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Posts tagged “science fiction

Strange Days (1995)

Strange Days

Strange DaysMany know Kathryn Bigelow from her Academy Award winning and nominated films of recent years.  However, her earlier work features some stunning films that showcase a brilliant visionary style, and no other movie reflects that better than Strange Days.  Released in my favorite year in film, 1995, it bombed at the box office, but gained quite a lot of praise.  Roger Ebert even gave it a four out of four stars, and it was nominated for several Saturn Awards including Best Science Fiction Film with Bigelow winning for Best Director.  Time has since allowed for this film to gain a wider appreciation from genre fans, and I’ve wanted to share mine with you for quite a while now.  Strange Days is essentially the Blade Runner of the 1990’s, but even Blade Runner doesn’t do to me what Strange Days does.

It’s the eve of the millennium in Los Angeles, December 31, 1999.  Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop turned street hustler who preys on human nature by dealing the drug of the future.  A new technology, called “wire tripping,” allows for anyone to re-live actual life experiences tapping directly into the cerebral cortex for the ultimate escapist high.  However, Lenny is soon tangled up in a deadly plot, alongside limousine driver and security specialist Mace (Angela Bassett), when a set of murderous and controversial wire trip recordings end up in his possession that could have radical implications upon the entire city.  It’s an environment that will lead him deep into the danger zone when he falls into a maze filled with intrigue and betrayal, murder and conspiracy.

Kathryn Bigelow was married to James Cameron for a time, and even after their marriage ended, they remained regular collaborators.  Cameron was a producer on this film, co-screenwriter, and an uncredited editor.  I can definitely see his creative influence at work.  It’s that real depth of humanity on display with all of these colorful characters, real penetrating emotion, exciting science fiction ideas, and the exciting energy of storytelling which harkens back to The Terminator.  His creative fingerprints are clearly here, and they are wrapped up in Bigelow’s razor sharp pacing, incredible direction, and mind blowing visuals.

The look of the movie definitely has that dystopian vibe with a lot of grit, smoke, neon, and seedy locales.  Yet, it doesn’t look depressing, but instead, it’s exciting and intense.  The cinematography is just simply stunning, and it will escape me to no end how Batman Forever got nominated at the Oscars for Best Cinematography this year while Strange Days was entirely snubbed as well as The Usual Suspects, Seven, and Twelve Monkeys.  All of those are vastly superior looking and shot films on every level, and Strange Days is really in a league all its own from the signature James Cameron blue tinge style to Bigelow’s really dynamic visual edge that absorbs us fully into this dark, vibrant, mind-twisting reality.  The camera work is amazingly dynamic, intriguing, and inspired.  It’s a visual feast that really embraces a kinetic energy without ever sacrificing artistic integrity.  If you took Blade Runner and hyper-charged it with adrenalin and a riveting edge of flash, you would get Strange Days.

The movie jacks you into a wire trip from the start to clearly convey the language of the experience.  People are buying these recordings to experience the forbidden pleasures in life like armed robbery or sexual desires.  It’s an extremely tempting thing that gives you all the rush and excitement without consequence, but it’s entirely illegal forcing Lenny to be the king of this underground business.  Thus, he comes into the center of two related criminal plots.  The first involves a pair of corrupt cops, portrayed by William Fichtner and Vincent D’Onofrio, tracking down a damning wire trip recording that could erupt the entire city in violence and outrage.  The second is someone who stalked, raped, and murdered a friend of Lenny’s, and now is focusing his sick and disturbing torment on Lenny himself.  All of this melds together into a larger conspiracy that engulfs these characters into a powerful dramatic story that rips and tears at emotions with severe risks and consequences.

Now, I absolutely love Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero.  He’s the real crux of this whole film energizing it with his slick charm and charisma.  He’s a mesmerizing salesman selling fantasies with the sensation of pure, raw reality.  Yet, he never comes across as sleazy.  Fiennes makes Lenny very genuine in everything he does, and thus, he is the perfect unlikely hero with a yearning broken heart, a life of down and out black market seediness, and a real vulnerable quality to him.  Ralph Fiennes is an incredible actor, and he makes this a very deeply human and emotionally vulnerable character that draws you completely into the film.  Lenny Nero is not a man who views himself as a hero, but the frightening descent that he is caught up in forces him to take action, especially with his former love Faith, portrayed greatly by Juliette Lewis, at the center of it.  Faith has fully fallen into the deep end of the sleaze as a rock singer hooked up with Michael Wincott’s wire trip addicted record label owner Philo Gant.  Lenny desperately wants to win her back, or at least, pull her out of that deep end.  As a side note, I really love the wardrobe of Lenny Nero.  It’s very stylish and flashy with plenty of unique personality, much like Lenny himself.

Angela Bassett is absolutely bad ass here in a very gritty, powerful way.  Mace is exceptionally tough not taking any crap from Lenny, who hustles and leeches favors off her when he’s down and out, and as a security specialist, she can back up every ounce of that attitude.  Bassett exudes energy and strength in every frame, and intensifies every moment.  I’ve always been impressed by Bassett’s mixture of tough exterior with a tender interior.  She definitely brings that out in Mace with all the raw emotional power possible.

Now, you talk about Academy Award quality work, I honestly believe that both Bassett and Fiennes achieved that in this film.  Had Strange Days not fallen under the radar, I believe it would have been heralded with that kind of reverence at the time.  Both Bassett and Fiennes deliver stunning, deeply powerful performances, and the script fuses Lenny and Mace together in a very personal way born out of tragedy and heartbreak.  Furthermore, the chemistry between Bassett and Fiennes is spectacular.  They spark off amazingly whether it’s sharp wit and humor, vehement conviction, or deep emotional drama.  They are an electrifying pair which forge a riveting gravitas around them, but also make it a fun ride with their great rhythm and heart.

This film is just filled with an array of exceptional acting talents putting forth their best.  From Tom Sizemore to Juliette Lewis to William Fichtner to Vincent D’Onofrio to Michael Wincott, the supporting cast is bursting with charisma, awesomeness, and solidarity.  Everyone is equally as compelling and vibrant creating a very electrifying ensemble.  Under Kathryn Bigelow’s direction, everyone delivers a powerful and intensely memorable performance.  Bigelow seems to very much favor Sizemore as he appeared in Blue Steel and Point Break with much smaller roles, but here, he’s given a very prominent role as Max, a friend of Lenny’s who is still on the police force that weaves himself tightly into this plot.

On top of having that mind-blowing, amazing cast, Bigelow delivers an exciting, riveting thriller.  The mysteries are wonderfully interwoven with all the character dynamics, volatile social climate, and science fiction tech elements.  There’s wickedly tight tension and heart-pounding excitement at every turn.  The powder keg of Los Angeles is building towards an explosion, and the lethality of the situation only builds as forces converge.  This is a movie that constantly pushes further and further along the razor’s edge of madness, suspense, and danger.  Surely, there is action here handled with the riveting intensity that Bigelow demonstrated with Point Break, but saturated with larger doses of style and exhilaration, if that’s even imaginable.  The two corrupt cops dousing Mace’s limo with gasoline and lighting it on fire forcing her to drive it into in the bay, and then, make a shotgun glass shattering escape to avoid drowning is superbly executed, as is everything here.  This film is soaked in emotion and thrilling, edge of your seat suspense, but still finds those moments of pure entertainment to make it a greatly fun experience.

Surely, the odd aspect of the film is that it was released in 1995 and takes place in the year of 1999 featuring a very radical decline in society.  It’s a very narrow jump into the future.  However, I really do like that it uses that “end of the millennium” sort of craziness and chaos to enhance every aspect of the film.  Strange Days also reflects a lot of early 90’s Los Angeles culture with the earthquakes, riots, and police brutality incidents, and so, it feels very encapsulating of what one could pessimistically feel the future of that Los Angeles could have been.  People are packing assault rifles, cops are wearing tactical riot gear, and the entire city looks like it’s on the edge of all our war.  This is the vibe and energy that Bigelow injects into the fiber of the film, and it really erupts in the film’s climax.  Strange Days is more than just a cyberpunk thriller, it has real social commentary on the darkest parts of society with shocking consequences.  The climax leaves me speechless.  I really don’t have the words reserved to describe it.  There is no easy road taken in this story, and nothing is handled lightly.  This is a hard hitting, gritty, visceral film that holds nothing back on any level.

Fueling all of that is a stellar score by Graeme Revell and a very aggressive soundtrack of mid-1990s electronic, heavy metal, and edgy music.  Every creative element of this movie is jacked into that kinetic, cyberpunk style that soars to magnificent heights.  It’s a pure encapsulation of a stunning vision by Bigelow built on the foundation of a rock solid, stunningly intelligent screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks.

Strange Days is a brilliant, incredible movie with a lot of strong thematic material, wickedly amazing performances, and a spectacular visual style.  This is one of the best and most original movies I have ever seen.  My mind was blown all over again watching it for this review.  Kathryn Bigelow would not be nominated for an Academy Award until 2010, but the evidence of her shockingly amazing talent was evident in 1995 with Strange Days.  This is a film that deserves vastly more exposure, credit, and accolades than it has received.  Surely, Point Break fulfills every action film adrenalin rush satisfaction for me, but this is the remarkable, awe-inspiring film experience.  This is surely, without a doubt, the far superior film of the two, but both deliver on every promise and exceed expectations every step of the way.  My recommendation is that you must see this movie no matter what!


Riddick (2013)

Riddick

RiddickReviews for this sequel have been pretty lukewarm, and while I don’t blame anyone for feeling as such, there are some high and not-so-high points.  This is not a blanket mediocre film, but the averaging out of the varied content can leave one feeling that way.  As documented recently here, I feel Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick are really strong films in their respective, specific genres, with my preference being for the latter movie.  Riddick does fall between the scale and premises of those films, but doesn’t live up to either one quite as well as it could have.

Betrayed by the Necromongers and left for dead on a desolate planet, Riddick (Vin Diesel) fights for survival against alien predators and becomes more powerful and dangerous than ever before.  Soon, bounty hunters from throughout the galaxy descend on Riddick only to find themselves pawns in his greater scheme for revenge.  With his enemies right where he wants them, Riddick unleashes a vicious attack of vengeance before returning to his home planet of Furya to save it from destruction.

There are three sections of this movie for me to critique which all have their distinct qualities.  The first act of the film feels very sparse as it is just Riddick fending for himself on this desolate planet.  There’s a few bits of narration from him and a flashback with the Necromongers that fill in some plot gaps from the aftermath of The Chronicles of Riddick.  It also contains the only and very brief appearance of Karl Urban as Vaako.  I had hoped for more from him here, but I figured it would be no more than a cameo.  Anyway, this first act didn’t do much for me.  It was kind of cool seeing Riddick wounded, vulnerable, and out in the wild getting back in touch with his animal side.  However, it is quite sparse not giving you much beyond the survival action set pieces to get involved with.  The film was starting to feel like an adventure that would play out in some prequel comic book – a very small scale transition piece story that is a stepping stone to something larger.

Thankfully, as I anticipated, once we get some bounty hunter characters injected into the mix, the film really started to entertain and engage me.  Sure, the premise is quite stripped down and basic feeling more in line with Pitch Black, but if you’ve got a couple of vibrant, enjoyable characters to fill out that premise, you’ve got enough to make it worthwhile.  It does take a few minutes to get them warmed up, but it’s the clashing dynamics between everyone that sparks it all off.  Essentially, there are two teams of bounty hunters, or mercs as they are called.  The first is lead by Santana, who is an enjoyably sleazy, down and dirty type with a very gritty, testosterone jacked team.  The other is a more clean cut operation lead by actor Matt Nable’s character who has personal ties to Riddick and the events of Pitch Black.  These two teams clash immediately causing a lot of conflict, and striking some very humorous, entertaining interactions.

Santana is portrayed very well by Jordi Mollà.  I found him the most lively and charismatic character of the film.  Mollà paints Santana as a very salacious individual with little respect for anyone else outside his team, and especially doesn’t like being ordered around by any of them when they’re forced to team up.  Santana has definite smarts, but his attitude surely digs his own grave with many characters, especially Riddick.  Also, former wrestler Dave Bautista is part of Santana’s team, and he does his part well, especially since Diaz doesn’t require much beyond being tough, formidible, and a little charismatic.

And color me majorly impressed by Katee Sackhoff.  She portrays the exceedingly tough Dahl, part of the opposing team of mercs.  She more than imposes her physicality upon Santana and others who try testing her, and has the attitude to go with that.  This isn’t some stereotypical tough chick routine.  Sackhoff kick ass as a bonafide hard edged, sharply skilled mercenary who has an extra distinctive flourish to her character.  I’m sold on the actress and the character completely.

Now, Matt Nable’s character, of Boss who does have a bit of a reveal that I’ll not spoil for you here, is fairly okay.  As I said, he adds a tether back to Pitch Black, but he’s really little more than that.  The character is confident, authoratative, and intelligent, but compared to the colorful Santana, the tough as nails Dahl, or the nicely fun muscle bound hired guns of Santana’s gang, this is a rather mild character.  He also sits on the fence never becoming an outright, reviled villain, and the ending reflects the reason why.  There’s some intended depth with this character, but because he is so much on the fence, you don’t know if you’re supposed to sympathize with him or view him as a vengeful enemy.  The film never galvanizes him into what kind of adversary he should be, and thus, comes off as quite forgettable and mild.

It is clear that Vin Diesel has a love for Riddick, and so do I.  I think he is very fascinating type of anti-hero that has so many avenues of expansion, but this film really takes no ambition with Richard B. Riddick.  The character is still written well by David Twohy, but that signature aura of mystique isn’t quite there.  That ambiguity of what kind of hero he might choose to be, or the cunning way he manipulates events and perceives deeper into others isn’t really utilized here.  Because the is a straight forward survival story with only bad guys and no potential good guys, you generally know how Riddick is going to deal with everyone.  There’s no one of morality or sympathy like Imam, Carolyn Fry, or Jack / Kyra here to sway or alter Riddick’s actions.  He’s out for himself, and will bargain however he can to escape this planet alive without being held captive.  So, there’s no place for a lot of those more complex elements of Riddick to exist in this story, and that’s unfortunate.  Diesel still does a really good job in the role, making him a fun, smart, highly capable, and entertaining protagonist.  It just doesn’t feel like we’re getting every element of the character that I love.  I kept perceiving something being missing from the performance or portrayal all throughout the movie, but couldn’t really put my finger on it.  There is more to this character that we have seen in both previous movies, but this movie is just a little too stripped down to allow him to develop or be fleshed out.  It also seemed like Vin Diesel didn’t wear contact lenses this time out, and instead, had Riddick’s “shine job” eyes digitally done.

I loved Graeme Revell’s score for both previous movies, but I wasn’t impressed with his work in this film.  The familiar main theme does make some subtle appearances, but we never get a full fledged crescendo of it.  Many of the action beats are scored appropriately well.  Yet, the rest of the score feels very different in many places from Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick.  There were a number of cues which just didn’t strike the right chord with me, same as some of the humorous bits of Riddick and the silly tricks with his dog-like pet.  Those were certainly there to forge an emotional bond with this animal, which seems to have a massive unexplaned growth spurt during the first act, but because it was such a poorly done CGI creation I just couldn’t care that much about it.

The digital visual effects are about on-par with those in The Chronicles of Riddick, but like with Pitch Black, it’s good that a large chunk of these effects appear during dark environments.  The creatures that strike at nightfall are considerably better rendered than Riddick’s pet, which is the only CGI that I cringed at.  Of course, there’s only so much you can do on a $38 million budget where entire landscapes are enhanced with digital effects, and thus, you’re stretching your dollars to their limit.  Thankfully, the CGI is pretty good in large part, and added to the film a whole lot more than it detracted.

I do like that David Twohy put forth the effort to build in connections to both of the previous movies.  Again, you’ve got some flashbacks with the Necromongers showing what happened after Riddick killed the Lord Marshal, and how it led to him being left for dead on this nearly barren planet.  Yet, I know this was not the film Twohy nor Diesel intended to make when they laid out their plans for The Chronicles of Riddick, and so, this is a smaller scale story intended to be a springboard towards a larger scale adventure.  As much as I absolutely want to see this franchise take off and allow these fimmakers to tell the Riddick stories that they want, I’m not sure this is the movie to get them there.  Like I said, this story is probably stripped down too much in terms of character and conceptual development, and focuses more on the entertainment value of action sequences.  While all of the action is very well executed making for a bloody, violent, and fairly exciting movie, it has one more major failing.

As I said, there are three sections of this film to critique, and the last one, clearly, is the ending.  Riddick is an action / horror survival story putting this character into increasingly treacherous and deadly scenarios where he must fend for himself.  People are going to betray him and attempt to kill him, possibly even stranding him on this planet to ensure their own survival.  I won’t detail the ending of this movie, but frankly, it is a terribly weak ending that is a copout to the entire premise.  There’s no dramatic punch to this ending, no rationale for the actions of the other characters involved with it, and leaves you hanging with an empty feeling.  The film builds to a tense, riveting crescendo, and then, fizzles out.  This film absoultely should have ended with a strong, impactful, emphatic statement for the character and franchise.  I even sat there through the end credits hoping for an extra scene to appear, but once those credits roll, that’s all there is.  Up until this point, I was enjoying myself, and was engaged in the excitement of the action.  I was interested to see how the machinations of these deceitful characters would manipulate the fate of Riddick.  It was a fun adventure with plenty of graphic violence pulling no punches, and just having a good, gritty time with itself.  It’s just those last few minutes of the movie where you just don’t know how Riddick is going to get out of this at all, and the entire movie cheats you out of even a decent pay-off.  I just felt letdown, and it’s worse yet because I know David Twohy can write something better than this.  He wrote Warlock, co-wrote The Fugitive, and co-wrote both previous Riddick movies.  It’s a whimper of a conclusion when it should have been amazingly awesome to re-energize audiences about the character of Riddick, and leave them wanting to see more bad assery from him.

I had been waiting for this movie for a long time, and I really wanted this franchise to be very successful.  So, it really, honestly pains me to give any amount of negativity to jeopardize that success, but this really feels more like a movie many would rent instead of rushing out to the theatre to see.  Even removing the ending from the equation, it is a fairly average sci-fi / action movie without the same stylized visuals or scope of Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick.  However, it has some extra punch in the graphic violence and some pleasing female nudity, and has some entertaining and well portrayed characters to liven up the uninspired story.  You can potentially have a good time with this movie, but I don’t feel it’s a strong enough outing to give Riddick the new injection of box office life that he needs for David Twohy and Vin Diesel to do what they desire with him, unfortunately.


“Star Trek” Classic Movie Retrospective


RavensFilm Productions presents the Forever Cinematic Star Trek Classic Movie Retrospective.  Covered are the first six films of the franchise featuring the full original cast and crew of the Starship Enterprise.  Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, and Nichelle Nichols.  Also starring Stephen Collins, Persis Khambatta, Ricardo Montalban, Kirstie Ally, Robin Curtis, Christopher Lloyd, Laurence Luckinbill, David Warner, and Christopher Plummer.  Reviews by Nick Michalak.

Written Reviews:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)


The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

The Chronicles of Riddick

The Chronicles of RiddickYou don’t know how excited I was to watch this movie again, and then, wonder to myself why in the HELL haven’t I watched this frequently over the years.  Of course, I speak of the director’s cut which I feel is a vastly superior and richer story.  From every fan I’ve heard from, they are hardcore about Pitch Black, but not so much about this one.  I am really more the reverse.  The more expansive science fiction epic traveling to various unique worlds, and facing multiple dangers with colorful characters is right in my cinematic sweet spot.

After years of outrunning ruthless bounty hunters, escaped convict Riddick (Vin Diesel) suddenly finds himself caught between opposing forces in a fight for the future of all races.  An army of fearsome world ravagers known as Necromongers are “cleansing” and forcibly converting other species in their goal of universal conquest, but Imam (Keith David) and the Elemental Ambassador Aereon (Judi Dench) believe Riddick holds the key to a prophecy that could bring down Necromonger Lord Marshal (Colm Feore).  Now, waging incredible battles on fantastic and deadly worlds, this lone, reluctant hero will emerge as a champion, and the last hope for a universe on the edge of annihilation.

Vin Diesel and David Twohy really develop the character of Riddick further and in more depth.  There’s more emotional texture on the surface now, especially when conversing with Imam.  I absolutely love how this film expands this character without ever betraying what made him fascinating to begin with.  He’s placed into a larger story and a larger world which delves further into who he is, where he came from, and that’s exactly what a sequel should do.  Every bad ass, intriguing quality of him is intact, but circumstances force him to make choices he never thought he’d be faced with.  Diesel does an excellent job stretching Riddick out into this wider universe.  He still carries the air of mystique with him, but there’s more emotional weight and tethers to the character.  The connection with Imam is quite cool, if only for having two of the deepest, smoothest voices in Hollywood trading dialogue, but honestly, these are especially good scenes.  Diesel also gets more dynamic action sequences to shine in, and galvanizes Riddick into a bigger, smarter, more clever bad ass than before.  I also love the light touches of wit and humor that we are given.  Riddick has some clever, fun dialogue making him just as funny as he is threatening and dangerous.

Building upon his character is the relationship with Jack, who now goes by Kyra and portrayed by Alexa Davalos.  She’s grown into a jaded version of Riddick because she feels he abandoned her.  She’s a convicted criminal willing to kill for pleasure or to survive.  Davalos does a very good job in this role making a solid emotional connection with the audience, and shows her physicality is in prime shape.  Some might know her from her three guest appearances on Angel as the electricity powered Gwen Raiden, where she also showed she could throw down.  Davalos is a great successor to this role, and the film pulls no punches in tearing these characters away from Riddick, forcing him to stand more and more on his own.  I like that Kyra and Imam become involved in the Necromonger storyline, albeit in different ways, and so, all threads tie tightly back into the main plot.

The director’s cut absolutely makes this an excellent film.  The theatrical version cuts out the real meat of the Furyan subplot including the character of Shirah who comes to Riddick in visions and unlocks his power as a Furyan.  All of that is rather critical to the entire driving factors of the movie.  It gives motivation and purpose to Riddick and Lord Marshal, and propels them forward with more weight and depth.  Without all of that, the story becomes thinner and more basic.  I remember seeing moments in the trailer from this subplot, and being upset when they didn’t appear when I saw the film theatrically.  This aspect of The Chronicles of Riddick gives depth, purpose, and poignancy to Riddick, and simply makes it a more substantive story that I really, strongly endorse.

There’s also amazing action everywhere in The Chronicles of Riddick.  From the mercs chasing Riddick on the frigid ice world to the race against the scorching, lethal sunrise on the prison planet Crematoria, we get wickedly conceived and executed set pieces.  There’s plenty of violence, especially in the unrated director’s cut, as Riddick really cuts deep into his adversaries, and we get plenty of bang for our buck.  The stunt work is amazing, and the imagination on display is rich and refreshing.  David Twohy creates some very dynamic acrobatic moments that do strain physics, but it fits just fine into the hyper stylized intensity.  He absolutely goes for an expansive scope that stunningly sucked me into the film.  The entire look of the movie is just awesome with excellent cinematography and a brilliant, epic vision from Twohy himself.

The Chronicles of Riddick has a very lavish production design that I could compare to a big Dino De Laurentiis 1980’s science fiction / fantasy epic like Flash Gordon or David Lynch’s Dune.  This really goes all out in detailed costume designs, big sprawling landscapes, and simply elegant sets filled with depth and nuance.  Twohy really went for broke making this an exquisitely high grade production, and I think it immensely pays off at every turn.  Some of the visual effects are exceptional, but there are a number of moments that are quite noticeably less than excellent.  Regardless, the vast, stunning vision of David Twohy is realized impressively, and with stronger resources than what he had on Pitch Black.  The visual effects are a MAJOR upgrade from that movie allowing for Twohy’s vision to thrive on screen.  There might be a green screen effect here or there that could be a notch or two better, and the animals set loose in the Crematoria prison are the most obvious undercooked CGI elements, but the visual effects spectacle is very strong creating a fully realized and enveloping universe.  I thoroughly love every aspect of the look of this film.  It’s what hooked me from the trailers, and it’s what continues to excite me.  And yes, Graeme Revell does return to reprise his themes from the first movie, and does a remarkable job capturing the feel of this more action / adventure-centric sequel.

What I absolutely, deeply love in this film is Nick Chinlund as the bounty hunter Toombs.  He is a massive upgrade in entertainment value over Johns in Pitch Black.  Toombs is a rugged, sleazy, charismatic joy to be had all through his screentime.  He’s an excellent, fun adversary for Riddick.  Chinlund and Diesel have great adversarial chemistry to the point that I had always wanted Toombs to return for a sequel, but you can’t always get what you want.  This role made me an enthusiastic Nick Chinlund fan.

And damn, does Karl Urban not do his best in everything he does?  He’s a hardened, menacing threat as Vaako who schemes against the Lord Marshal to succeed him as leader of the Necromongers.  This might seem like a subplot that is a bit extraneous, but it has strategic impact on the main plot.  And Urban’s strong presence and dramatic weight really helps enhance Vaako and his role in this film.  As I always say, Karl Urban is an actor with a rich depth of talent who never gives anything but his absolute best every time he takes on a role.  He does rock solid, consistent, high quality work, and that has made him a wholehearted favorite of mine since The Lord of the Rings and The Bourne Supremacy.

And it’s odd to speak of the film’s main villain after all of these supporting characters, but Colm Feore is great as the Lord Marshal.  He adds the right balance of militaristic conqueror and haunting specter.  He is a man of supposed ultimate power seeking universal domination, and is fully consumed by his radical faith.  His unwavering mindset makes him immensely dangerous like a barreling down freight train, and Feore has the right eerie quality to sell all of this.  He fills the role just right making him a seemingly insurmountable enemy fueled by these fantastical powers of the Underverse.  He doesn’t have the entertainment value of Toombs, or the fierce intensity of Vaako.  However, he is the dominant presence that none can contend with, but you do get the subtle feeling that, whether it’s Riddick or Vaako, someone is going to take him down by the end.  The climax entirely plays upon that expectation, and executes it in a very clever way.

Pitch Black was the one-off adventure that introduced us to Riddick, and just allowed us a small glimpse into the potential of this character.  The Chronicles of Riddick was clearly the start of a larger, epic story that I have been excited to see continued for nine years.  David Twohy establishes a great, exciting, and vast universe for endless possibilities with this movie.  I love taking a character like Riddick and injecting him into a different kind of film.  So many sequels aren’t a tenth as ambitious as this film strives and succeeds to be.  Many would do the same old thing, playing it safe with audience expectations, but Twohy engages us with Riddick and develops him further in a story that forces that to happen.  It puts Riddick into the bigger picture of the universe, and sets the stage for something even more fascinating and expansive to occur.

With the third film, Riddick, hitting theatres this weekend, it’s great to see another chance being taken here with a franchise of ripe potential.  The Chronicles of Riddick was not profitable upon its theatrical release, and that was a terrible shame.  Twohy and Diesel had well plotted plans for two more films, but would need that larger budget to realize them.  So, I don’t expect Riddick to expand as wondrously and amazingly upon the concepts of this film, but more a fusion of the styles of Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick.  Finding a middle ground between them seems like it could generate success and appeal to fans of both films.  Again, my preference is towards the second film as it just breaks open the universe in a stunning realization of imagination, and is fueled by some great action sequences that have always stuck with me through the years.  The Chronicles of Riddick is greatly exciting, immensely enjoyable, and simply fascinating to see unfold with its fantastical ideas and purposeful spectacle.  If you haven’t been exposed to these films, I strongly encourage you to do so, and I hope that Riddick lives up to the years of anticipation.  Even if it’s smaller scale, I’m greatly pleased to see a solid, imaginative franchise get another chance at success.


Pitch Black (2000)

Pitch Black

Pitch BlackDavid Twohy is one of those talents who deserves better success than what he has achieved.  He’s done some stellar screenwriting work with hits like The Fugitive and G.I. Jane, and many of his directorial efforts have received critical praise from genre fans.  With Pitch Black, he struck a cult following chord that still, hopefully, resonates to this day.  I’ve heard many say that Pitch Black is essentially a reworking of David Twohy’s rejected script for Alien 3, but my research does not confirm any correlation between the two projects especially since he co-wrote Pitch Black with two other writers in Jim & Ken Wheat.  However, it is very easy to see how this could have been part of that franchise, but thankfully, this was its own thing that launched its own franchise that I am glad to say that I am a fan of.  And yes, the director’s cut is the way to go for me.

When their ship crash-lands on a remote planet, the marooned passengers soon learn that escaped convict Riddick (Vin Diesel) isn’t the only thing they have to fear.  Deadly creatures lurk in the shadows, waiting to attack in the dark, and the planet is rapidly plunging into the utter blackness of a total eclipse.  With the body count rising, the doomed survivors are forced to turn to Riddick with his eerie eyes to guide them through the darkness to safety.  With time running out there is only one rule: Stay in the light.

It’s interesting the structure that David Twohy goes for here.  Once the crash occurs, most films would take on a gradual pace to establish many of these characters, and walk through the process of a slow burn build up to the lurking threats waiting for everyone.  Instead, Twohy does a lot to jump forward beyond those gradual beats and goes for the tight, faster rhythm.  He knows that the necessary focus is on Riddick, Fry, and Johns, primarily, and there are points that need to be hit with them before jumping headlong into the meat of the plot.  We then learn more about these individuals as the conflicts and tensions escalate, which really works.  Twohy keeps the pace very well balanced because of this approach.  It starts out exciting, and continues to hold to that rhythm throughout.  Danger is encroaching upon these characters, and that faster tempo is very essential to the effectiveness of the scenario.

The film has some very well crafted sequences that surely deliver on the suspense using silence, subtlety, and the darkness in very effective ways.  While it doesn’t send chills up my spine to tingle me with terror, it is thrilling nonetheless.  For me, I would veer this more towards an action vibe.  The intention is survival horror, but there is enough intense action here to cater to anyone who isn’t so easily scared.  Several characters are put into peril early on, some die, and that serves the tension later on knowing that anyone is expendable in this story.  Anyone can fall prey to these quickly striking nocturnal creatures, and when they are charging through hordes of them with only minimal light to clear their way, it puts an audience on edge.  Yet, little of this would mean anything if there weren’t well portrayed and written characters to involve yourself with.

I really like everything that David Twohy and Radha Mitchell do with Carolyn Fry, the now defacto commanding officer after the captain died during a hull breech.  We know throughout the movie that she is not an altruistic hero as she tries to jettison the passengers to save her own life during the impending crash landing.  So, there’s that condemnable quality that she works to redeem herself for through the film.  She struggles to lead these people to safety as she constantly pushes that responsibility away, but she has to ultimately accept that leadership role in order to survive.  Mitchell really stands strong in this role delivering a dimensional character that an audience can latch onto, emotionally, and invest themselves in as she grows and solidifies through this terrifying ordeal.  Fry is vulnerable, but shows her strength by the end.

Cole Hauser makes the bounty hunter Johns a very good, subtly unstable foil here.  He’s supposed to be a good guy considering he caught Riddick, but he’s a tough mercenary challenging everyone’s authority while feeding his drug habit.  He’s a hostile wild card that could motivate people to safety, or more likely, jeopardize lives, including his own.  He and Riddick are definitely set at odds, but the scenes between them are very interesting in the psychological aspect.  Riddick is a guy who likes to play on peoples’ perceptions of him, and give them a certain amount of unpredictability to what he’ll do next.  Johns knows plenty of Riddick’s tricks, and it’s interesting to see them subtly square off psychologically and physically.

