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Archive for September, 2011

Thor (2011)

The marketing for Thor was real iffy.  Including a very uninspired poster campaign, it was very hard to tell from trailers and TV spots if the film worked balancing out drama, humor, and action along with the stark contrasts of our world and the fantastical realm of Asgard.  For me, I feel most films today are not marketed well or appropriately.  It seems more like the film has to adhere to what they want to market instead of the marketing adhering to what the film is.  Either that, or the advertising firm is a bunch of hacks who don’t know how to capture what’s special about the property.  Regardless, the trailers and TV spots didn’t sell me enough on the film to run out to theatres.  Later in the summer, Captain America: The First Avenger came along, I ran out to see it, and highly enjoy it.  However, some major plot points harkened back to the mythology of Thor,and so, I got the urge to see it if only to fill in any gaps that I was not aware of.  It was too late to catch it in theatres, and so, the DVD has arrived to help me out.  Simply said, I very much like this movie, and was highly satisfied at the end.  Of course, for those unaware, here is the obligatory synopsis.

Amongst the nine realms, the forces of Asgard, led by their king Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), and the icy realm of Jotunheim (pronounced Yodenheim) populated by the Frost Giants, led by Laufey (Colm Feore) have been enemies for countless ages.  After a great battle in Norway, 965 A.D., Odin and his courageous warriors defeat the Frost Giants and seize the source of their power, the Casket of Ancient Winters.  Many years later, Odin’s sons Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) grow to manhood, and while Thor is the great warrior ready to be granted the throne of Asgard, Loki is a mischievous practioners of magic and illusion.  However, the Frost Giants infiltrate the palace and attempt to retrieve the Casket.  They fail, but subsequent actions in retaliation of this by the impulsive and battle-hungry Thor and his warrior friends leave Odin in contempt of his oldest son.  As punishment, he banishes Thor to the realm of Earth, and relieves him of his greatest weapon and source of his power, the hammer Mjolnir.  From here on, the hammer and its power can only be wielded by one who is worthy of the power of Thor.  Thus, Thor must go through an evolution of character to prove himself worthy of being the man he needs to become.  On Earth, he comes into the graces of the young and passionate Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her astrophysicist team.  Jane gradually forms a caring relationship with the wayward son of Odin.  Meanwhile, Loki uncovers long held secrets, and plots his own rule over Asgard.  Amidst this, agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. arrive to examine and quarantine the downed Mjolnir which is embedded in stone like Excalibur waiting for its future king to wield it.

There is so much I could talk about here, but perhaps the best, most apprehensive aspect, is how all these different realms of existence are handled and balanced out.  Frankly, I think Kenneth Branagh succeeded in doing what very few probably could have done.  The scenes in Asgard and Jotunheim are wonderful.  They establish the grandeur of the society that Thor comes from.  He is used to a world of honor and glory.  A place ruled by gods that is magnificent in its visual spectacle.  The production design is fantastic here, and the realization of it all in CGI and set design is quite remarkable.  In Asgard, people speak with large, proud voices and passionate words of an extraordinary culture, and it all fits, it all works in this realm of gods.  When Thor is dropped to Earth, literally, he still acts this way, but to Hemsworth’s credit, I think it’s his charm that makes it all endearing to me.  It does comes off comically, but I feel Branagh and Hemsworth make it work because of that charm.  They handle Thor with gallant heart and compassion instead of some dumb brute who just doesn’t get it.  I, personally, did not find one joke misplaced, mistimed, or out of character.  Unlike in Green Lantern where all the Earth scenes were mishandled, poorly executed dead weight, and all the CGI’d otherworldly sequences were the real juice, Thor strikes the balance correctly.  This is also due to the plot being tightly crafted to keep the pace up, the emotional threads alive, and the plotline or character relationships developing throughout.  Branagh and his editor kept this a lean film from beginning to end.

The only detracting element of the film, for me, and what could’ve been used to make the Earth and Asgard realms stylistically different was the camera work.  The biggest gripe is the obscene, excessive use of Dutch angles throughout the film.  Usually, a Dutch angle is used to give a scene or the filmed subject an off-kilter feeling.  Here, it is used without an intended effect.  Branagh’s audio commentary on the DVD gives insight into this choice.  These are angles and compositions that were frequently used in the comics he saw and read.  So, he intended to translate that onto the screen.  He says that there was a concern that he may have been overdoing it, and I believe that concern was warranted.  The simple fact is that it’s annoying, and has no positive effect on the shots or scenes it’s used in.  There are Dutch angles used on crane shots, dolly shots, steadi-cam shots, static shots, and so on.  It was very distracting to me since I am more aware of it than most people likely are due to me being a filmmaker.  If Branagh used this style for just the Asgard sequences, and stuck to a more natural style of framing and composition for the Earth scenes, I think that would have enhanced the stylistic differences between the different worlds.  As it is, I think it’s exceptionally distracting because it is used with no real storytelling purpose in mind.

Now, where these Marvel Studios films have mostly excelled is in the casting.  Attracting some higher grade talents to fill these modern mythological roles is something that Richard Donner started with Superman: The Movie over thirty years ago.  Hemsworth is a slight exception to Robert Downey, Jr. and Edward Norton in terms of high profile talent, but he inhabits the dimensional role of Thor impressively well.  Again, his compassionate charm carries much of the character through, and allows an audience to connect with his personality.  He starts out as a temperamental, hot headed young warrior in search of battle over wisdom, but as the film progresses, more of his heart develops to show his depth.  None of us can really relate to the situation he’s in or the cosmic forces he’s battling against, and so, making the man and his emotional conflict relatable is the key.  When he turns on the action hero mojo, he continues to impress.  Hemsworth clearly worked out for many long months to create the physique of a god, worthy of myth and legend.  Furthermore, it is not easy to hold up your end of a scene opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins, but Chris Hemsworth did so with great success.  I think that says a good deal about how Branagh handles his actors, and helps them to balance their drama out.  However, I will take no credit away from Hemsworth because he greatly displays his wide range, powerful screen presence, and passionate commitment to his role.  And of course, Sir Anthony Hopkins really delivers well as Odin.  Who else do you get to play a role filled with this breadth of wisdom, power, compassion, and fatherly weight?  Hopkins brings a definite sense of history and wisdom with him.  He exudes strength, commands respect, but also demonstrates the moments of Odin’s weary age well.  He is also a hero of legend that does what he does because he is a good father, and knows what his son must go through to become the man he wishes to be.

The darker side of the spectrum is occupied by Tom Hiddleston as Loki.  What could’ve easily been a whiny character is handled with a fine breadth of dimension and intelligence.  Deceit and bitterness are what forge his character, and they live and breathe in an actor able to turn those elements back around as a weapon for Loki.  As others have deceived and used him, so he does to others in order to gain the power and authority he feels entitled to.  Hiddleston handles Loki’s devious nature quite well like a puppet master manipulating his pawns across a chess board to service his ultimate goals.  There is also the leader of the Frost Giants, Laufey, portrayed by Colm Feore.  Granted, the man is covered by a great deal of make-up and prosthetics, and his voice gets some post-production treatment.  However, Feore plays the darkly evil role subtlety.  A sullen, methodical villain that is not easily intimidated, and being a giant, does not back down from a challenger.  He achieves a lot by doing so little.  He uses the make-up to sell the character, but even without it, there would still be a chilling, memorable performance.

Natalie Portman has more than proven her worth as an exceptional acting talent over the last 15-20 years.  Sometimes, it’s hard to articulate what makes a great performance.  People get wrapped up in the grandiose awards show displays of performances, but great acting can be defined in many different aspects.  Here, Natalie portrays a role that is more subtle and graceful to win over an audience’s heart.  Maybe it’s just me being struck by how much more beautiful she has become over time, but I was very engaged by her in this movie.  Likely, it’s because she can project so much genuine, honest emotion on screen that it easily ensnares me.  Portman holds her ground well opposite Hemsworth, and their chemistry is very, very good.  As Jane Foster, Natalie projects passion, conviction, heart, and warmth here.  Jane is very enthusiastic about what she does, and the mystery around Thor is something she finds charmingly compelling.  She slowly involves herself more and more in his well being, and desires to know more about this peculiar stranger.  Their relationship slowly develops to a very honest and heartfelt romantic connection.  Jane’s associates allow for some good dynamics to bounce off of to give the character some context.  Portman really sells everything well, and at the end of the film, I truly feel hopeful for Thor and Jane Foster to reunite.

Again, I feel the production design of Thor is really great.  I was in real awe of the innovation and grandeur of Asgard.  There are no limits to this realm.  It is fantastical beyond known logic.  Branagh and his team really create a unique, colorful world worthy of legend, and the costuming reflects that creativity and detail.  The film doesn’t burn any unnecessary time away showing it off either.  On the flip side, there’s not much to say about the Earth scenes.  It’s a small town in New Mexico, and that feeling is captured well.

The visual effects, for the most part, are very well done.  There are moments or elements that don’t sell quite as well as others.  When the Destroyer (a fire spewing mechanical monster from Asgard) comes to Earth, the CGI construct does feel a little too artificial at times, but it’s mostly during its interaction with its live action counterparts.  I was glad that the Asgard scenes did not feel cheap.  They took a lot of time and attention to detail to make them hold up strongly throughout the film.  They are marvelous to behold.  The effects, like the production design, service the story and characters instead of overwhelming them.  That’s what visual effects are meant to do, and far too many filmmakers have forgotten that.  I’m glad to know that Kenneth Branagh is not counted among those filmmakers.  I’m not a supporter of 3D, and seeing this firstly on DVD, doesn’t even give me the option to watch it as such.  So, all my impressions of the film’s visuals are based on the traditional 2D viewing.

I’m also glad to be reassured that Branagh never degrades the film down to shaky cam action sequences.  They are shot with a good sense of geography and composition so that an audience can follow the scene competently.  Really, aside from those aforementioned Dutch angles, the film is shot with a great deal of emotion and epic stature.  The cinematography does have character.  The shots don’t just capture the personality of the performers, but they enhance them with how they captures them.  Much of the same compliments can be translated to the vibrant, powerful score by Patrick Doyle.

I feel the brightest praise I can give this film is the fact that when Thor finally reclaims his power, the thunder roars, and the lightning strikes, I was as choked up with momentous enthusiasm as I am during the helicopter rescue scene in Superman: The Movie.  The ascension of Thor’s greatness has reached a level equal to that rousing moment in the first blockbuster superhero film for me.  Perhaps that is only me, but I was so very entertained and engaged with this film to have that sort of emotional reaction.  What that really means is that the film was successful in every storytelling aspect from direction to acting to cinematography to music and beyond.  It made me feel for this hero, his journey, and his triumphs.

