned about travelling at night or hanging around too long in Guatemala City such were the levels of violence and car jacking. Despite the warnings I foolishly did both and ended up on the red eye from the northern town of Flores ending up in the capital in the early hours of the morning. I distinctly remember the squalor and degradation of the capital and the fact the bus company locked their customers in their compound whilst they waited for their connections. Standing in the street would be "unwise" I was told

Rodrigo Rosenberg would have been nothing more than another forgotten crime statistic, one more unsolved murder, had his dramatic prophecy not emerged from the ashes. Soon after his death a video emerged that appeared to show Rosenberg foretelling his own murder.

"If you are watching this message, it is because I was assassinated by President Ãlvaro Colom, with help from Gustavo Alejos."

In the video Rosenberg claims the reason he had been killed was because he had "direct knowledge" of a conspiracy involving a multi-million dollar money laundering operation through the national Banrural bank perpetrated by the Colom administration. He had come across this evidence after investigating the assassinations of Khalil and Marjorie Musa who he believed had been murdered because the incorruptible Khalil was going to accept a position on Banrural's board thus scuppering the government’s embezzling operation.

The video went viral and crashed the servers on YouTube. Rosenberg's revelations were dynamite and caused an explosion of anger with normal Guatemalans who took to the streets in vast numbers accusing the elite of being "asesinos" .

With the government on the verge of collapse, and in desperation, Colom agreed to allow an independent UN backed investigation unit called CICIG into the country to try and restore the government’s tattered reputation. Chief prosecutor Carlos Castresana only agreed to the position after demanding:

“To take the case, I need complete independence.”

Castresana had to overcome the usual obstacles to justice in Guatemala: informants, moles, counter surveillance and personal smears but his team quickly uncovered the first piece of the puzzle; hit man and former policeman Willian Divas. CICIG used wiretaps to piece together his gang's network through clandestine conversations and simultaneously swooped on dozens of locations around the country.


The gang quickly gave up the people who had ordered the hit; the Valdez Pais brothers: two of Rosenberg's close cousins. The target had been described to the killers as simply an extortionist who was blackmailing Rosenberg. Divas was given extremely detailed instructions as to where the mark would be and exactly at what time. But why would the Valdez Pais brothers, who supposed were very close to Rosenberg order his death?

Investigators then obtained a mobile number from which Rosenberg had reported receiving threats. They traced it back to Rosenberg's driver. He had been ordered to buy two anonymous mobiles and gave one of them to his boss and the other to the Valdes Pais brothers. Rosenberg was using the anonymous mobile phone to call his home number thus creating the illusion of receiving death threats.

Once Castrasena tracked down the phone other tell tale evidence started to appear. A cheque for $40.000, the amount Divas received for the contract killing, was issued from Rosenberg office via a 3rd party bank account so not to attract suspicion. Rosenberg used the Valdez Pais brothers as go-betweens who were completely in the dark about Rosenberg’s real intentions to distance himself from the hit.

It was becoming clear to Castresena that the unbelievable scenario could be the only explanation for the convoluted turn of events: Rosenberg had ordered his own killing.

"This is the end of our careers as no one will believe it"

Meticulously planned and painstakingly executed Rosenberg would have succeeded in bringing down the entire government if only the his driver had remembered not put his name on the receipt for one of the phones.

But what had brought Rosenberg to such an extreme course of action?

It turns out that Rosenberg was having a secret affair with Majorie Musa and was about to propose the day after her murder. In his depressed and agitated state he took the responsibility of investigating her deaths and believed the government was responsible for her inadvertent killing (the real target was her father). He lacked concrete evidence to pursue the matter in court and felt desperate and powerless.
His friend and fellow investigator Luis Mendizabal said

"His impotency to do something dismantled him"

Rosenberg felt the only way he could avenge his lover’s death and politically destroy the corrupt Colom government was to frame them by physically destroying himself.

Since the truth emerged, and despite all the corroborating evidence, there are those who refuse to believe Rosenberg killed himself, believing the verdict another in a long line of political white washes.

"Carlos Castresena, are you trying to sell us mirrors?"

No one seems to have come out of this episode with any particular credit. Rosenberg is seen by some as a hero and by other as a coward. Evidence has emerged, not included in the documentary perhaps to preserve its narrative, indicating that Khalil Musa was not the victim of state sponsored murder but was killed because of his dealings with a criminal network from whom he had bought contraband for his textile factory.

Once the dust died down on the Rosenberg case, Castrasena suffered a backlash from powers that be resentful that a “foreign” body was meddling in internal affairs. A concerted smear campaign attacking his private life forced his hand. He discovered, much like Rosenberg, that in Guatemala the only way to fight impunity was to “blow himself up.” His marriage suffered and now, having been hounded out of the country, admits that the case took its toll.

“I have nothing, I lost my family while in Guatemala. It almost took my life.”

At the end of the day it is hard to know what to believe in the curious case of Rodrigo. Guatemala is a country of counterfeit realities and misdirection is a way of life.

The ephemeral nature of Guatemalan truth is best summed up by scholar Susan Jonas

“Guatemala mocks me. Just as you think you understand, we’ll show you that you understand nothing at all”

You can catch it on iPlayer until Mon 4th March

For further reading I suggest this excellent article in the The New Yorker