Of course, the real star of the movie is Vin Diesel.  The character of Richard B. Riddick is very much an anti-hero.  He’s a convicted criminal who makes no excuses for himself, but knows how to use everyone’s fears and perceptions about him to his benefit.  Diesel is very subtle in these moments speaking softly with a smirk showing that Riddick has people wrapped around his finger.  Riddick knows just how far to push, and when to twist things back around.  First and foremost, he is a survivor, and he knows that you can’t always do it alone.  Vin Diesel injects confidence, intelligence, and cunning into the character, but also a very compelling mystique.  Just like a Snake Plissken type, the less he says, the more interesting he becomes.  His actions make him intriguing while what words he does speak weave a complex tapestry that simply sucks you in.  You can gradually see this character becoming an iconic role as the film progresses, and even his opening narration sets the focus intriguingly upon Riddick right from the start.

There are a couple of notable supporting roles here including Keith David as the Muslim passenger Imam.  He offers up a very solid character with strong beliefs and morality that add to the diverse personalities and attitudes of these characters.  David is always a charismatic actor who can do tough everyman like in They Live or The Thing, but turn around and give you a substantive, cultured character such as Imam.  Add to that is Jack, portrayed by Rhianna Griffith who comes to idolize Riddick, and forms some kind of attachment to him.  There’s an odd twist to the character that seems fairly unnecessary, but it’s another trait to make Jack a slight bit more memorable.  These are both well established, well portrayed characters which aid the film in very grounded, human ways.

Now, Pitch Black has a certain stylized look at times that never entirely sat right with me.  I do like some of the over exposed daylight shots driving home the triple sun environment, but the rather monochromatic color washes don’t quite appeal to me.  I just feel there must have been a better, more subtle way to color time these scenes to allow a slightly more varied color palette to shine through.  Also, the inverted colors used in one false scare moment and a few cinematography and editing choices feel more akin to a flashy, stylized music video.  These artistic choices just seemed more akin to stuff I had seen in the direct-to-video market than a theatrically released motion picture.  That is sad for me to admit because beyond these off-beat moments, there is a lot of excellent cinematography to be had here.  There’s a definite effort put towards production value with the cinematic camera moves and angles chosen.  When the film gets into the darker and darker environments, it really takes on a very moody, atmospheric, and dangerous visual intensity.  The whole planet eventually feels like a black, empty void perfectly reflecting the tense situation at hand.  I also like that, in contrast to the overly exposed daytime scenes, the full-on night time scenes seem straining a little for exposure.  You feel how dim the light is that these people have to work with and ward off these creatures, and that extra grain on the film stock just adds more gritty edge to the movie.  Those issues I had are present only in the early part of the film.  The remainder of it is shot, edited, and executed especially well.

Considering this was made on a $23 million budget in the early 2000s, I will say that the visual effects are fairly good based on those factors.  In the grand scheme of CGI, Pitch Black has a LOT of room for improvement.  These filmmakers were very ambitious with what they wanted to achieve on such a limited budget, and I can’t fault them for that.  There are some better looking moments than others, and it is likely best, by design, that so many of these effects are played out in dark environments.  In a brightly lit one, these creatures and digital effects would look really bad.  While Riddick’s “shine job” vision allowing him to see in the dark is pretty damn cool, the creature vision is quite primitive like some cheap Photoshop radial blur effect.  I hate to talk poorly about all of this because I see the ambition and visionary talent at work, but the budget could only be stretched so far to accommodate that, which is very unfortunate.  If you doubled this film’s budget, the visual effects would be approaching excellent, I’m sure.  As it is, if the characters and scenario pull you in, I think any shortcomings in the CGI will be forgivable in an audience’s eyes.

Another really exceptional quality here is Graeme Revell’s rich score.  The main theme is excellent, thrilling, and rather triumphant.  In an age of films that rarely attempt to forge a recognizable main theme of any kind, it’s refreshing to see especially a genre film crafting one that strikes a strong chord.  Even though it had been several, several years since I had seen either this or The Chronicles of Riddick, I still recalled the theme fondly.  Revell has done some stunning work when he really applies himself, such as on The Crow, Strange Days, and The Craft, and his effort really shows through here.

Surely, the basic concept of Pitch Black is not very original as I’m sure you can draw comparisons to the Alien franchise and various other science fiction / horror classics.  However, like I said, even if this film does tingle you with terror, it has action and excitement to engage you.  I definitely like the Riddick character.  He’s very intriguing, and a solid anti-hero in cinema is always a fun concept.  Vin Diesel was the right man for this role, and I love that he has had such a devotion to it alongside David Twohy.  Pitch Black is definitely a cult classic which has plenty of merit and entertainment value.  It’s a straight up type of film with certain plot conveniences to allow for this story to happen, but if it hooks you and you have fun watching it, none of it is gonna matter.


Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Star Trek The Motion Picture

Star Trek The Motion PictureI had thought I had reviewed all of the past Star Trek films I was going to review, but I figured, “Why the hell not?”  I’m not going to run through all the back story of the production of this movie because it’s been documented in great detail already elsewhere.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture is definitely very far from being the best of the franchise, and is rightfully ranked low on the scale.  However, there are some elements of it that I have always liked, and have never heard anyone else give credit to.  So, here I am to provide you my perspective on this misstep in taking this 1960’s television series into a feature film franchise.

When a destructive space entity is spotted approaching Earth, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) returns to the newly retrofitted U.S.S. Enterprise to take command away from the young and driven Will Decker (Stephen Collins).  Kirk’s entire trusted crew is reunited with the addition of the alien navigator Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta), and the surprise return of Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who seeks deep, soul searching answers from the mysterious intruder.  Now, the crew of the Enterprise must intercept and find a way to stop this alien intelligence before it destroys every human life on Earth.

Okay, let’s get the obvious critiques out of the way.  This movie is especially dated in so many ways.  Even though this was made because Star Wars was a big success, this is distinctly a science fiction film more akin to those made before Star Wars existed.  The grindingly slow pace and the very cerebral focus fall more into a 2001: A Space Odyssey or Logan’s Run mentality.  The costuming and general look of the film are quite 1970’s like Battlestar Galactica.  The one piece jumpsuits with their muted color palettes don’t have much of a progressive feel from the vibrant, yet simple uniforms of the television series.  There’s a definite reason why these uniforms never reappeared anywhere in Star Trek – they’re instantly dated, impractical, and unappealing.  The cast utterly hated wearing them.  There’s so much in this film that feels like a step backwards for its time.  Amidst films like Star Wars, Alien, and even Superman: The Movie, which all made large leaps forward with the science fiction and fantasy genres with special effects, exciting storytelling, and progressive filmmaking innovations, Star Trek: The Motion Picture feels like it was lagging behind the times on all fronts.

The more immediate problem here is how little resemblance this bares to the television series.  Star Trek was an exciting piece of episodic science fiction.  It was usually quite intelligently written, and it had action, peril, consequence, and danger making for thrilling entertainment.  This film has almost none of that.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture has been called The Slow Motion Picture and The Motionless Picture by many people.  I do enjoy a slow burn, methodically paced film, but this is slow pacing simply for indulgence sake.  For example, this film takes almost an hour before the crew of the Enterprise actually encounters V’Ger at all, and every plot element is almost agonizingly drawn out with next to no impact.  Instead, this film concerns itself with a drawn out briefing scene, a malfunctioning transporter, a malfunctioning warp drive, and many graceful, yet frivolously time sucking visual effects sequences.  So much of this content could be chopped out entirely for an exceedingly tighter story structure, and leave room for building more substance and momentum into its intended story.

While there are character dynamics at play, the film takes no real time to develop a particular story to be engrossed in.  While Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta put in good performances as Decker and Ilia, respectively, not enough effort is put into developing them to the point where an audience is invested in their plight.  Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, just self-contained within this film alone, are infinitely more fascinating than Decker and Ilia.  This is firstly a script problem, and secondly, a directorial issue.  Robert Wise had a very highly acclaimed career, but nothing in his filmography says he was the right man to direct a feature film version of Star Trek.  This is the director who did several musicals like West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and methodically paced thrillers like Run Silent, Run Deep.  He could do critically acclaimed science fiction such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain, but none of his work aligns with the exciting, innovative style that was Star Trek.  Apparently, Wise really only directed this film because his wife was a fan of the television series.

Circa 1983, George Lucas did a very intelligent interview that coincidentally details the problem of this film, and unfortunately, makes you wonder where that George Lucas disappeared to.  He said, and I quote, “One of the fatal mistakes that almost every science fiction film makes is that they spend so much time on the settings, creating the environment, that they spend film time on it.  And you don’t have to spend too much film time creating an environment.  What they are doing is showing off the amount of work that they generated, and it slows the pace of the film down.  The story is not the settings.  The story is the story, the plot.”  Star Trek: The Motion Picture spends so much film time gushing over the exquisite detail of its models and visual effects that it forgets to actually tell an engaging, thrilling story.  I will admit that the models are excellent, but due to a rushed production schedule to meet an unrealistic release date, many of the film’s visual effects were less than what they were supposed to be.  The director’s cut released in 2001 went a long way to rectify that, but the fact still remains that this film is better suited as a dazzling visual effects reel than a well constructed and smartly conceived narrative movie.  However, while the script is terribly misguided, and the choice of director was way off the mark, there is one great element that flows through both the good and the bad first six Star Trek films – the core cast.

The one actual strength of this film are the character interactions.  The foundation of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is retained as solidly as ever.  When Bones first beams on board the Enterprise, I really love the exchange between him and Kirk.  How McCoy is still as fiery and cranky as ever is great, and how Kirk pleads with his friend because of how desperately he needs him on this mission has always been a favorite moment of mine.  It shows that the characters that we know are intact and the actors know exactly who they are inside and out.  Jim Kirk knows he can’t do it alone.  He’s already without Spock at this point, and so, he has to draft Dr. McCoy back into service.  Spock and McCoy balance out Kirk’s ego, passions, humanity, rationale, and decisiveness.  You can see this in the first minute that McCoy steps foot on the bridge, and once Spock joins them, the equation is complete.  DeForest Kelley did get all the best dialogue, and constantly proved to be an excellent talent in this role.  He doesn’t have a great deal to do in this movie, but the moments he does have are pitch perfectly filled with passion, depth, emotion, and wit.  Kelley is actually one of the few to inject a humorous, smart quip every now and then, which this film greatly needed to break up its monotonous tone.  It’s amazing that the entire original series cast did not miss a single beat slipping back into these classic characters after so many years, and that comfortable, sharp chemistry is part of what always made them work so greatly in any medium.

What I really like about James T. Kirk is that he is a man with an ego, but he’s not so consumed with it to not be aware of it.  He’s able to correct himself when he realizes he’s in the wrong, and that becomes clear when dealing with Decker.  When Kirk learns that his objection to Decker countermanding his phaser order was justified, he retracts his stance and acknowledges his error.  Later on, he catches himself quicker when Decker offers an alternative course of action in defending the ship, and it shows that he’s tempering his actions.  William Shatner really does a lot to enhance Kirk in this story as a man who is a little older and a little out of touch with his own ship.  He stumbles here and there, but is able to stay on his feet, on his toes.  The sort of ticking clock of V’Ger coming closer and closer to Earth forces him to make brash, impulsive decisions.  They may not be the wisest ones, but they are the chances he has to take as a Starfleet Captain.

The finest performance in this film, by far, is from Leonard Nimoy.  While other characters lack a through line arc, Spock is given one that is prominently at play throughout the movie.  In the midst of a Vulcan ritual that would purge all emotion from him, Spock telepathically connects with V’Ger, and begins to question if logic is enough.  He then abandons the Kolinahr ritual to seek out V’Ger in hopes of finding answers to his questions.  Early on, you can see Spock is troubled and distant.  Nimoy utilizes such subtlety in these moments, and it is very compelling seeing that unfold behind his masterful facial expressions.  Yet, we gradually see the more comfortable and familiar Spock take stage on the bridge.  The intelligent insight and perceptiveness of Spock is hit perfectly on the mark showing us exactly what value this character brings to this crew.  Spock progresses and develops as he explores V’Ger in depth, and he once again becomes whole through a introspective, soul searching journey.  What story there is in this film is really Spock’s in relation to V’Ger, but it certainly feels like a subplot that is almost drowned out by the constantly dull banality of the weak main plot.

What you have to give credit to is that despite all the blatantly obvious flaws of this movie, it does treat its characters with respect, and features some good character development.  At the beginning, Kirk is restless as an Admiral pushing the proverbial paper work around, and Spock is empty, incomplete, and searching.  By the end, Kirk has found his home and his purpose again as the commander of a starship, and Spock has embraced more than just logic.  And it is clear to me that there was supposed to be more going on with Decker.  He starts out ambitious and driven, a man who wanted this command, but had it robbed form him by the very man who endorsed him for the position.  In the end, he finds another purpose and path for himself.  While the film doesn’t convincingly drive him down that road at all, you can see there was an intention there for it.  The fact of the matter is, even if the movie is bad and ill-conceived, as long as the characters are treated with respect and the actors are solid in their portrayals, I can find some enjoyment and a little admiration for any Star Trek film with the original cast.

Now, I firmly believe that Jerry Goldsmith was the quintessential feature film composer for Star Trek.  I only find it unfortunate that he just happened to end up scoring some of the worst regarded films in the franchise.  While this film has its excessively long, drawn out sequences, they translate into some very inspired and wonderful compositions by Goldsmith.  Beyond the new main title theme, I have always loved his Klingon theme as it just encapsulates the feel of them perfectly.  Overall, Goldsmith sets the right tone with his score adding in cues that evoke danger, mystery, and the unknown.  Even if you can’t bare to sit through this film, listening to Goldsmith’s score is a pleasure.  I own the 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition CD, and it is one of the late maestro’s finest epic scores.

While the film has visual spectacle, is fairly well directed, and is technically sound, it was a severely misguided attempt plagued with problems.  Nobody was happy with this movie during production or upon release.  There were constant creative disputes amongst Gene Roddenberry, the screenwriter, Nimoy and Shatner, and the studio to where rewrites happened daily with the ending being conceived essentially on the spot.  Today, a movie like this would kill any chance for a franchise, but Paramount was willing to revamp the creative team and it resulted in what is widely regarded as the absolute best of this film franchise – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  With this first movie, I suppose if, by some slim chance, this film does engage your interest and attention, it could be fairly thought provoking about your place in the universe, but there’s a long way it could go to improve upon that material by simply adding more substance into its proceedings.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture simply does not have enough meat on the bone to satisfy, and instead, fills itself out with a lot of pointless fat in the form of mind numbingly long visual effects sequences.  There are certainly fan edits out there which trim this movie down to under ninety minutes, and it’s likely a little better off for it.  I think it is important to say that this is not so much a bad movie as it is a mostly unexciting and dull one.  I can’t really urge anyone to go see it if you haven’t already, but if you have seen it, I hope that what I’ve had to say here at least opens you up to seeing that it does have some merits, even if they are lost in a vast sea of stillness.


Predators (2010)

PredatorsFor whatever reason, the Predator film franchise lied dormant after the release of Predator 2 in 1990.  It wasn’t until 2004 that we got the highly anticipated Alien vs. Predator films.  The first one I hated, and I still consider it the worst overall movie I’ve ever seen theatrically.  The second film I did a rather positive review of as one of the last Forever Horror website reviews and one of the first Forever Cinematic reviews.  However, the general consensus of both movies was decidedly negative, and thus, someone thought it was time to bring the Predator franchise back into its own.  Such a person was producer Robert Rodriguez known best for making big scale action on tight budgets.  Thus, twenty years after Predator 2, we are given another proper sequel.  The question is, was it good enough to breathe life into a damaged franchise?

Awakening in freefall, a collection of strangers find themselves dropped into an unfamiliar land with danger awaiting them.  Royce (Adrien Brody) is a mercenary who reluctantly leads this group of elite warriors in a mysterious mission on an alien planet.  Except for a disgraced physician, they are all cold-blooded killers – mercenaries, mobsters, convicts and death squad members – human “predators.”  But when they begin to be systematically hunted and eliminated by a new Predator breed, it becomes clear that suddenly, they are the prey!

I will admit that I wasn’t sold on this film pre-release.  I thought the premise of Predators abducting humans from Earth and dropping them on another planet to be hunted was against the idea of what a big game hunter would do.  You don’t take a lion out of his natural environment and throw him in your backyard to hunt him.  However, a positive reaction from a strongly opinionated friend of mine motivated me to see it theatrically.  Indeed, I really liked Predators.  I would still rank it third in my list of favorites, but all three films are ranked very tightly together.  They are all extremely well made with their own unique ideas, visual styles, and approaches which all work superbly.

Much like with Predator 2, you must find it peculiar to cast Adrien Brody as the lead in an action movie.  This film will entirely change your perspective on that.  He delivers incredibly in this role.  Brody can play tough bad ass with the best of them.  He brings the charisma of a leader, but clearly shows Royce is a man of sketchy origins and doesn’t mind being a loner.  Royce is also very smart and perceptive.  He would be fine going at it solo, but he sees that even his own survival holds better odds sticking with them than without.  You also see that he’s not a cold-blooded man, but he can be a savage, hardened killer when he needs to be.  The film’s climax sells every awesome thing about Royce, and solidifies that I want to see more of him.

Brody has very touching and honest chemistry with Alice Braga, portraying the Israeli sniper Isabelle.  They surely butt heads in certain circumstances, but they connect on an emotional level that does resonate.  They build a mutual trust and respect as the film progresses.  The rest of these trained killers, including the Rodriguez obligatory Danny Trejo, certainly don’t measure up to Dutch’s elite team from the first film, but they are a mismatched group that are weary to trust one another.  My favorite, who has extremely little dialogue, is the Yakuza member Hanzo.  He creates a very intriguing mystique around him through some interesting actions, and demonstrates a unique sense of honor.  Topher Grace portrays the aforementioned disgraced physician Edwin, and surely, the film didn’t require the presence of this character.  He just adds an extra wild card element late in the game which may or may not be easy to spot early on.  I think I had this reveal spoiled for me before I initially saw the movie.  The concept behind Edwin is a clever one, but probably not executed nearly as smartly as it could have been.

Laurence Fishburne makes a wickedly cool appearance as Noland, a soldier whose been trapped and has survived this planet for several years.  The result of that is hat Noland’s gone quite crazy in a delusional, psychotic type of way.  He’s more than skillfully dangerous, he’s psychologically dangerous.  Fishburne is entertaining and awesome in this fairly brief, very off-kilter role.  More than anything, this character is designed to sell the futility of an escape from the planet, and the idea of two rival tribes of Predators hunting out there, making it all the more difficult to survive.

The film’s first act of sorts might seem a little drawn out to some.  I believe I felt that way upon first viewing.  The characters are exploring this world, trying to understand where they are, and even the first action sequence is not until more than twenty-five minutes in.  Strange alien animals are throw at these characters as a test first, and so, there is a prolonged wait before the first Predator is actually revealed.  However, once that occurs, the film settles into a very familiar feel and tone.  Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal studied the first Predator in great detail to nail the vibe perfectly, and I think they got it just about dead-on while still adding to it.  Antal focuses on building the atmosphere and tension so that there is a pay-off with the action.

The overall feel is great with some rich color schemes which still evoke a dark, ominous feeling.  The cinematography gives this film scale and scope while still maintaining the isolated feeling.  The night scenes look great with a more subdued color palette, but with an excellent use of light and shadow for a beautiful moody vibe.  This really is a remarkably well shot movie with an abundance of artistic merit and dramatic visual weight.

The way the action plays out is very intelligent focusing on tension and imminent danger.  There’s plenty of intense gunplay, but it’s definitely used in conjunction with smart tactics and strategies by these characters.  The ominous feeling of being stalked and hunted is executed with great skill.  It’s a whole package of the visual style, stellar editing, and a music score that stays true to Alan Silvestri’s work.  This film definitely takes the filmmaking style and techniques from John McTiernan’s movie, and gives it a little more polish.  Nimrod Antal definitely puts his own stamp on the film, but was able to make this feel cohesive with the rest of the main Predator franchise.  The action scenes definitely reflect this as there’s really none of that modern shaky cam mayhem.  It’s well plotted, shot, and cut together for an extremely coherent and effective experience.  Beyond anything else, this film enhances the ferocity and frightening quality of the Predators.  They feel even more merciless and relentless than before, if you could even imagine such a thing.

I can’t help but love two fight scenes in Predators.  The first has Hanzo squaring off with his katana against the Predator.  This is beautifully setup, and is shot so gorgeously with a lot of wide angles and a wonderful overhead shot showing the wind blowing through the high grass.  It’s a graceful work of art.  What trumps it on the bad assery scale is when the New Predator battles the Classic Predator, which is portrayed by Derek Mears.  While I didn’t care for the remake of Friday The 13th, Mears was an awesome Jason Voorhees, and he makes for an awesome Predator.  Two Predators ripping and tearing at one another is pure gold, and the scene doesn’t disappoint at all.  This is savage, gory, and everything you’d hope it to be.

And indeed, the creature effects are excellent.  Oddly, neither Stan Winston Studios or Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. – who were responsible for all of the previous Predator effects – returned to work on this film.  Instead, the impeccable talents of KNB EFX were tapped, and they delivered on an amazing level.  There are some familiar designs with the Classic Predator, but the newer, larger Predators are even more impressive.  They do feel like a different breed, but are given a much better approach than what we saw in Alien vs. Predator.  And of course, the gore returns in abundance, and no one better to also fill that task than KNB EFX.  They’ve been the standard bearers for physical effects, especially those in the horror genre, for the last twenty years, and that quality is vastly on display here.

Predators does a great job of taking cues from the first movie, and adding its own flavor and ideas to them.  The climax is a great example as Royce uses some of the same tactics as Dutch with the mud, but uses it in a different context.  Instead of giving the Predator nothing to lock on to, he overloads the senses, and takes him on full boar while retreading some of Arnold’s quotable dialogue.  It all really works greatly while delivering the graphic violence quota that fans crave from this franchise.  The film ends on an excellent note that left me wanting to see where yet another sequel could go.

And thus, I do believe that Predators was indeed good enough to potentially breathe life back into this franchise.  Everyone involved steered it back in the right direction where exciting new stories could be told, and even on its own, this is a very solid and satisfying science fiction action movie.  However, with the same budget as Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, it pulled in just about the same amount at the box office, but the reviews and reactions to this film were substantially higher.  Predators set a good foundation for the franchise to build upon, but three years later, no news of a sequel has surfaced from Twentieth Century Fox.  That is quite unfortunate, but I think there is a great deal of potential to tap with this series which is evident here.  Nimrod Antal and Robert Rodriguez did an excellent job bringing everything back to its roots, and while they chose not to acknowledge Predator 2, they did nothing to contradict it either.  Again, I’d love to see more of Adrien Brody as Royce.  He’s flat out awesome.  While I’m sure some will view the film as leaning a little too heavily on the first movie, I really believe that what it takes from that movie was largely to its benefit, and the filmmakers still injected their own ideas and creativity to allow the franchise to move forward.  They expanded the universe and possibilities in a lot of very good and intriguing ways.  I do really like Predators, and I give it a strong recommendation.  If this film has slipped under your radar for the last three years, definitely give it your attention.  This is a franchise that deserves to live and thrive again under the watch of some really sharp and talented creative individuals.


Predator 2 (1990)

Predator 2There seems to be an idea out there somewhere, I don’t know where it came from, that Predator 2 is a markedly inferior sequel.  This is wholly unjustified.  Surely, everyone has their own opinions on how this measures up to the original classic, but to me, this is a great follow-up which expands on the ideas and premise in exciting new ways.  Predator 2 contains numerous admirable qualities, and is helmed by a director with a great eye for sleek visuals.  Anything it doesn’t recreate from the original it replaces with a higher energy and larger scale action.

In the urban jungles of Los Angeles, Detective Lieutenant Mike Harrigan’s (Danny Glover) police force is at war with drug lords and gangs. But just as Harrigan admits he’s losing the fight, one by one, gang lords are killed by a mysterious, fierce adversary with almost supernatural powers – the Predator.  Before long, the vicious creature begins to hunt the hunters – Harrigan’s men.  Now, Harrigan doesn’t just want to bring the creature in – he wants to bring it down.  However, he is hindered along the way by government Special Agent Peter Keyes (Gary Busey) who has a shady motive to his secretive investigation who knows more about this ultimate hunter than Harrigan even suspects.

Surely, you would think going from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Danny Glover would be a strange swerve.  I always imagined that if this was made a few years later that it would be Wesley Snipes as Mike Harrigan, but I’ll be damned if Glover doesn’t deliver here.  The character is designed as a seasoned cop who’s been fighting this unrelenting war on the Los Angeles streets for a long time.  He’s dogged, inventive, and is a cop who plays by his own rules, taking a backseat to no one.  Glover portrays this with the rugged determination of a consummate street cop.  He doesn’t like the politics that get rammed down his throat, and he slickly, yet passionately sticks it back in their faces.  However, he is wholly loyal to his team, and treats them with respect as comrades in arms because they are fighting a war.  Glover also demonstrates the emotional depth of Harrigan when his closest friend, Danny Archuleta portrayed by Rubén Blades, is gruesomely killed by the Predator.  The flashes of enraged vengeance, and the heartfelt moment at the gravesite show Glover had the talent and skill for this role, which also demanded a lot from him physically.  He greatly delivers on that end, too.  I think making him a distinctly different protagonist than Dutch was the right way to go.

Many will indeed enjoy Bill Paxton’s performance as the jokey Jerry Lambert.  He’s the newest member of Harrigan’s team known as “The Lone Ranger.”  He’s a guy that’s gotten a lot of ego stroking and glory, but he quickly becomes an enthusiastic team player.  This is Paxton at his full charismatic and comedic richness.  He adds the levity to break up the grisly heaviness of the film.  The rest of the supporting cast is filled out by Rubén Blades and Maria Conchita Alonso as the seasoned members of Harrigan’s team.  Both bring their top level enthusiasm and talent adding to the cast’s vibrancy.  Then, we get the late, great original king of trash television Morton Downey, Jr. as the appropriately cast tabloid sleaze-miester Tony Pope.  He’s puts in a fantastically entertaining performance.

Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger was approached to return for this film, but he turned it down to do Terminator 2.  Thus, his role was rewritten as Peter Keyes and re-cast with Gary Busey.  I think this was an equally beneficial turn of events.  The story works supremely better not knowing what Keyes’ agenda is, and allowing for him to be an adversary and foil for Harrigan.  Busey does an excellent job bringing forth his signature energy and leaning Keyes towards the smarmy, shady side.  He’s smart and cunning, but still a self-serving government agent who cares more about his findings for the military than Harrigan’s war on violent gang crime.

Also, I love the Jamaican gang here.  They are totally savage and chilling with King Willie being fantastically awesome.  He brings the mysticism into the fold with a wickedly cool scene opposite Harrigan, but also, a greatly visualized confrontation with the Predator.  Calvin Lockhart is so awesome in this role.  The theatricality, mystique, and powerful presence he brings entirely does justice to his Royal Shakespeare Company roots.  He delivers my favorite performance of the movie.  Knowing that director Stephen Hopkins was born in Jamaica, it doesn’t surprise me how rich and memorable these characters are here.

The visual effects are distinctly improved from the first movie.  The Predator vision is the most obvious example as the infrared and other modes have more distinct color separation and possibly are of a higher resolution.  The optical effects of the Predator’s cloak are used more dynamically and are integrated into more complex environments.  We see it in more motion and detail.  My favorite effects shots in the whole movie are when the Predator squares off with King Willie.  First off, the tracking shot of the cloaked feet walking through the water is brilliant work, and then, the reveal of the Predator in the rippling puddle is awesome.  Seeing how these are done in the featurettes on the Special Edition DVD are astounding and what I’ve always loved about movie magic.  These striking, innovative images are largely due to do director Stephen Hopkins’ great visual style.

Teamed with regular director of photography Peter Levy, Hopkins gives Predator 2 its own unique visual sleekness.  It has a great use of dynamic, intriguing angles.  The action is captured remarkably well, and we even get a few scenes of atmospheric, moody lighting.  Two of the best shot scenes are, first, inside the slaughterhouse bathed in blue light where the Predators assaults Keyes’ team, and then, the entire climax inside the Predator spacecraft.  Counterbalancing that blue with a largely orange color scheme there is another sign of Hopkins’ great visual sensibilities.  Beyond just the color schemes, these sequences have great use of sweeping cranes and steadicams shots enhancing the production and artistic value of the film.

This new Predator is recognizable, but has a bit different look and feel to him.  He feels more brazen.  He’s taking bigger chances, and taking on greater numbers.  Hunting in a major metropolitan area means he’s attracting more attention to his work.  So, he’s not as calculated, in general, but when he finds a prey he really likes, such as Harrigan, he takes his time to study him.  He also taunts Harrigan as if he’s issuing an honorable challenge.  I very much like that the filmmakers did this to show, even subtly, that this is another unique individual with his own personality, but with the same objective.  It’s also great seeing the arsenal expand with the telescoping spear, the projectile net, and the flying disc.  It gives the impression of a larger safari at hand where he’s equipped for bigger game.  Kevin Peter Hall, yet again, does an awesome, exceptional job overall.  He defined this role so perfectly, and it is a terrible shame that his life ended only a few years later.  However, what he did laid the template for others to succeed him in this franchise.

The strengths of Predator 2 is that it is much more energetic and diversely entertaining than the original.  The pace is faster as there is more going on here between the gang wars, Peter Keyes’ shady dealings, and Harrigan’s own dogged investigation.  The action sequences are bigger and more dynamic allowing for a higher body count, but not as much gore.  The film originally gained an NC-17 rating, but likely, Fox panicked and did more aggressive editing to secure an R rating.  There is still blood abound and plenty of violence, but far less cadavers begin ripped apart.  What we do see in that regard is obscured or done in heavy shadow.  So, it ups the energy and action, but reduces the graphic content a little.

I would agree that these characters are not quite as captivating as those in the original.  Neither film delves deeply into their characters, but it’s just the nature of battle hardened soldiers in a ominous jungle versus tough, seasoned cops on the streets of Los Angeles.  One if inherently more intriguing than the other.  There’s a little more levity in this film akin to a wisecracking John McClane in areas as Harrigan’s fear manifests in a few humorous quips.  Since the film focuses more on an energetic pace with a more divided focus, there’s little mystique about the Predator himself.  Again, he’s much more blunt and brazen, but you do lose that intensely dramatic build up to the third act.  The Peter Keyes subplot sort of veers the emotional drive of Harrigan off-track, and the climax just becomes about having to stop this alien one way or another.  There’s no more survival aspect, just hero versus villain.  There is some peril throughout the third act, but none of it rivals the dire lethality and immediacy of the first film.

Still, the little teases we get at the end with both the Alien skull in the trophy room, the reveal of the half dozen other Predators onboard the spacecraft, and the flintlock pistol with the engraving of the year 1715 on it lay big seeds for a follow-up.  However one might have felt about this movie, it surely left you intrigued to see how the next film could expand on these concepts further, but a proper third movie would not see fruition for another twenty years.

Predator 2 may not hit all the great qualities of the film first, but has entertaining trade-offs making it a more lively, faster paced action film.  It again has a solid cast filling their roles with vibrancy.  The violence and intense action are enhanced by stylish, sleek visuals and excellent editing.  The optical visual effects are stunningly impressive pushing the ambition further, and with more time to plan, Stan Winston Studios developed the Predator further with great new weaponry and a fresh look.  Alan Silvestri also returns adding some new flavors to his original themes, and adapting some of the feel to this film’s style and content.   I would like to pay tribute to Kevin Peter Hall, Calvin Lockhart, and Stan Winston who have all passed on since this film’s release.  All three did stunning work here that deserves notable credit and praise.  This franchise, outside of the AVP films, has maintained a fairly steady stream of quality.  The screenwriters of the first movie returned to expand on their own concepts, and it was executed very well by a competent and capable director.  Predator 2 s definitely worth your while.  It’s not as slam bang amazing as the first, but it’s a largely worthy sequel.


Predator (1987)

PredatorI think it goes without me saying that Predator is one of the best action films, ever.  More importantly, this is my favorite Schwarzenegger movie.  Smartly directed by John McTiernan, who would helm Die Hard the following year, this is an excellently plotted and cleverly devised concept utilizing a stellar cast to great effect.  With an alien hunter designed by the masterful Stan Winston, and backed by some of the best visual effects of the time, Predator was an instant classic that truly solidified Schwarzenegger’s career as a blockbuster action star.