While the marketing left something to be desired in convincing me of the film’s quality, the actual film itself leaves no doubt behind.  It’s been laborious writing this review because there’s so much to praise that I didn’t want to leave anything significant out, but I had to limit myself to not scouring every single performer or detail.  Simply said, in this especially long review, is that Thor is another big win for Marvel Studios.  I’ve enjoyed all these films leading up to The Avenger including Captain America: The First Avenger and The Incredible Hulk.  Iron Man lit the torch, and while not every entry has been perfect, there has not been enough of a misstep to derail the cinematic plan that Marvel Studios has been carefully planning.  So, with a man I have a lot of confidence in directing the picture, Joss Whedon, I feel that climactic movie will be a great achievement.  I also highly look forward to what might be crafted for a direct sequel to Thor.


The Prophecy (1995)

I have been a major fan of this film for fifteen years for many reasons, the foremost of which is the blockbuster performance of Christopher Walken as the Archangel Gabriel.  Performed with sadistic malice, a fine mix of humor, and overall electrifying delivery, Walken created a memorable, classic character that would help to bring fans back for two sequels.  The film is filled with great themes and a solid mix of acting talent that is surprising, but never disappointing.

The Prophecy begins with a somber monologue by Simon (Eric Stoltz), a redheaded angel.  He speaks of his fear and sorrow that a second war has broken out in Heaven.  Simon has come to Earth to head off the plans of ‘the other side’ who wish to claim the blackest human soul on Earth to fight for them in Heaven.  Our protagonist here is Thomas Daggett (Elias Koteas).  Once set to become an ordained priest in the Catholic church, but a violent and bloody vision of Heaven, complete with the sight of slain angels, tests his faith.  A test which he fails.  He is now a police detective that has long lost his faith, but has just met an angel.  Simon to be exact.  Simon tells Thomas that he was in the church that day when he got his brief glimpse of a war torn Heaven, and certainly leaves him with much to think about.  However, when Simon returns to his rented out apartment, he is attacked by another angel: Uziel (pronounced ‘Oo-cie’), but Simon dispatches of him, leaving quite a mess for the police to clean up with Daggett now on the case.  Unfortunately, for Simon, because Uziel is now dead, Gabriel (Christopher Walken) soon comes to succeed where his underling failed.

Meanwhile, Daggett and coroner Joseph (Steve Hytner) examine Uziel’s corpse.  Many bizarre revelations are discovered, but for Thomas, it’s the discovery of possibly the oldest Bible in existence which contains extra chapters that shouldn’t exist.  They speak of the aforementioned second war in Heaven, a war over us, humans.  As Gabriel arrives at the empty crime scene, Simon has already found the aforementioned soul within the recently deceased Colonel Hawthorne in a small southwestern town, and Gabriel is soon to follow.  In this small town, we meet school teacher Catherine (Virginia Madsen) and a little Native American girl named Mary (Moriah Shining Dove Snyder).  Simon encounters them both while he attempts to hide this black soul from Gabriel, but the Archangel is hot on his trail along with Thomas.  While Gabriel tracks down the soul and Simon himself, Thomas attempts to unravel this mystery before him, and ultimately, discover what is ‘faith’.

Gregory Widen once brought us the screenplay for the original Highlander showcasing a blend of adventure, romance, love, pain, and epic action.  Here, in 1995, he wrote and directed this film, and brings that same level of depth and quality to The Prophecy.  He created an engaging, compelling world filled with fascinating and entertaining characters that are brilliantly realized throughout the cast.  His directing skills are not at all in question as he obviously knows what he wants with crystal clarity.  He knows the world he created well, and handles the various elements of drama, fantasy, humor, and action with ease and grace.  Everything flows together exceptionally well making this a must-see film.

As I said, Christopher Walken delivers a performance unlike any before seen, and demonstrates many sides of his acting abilities throughout.  It’s mesmerizing watching him work each and every scene.  How he can go from quiet calm to vilely sadistic and evil, even heated and angered.  It’s an intense portrayal that will gravitate you towards watching this film many times over because you just can’t get enough of it.  It’s all there, and it’s juicy stuff.  Elias Koteas has always done fantastic work in the few roles I’ve seen him in from the guilty pleasure of Casey Jones in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to his psychotic role as Edgar Reese, opposite Denzel Washington, in Fallen.  Elias does solid work no matter the character, and becomes very much a chameleon as an actor.  He continues that here as a man who has his faith in God, broken and tested throughout the film.  He beautifully portrays the depth of Thomas Daggett on a journey, not only in hopes of restoring such faith, but understanding just what it means to have faith.  Eric Stoltz is an actor I really haven’t seen any other work from, but if this performance is any indication, he does some fine work.  He brings a simple warmth, heart, and charm to Simon.  You truly do care for him, and what he chooses to sacrifice in order to protect that which HE believes in.  Whether he’s sharing a scene with Koteas, Walken, or the little Moriah Snyder, his heart and warmth remain strong.  It’s a truly human performance, especially considering he’s portraying an angel.

Virginia Madsen (Candyman) brings us another strong, consistent performance here.  She holds her ground, even when Walken pulls out his truly dark side as Gabriel.  Also, her character is well connected to the Native Americans of the land, and conducts the church choir.  Her faith is intact, but as the true underlying theme here continues to be the testing of one’s faith, she confronts her own perceptions of it all.  Moriah Snyder is not one of those kids in a horror film that gets on your nerves every second they’re in a scene.  She is clearly a highly talent young lady, and I’m sure that talent has continued to develop over the years since this film.  Here, there’s much here for her to work with, more than I’ll elude to in this review, but trust in that she has a significant role in this film that she handles quite well.

And then, you have two smaller, yet significant, and certainly memorable roles.  The first is that portrayed by Steve Hytner (Kenny Bania from Seinfeld).  He portrays the coroner Joseph with a light-hearted charm, but with a professional manner.  It’s just the sort of character to slightly lighten the mood when Daggett is talking about wars in Heaven over human souls, and dead angels sitting in Joseph’s morgue.  It’s a quite needed and welcomed character that Hytner plays perfectly.  He doesn’t go remotely over-the-top with it, and keeps a nice balance between the mild humor and the professional mind of the character.  It was nice to see his character carried over into the following two sequels.  Of course, the real juice comes with the appearance of The Lord of the Rings’ Viggo Mortensen as Lucifer.  Viggo portrays the Prince of Darkness himself with as much character as Walken does with Gabriel.  Mortensen brings a genuine disturbing and sadistic sense that just oozes from his being.  The role is small, but Viggo makes it no less significant than any other main character.  He brings to Lucifer a casual, evil manner.  He speaks of the most vile and sadistic acts with the casualness of us talking about the weather.  He needn’t be theatrical or overly dramatic to sell it.  His chilling presence is felt the instant he enters the scene, and remains even after he leaves.  When he and Walken do briefly meet, the two just eat it up.  It’s devilishly delicious (no pun intended).  The two with their hot breath and cold blood just makes such a scene so rich with character, and it’s only a shame Viggo didn’t return for The Prophecy II when Lucifer makes a brief, shadowy appearance near the beginning.  The role may have been expanded upon if he had.

I also really have to hand it to the cinematographer Richard Clabaugh.  This is one beautifully shot film between the lighting, angles, and the subtle camera movements.  He does all he can to give the picture a strong cinematic sense capturing both the epic and introspective qualities of its dramatic stories.  The 2.35:1 aspect ratio frame holds a lot of weight with much religious iconography, and captures some beautiful vistas in the American southwest.  A gorgeously shot film through and through.

All in all, this is one fantastic film that I strongly encourage everyone to see.  It’s a gem of a thriller that touches on many different levels with superb acting with a rock solid cast.  Gregory Widen, for his directorial debut, put together an array of fantastic talent in front of and behind the camera.  This is a beautiful and fantastically talented production.  The Prophecy brings you a great film on so many levels, and is a MUST for any Christopher Walken fan.  I strongly recommend this film.  It gets my highest praise with a solid 10 out of 10 rating.


The Machinist (2004)

This is a unique film.  Helmed by Brad Anderson, the director of Session 9, and written by Scott Kossar, screenwriter of the recent remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre & The Amityville Horror.  I’ve never seen Anderson’s work before, but I’ve heard good things about it.  Whatever the case, The Machinist pulsates with rare talent and dedication for a style of film that few venture into.  The most shockingly impactful display of dedication comes from Christian Bale (American Psycho, Batman Begins) who shed 63 lbs for this gaunt, troubled role leaving him at a frail 120 lbs.  The scenes showing his skeletal physique will just blow your mind.  With this being such a unique film, a plot synopsis cannot go into details without spoiling anything.

Simply put, there is something wrong with Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale), but what it is, even he doesn’t know.  Trevor is a machinist that has wasted away to the point where “if you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.”  But what happens to be worse is that Trevor has not slept in a year.  Trevor is in such bad shape that his machine factory co-workers believe he’s doing drugs, but it’s hardly the case.  Still, the deterioration of his physical and mental state beg the question, “what the hell happened to him?”  On the brighter side, Trevor has two women in his life – the lover and the mother.  The lover is Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is a very warm and affectionate girl who happens to be a prostitute, but is certainly more to Trevor than that.  The mother is Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) who is a mother to a young boy, and gives Trevor some company while drinking coffee in the late night hours.  Still, Trevor has recently become very interested in a supposed co-worker named Ivan (John Sharian) who he’s never seen before, and comes off a little creepier than anyone would be comfortable with.  But what’s even creepier is that no one at the factory seems to know who he is – it’s as if he doesn’t exist.  Although, to Trevor, he is very real, and Ivan continues to haunt Trevor to no end.  Then, there’s the mystery of who’s leaving post-it notes on Trevor’s refrigerator door – taunting him with a game of hangman.  Paranoia is only the beginning as Trevor tries to decipher this bizarre mystery, and ultimately, discover what secrets are buried in his scattered, tired mind.  Like the tagline says, How do you wake up from a nightmare when you’re not asleep?

The sparkling gem in this film is truly Christian Bale.  Beyond any other performance of his, this is the one that demonstrates the extremes Bale will goto for a great role.  His dedication is full heart, body, and soul.  He has a passion for film and acting that is just as unique and rare as this film.  Bale practically starved himself to reach this striking physical goal, and believe me, you won’t be able to understand how anyone could live in this condition.  Trevor’s a bit lighthearted about it all, and doesn’t really let it bother him (frankly, he’s got much more pressing matters at hand).  Bale’s performance here is powerhouse indeed, treading through a flood of emotions over the course of the film.  I simply cannot praise Bale’s acting talents enough, there aren’t the words for it.  He is truly one of the greatest actors of our time, and I’m glad to be a witness to it.