Recruited by the CIA to rescue hostages held by guerrilla fighters in a Central American country, Major Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his elite team encounter an enemy unimaginably more deadly than any on Earth – because the Predator is not of this Earth.

The film starts out wasting no time by keeping the exposition succinct, and allowing for this team to progress to their objective quickly while still relating these characters to us.  No one’s explored in depth, but you get a clear, personality rich snapshot of each man.  Blain’s a hard ass, Hawkins is kind of a joker, Billy’s the stoic warrior, and so on.  The entire first act sets up who these guys are, and what they are capable of.  We see this is an expertly efficient team able to wipe out a legion of about thirty Central American soldiers within a few minutes.  They are tactically sound striking hard and fast using the element of surprise.  When Dutch’s team is referred to as “the best” early on in the briefing scene, we see that is not at all an exaggerated statement.  They prove they are the elite, but even then, you can see these guys are spooked by this jungle.  “Makes Cambodia look like Kansas,” sets the tone for how unnerved they are by its terrain and ominous feeling.  Encountering the previous team’s skinned corpses surely rattles them a bit, but they never lose their wits.  In fact, it practically heightens them for the more lethal danger that is stalking them.

Schwarzenegger shines here as Dutch.  In addition to everyone else, this is possibly his most quotable movie.  Arnold’s got that charisma going here with energy and authority.  I love that Dutch is a soldier with a code of ethics for his men.  He states straight out that his men are not assassins, merely an elite rescue team, and we see that conviction arise when he learns of Dillion’s deception.  Schwarzenegger shows Dutch to be an honorable and sharply intelligent soldier commanding his men with precision.  He proves himself to be a cunning warrior gradually picking up on the Predator’s methods, and adapting to them in order to survive.  He’s perceptive and level headed, which is undoubtedly the sign of a great soldier.  I think this definitely one of Schwarzenegger’s finest performances demonstrating the ability to realize a very authentic, dimensional, and smart character.  Not to mention, I don’t think he’s looked so awesome on-screen without delving into a cheesy or campy tone.

Bill Duke especially does a touchingly effective job.  Early on, he is a hardened soldier, but after Blain is lost, you see the grief and turmoil wash over him.  Carl Weathers is great here as well portraying a man who was once a trusted friend of Dutch’s that has been corrupted by the “everyone’s expendable” mentality of a pencil pushing desk jockey.  He’s lost sight of the qualities of a soldier and the value of life.  However, we see him turning the corner as he rushes into his final battle, and I really like seeing that small character arc.  Overall, this is a rock solid cast flexing both their acting muscles and their real ones in pure 80’s action movie bad assery.  They all exhibit distinct personality that are vibrant, memorable, and straight up killer.

What it is that we lose with CGI monsters as opposed to a real life performer is exquisitely evident here.  Kevin Peter Hall inhabited that beautifully textured and crafted Stan Winston suit, and created a character to live and breathe through it.  Compare it to the personality deprived CGI creatures from Cowboys & Aliens.  They were, as I said in that review, “just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.”  They had no distinct characteristics that made them any better than the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars.  The Predator has nuanced qualities that reflect an intelligence and cunning behavior.  He’s a unique individual amongst a unique race.  How he moves, reacts, and assesses a situation bring a subtle and intriguing depth created by Kevin Peter Hall’s amazing performance.  It has all the traits of a talented performer crafting a character, and I am so tremendously glad that this franchise has never abandoned the performer in the suit approach.

As I’ve said in many previous reviews, the work of Stan Winston is legendary, and stands the test of time.  He clearly revolutionized the creature effects industry with his artistic craftsmanship and captivating imagination.  The Predator is an astonishing creation in all facets.  The original creature the filmmakers put together for this film was ridiculous and was quickly jettisoned after only a few days of filming.  Winston was called in, and with a little input about mandibles from James Cameron, this iconic, ferocious, and frightening creature was born.  Beyond that, this is a very graphic and brutal film showing you skinned human bodies, spinal cords ripped from carcasses, and a disemboweled Jesse Ventura.  Everything feels so grisly and textured for a greatly realistic feeling.  This is some of the best gore effects I’ve ever seen.

And these visual effects essentially still hold up to this day.  Certainly, the sequels have shown how digital effects can be used to improve and enhance them, but this is impressive work that hardly feels dated.  This is mainly between the Predator’s cloaking technology where he appears as transparent ripples, and the laser sighting and discharges from his plasma cannon.  There are some especially impressive shots featuring the cloak with more dynamic camera angles and motion where you get the real three dimensional quality of it.  You see it’s not some animated effect, but a real optical composite of a real performer.  These are all excellent visual effects.

This all blends perfectly with the gritty, sometimes smoky atmosphere of the film’s look.  I think John McTiernan’s great eye for composition, interesting angles, and well constructed action shines through.  In this jungle, we get the feel of the dangerous terrain and mysterious qualities of the dense foliage.  The grit grounds this science fiction premise in a visceral reality where consequences are severely violent and lethal.  Great camera movements and stylish, dramatic imagery highlight the artist merit of the cinematography, and it is all expertly edited together for a tight film which propels itself forward from the get go. .

Alan Silvestri put together one amazing score for Predator that has endured for the whole franchise.  He incredibly blends a militaristic march and drive with a primal tribal, jungle beat.  He builds a sense of ominous foreboding reflecting the reality that there is something out there stalking these men.  For the majority of the climax, there is next to no dialogue of any sort.  It is carried along by the action, the visuals, and the exhilarating score which enhances all of the tension, apprehension, and danger that is unfolding.  It is perfect, superb work.

The action hits you at a regular clip, and the first main sequence is majorly explosive.  It sets the bar high for the remaining runtime, and McTiernan is able to meet that challenge.  It’s the mix of tension, the unknown, and the sheer scale of this rapid fire, big gun toting, grenade launching explosiveness that makes that possible.  Yet, McTiernan knows how to build it up, and work the subtle strings of an audience’s anticipation.  The danger escalates, and the peril becomes more immediate as the Predator moves in closer and closer to its prey.  He starts out attacking from a distance, but gradually engages his ultimate trophy – Dutch – in close combat because the Predator views him as a highly worthy adversary

And that entire third act where it’s just down to Dutch and the Predator is a masterpiece.  The strategy and makeshift tactics that Dutch puts together play out brilliantly.  He uses the Predator’s own method of invisibility and striking from a distance to his advantage.  However, it all elevates when the two finally meet face-to-face in a straight physical confrontation.  Everyone knows that Arnold is a BIG guy, but next to this hulking seven foot tall alien beast, he looks small and nearly ineffectual.  It’s only by his smarts and wits is he able to survive.

Predator is filled with chest pounding action and excitement wrapped in a smart concept and script.  Backed up by an excellent action director, and a vibrant, colorful cast lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was a surefire formula for success.  This is why I love Predator.  It never lags anywhere as the pacing is tight and the rhythm is consistent throughout right from the start.  It’s really a near brilliant structure which constantly keeps you invested and intrigued by what’s developing here.  You also can’t not quote the living hell out of this movie.  It’s sharp, witty, but never betraying the serious tone of danger and lethality it sets from the beginning.  It’s an absolute success that holds up incredibly well over time.  I entirely intend to give you reviews on both Predator 2 and Predators sooner than later.  Until then, revisit this classic.


Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into DarknessThis is a film that I didn’t love, but also, I didn’t hate.  It is a very entertaining, exciting movie, but has a number of downfalls mainly stemming from the rehashing of old ideas and characters while doing nothing to make them fresh or new.  For a franchise that was just rebooted with the last movie, this seems like filmmakers with a dry well of ideas when they should be going warp speed ahead into bold, new directions.

When the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has brought the fear of war and destruction to the Federation.  With a personal score to settle and sanctioned by the resilient Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction known as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).  As our heroes are propelled into an epic chess game of life and death, love will be challenged, friendships will be torn apart, and sacrifices must be made for the only family Kirk has left: his crew.

Now, I did not like the 2009 reboot movie.  I thought it was shoddily written with a lot of plot holes, big holes in logic, a weak villain with narrow-minded motivations, a style over substance approach, and a tone that did more to poke fun at these classic characters than show serious, due respect to them.  If the marketing campaign for this film wasn’t so good, I likely would not have been ensnared into seeing it.  However, despite my best resolve, I was compelled to check out spoilers after a spoiler-free review hinted strongly enough at a certain aspect of this film that I was not agreeable to in rumors.  There will be a spoiler section later to address that, but simply said, if I went into this film clean, without spoilers, I’m sure I would have at least been angry with the movie.  Instead, having foreknowledge of many pertinent aspects of the film allowed me to enjoy it more, and go into it with an open mind instead of a resistant one.  I was willing to let the movie change my mind, and to an extent, it did in how well the general plot is written.  However, there are several problems with story, characters, and concepts that I will address shortly.

On the upside of things, firstly, Star Trek Into Darkness has some stellar and exciting action sequences.  While the physical action with chase scenes and fights is not very traditional Trek, it is still very enjoyable stuff done with remarkable talent evident in all aspects.  It is a little hard to accept Spock running around in an action centric role during the climax since that’s always been Kirk’s role, but Quinto is at least more than capable of the task.  I did especially like the encounter with the Klingons where Harrison unleashes a one man barrage.  We see only one unmasked Klingon, but he does resemble the forehead ridged versions with a slightly different sleekness.  The starship battles are few, but feature excellent visual effects and rousing, perilous action.  The whole sequence with the Enterprise spiraling out of control, and Kirk and Scotty are running through the corridors as the gravity is spinning them all around is also fantastic.  J.J. Abrams, beyond anything else, knows how to create an exciting, action-filled movie aimed to entertain.

Now, the hardest part of assessing Chris Pine’s portrayal of James Kirk is that his version has so many changes to his back story that he’s ultimately not Shatner’s Kirk.  You don’t get that wit, cunning, and confidence that defined Shatner’s performance early on.  Instead, we have a young, brash, impulsive Kirk who does let his emotions get the better of him.  I do like that the film addresses one thing I didn’t like about the first movie.  Fresh from Starfleet Academy, off of one successful mission saving Earth, Kirk is given the Captain’s chair without having earned it through years of exemplary service and hard earned experience.  At one point here, his command is taken away from him due to his lack of respect for the Captain’s chair and Starfleet regulations.  He had the Enterprise given to him without having earned it, and now, he’s sort of put into the position where he has to make tough decisions and earn his command.  He has to challenge authority instead of dismissing it, and I think this element is handled rather well.  On the whole, I think Pine is a good actor, but I don’t think the writing and development of Kirk has yet to match his strengths.  His fiery emotions don’t resonate as strongly as Cumberbatch’s chilling, menacing presence.  Once again, Kirk does feel a little weak to me in this Abrams universe.  It’s that essential element of maturity and confidence of Kirk that’s missing which always made him interesting, and I hope that’s where these filmmakers are pushing him towards.  His arc in this film seems to suggest that, but I do feel it doesn’t get the forefront time it deserved to be properly poignant.

Zachary Quinto is given a rather meaty chunk of material in developing his Spock.  There’s a good weight of emotional insight we are given into him as he explores the ideas and fears of death.  Quinto reflects that depth immensely well, and the building of the Kirk-Spock relationship towards something more familiar is excellent in my view.  However, I do feel the whole Uhura relationship is still unappealing to me.  I’m glad they gave her more to do than operating the communications station, but I don’t see any major potential for that relationship.  In general, all of the regular crew members are given a stronger role here.  Sulu is given a taste of command, which I really loved as a subtle hint at him becoming Captain of the Excelsior in the original continuity.  Even Chekov, who I’m still unsold on the portrayal of, is given the run of engineering having to keep the ship intact in the absence of Mr. Scott.

This time out, I feel Simon Pegg did a far more faithful and solid Montgomery Scott.  In nearly every instance, he felt genuine from James Doohan’s original series portrayal.  He had more dramatic weight to carry, and had a bit of a subplot of his own to deal with.  He has justifiable conflicts with Kirk’s mission, and smartly weaves his way back into the thick of the plot by the third act.  I was far more satisfied with everything Pegg did here which still had moments of humor, but felt respectable overall.  With this character, it thrived from smart writing and a really good acting job by Pegg.

And continuing to prove my insistence that he’s one of the most solid and reliable actors around today, Karl Urban beautifully channels DeForest Kelly as Dr. McCoy.  He feels so authentic to the character while still feeling natural and passionate in his own right.  As with Kelley, Urban gets some of the best lines in the movie to the point where I’d love to just see a Dr. McCoy movie.  I really, wholeheartedly believe that Karl Urban is just on the verge of a major career breakthrough.  I’ve yet to see him do anything less than excellence in every role he’s taken on.  Urban just needs that one high profile leading role, and I cannot wait for that day.  He is the perfect successor to Leonard “Bones” McCoy.

Even Peter Weller does an excellent job as Admiral Marcus, who sanctions Kirk’s mission to take out Harrison, but the plot methodically reveals a lot of subversive dealings in Starfleet.  There’s even a great Deep Space Nine reference in regards to that.  What Weller delivers when those revelations occur is damn good, and fills a very solid part in this plot.  Also, Alice Eve does a nice job as Carol Marcus, the Admiral’s daughter, and strikes a small spark of chemistry with Chris Pine.  However, it doesn’t amount to much at all.  Also, I was rather confused as to why Carol Marcus now has a British accent when her Wrath of Khan counterpart did not, and nor does her father.  It was a distracting arbitrary choice that doesn’t really enhance the character in anyway.  It’s just peculiar.

Now, what really compelled me the most leading up to this film was indeed Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance.  That chilling deep voice with his intimidating, foreboding presence is so captivating.  His villainous character is intriguing with an air of mystique.  He has his secrets to keep and strategically reveal as his own agendas and plots unfold.  He’s written very intelligently, and we even get moments of emotional depth and pain in one scene.  His John Harrison character is certainly more than what he seems to be at first, and has many surprises in store for the crew of the Enterprise and Starfleet.  I really think, on a performance level, he’s one of the best villains this franchise has ever had.  He’s certainly the best movie villain since General Chang in Star Trek VI.  Cumberbatch is clearly an immensely talented actor, and he really owns this movie with a complex and rich portrayal.  However, there is a very important aspect of this character that I have to take issue with that can only be done in the spoiler section of this review.  Many loyal Star Trek fans may indeed find this to be intensely objectionable.

However, before we get to that, the problems of this movie are that it feels like a modern day remake of a vastly superior film.  How it rehashes old ideas that come off as second rate carbon copies that do more to remind you of how they were done better thirty or forty-five years ago are exactly reminiscent of creatively devoid remakes from unoriginal filmmakers.  Star Trek Into Darkness attempts to have original ideas such as Kirk dealing with failure and humility, but they are rapidly overshadowed by the plots involving Harrison and Admiral Marcus.  This theme with Chris Pine’s Kirk is never given enough time to flourish and take a solid foothold in the film when put in opposition to all of these retreaded characters, dialogues, and concepts.  These were likely intended as homages, but they come off as lazy, unoriginal writing.  The screenwriters couldn’t put together a wholly original screenplay with unique concepts, or at least, utilize smart enough writing to take solid ownership of what it does with these revisited elements.  Considering the majority critical opinions of them, I’m not sure what most should expect from the co-writers of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and the screenwriter of Cowboys & Aliens and Prometheus.  Frankly, I thought the purpose of rebooting the franchise with an altered timeline was to take these classic characters into bold, new directions with fresh ideas.  Instead, they just do the same old thing only not done remotely as well.  They are free and open to do whatever they choose, and they choose to do next to nothing new at all.  This makes it seem like they’ve already hit a dry well of ideas, and that doesn’t bode well for the future of this franchise.

Now we come to the SPOILER paragraphs.  So, if you don’t want to get a full disclosure of plot turns and revelations, please, jump beyond the next two paragraphs to remain free of such knowledge.  You have been given fair warning to avert your eyes.  Your temptation is your own, and I know the temptation of spoilers is indeed intense.  So, here we go.

What has been rumored over the last several months that I ultimately took issue with is this.  The villain of this film, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, is actually revealed to be Khan Noonien Singh.  Now, the screenwriters integrate him well into the story, weaving all the motivations around him very soundly, and the explanation of his presence absolutely makes sense.  It all ties into the themes of war and Admiral Marcus’ motivations in regards to that by having Khan help Starfleet develop new weapons of war including the Dreadnaught class warship that nearly kills the Enterprise and her crew.  However, we have already had our definitive Khan story with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the original series episode Space Seed is still a stellar piece of work.  I don’t discount the possibility that another great Khan story could be made, but this one falls behind both of those previous outings.  Furthermore, making Cumberbatch be Khan actually diminishes the quality and potential of what Cumberbatch does here.  Instead of being viewed as a strong, amazing performance of a brand new, fresh villain, he is going to be eternally compared back to Ricardo Montalban, which is a gross disservice to Cumberbatch.  Also, the fact is that his performance bares no resemblance to the Khan we knew.  Khan was a man of passion and regal self-image.  He viewed himself as a Prince bringing order to humanity.  This new Khan comes off like an ice cold, menacing shark of a murderer, a man almost devoid of passion.  The original Khan was a conqueror, a ruler and leader of men.  This Khan is more of the terrorist persuasion acting alone, and really succumbing to the will of others to strike out from underneath their oppression.  Straight up, Khan would never bow to another person’s will, no matter the level of force that opposed him.  In Space Seed, Khan frees his people almost single-handedly, and takes over the Enterprise nearly killing the entire crew in the process.  I could never see Khan acting the way he does in this film.  He was never a lone wolf seeking to terrorize.  He was a proud, cultured man seeking power and stature.  Surely, he wasn’t hesitant to bloody his hands, but him becoming a terrorist against Starfleet doesn’t fit for Khan.  He wanted more to be respected than simply feared.  He was also a man quick to exercise his superiority over others, especially Kirk.  The story works, and the motivation is sound, but the personality is simply not Khan.  Not to mention, Cumberbatch bares no physical resemblance to Khan with his Caucasian complexion and English accent.  I cannot see the character that Montalban originated in Space Seed fitting into the context, personality, and methods of the Khan we see in this film, regardless of how differently events unfolded in this new future timeline.  Everything that Khan was before his resuscitation from cryo-sleep remains the same as it was in the original continuity, and so, he wakes up as the same man in this continuity as in Space Seed.  Thus, I don’t feel there’s enough leeway to allow for Khan’s personality and methods to change so drastically.

Also, the film quotes lines verbatim from The Wrath of Khan, and in the climax, there is a reversal on Spock’s death scene where it is Kirk who rushes into the radiation chamber to restart the engines to save the ship and her crew.  It becomes distracting when Pine and Quinto speak practically the same dialogue that Shatner and Nimoy did back in 1982 only with the roles reversed.  The scene is well acted, but you lose every bit of emotional investment and poignancy of the scene because it is such a blatant carbon copy with no fresh life of its own.  Again, you can’t help but remember how brilliant and powerful it was in The Wrath of Khan when you see this lazy, plagiarist writing realized on screen.  And of course, in poor, unearned fashion, the scene is punctuated with Zachary Quinto’s Spock yelling the infamous line of “KHAN!!!” to very weak effect.  It was done perfectly once, but since then, any other use has always been done in comedic context.  Here, it feels borderline lame because it’s not an original idea for a genuine reaction.  Ultimately, Kirk is revived because Khan’s blood now has some entirely unexplained regenerative properties.  It is setup twice in the film, but it could still be a contentious issue for many.  And literally, it is never explained at all.  It’s just there as a plot convenience, and factors into nothing purposeful enough but to bring Kirk back from death.

Veering towards the technical side of the film, the cinematography of Dan Mindel is very, very good.  He really knows how to use that wide frame to give you a strong cinematic visual with the use of great color schemes, and the action sequences are competently done.  There might be a couple shots that I wasn’t all that keen about due to the more rugged camera work during the space battles or the like, but they were fleeting.  The lens flares are toned down a hell of a lot from the previous movie, possibly due to the intended post-conversion 3D effect.  From a few sources, they say the post-conversion is very good.  And the score by Michael Giacchino is also quite good, but I really would’ve liked to have heard that Alexander Courage theme before the last minute of the film.  Just a hint of it somewhere would have gone a long way.

Overall, I did feel like the story here was a little less than what it could have been despite being well conceived and executed.  It felt like a setup of ideas and scenarios for another film, which would likely deal with a Federation-Klingon war.  It’s setting up this climate of inevitable war from the Klingons encroaching through space and perceived heightening tensions.  Everything is built on that fear of war, and while it is a very good idea which builds upon the events of the previous movie, it didn’t feel like an idea that was used to boost the strength and foundation of this film.  It all felt like the setup for something larger, and in doing so, it partly dismisses this story as a stepping stone.  If the focus was on this story, and doing everything possible with it, including injecting original ideas and dialogue into it fully, this would be a stronger movie.

In short, I think Star Trek Into Darkness will please general audiences, but the loyal Trek fan might have more than a few negative things to say about it.  My apprehension about J.J. Abrams helming the next Star Wars movie is evident here in that he does favor style over substance, and even what substance he has is fairly minimal and not well conceived.  Maybe working with a new screenwriter will resolve these issues, but the last thing that franchise needs, as well as Star Trek, is more creatively disjointed outings that favor flashy visuals over a good, solid story.  Neither franchise will have vibrant, flourishing futures based on work like this.  Again, I did enjoy this movie, especially more than the 2009 film, but I was a long way from loving it.  I was really hoping for fresh, new ideas and an original villain that could stand on his own, but unfortunately, I really didn’t get either.  I do recommend seeing it if you are not apprehensive about some contentious issues with revisited characters and ideas from far superior Trek stories.


Alien (1979)

AlienRidley Scott’s Alien is a remarkable classic that was kind of hard for me to appreciate fully until now.  I did see the director’s cut screening in October of 2003, but it didn’t have the intended effect at the time.  However, thanks the Cinemark theatre chain, I was given the chance to see Alien in its original theatrical cut.  I went into the screening consciously putting myself into the proper mindset intending to experience it the right way.  I have always appreciated the filmmaking and artistic talents of the movie, but now, I can connect with it on a level of beautifully crafted horror and suspense.

When commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, heading back to Earth, intercepts a distress signal from a nearby planet, the crew are under obligation to investigate.  After landing on this hostile planet, three crew members – Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), first officer Kane (John Hurt), and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) – set out to discover the origin of the signal which Lieutenant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the ship’s computer soon decipher it as not a distress call but a warning.  Onboard a derelict alien spacecraft, Kane discovers a chamber filled with thousands of alien eggs, and in investigating too closely, he is attacked by a parasite.  When he is brought back to the Nostromo, the crew has no idea the danger they have brought upon themselves as this parasite soon gives birth to a vicious organism that is bred for only one purpose – death.

The strongest quality of this film that struck me was indeed the structure and pacing.  While for a modern audience it might be too methodical, Scott makes every slow burning moment count for something.  It’s all building towards something while establishing mood, atmosphere, character, or story.  The best result from this structure is that there are segments where Scott gives the audience a sense of false security.  This is best reflected in both after the facehugger dies and relinquishes its hold on Kane, and when Ripley has safely escaped aboard the shuttle at the end.  You feel as if the danger has past, but especially with the former, you feel like another shoe is waiting to drop creating this lurking uncertainty.  There’s still a long way to go in this film, and you know something much more threatening is waiting to emerge.  When the ship ascends from the planet, it’s signaling the elevation in threat for these characters and the audience.  And this film repeatedly elevates things to a new, unexpected level.

Scott also does an amazing job immersing an audience into the subtle sense of isolation and unsettling calm of the Nostromo.  This has as much to do with the cinematography as it does the amazing sound design.  The ship always has this ambient sound of probably the power running through it, which further unnerves an audience.  And when things get loud, it gets very loud to evoke the terror and visceral rawness of the moment.  This all creates a contrast of audio where Scott makes things extremely low and quiet when he wants to engage your attention and put you on the edge of your seat.  Then, he blasts something onto the soundtrack to jar you out of your seat.  I don’t find this to be jump scares.  This is an excellent manipulation of suspense and tension to effectively and skillfully scare an audience.  It’s putting you right in there with the unnerving feeling these characters are experiencing.

How Alien is shot is perfect in its use of wide compositions to reflect scope and solitude early on, especially during the excursion to the derelict spacecraft, and later on, how the cinematography moves in closer to highlight the claustrophobic nature of the Nostromo.  Even more intense is when Scott has the shot get right into the actor’s faces during the peak of fear and terror to where you can see every bead of sweat on their skin.  There’s some great and beautiful camera work from the large movements revealing the Space Jockey and using steadicams for sweeping movements.  Yet, I also love the subtle handheld work that creates a sense of unease and rawness at times.  The lighting schemes also create the signature Ridley Scott noir mood and atmosphere.  Light and shadow are used to stellar effect enhancing all the unnerving, heart pounding sequences, and Scott is known for immersing his films in thick darkness.  As the immediacy of everything reaches its apex as the self-destruct is counting down, the blasting exhaust vents and flashing lights intensely reflect the chaotic nature of the third act.  It’s shocking to me that director of photography Derek Vanlint has an extremely short filmography shooting only six films over a thirty-four year span.  Apparently, the bulk of his career was spent on television commercials.  What he did here would make you believe he had a largely notable film career because it was indeed the work of a master cinematographer.

Ridley Scott was very much inspired by the sort of “used future” production design of Star Wars.  Instead of the clean and polished aesthetics of a 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wanted something that felt gritty, textured, and lived in.  The Nostromo is a very utilitarian craft with very few sleek designs.  It was created to be functional and practical to maintain a sense of relatable realism for the audience.  It has the feel of a factory, oil rig, or submarine with all of its enclosed tight spaces and metal gratings.  And the design of the alien spacecraft and all things related to the Xenomorph by H.R. Giger are truly alien in all aspects.  It has a dark, gothic elegance to it.  Giger always meshes together this sexualized aesthetic with his fascinating and twisted designs, and it creates this unsettling undercurrent of sexuality to all of these creatures that victimize our characters.  Many have read a lot into these elements, but for me, it simply makes for a frightening and completely unique biology.  The Alien feels threatening in every way with all of its fanged teeth, exoskeleton design, and ultimately, it’s black as night sheen.  This is a creature meant to inhabit the darkness as an animalistic hunter.  How Ash describes it as the “perfect organism” has always struck me powerfully selling every single-minded quality about it.  It will use you to breed, and then, the others it will kill.  It has no other purpose to exist but to destroy.  I also love how the film constantly takes you by surprise as we witness the Alien’s life cycle.  First, it’s this tiny little creature, but next time we see it, it’s seven feet tall!  There’s an added shot in the director’s cut that I always liked when Brett goes looking for Jones the cat, and while he’s cooling himself off with the dripping condensation, there’s a shot of it hanging from the chains above.  This is before we know what the Alien now looks like, and so, you wouldn’t pick up on it unless you already knew.  Now, it did take a little bit of effort to put Prometheus out of my mind just to experience the originally intended mystique and fascination with the Space Jockey, but I was able to get there.  I still enjoy Prometheus, but I wanted to experience Alien in its purest form.

Now, despite this being a serious film of horror and atmosphere, the interactions of these characters portrayed by this excellent cast create some much needed moments of levity.  I constantly found what Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton were doing to be immensely pleasing and funny.  Parker and Brett are these two jokers who maintain the ship’s functions, and feel quite underappreciated for their hard work who try to leverage that out with some delightful exchanges.  Kotto and Stanton have a great chemistry that brings some rich personality into the fold.

Tom Skerritt is very solid as Captain Dallas.  He has that sense of authority and responsibility which clearly has him stand out as a leader.  Yet, he’s fallible making decisions out of passion instead of adhering to regulations, but also, owning up to those decisions and errors.  At the end of it all, he’s just a guy who wants to do his job and get home, but is forced to deal with something beyond his experience that ultimately does terrify him.

Then, we’ve got Sigourney Weaver who was an unknown talent at the time, and that played to an audience’s surprise.  This one person that they are unfamiliar with in the cast is actually the heroin of the piece, and Weaver shows her stellar talent every moment she’s on screen.  She holds her own opposite everyone very well projecting authority, strength, conviction, and decisiveness as Ellen Ripley.  Yet, of course, the absolutely soul shattering terror that Ripley experiences is powerful through Weaver.  She is vulnerable, but she can fight through it for her own survival.

This is unlike the constantly panicked Lambert who paralyzes with fear in the face of the alien, but her fear is entirely genuine and real with Veronica Cartwright’s fantastic talents making it something other than a potentially annoying character.  Many would find themselves reacting like Lambert does, and it’s a testament to the characters that are able to keep their fear and emotions in check to carry onward.

Ian Holm’s performance is brilliant.  It’s one of those things where you pick up on more in repeat viewings after you know the twist of Ash.  You see the sinister probing eyes that observe a situation like it’s some lab experiment.  Once you know who Ash is and what his purpose happens to be you can see his secret intent, especially during the chestburster scene.  This twist is carefully setup throughout the movie in how he repeatedly enables the safe passage of the alien aboard the ship.

The great thing about these characters is that, despite the futuristic setting on a spacecraft, these are relatable people.  They seem plucked straight out of our time and lives as rugged, blue collar space truckers.  They’re regular people just doing a regular job, but it’s only that they’re towing ore across interstellar space instead of a highway or the like.  They have realistic relationships such as Parker and Brett having some friction against the bridge officers because they get paid less even though the ship wouldn’t work without them.  These people all have conflicts, friendships, and complicated dynamics between them, and this is further aided by very realistic and honest dialogue.  The film surely doesn’t take time to explore the depth of these characters, but it is their behaviors and interactions that inform us of all we need to know about each one of them.  That’s really how you write an ensemble movie, much like John Carpenter’s The Thing.  You don’t need to get their life stories, you just need fully realized characters portrayed by great, suitable actors.  And I would be remised if I didn’t mention John Hurt here.  While he has the shortest screentime of anyone here, he puts in a solid performance that has a few moments of levity, but overall, is as authentic and strong as anyone else here.

The late Jerry Goldsmith seemed to regularly have conflicts with the filmmakers he worked with on how his scores should be crafted.  Oddly, I find that in these cases, what it is that he’s pushed towards creating is ultimately the better choice for the film overall.  Here, we get some great cues with the main theme being the best which exudes an aura of mystery, intrigue, and spookiness.  It’s a subtle melody that does a lot to make things feel lightly ominous and dangerous without ever being overt.  Simplicity can sometimes do so much in conjunction with how a film is shot and plotted.  The music that Goldsmith composed here is exceptionally effective even if how most of it was used went against how he thought it should be.

Usually, when you know a horror film well enough, knowing where the scares are coming and everything, it tends to become less effective.  However, upon this theatrical screening, many moments were still startling and scary.  I really feel that experiencing Alien in the immersive environment of a movie theatre is the best way to do it.  Maybe if you have a large HDTV and a stellar surround sound system, you could achieve that effect, but seeing all of the visual mastery on that large cinema screen was more than I could have imagined.  It just gave me the amplified experience I was looking for with this movie, and why I was compelled and excited for this experience.  Now that I’ve had that experience, my home viewing experience will be richer and more engaging.

It is undeniable that Alien is an eternal classic, but now, I am able to hold it up to that level of awe and recognition myself.  Scott took what was a B-movie horror idea and turned it into an A-grade picture full of masterfully crafted artistry in all aspects with the cast being a glowing example.  Ridley Scott is known for taking great care in creating immersive worlds not just on film, but for the actors and crew to live inside of.  He locks you into this enclosed maze of a dark spaceship where the Alien could be hiding anywhere, and you feel the claustrophobic tension eating away at you.  It can be a haunting, disturbing film for many, and while it has violence and blood, it is strategically used to intense effect.  The same can be said about the Alien itself – only seen it shadows, in pieces.  Scott only once or twice gives you a full fledged look at it.  He keeps it like a startling nightmare – brief glimpses that horrify, much like Jaws.  Unlike Jaws though, it wasn’t out of a necessity of the creature not working or being well designed, it was an artistic decision that worked brilliantly.  There’s a lot of crap that was spawned from this film with bad sequels, poorly conceived crossovers, and a prequel that has proved divisive for many.  Still, I can watch this film as a self-contained entity, and when done so, you can immensely appreciate that Ridley Scott and his vast team of highly talented artists and filmmakers made a stunning and iconic piece of science fiction horror.


Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man 2I do like this sequel.  I’ve never vocalized any criticism of it because it is fun and enjoyable, but yeah, it does have some problems that should be pointed out.  Probably its biggest is a few too many plot threads running through it.  They never make the film incomprehensible, just a little bloated, but there is the fact that the film constantly veers off track by following the wrong story after not too long.  It had promise at the start, but let’s see how exactly they dash that.

Now that Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has revealed to the world that he is Iron Man, the entire world is now eager to get their hands on his hot technology – whether it’s the United States government, weapons contractors, or an unknown enemy.  That enemy happens to be Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) – the son of now deceased Anton Vanko, Howard Stark’s former partner.  Stark had Vanko banished to Russia for conspiring to commit treason against the US, and now Ivan wants revenge against Tony – and he’s willing to get it at any cost.  But after being humiliated in front of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, rival weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) sees Ivan as the key to upping his status against Stark Industries after an attack on the Monaco 500.  All the while, an ailing Tony has to figure out a way to save himself, stop Vanko, and get Hammer before the government shows up and takes his beloved suits away.

Simply said, I think Iron Man 2 could have been a better movie if it didn’t overload itself with so many plots.  The story we get with Tony dealing with a self-destructive mentality has some great stuff in it.  Instead of dealing with alcoholism, which has been a major issue for Stark in the comics, it deals with his failing health due to issues with his arc reactor.  What’s saving his life is also killing him is a fine idea.  I do like that this ties into Ivan Vanko and Howard Stark, creating something that appears cohesive in concept.  Yet, adding in all the unneeded machinations of Justin Hammer and the S.H.I.E.L.D. plot elements convolutes things, taking away the focus and poignancy of the core story.

I feel that everything directly involving Tony dealing with his father’s legacy, and rebuilding himself is excellent.  It creates the weight and gravity of the film, and it is what I love about Iron Man 2.  While it does seem like the filmmakers kind of took Tony back a step from the more altruistic and compassionate guy he became in the last film, I can see how Tony’s deteriorating health could alter his personality and disposition.  Once Tony’s health is on the upswing, and he becomes inspired by his father’s legacy, he rises back up to being that hero we knew.  Still, that kicks in for the third act, and so, for the majority of the picture, we have the more self-absorbed, self-destructive Tony Stark.  Downey continues to do a fantastic job in the role bringing his charm and charisma into the fold to maintain Tony as likeable even if he’s being a belligerent ass.  You know there’s a better guy underneath and he just needs a kick in the back side to open his eyes and mind again.

Obviously, I really liked Terrence Howard as Rhodey, but after a disagreement over money, Marvel replaced him with the equally talented Don Cheadle.  He does a fine job following up on what Howard did, but admittedly, I can’t help but constantly think how Howard might’ve played things a little differently.  That’s not a knock on Cheadle, who I love, just the unfortunate fact of having to re-cast a role.  Regardless, Don Cheadle is a strong fit for this role focusing more on a character of serious candor and conviction with a few touches of humor.  We still get moments of compassion from Rhodey, but he’s forced into a more conflicted role of trying to help Tony, even went it turns adversarial, while maintaining loyalty to the U.S. military.  Cheadle takes the role and runs with it adding his own vibe and depth to it while not betraying what was done previously.

Scarlet Johansen is amazingly sexy and killer as Black Widow.  She’s got some sharp, alluring chemistry with Downey.  Natasha Romanov is able to lead Stark on while also never giving into his advances, making her a very smart and assertive character.  When it comes time to kick ass, she is immensely impressive handling all the agile fighting skills beautifully.  She’s a wonderful and vibrant fit for this role.

On initial viewings, I found Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer to be nearly insufferable and obnoxious.  He came off like the lame guy at the party trying to act like the coolest guy at the party and failing.  I understand that this is sort of the intention with the character.  Make him seem like a second rate Tony Stark who is more lame by trying to be cool, but annoying is sort of what I got out of the performance.  The film sets him up as this inferior and incompetent competitor to Stark, and he never becomes anything but incompetent and egotistical.  No one in the film is really buying any of the bull he’s selling, especially Vanko, and you can see that even he views Hammer as a foolish, abrasive joke.  Rockwell is a highly talented actor with many various talents, but I think this character is too much.  He eats up so much scenery and screentime while being one of the least consequential characters in the movie.  At times, I can enjoy him more now, finding some humor in what Hammer is doing, especially during his weapons presentation to Rhodey, but the film really would have been far better off without this character.

It’s almost sad that Hammer has so much screentime compared to Mickey Rourke.  While Ivan Vanko’s story is simply revenge, it has more potential substance than Hammer’s purely ego-driven scheme.  It would’ve pushed the more internal conflicts with Tony into the foreground, and have Vanko represent everything wrong and twisted with his family’s legacy.  Rourke can be a fantastic actor, or in the least, a very entertaining one.  There are scenes here where Rourke does very solid dramatic work, especially when Vanko and Stark meet after the Monaco incident.  Rourke makes this a great, intimidating, and menacing villain that should have been the main threat throughout the movie.  Yet, he quickly becomes relegated to be a minor character after he joins up with Hammer, and even the conclusion to his part of the film is very dismissive as a generic “villain in a suit” throwaway action sequence.  With so many plot threads weaving through this film, it seems the filmmakers lost sight partway through of what was pertinent to the core story and what was just entertaining fluff.

The scene between Vanko and Stark after the race track incident is the best scene of the film, and it is terribly wasted.  The thematic material Vanko brings up in it and the questions about the Stark family legacy are barely followed through on in the remainder of the film.  This scene establishes a serious, dramatic tone that is not really revisited.  Even in the trailers, this was the dramatic hook for me.  If this set the tone for the remainder of the film, it would have been a tremendously solid film, but alas, that was not to be.

Again, the film is a little over bloated and a bit indulgent.  Stuff about Vanko obsessing over his bird is entirely frivolous, but thankfully, doesn’t take up more than a few minutes of screentime.  Yet, the film has little moments like this where it indulges in extraneous junk, such as in the Senate Committee meeting.  The film gets cluttered with too much junk that it can’t see the track to stay on it.  The main plot of this film deals with Tony Stark falling apart and having to rebuild himself by rediscovering his father’s legacy.  That’s apparent right from the beginning, and it would have flowed very well if the film dealt mainly with Ivan Vanko’s intentions of revenge.  It would all thematically tie in solidly, but again, it is the Justin Hammer aspect that disrupts that plotline of the film.  The first part of the film through Vanko’s incarceration is great to me.  It felt like the film was on-track, for the most part, towards a meaty story filled with emotional resonance.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t maintain that because the filmmakers felt it was necessary to add a second, frivolous villain who overshadows the more superior and relevant villain.  This really is my main gripe with the movie, and it is why I keep harping on it.  Vanko has strong motivations based in bitter emotions that make him a formidable adversary.  Hammer just has ego going for him, and that is just not very interesting.  Beyond that, he’s just a lame character good merely for small jokes, not a forefront storyline.

Now, people say that this film being a setup for The Avengers is its biggest problem.  Frankly, that is barely part of the movie.  Yes, there are ways you could have written Nick Fury and Black Widow out of this for a tighter, less crowded movie, but let’s look at what they contribute to the film.  They provide Tony with an injection that curbs the symptoms of his ailment, provide him with further knowledge into his father which leads to Tony discovering the new element to power his Arc reactor, and Black Widow helps to stop Vanko’s assault with the Hammer Drones.  They don’t actually impede upon the plot, or wedge their own plot into the film, they are part of the on-going plot of the movie.  They assist Stark with various aspects of it, and while they are there in order for there to be a segue into The Avengers and more concretely establish S.H.I.E.L.D., they don’t hijack the movie from Iron Man.  It’s still his movie, and they just happen to be in it.

On the upside, Iron Man 2 does feature some excellent action sequences.  They are all different and exciting from Vanko’s attack on the race track, which creates a sense of grave peril, to the fast-paced finale teaming Iron Man and War Machine together against the Hammer Drones.  It does have less action than the first film, but what Jon Favreau and his creative team of filmmakers achieved with these sequences is still excellent.  There’s enough plot going on to maintain a rhythm and pace in the film for it to survive and mostly thrive without the aid of additional action sequences.  I do feel that the Hammer Drone attack is far more satisfying than when Vanko shows up in his Whiplash suit.  This is mainly because the Hammer Drone segment is just an action scene with the sole intent of delivering excitement in a smart and slick fashion.  Vanko’s conclusion, again, feels flat and secondary, at best.

Regardless of its problems, I still do find Iron Man 2 quite an enjoyable film with plenty of excitement, charisma, mostly great performances, and some very smart ideas for evolving Tony’s character.  I do think that Marvel Studios had all the right talent and elements, but weren’t able to either trim them down for a leaner story or arrange them in the most effective order.  You could have Justin Hammer be in the film without him dominating so much of the plot.  He could easily be a more minor character enabling Vanko, who remains in the forefront enhancing the thematic elements of the story.  In any case, many do see this film as a stumbling block in just the Iron Man franchise, but I’m far from thinking it’s terrible.  I know others disagree.  It’s a film that still had substance and evident talent behind it which still manages to be entertaining, in my view.


Iron Man (2008)

M Payoff 1shtSometimes, when you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.  That’s how I feel about the Marvel films.  Until Iron Man, I don’t think anyone entirely handled the Marvel Comics properties correctly on a consistent basis, and so, it took until Marvel Studios was launched for a cohesive and high quality franchise of films to be created.  This was the groundwork, and on every level, it was a stunning success.

Billionaire industrialist and genius inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the CEO of the leader in military weaponry, Stark Industries.  After Stark conducts a demonstration of the company’s state of the art Jericho Missile, his convoy is attacked and he is taken captive by a group of insurgents who want Stark to build him their own missile.  Instead, using his intelligence and ingenuity, Tony builds a high-tech suit of armor and a means to prevent his death from the shrapnel left in his chest by the attack.  Stark soon escapes captivity, and when he returns to the United States, he  changes his outlook on life, and begins to dedicate himself to peace instead of war.  He finds opposition and criticism from his closest confidants in business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), his best friend Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Terence Howard), and his smart and affectionate secretary Peppers Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).  Yet, when he uncovers a nefarious plot with global implications, Tony Stark dons his powerful armor and vows to protect the world as Iron Man.

This is absolutely one of the best superhero origin stories ever realized on film.  I had not been thoroughly impressed with any Marvel Comics movies before this since Blade.  Whether it was unfaithfulness to the source material, the wrong talent involved, or the wrong tone being implemented, nothing from X-Men to Daredevil to Spider-Man ever really got it completely right in my view.  Iron Man is a perfect example of handling it right.  This set an excellent tone for the full Marvel Cinematic Universe, and also reflects the tone of Marvel Comics, in general.  It can have good drama, but usually, Marvel Comics are meant to be largely fun and colorful.  Director Jon Favreau does an exemplary job meshing those ideas together in a very cohesive and entertaining film.

It’s beautiful how Favreau sets up and establishes Tony Stark here.  We get a dash of the charisma and personality followed by the awards ceremony video package detailing his history in short.  It gives you all the basics right up front in an entertaining and succinct fashion.  This style permeates the film being sharp, smart, and stylish.  It also reflects Stark’s personality.  He’s a man of sharp wit, arrogant intellect, but is irrefutably charming and fun.  I can hardly imagine anyone but Robert Downey, Jr. pulling off this diverse and engaging role.  The charming yet arrogant egotist is a major challenge, but it seems to come easy to Downey.  It’s that sense of heart and lovability he adds in there, especially opposite Paltrow, which allows Tony Stark to come off as a charismatic joy instead of a self-important jerk.  Downey is simply a vibrant, solid leading man who handles the dramatic, soul searching aspects of Tony Stark as strongly as the fun, humorous bits.  He’s compelling and electric on screen.  He makes that subtle, yet profound evolution from the self-important genius to the selfless, righteous hero masterfully.  He doesn’t just embody Tony Stark, he launches him into excellence.

Jeff Bridges does an excellent job as Obadiah Stane.  He’s an immensely diverse actor able to do the full spectrum from kind hearted hero to tough, gritty guy, and here, he gives us some taste of that whole range.  We get the upbeat, friendly guy who is very close to Tony, and can work an awards ceremony audience or a press conference with charisma and spin.  Then, we get the gradual transition to the intimidating, menacing villain.  It’s a masterful turn towards the corrupt businessman willing to sell out his company, best friend, and country for profit.  Bridges embraces all of these fascinating aspects with great zeal making Stane a very solid and smart enemy for Stark to combat.  In general, he just plays an awesome heavy.  And apparently, Bridges always wanted to shave his head for a role, and I think maybe that propelled his enjoyment of the character.

I also really love Terrence Howard.  He’s an amazing actor that I hold in high value.  As Lt. Colonel James Rhodes, he’s really a joy.  The strongest qualities are his vibrant chemistry with Downey, and the sense of compassion and honor he has.  Rhodey’s clearly a great character with a lot of depth and dynamics to offer, and I think Howard was wonderful in this part.  It’s a performance that gives us a character of potential, and while it’s unfortunate that Howard could not negotiate a return for the sequel, the character has yet to go to waste in any actor’s hands.  And of course, I’ve always loved the little tease of War Machine we get going into the third act.  It’s a great moment thrown out for fans, but also works smartly for non-comic fans.

And of course, Gwyneth Paltrow is wonderful as the sweet and smart Pepper Potts.  It’s great how Pepper brings out the heartfelt honesty in Tony, and Paltrow does that with some great subtlety and charm.  She makes Pepper this interesting person who can be very assertive and a sharp business personality, but then, get very sweet and flustered when trying to keep up with Tony’s rapid fire wit.  The chemistry between her and Downey is beautiful, and really allows for the humanity of Tony Stark to show through.

What we get here is a very strong and smart origin story that never bogs us down.  So many origin stories seem to suck up a lot of time just establishing every little element methodically before we get to see the hero come into being.  With Iron Man, the film unfolds at a tight rhythm always pushing the story and character forward to where you are fully invested in Tony Stark, and what he’s going through.  We see the man himself evolve and change his sensibilities in order to make Iron Man what he needs to be.  It is a story of redemption.  Stark is reforming his ways and becoming accountable for what his company does, and how his negligent behavior has facilitated Stane’s corruption of Stark Industries.  It’s qualities like this which make Stark one of the more fascinating Marvel superheroes.  He has a lot of bad behavior and decisions to make up for while trying to build a better, safer future for everyone.  The relationship with Pepper Potts beautifully reinforces the depth of humanity that is motivating Tony.  He wants to be a better person that saves lives instead of enabling war.

I love the motivating scene where Tony is watching the newscast of the Ten Rings having ravaged Yinsen’s hometown while he is working on the Iron Man gauntlet.  It’s that moment which triggers Stark into action as a protector doing what no one else can.  That is the moment where his purpose and path is clear.  He’s been betrayed by one of his closest friends, and sees that betrayal has lead to this level of tragedy and injustice.  He will not stand for it, and that is the scene where Iron Man is solidified.

We also get those great phases as Tony goes through the Mark I, Mark II, and Mark III armors gradually refining Iron Man.  Each one is excellently adapted from the pages of the comic book making them convincing as functional pieces of machinery.  The visual effects married with practical elements create a cohesive and seamless result.  These are top grade visual effects featured throughout this movie giving us dynamic, cinematic images that serve the story superbly.

This film has plenty of sharp, smart humor.  These moments really create the fun factor of Iron Man, and maintain the entertainment value in between the scenes of action and engaging drama.  They hit in just the right moments to highlight the well written and developed qualities of these characters.  And the dramatic qualities of Iron Man are executed with equally great skill and care.  The emotional weight and drive of this story is powerfully accentuated throughout.  Excellently directed by Jon Favreau, all of this results in a movie of great thrills.

This is just filled with wonderfully done action sequences.  They are never frivolous.  They drive the story and characters forward each time.  Stark has something to fight for each time whether it’s freedom, destruction of his back market sold weaponry, or protecting those he cares for, it all has a purpose to exist.  The action climax is beautifully done.  It has bombastic intensity and emotional stakes while all the while being fun and thrilling.  It is exceptionally satisfying.

Needless to say, Iron Man is one of the best comic book movies ever made.  The casting of Robert Downey, Jr. was brilliant and pitch perfect.  There are possibly other actors that could have done a fine job with the role, but what Downey brings is that sharp wit and charisma that instantly and endlessly entertains an audience while hitting all the dramatic beats beautifully.  Favreau was also ultimately a fantastic choice for a director bringing in a lot of those same elements from behind the camera.  This was an exciting, successful launch to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that little tease after the end credits of Tony getting a visit from Nick Fury drove fans crazy at the time.  What Marvel Studios has since done with this universe and franchise is an amazing achievement that is not ready to slow down anytime soon.


Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

Star Wars - Return of the JediAs it has been announced since the Disney acquisition of LucasFilm Ltd, this will, apparently, will not be the chronological end of the Star Wars movie saga after all.  A sequel trilogy following the exploits of the original cast is on track for a 2015 release helmed by J.J. Abrams.  What will come of a new trilogy remains to be seen, but for the original trilogy, it ended on a very good note even if it lacked a little something.  I think this is the one movie of the original trilogy that has declined over time for me.  There is so much depth and peril in The Empire Strikes Back that this movie feels a little starved for that, on the whole.  Yet, it is still a highly entertaining, rousing, and powerful film where it truly counts.  And no, I’ve never had a negative disposition towards the Ewoks.  I certainly understand the issue people have with their part in the film, but it’s never really bothered me.  So, let us journey back to a galaxy far, far away one more time.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) must travel to Tatooine to free Han Solo (Harrison Ford) by infiltrating the wretched stronghold of Jabba the Hutt, the galaxy’s most loathsome gangster.  Once reunited, the Rebels team up with tribes of Ewoks to combat the Imperial forces on the forest moon of Endor.  Meanwhile the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and Darth Vader conspire to turn Luke to the dark side, and young Skywalker is determined to rekindle the spirit of the Jedi within his father.  The Galactic Civil War culminates in the ultimate showdown, as the Rebel forces gather to attack the seemingly defenseless and incomplete second Death Star in the battle that will determine the fate of the galaxy.

This was actually the first Star Wars movie I saw theatrically, and I was all of three years old at the time.  All I remember from the experience was getting scared by the loud noises and the scared visage of Anakin Skywalker.  At that age, you can hardly blame me.  This film does follow up rather nicely on the cliffhanger plot threads of The Empire Strikes Back.  Scenes of Luke visiting Yoda and Obi-Wan are given substantial weight and the comfort of time to play out with importance.  Many were in disbelief at Darth Vader’s revelation in the previous film, and they required reliable confirmation.  There were no two better characters for that than these Jedi Masters.  This is the main crux of Luke’s storyline as he struggles with trying to pull his father back from the Dark Side, and it provides the weight of emotion throughout the picture.  It is a little unfortunate that some scenes were cut from the beginning of the film that would have made this a far more constant and overarching element of the film.  As it is, none of this is addressed until forty minutes into the movie in favor of the action set pieces of Han’s rescue from Jabba’s Palace.

Never get me wrong.  The Jabba’s Palace scenes are expertly done featuring some of the highest grade puppetry in live action films.  CGI has never done Jabba the Hutt justice over the original tangible puppet by Phil Tippett of ILM’s Creature Shop.  The palace scenes subject audiences to an eclectic menagerie of fantastical aliens that demonstrate a fertile imagination and talented ambition.  While everyone holds the Cantina scene from the first film as the groundbreaker, George Lucas truly made this the new gold standard, and achieved something amazing with his dedicated team at Industrial Light & Magic.  The atmosphere of the sets is almost classic noir with the smoke all around in this den of seediness and crime.  The Rancor scene, matte lines or no, is still an impressive piece of work that has always been an action highlight for me.  This is a great example of 1980s fantasy film visual effects where more organic, large scale creatures were integrated into live action.  And yes, indeed, I do vastly prefer the original musical numbers by the Max Reebo Band.  I am reviewing the original theatrical versions for a distinct reason here beyond just the fact that those are the ones I grew up with and fell in love with.  Overall, this entire section of the movie is amazingly well done in every aspect, but unlike the previous movies, it takes quite a while for the story, action, and drama to pick up.  Even with Empire, while it didn’t have a rousing opening, it still had danger and peril to create dramatic momentum.  Return of the Jedi feels like it lacks an element of excitement and momentum from its outset.

The one thing that I really have come to notice lately about the structure of the film is a marked lack of intercutting storylines.  The previous two films used this story structure technique to maintain a tight rhythm and up tempo pace.  This made it feel like plots were progressing, and characters were converging.  With Return of the Jedi, there’s barely any such regular intercutting until the final third of the film.  Anything we do get before then is slowly plotted.  The entire Tatoonie sequence, which runs thirty minutes long, is presented without a single cutaway or linking element to anything else in the film.  It runs along as its own isolated adventure.  While it is smartly written, beautifully executed, and tightly edited, it is this structural issue that makes the film feel too compartmentalized.  There are a lot of long sequences in this film that tend to drag the pace of it down, but in the least, they have character building and storyline progressing purposes.  Still, maybe it’s just the familiarity of time, but that more deliberate pace seems to work towards the more somber tone for the end of a trilogy where character and story reach their ultimate juncture.  They take on a far more important role than action, which is commendable.  I’ve felt that the film has lacked something poignant or substantive for the longest time, but maybe it’s not so much an issue of what’s not there but how what is there is presented in terms of structure and rhythm.  Just about everything that needs to be there is there, but maybe it could’ve used some greater peril to give it more punch.

I think I have to agree with Harrison Ford and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan in that the film really needed a genuine low point.  Both of them firmly believed that Han Solo should have died to give the film that grave sense of peril and consequence.  This is probably the film where Solo has the least substantive things to do with no arc to traverse, and he does seem like he’s more just along for the ride instead of having much poignancy to the plot turns.  I’m certainly not saying that I would have wanted to see Han die, but I understand where Ford and Kasdan were both coming from.  In A New Hope, there were the deaths of Aunt Beru, Uncle Owen, and Ben Kenobi to give the film peril and gravity, and in The Empire Strikes Back, there were low points abound creating an emotional contrast and sense of real danger for the characters.  Luke surely has his dark moments in his confrontation with Vader and the Emperor, but they only resonate for about a moment.  The triumph of the heroes would hold more weight if we had felt some strong sacrifice or loss from them.

Now, there is a question of who really directed the bulk of this film.  While Richard Marquand is the credited director, many claim George Lucas was far more hands-on throughout production as many of the actors did not respond well to Marquand.  To me, there doesn’t appear to be any noticeable evidence to this effect.  This is a well-directed movie.  The Empire Strikes Back is a brilliant movie in all aspects for many reasons.  With Jedi, any problems it does have are really not a fault of direction, just a slower pace that may not have given quite as much prominent screentime to the Vader-Luke plot.  What we get of it is substantive and right-on-the-mark, but there’s not much thematic material in the film beyond this.  Rescuing Han from Jabba, or running through the forest with Ewoks is just fun adventure stuff.  The crux of this saga at this point is what is transpiring both internally and externally amongst Luke and Vader, and with so much meaty depth built-up between them in The Empire Strikes Back, I would’ve liked to have more of that spread throughout this movie.  I would’ve liked to see more of that internal conflict show through and be dealt with.  Ultimately, the film feels a little too light too often for what dramatic weight it is building up to in order to conclude the trilogy.

Regardless, this film features some of the best action scenes in the whole saga.  The rescue from Jabba’s sail barge is a rousing, fun, swashbuckling adventure piece where everyone gets their moment of heroism and excitement.  It’s great to see the full team of heroes together fighting against a large force, and faring better than they ever have before. This triumph is a great counterbalance to how we left them at the end of the previous movie.  It also builds up Luke as we know he was the architect of this plan, and the carefully crafted quality of it all demonstrates his maturing role as a leader and Jedi Knight beautifully.  The speeder bike chase is still fantastic making fine use of blue screen effects and optical composites to create this dangerous, high speed sequence.  And I hold the entire space battle sequence as the best I’ve ever seen.  What impresses me is the depth of elements piled into this energetic and dynamic battle above the moon of Endor.  Yet, they never clutter the frame, only add to the scope and visual storytelling of this climax.  The technical achievement of this sequence is amazing in the age of optical composites, and it still holds up solidly to any CGI creation made today.  This is further reinforced by this film’s Academy Award win for special achievement in visual effects.  Beyond just that, it has great tension, danger, and stellar dog fighting.  The entire three-way intercut climax gives everyone something purposeful to do, and no one ever gets lost in the mix.  Nor does it bog it down with any extraneous story elements.  It’s all evenly balanced and clearly conveyed to an audience.  It’s the most hair-raising, exhilarating, and epic climax in the saga, to date.

Now, again, I’ve never had an issue with the Ewoks.  I just always accepted them.  If I have any qualm about Endor is that it never feels sufficiently alien.  At least Tatoonie had alien creatures and felt like a full barren world, much the same for Hoth.  Meanwhile, Dagobah was lush with its own vibrant, otherworldly life.  Endor just feels too terrestrial with no unique personality.  There are times when it has a nice, moody feel, but that occurs in scenes that were surely shot on a soundstage.  There’s good production design with the Ewok village and a few nice matte paintings, but overall, Endor is a bit of a visual letdown.

The final confrontation with Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor is fantastically crafted and executed.  I like that the lightsaber battle is almost ancillary to the emotional and psychological struggle playing out between these three characters.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous Star Wars movie review, the lightsaber battles are really a plot device to motivate characters and events forward.  The action is not really the focus, it’s the character interactions and dynamics.  The temptation from the Emperor is masterful and devilish, and Ian McDiarmid plays it so damn good.  He never treads the line of over the top acting.  He keeps the Emperor a very real and frightening threat.  He has all this power over so many, and he barely has to raise a finger to exercise his will.  His power is in McDiarmid’s dark mystique and subtle, brilliant villainy.  What we see in this climax is a seduction to the Dark Side done correctly.  A little push here and there, edging Luke towards the unleashing of his emotions shows the cunning psychological manipulation that the Emperor possesses.  The symbolism we get when Luke finally lashes out and severs Vader’s hand is just brilliant.  The strength of Luke’s character and belief in his father shines through with inspiring honor as he throws down his arms and refuses to give in to the Dark Side.  He’s able to resist the temptation because he is not a selfish person.  There are good people that he believes in, and those that believe in him.  I like that even Obi-Wan tells Luke that his emotions do him credit.  Coupled with his maturity, Luke’s loyalty and emotional connections can lead him to the right decisions where we later saw that Anakin’s more intense, selfish emotions were his downfall.  I also like the motif of Luke’s attire.  In the first movie, it’s all white, in the next, it’s gray, and in Return of the Jedi, he’s all in black.  It shows a certain spectral progression for him, but ultimately, his journey is not towards darkness but bringing his father out of it.

The maturing of Luke Skywalker is one of the beauties of this trilogy for me.  Mark Hamill matures with the character from an eager young man desiring adventure to a far wiser, confident, and intelligent adult.  Luke’s learned a lot from his first encounter with Vader.  He’s no longer impatience and impulsive.  He makes calm, calculated, and selfless decisions towards ends he believes in with his heart and mind.  He’s more than just a respectable leader at this point, he’s a true Jedi that has taken the best qualities of those that came before and of himself.  Each film evolved Luke Skywalker another step forward which resulted in this wonderful, noble, and honorable hero.  Mark Hamill brings a fresh strength and air of subtle mystique to the role in this film.  He taps a little into what Alec Guiness had in the original Star Wars, but with the added aspect of optimism and hope.  He has not been weathered by defeat, but instead, made stronger and more decisive by it.  I think very highly of Mark Hamill’s acting talents, and I am excited to see what he will be able to achieve in this new sequel trilogy.

The ultimate pay-off in this movie is the beautiful way that Vader redeems himself.  I’m not going to analyze this in relation to the prequels.  I’m going to say that this has always been one of my favorite moments of the saga.  The silent contemplation, the internal struggle you can read so deeply into Vader’s scuffed up mask while Luke is on the verge of death from the Emperor’s Force lighting is just brilliant and gorgeous.  Vader doesn’t have to say a word, his actions speak emphatically for him.  The unmasking of Anakin Skywalker is beautifully touching, and the funeral pyre has always been a beloved moment for me.  John Williams’ score is amazingly heartfelt and wonderful here.  I also love the chorus-backed score in the climax.  His work is fantastic throughout this film, as always.  This saga would lose something immensely profound if John Williams had not been involved, and I hope that the sequel trilogy will maintain the integrity of his musical brilliance.

There is a great deal of good content in Return of the Jedi, but I wish the film had a stronger opening to pull me in more.  That’s what usually turns me off, initially, to the movie.  It takes a while for it to get exciting, much longer than most of the Star Wars films, but once it gets there, it’s great stuff!  This film has all the elements it needed, and delivers spectacularly on the plot threads and conflicts established in The Empire Strikes Back.  In the end, I do wish there was a little more meat on the bone to bring those aspects of character depth and conflict more into the forefront of the film instead of lingering in the background for most of the runtime.  Regardless, this is a fine conclusion to the trilogy that does satisfy on many levels, especially on fresh action scenes and emotional pay-offs.  Despite any shortcomings, this is still a pure, fun, and exciting Star Wars adventure that you cannot go without experiencing!


G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

g_i_joe_ver11Growing up in the 80’s I was a fan of G.I. Joe, and owned many of the toys that the cartoon generated.  However, I was never that hardcore of a fan.  As I grew up, the franchise didn’t stick with me as I gravitated towards Transformers overall.  When this live action movie, directed by Stephen Sommers, was being made and released, it didn’t grab my attention.  I didn’t give it a chance until a strongly opinionated friend of mine, who was a big G.I. Joe fan, stated that he did enjoy this movie.  One iTunes rental later, and I was approving of this movie.  Yes, it has problems, and has some serious unfaithfulness to the source material, but it’s a big, enjoyable science fiction stylized action movie, regardless.

Two soldiers stationed in Kazakhstan, Captain “Duke” Hauser (Channing Tatum) and his partner Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), are ordered to transport special warheads created by MARS, an arms manufacturer controlled by James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston).  When they are attacked by a highly advanced terrorist group, led by Baroness Anastasia DeCobray (Sienna Miller), they are saved by a top secret, international special forces unit known as G.I. Joe.  The leader of G.I. Joe, General “Hawk” Abernathy (Dennis Quaid) is on the trail of these thieves: an evil organization called Cobra.  While Duke and Ripcord train to join the Joes, McCullen is secretly working for Cobra and plotting to recapture his metal-eating “Nanomite” warheads.  Duke and Ripcord, with help from Heavy Duty, Snake Eyes, Scarlett, and the rest of the Joes, must prove that they are Real American Heroes by stopping the launch of these warheads before Cobra uses them to take over the world.

There are several alterations to characters and their relationships from the familiar comic book and cartoon source material.  Why filmmakers have this compulsion to make changes of these kinds escape me.  I don’t mind adapting a concept or idea to suit the live action filmed media as opposed to the more fantastical mediums of comic books and cartoons.  However, the changes here didn’t need to be made to make the idea of G.I. Joe work as a live action movie.  They were simply creative decisions made for whatever reason to tell the story these filmmakers wanted to tell, despite whether or not it fit into who these characters had been for over a quarter century.  I’ll touch on these as I comment on some of the cast, as I have done some light research to understand the divergences at hand.