The rest of the cast is very complementary as well.  Michael Ironside’s role as Miller, a co-worker of Trevor’s that suffers an unfortunate mishap at the factory, is small but interesting.  Ironside’s always so typecast as a villain or a hard-ass tough guy, it’s nice to see him as someone more light-hearted.  Jennifer Jason Leigh is, as always, a wonderful talent.  She’s done some fantastic roles in the past, and while this role as Stevie is more understated, she has heart and sympathy.  Leigh is still a beautiful woman, and brings a needed bit of consult to Trevor’s troubled mind.  Aitana Sánchez-Gijón (pronounce it if you can) is the overnight waitress at an airport coffee shop that Trevor visits every night.  She’s also a mother with a son named Nicholas (gives me a smile) that Trevor befriends on Mother’s Day.  And probably the capper is the mysterious and creepy Ivan as portrayed by John Sharian.  He essentially haunts Trevor throughout the movie, and makes himself very suspect by the fact that he comes off as overtly suspicious.  He seems like a sociopath, but there’s something far more unforeseen about him than that.  Furthermore, his look is great!  It was augmented to make him appear creepier than normal with a false set of larger teeth and a mangled hand (which is exceptionally freaky).  Sharian plays up the role, but not too much.  His look takes a lot of credit for Ivan’s effectiveness, and Sharian really has quite the Brando mojo going here.

Another striking element here is the cinematography and the entire visual design of the film.  There are a lot of filters used, making the film take on a cold, monotone feel, but there is one or two scenes with a warmer look.  Though, the surreal, unwelcoming visuals are what dominate the film.  And while the story is set in L.A., it was actually shot in Spain, and I feel that the visual style applied here really pushes the film towards a more European look.  The pitfalls, but I think it helps the film seem more surreal.  The cinematography is absolutely wonderful, very inspired – admittedly – by Hitchcock among other things.  It’s amazing work that is rarely seen these days.  I mean, this is photography where the entire film is a large canvas that is painted on with great care.  That’s much like how the script is with many layers, details, and textures that are slowly put together before we ultimately see the entire masterwork.  The score also blends these elements together.  It’s another Hitchcock-inspired detail, and has a very special, unique quality.  Some films don’t utilize the score as a storytelling device, but here it is used to perfect potential.  It definitely enhances all parts of the film with the eerie, mysterious qualities being in the forefront.  Roque Baños has a rare talent for a style of score that isn’t heard enough any more.

Now, where everything really connects is director Brad Anderson.  Again, I’ve never seen any of his other work, but I have to believe it’s just amazing.  The talent he displays in this film, between subtle and obvious, is remarkable.  Not a whole lot of directors develop their own personal style, but when they do, it makes them that much better.  Anderson definitely leaves his mark with The Machinist.  Whether it’s driving the actors, planning out the action in a scene, or what have you, he delivers a wonderfully crafted work of film.  It would certainly take a very competent and highly skilled director to make this script work, but not only does it work, it lives, it breathes.  Brad Anderson really made a potentially very confusing story and made it compelling, intriguing, thrilling, and engaging.  He slowly reels you in, and you have no desire to pull away until the very end.

All in all, this is a great film.  It’s strong, eerie, and by the end, will definitely have you in an array of emotions.  It’s somber and strange, but Brad Anderson makes sense of it all.  The entire cast is a pleasure with Christian Bale putting in everything he had, and showing his dedication and devotion on every single frame.  The photography is something not seen since Hitchcock, and the score resides in that same class.  Simply put, everything and everyone here makes this film everything it was meant to be and more.  This is one great piece of filmmaking, and I highly recommend everyone check it out sooner than later.  A pure 10 out of 10!


Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

Paul W.S. Anderson’s Alien vs. Predator was a disastrous, pathetic, and lame piece of garbage.  I won’t even get into it, but after seeing it at the theatre, midnight showing no less, I wanted my money back.  Unfortunately, I got into the showing via a free movie pass from purchasing the Predator Special Edition DVD.  So, I couldn’t even get that satisfaction.  I don’t think I’ve ever held a film in such disdain as to have the desire to demand my money back.  Instead, I wish I had those two hours of my life returned to me.  When things were developing for AVP2, obviously there was a lot of speculation and negative light upon it.  Though, with Anderson nixed, the film seemed to have some hope.  I was very interested in seeing the film theatrically, but then, I heard scores of negative reviews.  It really made me back away from it.  I see now that was a mistake.

This film picks up directly after the conclusion of the previous AVP film.  A Predator-Alien hybrid is born, and begins to wreak havoc on board the Predator space craft.  It soon crash lands in a small Colorado town.  All Predators on board are killed, and the Xenomorphs are set loose on the population.  The crash landing is monitored from the Predator home world (seen for the first time ever on film), and a veteran warrior departs to clean up the mess.  Face huggers attack many of the townspeople, giving rise to further Aliens to ravage the town.  The lone Predator attempts to hunt and eliminate every trace of the Xenomorphs’ presence.  The residents do all they can to defend themselves, but it’s a Catch-22.  Anyone with a gun is immediately a target of the Predator, but without firearms, you stand zero chance against the Aliens.  Eventually, humans, Aliens, and the Predator collide after dark, and all hell breaks loose.  Even help from the National Guard is short-lived, and ultimately, more extreme measures are necessary to eliminate this escalating threat.

Yes, I enjoyed this film (the unrated cut), and kept waiting for something totally bullshit to happen to justify all the god-awful reviews.  It never really came.  There are definite problems with it, but it’s not deserving of being saddled with the statement that “this isn’t even as good as the first Alien vs. Predator.”  I could provide a very long list of how AVP-R is superior to its predecessor, but that’s not the point here.  Though, brief comparisons will be made.  I am not at all saying AVP-R is of the same caliber as Alien or Predator, but at its lowest, it’s no worse than Predator 2.  I’d probably put it a notch higher than Alien 3 (either the theatrical or special edition cut).  But let me get into the meat of things.

My first impression of the film was how excellent the cinematography and lighting was from Director of Photography Daniel Pearl (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974 & 2003).  There’s a definite cinematic feel to this film with good use of angles, cranes, and camera moves.  The film really pushes to give itself a grander scale and impact with its visuals.  The few shots on the Predator home world are marvelous.  Somewhat reminds me of the scenes on Vulcan in Robert Wise’s ‘Director’s Edition’ of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  The lighting itself can be intriguing and amazing, at times.  Thin layers of fog and smoke add atmosphere in select scenes.  The best looking visuals are mainly the scenes inside the space crafts, and the daytime sequences.  Problems arise during the far darker scenes in the subterranean tunnels and the rain.  At times, the lighting is so minimal and the framing so tight, it is difficult to follow the action.  As the film goes on, the framing gets better as the creatures are better revealed, but never in full light.  They essentially remain as silhouettes throughout the movie.  This is much more akin to the original Alien – only showing glimpses of the monster.  Still, the majority of the film is very dark, and whenever frenetic action begins, it can be a chore to keep track of it all.  Maybe, a high-def presentation might lessen this problem marginally, but standard-def is my current situation.

One thing that I’m sure would be truly enhanced by a high-definition viewing is the excessive, yet welcomed gore levels.  This absolutely goes back to John McTiernan’s 1987 film that introduced the merciless Predator.  Bloodshed is everywhere, and people are killed indiscriminately.  Only one person survives who you’d swear should be dead, but other than that, people are slain left and right.  The film is very satisfying in that aspect because the filmmakers, aside from the just mentioned situation, don’t go out of their way to keep people alive in the face of certain death.  If it looks like they’re gonna die, they die.  No dodging hits at the last second or anything of the sort.  Children die, pregnant mothers die, old guys get their arms acid burned off.  There’s really no holding back, which can’t be said of its PG-13 predecessor.  The makeup and visual effects are simply astounding.  Some of the gore and creature moments are even down right grotesque and sick.  The opening shot of Earth from space with the sun glaring in the background seems to have such an old school quality to it.  It doesn’t appear to be so much of a digital composition.  It really looks more like similar shots from Predator, Aliens, or even John Carpenter’s The Thing.  There’s just such depth of detail to the shot, and impressive sense of scale that you rarely see nowadays.  I was captivated by this shot.  Subsequent CGI shots are also presented with such a standard.  Nothing ever felt like a digital effects shot.  It all blended smoothly and seamlessly with the live action.  The movement of the Predator or Aliens never seems goofy, awkward, or over the top.  It’s very much in line with the characters’ presentation from the seminal films of each, separate franchise.  CGI versions of them are only used when it is necessary.  Everything else is practical, physical effects.

Speaking of such things, AVP-R presents both alien races with a great deal of respect.  The Predator, this time, is a definite seasoned warrior.  He knows how the hunt is played, and takes on a good dozen Aliens on his own.  The only one that really kicks his ass is the PredAlien.  He’s not some punk rookie Predator in some training ground.  It’s a real situation with him taking it upon himself to clean up this mess, and proves to be exceptionally capable.  Though, this doesn’t mean the Aliens get busted up like a bunch of bitches.  They hold their own, stalking and attacking with intelligence and ferocity.  This is much like James Cameron’s Aliens.  They work as both a cohesive whole and lethal individuals.  They are indeed an infestation that continues to grow out of control, and is never made easy for the Predator.  I really feel the filmmakers treated both sides with great respect.  I love how we see the Predator work, even before he even begins the hunt.  How he gathers his gear, and investigates the crash site.  The film treats him like a proper character with a keen mind and cleverness, not a one-dimensional ugly beast rampaging through scenes.  Just the level of intelligence both alien races are given says so much.  Just as the Aliens set traps for others, the Predator shows he’s able to do the same.  It’s a very pleasant surprise.

Now, I found the music to be appropriate to the film.  I wouldn’t say it is exceptionally memorable, but it served the purposes of the movie.  It is jarring, tense, and explosive.  Thought did go into it, and you’ll notice the end credits theme is a mixture of the original Alan Silvestri Predator theme and the James Horner Aliens theme.  It is titled ‘Requiem.’  I felt there was a good level of suspense in the film.  Not a great deal, but in certain scenes, there is build up and tension towards a pay-off.  I think the subterranean sequence is probably the best and most cleverly crafted one in the whole film.  The fight choreography is inventive and imaginative.  The staging of the cat-and-mouse hunting / stalking scenes are continually creative.  It’s far more of what I would’ve wanted from the first film, and it is as an Aliens vs. Predator film should be.  It’s quite fascinating as they are both the hunter and the hunted at the same time.  Kill or be killed, it seems.

The acting certainly comes up as a negative on the reviews I’ve scanned over.  Not every film can have the caliber of acting of a Scorcese or Coppola film.  Like Francis Ford Coppola version of Dracula, sometimes you get Gary Oldman, and sometimes you get Keanu Reeves.  The acting here falls within that deep gap.  Essentially, it is solid enough to serve the purposes of the film, and I never felt that it turned ridiculous or annoying.  You, honestly, don’t need Robert De Niro or Marlon Brando quality acting in an Aliens vs. Predator film.  That’s not me discounting the wonderful performances we’ve had in the Alien & Predator films, but what are you really expecting from this film?  The content and context of the film do not call for such glorious depth of acting ability.  This is not to say that the acting here is crap.  This is far above standards of something like Jason X or Freddy’s Dead.  Those films feature a cringable lack of acting talent.  What you get here is good, and allows you to enjoy the meat of the film.  I didn’t feel like the film was dragged down by any of these characters, or their own, individual stories before the action begins.  It helps the pace of the film to build up slowly as all elements begin to converge.  I know Steven Pasquale from the cable television series Rescue Me, and John Ortiz I’m familiar with from the 2006 Miami Vice feature film.  Both present characters with identifiable, relatable, and likable traits.  They certainly show range to me, knowing those other roles they inhabited, and I found them to be worthwhile characters to spend my time with.  These characters are quite human, but have a good deal more depth than your standard slasher film fodder.  The filmmakers and screenwriters seemed to treat these new characters with respect.  They easily could’ve gone with the fodder that Anderson’s AVP film offered, but chose to spend some decent time to develop their personalities on-screen.

The film’s ending needs to be addressed, and is certainly a borderline turn.  It could either keep you hooked or lose you completely.  The filmmakers could’ve really botched it up if they had everyone taken out, but there are survivors.  So, that eases the tension.  Still, there are elements that could be called cheesy or stupid.  I, personally, don’t agree with that.  You have to remember that while these are sequels to the Predator films, they are prequels to the Alien films.  Events need to fall in line with that continuity to preserve certain knowledge of the Xenomorphs amongst humanity.  Government cover-ups are necessary to serve that purpose, and the extra tag at the end was nice, if not somewhat predictable.  Where in AVP, you met Weyland, this time, you meet Yutani – whose two corporations eventually form the infamous ‘Company’ from the Alien franchise.  As I said, things of this nature could potentially lose an audience who perceive it as fanboy bullshit.  They need to realize that this film was made because of fanboys (as much as I hate the term).  Without them, these films would’ve died out a very long time ago.  The ending might not be the most universally satisfying, but it is a logical and appropriate one.  I could go further into depth about it, but suffice it to say, it helps to avoid continuity conflicts with the Alien films.

Colin & Greg Strause made a conscious effort to stay true to both franchises, and make this a real tribute to the fans.  I think they succeed, to a point.  It is a gorgeous film at times, and also a very grotesque feature, as well.  It’s simply more technical elements of lighting, composition, and editing in certain scenes that lessen the effectiveness of those scenes.  The film is terribly dark, visually, and the addition of a rain storm can complicate matters.  It would’ve helped to cast some extra light on the battling alien beings to better distinguish them from each other.  Still, at the most pivotal and impactful moments, the filmmakers allow for the shots to play out more dramatically.  They hold on the shots longer, and the action therein is better defined.  Beyond those shaky aspects, I feel this is a far superior film to 2004’s AVP.  Everything is handled with a great deal more respect and weight.  No ‘buddy cop’ Predator sidekick moments, no rookie Predators getting their butts kicked, and no skimping on the gore.  While this doesn’t equal the caliber of Alien or Predator, it doesn’t fall very far below those standards.  A classic this won’t be, but I feel it’s a worthy addition to your DVD or Blu Ray library.


Alien: Resurrection (1997)

With Alien: Resurrection, it became painfully obvious that Twentieth Century Fox was now less interested in making credible sequels and more so in just bleeding this franchise dry.  Let’s try to put this into perspective.  Joss Whedon, as many know, is the creator of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Angel, & Firefly.  He’s a proven great screenwriter and director.  He is the screenwriter for this film as well, but by his own admission, the filmmakers executed every aspect of his script wrong.  Everything imaginable was done wrong from Joss’ written vision.  Various other aspects were introduced by the film’s shitty French director Jean-Pierre Juenet.  This, mainly, includes all the bad, stupid humor.  The worst part of it is the fact that he’s very proud of all the stupid comedic bits, thinking it makes the film more entertaining and fantastic.  This is the sort of thing that flushes the film down the toilet.  Watching the DVD Special Edition cut, other things become obvious.  His originally intended main title sequence is stupid, irrelevant, and directly setups a terrible tone for the film.  It comes off as total, stupid B-movie cheese, and the cheap CGI effects drag it down to even lower levels.  The theatrical cut sets a much better tone, but it hardly sets you up for how abhorrent this film really is.  So, by that train of thought, the Special Edition introduction fits the quality of this motion picture much better.

After killing herself to prevent the government from taking the monstrous Alien to Earth, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) awakens 200 years later to find she has been cloned in order for scientists to withdraw the Alien DNA living inside her.  As the world around her begins to fall apart and the terror begins again, Ripley realises that the scientists who cloned her may not have fully removed the Alien from her, at the same time that she is, once again, perhaps the only one who can stop the horrific infestation from reaching Earth.

Alien had Ridley Scott, Aliens had James Cameron, and Alien 3 had David Fincher – filmmakers who have all gone onto very high profile, blockbuster, and critically acclaimed careers.  Jean-Pierre Juenet is about third class next to them.  Where the previous three films gave the franchise a real weight and emotional depth, this film becomes a badly done and clichéd comic book adventure.  It shows nothing of subtlety or intelligent originality.  It’s all BIG camera moves, BIG action, BIG (yet shallow) characters.  It also features over-the-top and cheesy performances by all but two cast members.

Ron Perlman and Michael Wincott are exceptional actors who are always reliable for bringing the goods.  Wincott tends to bring a mysterious and engaging quality to his performances.  Top Dollar in The Crow is probably his most high profile role.  Here, it’s more low key, but that just makes him more intriguing.  I think he could shine well in a classic film noir feature.  Unfortunately, he has very few scenes, and gets killed relatively early.  Ron is a bad ass, plain and simple.  There’s a definite reason why he got such a role in Blade II, and more importantly, as Hellboy.  He’s good at ass-kicking, gung-ho roles.  This outing is no exception.  Although, most casting choices are uninspired.  One might be used to Dan Hedaya in more comedic roles, but he has fit into a dramatic feature well, such as The Usual Suspects.  Here, you might think that his character would be made to hold more dramatic weight, but it’s 99% bad humor.  General Perez does not come off, remotely, as a serious military officer.  He comes off as a mentally stunted fool.  Compared with Apone or Hicks from Aliens, he’s a buffoon.  I’d sooner be led by Bill Paxton’s Hudson.  If Perez is representative of humanity’s military, then it’s a sad state of affairs for the human race.  Winona Ryder is no Carrie Henn, in terms of a vulnerable female role, and is no Lance Henriksen or Ian Holm, in terms of a peculiar android (or ‘artificial person’).  Simply said, she fails to provide Annalee Call with any true depth or fascinating quality.  There’s no reason for her to be here, let alone anything for her to do in this role.  Brad Dourif provides nothing but over-the-top goofiness.  You can’t take him seriously for a second.  Good over-the-top Dourif is The Exorcist III, this is Dourif on the opposite end of the quality spectrum.  Doing it with all the weight of a feather, and being god awful in a role you want to forget in short order.  So many of these roles are cliché, paper thin characters meant to fit a cardboard cutout archetype to service the poor plot.  You need the evil military guys, the mad scientists, the gruff mercenaries – all check.  So, there is a need to scrutinize Joss Whedon’s script.  I know he’s capable of far more diverse, complex, and interesting characters than this.  I just don’t understand how he was responsible for such a lightweight, flat, and uninspired script.  I can understand the filmmakers botching up the execution of the script, but I can’t believe they drained depth and character from it to where Joss would still accept a screen credit.  Much of it would have to be Mr. Whedon’s fault, unfortunately.

Now, you have to ask where does Sigourney Weaver fit into all of this?  She’s not playing Ellen Ripley.  Not the Ripley we came to know and evolve with through the first three films.  This is a hollow shell of a character with the memories of Ripley, and slight emotional traces thereof.  But she’s not the weary, battle hardened, desperate character that Alien 3 left her as.  Nor is she the strong, assertive, and haunted woman of Jim Cameron’s film.  Sigourney does give us a rather creepy character, but it’s nothing recognizable to the franchise’s fans.  Her character is truly alien.  The emotional state of this Ripley Clone is sporadic and erratic.  It’s all over the map, not allowing an audience to connect with the franchise’s heart and soul.  It also plants Weaver, firmly, in the mud.  She has no place to expand or grow with this dead role.  Ellen Ripley’s character arc concluded with Alien 3.  Closure was had, even if it was bleak.  She went through all kinds of hell, saw so many die, and the pain and loss was absorbed into every fiber of her being.  She was as human as any character you will find, and her end came with pathos and poetry.  You might not have liked it, but within the context of that story, her death was appropriate and purposeful.  It should not have ended any other way.  Then, they go ahead and piss all over that with this cold, hollow “resurrection.”  It is D.O.A.  Sigourney Weaver’s role is one you cannot emotionally invest yourself in because she has very little emotion to offer.  It’s about the stark opposite of the real Ellen Ripley we saw in the first three films.  Suffice it to say, this film easily could’ve been scripted and shot without Sigourney Weaver or anything including Ripley since this really isn’t Ripley, not in spirit.  She’s a stranger amongst strangers, and a stranger to her fans.

Moving on, and as I said, the film is filled with BIG everything.  Every shot in the film is something complex and highly involved.  There’s always movement, and extremely little, if any, subtlety in its cinematography.  This forces the film to be less grounded and more overly dramatic.  Dutched angles are seen throughout.  Some scenes have one after another after another after another, for no effective reason.  Juenet and cinematographer Darius Khondji were painting with broad strokes to show off their budget and gimmickry.  Just them trying to make the film look artistic and interesting while achieving neither.  Furthermore, every action sequence is over shot.  Push-ins, sweeping crane shots, steadicam madness, low angles, high angles, dolly tracks.  Khondji just throws all the tricks into every sequence, turning them into a massively over worked mish-mash, and not trying to differentiate one from another.  Once the action begins, it’s shifted into hyperactive mode.  It’s like Michael Bay on steroids – everything done to maximum capacity and minimum reality.  At least with Michael Bay, he does it to give his films an epic feeling, this all falls flat for me.  Also, the film is saturated with this sickly green tinge that is simply too much, and makes the film exceptionally unattractive to watch.  When it’s not green, it’s this deep brown which is equally unattractive.  Just adds to the excessively stylized comic book visuals that only further flushes the film down the crapper.  There’s no beauty or inspired photography in the look of this film, ever.