This movie has some acting talents that seem questionable to me at both the time it was released and in retrospect.  Obviously knowing Marlon Wayans from increasingly badly received comedic vehicles, he was the most peculiar casting choice.  While Wayans’ character of Ripcord does have a playful, somewhat silly personality at times, he’s decently enjoyable once you begin to take the film as a light, popcorn movie adventure.  He even has a moment or two of charm as he begins to develop some friendly relations with Rachel Nichols’ Scarlett.  As the film goes on, and the threats become more serious and imminent, Wayans rises to the occasion to make for a nicely respectable cog in this action centric cast.

Channing Tatum is someone that I’ve come to know as a rather uncharismatic actor with not much to offer.  While he surely doesn’t give us anything close to the Duke fans knew from the original cartoon series, who was a very strong, authoritative commanding officer, he is fine in this younger iteration of Conrad “Duke” Hauser.  It’s not a particularly dimensional performance, which could have helped in some instances, but Tatum decently fits the role as written.  It’s fortunate that the film has so many characters you can fixate on so not to be distracted by Tatum’s limited abilities.  It’s not an outright groan inducing performance, just a flat one that is aided by some decent comedic chemistry with Wayans.  Still, a far better actor was surely available to cast in this role to make him a more standout lead instead of blending into the ensemble.

Thankfully, we have some strong, vibrant villains to enjoy.  Christopher Eccleston is sophisticated, intelligent, but also despicably vile.  He injects charisma and slick savvy into McCullen, aka Destro, that is distinctly different from his Sunbow cartoon incarnation, but ultimately, follows the character as he has been developed through other media over the years.  Eccleston has a very good presence conveying a contemptuous weight towards the world without it feeling one dimensional.  He has a very elaborate, smartly devised plan to place himself in control of the world.  He works greatly as a global level villain whose motives nor agendas are shallow in the least.  Plus, the English actor works a very solid Scottish accent.

The filmmakers made serious changes to the Baroness, who is supposed to be an Eastern European straight-up villain, but is now simply Duke’s American ex-girlfriend Anna Lewis who has been specially manipulated into being a villain.  Regardless of this, Sienna Miller is endlessly and immensely hot in this very femme fatale role.  She plays it with a lot of bite and sexy assertiveness.  She is a bad ass villain that would’ve been perfect if the filmmakers played it faithful, but as it is, she does a damn good job making the Baroness alluring, dangerous, and intriguing.  Essentially, this character change was made in order to create a romantic relationship for Duke to grapple with, and while it’s nicely executed, it still would’ve been more pleasing to see the real Baroness here.

Lee Byung-hun and Ray Park are probably the best parts of this movie portraying Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, respectively.  Both characters are straight awesome here.  Storm Shadow is beautifully lethal and stealthy with a real cutthroat, edgy presence.  I think he truly lived up to many fans’ expectations through an excellent, sharp performance.  Obviously, Snake Eyes has no dialogue, but Ray Park’s expert athletic and martial arts talents shine through.

Cobra Commander is here in this movie, but doesn’t declare himself to be as such until the end.  We are essentially given an origin story for him that is very much inline with that of the Baroness.  For those that haven’t seen the movie, I don’t wish spoil the film’s intended surprises, but let’s say that it’s not the Cobra Commander you’re used to or expect.  He was my favorite character from the 80’s cartoon series due to being a rather excitable, egotistical fool, and even there, his back story was never entirely consistent.  What we even got in the animated movie was not very palatable to me.  So, when I saw this movie, none of this new back story really hit a bad nerve, but it would have been nice if the filmmakers attempted to make him look like Cobra Commander in his final moments on-screen.  Reportedly, they were fixated on the hooded look for the character, and avoided using it for understandable iconography reasons.  Still, as the sequel demonstrates, the chrome masked version was easily adaptable, and its absence comes off as even stranger since the filmmakers put an odd translucent mask on him at the end, anyway.

The question is if all of these objectionable changes make this a poor movie.  I suppose that depends on your perspective.  I would imagine many very serious G.I. Joe fans with a knowledgeable and loyal history for the franchise would be upset by these arbitrary alterations.  For a more casual fan, like myself, they don’t break the movie, but certainly make it less than it potentially could have been.  It’s a tad surprising that this movie was co-written by Stuart Beattie, who I recently gave vast amounts of credit for his screenplay for Michael Mann’s Collateral.  That was a brilliant, introspective movie of great, unique depth.  This is far from that.  Beattie’s co-writers have shallow filmographies with nothing much to really say they are exceptionally good or bad screenwriters.  I’m not saying that this script is bad, though it has some shortcomings and flaws, but in terms of attempting to be a faithful adaptation, it has a lot of wrong turns that I’m not sure who is to directly blame for them.

Now, the quality of the CGI here is about standard for a Stephen Sommers movie, unfortunately.  The effects in The Mummy were really good for 1999, and still hold up fairly well today.  However, Sommers’ films have since become larger scale productions requiring more elaborate visual effects, and this is evidence of that.  The CGI is used extensively, and is not really that good to be given so much screentime.  Among six visual effects companies that worked on this, there’s no real distinguishing level of quality.  I would be hard pressed to say any of the visual effects shots are anywhere in the neighborhood of great.

Still, despite the lacking digital effects, Sommers delivers some solid action sequences.  They are big, explosives scenes with some inventive ideas and nicely choreographed fights.  All of this action is very well shot showing that Sommers knows how to present and construct action sequences very competently.  Plus, he knows how to inject a real sense of entertainment value into everything, even if some of the funny bits are somewhat extraneous.  Still, the sprinkles of comedy entirely suit Sommers’ style that we saw in The Mummy and so on.  A definite action highlight is seeing Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow battle, and Sommers treats it as a special attraction.  There’s an early on battle between them, but the climax gives us the real juicy stuff.  It’s just bad ass all the way through, if delivered sparingly, and I only wish there was more of it.  Hopefully, I will get my wish in the sequel.

While G.I. Joe always had a bit of advanced technology giving it all a slight science fiction edge to it, this movie really pushes that full boar by even stating it takes places in the “not too distant future.”  This is a movie of very advanced technology with people communicating through holograms, using nanomite weaponry, energy based weapons, entire underwater Antarctic lairs, and various other fantastical items.  It does fit alongside much of the established franchise mentality, but it probably pushed the envelope further than it needed to.  I like a little high tech gadgetry in G.I. Joe to make it feel special and unique, but I think a live action movie should probably ground the ideas more.  Take it more away from the cartoony aspects, and make it a little tougher, more hard edged with contemporary weapons.  While I found the film fun, this film franchise really does need to go that direction so it can plant its feet in the ground and push forward with a strong foundation.  Take away the almost cyborg-like accelerator suits and the energy guns, and give us more down and dirty stuff.  Ultimately, I think that sells easier and stronger to a wide audience.  We can take a little fantastical science fiction every now and then, but if you’re setting the film in a recognizably contemporary time and not the especially distant future, sell it that way.  Give us a bad ass military guy unloading live rounds from a machine gun.  Laser weapons were used in the cartoons because they were cartoons.  You couldn’t show people getting shot with bullets and dying in that medium.  This is a live action PG-13 movie.  Mature the content a little, and give action fans and the adults who were kids in the 80s something that appeals to them more.  Don’t make it too violent, but do enough to be bad ass, which is what the soon-to-be-released sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, seems to have done.  Still, we’ll see about that in a few days.

The climax itself is full of plenty of action with both Ripcord piloting a Night Raven jet to intercept McCullen’s nanomite warhead missiles, and the assault on McCullen’s Antarctic lair.  Like with the whole film, it’s tightly edited with constant energy propelling the story forward.  The dramatic tension is kept high, and these intercut storylines flow very well.  We get some very good, heroic pay-offs, but we ultimately understand that this is just the setup.  G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is the story that puts all the heroes and villains into their proper places to give the franchise a launching point.  Plots have still been set in motion by Destro and Cobra Commander that will be followed up on in the next film.

Again, this is a film that I do find enjoyment from, but surely not frequently as I’ve watched it maybe four times in three years.  It’s a nice, enjoyable ride with some very well executed action sequences that do aim to please, and a fine dash of humor and levity to keep it fun.  It has a decent cast that generally does enough to be closer to Stephen Sommers better work, but it’s still a movie that could’ve benefitted from some better creative direction.  I’m hesitant to give it a big endorsement because, again, there’s plenty of bad CGI all over the place and it fails to faithfully adapt the source material.  For what it is, I think it’s mostly well done.  It’s not the G.I. Joe movie that fans wanted or expected.  The animated movie really diverted into very strange territory that I still find not to my taste.  I don’t own that movie, but I do own this one.  It’s closer to what a G.I. Joe movie should be focusing on terrorism and advanced technological warfare, but it did need someone at the helm that could shape it into what the fans desired.  I do think it’s a better movie than reputation has seemed to label it with.  There is plenty of entertainment value that surely never gets to the annoying levels of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.  I would recommend giving it a chance, but knowing that it still falls short of its potential in several areas.  If for nothing else, it’s worth seeing Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes clash.


Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2 Judgment DayTerminator 2: Judgment Day is still one of the best action blockbusters ever made.  There was no equal in 1991.  I hadn’t even seen the film until a few years later, and I knew all the catch phrases and iconography from it.  This movie almost instantly came into the pop culture vernacular.  Many films today are huge blockbuster successes, but they don’t make the impact that T2 did.  While I consider The Terminator to be the best of the franchise and of Cameron’s career, this is one amazing second best to have that is massively better than most peoples’ number ones.  A few years ago I even had the pleasure of seeing Terminator 2 on the big screen thanks to a regular retro summer film series as my local Marcus Theatre, and it still felt like an event to me.

Over ten years after a killer cyborg was sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), her son John (Eddie Furlong), the future leader of the human resistance, is targeted by a more advanced Terminator – the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a liquid metal based machine able to take on nearly any form.  John’s only hope for survival is a re-programmed Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent by his future self to protect him.  Meanwhile, Sarah has become a quintessential survivor who has been institutionalized for her warning of the nuclear holocaust she knows is inevitable.  When these heroes converge while eluding the T-1000, the idea is sparked that Judgment Day could be averted by wiping out SkyNet’s entire existence.

Terminator 2 is one of those blockbuster movies that you really can’t call yourself an action fan if you haven’t seen it.  It is a masterfully crafted and executed piece of sci-fi action cinema that melds together the key signatures of James Cameron’s style.  It has heart, humanity, emotion, depth, character, thematic weight, and bombast all in plentiful amounts.  While I love the first movie for its killer pace, storytelling innovations, and intensity, this really is the big budget James Cameron style refined and smoothed out.  Aliens was his first foray into that style, but I think that film did drag in too many places killing the pace and momentum of the narrative frequently.  This film is a vast improvement over that.  While we don’t get that same innovation of storytelling like imparting exposition during a frenetic chase sequence, considering the complex nature of the T-1000, I think having a calmer scene to convey those “harder to wrap your head around” ideas is the better way to go.  The film has more important things to deal with overall than the frenetic action sequences, mostly.

Now, I may have had the Special Edition in my mind too prominently when thinking about the overall pacing of the film when writing my review of The Terminator.  While that cut does have many great additional scenes that build character and story beautifully, it loses some tighter editing and storytelling cohesion that the theatrical cut possesses.  For these reasons, Jim Cameron considers the theatrical version to be the better cut of the film.  Where the Special Edition lags a lot in the second act, giving us a lot more slow scenes of character building and such, the theatrical version is much tighter.  It moves along in a more streamlined fashion allowing a few bits and pieces to be logically filled in by the audience, and to direct the focus of the story more consistently on John, Sarah, and the T-800.  All of these additional scenes are well conceived and well executed, and I surely endorse watching the Special Edition for a more expanded view of this amazing story.  Still, it is the theatrical cut I am focusing on for this review because it is Cameron’s preferred version, just like with the Special Edition of Aliens.

It’s great that the movie begins very similarly to the first.  We get the future war sequence showing us more than before, but instead of a paragraph of text on screen, we get the Sarah Connor narration that sets the epic, emotional mood greatly.  Then, we see the T-800 appear and assault some people while seeking some suitable attire, just like in the original.  While many know going into the movie that Arnold plays the good Terminator in this film, Cameron sets it up as if you do not have that knowledge.  It treats both Terminators as potential lethal threats.  Yet, while the T-800 gets a shot of levity with the George Thorogood track “Bad to the Bone,” the T-1000 is given a far more threatening vibe throughout.  Still, Kyle Reese was initially presented in a dangerous, threatening capacity as well.  So, someone watching this cold could not wholly be certain when paralleling this sequel to the original movie.

The film plays on your misconceptions of being uncertain which time traveler is the threat, and it’s an even greater scene when Sarah herself encounters the T-800 during her attempted escape from the mental hospital.  Giving Arnold the line of, “Come with me if you want to live,” is excellent creating a surreal moment for Sarah, but one that resonates with her and the audience.  We already know this Terminator is here to protect, but making even the slightest connection of trust between Sarah and the Terminator is immensely important.  The scene is also excellent in that all of our main characters have converged, and finally sets the story along on its ultimate path in exciting fashion.

Everything I praise this film for goes along with praising James Cameron’s directing abilities, but also, I think this is probably his best screenplay.  It’s very smart taking the ideas of a formulaic sequel and making tweaks and twists here and there to keep the ideas fresh.  Cameron then builds upon every idea from the first film and expands upon it for a much larger story that digs even deeper into the humanity of these characters and ideas.  I do have one critique to get to much later on that affects the climax, but with the substance of the characters, themes, and story, I don’t think anyone could’ve done a better job developing and fleshing out these ideas.  Cameron really wrote a fantastic screenplay alongside co-writer William Wisher.  On the Cameron-Wisher audio commentary the Extreme Edition DVD, Wisher states that he has never worked on a film before or since that so precisely realized on screen what he envisioned in his head while writing it.  That’s a testament to Cameron’s filmmaking abilities, and the excellent quality of this motion picture.  He knew how to hit it directly on the head, and translate his vision to film in a near flawless fashion.

It is amazing how the film is able to humanize Arnold’s Terminator.  He eventually becomes our full-fledged hero, and the one we are wholly rooting for.  This is accomplished through so many elements.  From early on, John is instilling little pieces of morality and humanity into the T-800 that slowly pay-off.  The shift in the character is entirely seamless.  In almost every scene there is a subtle evolution that molds him from that cold, stoic cyborg into a character of personality and humanity.  You feel for this machine like you would for any noble, honorable, compassionate hero.  The relationship built between John and the Terminator becomes powerful and heartbreakingly emotional by the end.  The final moments between Sarah Connor and the Terminator are powerful, and her final words of narration are amazing.  It seems like something you’re not even aware of happening during the course of the movie, but once you’re there in those moments, you do feel something poignant for this character who was just a one dimensional bad ass who is now complex and dimensional.  It is surely one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finest, most subtle, and nuanced performances.  He is exceptional throughout this movie.

Linda Hamilton is scary here.  She goes from that wholesome, tender, but tough woman we saw with Kyle Reese to this near psychotic, militaristic, violent woman, and she makes it work stunningly.  If you knew the exact date that the world would suffer a nuclear holocaust, you would go a little insane and violent as well.  Especially if everyone you told didn’t believe you.  Hamilton got into such intense physical shape she even scared Arnold a bit.  She handles the physical demands of this film with shocking ability and precision.  The training she went through in every aspect honed the character into the hardened, effective weapon we see.  Performance wise, Linda Hamilton is amazing all the way through showing the profound inner turmoil and despair that has enveloped Sarah, but also the psychological mess that she has become living with this imminent apocalyptic knowledge.  Everyone around her is a walking corpse to her.  They’re ghosts who don’t know that they’re dead, yet.  That’s a scary mindset to live in, and Linda Hamilton goes full boar into the depths of Sarah’s corrupted psyche.  She has lost hope for herself and humanity, but she goes on a journey here to regain that hope.  Even when she attempts to kill Miles Dyson, despite trying to be as cold as the Terminator herself, when forced to look Dyson in the eye face-to-face, her humanity will not allow her to take an innocent life.  Hamilton is just a whole different animal in this movie, and it is a complex and powerful character that she brings to life.

Eddie Furlong is quite impressive in this, his first acting role.  He had a lot of help along the way to bring out his talent and mold it for this performance.  His John Connor has a fine arc going from this rebellious punk kid who respects no form of authority, and has little emotional attachment to anyone, to forging some massively strong bonds with both his mother and the T-800.  We see a vibrant emotional range from Furlong, and he meshes perfectly with Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.  He never gets lost amongst them as the film has so much pertinence for his character, and he holds the weight of that role strongly and profoundly.  I also highly endorse Cameron’s idea of never having John Connor fire a gun in the film.  He handles them, reloads ammo, but never discharges a weapon.  Cameron wanted John to be perceived as an intellectual leader instead of a brute force one.  Of this trio, he is the one with the most level headed mind and clear perception of morality.  He stabilizes the cold, amorality of the Terminator and Sarah’s erratic, psychologically fracture mentalities.  He might seem like a supporting character because of his age, but John Connor is a central, pivotal character in this story that anchors the humanity of all.  Furlong is tremendous all the way through this performance.

The performance of Robert Patrick as the T-1000 is just uncanny.  I like Cameron going back to the idea of the Terminator being far more average looking so it can be a cipher amongst humans.  Patrick has the right slender, average build, but is able to conjure up so much menace in a different way than Arnold did in the first movie.  He feels like a shark relentlessly hunting his prey where he can be silent and subversive, but ultimately, be efficiently lethal.  Even when Patrick is portraying the T-1000 as the kindly police officer, there’s something so subtle about what he does that puts his portrayal just slightly off-center.  You can’t put your finger on it, but there’s an odd quality to his manner that still evokes the menace and cold machine underneath.  His physical ability is incredible.  When he’s rapid firing a gun, he doesn’t blink once.  He runs with stunning speed, and maintains that fluidity of motion throughout.  He creates a complete character with brilliant nuances that are subtly and directly effective to an audience.  It also love that Robert Patrick’s career didn’t get pigeonholed into this unique sort of role.  He scored some meaty dramatic work after this movie, and has continued to have a very successful and diverse career to this day.  His dedication to a role is clearly evident here, and shows how much of a physical actor he can be when tested.

And on a final casting note, I believe Joe Morton was a remarkable choice for Miles Dyson.  This was the first thing I ever saw him in, and it set a standard of excellence with Morton that he has never failed to live up to.  He’s an actor that is able to channel a deep well of emotion and sympathy in such honest, human ways.  When you see Dyson, he is a man that is enthusiastic about his work, and in a scene from the Special Edition, he talks about all the good this technology could do for humanity.  He’s not a malevolent man.  He’s a wonderful family man with all the best intentions in the world, but when he learns the truth about his future history, it takes him about the length of a heartbeat to realize what must be done.  Joe Morton instills such passion and empathy into this character that even though he is a supporting character, he adds such poignant emotional impact and weight to the film.  Sarah realizes that the solution to SkyNet is not to destroy the people that created it, but to destroy the building blocks of it and allow humanity to survive.  And of course, Dyson’s final moments on screen are powerful due to Morton’s amazing acting talents.

At the time, this was probably the most bombastic action movie to date with the biggest special effects ever seen.  I remember news broadcasts covering the Cyberdyne building explosion, and shows going behind the scenes to show us how all these mind-blowing effects sequences were done.  It was massively fascinating.  This was the dawn of the digital age of visual effects, and we were able to be awed by it all.  The opening future war sequence blows away what we saw in the first film by miles.  It shows us a legion of T-800 endoskeletons stomping through the landscape, and large scale shots that really sell the scope of this movie.  The T-1000 CGI effects were amazing at the time, and still hold up pretty damn well today.  They brought to life something we had never seen before, nor something we ever could have seen before.  I believe, as the film goes on, the digital effects become better and more impressive due to how they interact with the physical reality around them.  It was a tremendous feat that revolutionized the visual effects industry.  Of course, you can never take anything away from the masterful practical effects created by Stan Winston Studios.  There was no equal in this field, and rarely a man better to embrace these new technologies and imaginations than Stan himself.  This film was a big part of the legacy he left behind, and he even directed the original teaser trailer which showed the construction of Arnold’s T-800 Terminator.  Pure awesomeness!

A great marriage of miniatures, practical effects, and visual effects were showcased in the Judgment Day scenes.  The nuclear explosion scenes are horrifying and have the deep penetrating impact upon an audience that they needed.  The film opens with a tease of it, showing us the world moments before, and shortly thereafter with the playground engulfed in an inferno.  It shows us what is at stake in Sarah Connor’s mind, the nightmare that she knows is coming.  Then, eventually, we see that dark reality that haunts her every moment of every day, and it is shocking beyond imagination.  Judgment Day is no longer an abstract concept to the audience, we see the near annihilation of humanity in a thermo-nuclear holocaust.  It is terrifyingly dark, but it motivates everything forward and sells the necessity of our heroes’ actions.  Overall, this is one of those great films that uses stunning and innovative special effects to tell a substantive story.  It doesn’t make itself all about the spectacle, it gives you something meaningful to invest yourself in, and then, blows you away with everything it achieves in every facet of filmmaking.

Terminator 2 is filled with some excellent action sequences that really drove the bar higher right near the outset of the 1990s, but kept it grounded with dramatic weight and peril.  There were plenty of big, over the top action movies, but this film gave you big, explosive action while maintaining the integrity of danger and drama.  The initial chase sequence down the storm drain has some awesome stunts and great tension.  The Cyberdyne building sequences are excellent as well with the Terminator unleashing the mini-gun and grenade launcher on the LAPD, or the showdown with the SWAT team.  All of the action in the film is exceptionally well done with some highly impressive stunt work and practical explosions.  Today, so much is done digitally that we don’t tend to see a lot of practical pyrotechnics or a real stuntman doing things not against a green screen.  Seeing all that done here just gives that extra sense of weight and realism to this film.

Brad Fiedel immensely improves on his score from the original giving it a wider, more epic orchestral style.  Watching the film this time, I swear I picked up on more cues that I hadn’t noticed before, and I didn’t even have the surround sound on.  I have owned this score on CD for longer than I can remember, and I clearly haven’t listened to it a long time.  This is terrific, gorgeous work all around.  The main theme is given its best rendition here over the opening credits, but Fiedel adds in many great themes and cues throughout.  The T-800 has a very metallic clanging theme while the T-1000 is given a more subversive, fluid sounding one highlighting the difference in styles of both Terminators.  Yet, the score soars during the most emotional parts of the film giving us the depth of humanity that is signature Cameron.

Terminator 2 is a beautifully shot, large scale film.  When I watch this, I constantly get the feeling of this is what an action blockbuster is meant to look like.  There’s just great camera work all over this film giving it a dramatic and cinematic visual beauty.  The strong blue tones really came to define a widely seen look in the early-to-mid 1990s, and it started here with some gorgeous cinematography by Adam Greenberg.  There are so many stunningly lit scenes that create beautiful mood and dramatic quality throughout.  Every single shot is composed masterfully and they each have a storytelling purpose.  Where the first film was a little rough edged and had an intense, raw energy to it, T2 is an epic scale film producing big, high quality shots while still pinpointing and highlighting the emotional depth of the story.  The action scenes are shot so amazingly well giving us strong dramatic moments, and maintaining a solid sense of geography amongst how it is shot and edited.  The most visually stunning sequence is indeed the steel mill climax with the beautiful use of vibrant blue and orange lighting.  It’s just great seeing that many of the same vital artists and filmmakers who worked on the first film were brought back for this sequel, and they had all evolved and improved upon their craft to such a marvelous degree.

I do very much like how James Cameron, again, takes a lot of the content from the first film, but presents it to us in a different context.  The role reversals of giving a lot of Kyle Reese’s dialogue to Arnold’s Terminator was a great idea that plays on the preconceptions of the audience, and to twist around the characters’ perceptions.  Even the T-1000 takes on some of the T-800’s dialogue from the first film in particular moments.  I think that gives everything a very intriguing quality of the presentation of the characters and the storytelling.  While the “I’ll be back” line doesn’t have quite as much dramatic impact in this film, it’s still used in a very telling way.  In most cases, these moments are cleverly done so to form a resonance with the audience.  They hit a familiar chord in the hearts or minds of the viewer, and they work really well.

However, if I have one major complaint, it’s that at a certain point it seems Cameron goes from paralleling events from the first film to almost outright remaking them.  There’s no need for the climax to mirror that of the first film with a car chase leading into a cat-and-mouse game in an industrial complex.  These are not poorly made sequences, but for me, they leave something to be desired, creatively speaking.  For this, and another reason, I feel the climax is a little less than it should be.  It feels like a retread of what we got the first time.  I really like the helicopter chase, but it is the tanker truck chase that feels like a lazy rehash.  I would have preferred a little more originality so we got something distinctly different instead of three successive chase sequences.  All of the necessary elements of the liquid nitrogen and the steel mill could still work with a little more innovative thinking to keep the ideas fresh.  The other reason that I feel the climax is lacking is that, after the first hour, the T-1000 almost becomes an ancillary part of the film’s plot.  The film becomes strongly and rightfully involved in the attempt to change the future by destroying Dyson’s research and any trace of the original Terminator’s technology.  It abandons the T-1000 for a lengthy period of time because he no longer is pertinent to where the plot is going, now.  The T-1000 has no thematic purpose in the story.  He’s just there to kill and nothing more.  The climax feels lacking to me because the movie has already dealt with its big plot points and thematic material, and now, it just needs to resolve the hanging thread of the other Terminator.  The film is about something thematic and poignant, but then, it just becomes about more action sequences until it has eliminated the T-1000 altogether.  Then, it gets back to the substance of the story.

This is not to say the climax is not good.  The fight between the two Terminators in the steel mill is really great.  Seeing the T-1000 using its morphing abilities to adapt and re-mold itself around the T-800’s attacks is awesome.  It creates a situation that the lower grade model is unable to sufficiently combat.  In terms of physical power, they are about matched, but the T-1000 can take more punishment because of its nature.  The T-800 cannot find anyway to physically damage this liquid metal advanced prototype, and this battle is great because of this dynamic.  Even though the T-1000 shows signs of malfunctions, he still proves to be a superior adversary that none of our heroes seem to stand a chance against.  If it weren’t for his malfunctions, he might very well have succeeded in his mission due to his cunning and mimetic abilities.  He never stops being a lethal threat, but is not indestructible.

The emotional conclusion to this film is powerful and unforgettable.  Never mind the obligatory action, what matters most is the journey these characters go on together which evolve them in ways they never could have imagined.  It’s also a tragic and sad end, but one that instills hope that no subsequent sequel was ever able to honor or live up to.  I am uncertain if I will get around to reviewing the other two sequels, but for the record, I thought Terminator 3 was a bad movie.  I wrote a review of it ten years ago, but I would prefer doing a fresh review.  However, I have no desire to actually watch that movie ever again.  Terminator: Salvation I did like quite a bit, and I do wish to revisit it.  So, you might see me jump straight to that one at some future point in time.  I will also say that the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles television series was excellent, even if it was unceremoniously canceled by Fox, and on the mother of all cliffhangers, no less.  This is why I no longer watch shows on Fox.

Anyway, do I really need a summation for this review?  I think I’ve hammered in all that is so great about Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Unlike modern day summer blockbusters, like from Michael Bay, that deliver on huge visual effects action, but lack even a halfway decent screenplay or even just a semblance of substance, T2 gives you all of that.  It delivers on every level giving you shots of adrenalin alongside a compelling, emotional, and epic story that is all about the characters.  This is the biggest grossing film of the franchise and in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career at over half a billion dollars.  Sometimes, the box office does reflect quality in a film, and that is surely the case with Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Thank you for enduring this very lengthy review, but for a film of this exceptional quality, there was no way I could boil it down any simpler.


The Terminator (1984)

The TerminatorI have had a rather unusual view on The Terminator for the longest time.  I do consider it James Cameron’s best movie, and the best of this franchise.  These are for reasons of pacing and innovative filmmaking.  Yet, what I mainly consider this film as is not so much a science fiction movie, but essentially a techno-slasher film.  You’ve got a hulking, invincible juggernaut of a killer stalking and hunting down an innocent young woman.  That’s a bare bones plot description for both The Terminator and a Friday The 13th sequel.  The vibe of the movie is very relentless and evokes a very techno-horror hybrid ideology.  Beyond that quirk of perception, I do have many things to praise this film for that I feel James Cameron severely abandoned afterwards.

In the post-apocalyptic future of 2029, SkyNet, a super computer defense system wages a losing war against a human resistance which it is intent on exterminating.  In their desperation, the machines send an indestructible cyborg known as The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman whose unborn son will become mankind’s only hope.  In hopes of preserving humanity’s future, the human resistance sends soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time as well to protect Sarah.  But does he even stand a chance against the most unstoppable killing machine ever created?

Obviously, The Terminator has been widely praised since its release, and so, there’s not much I have to tell you that hasn’t already been said.  Regardless, most of these reviews are about what these films mean to me and the nature of cinema, in general.  James Cameron previously worked in the special effects world working on numerous lower budgeted pictures, but after a great deal of hard work and determination he scored his first major directorial job with this film.  The budget was tight, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s growing star power from the Conan films, there was a lot of credibility and weight put behind this.  Still, it wasn’t an easy task getting it made.  The restrictions of budget and resources really did work towards the film’s benefit.  It forced Cameron to be innovative and a bit of a guerilla filmmaker.  It’s a perfect example of better creativity through adversity.  As I mentioned in my Aliens review, I think once Cameron got a big budget and a lot of freedom as a filmmaker, he lost that edge and began to indulge in overly long films with far laxer pacing and storytelling techniques.  He was still innovative in the technical realm, but not so much in the creative one where tight storytelling was concerned.

What I find to be so intelligent and original with what Cameron did with The Terminator is how he maintained tension and a tight cohesion of the plot.  The main exposition in the film is dealt with in the midst of a car chase.  The excitement and danger are high, keeping the audience intently invested in every second, and Cameron uses that time for Kyle Reese to impart a great deal of exposition about himself, the T-800, and the future war.  In the vast majority of films, the exposition scene is a slow paced, quiet scene that is regularly the most derided scene in the film from the director’s perspective.  Cameron changes that all up, and makes it one of the most captivating scenes by melding it with an intense chase sequence.  From there, even the slower, character building scenes maintain some degree of urgency or dramatic electricity to never allow the film to lose your interest or attention.  If not in the hands of James Cameron’s innovative and visionary filmmaking talent, I could surely see this movie slipping down into a B-grade sci-fi film that you’d see premiere on late night Cinemax.  Believe me, those films do exist, and were heavily inspired by this far superior film.  Having the right director at the helm can make a severe difference in whether a movie is brilliance or cheap exploitation fare.

This film is expertly shot with strong, sharp focus on every detail and bit of action.  The night scenes are definitely gritty creating a dangerous edge and energy that wholly serves the tone and vibe of the picture.  It brilliantly reflects the “tech noir” theme of the movie, showing us the dark side of technology.  Cameron and his director of photography Adam Greenberg do a marvelous job all around.  All of the action is shot with skill, dramatic weight, and great storytelling ability.  Just in the way it is shot, The Terminator looks and feels like a 1984 film, and in all the best ways.  It might have its rough edges here and there, but they work so excellently towards the energy of the picture.  Overall, you can see the great, deliberate insert and close-up shots that establish and enhance the mood and tension of the film.  The slow motion sequences are beautifully and masterfully done creating so much tension and dramatic anticipation.  The editing of Mark Goldblatt is some of the tightest, most dead-on-the-mark work I’ve ever seen.  There’s not an extraneous frame anywhere in the runtime of this movie.  Every shot has purpose and cohesion to the kinetic and emotional beats of the story.  Action directors of today should go back and watch this movie to see how you competently direct, shoot, and edit an action sequence.   The car chases are great, but the entire police station massacre is insanely tense and masterfully shot and edited.  It’s a major action set piece of the film, and it could not have been executed any better than it was.  Yet, the climax is able to top that with a long series of action sequences from a car chase to the explosions to the final industrial plant confrontations.  It continues to hammer home the seemingly indestructible nature of the Terminator as it continues to come back from one fiery explosion after another.  It’s a frightening action climax where the monster simply will not die while our heroes continue to suffer more and more injuries hindering their ability to continue running away.