Like I stated before, there are stupid concepts in this film, some minor, some major.  A minor one also shows the lack of thought put into the futuristic setting.  In several hundred years, why would we still be using paper currency?  Even today, in the early 21st century, we’re mostly relying on debit and credit cards.  Most people don’t handle tangible currency, it’s mostly computer based funds.  Bills are paid online, plastic cards are swiped to make purchases.  Three or four hundred years from now, paper currency will be an ancient concept.  Also, a pinhole crack in a space ship’s hull (or window) would not cause the effect seen in the film’s climax.  It is simply against the laws of physics and intelligence.  But it fits in with the complete stupidity of the film.

Far larger dumbass ideas culminate in the abomination called ‘The Newborn.’  I won’t even bother commenting on its design as I think ‘abomination’ says enough.  It’s just pathetic that one of the most merciless, relentless, and fearsome creatures in the history  of science fiction cinema is dwindled down to this lame ass, mutated, embarrassing mess.  Twisting the knife further, it actually says, “Mommy.”  A further slap in the face is how helpless the Alien Queen is depicted as, and the fact that this regurgitated beast bitch slaps her to death.  James Cameron and Stan Winston have been insulted.  As bad as all that is, the French hack makes it even worse – Ripley makes love to the damn Alien!  You may vomit now.  It’s nothing graphic in detail, but the implication alone is enough to make you sick.  And the complete hack director of Catwoman, Pitof, is the film’s special effects supervisor.  Seems French hack director socialize with other French hack directors, both destined for bankrupt American filmmaking careers.

The film’s effects are a divided issue.  The CGI is obvious and substandard.  I keep wondering how, in 1993, at the dawn of digital filmmaking, we got realistic, flawless, seamless computer generated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but over fifteen years later, we continue to get cheap, crappy CGI effects in countless films (even for high profile, big budget films).  This film was all of five years later, and the computer generated Aliens and effects are hardly seamless.  There is no effort involved in picking them out from their live action surroundings.  The physical effects, on the other hand, are definitely up to standards.  This is due to Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated – mainly Allec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr.  They worked with Stan Winston on Aliens, and took over with their own company, ADI, on Alien 3.  I’m not keen on the brown, veiny Aliens, but the quality of the physical and practical effects, across the board, are of a high standard.

You can talk about the film’s score, but it’s nothing exceptional.  Standard fare, forgettable horror-action cues.  Which rather sums up the film.  The entire problem with this film is that it takes a fairly serious franchise constructed by three serious filmmakers who injected it with strong layers of suspense, terror, and character depth, and then, deteriorates it into one-dimensional, one note characters and over worked action sequences.  Suspense and terror barely fit into the mix.  It’s all replaced by poorly conceived ideas, and a badly interpreted and executed script.  It is one bad turn after another that beats the credibility of a once great franchise further into the dirt until it’s six feet under, and then, spits on the grave for good measure.  If this was some terribly troubled production with all kinds of creative differences (i.e. Alien 3), some of this might be forgivable, or at least, understandable.  But it absolutely was not.  Director Jean-Pierre Juenet loves this film with all his heart, and thinks everything he did was wonderful and fantastic.  Perhaps, even brilliant.  The reality is that he made an abomination of a film that drove the final, hot, sharp nails into the coffin of the franchise.  It could’ve ended with Alien 3 without much argument, at least, in light of Alien: Resurrection, but alas, the Hollywood money machine kept on milking it.  Paul W.S. Anderson went on to beat the dead horse further with AVP, and unfortunately, put a bullet through the heart of the Predator franchise as well (which hardly had been run into the ground).  AVP-R, in my opinion, helped to turn the tide a bit, but it all remains to be seen.

This film, on its own, is pathetic and badly done.  When compared to its predecessors, it’s a terrible piece of cinema that never should’ve been.  A fourth Alien film, if it needed to be done (which it didn’t), could’ve been put into the hands of any number of far more credible, talented, and higher quality filmmakers.  How it landed in the hands of a Frenchman who had never made an American film before, let alone anything in the realm of straight horror, is beyond me.  It failed on every level.  There are very brief bits of goodness here, but they are crumbs that will not satisfy your hunger for another well-made Alien film.  This is a straight shoot ’em up splatter fest devoid of the suspense and character depth each previous entry had instilled in the franchise.  Nothing is improved upon in the Alien Quadrilogy DVD Special Edition cut.  It just prolongs the agony, and there’s not enough of a distinct difference to offer a separate review of it.  This one review covers enough, and you can feel free to send it down the refuse, again.  This could rival Highlander II, Freddy’s Dead, & Jason X as the worst genre sequel of all-time.  It really was and is a letdown in light of where the film series began and evolved to.  This sequel is a poor afterthought for a franchise that still had a decent measure of credibility remaining.  Thankfully, you can still watch the first three films as a complete trilogy, and easily ignore Alien: Resurrection in its entirety.


Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Unlike many, I wasn’t anticipating this film for a long time.  It was only when I saw the trailer before Transformers: Dark of the Moon that I became interested and excited for it.  It seemed like a very original film in style and concept populated by a fine cast, and helmed by a proven director in Jon Favreau (Iron Man).  The film does have merit with some fine performances and entertainment value.  However, I was disappointed that the concept was not realized to its fullest extent.

In 1873, Arizona Territory, a mysterious loner (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is, where he came from, or how the high tech device got latched onto his forearm.  After dispatching of some ill meaning folk, he proceeds to the small town of Absolution where is tended to by a local preacher, but soon makes trouble for the unruly Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano).  Things go further awry when the local law enforcement recognize him as Jake Lonergan, a wanted criminal.  Percy’s rich cattleman father, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), comes to collect his son, and Jake for stealing his gold.  However, the stand-off is cut short when the town is mysteriously attacked by alien flying crafts.  The device on Lonergan’s forearm starts beeping and flashing.  The ships abduct various townspeople, but not before the device helps Lonergan blast one out of the sky.  This sets Dolarhyde, Lonergan, and several other townsfolk on a mission to recover their lost loved ones.  Taking a particular interest in Jake is Ella (Olivia Wilde), who has some secrets of her own that she needs Lonergan’s help in resolving.  They all set out on this adventure of danger together for different reasons, but towards the very same goal.

The positives of this film start with Daniel Craig.  He has great presence like the western anti-heroes of old who doesn’t need to speak much to impact a scene.  Lonergan is a man of action, and those actions speak quite clearly for him.  Of course, he is also intelligent and cunning, but not without a dash of charm and compassion.  Craig is a perfect lead handling all that befalls his character with perfect reactions, and acting like a hero you can take stock in.  Another highlight is Clancy Brown appearing as Meacham, the town’s preacher.  The character has a very refreshing philosophy on his religion.  Things such as you have to earn God’s presence.  You have to make the effort to do good deeds, to improve yourself before he’ll grace you with good fortune.  Meacham seems to believe God is more of a guiding force that helps you along the journey instead of laying it out for you to walk without question.

Harrison Ford stars here as a former Colonel named Dolarhyde who pretty much runs things around these parts.  Ford’s had an amazing career playing so many versatile roles, but I have not seen him in anything much since The Fugitive.  Here, Ford is crusty, hardened, and mean-spirited.  To a certain point, that works for the character, but Ford barely deviates from that characterization to show us what the script is trying to do with the ex-Colonel.  In concept, Dolarhyde is meant to win over an audience by showing that he’s not as bad of a man as we think, it’s just history and circumstances that have jaded him.  That’s the intention, but Ford’s performance doesn’t show that depth.  He speaks the words, but there’s no variation of emotion when he does to convey a sense of a dimensional character.  He just exists in the film.  Ford handles the action of the piece well with guns, horses, and so forth.

Olivia Wilde is about what you expect from her.  It’s no breakout performance, and it might not be everything that it should be.  However, it’s not bad.  Things in the film tend to range from mediocre to great.  Of course, too much languishes on the lower end of that spectrum.  Wilde services the role decently enough making for an all right female lead, but next to Craig, she falters.  His is such a strong character and performance that she doesn’t stand out as well as him.  The character has a nice arc, and secrets of her own to reveal.  However, like much in this film, it’s played too safe.

The supporting cast is a little mixed.  Walton Goggins is his always entertaining and memorable self as a member of Lonergan’s former band of thieves.  Paul Dano is very entertaining and a nice fit for the immature, unruly, and troublemaking Percy Dolarhyde.  He’s mostly a comic foil to contrast Craig’s harder edged character in their few scenes together, and plays it perfectly.  However, Adam Beach comes off far too flatly.  It’s clear that, by the end, we’re supposed to have some emotional resonance with the character, but there’s nothing within Beach’s performance to grasp onto.  He seems like a plain supporting cast member.  Attempts are made throughout the film to have him bond with Ford’s Dolarhyde character, but as I said, Ford doesn’t give much to help his character be anything of anything.  Sam Rockwell portrays the local bartender who has tried to make a new beginning for him and his wife here, but faces trouble every step of the way.  He’s a man facing circumstances he doesn’t have the courage or confidence to overcome.  To me, he seemed like the guy that gets dragged along on the journey even though he has nothing to contribute.  So, they slap some clichéd story arc on him of a man that’s never handled a weapon, never fired a gun, and finally comes through at the end to save someone’s life by firing a shot.  It’s terribly by the numbers.

As I said, the premise and concepts of Cowboys & Aliens should’ve been pushed further for a more fantastical experience, but that never happens.  I just felt like everything was held back.  That they had a fertile idea here that never went beyond the basics of cowboys clashing with aliens.  While meshing western and science fiction genres is not a new thing, I have not seen this particular premise played out before.  The closest would be Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which married the two concepts well in a futuristic setting.  It meshed the ideals and themes of a western into a futuristic science fiction setting, and maybe that’s where the strength of the idea lies.  Aliens abducting people from old west towns seemed cool at the beginning of the film, but the premise falters a little when you find out why the aliens are even here at all.  It was ridiculous to me that all they wanted was to mine for one natural resource because it’s valuable to them.  It’s not like it’s a fuel they need to power their machines, or a precious resource they need to sustain their species.  They just want it because it has monetary value.  That comes off as a very weak idea that someone thought up in two seconds, and never decided to evolve further.  The aliens create their own problems by coming out and abducting people.  Had they just stayed hidden in the mountains, no one would have ever known they were around.  Had they been discovered, and were almost fighting back in defense of themselves, that would be something.  Unfortunately, the aliens just come off as foolish through and through.  Their motives and methods really have no rationale or logic behind them.  Humans posed no threat to them until they unnecessarily revealed their presence, and started abducting them for the sole purpose of the learning the weaknesses of a enemy that knew nothing of their existence.

I’m also rather tired of the personality deprived alien concept.  Predator got it right by making the alien silent, but also having it demonstrate a great deal of character and personality.  That is birthed mainly from having the right person inside the suit along with someone brilliant like Stan Winston behind the design of it.  CGI has robbed us of a performer’s nuanced quality when it comes to creatures like this.  One comes off no different than another, and that is just from a lack of creativity.  They are just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.

The visual effects are about mid-grade.  They are generally okay, but they won’t win any awards.  They service the story, and that’s about it.  They are better in some instances than others, depending on the setting and what the effect actually is, but yeah, there’s not much to really say about them all.  They definitely could be far better to improve the overall quality of the film, but that’s hardly the only shortcoming of this movie.

Another thing that I felt kept the film from reaching its full potential is a lack of atmosphere with the visuals.  The sound design and score are really solid.  I love the meshing of musical styles in the score, and I think that achieved more than the film itself did in combining western and sci-fi themes.  However, with the marketing campaign as it was, showcasing a lot of colorful, shadowy, and moody visuals, I had hoped there would be more of it than we got.  Those such scenes are handled excellently.  They are lit and shot in a very effective way as something conceptually evocative of Ridley Scott’s Alien.  However, much of the film unfolds in broad daylight scenes which offer no stylized vibe to them.  Yes, it suits the western side of things fine, but again, if this is a meshing of genres, the lines should be blurred between them.  It should be that the two styles mix to create something unique and consistent instead of switching from one look and tone to another as it shifts from the western plot elements to science fiction ones.  The film is rarely ever both a western and a science fiction film.  It’s either a western, or it’s a science fiction movie.  It doesn’t really deliver on the potential of the premise by meshing them both together in smart, clever ways.  Generally, this is a film where style and substance should have reigned in abundance, and they skimped on both.

Favreau does handle the action scenes very well.  They are compelling sequences filled with suspense, tension, and excitement.  The initial nighttime abduction scene is stellar all around with the sharp visuals, beautiful colors, and exciting tone.  Later, when everyone is hiding in a ravaged and upside down river boat, and a lone alien comes stalking, all is handled with style and horror movie level tension.  Favreau’s skill in this matter does help build up the intimidation level with the aliens.  I only wish they did make them more than just monsters to fight.

Again, Cowboys & Aliens has its bright points with Craig in the lead role, and a few of the supporting roles.  Now, the movie doesn’t become outright bad.  It’s just underdeveloped by the filmmakers, or underplayed by certain actors.  What felt like it should have been a rather memorable and remarkable genre-bending film really never takes off at any point.  Nothing is delivered on to its fullest extent, and the ending feels a little short on emotional impact for the characters.  It is an enjoyable and generally entertaining film that is worth some of your time, but expectations need to be wrangled back before watching it.


Miami Vice (2006)

This film was not what I had hoped it to be.  At the time of release, I couldn’t have been more disappointed.  However, over time, I have gained some appreciation for it, at least, for what it had the potential to be.  I had not watched the television series during the 1980s.  I grew up on cartoons, sitcoms, the WWF, and Knight Rider.  However, I blind bought the first season of Miami Vice on DVD in 2005, and was immediately hooked.  It seemed like good timing with news of the feature film hitting at that time, and the trailer coming a few months later.

What I love about the television show was its way of using popular music as a dramatic storytelling device, and the strong chemistry amongst the cast.  The five seasons of Miami Vice redefined what could be achieved on television.  Its use of cinematic visuals, gritty crime themes, and action packed, violent stories changed the medium forever.  It was slick, colorful, exciting, dramatic, and compelling.  Unfortunately, this 2006 feature film lacks all of that.

In this new Miami Vice, roles of James “Sonny” Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs are portrayed by Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, replacing Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas from the original series.  Crockett & Tubbs get pulled away from a local undercover operation to deal with the deterioration of a interagency task force. As Tubbs says, “Your ‘op sec’ (operational security) is blown.”  How it links to them is by way of an old informant who got in over his head, and now, pays a dire price.  So, to bring down this Colombian crime kingpin, Jesus Montoya, Crockett & Tubbs go deep undercover where they have no back-up, and Crockett gets in close with Isabella (Gong Li), Montoya’s woman.

The real problem of this film is that it lacks chemistry and momentum.  The plot moves along very straight forward allowing for no unexpected twists or turns to create exciting plot developments.  The first 15-20 minutes of the film (theatrical cut) are wrought with potential for a very exciting, fast-paced feature.  Things develop quickly creating urgency for everyone to act quickly, and for a dangerous premise to be setup with agents being gunned down.  Action ensues, things blow up while maintaining a hard edged, realistic Michael Mann style.  However, it soon slows to a dull pace.  The plot moves from one thing to another just establishing elements and relationships and characters, but none of it really means anything.  Nothing develops beyond the surface.  It’s procedural to a fault.  It’s more like watching a documentary of undercover vice cops than an engaging narrative with relatable characters.

In the television series, the clashing personalities of the slick, smooth New Yorker of Ricardo Tubbs and the weathered, cynical Miami Vice cop of Sonny Crockett created a classic chemistry.  They didn’t always mesh well, but the chemistry Johnson & Thomas struck was what made the show work.  They connected on an emotional level.  You saw how these two went from reluctant partners to trusted brothers in arms.  You felt it between them, and they played it well.  Here, the script keeps the characters in an ‘all business’ mode for so long that you don’t get a moment where it’s just Crockett & Tubbs being themselves. There are little touches that are reflective of the original characters as I know them such as Crockett charming a female bartender at the start, or Tubbs offering his compassionate condolences to interagency commander Fujima, “Sorry about your men.”  Regardless of that, you don’t get to know the men personally.  It’s all on the surface because that’s what the script demands of them.  There is only one such personal scene, but it comes so extremely late in the film, it does nothing to enhance the characters for the audience’s benefit.  Also, Lieutenant Martin Castillo, who was one of the most fascinating and textured characters of the original series, portrayed amazingly well by the always fantastic Edward James Olmos, is now just another random character.  Simply said, if you changed the names of all these characters, and slapped a different title on the film, you’d never know it was supposed to be Miami Vice.

The attempted romance between Sonny and Isabella just fell flat for me.  Part of it is that Gong Li doesn’t speak English very well, and so, she has to spend more time just trying to pronounce the words instead of putting character and emotion behind them.  You can see this relationship is having a conflicted effect on Sonny since he’s playing the undercover role of Sonny Burnett, a criminal and smuggler, and has to be close to her without actually being Sonny Crockett.  He loves this woman, but as I said, the chemistry isn’t there.  I felt no spark between them.  No heat.  Like so many things in this movie, it just doesn’t click.

The music is also dark and brooding.  Aside from a few dance club scenes, the music is not lively.  The music itself is not bad at all, I own the soundtrack, but it just further drags down the emotional weight of the film.  I know the pop music of today is not like that of the 1980s, but this 2006 movie seems to make every effort to be in stark contrast to everything that defined the name Miami Vice.  Thus, why I was so disappointed at the time of release.  Michael Mann approached this film with the intention of realism.  Make everything feel real, and do nothing that is not comparable to the true operations and people of this world.  However, making it too realistic drains out the entertainment value, and the depth to the story being told.  Because of this, as I said, the movie comes off more like a documentary.

On a positive note, the cinematography is mostly gorgeous.  The shots over the open water as Sonny & Isabella speedboat to Havana are wondrous and sprawling.  I live near Chicago, and so, the only large body of water I can enjoy is Lake Michigan.  Still, staring out into that endless horizon, to the edge of the world is so perfectly tranquil, and that sense is captured here, exponentially.  The film has a large amount of handheld work.  A lot of it is handled well, but it can get to be too much.  However, it’s nowhere near as bad as Mann’s next film Public Enemies.  That was the perfect example of a badly shot movie.  Collateral was amazing in every aspect to me, and I embraced the HD digital video look of it.  It was shot fantastically.  Miami Vice is the downward step between Collateral and Public Enemies in many ways, not just in camera work.

Characters in Michael Mann films went from deep, textured, and complex people to far more stoic people who Mann does not allow to show their depth.  While Manhunter is my favorite Mann film, it is The Insider that I feel remains his best film to date.  That was the clear definition of character depth, and a well written dramatic film.  And Mann did it all without a single action sequence or gunshot.  People conflicting with other people on an emotional, psychological, and ideological level.  While based on true events, it shows that Mann can bring those qualities out in his films.  Where it has gone in the last few years is beyond me.

Miami Vice was marketed as a slick, dangerous, edgy, sexy, and exciting summer action film.  That is not the film Michael Mann made, and the film I got was not the one I expected to see on an August midnight showing in 2006.  However, after listening to his director’s commentary, and allowing the passage of time, I at least have appreciation for the film it could have been.  I understand what Mann was going for, and I love the ideas behind it.  I just don’t feel it all successfully came together in this movie.  The worst part of the film was the ending.  As the movie progressed, I felt there hadn’t yet been a climax.  There was a big shootout, but it felt like a precursor to the real climax.  Nothing had yet been resolved on a plot development or emotional level.  Jesus Montoya was still out there, at large, and I felt like the film would lead into Crockett & Tubbs going after him to shut him down.  This was because the same thing happened in the episode “Calderone’s Return.”  The villain from the pilot episode escaped, and now, Sonny & Rico had the chance to get him for good.  They speedboat to the Bahamas for a final confrontation.  None of that happened here.  There’s a montage sequence, Crockett walks into the hospital, and the movie cuts to black.  Roll credits.  There was no resolution to any plot or character elements in the film.  The bad guy gets away, he will rebuild his empire, and life goes on.  All the Miami Vice squad achieved was killing a bunch of thugs with guns.  Expendable, replaceable people in Montoya’s employ.  You can pull that off on a television series because there’s always next week, sometimes next season to revisit the storyline, and tie it off at a later time (just like “Calderone’s Return”).  In a feature film, you have only 90-120 minutes to establish, develop, and resolve a story.  There was no satisfying resolution to Miami Vice 2006.  Had there been, maybe I could forgive a lot of the negative marks by there being an exciting ending that actually resolved something that the audience decided to invest their time in.