Michael Biehn is absolutely amazing as Kyle Reese.  What strikes me first is the weathered, war torn quality of his performance.  Reese does seem like a guy who has been through the darkest parts of hell on earth with both the psychological and physical scars to show for it.  Biehn also has great physical intensity such as during the initial car chase where Reese is imparting the exposition to Sarah.  There’s a depth of urgency, fear, and heart with every word he delivers.  It creates someone that’s not just an action centric soldier, but a man with a solid core of humanity.  The pain of Kyle Reese is deep seeded, and the trauma and pain that he has endured comes through in the texture of Biehn’s performance.  This is a guy who does initially seem like an intimidating threat, almost serial killer like, but that intensity and frayed exterior are molded into a fascinating, sympathetic character that an audience deeply cares for before too long.  Biehn’s romantic chemistry with Linda Hamilton is wonderful, and the tenderness that forms between them makes this so much more than just a testosterone fueled action picture.  It has a lot of depth that has always been a strength of James Cameron’s films.  He always seems to create very dimensional lead characters which enhance the nature of the films they populate.  Why Michael Biehn’s acting career didn’t soar to greater heights after this movie is a mystery to me.  It certainly did for Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.

It goes without saying that this was one of Arnold’s defining roles.  While Conan the Barbarian was a big success, this propelled him into a whole new level of stardom.  What he does at The Terminator was instantly iconic with only eighteen lines of dialogue.  The deliberate movement and restrained mannerisms he devised for this Terminator create a cold, threatening, dominating screen presence.  I have seen other lower grade actors attempt to approximate this sort of robotic performance, but Arnold just had something special.  It’s the whole package from his size and build to the choice of punk or leather attire to the calculating way he surveys a scene.  You can view a methodical yet relentless intelligence behind everything the Terminator does, and Schwarzenegger just hit it perfectly on the mark.  There’s not a moment where you don’t take him as a serious, menacing threat, and after that is all solidly established by him, it carries over seamlessly when the flesh is burnt off and it’s just Stan Winston’s animatronic endoskeleton.  While almost everyone seems to love when Arnold does the cheesy action films, I feel his best work is in the more serious roles because it creates a challenge for him.  He has to dedicate himself to a far stronger character, and create something that stands out in a dramatic fashion.  There are a lot of cheesy action heroes out there, but not many who can pull off the really serious, iconic roles such as Conan, the Terminator, or Dutch in Predator.  Arnold can do both equally well, and that’s much of why he’s the action movie legend that he is today.

This film was especially pivotal to Linda Hamilton’s career, and the reasons why are vibrantly evident.  While, as Sarah Connor, we see a great deal of panic and fear, it is all mixed in with a genuine sense of humanity.  Sarah’s an average woman thrust into an extraordinarily intense and dangerous scenario, but ultimately, we see her inner strength shine through.  When you first see her as a lowly waitress, you could never imagine she could come to survive and fight through this frightening, lethal experience with as much resilience as she ultimately displays.  Hamilton gives us the full spectrum of emotion in an impressive dimensional performance that also adds in a layer of romanticism.  The build up to the love scene between Sarah and Kyle is beautifully touching, and would be able to squeeze tears out of the more emotional audience members.  That tenderness and depth of love and passion triggers the greater strength of the film that I mentioned before.  It is a love scene that is not there for the sake of skin and titillation, but for the sake of love itself.  At the film’s end, you can see the subtle seeds of what we will see Sarah become in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  In this film, Linda Hamilton is absolutely excellent giving us a sympathetic and strong character that stands the test of time.

And I have to mention the excellent performances of Lance Henriksen and the late Paul Winfield.  Henriksen has some great humorous dialogue that is just enough off-kilter to be memorable.  We’re so used to seeing Henriksen playing rather dark, disturbed characters, and so, it is a wonderful treat seeing him enjoy this upbeat, charismatic character.  Winfield was always a stellar, sophisticated acting talent, and while Lieutenant Traxler has his streetwise qualities, he is a compassionate and intelligent commanding officer.  He strikes the perfect balance between entertaining, charming character and capable, seasoned cop.  Many films like this would paint all the cops as unlikeable fools, somewhat like Dr. Silberman is (appropriately enough), but instead, Cameron maintains his sense of humanity in these characters along with casting superb actors to realistically embody those qualities.

While the animatronics, stop motion, and optical effects work largely appears dated next to today’s sleeker digital effects, especially with the work done in the sequels, I think that gritty, rough edged effects work here benefits the overall style and feel of this movie.  The stop motion animation in the climax evokes more of that techno-horror feeling taking the scary skeleton of the haunted house and meshing it with a dark science fiction menace.  Stan Winston did an amazing job with all the physical effects further cementing his stature as an effects wizard and master of creature designs.  Having clocked in stunning work with the Terminator, Predator, and Alien franchises, his quickly earned legendary status is no surprise.  The visual effects were handled by Fantasy II, and for a mid-80s low budget science fiction picture, they did an excellent job.  Combined with Cameron’s vibrant vision, they achieved something that really grabbed audiences’ attention at that time, and truly captivated their imagination.  The brief future war sequences are stellar.  The only thing I ever mark as a negative is the use of rear screen projection, which Cameron would use again in Aliens.  It just never looks convincing, especially when compared to good quality blue screen composites.  Regardless of that, these were very eye-opening effects in 1984, and they entirely serve the film’s dark, gritty tone.

The synthesizer based score done by Brad Fiedel encapsulates that tense, dark atmosphere of The Terminator.  The compositions alone are excellent, and the main theme has become iconic.  The use of the metallic percussion reflects the cold, mechanical heart of the Terminator, and gives us a rather chilling, ominous feeling whenever it appears.  So many other cues are done with great feel for the intensity of their respective sequences maintaining the weight of the drama and action.  Many instances again evoke a high tension horror atmosphere such as whenever the Terminator is seconds away from killing Sarah.  The synthesizer sound perfectly fits for a 1984 tech-noir action film as it simply enhances that oppressive technological theme, and is an obvious sign of the times.  However, it can get elegant and beautiful during the aforementioned love scene.  Fiedel takes that heavy, almost claustrophobic type main theme, and rearranges it into a piano love theme that is sad, touching, and wonderfully gorgeous.  While Fiedel would blow it out of the water with his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, what he does here is a solid, excellent fit for the kinetic energy and tense danger that is so tightly wrapped in this film while highlighting the depth that the film has to offer.

The Terminator is really amazingly well written.  As I said, Cameron is able to raise the concept above the standard action movie fare by injecting dimension and emotional depth into his story and characters.  They live and breathe as realistic people that an audience can attach themselves to, and that makes the rather fantastical story gritty, believable, and gripping.  The dialogue is honest and real showcasing distinct personalities that leave a lasting impression, and with the stellar casting, it couldn’t be any more pitch perfect.  It’s not just those iconic one-liners from Schwarzenegger or Biehn that make it great.  It’s every nuanced quality of the characters and depth of the story being told that have made The Terminator a classic.  Arnold Schwarzenegger has done movies with far more quotable dialogue, but they do not match the filmmaking quality and intelligence of this one.  That is all due to the innovative creativity and artistic talent of James Cameron.

James Cameron had a vibrant vision for this movie, and was intensely driven to realize it on film.  While he hasn’t lost vision, I do think he’s lost a number of exciting qualities that made The Terminator so exceptional.  He used to be able to tell amazing and captivating stories in innovative and exciting ways.  Even if the storytelling rhythm and cohesion became more lax in his subsequent films, we were still treated to things we hadn’t seen before, and were given stories that ignited our imaginations while still touching us deep in our hearts.  The Terminator is an excellent example of what made Cameron a fascinating and awesome filmmaker for many years.  However, as his budgets got bigger and his ego became overinflated, I just think he stopped caring about the story and characters, and was just more enamored with the evolution of visual effects and filmmaking technology.  I would really wonder if someone gave James Cameron a $6.4 million budget today, could he still make a film as well made as this one.

This if my favorite film of the entire Terminator franchise, and I consider it the best film James Cameron has made.  This is for the reasons of the tightness of the storytelling where not a scene, moment, or frame is wasted.  While even Terminator 2 took the time it needed to tell the story it had to tell, I just love the relentless momentum of this movie.  It has its character building scenes wrapped up nicely between and within the action sequences.  No part of the film ever drags on.  Coupled with all the amazing talents from the actors to the special effects mastery to the cinematography and editing, The Terminator is a lightning strike of stardom and awesomeness.  I take nothing away from its 1991 blockbuster sequel, but there is just something so riveting about the lean and smart storytelling in this film that sets it apart for me.  It’s that guerilla filmmaker mentality of better creative through adversity and budgetary restraints that sparks my love for The Terminator.  Cameron showed the talent he had despite the restrictions of the production, and made a big impact when this hit theatres.  Everyone who worked on the film believed strongly in it and Cameron’s ability to make it happen.  It’s that ambition and hard working dedication which can set the exceptional filmmakers apart from all the others.  This is a film that should be on every action and science fiction film fan’s must-see list.  And while it’s not my favorite Schwarzenegger movie, it is one of his best.


Dredd (2012)

DreddMy summer movie season last year mostly sucked, and by the end of August, I just didn’t want to step foot inside another theatre for a long while.  That was unfortunate for when Dredd was released in late September.  I couldn’t get enthused for anything despite all the rave reviews this film got.  Fortunately, I don’t seem to be alone in discovering this on the home video format as its sales and rentals have been on fire in the last two weeks.  Thus, in the frigid icy winter weather, I dashed over to the Redbox outside of the CVS Pharmacy and rented it.  So, what’s the simplest statement I can give to this film?  It’s that I have no criticisms to levy against it. Dredd is AWESOME!

The future America is an irradiated waste land.  On its East Coast, running from Boston to Washington DC, lies Mega City One – a vast, violent metropolis where criminals rule the chaotic streets.  The only force of order lies with the urban cops called “Judges” who possess the combined powers of judge, jury and instant executioner.  Known and feared throughout the city, Dredd (Karl Urban) is the ultimate Judge, challenged with ridding the city of its latest scourge – a dangerous drug epidemic that has users of “Slo-Mo” experiencing reality at a fraction of its normal speed.  During a routine day on the job, Dredd is assigned to train and evaluate Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie with powerful psychic abilities thanks to a genetic mutation.  A heinous crime calls them to a neighborhood where fellow Judges rarely dare to venture – a 200 storey vertical slum controlled by prostitute turned drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her ruthless clan.  When they capture one of the clan’s inner circle, Ma-Ma overtakes the compound’s control center and wages a dirty, vicious war against the Judges that proves she will stop at nothing to protect her empire.  With the body count climbing and no way out, Dredd and Anderson must confront the odds and engage in the relentless battle for their survival.

Dredd is just full-on hard R-rated action that is brutal and relentless.  Yet, it is not dumb by any means.  Alex Garland wrote a very smart screenplay that keeps things rather simple, but has its own dramatic depth and character strengths.  We don’t get long sit-downs with the characters to pine over their emotions and back stories.  Instead, we get insights into them in solid, succinct moments that work towards the momentum of the film.  Dredd himself remains hardened throughout never allowing anything to crack his weathered, tough exterior.  However, the depth we get from him is in what he does, not so much what he exudes.  He is a strict enforcer and abider of the law.  He follows it to the letter, and doesn’t just kill someone because this is a graphic action film.  His intentions are clearly stated making us aware of who is suited to be executed and who isn’t, and Dredd’s threats carry grave weight.  He’s also calm, collected, and confident.  He never lashes out.  He’s calculated in everything he does.  This guy is a bonafide bad ass who has been very weathered by this post-apocalyptic world that needs order more than anything else, and he’s deadest dedicated to that ideal.  The situation that he’s in here, it’s just like every other day to him.  For instance, when told to put Anderson in the deep end of the job, he says, “It’s all deep end.”  This guy’s been through the worst this world has to offer, and he’s not afraid of any level of danger.

Karl Urban was a perfect fit for Judge Dredd.  I’ve enjoyed him in every role I’ve seen him in from The Lord of the Rings to The Chronicles of Riddick to The Bourne Supremacy.  He always seems to dedicate himself fully to all his roles, and he has some impressive talent that will carry him far.  It also takes a special actor, dedicated to the character, to have his face almost entirely covered for the entire film.  Dredd never removes his helmet, and we never see his face.  Just that mouth and chin area is all we get, and some actors simply wouldn’t allow their face to never be seen on camera either by ego or principle.  Urban doesn’t have that problem, and that quality of Dredd works to his advantage.  It’s reflective of his attitude.  He’s not the type to open up about himself, or allow any glimmer of weakness to show through.  That aggressive visage of that helmet and visor create his ill-tempered demeanor, and Urban entirely absorbs himself into that mindset.  Putting on that harder, gruffer voice mixed with a little bit of beard stubble and his grim expression creates a great heavy, gritty presence.  He gives us the kind of bad ass, hardened character that I’ve not seen in a long time.  It follows in the tradition of Snake Plissken and the Punisher, but it is that vehement dedication to law and justice which separates him from those sorts of anti-heroes.  Urban sells this role with everything he’s got, and delivers on every level.  This is a role that could easily become cliché in the wrong hands, but with Urban, Dredd is a serious force to be reckoned with that never fails to be interesting.

The character of Anderson is really handled greatly.  She’s a fine counterpoint to Dredd in that she does have anxieties, apprehensions, and an emotional core to struggle with throughout the film.  Carrying out an execution is not easy for her, but she does her job, regardless.  The little details about her past are dropped in very comfortably, and work into the story seamlessly.  Her psychic abilities make for an excellent cog in the plot, and even makes for some appropriately humorous moments.  I think the best action films know how to drop in a little bit of humor and levity without it betraying the tone of the overall film.  Dredd is no exception.  Her psychic abilities even give us one very whacked out sequence where she goes into the head of Kay.  It’s sexy, graphic, and frenetic in the most schizophrenic way.  The beautiful Olivia Thirlby is truly excellent as Judge Anderson.  She inhabits that very green rookie sensibility without falling onto clichés.  There’s a genuine weight to what she brings to this role showing that Anderson is highly capable, but does not yet have the experience to hone her skills and emotions properly.  Anderson has an excellent arc that has some fine pay-off in the end from Dredd himself.  It’s a big learning experience for her that really fleshes the character out.  She doesn’t get lost in Dredd’s shadow at all, and I think the filmmakers did an excellent job at that.

Also, Lena Headey portrays one deranged, depraved villain.  She’s not “off the walls” crazy as the performance is rather subdued, but Ma-Ma does some crazy random violence that would require an R rating just to mention it.  She’s a total sociopath, and really enjoys her torture to a grisly degree.  She isn’t just going to kill you.  That’s not enough.  She’s going to send a message with your body, and make it loud and clear with a giant splat on the concrete!  She’s sick and twisted complete with a scarred face, and it’s a glorious villain for a gloriously graphic action movie!  The rest of the cast is rock solid with no one giving anything less than a top notch, full force performance.

The cinematography on this movie is really amazing.  What stands out the most is the design of the “Slo-Mo” sequences.  The high speed photography makes everything appear to be running in ultra slow motion, creating a gorgeous spectacle, aided by some CGI enhancements, that is simply stunning.  It makes for a very enveloping experience along with the very aural, ethereal score to mimic the sensation this narcotic stimulates in its users.  Conversely, everything beyond that is very gritty and textured.  The sprawling landscape of Mega City One is very epic, and a desaturated color palette is used to set the grim tone right from the start.  Dredd avoids making this some Blade Runner clone, and adopts its own realistic style for this industrialized and economically crumbling metropolis.  The cinematography gives this film weight, scope, and depth that elevates its above your expectations.  The action is all shot superbly showing full competence in how to stage and photograph even the most blisteringly intense sequences.  Anthony Dod Mantle deserves an exceptional level of credit for the work he did shooting this picture, and giving such a solid and powerful visual style.

The action itself is bloody and brutal with people regularly getting shot in the face!  If Dredd’s going to pass a sentence of death upon you, he’s going to wipe you out in the most explicit way possible.  Maybe he’ll burn your skull from the inside out, set you ablaze, or maybe he’ll just pound some bullets into you.  He does not hesitate, and he never wavers in his job.  And of course, the villains dish out their own heavy duty warfare as well.  Their biggest attempt at taking out Dredd and Anderson is when they unleash not one but two hardcore Gatling guns that rip through concrete destroying an entire level of the complex.  It’s wicked awesome!  There are numerous diverse sequences here that keep the action always interesting and immensely intense, and they are all handled superbly.  One of the coolest sequences is when Dredd and Anderson bust in on some guys who are doing Slo-Mo, and thus, nearly all the action unfolds in that ultra slow motion style.  Bullets rip through flesh in the most stunning way possible to where it’s practically gruesome artistry.  I am just amazed at the depth of vision injected into this movie with sequences like that.

Dredd features an excellent, hard edged score by Paul Leonard-Morgan.  He makes excellent use of driving, pulsating synth beats and some stellar distorted rock guitar.  This is essentially a heavy metal synth score that actually works insanely well because of the hard hitting, gritty style of the movie, but also, it never bombards you.  It flows along with the action and momentum of the film.  The synthesizers really give the film more of an ominous, foreboding, relentless tone that build up the tension and anticipation while the guitars are there to kick ass.  It’s almost 1980s like in its musicianship, and it’s always able to bring itself down to a more subtle place, when appropriate.  Overall, this is one masterful, edgy, exhilarating action film score that entirely suits the futuristic, post-apocalyptic grit of Dredd.

What I think is most amazing about this movie is that it had only a $45 million budget, but looks like a far higher grade feature than those numbers would suggest.  This demonstrates a team of filmmakers who knew about to get the most out of every dollar, and not waste their resources.  There is not a single thing that looks cheap anywhere in this film.  The sets, costumes, action set pieces, and visual effects are all high caliber quality showcasing amazing craftsmanship and artistry.  And for those who care, this was shot in digital 3D, and from what I hear, Dredd looks fantastic in 3D.  That is no surprise considering how stunning it looks in 2D.  Everyone who worked on this film clearly put everything ounce of effort and passion they had into it, and I believe it exceeded all expectations.  Still, I also like that the film doesn’t try to over stretch itself by becoming more than it needed to be.  The film is ultimately quite ambitious, but the filmmakers didn’t push the proverbial envelope any further than they needed to with this story.  All of the elements are smart and fit together beautifully.  There’s a lot of subtle context and ideas within the film between the characters and ideas of justice, but all of it works towards the action centric plot.  It’s very focused without being narrow, but never becomes broad.

Flat out, Dredd is an ass kicking, hard hitting bombastic action film that never hesitates to go all out, but never degrades itself with camp value or cheesy set pieces.  It’s totally hardcore all the way, and should satisfy the hunger for any true action movie fan that’s desired a return to classic hard R rated films.  I’m very impressed by Karl Urban’s performance, and if this were to become a franchise, I believe he could carry it to very exciting, riveting, and intriguing places.  Director Pete Travis doesn’t really have much of a track record to speak of, but I hope that Dredd is the beginning of a very successful and notable one for him.  This is really a visually magnificent film that brings all of its dynamic elements together into an intense cohesive whole.  He has shown me something awesome and amazing with Dredd, and he’s not the only one to credit for it all.  A whole team of excellently talent filmmakers came together to really nail this adaptation of the British comic strip.  It is creatively successful without a blemish, in my view, and I hope that time will prove Dredd to be commercially successful as well.


Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Star Wars - The Empire Strikes BackIt was an enormous task to make a second Star Wars movie.  To follow up that explosion of a success, that immense phenomenon must have been terribly challenging on so many levels.  What these filmmakers did with The Empire Strikes Back was a masterstroke of genius.  Instead of retreading the same tone, pace, action, and style of Star Wars, George Lucas and Irvin Kershner, along with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, chose to make this a film about character development and darker consequences as a second act in a trilogy.  Characters would mature, the dangers they faced were more dire, there would be heavy losses, and some major revelations would surface.  Whether it was the general consensus or not, I would still state that this is the best Star Wars film to date.

Despite the destruction of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance still flees from the might of the Galactic Empire to the remote, barren ice planet of Hoth.  There, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) receives a vision from a ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) to seek out Jedi Master Yoda on the planet Dagobah.  When the Empire finally locates the rebel’s base, an imperial assault drives them to evacuate in a crippling loss.  Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford) escapes with Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) aboard the Millennium Falcon, but with their hyperdrive damaged, they are forced to evade the Imperial fleet in an asteroid field.  Later, they seek sanctuary at the beautiful Cloud City from Han’s old gambling and smuggling buddy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).  Meanwhile, Luke begins his training with the wise and unexpected teacher in Yoda.  However, with the evil Lord Darth Vader vehemently intent on finding young Skywalker, Luke races to save his friends from a painful vision, against Yoda and Kenobi’s warnings of temptations of the Dark Side of The Force.  What awaits the Jedi-in-training is a startling revelation and great peril for him and his heroic friends.

I really like the reversal of structure on this film.  It starts out with the bigger adventure aspects, and the major battle between the Rebellion and the Empire.  Then, it descends into the more character driven aspects building towards very deep personal conflicts and resolutions.  It satisfies your expectations up front with some peril and fun, and proceeds to exceed them with a much more emotionally powerful storyline.  Where the first film had our heroes all gradually coming together for an adventure against a large scale threat, this one has them separate so to further explore their own personal journeys.  Ultimately, they come out of it wounded and changed.

The film really wastes no time in establishing the darker, more dangerous tone as Luke is attacked by a Wampa Ice Creature while on patrol.  It adds some well crafted fear and tension into the film.  This perilous sequence further builds the bonds of friendship between Han and Luke as Captain Solo risks his life to save his friend’s.  Luke’s ultimate escape from the creature’s cave gave us our first look at what The Force can do.  Before, it was mind tricks and a sort of second sight.  It was all very abstract and mystical, but when Luke uses The Force to pull his lightsaber to his hand to free himself, we see what that power can physically and practically do.  It’s a wondrous moment that sparks the magic of Star Wars.  Yet, the film shows us the true depth and nature of The Force when Luke seeks out Yoda, and brilliantly expands upon the vague ideas we got in the previous movie.  Yoda teaches him to change his perceptions in that the physical has no bearing on the potential of The Force, merely your will and clarity of mind are relevant.   Yoda shows Luke that it’s his own self-imposed perceptions and limitations that are the instruments of his own failures.  The tests Yoda puts him through are difficult ones that are meant to confront him with frightening truths of where his path may take him if he follows his impulses and passions.  Luke may have matured somewhat, but he still has an impatience and impulsive quality that puts him into danger.  He’s allowing his emotions to guide him without the wisdom or experience to temper those emotions.  It’s a fascinating journey that Luke takes in this film as he does begin to understand the philosophy of a Jedi, but the dire peril of his friends is something he cannot shake from his mind.  He knows it’s likely a trap, and is unprepared for what Lord Vader has in store for him.

The Battle of Hoth is excellently done giving us a land battle to contrast the space battles of the original Star Wars.  We see the rebels utilize some strategy in attempting to topple those awesome Imperial Walkers to buy time for the evacuation of Echo Base.  It’s a big, impressive, and exciting opening to this film that has Star Wars again showing us something that had never been seen before.  This sequence showcases the evolution in effects work by Industrial Light & Magic.  They really achieved something exceptional here, and continued to do so throughout the film.  They truly exceeded their own standards of excellence here.  The first Star Wars was groundbreaking in the realm of visual effects, and ILM was motivated to keep pushing the boundaries of what was possible.  The asteroid sequence is spectacular, as is so much from top to bottom here.  The Go-Motion effects with the Tauntauns remain excellent, and the model effects are still some of the most impressive in cinema history.  It is no wonder that this won a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the Academy Awards.  They, without a doubt, earned it with every new fantastic sequence of thrilling imagery.  And furthermore, the matte paintings are stunningly gorgeous, and are beautifully integrated into the rich visuals of the film.

The Empire is presented perfectly here.  The reveal of the fleet and the Super Star Destroyer creates a sense of scale and power to their presence.  To me, they feel like an even more formidable military force than they were in the previous film.  We have more troops, more ships, more personnel, and more resources, and their early victory over the Rebellion sets a tone of desperation and danger for our heroes.  Darth Vader himself is clearly unleashed in this film.  He’s not held back by Tarkin or the Emperor.  He’s assuming complete command over everything, and stops at nothing in attempting to crush the Rebellion and obtain what he wants.  There’s no one stopping him from Force choking Admirals, and promoting people to take their place, putting the fear of death into them to motivate their success.  Once the Emperor does endorse his quest to capture Luke Skywalker, Vader uses every resource at his disposal, such as the bounty hunters, and becomes an even more frightening threat.  This is a major part of why I think this is the best film of the franchise.  The villains are out in full force, not hiding behind protocol or deception, and showing their near ever-present might.  Nowhere else in the saga do the antagonists feel so hell-bent on crushing our heroes, and they’re nearly winning for most of the film.  It’s said that a hero is only as great as the enemy he faces, and this film shows us the vast scale and threat of the Empire like no other.  Our heroes are left with a steep failure to rise back up against for the next film.

I do like that, for all the darker tone and subject matter, the film never forgets to inject fun and humor at appropriate moments.  We still get the overly excited panic of C-3PO, the cute moments with R2-D2, and the humorous quips and sharp banter between the other heroes.  Even Yoda is given a nearly hilarious introduction into the film as he plays with Luke’s misconceptions, and has a playful time with him and his droid friend.  It’s all handled wonderfully to keep the film lively while never intruding upon the more dramatic and dire aspects of the film.  It’s a perfect balance, and it wouldn’t feel like Star Wars without it.

Speaking of Yoda, he proves to be an inspirational achievement.  I can definitely understand the apprehensions of the filmmakers in putting what was essentially a Muppet on film, and hoping it will come off as life-like.  However, with the amazing work of designer Stuart Freeborn and performer Frank Oz, this magical character came to stunning life.  Every word spoken had the weight and gravity of the most talented and credible actor behind it.  There are many subtle expressions worked into Yoda that further created a believable character that an audience never questioned the realism of.  This was all vitally important due to Yoda’s poignant role in the film in training Luke in the ways of the Jedi, and bestowing upon us the deeper ideals, wisdom, and philosophies of The Force.  Because of the brilliant work of all these fantastically talented effects masters and performers, he were treated to one of the most fascinating, insightful, and endearing characters of this saga.  We were previously intrigued by The Force, but I feel that Yoda truly made us believe in its power beyond all imagination.  He opened up our minds to its possibilities, and the potential it had within Luke.  Through Yoda, The Force was wondrously mystical and magical, and taught us the weight of commitment and responsibility to becoming a Jedi.  Everything that needed to be known about The Force was revealed to us in this film by a rubber puppet, and we never doubted it for an instant.  That is the magic of cinema.

The Empire Strikes Back is filled with some tight pacing and urgency.  The signature intercutting between storylines creates that great rhythm which keeps the film engaging without drawing any one scene out too much.  There’s almost always something interesting developing even if it’s not a rousing action sequence.  This is greatly helped by the expert, tight editing by Paul Hirsch.  He and director Irvin Kershner knew when to cut to the right angle, and when to let a shot play out.  And the film is shot so dramatically perfect with solid compositions and superb camera movements pushing in at the right moments and giving the film scope and scale with sweeping and subtle camera work.  Lighting is always excellent giving personality and mood where needed to the appropriate scenes.  Irvin Kershner really helped up the visual storytelling in The Empire Strikes Back, and the refined, polished quality enhances the overall picture immensely.  George Lucas was the executive producer and did have creative input, but he allowed Kershner to make the movie his own.  So, while it is generally Lucas’ story, this is Kershner’s film through and through.

This truly is an emotionally powerful film hitting us with a vast array of pain, fear, sorrow, heartbreak, and disturbing revelations and insights.  Our heroes are put through a maelstrom of hell in their journeys.  Luke learns the most from it on the most personal of levels which challenge him right down to his core.  I love seeing the maturity take form in Return of the Jedi showing that he has learned a great deal from these events, but he had to experience some terribly hard learned lessons.  Sometimes, we can only learn to commit ourselves to change when faced with the absolute worst of consequences, and that’s Luke’s journey here.

Even Han and Leia are faced with their own pain and heartache.  Their love for one another is apparent almost from the start.  They wouldn’t be so mad with one another if they didn’t care so much, but it takes a series of worsening pitfalls and dangers for them to begin to genuinely show that affection.  This is punctuated like a dagger through the heart in the Carbon Freezing Chamber scene where they have the most heartbreaking of parting words.  It is undoubtedly this moment, where we see the severe anguish on Leia’s face, that motivates Lando into taking action.  Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher have amazingly sharp chemistry in all their scenes together selling every nuance of Han and Leia’s relationship.  It’s a very emotionally natural progression of two characters who really did not like each other at first trying to hide their feelings through conflict, but their true emotions break further and further into the surface.  It is glorious work on both actors’ parts as well as Irvin Kershner’s detailed and masterful direction.

The returning cast shows a lot of growth.  Primarily, Mark Hamill matures with the character of Luke Skywalker.  He carries the heaviest weight in this film with a great deal of subtle emotions and deep rooted fears.  You feel the honest depth of Luke in Hamill’s performance as he struggles with his training, and the thread of fear that is ever present as he battles Darth Vader.  He tries to mask and control his fear, but he slowly realizes how outmatched he is as Vader gains the upper hand.  Hamill delves deep into a real well of pain and desperation by the end which really penetrates powerfully into an audience.  Mark Hamill was required to stretch his acting abilities much further than the first Star Wars film demanded, and he rose to the task admirably and successfully.  The wonder of Yoda is also sold through Hamill’s performance, and the urgency of the latter half of the film is driven by his remarkable acting.

We also get Harrison Ford maturing Han Solo as well.  He shows a lot more responsibility to himself and his friends, conveying respect to his fellow rebels, and leaving behind that “out for himself” arrogant attitude.  The more juvenile aspects only really show up in the heated moments when rash action is necessary, or when he’s arguing with Leia or 3PO.  However, when circumstances become more grim, Han shows that he is a far more matured character handling the situations with a lot of earnestness.  Ford probably puts in his best performance as Han Solo in this film because it has the most for him to work with between the romantic arc with Leia, the comic timing with Chewbacca and C-3PO, and dealing with the betrayal of Lando.  It was a strong and diverse spectrum for Ford to work with, and by no surprise, he achieved it with ease.

I truly love the addition of Lando Calrissian.  Where Han Solo was a very roguish outlaw, Lando’s a gambler.  He can come off as a legitimate businessman, but is able to manipulate people and events to his liking.  With Vader, he succumbs to the might of the Empire only until the stakes are too high where not acting is too costly of a choice to make.  Even with appearing in less than half the film, Lando has a strong character arc to traverse.  He tries to bargain everyone’s way out of a worse scenario while betraying his friends to the Empire, but as I said, when he sees the price of bowing to their demands, he shows who he is deep down inside by trying to save Han’s friends from a potentially terrible fate.  Billy Dee Williams puts in an excellent performance showing off Calrissian’s smooth charisma, but also reflecting the frustration and dire weight of Lando’s situation.  He walks the line of friend and adversary very masterfully.  Lando’s struggling with the effort to do right by everyone, and you can see that painful internal conflict play out in Billy Dee’s performance.

And of course, many fans would be remised if I did not make mention of Boba Fett.  The fascination with this bounty hunter really stems from something like Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name character.  A gritty, mysterious man who doesn’t speak much, but when he does, it carries a great deal of weight.  Fett is someone who only speaks when he has something important to say.  That creates intrigue.  It makes him standout because it creates a certain looming presence.  Also, the original voice for Fett provided by Jason Wingreen was absolutely perfect with its right amount of grit and vile attitude.  A voice can tell you a lot about a character’s personality, and get that with Wingreen’s voice work.  Additionally, Vader tells Boba Fett, specifically, “No disintegrations.”  That lays an air of ruthlessness on Fett, and smartly spotlights him amongst the other eclectic bounty hunters in that scene.  Plus, where everyone else has failed to capture Captain Solo and the Millennium Falcon, Fett succeeds using some subversive cunning of his own, which demonstrates the character’s intelligence.  He’s a subtly developed character that quickly builds that air of mystique around himself.  Furthermore, all of this is done without Fett ever having to fire a blaster.  He physically does very little in the movie, but it’s the results of his actions which count.  It surely helps that he, like Darth Vader, is hidden under a mask and armor.  It makes you wonder more about who he is.