The worst thing to do going into this movie is to anticipate anything resembling the 1980s television series.  Going into it expecting a Michael Mann film might be more suitable, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be pleased.  It’s been five years since this film was released, and while I have an appreciation for the ideas behind it, and enjoy much of the cinematography, I don’t view it as that good of a film.  The lack of chemistry amongst the cast, momentum within the story, and the grim overall sense just doesn’t allow for much to invest in, unfortunately.


Blade II (2002)

Blade II is a distinctively different animal than the original Blade.  This is practically all due to the change in directors from Stephen Norrington to Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy).  He brings a much more colorful canvas to the film, and a bit bigger sense of fun.  Cinematographer Gabriel Beristain helps del Toro achieve this to the fullest extent.  Also, as is another trademark of Guillermo’s films, he brings in the wonderful Ron Perlman to the main cast as a token bad ass.  The film definitely takes a lot of new turns and fleshes out established ideas.  Though, it lacks the dramatic weight and emotion that Stephen Norrington’s film was quite rich with.

The film picks up five years after the events of the first film.  In that time, Blade (Wesley Snipes) learned that his old friend and mentor Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) eventually did turn into a ‘suckhead,’ but the vampire nation has kept him hidden.  Though, Blade soon rescues him, and returns to his new lair in Prague.  A cure of some sort to administered to Whistler, and only time will tell if it takes fully.

Meanwhile, it isn’t long before the vampire nation comes looking for Blade with a unique offer of a truce.  A new mutated species of vampires, called reapers, have become a serious threat to them and potentially all of humanity.  They are overall a more advanced species with abilities and strengths beyond any other vampire, and a hunger that is like a drug addiction – they have to feed constantly.  Anyone bitten is immediately infected.  Also, Nomack (Luke Goss) is the original reaper who holds secrets that could bring down the vampire nation.  Thus, vampire princess Nyssa (Leonor Varela) has come to enlist the aid of the Daywalker to lead this hunt for them.  Blade teams up with a death squad named the Blood Pack that have been trained to kill Blade himself, but are focused on eliminating the reapers for the time being.  At the head of this group is Reinhardt (Ron Perlman) who shows immediate distaste and opposition to Blade, but he’s soon put in his place the way only Blade can do.  There is also pure blood elder Damaskinos (Thomas Kretschmann) who is Nyssa’s father, but also holds secrets of his own that he refuses to take responsibility for.  These sorts of things come into play later in the film.

The hunt for the reapers and Nomack is only half the story here, and thus, only lasts through about half the film.  Members of the Blood Pack are lost in the hunt, but the main characters survive it.  Along the way, a bond is formed between Blade and Princess Nyssa while the relationship between Blade and Whistler seems to fade deep into the background.  It almost seems like Whistler needs protecting, like he can no longer hold his own.  Though, the hunt to destroy the reapers is really only half of the film, and barely scratches the surface of the overall plot which Blade hardly sees coming when he and Whistler are taken captive and a traitor is revealed along with buried truths with threaten everyone.

I would like to say that I actually feel this is NOT a sequel that surpasses the original, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.  I enjoyed the more dramatic, serious tone of the original Blade with its balance of action, vampire lore, and interesting, entertaining characters.  Blade II offers up a more fun, multi-colored visual style with jacked up action sequences, but lighter on character depth and lacking a coherent plot progression.  The first half of the film sets up a really strong threat in the Reapers, but all the setup and very detailed exposition is dashed when all but Nomack are wiped out halfway through the film.  After that, it’s all personal agendas and vendettas to sustain the film from there.  A far less sympathetic Frankenstein’s Monster tale of a creation turning against its creator ensues, and Blade is just there to clean up the mess.  The final fight between Blade and Nomack, while intense and entertaining, is mostly a CGI affair like something out of The Matrix Trilogy forcing it, by default, to lack a needed visceral element.  The fight mainly happens because the film needs a climax.  The only real justification for it is a last minute act of violence that fires up Blade to throw down – an act that has no real purpose to have happened.  There’s no build up of personal disdain between the two as there was between Blade and Deacon Frost in the 1997 film.  Ultimately, Nomack is not the real villain of the film, but is left as the only remaining threat by the film’s end.

I also think Guillermo del Toro imbued this film with a bit too much cheesiness and levity.  While Snipes, Perlman, and the other actors pull it off well, I feel we lose the weight of the story overall.  First and foremost, Blade just doesn’t come off as imposing or as threatening as before.  While Blade was quite the antisocial, brooding, edgy, blunt, and internal personality before, here (amongst enemies no less) opens up his thoughts and sense of humor significantly more.  Snipes still plays the role exceptionally well, it just seems to go against Blade’s established personality – especially since he retains that cold, stone-faced facade when he’s amongst his established allies.

Speaking of which, Norman Reedus appears as Scud, a new ally of the Daywalker.  He essentially took over Whistler’s role in his absence, but now that he’s back, there is friction.  Though, where Whistler was allowed to be his own strong, solid character in the previous film, he becomes little more than an object of abuse by the Blood Pack here.  This is deeply unfortunate considering that Kristofferson is a spectacular actor, and Whistler had such a wealth of potential for serious exploration before.  Instead, he’s made into a weaker character overall that Blade has to protect whereas he could hold his own before.  I really liked his gruff cowboy style mentality from the first film, and to see it be depleted here throughout the film for no major reason is just sad.  You don’t get to see Whistler kick anyone’s ass, at all, ever in this whole film.  That’s a greatly negative mark against this film, in my eyes.

The special and visual effects are superior than those in the original film, but with a span of four years between films, it’s not surprising.  Guillermo does use a great deal more CGI than Norrington did, but it still works well for the film (even if it might be a slight bit obvious, at times).  While I believe del Toro makes very good films, and excels with the more fantastical material, I simply believe he veered certain aspects of this film into incorrect directions.  I like a good dash of humor in my films as much as anyone, but I don’t like it when the essence of an established character is lost within it.  That’s what I see happened here with Blade.  His character is too light, and loses some of his dark, mysterious edge.  Whistler is handled in a pretty pathetic fashion which doesn’t roll for me.  Anyone who casts Kris Kristofferson does so for his strength of character and natural presence of authority – that is totally wasted in this sequel.

Also, overall, I feel the vampire nation is presented in a very inconsequential light in this film.  Whereas in the first film, they seemed like a powerful underground global organization, here the vampire nation seems terribly smaller and less influential with the weak and cowardly Damaskinos heading everything.  He carries himself with no weight, and hardly seems like a threat to anyone.  The only thing that makes him powerful is his personal influence and armed guards.  When danger comes his way, he retreats like a little old lady – literally.  Nomack really is a greater threat (and proves it), but is terribly downplayed by the second half of the film.  This is all why del Toro’s film is marginally inferior to Norrington’s original film – mishandling of characters and plot.  This might be attributed to David Goyer’s writing (lord, I know what it’s like when there’s no around to fix it up), but it is the director’s job to balance these things out.  I simply feel like there was more consistent storytelling and character continuity with the original Blade.  I’ve seen Hellboy, and I feel it suffers from the exact same problems as Blade II.  It is a fine film, but could use some definite improvements as could this sequel.

And I just have to say the biggest mishandling of a talent in this film is in Donnie Yen.  I’ve only seen him in Highlander: Endgame, but DAMN, was I impressed by his talent and abilities.  The man is a premiere martial artist that rivals the likes of Jet Li and such.  He is simply an amazing athlete and martial artist.  The fact that he’s barely utilized in this film should be a crime.  Maybe the filmmakers were afraid he’d out-shine Wesley Snipes?  I don’t know, but it’s just wrong to have under-utilized him in this picture.  Honestly, if you cast a talent the caliber of Donnie Yen, it’s for a very specific reason, and that reason is blatantly obvious.  To not make use of his most prominent talents is simply stupid.  Of what I’ve seen of him, I’d definitely look forward to seeing more of his talents.

This film has new music composers in Marco Beltrami and Danny Saber, but the difference isn’t strikingly different.  In the least, the music fits well with del Toro’s tone and style.  The soundtrack still features some techno-style music, but also rap / hip-hop music is present with the likes of Cypress Hill.  Not at all my taste in music, but it’s good within the context of the film.  Simply put, I have no qualms about the musical score or soundtrack for the film.

The film does indeed look fantastic with a rich color scheme, and the stellar cinematography.  The camera moves and angles definitely lend a sense of scope and power to the images.  The production design is top-notch creating various distinct sets and locales with bring a European flavor to the film.  With all the more diverse settings in this film, it easily makes it look more elaborate than the American urban setting of the first film.  But whatever the case, it all looks amazing!

Overall, taking in all the good and not-so-good of the film, I would have to give Blade II a score slightly below that of the first film.  Guillermo del Toro is an awesome filmmaker, but with this film, I just don’t feel his style lent itself best to this film.  I would’ve preferred more dramatic and emotional weight overall, and a stronger consistency in the characters of Blade and Whistler.  They are the only franchise mainstays, and they’re the ones we follow from film-to-film.  I feel their characters were weakened, and their potential strength was drained by excessive levity in the film overall.  Also, the CGI is good, but during the action scenes, you know when it’s CGI, making it not all that great.  It certainly helped the filmmakers achieve things that they couldn’t do otherwise, but also took away from the effectiveness of the times it was used.  It becomes a toss up, but never the less, I count it as a mark against the film, to a small degree.  Simply put, I give Blade II an 8.5/10.  It’s a good film, but it could’ve been stronger and more coherent in its storytelling progression and character development.


Blade (1998)

An organized vampire underworld operating in league with key human figures in a covert plan to control the world.  All that opposes them is the Daywalker, Blade (Wesley Snipes).  He was born shortly after his own mother was bitten by a vampire, and thus, inherited all their powers with none of their weaknesses, except the thirst for blood.  The serum concocted by ally and fellow “suckhead” slayer Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) suppresses this thirst, but Blade is building up an immunity to it.  As Blade tears through the vampire underworld, he moves in closer and closer to Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) who has major plans to cease control of the vampire nation from the “pure bloods.”  Caught in the middle of this bloody, unseen war is Dr. Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright).  As the film unfolds, Frost’s own plot is slowly uncovered as well as the origins of our heroes, and the potential for a cure to vampirism.

Wesley Snipes owns this entire film.  His expert martial arts skills are executed with machine-like precision making Blade into the ultimate vampire slaying bad ass.  Beyond that is the pain within.  Blade has a lot of obvious internal pain that keeps him distant from even Whistler, who is the closest thing to a friend and parent he ever had.  While Blade plays their relationship very coldly, in the end, there’s a lot of emotion there.  Blade owes Whistler everything.  In contrast, Kris Kristofferson plays Whistler like an cowboy.  He’s a real tough old bastard that doesn’t show any real sentimentality, but he’s exceptionally likable.  He’s a hard ass for sure, but with his past and allegiance with Blade, it’s difficult to be any other way.  He gives Blade the needed kick in the ass when he’s getting a bit too enveloped in his own agendas.