I honestly believe this film features John Williams’ best work of the Star Wars saga.  With the more character driven story, he is given a broader canvas to work with, and to create a more diverse and powerful score.  The beautiful compositions pull at the heartstrings making one feel the immense weight of emotion throughout the film.  Every moment of magical wonder, ominous threat, romantic richness, and rousing excitement is lushly and gorgeously on display in every note he commits to this score.  “The Imperial March” is the most notable debut here creating a militaristic musical presence for the oppressive Galactic Empire, and is one of my absolute favorites.  However, Leia’s theme gets a sweeping enhancement accentuating the film’s romantic feelings.  I own the scores for all six films on CD, but this is the one I listen to most often because of its wider breadth of artistry and cinematic beauty.

The Empire Strikes Back also showcases a lot of great imagination in its production design.  It’s great seeing the scope of the Echo Base hangar with the full size X-Wings and Millennium Falcon there along with various other Rebel Alliance vehicles.  The integration of the ice caverns into the technology of the base is done with a lot of attention to detail for an interesting visual aesthetic.  However, the most notable environments are the swamps of Dagobah and the immaculate Cloud City of Bespin.  Yoda’s adopted home gives us a location full of lush life where one would imagine that The Force is very strong here, as life is what creates it and allows it to grow.  This was all created on a soundstage, and that is just a fantastic accomplishment.  This makes me think why the same effect of depth and all encompassing realism couldn’t have been achieved for the Genesis Planet sequences in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.  In that film, similar environments were created on a soundstage, and are blatantly obvious as being set on a soundstage.  Here, Dagobah looks and feels like a wholly authentic environment.  Never does it feel like a fabricated set.  That’s the immense care and hard work that were put into these films by exhaustive crews and talented artists.

Still, it is Cloud City that is my favorite Star Wars environment.  I’ve never seen another design in science fiction quite like it.  The rounded buildings and corridors with their subtly textured stark white walls give us a very picturesque locale.  It also feels like something elegant and futuristic that would come out of the era of 1980.  It feels like a peaceful city, and is surely a new, unique, and welcoming world to visit.  However, once things turn ill for our heroes, we are plunged deeper into the more industrial bowels of the city where it just gets darker and darker both literally and figuratively.  I think the overall design is beautifully inspired, and I am so glad to own the book The Art of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.  I fond memories of reading through this gorgeous large format book, and being inspired by the designs and matte paintings.  It made me want to run home and watch the movie that night.

While there is not as much action here as there was in the first Star Wars, there is no shortage of imagination.  I absolutely love the asteroid chase sequence as the Millennium Falcon weaves its way through this near certain death trap to evade the forces of the Empire.  John Williams’ score in this sequence is another one of my favorites which reflects both the rousing adventure aspect and the high tension and danger of it.  What Han does after escaping the asteroid field to further elude the Empire is ingenious, and perfectly on-the-mark for Solo’s craftiness.  It shows his intelligence and sharp thinking that define the cunningness of his character.

The entire climax is just brilliant all the way through.  Lando, Leia, Chewie, and the droids escaping Cloud City is wholly exciting giving us some fun and dramatic beats along the way, but ultimately, a sense of elation as they fly away on the Millennium Falcon.  However, it is the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader that is the centerpiece of the film.  The dark tone reaches its pinnacle in the shadowy, smoky Carbon Freezing Chamber where their duel begins with a chilling line from Vader, “The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi, yet.”  That dark environment, with its moody orange and blue lighting, establishes an ominous, foreboding atmosphere that is only heightened in the latter two parts of their escalating duel.  While it was never clear in the context of the film, after seeing a schematic of Cloud City, I could see that Luke actually does descend further and further into the depths of the city until he literally falls out the underside of it.  That descent is such a perfect metaphor for what is actually happening to Luke in this battle with Vader.  For the first two sections, it’s Vader testing Luke, seeing how proficient and resourceful he is.  He wants to be able to inform the Emperor of how advanced Skywalker is in his training, and how susceptible he is to the Dark Side.  However, the final part on the gantry is Vader letting loose entirely, and we see how truly outmatched Luke is against the dangerously aggressive Dark Lord.  Here is where Luke pays the price for rushing headlong into this confrontation without the proper training.  Yet, the action is not the ultimate pay-off.  The legendary and climactic revelation in this scene is shocking, and I’m sure, back in 1980, this left audiences stunned and in disbelief.  Mark Hamill’s acting in this scene is intense, and couldn’t be more perfect.  It’s a culmination of all the emotional trials he has battled through this entire film, and it hits him with all the dread in the universe.  It creates that final emotional stinger which carries the momentum of dire peril through to the film’s end, and leaves an audience in suspense for the resolution of everything in Return of the Jedi.

The Empire Strikes Back is an absolute masterpiece of cinema, in my honest opinion.  I would not change a single frame from the original theatrical release, period.  The late director Irvin Kershner did a marvelous job focusing this film so tightly and strongly on the characters, making their development the core of the story without losing what makes Star Wars entertaining and rich.  All that was crafted for this film from the screenwriters to Kershner’s input, made this not a sequel, but a second act in a trilogy.  That opened up the possibilities far wider allowing for growth to occur, and consequences to be faced that would require a final chapter to resolve fully.  The characters are hurt physically and emotionally, but also, they learn a great deal from their defeats.  The film may have a down ending, but that final scene where everyone is gathered back together, mending their wounds and setting plans to rescue Han, leaves an audience with hope that they will return for further heroics and redeem their losses.  As time has gone on, my choice for favorite film of the saga has shifted from the original Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back due to the depth of character, emotion, and consequence in the story.  Even more so now, I can vastly appreciate the level of filmmaking artistry and talent on display here from all involved, and it should be always heralded as one of the finest works of cinema.


Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Transformers The MovieOutside of Star Wars, this is the film I grew up on, and loved with a severe passion.  I never owned the VHS as a child.  It was only by renting it incessantly over many, many years that I ever got to see it after the theatres.  My dad actually took me to see this in 1986 at the discount theatre that actually closed down about a decade ago, much to my dismay.  There were countless wonderful memories at that theatre in addition to the video arcade across the way in that mall.  In the late 90s, I found a Canadian website selling new VHS tapes of the movie featuring the American version, and with the help of a friend, I was able to purchase it. I prized this tape, and you couldn’t imagine how excited I was when I happened upon a DVD release of it years later.  So, what is it about this movie that has kept it a beloved favorite of mine for more than a quarter of a century?  Read on and find out!

It is the year 2005, and the battle between the heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron, has escalated all the way to their home planet of Cybertron, which the Decepticons have reclaimed.  The Autobots secretly plan to retake the planet from secret outposts, but the Decepticons move to thwart their efforts by waging a full-on assault against Autobot City on Earth.  Here, a new generation of heroic Autobots stand ready to fight including the young, impulsive Hot Rod, the consummate soldier Ultra Magnus, the elderly war veteran Kup, the compassionate Arcee, the triple changing Springer, and many more.  However, a greater threat to them all looms closer in the form of the evil entity known as Unicron, who’s ready to consume anything that stands in its way, but the only thing that he fears is the Autobot Matrix of Leadership.  Along the way, lives are lost, battles are fought, an old enemy is re-forged by Unicron, and a new Autobot leader is born as another dies.

This movie really was the pinnacle of any six year’s old life at the time.  You had a big, epic story with huge consequences, and the most climactic final confrontation between the heroic Optimus Prime and the vile Megatron.  To me, this was bigger than Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, bigger than anything else on the planet!  Prime was the ultimate John Wayne style hero, always sticking to his principles and morality, but able to throw down with the best of them.  Megatron was the most deceitful, ruthless villain around, and after two seasons of the television series, you finally got to see them collide like never before.  The movie was even marketed as showcasing their final battle, and it did not disappoint.  It starts with Prime proclaiming that, “Megatron must be stopped.  No matter the cost,” and then, proceeds to plow down and blast away a whole slew of Decepticons.  It firmly establishes that Optimus is a real bad ass worth rooting for.  This is the big hero of the Autobots, and anyone who gets in his way has got a real problem.  The fight between Megatron and Prime is them putting it all out on the line, and it couldn’t be more climactic.  It’s also an awesome looking sequence with great dramatic angles, and an awesome Stan Bush song backing it up.  Then, it ends on a wholly unexpected note.  The filmmakers really hit you for a big one in more ways than one.  Optimus Prime dies.  However, it happens within the first third of the film creating a sense of ultimate peril for everyone.  If Optimus Prime can perish in this movie, then, nobody at all is safe, and even before this, the Deceptions slaughter an entire ship of Autobots in fairly graphic fashion.  This film tells you just about from the start that it’s taking no prisoners, and the danger is real and imminent.  This creates huge odds for the surviving Autobots to overcome, especially in the face of Unicron.

With so many of the classic characters dying, the movie introduces us to a group of new Autobots which hooked me in immediately.  I loved Hot Rod, and was really behind him all the way through the story.  Judd Nelson did a great job voicing him giving the young, brash Autobot a lot of charm, charisma, energy, and humor.  Yet, where it counted, Hot Rod was heroic, and did show some depth to really rise up and come into his own.  The weathered and seasoned warrior Kup is given great texture by Lionel Stander making him a fun character with his incessant war stories, but also striking a good chemistry with Nelson’s Hot Rod.  The older mentor and the young hero is nothing new, but here, it feels like these two were friends more than teacher and student, which makes for a fun pairing.

Springer feels like a solid lieutenant in the Autobot ranks as the reliable, capable soldier, and has strong characterization with dashes of levity.  And you can say what you will about Ultra Magnus.  He’s certainly not the inspiring leader that Optimus was, but he was voiced by the late, great Robert Stack.  Being an old school Unsolved Mysteries fan, I could never slight Mr. Stack’s performance.  He does give Ultra Magnus some humanity and a steady confidence, but I think, by design, the filmmakers didn’t want Magnus living up to Optimus’ stature.  This becomes apparent by the film’s end.

The villains are given some new life with two impressive names added to the cast.  First, there is Leonard Nimoy voicing Galvatron in amazing fashion giving the new Deception leader an even more vicious streak than he had as Megatron.  After his brutal fight with Optimus Prime, Megatron is recreated as this far more powerful Galvatron, and that injects a far more menacing and cutthroat villain into the story.  Nimoy pushed his voice into a deeper, more guttural place for this performance, and it really served the character beautifully.  Galvatron is Megatron pushed to the next level, and I really love that idea.  However, the real major name involved here is Orson Welles as Unicron.  This was actually the legendary filmmaker’s final performance.  His heart attack death occurred five days after finishing this voice work.  Reportedly, Welles was pleased do the job stating an admiration for animated films.  While Welles could be an intimidating man, I’ve seen interviews of him being very friendly, humble, and enjoyable.  Still, that voice was gold, and there were not many actors who could’ve naturally given such a booming, massive presence to Unicron’s voice as Welles did.

With all these great characters, old and new, we are given endlessly quotable dialogue.  Nary a scene goes by without a great line being said which became a classic amongst fans.  These range from the dramatic to the comedic, and are all executed perfectly by this great voice cast.  They really deserve a vast amount of credit for inhabiting the personalities of their characters, and meshing so well together.  It sounds like every single one of them gave it their all, and likely had a real fun time working on this animated movie.  The regular cast of voice actors maintain their usual high standards, especially Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, among others.  The Dinobots are especially funny while still remaining formidable.  This is some very exceptional casting and voice directing in my opinion.

What really strikes me about the movie today is how briskly paced it is.  There is nary a slow point in the whole thing, and at 84 minutes long, one could hardly expect one.  Surely, these days, I would’ve loved to have seen it reach a full 90 minutes because that third act really hits you before you know it.  Regardless, the steady pace and rhythm of the movie creates so much excitement and fun.  There is no shortage of action, and any scenes of exposition are very succinct.  The regular progression of the story taking our heroes to new worlds and environments keeps it interesting.  Both the planet of Junk and of the Quintessons are dangerous in their own unique ways with great visual designs.  They give the film scope that was rarely offered on the television series.  Everything about this movie is amped up substantially from the episodic cartoon, and the action is no exception.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie, animated or live action, jam pack this much stellar and original action into such a compact run time while still maintaining such a rich sense of character and competency in its plot.  There’s so much energy pulsating through this movie it’s almost unreal, and it never becomes a mess.  Screenwriter Ron Friedman did a rather admirable job on this script, and it was put into the right hands to make it a reality.

Now, granted, there’s hardly a major through-line plot for our heroes.  In the most part, the Autobots are just trying to survive every new threat that surfaces in their path while Unicron sort of looms over everything in the background.  The action really just pushes them along from one dire scenario to the next until they must confront Unicron.  These are adventures which have the heroes proving their merit to the audience more than to each other.  It’s about us learning about the characters, and coming to care about them instead of developing them at length.  Transformers: The Movie doesn’t have the character growth or thematic exploration of something like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, but for what it is meant to be, a fun and exciting animated movie for kids, I think it is rather exceptional.  It doesn’t go much into heavy subject matter, save for the deaths early on, but it doesn’t treat its young audience as stupid.  It’s a smartly written story that keeps it simple enough to follow, but exciting enough to keep it interesting.  This is definitely a film that can be entertaining from the age of six all the way through to thirty-two.

One thing that strongly helps in that aspect is that the animation style is still amazing to my eyes today.  At the time of the film’s release, it was a style and quality not previously seen by mainstream American audiences.  The detail, shading, and dramatic, epic imagery created a vast cinematic visual impact.  The film remained vibrant and colorful despite having some very dark moments, and could have real moments of beauty.  While there are occasional animation gaffes and shots of lower grade artwork, on the whole, the artistry on display is really stunning adding a sense of edge and texture to everything never before given to the cartoon series.  This feels like a major motion picture event, and in comparison to the series, you can clearly see the vast amount of time and hard work put into the visual quality of this movie.

Probably the biggest thing that kept the film alive in my mind and heart between rentals was the amazing rock soundtrack!  I cherished that audio cassette for over a decade.  I made the vow to myself that when the tape eventually broke, I would buy the CD immediately, and that’s exactly what happened.  Most of these acts were generally unknowns like Lion, N.R.G., and Kick Axe (who were credited as Spectre General by decree of the record company), but contributed very solid songs that gave a lot of hard and heavy excitement to the film.  Of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic was quite well known at the time.  He contributed his quirky track “Dare to be Stupid,” which fit the catch-phrase referencing Junkions perfectly.  Stan Bush’s tracks have probably become the biggest hits amongst fans with the driving rock rhythm of “Dare,” and the inspirational “The Touch.”  The latter is a song that has come to really be able to pull me through into a stronger, more determined mindset when I’m feeling down.  It pushes me back up on my feet, and it does much the same within the context of the movie highlighting the biggest standing tall moment for our main heroes.  This is one of my favorite soundtracks ever, and it is only enhanced further by Vince DiCola’s very dynamic, electronic style score.

The climax of Transformers: The Movie is just flat out amazing!  I like the intercutting between the battle outside of Unicron as he fends off the attacks from Cybertron, and the multiple stories going on inside of him.  However, it hits its great crescendo in glorious fashion when the Autobot Matrix of Leadership comes into the right hands, and signals a new era for the Autobots.  The movie is filled with great, iconic moments such as this, but few as great as this.  In retrospect, it’s only a shame that the movie ends so quickly after this, but I suppose, in that regard, it’s a film that leaves you wanting more.  That’s rarely a bad thing, and it’s far better than overstaying its welcome or leaving itself open for any letdowns after such a great climax.

Despite the efforts of Michael Bay, this still remains the absolute best Transformers movie in existence.  It features a tight, exciting, and heroic story centered on the Autobots and Decepticons themselves that is vibrant as well as genuinely funny and entertaining for the whole family.  Of course, most versions contain a swear word or two that are surprising they made it into the PG rated film in 1986, but for fans, they wouldn’t want the movie any other way.  This 1986 movie treats its characters with respect and integrity, and gives many of them poignant weight at their most pivotal moments.  The new characters are just as exciting and colorful as the classic ones, and they give the film a real boost of energy and sense of discovery.  You’re going along for the ride with them as they rise to the epic task before them.  As I said, I was hooked in with Hot Rod from the start, and unlike many who saw the film as a kid, I actually didn’t cry during Optimus Prime’s death scene.  It’s unheard of, I know, but I was just enjoying the living hell of this movie.  At one time, I definitely would have listed this as my favorite movie of all time, and it is still among my favorites, as this review has undoubtedly shown.  While the film bombed at the box office, it has gained immense popularity throughout the fan base, and remains a major high point in the franchise.  All around, this is just a wildly fun movie that I will never get tired of.  While the television series doesn’t hold up nearly as well, this movie feels damn near timeless to me, and I don’t believe I am alone in that feeling.


Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Star Trek VI The Undiscovered CountryI have heard a few extensive reviews of Star Trek VI in recent times, all of which praising it glowingly with nary a blemish.  This is definitely one of the better films of the franchise, and the first Star Trek movie I ever saw, on cable no less.  It used to be my favorite, but over time I’ve come to feel as if this film lacks a certain something to get it all the way to greatness.  I certainly know what that is, but let’s give you a plot first before I share that with you.

On their way home from their first assignment, the U.S.S. Excelsior, now at the command of Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), monitors a massive explosion on the Klingon moon Praxis, the Empire’s key energy production facility.  This incident signals an eventual crippling of the Klingon Empire within fifty years, and thus, motivates a push towards peace between the Federation and the Klingons, championed by Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner).  Starfleet orders the U.S.S. Enterprise to escort the Klingon Chancellor to a peace conference on Earth.  This does not sit well for Captain Kirk (William Shatner) who is vocally opposed to the idea of peace for many personal reasons, not the least of which being the murder of his son by the Klingons.  However, despite his efforts to support the peace initiative, the hope for it is soon crushed when the Chancellor’s ship is fired upon and Gorkon himself is assassinated.  A malicious conspiracy becomes evident as all evidence supports that the photon torpedoes and assassins originated from the Enterprise.  Meanwhile, Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy are arrested and convicted for the crime, and banished to the frozen penal asteroid of Rura Penthe.  Now, the crew of the Enterprise must expose this plot, and rescue their comrades before all hope for peace in the galaxy is destroyed.

Before I actually point out the shortcomings of the film, I think it’s fair to detail a few behind-the-scenes points first.  Mainly, this film was rushed, to an extent.  Paramount Pictures wanted this out to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Star Trek, and it just made it with a late December, 1991 release.  So, the filmmakers didn’t have an abundant freedom of time to really develop this film fully, but this is not some train wreck where you can tell things were slap dashed together.  This is quite a well-made and conceived movie.  I merely say that if they had the luxury of no forced deadline, perhaps a few of my concerns with the script could have been resolved.  They are not glaring issues, but ones that I feel take away from the potential of the movie which require some in-depth analysis.

Let me also say that there is plenty of greatness in this film.  The ideas of prejudice and the struggles of overcoming those feelings for the cause of peace are very relevant.  This film was made at the time of the fall of Soviet Russia and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.  So, our world was going through a change of perspective and socio-political ideals.  The Klingons here were essentially Soviet Russia, and Praxis was an obvious allegory for Chernobyl.  This was a necessary story to be told considering that the Federation and the Klingon Empire became allies by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I feel this story was handled very well, in general.  For both sides, who had gotten used to hating one another, to finally have to reach an accord of peace and allegiance would not be easy at all.  Kirk is portrayed excellently in this story with him having to overcome his prejudice from the murder of his son David by Klingon hands and a life full of distrust towards them.  He truly goes through an arc that re-instills the outlook of hope and humanity that Star Trek has always strived for.

This film also rebounds amazingly well from the poorly executed and conceived Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  The serious tone is brought back with very solid and respectable performances by the entire cast.  Every regular cast member is given some forefront time, and I love the exchanges between Spock and McCoy in the climax.  Spock asks if McCoy would assist him with surgery on a torpedo, and McCoy responds with, “Fascinating.”  It’s a nice sly piece of dialogue that shows the respect and camaraderie between two characters that have not always seen eye-to-eye.  It’s also a treat to have seen Sulu be promoted to Captain, and given command of the U.S.S. Excelsior.  I like that Scotty gives praise to the ship now because of its captain when he was ragging on it back in The Search For Spock.  It’s another subtle show of growth for these characters, and the cast embodies those moments beautifully.

Now, there have been extended cuts of the film released on home video, and each cut of the film has their advantages.  The original theatrical version is quickly paced punctuating some dramatic beats a little better, but the extended versions make the film feel a little fuller.  The extra scenes don’t amount to too much with characters or plot, but sometimes, it helps to draw sections of a film out for more prolonged build up, such as going into Kirk & McCoy’s trial.  The pacing of the film in any incarnation is quite consistent, even if it is rather gradual.  What the film really lacks is a sustained sense of urgency.  I believe this stems from the fact that no one knows who the villains are until the final thirty minutes or so of the movie.  If the villains either don’t have a sustained presence in the film to maintain a threat level, or you don’t have them actually doing anything in opposition to the protagonists, you lose urgency in the plot.  The mystery plot isn’t enough without the dramatic pressure of active villainy going on around it.

Since Nicholas Meyer also directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I feel it’s appropriate to draw a comparison to that film.  In Star Trek II, the film was able to establish its villain in Khan and build him up as a substantial threat, and continually cut back to him to keep tension and suspense present throughout most of the movie.  As long as Khan was out there plotting his next move, there was a near constant sense of unease and immediacy throughout the film.  In Star Trek VI, the villains are completely hidden from us during the vast majority of the runtime.  There is surely an adversarial quality to General Chang, but all the way up to and through the trial, he’s never seen acting outside the bounds and expectations of his military position.  He’s not an overt villain until he’s revealed to be one until the end of the second act.  And while this film has the same general runtime as Wrath of Khan, it feels much slower and thinner.  There’s not all that much developing in the plot to build up momentum or create dramatic tension.

Since there is no urgency, there’s also an extreme lack of action and excitement in the film.  It would’ve helped to put more dramatic pressure on the crew of the Enterprise to uncover the evidence in their investigation either by way of a time constraint or consequence.  While Starfleet keeps demanding they return to Space Dock, it’s really a hollow plot device since there are no consequences or conflict involved with them constantly making up excuses to not return home.  It would’ve added a sense of urgency if there was more risk put upon them for disobeying orders, such as in The Search For Spock.  Even when the Enterprise infiltrates Klingon space to rescue Kirk and McCoy, there’s no real threat to contend with.  Throughout Star Trek, we’ve always seen Klingon ships patrolling the Neutral Zone border, protecting their Empire, but the Enterprise whisks in and only needs to fool some lowly Klingon at a patrol station with clearly the most primitive sensors around since they cannot even identify what ship it is detecting.  It doesn’t help that the entire scene is done humorously.  If it was handled as a tense and serious situation where they had to evade and strategically slip passed Klingon ships during their rescue mission, it would have, again, created urgency.

Tying into this is the lack of impact with the conspiracy and mystery.  Aside from one character who was briefly featured in The Voyage Home, none of the conspirators are anyone of note or poignancy to an audience.  They are just one-off characters that either don’t matter or are of no surprise that they are villainous.  The mystery of discovering who the assassins are has a strong setup, but eventually falls flat due a lack of tension.  The crew knows that treasonous murderers are on board, but no one ever feels a sense of unease aboard the Enterprise.  No one worries that two assassins are lurking on their ship capable of further ill-doings.  The assassins themselves are also throwaway, nobody characters.  Aside from Chang, there’s no real time spent with most of these characters to build them up one way or another to give their role in this conspiracy any weight.  In most part, they could have been just about anyone and it wouldn’t have made any difference.  It’s surely an aspect of this script that could’ve used a lot more work to integrate some character development and substance into this revelation.  I could’ve seen a plot like this working nicely during a season long arc on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where the writers could take their time to build up numerous characters in twisting arcs, and have a startling reveal later on.  In a 110 minute movie where relatively very little time is spent with anyone but the regular cast, it’s not likely to work out very well.

My other main bother with the film is the portrayal of the Klingons.  While the very honorable Next Generation Klingons could get tiresome and stereotypical after several years of overly treaded concepts, this film was made right at the strong suit of that portrayal.  While it had room for flexibility and expansion, these Klingons, in general, appear to have little substance or texture to invest any interest in.  Firstly, their uniforms had long been set in place as very hard and metallic, but here, most of the Klingons are wearing very soft, padded outfits which take away a lot of their visual edge.  It’s the only appearance of these outfits that I know of, and it doesn’t suit this aggressive alien race that has always been very vocally opposed to softness and comfort.  They are a harsh race never indulging in luxuries, but that ideal is not supported by this costume design.  Their attitudes are also watered down somewhat.  We already had the cunning and verbose Commander Kruge, the outspoken and aggressive Klingon Ambassador from The Voyage Home, and the rather brash and hard-headed Captain Klaa generally establishing the attitude and personalities of Klingons in this time period.  However, The Undiscovered Country simply tones them down far too much for my taste.  The bold and intimidating qualities which have made them such a great fan favorite are generally evaporated.  The fierce, proud warrior isn’t there.  While they are mostly political officers, I would expect more conviction and assertiveness in these portrayals.  Furthermore, the Klingon make-up is scaled back severely.  At this time, the great Michael Westmore was heading up all of the special make-up effects work and designs on The Next Generation, and the special make-up results here would’ve been far better if the filmmakers had employed his talents.  The vast majority of the alien prosthetics lack a sense of fine detail or organic feel to give them a sense of life and texture.  The Klingon forehead ridges are all too smooth and toned down.  They mostly appear rather obviously fake and rubbery.  It further adds to the out of place feel of these Klingons.  They simply do not fit into what had come before or after in the chronology of the franchise.  At times, they seem like a cheap imitation of a Klingon.  Gene Roddenberry himself was displeased that the Klingons came off as generic villains with no exploration of their society or cultural viewpoints, and Leonard Nimoy later agreed with him after the film’s release.  I agree with him as well.  Time has shown the vast potential of exploration for the Klingon culture, and I think not caring to acknowledge that here results in a very flat and uninteresting presentation of the Klingons, in general.

Now, I do very much like what Christopher Plummer did as General Chang, who is a distinct exception to my Klingon gripes in this film.  Right from his first moments, you can tell that he is someone to contend with.  He’s a definite skilled warrior with an intimidating quality.  He doesn’t give into hostility, instead he projects a patient and cunning demeanor.  Plummer works excellently in the trial sequence prosecuting Kirk and McCoy with great zeal.  He brings a fine theatrical sensibility to the character which allows him to command many scenes, and truly is the one that makes that trial compelling.  However, at no fault of his, but of the screenwriters, is Chang’s painfully excessive quoting of Shakespeare.  The bit was good for a little while, but it wears thin very quickly.  Eventually, the vast majority of his dialogue is directly quoting lines from Shakespeare plays.  I agree with Ira Steven Behr, who recorded a commentary track for the theatrical cut, that it’s simply lazy screenwriting.  The screenwriters couldn’t come up with anything original or freshly poignant for the character to say, and so, they just flippantly copy lines verbatim from another literary work.  When Khan was quoting literary works in Star Trek II, it did have a thematic purpose.  His obsession for vengeance or pain of exile were parallels to Ahab in Moby Dick or Lucifer in Paradise Lost, respectively, and these quotes were used at generally the most purposeful moments.  They had weight and meaning behind them for Khan.  With Chang, he just spouts these lines out randomly.  They hold no thematic weight or meaning at all because he has no thematic purpose in the film.  He might as well be quoting anything, or saying nothing at all, because it really makes no difference what he’s saying.  This lazy screenwriting becomes very irritating during the film’s climax.  Even Dr. McCoy says, “I’d give real money if he’d shut up.”

The film also makes blatant references to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Sherlock Holmes, and the only one I really thought was worthwhile, Peter Pan.  It eventually feels like too much referencing of other material instead of the screenwriters strengthening their own original material.  Whether they are appropriate references or not, it just feels as if almost every poignant piece of dialogue is lifted from another source, and that reflects a major weakness in the dialogue of the script.  Nicholas Meyer can be a great screenwriter and filmmaker, but at times, I feel he doesn’t view Star Trek to be good enough to stand on its own.  He has to prop it up by injecting ideas from other sources to make it great.  It worked brilliantly in The Wrath of Khan, but it simply does feel like lazy, uninspired writing in The Undiscovered Country.

The great and always respectable David Warner does a fine job as Chancellor Gorkon.  Nick Meyer envisioned the character as a meshing of Abraham Lincoln and Mikhail Gorbachev.  The Lincoln aspects definitely show through with both the make-up design, and Warner’s regal, wise performance.  However, I do believe Gorkon was grossly underused in the film.  His goal of peace is the crux of this story, and we are barely given any substantive time with him to grasp his ideals and values.  Essentially, all we know is that he wants peace, period.  This feels like another mark of an underdeveloped script.  Surely, the script had a good, solid foundation, but given some more time to refine and flesh it out, it could’ve had so much more dramatic impact, exciting tension, and a far wider scope.  This film feels like it needed a tighter pace and an extra half hour of runtime to fully flesh out and setup all of its ideas, characters, and conflicts for maximum effectiveness.

I certainly don’t want to be misunderstood with my critiques.  This is a mostly well-conceived and nicely executed film.  Production values are great as is the cinematography.  This truly looks and feels like a high grade film with a very polished cinematic style.  The acting overall is exceptionally good across the board with the entire regular cast giving it their all.  Even Kim Cattrall is very impressive as Valeris utilizing subtly in her performance, and striking a fine chemistry with Nimoy especially.  Not to mention, there’s plenty of fun dialogue and moments throughout.  The film lightly pokes fun at Kirk with the scenes opposite the shape-shifting Martia on Rura Penthe who continually seduces Kirk’s trust, and the brute of an alien that Kirk fights in the prison.  Even Kirk fighting Martia after she takes Kirk’s form harkens back to the original series episode The Enemy Within.  There, Kirk was split in two by a transporter accident, and he does battle with himself.  These bits pay tribute to classic Trek moments and Kirk traits for this, the twenty-fifth anniversary, without betraying the film’s tone in anyway. Star Trek VI has plenty of character building moments for James T. Kirk as he comes to terms with his prejudice and resistance to peace.  Spock gets a few moments of depth and growth, primarily with Valeris and Kirk.  The Undiscovered Country has a wealth of great qualities which both vastly succeeded in their potential, but also some that didn’t quite get developed as deeply as they could have been.

The visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic are some of the best of the film franchise.  Granted, the floating CGI blood in the zero gravity sequence leaves a little to be desired, but it’s certainly up to the standards of 1991’s other big special effects in Terminator 2.  Of course, I believe phaser fire should cauterize a wound, and not allow blood to go gushing out like this is a slasher film.  All other effects are superb.  The model work on all the ships is amazingly detailed holding up to great scrutiny, and being photographed beautifully.  The Praxis shockwave is a stunning feast for the eyes that starts the film off on a powerful note.  All the way through, you can see the remarkable quality that ILM was worth, and what Star Trek V was lacking without their talents.

With previous franchise composers James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith both turning down this project for their own vehement reasons, Meyer had to seek out someone new to provide a musical landscape for this darker toned film.  Cliff Eidelman delivered something right on the money.  It’s certainly not the rousing fanfares of old, but surely appropriate for the heavier subject matter and dangerous implications of the story.  He nicely throws in the right lighter cues at the perfect moments.  When Kirk and Spock have a discussion just before the third act, Eidelman brings out a poignant, warm feeling in his score.  His work complements the film’s various dramatic facets beautifully, and the film concludes with a gorgeous composition that sends the original crew out with class and style.

I find it difficult to express a counter-balance to my criticisms to support my opinion in that this is still a good movie.  I will never deny that is, but I think it succeeds only well enough instead of exceeding where it could have.  Simply put, what I’m saying about Star Trek VI is that it is a good film that still had plenty of room for improvement.  It’s themes are smart and topical for the time, and still have some resonance today.  Peace is a difficult thing to strive for, and some people are more comfortable with continuing to be at war with a lifelong enemy than try to learn to co-exist with them in peace.  These are ideals that primarily Kirk has to deal with and overcome, and that is the best handled thing about this entire movie.  While there has been a lot of criticism in this review, it’s simply to point out that many of the good aspects of this movie could have been great, if given more time to fully develop them at the script level.  As I said, I have felt as if there was something lacking in this movie, and in short, that something was a lack of tension and urgency in the plot as well as a need for more substance added into many of the newly introduced characters.  It has great, strong subject matter which felt like a necessary story to be told in the annals of Star Trek, but for as much as you can read into them, there’s just as much that didn’t end up on the page or the screen to flesh out those details.  This is a movie I still like very much, and I think it is a respectable send-off for the original cast of Star Trek.  I give it a very strong recommendation.  Again, being that it was the first Trek film I ever saw, I think this is one that could draw you into the franchise, and show you it does have substance and relevance to offer.


Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

First off, I do not hate this movie.  There are things I like about it, I find some parts funny, but there are obviously bad aspects to it.  However, I’ve always found something enjoyable about it even if it is a mess of a movie.  As anyone who has regularly read my reviews knows very well about the summer of 1989, where movies were concerned.  It was massively huge with numerous blockbuster contenders hitting almost every week, but Star Trek V, despite being projected to do very well, really took a nose dive at the box office.  It was one of the bigger disappointments of that summer in relation to its projected success.  The main reason for its failure?  The ego of William Shatner, who was the film’s star, writer, and director, who took on a project he didn’t have the skill to deliver based on the studio’s restrictions and his own misconceived vision.  Even Gene Roddenberry went on record calling the film “apocryphal,” and most simply regard it as if it never happened.  There are undeniable reasons for that, but I seem to be one of the very few that gains some entertainment value from this movie.

On Nimbus III, the Planet of Galactic Peace, a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) has taken three ambassadors hostage with a radical plan.  Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the newly christened U.S.S. Enterprise-A, which has ship-wide malfunctions, are recalled from shore leave for a rescue mission to the planet, but the distress call attracts the attention of a Klingon Captain intent on making a name for himself by engaging a Starfleet vessel in combat.  The rescue mission goes awry when it is revealed that Sybok has used a unique telepathic ability to draw the hostages under his sway.  Matters are further complicated when Spock (Leonard Nimoy) reveals that Sybok is his half-brother, also a son of Sarek.  Sybok and his followers thus seize control of the Enterprise to fulfill his lifelong search for the fabled planet of Sha-Ka-Ree where he believes all life began, and that God himself waits for them.  Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy struggle to regain command of the Enterprise from this apparent madman before they reach the supposedly impenetrable Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy.  However, what awaits them on the other side is not what any of them expected.

This definitely had a peculiar behind the scenes scenario for such a problematic film.  Star Trek V had the second largest budget of the franchise up to that point, and so, it wasn’t a matter of a lack of money for director William Shatner to achieve his vision.  Instead, it seems to come down to both a mishandling of the budget as well as terrible timing all around.  Industrial Light & Magic was responsible for the visual effects work on the films since The Wrath of Khan, but when this film went into production, ILM was hard at work on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Constraints of time and money meant the filmmakers of Star Trek V couldn’t wait for them to be available, nor could they contend with what Spielberg and Lucasfilm were paying ILM to secure their expert services.  It’s also slightly ironic since both films were distributed by Paramount Pictures, and released within about two weeks of one another.  So, Shatner and Paramount had to go with a lesser effects company, and the lower grade results are obvious.  They simply do not measure up to the dynamic and gloriously cinematic quality of ILM, and this further impacts the overall level of quality of the movie.  Shatner had wild ideas for this film that were axed either in scripting by the studio, or simply because they could not be achieved with the resources he had.  Apparently, none of these ideas were anything better than what did make it into the film, and in most cases, were far, far worse.  The biggest of which was instead of encountering an evil entity claiming to be God, they would literally meet God himself, and do battle with the real Devil.  As bad as you thought it was, it was intended to be terribly worse.

This film is indeed bad with foolish concepts that shouldn’t exist in a Star Trek story, and has some terrible comedy.  It also portrays much of the regular cast in a very uncharacteristic fashion.  With the loyalty they’ve shown, especially in The Search For Spock, it is difficult to accept that they would so easily turn against Kirk in favor of Sybok’s telepathic therapy.  So, why do I enjoy this film at all?  Camp value.  I do find some of the comedy funny in a very ridiculous and cheap way.  Yes, it is badly written low brow, broad comedy, and it is surely not the context I would want the crew ever depicted in again.  Yet, when I take the film as a lower grade feature, I can just indulge in the camp value of it all.  I find myself quoting lines from this probably more than any other Trek film.  Where the humor of The Voyage Home was very situational stemming from the “fish out of water” context of the film, here, it is just out of place, awkward, and silly.  While I do enjoy it, I can still look at it objectively and critically.  Simply put, William Shatner did not demonstrate good screenwriting abilities on this film.  I will grant that it is very incompatible to have comedy of this sort in a film about finding God.  Shatner tries to balance broad comedy and serious drama, but that is just not a combination that mixes.

However, while the film is wrought with out of place humor and silliness, there are some excellent dramatic and character moments found throughout.  I like Kirk, Bones, and Spock sitting around the campfire talking about how Kirk knows that as long as he has his friends around, he knows he won’t die.  They have saved each other’s lives so many times that this does resonate for me, and is quite a good moment of depth and insight into James Kirk.  He says he’ll die alone, and that was something that always stuck with me.  Thus, making his ultimate demise in Star Trek: Generations even more of an insult.  The scenes between Spock and Sybok have some fine dramatic substance as their shared history is played out.  And undeniably, the scene where Sybok has McCoy relive the death of his father is the most powerful scene of the film, and possibly DeForest Kelley’s most profound acting in all his tenure as Leonard McCoy.  In these moments, Shatner, as director, does get the dramatic side of the film down nicely, and is definitely helped by very strong acting talents.  Still, they are not enough to raise the film up to respectable standards since there is so much low grade junk weighing it down.  They are mere glimpses of a stronger and more tonally consistent film that could have been, if handled by better talented filmmakers.  I may enjoy the film, but certainly, I will never deny that it is filled with a lot of crap.

Case in point is that what thin semblance of a plot there is doesn’t make much sense.  It’s hard to fathom why Sybok would choose such a worthless rock of a planet like Nimbus III, a failed public relations stunt of peace, to launch his quest from.  Obviously, he had a starship transport him to the planet in the first place, and so, he had the means to secure interplanetary travel at some point.  There was no express need for him to travel to Nimbus III just to hijack a ship.  I mean, there are far easier ways of obtaining a starship than taking ambassadorial hostages on a desolate planet no one gives a crap about.  Thus, all Sybok really needs from this planet are followers to bear witness to his quest, and he chooses the dregs of the galaxy.  This doesn’t seem like the most efficient or credible plan to me.  Beyond that, the most that is going on is Kirk, Spock, and McCoy trying to take back control of the ship, but by the time they have the chance, Sybok’s already arrived at his destination.  From there, it’s just a matter of exploration and survival.  The entire subplot of the Klingon Bird of Prey hunting the Enterprise is more of a minor action plot device, and doesn’t feed into anything substantive.  The themes of religion and finding God also aren’t really explored by any of the characters, except for Sybok, and he does tend to come off like a fanatic or cult leader.  That is entirely intentional, but it also diffuses the poignancy of the topic.  No one takes the issue seriously because he is viewed as a delusional person who is risking lives for his own fanatical validation.  More time is spent on discussing who Sybok is, and the power that he possesses than his belief in finding God at the center of the galaxy.

I also have to criticize the idea that the Great Barrier has been perceived as impenetrable.  The key idea is perception.  I can’t wrap my head around how everyone is dead-on certain that no ship can survive entering the Barrier when no ship has ever tried, nor have they acquired any data on it to support such a claim.  All they know is that no probe has ever returned, which hasn’t stopped starship captains from entering into the unknown before or since.  Everyone considers it dangerous, tantamount to madness and suicide to try, yet the Enterprise and the Klingon Bird of Prey traverse it without even the slightest problem.  Even taking the film by its own warped logic, if passage through the Barrier is merely a matter of belief that it is an illusion, that still doesn’t explain how the Bird of Prey was able to make it through.  If the ships had to survive some danger to pass through that ominous barrier, then I could say that these fears were justified.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  The idea simply doesn’t hold any credibility.

Furthermore, the physics of space travel are completely screwed over as it would take decades for the Enterprise to reach the center of the galaxy even at top warp speeds.  Of course, the most lauded criticism of the film is why would Starfleet send Captain Kirk out on an important hostage rescue mission in a ship that is falling apart.  Starfleet does say there are other ships in range of Nimbus III, but no experienced commanders.  So, it wouldn’t be difficult to put Kirk and his crew on one of those vessels for a temporary assignment.  It also doesn’t make sense that the fleet would build a brand new Constitution class starship when two films ago, which in the chronology of Star Trek was maybe a couple months ago, the original Enterprise was essentially called old and obsolete with no plans to refit it for continued service.  The original intention was that the Enterprise-A was rechristened as such from the U.S.S. Yorktown, but this film screws that idea over completely.  The idea of the Enterprise-A being a shambles is simply to remove the convenience of using the transporter to rescue the hostages, or allow for an easy escape for our heroes when the evil entity turns on them.  Still, you can have the transporters be inoperable without the entire ship being a disaster.  Of course, it’s also there for more moments of humor when turbolift doors won’t open, or the Captain’s electronic log book, which is independent of the ship’s systems, goes kaput.  The U.S.S. Enterprise presented here is as much of a mess as the film itself.

Now, there is foolishness and stupidity abound in this film that really cannot be taken seriously because it hardly takes itself seriously.  I’ve barely gotten started on the criticisms this film deserves.  I could go on and on about the inanities and stuff that doesn’t make sense, and normally, I would keep going for quite a while to really scrutinize it all.  However, this has already been detailed by SFDebris in his Opinionated Trek Movie Guide videos.  I almost didn’t go forward with this review for fear that most of what I would say would just be a retread of his review.  He essentially covered it all in excellent fashion.  However, what pushed me forward with this was sharing what I do enjoy about the film, despite its flaws.  I can enjoy the badly conceived and poorly executed aspects of the film while still finding genuine merit in a few areas.  What originally motivated me towards doing a review at all was giving credit to one aspect of the movie that I have never heard anyone offer before.  That is the performance of Laurence Luckinbill as Sybok.

The filmmakers originally wanted Sean Connery for this role, but again, due to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, they had to look elsewhere.  However, unlike the visual effects, they did not end up with a low grade result.  Luckinbill instills great passion and theatrical zeal into the role.  He is very charismatic, making Sybok a personality to contend with.  He’s not out to destroy or seek vengeance upon anyone.  Instead, his threat is based in his radical ideology, and that required someone not intimidating but vibrant and intelligent.  He didn’t need to be cunning and lethal like Khan, but a man who views himself as enlightened but is perceived as a con man, similar to the televangelists that inspired the character.  Yet, Luckinbill makes the character interesting and compelling as well as sympathetic by the end.  When Sybok realizes the error of his ways, he takes responsibility for his arrogance and ego, which creates a great character arc.  I think Sybok has a good ending which redeems his character, but unfortunately, its poignancy is overshadowed by the remainder of the climax with Kirk seeking to escape the evil entity.  Luckinbill created a fascinating character through his performance that I actually would’ve loved to have seen more of.  I think exploring Sybok in more depth would be a great thing in this actor’s talented hands.  If placed in a better film, I think both Laurence Luckinbill’s performance and Sybok himself would have gained more praise, but far too often, a marvelous performance is overlooked due to the quality of the film it appears in.  Luckinbill carried a lot of weight on his shoulders with this movie, and I think he carried it with more ease, grace, and integrity than anyone else in the film.  While the script written around Sybok is certainly not the smartest or most logical, the character himself is given a credible life by this actor, and I think he deserves a lot of overdue praise for what he did.

The other performances are especially mixed.  Even with much of the humorous content, I do feel that Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly do a very solid job, maintaining far more integrity than the script would suggest they could.  Much of why the humor amongst them and Shatner works any bit as good as it does is because of their long standing chemistry.  They’ve always worked beautifully together, and that goes a long way in this turbulent film.  James Doohan is certainly entertaining handling the cheap humor pretty decently, and just being his charming Montgomery Scott self.  I do genuinely laugh at his comedy moments.  However, the rest of the main cast doesn’t have as much to work with, either good or bad, and thus, doesn’t offer much for me to comment on.  Cynthia Gouw, however, puts in an entirely disingenuine performance as the Romulan Ambassador.  Her line deliveries lack any substance, and she comes off like a hollow shell of a person with her light airy voice and naïve smile.  There is no acting ability in what she does.  She just smiles and looks pretty for the camera, which makes it no wonder that she was a model before attempting to be an actress.  The usually great David Warner is criminally wasted in the role of St. John Talbot, the Federation Ambassador on Nimbus III.  There is nothing in the role for him that is worthwhile.  The only fortunate result from this is that this introduction into Star Trek allowed for him to take on two far more impressive roles in Star Trek VI and an excellent and powerful two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Beyond this point in this cast, it just becomes far too one dimensional to even bother mentioning.  Captain Klaa fits solidly into a Klingon stereotype, but he is nothing more than that.  He’s just on a shallow quest for glory.

Now, yes, I must address William Shatner as an actor here.  There is an obvious ego trip going on in front of and behind the camera.  This doesn’t necessarily lead to a bad performance from him, but you can definitely see how the film is designed to raise James T. Kirk up while pushing everyone else down.  Shatner is entirely capable of delivering great performances, but it does take the right director to know how to wear Shatner down to get it out of him.  Nicholas Meyer, director the second and sixth Star Trek movies, says on one of his commentary tracks that he had to run many takes with Shatner to get the right one.  This was, as he said, because Shatner would start out trying to act like a big star in the spotlight, but as the takes went on, he’d get more worn down by the process and then give the more natural and real performance.  That’s where Meyer would find the gold, and I imagine Leonard Nimoy had a similar process on the previous two Trek movies.  When Shatner is directing himself, it’s inevitable that more of that big star ego will show through, but there are several moments of solid dramatic acting from him.  It’s not a terrible performance at all, but it could’ve used more wrangling in, more molding to shape it properly.  Regardless of the acting, there is just no denying how overly focused this film is on Kirk.  Shatner takes every opportunity that he was allowed to separate Kirk in any way from the rest of his crew.  Either by them betraying him, or simply being at odds with Spock or McCoy, Shatner wanted Kirk to fight this all on his own, but that simply is uncharacteristic of especially those two to abandon Kirk at all.  Whatever logic he had to break, or characterizations he had to betray, Shatner was going to focus that spotlight on himself as much as possible.  Thus, that is the film’s crucial failing.

Now, I never realized this myself, but a friend of mine pointed out that Star Trek V is actually the film that’s actually the most like the television series.  The lower grade effects, the slight corniness, and the use of the rocky California desert as some generic alien planet are purely straight from the original television series.  The storyline has the feel of something from the original series as well, in concept, anyway.  Encountering strange larger than life entities like in The Squire of Gothos or The Doomsday Machine, passing through cosmic barriers like Where No Man Has Gone Before, and the Kirk action sequence along a rocky landscape like in Arena all tie the movie strongly to the roots of the television series.  Granted, the writing of this film is a long way off from the best standards of the series.

The last thing to really give note of is composer Jerry Goldsmith’s return to the franchise here, and he brings all his original themes back with him.  The great opening fanfare, which had become the theme for The Next Generation by now, and the excellent Klingon theme return in great fashion.  It’s a very good score that is quite to my general liking, but Goldsmith just had terrible luck by being saddled with the two most critically bashed films of the series so far (the other being Star Trek: The Motion Picture).  He wouldn’t return to Trek again until First Contact due to the critical and commercial failure of this movie.

Despite my own personal enjoyment of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I cannot defend it as a whole.  There are admirable parts to it, but they are grossly overwhelmed by all the negative qualities present.  I happen to enjoy this on a campy, bad movie level, but there is hardly anyway I forge a set of conditions under which I could generally recommend it.  You’re either going to like the movie for the low grade work that it is, or you’re going to hate it, passionately.  There were plenty of problems surrounding the development and execution of this film, but they do not excuse much at all of the end result.  William Shatner believed he could make this movie work with his objectionable story, and the studio mandates of making another “fun” movie like The Voyage Home.  He failed miserably, and this nearly killed the film franchise entirely.  A better director never would’ve touched this film with Shatner’s script, and a better screenwriter would’ve scoffed at the film’s concept.  I can certainly see why people revile this movie so much, but for me, there are far worse Star Trek films in existence than this one.  However, others have thoroughly scrutinized those movies in far more depth than I can get to, and I have nothing new to say about any of them.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have some critical statements to make about one of the more highly regarded films in the franchise, though.


Highlander: The Final Dimension (1994)

Coming three years after the disaster that was Highlander 2: The Quickening, this sequel absolutely plays it safe.  It also demonstrates a lack of ambition or originality in how much it directly borrows from the first movie without even disguising it.  The highly successful television series starring Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod was already on the air, but the producers of the franchise decided to give Connor MacLeod another theatrical outing.  It surely doesn’t measure up to the first film, as it is a formulaic sequel, but it is an enjoyable film that did have some good potential.

In 16th century Japan, immortal Scotsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is mentored by the sorcerer and master of illusion Nakano (Mako).  However, when an evil, ravaging immortal named Kane (Mario Van Peebles) raids a nearby village, and comes looking for the sorcerer, the ensuing quickening from Nakano’s death seals Kane and his minions in the mountain cave for the next four centuries.  In present day, an excavation is underway to determine the truth of the legend of Nakano, headed up by archaeologist Alexandra Johnson (Deborah Unger).  However, this excavation aids Kane in his escape from the cave, and immediately begins his search for MacLeod.  Since his defeat of the Kurgan, Connor has adopted a son, but also, lost his wife Brenda to a car accident which he survived without a scratch.  He’s known he was not the last immortal, and now, he knows that it is Kane who still lives.  Both Connor MacLeod and Kane travel to New York, the site of the Gathering, to do battle and claim The Prize once and for all.

This story is fairly good, but would even be rather average for the television series.  It’s nothing exceptional or stunning.  It’s not trying to do anything original or break new ground for the franchise, and it knows it.  It’s more playing around in the world of Highlander, having a little bit of fun, but not trying to build upon anything.  As with the previous sequel, gone is the sense of magic and mystery.  Connor MacLeod is still portrayed well by Christopher Lambert, still injecting some charm and confidence into the role.  However, it really is that sense of world weariness that made him captivating to begin with.  You could feel the weight and aura of centuries lived in Lambert’s performance.  It gave the character depth and texture.  Here, all that is absent, and instead, we get a much more standard protagonist who is enjoyable, yet lacks gravitas to really draw in an audience.  The thing is with this movie is that it feels like a second rate version of Highlander, but in the least, it never takes itself too seriously for too long.  This is mainly by way of the character of Kane.

Mario Van Peebles is an excellent talent in front of and behind the camera, and I know this is not representative of his highest acting qualities.  There are both positives and negatives to say about his performance as Kane.  How you take his performance is based on how you want to perceive the movie.  In general, he’s basically a carbon copy of the Kurgan only not written as well, and portrayed with an especially over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek mentality.  Van Peebles even puts on a very gravely Kurgan-esque voice as Kane, which bares next to no resemblance to his natural voice.  As Kane, he certainly has formidable moments where we see how lethal and vile Kane truly is, solidifying his weight and threat as a villain.  However, Van Peebles is entirely indulging himself in this role, and if you choose to view the film as a fun, lightweight flick, you can certainly find enjoyment from this performance.  Mario Van Peebles is clearly enjoying living in the skin of this villain with his performance bordering on campy.  He’s certainly a long way off from chewing as much scenery as Bruce Payne did in Highlander: Endgame, though.  Still, Kane is written with some rather unrealistic dialogue.  For a guy that’s been buried in a cave for the last four hundred years, he certainly has picked up late twentieth century slang quite swiftly in addition to learning how to drive a car.  Throughout the film, even in the sixteenth century scenes, he entirely comes off like a modern villain instead of one displaced in time and culture.

Also, while the design of Kane is pretty awesome with the long hair, goatee, and tattoos, I think the nipple rings are just a tad too much.  They are on both his armor and himself, and just make Kane more modern looking than he should be.  Thankfully, we’re not exposed to them long as Kane adopts some very good looking Asian style threads.  It again comes off as an attempt to emulate the style of the Kurgan, but with a 90s flavor.  I really do believe Kane could’ve been taken in a much more credible direction, and made for a slightly more original and straightly serious villain.  Instead, the filmmakers chose the route of levity.  Still, there are other issues which hold the film down from being as good as it could have been.

Regardless, whether you call this The Final Dimension or The Sorcerer, this does feel more like the kind of sequel one would expect.  It follows up on the police investigation threads from the first movie, and uses footage and dialogue from the original to further the story and character points forward.  It might seem a little frivolous at times, but I don’t have much of a gripe with it.  I like how this was done in Endgame as well.  However, there is flashing back to the first movie for context, and then, there’s badly copying scenes from that same movie.

Such is the case when Kane goes on a psychotic joy ride with Connor’s adopted son.  It’s a real poor excuse considering none of the danger is actually real, just an illusion generated by Kane.  It’s a pathetic and blatant attempt to recapture something awesome from the first film while doing it with only a fraction of the talent. Even if done nearly as well, it would still be lame because it’s a retread instead of trying to do something original.  Even kidnapping a loved one of Connor’s to force a final confrontation also emulates what the Kurgan did in the first movie.  It is stuff like this which make this movie a pale imitation of the original Highlander.

I will give credit to the aspect of the police investigation.  Lieutenant John Stenn remembers the original string of beheadings, and who the sole suspect was at the time.  With MacLeod back in town with a new beheading, he immediately puts it all back together.  It is a part of this story that makes the film feel like a continuation of the first, and I do feel it was well done.  Stenn has an understandable contempt for MacLeod, and is quite dogged about his investigation.  It is a pretty good performance by actor Martin Neufeld.

Deborah Unger is very good in her dual roles.  However, I do find the entire aspect of Alex bearing a dead-on resemblance to a centuries past lost love of Connor’s to be unnecessary and a little forced.  The romantic relationship between Alex and Connor could’ve easily worked without that odd connection, and possibly could’ve had more time to develop without those flashbacks.  I think this idea was only there so that the filmmakers could have occasional flashback sequences to better resemble the style of the original movie.  It’s not badly handled, but it does feel like a diversion from the actual relevant aspects of the plot.

Regardless, Unger does a very fine job as the film’s female lead.  Her performance is very grounded showing a fine range of levity, passion, and dramatic weight.  She carries herself very solidly, and works very well opposite Lambert.  Also, Deborah Unger is probably the sexiest, most sultry looking woman of the Highlander films.  She even insisted on not using a body double for the fully nude and steamy sex scene late in the film.  While the romantic storyline between Connor and Alex doesn’t develop as strongly as other Highlander loves have, it is serviceable, and nicely played by both actors.

I will also hand it to this film’s cinematographer.  This is a very well shot and well lit movie.  The bowels of the hospital where Connor encounters Kane’s henchman has some gorgeous blues and oranges creating a beautiful atmosphere.  Overall, we get some very cinematic camera angles and movement with stellar work when it comes to the action sequences and sword fights.  While the film lacks the epic grandeur and sweeping visual quality that was a given with Russell Mulcahy, I will give it credit for looking quite a bit better than your usual 1990s fare from Dimension Films.  This can possibly be credited to director Andy Morahan being primarily a music video director, same as where Mulcahy started out.  He knows how to capture great visuals, and that is in no dispute here.  Although, it seems Morahan never broke out from music videos.  This was his first feature film, and he’s not done much of anything else outside of music videos ever since.  He directs this film pretty well, handling the action, drama, and levity of it very evenly.  It certainly isn’t an example of a breakout directorial debut, but there have been far worse action filmmakers out there who have had bigger careers making lower quality films.  So, I will say that this is a decent first outing for Morahan.

As far as action goes, I actually think the film’s best sword fight is not the climax, but when Connor and Kane fight inside the former Buddhist temple.  It’s a very dynamic fight with some great physical and dialogue exchanges.  With the duel being on Holy Ground, it ends in a very startling way as the blades of Connor and Kane’s swords shatter.  It shows one ominous way such betrayals of the rules are dealt with.  The final climactic duel is a well executed sequence with great cinematography and good effects.  It is very physically intense.  However, it has one stinging point I will get to momentarily.

The orchestral score by J. Peter Robinson is very good.  I particularly enjoyed the Japanese and Middle Eastern flourishes at the appropriate moments creating a unique musical atmosphere.  The score is very thrilling and vibrant with a plenty of character.  What I have a problem with is the clunky use of second rate hard rock songs in this film.  With the original movie, Queen naturally brought an epic and emotionally rich depth to the film with their songs alongside Michael Kamen’s gorgeous score.  Highlander 2 essentially focused only on Stewart Copeland’s grand, operatic score.  With this film, these rock songs are just bad and obnoxious, and don’t complement Robinson’s score at all.  The worst part comes in the climactic battle between Kane and MacLeod.  Someone recorded a blatant knock-off of Mötley Crüe’s “Dr. Feelgood,” and it terribly degrades the entire climax.  I’m sure Robinson could’ve composed something beautifully dramatic and triumphant instead of that schlock.  Where the filmmakers get it right with the licensed music is with Loreena McKennitt’s version of “Bonny Portmore.”  This is a gorgeous and deeply emotional song which would become a staple of the franchise from here on out.  I really adore its beauty.

On the up side, the visual effects are very good.  During the 90s, movie goers were treated to a lot of primitive CGI, but this movie really gives us some good quality effects.  The illusions of Nakano and Kane are given a great, magical look that flow very smoothly with the on-screen action.  There’s nary a bad effect anywhere in the film, save for the quickening flashing across the Moroccan desert sky.  Otherwise, this really is some beautiful work.

Although, I think the filmmakers kind of took a wide liberty with the term “illusion.”  An illusion shouldn’t allow Kane to transform into a bird and fly away.  Even the ability to create solid objects from either Kane or Nakano is arguable as an illusion.  They should’ve just came out and said it was straight up magic.  Although, I know even that gets into a muddled area in that, if it is full-on magic, why would it be that either man can do only so little with the power.  Nether of them is exactly Merlin casting spells and unleashing epic, fantastical wizardry.  So, it’s a real strange line to walk, and is probably best not to scrutinize it.  Still, this is a review, and that’s what I’m meant to do.

I think what this film lacks the most is depth.  Emotions don’t run very deep, and we don’t really get much under the skin of these characters.  Again, Connor doesn’t feel like the same textured and fascinating character we had from the first Highlander.  I hate to continually make comparisons back to the first movie, but this film begs so much comparison that it is impossible to avoid it.  Nakano is a decent character, but has really no depth of any kind to offer.  The late Mako was very beloved in certain fandoms, but I don’t find his performance here very inspiring.  Whether or not you compared him to Sean Connery’s Ramirez, he is quite forgettable.  The film does have its moments of touching beauty and decent depth, but it does entirely feel like the filmmakers playing it safe.  They are not trying to dig into the soul of their characters, and that’s really a major mistake.  Case in point would be the French Revolution flashbacks would have worked so much better if there was more substance to grasp onto.  We get only glimpses of Connor and Sarah being in love.  It’s very weakly presented, and since it bares no relevance or impact upon the main plot with Connor and Kane, the filmmakers don’t spend great amounts of time on it.  I’m certainly not saying this is a terrible script, just a mediocre one that could’ve had better potential in more talented and motivated hands.  It worked for a fun action adventure film, but against the brilliant standards set with the original movie, it’s undoubtedly mediocre.

I had intended to offer some comparison between the director’s cut and the European cut of the film, but any differences are very minor.  The director’s cut adds in some more effects shots to enhance Kane’s sorcery, most notably with his arrival in New York being via a portal instead of just walking out on the docks as if he traveled by ship.  At the end, the European version excises the reuse of effects shots from Connor winning The Prize in the first Highlander that were present in both the theatrical and director’s cuts.  Sadly, the only change in the soundtrack comes at the end credits where the director’s cut has another bad hard rock track while the European cut features “Bonny Portmore” once again.  Both cuts are available on Region 1 DVD.  The original 1998 DVD has the true director’s cut, but the 2005 and 2011 DVDs, which claim to also be the “Special Director’s Cut,” are actually the European version only with the opening title card changed from Highlander III: The Sorcerer to Highlander: The Final Dimension.  I would lean towards buying the newer DVD since the film is given the anamorphic widescreen treatment resulting in vastly superior picture quality.  The image is clearer and colors are much more vibrant.  So, I am glad to have purchased it, regardless of there being no dramatic differences in the content of the film.

Ultimately, Highlander III is that sequel in the franchise that doesn’t get much attention.  The others have very notable issues that are hotly contested amongst fans, but this one keeps a low profile despite also having its fair share of mild problems.  While it surely doesn’t re-ignite the magic that the original movie captured, it’s a fun, disposable film that has its merits, but ultimately, can be forgotten about without a problem.  As is the difficulty in making a sequel to the original, where it ended definitively, the filmmakers had to indulge in a cheap end-runaround to make a sequel where there are still immortals out there.  Again, if you’re looking just for a fun movie that’s not going to take itself too seriously, then you can enjoy this movie.  I do find it entertaining but lacking in substance.  In my opinion, it’s a step in a better direction than Highlander 2: The Quickening, but not as good as what was being done on the television series at the time.


November Update

Now that all the horror and James Bond movies are behind me, I will be returning to a much more leisurely schedule for reviews.  Forever Horror Month was a very rigorous output of content that I will not be repeating with posting one review per day.  There will be another Forever Horror Month next October, but it will be a much smaller undertaking.  It was fun sharing all of these horror films with everyone, but I did fall behind schedule due to several factors resulting in a difficult final week.  Yet, I was determined to make good on my word in completing the month.  So, I am proud to have pushed forward all the way through to the end with a total of 41 reviews published in 31 days.

I do have a few reviews planned for the next month or so.  There has been a very analytical review of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in progress since mid-September, and I intend to have that completed by month’s end.  I might do another Star Trek movie review depending on time and sustained interest in writing it.  If it happens, it will be posted ahead of The Undiscovered Country review.  I also have the urge to watch and write reviews of some more Highlander movies.  I have just ordered an alternate cut of Highlander: The Final Dimension on DVD for an impending review.  I have the original 1998 U.S. DVD featuring the actual director’s cut, but the 2005 and 2011 DVD releases have the European cut of the film.  So, I want to include some comparison in the review since I believe there are good and bad differences in both from what I have read.

Beyond all of that, I do still want to have reviews of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi up before the year is out.  If they do come within that time, they are certainly going to be happening in December.  And yes, I am very aware of the entire Disney purchase of Lucasfilm Limited, but until I know how Disney will handle the property of Star Wars, I have no opinion to pass upon it or the impending new trilogy of Episodes VII, VIII, & IX.  I’ll just wait and see.  It should be an interesting ride as they develop, regardless.

Lastly, you may have noticed some changes since November 1st.  This is because I decided to make Forever Cinematic an official product of RavensFilm Productions.  Since I put so much time and passion into this blog, I felt it was a logical choice to meld them together.  Nothing has changed beyond the slight cosmetics, but you can now see the Twitter feed for RavensFilm to the right under the Forever Cinematic Facebook feed.  I also expanded the social media sharing options for the blog posts.  I will be refining other minor aspects of Forever Cinematic over the coming weeks.

-Nick Michalak


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