Stephen Dorff plays a wonderfully despicable villain in Frost.  He’s defiant, sadistic, and completely vile.  He has a lot of fun with the role, playing it up with a sick enthusiasm.  Frost is also very frustrated with the arrogant and aristocratic attitudes of the pure bloods, thinking they have the right to run everything, and tell him what to do.  His ultimate scheme intends to wipe them off the face of the planet, and bestow god-like powers upon himself.  Dorff has so much charisma that makes him deliciously evil, if even a bit annoying to some.  His henchman Quinn, played by comedian Donal Logue, is a energetic and hilarious delight.  In a film handled with so much weight, levity is so valued.  Snipes and Kristofferson also have tinges of humor in their performances, but it is easily the villains here that offer up the most.  This allows the film to not be cheesy, but instead delightfully villainous at times.

The other notable villain here is Dragonetti portrayed by the eccentric and distinctly European actor Udo Kier.  He’s an amazing genre actor with a perfect German accent and look to fit into the classic vampire motif.   He has over 170 acting credits on his filmography, and has worked with Peter Hyams, Dario Argento, and even John Carpenter on an episode for Masters of Horror.  Udo plays Dragonetti as greatly as he does in any other role, and adding a real air of sophistication to the vampire elders.

Stephen Norrington directs this film with much style, but also a lot of weight.  The source material is updated, cleaned up, and given a lot of seriousness.  Still, as stated, there’s humor and an excellent sense of fun.  Never does anything get to feeling so serious that you lose interest.  The dramatic and emotional moments are handled well, and the action sequences are shot with a lot of fun and top-notch composition.  This was easily before every action director was shooting their films with the infamous shaky-cam style.  The end duel between Blade & Frost has such speed and ferocity that you’ll be hard pressed to find a more intense one-on-one fight with this great of choreography.

Director of photography Theo Van De Sande gave the film an amazing look.  The coldness of the blues and grays goes a long way to establishing the feel of this underground world of vampires, but it doesn’t dominate the film.  There’s plenty of daytime and certain indoor scenes with a warmer color palette.  This is a needed counterbalance to avoid making the film too dreary.  Films like Underworld failed to offer such a visual counterbalance as well as a sense of levity that hurt its entertainment and enjoyment value.  Norrington and Theo Van De Sande got it right the first time out the gate.

Eight years later, I do have to say that the visual effects here don’t hold up well at all.  They look very low budget by today’s higher end standards.  Even the visual effects in Blade: The Series looked better than they do in this feature film, but for the time of its theatrical release, they were pretty good, but no great.  I can’t help but hold 1993’s Jurassic Park as a CGI standard bearer since so many films these days still fail to live up to that level of quality and realism.  Though, the makeup effects here are great with much gory texture and detail.

Mark Isham’s score coupled with a pulsating soundtrack gives this film great power and vibrancy.  It hits all the right marks, and flows with the moments to keep the film coherent in style and mood.

Now, I’ve seen mixed results with David S. Goyer’s screenwriting. Blade: Trinity was an awful mess with bad dialogue and poor plotting.  What I’ve come to believe is that the influence and vision of the directors he has worked with have geared his scripts into far higher quality territory.  In any case, this adaptation of a lower tier Marvel Comics character turned out greatly!  The final shooting script was obviously very strong, and created an excellent film.

Overall, I would call Blade a definite classic that combines elements of horror, action, and martial arts in a very fresh and intelligent way.  Remember, this predated The Matrix by several months, and honestly, any martial arts sequence in this film kicks the crap out of all of The Matrix trilogy.  Who needs ten tons of wire work and a thousand Kung Fu blocks when you’ve got some full-on vampire martial arts and swordplay ass-kicking?  Wesley Snipes definitely solidified himself as a certified bad ass with this film.  Stephen Norrington also displayed a great artistic eye and killer talent for making genre-blending films.  It’s all too bad that after his exceptionally difficult experience making The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he vowed never to direct another film.  But in regards to Blade, I give it a 9.5/10.  The CGI is certainly dated, and the final duel could’ve been extended for greater dramatic effect.  Still, it’s a stellar film with fantastic action and a definite dramatic weight overall.


John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

You know, the term ‘classic film’ is thrown around a hell of a lot.  There’s a great deal of times where it is simply not justified.  People jumping the gun the second a film is released, and saying it’s one of the all time greats.  Let’s see how it endures after 10, 20, or even 30 years.  Directors also get this treatment.  For example, Rob Zombie.  The man, in my brutally honest opinion, has yet to make a decently watchable film, but so many people hail him as some messiah because he makes dirty, ugly films.  It takes more than simple visual style to make you a good, let alone great director.  So, if you ask me who my favorite genre director is, who I feel has had the best run of things with the most diverse body of work?  I would say John Carpenter. The Thing, Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, In The Mouth of Madness, Vampires, Escape From New York…. all favorite films of mine.  He demonstrates a brilliance in everything he does – writing, directing, producing, and music composition.  When it comes to Halloween, there’s nothing quite like it.  Every other slasher film in the world goes straight for the gore.  After the years and decades have passed, filmmakers seem to have lost sight of what is truly scary in horror.  It’s not shock gore, cheap jump scares, or splatter films with ten thousand gallons of blood.  Taking the time to adequately build up an atmosphere of tension and suspense seems to become a dying art among the mainstream horror filmmakers.  I’m not going to turn this into a comparison to other films, I’m going to tell you exactly why this film has remained a justifiable and certified classic for over 30 years.

If you aren’t familiar with the film’s plot, I’ll give you a lean and mean version.  Michael Myers, fifteen years ago, murdered his sister on Halloween night.  Afterwards, he was put into a psychiatric sanitarium, overseen by Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), but on October 30th, 1978, he escapes back to his hometown of Haddonfield.  Come Halloween, he is stalking a group of teenage girls for reasons unknown.  Among these is Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a sweet, caring, and decent girl.  Loomis himself is in pursuit, fearing for what might indeed happen with Michael loose.  After fifteen years of treating the young man, Loomis is convinced he is purely and simply evil.  Someone without conscience, compassion, humanity, or any grasp of good or bad, right or wrong.  In clinical terms, a sociopath.  Donning a pale white mask of blank expression, Michael proceeds to methodically kill people throughout Halloween night.  Can the evil be stopped before too long?

You talk about film direction?  This should be shown to every aspiring filmmaker.  Even if they are not interested in the horror genre, this film gets everything right.  Music, cinematography, staging, acting, tone, pacing, editing….the list goes on.  Certainly the most impressive and crucial technical element is Dean Cundey’s high caliber artistry as the film’s Director of Photography.  Before Halloween, I don’t think any film had been shot in this fashion.  The beautiful, genius composition is the main element which crafts the horror so effectively.  You could take a still from about every scene, and you’d have something special and effective.  The composition creates striking images that serve the tension and terror.  How Michael seems to materialize out of the darkness just before slashing Laurie around the 76 minute mark is beyond known words to describe that brilliance.  Don’t forget all the steadicam work.  Very impressive for a film of this scale, and it adds so much to the production values.  Even these days, the lower cost ones will cost you around two grand, and back in ’77, they were brand new technology.  How shots glide from one place to the next, in and out of rooms, panning ever so smoothly around the action – it is masterful.  Where now, everyone’s gotta shake the camera so much, it makes you puke, it is a breath of fresh air to see filmmakers shooting a film like this.  Slow reveals, shots pushing in, pulling out, and oh lord….the gorgeous lighting.  Lighting creates atmosphere.  Subtle fills and key light.  Patterns across the walls and ceilings.  It helps to direct the eye, and envelope you within a certain mood.  Dean Cundey is a masterful cinematographer, and continues to showcase his artistry to this day.  He would also work on Carpenter’s The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, & Big Trouble in Little China.

While most might not take conscious note of Cundey’s work, everyone knows the value of Carpenter’s score.  His themes have become legendary and iconic.  No other film in the entire franchise has a score this prominent or effective.  It drives so much of the film, creating a taut, nerve-racking strain of suspense.  There is one theme that I call the “Stalking Theme” because that’s when you hear it.  Michael begins to stalk Laurie through the Wallace house, across the street, and all throughout the Doyle home.  This is a relentless theme which accurately and powerfully reflects the intentions of The Shape.  I continue to firmly stand by my belief that Nick Castle was the absolute best Michael Myers.  While the direction and camera work make the Shape truly effective, making Myers appear to move like a ghost – appearing and disappearing in a heartbeat – I want to specifically address Castle’s performance.  Where later Michaels were more thoroughly rigid and mechanical in their movements, Castle brought a fluidity to The Shape.  He moves like a man, reacts like a man, but has a quality which is simply unsettling.  He’s creepy.  He feels like a realistic homicidal maniac, but with a clear, calculating intelligence allowing him to stalk and kill at the most opportunistic moment.  He’s not just running around like a nutcase, screaming and wildly slashing up people.  He’s conscious of his actions, and acts deliberately.  In addition, Castle injects a violent intensity to the role.  He is relentless, and continues to come back with increased violent ferocity.  It can tend to seem like he needs to kill Laurie, that he is compelled to make sure she dies.  Compare how he strangles Laurie at the end to any other time Michael chokes someone later in the franchise.  In those later instances, it’s very cold and empty.  Here, there’s an apparent rage that cannot be satiated.  Some twisted, unwavering obsession at work, it would seem.  Michael actively and endlessly pursues Laurie.  He is the living embodiment of death.  He is inevitable and unstoppable.  And yes, this specific mask adds so much that subsequent ones lack – it has very human features, but clearly, they are fabricated.  He appears to have human features, but what he appears to be is not what he really is.

Speaking of performances, you would be hard pressed to find a substandard one here.  Everyone fits their role just right, slipping into it like a finely crafted glove.  Jamie Lee’s acting really shows what she was at the time – fresh, young, and eager.  I would take her performance in this film over what she offered in Halloween H20.  She showed genuine vulnerability, compassion, and emotional innocence here.  The performances throughout this film just feel authentic, believable, and tangible.  No one feels out of place or over the top.  Everything is very grounded and honest.  Charles Cyphers holds his ground as Sheriff Leigh Brackett, offering up a very real perspective against Dr. Loomis’ “fancy talk” about pure evil.  You could see any small town Sheriff thinking and saying the same thing in reaction to such claims.  All of the ladies really bring energy and life to their roles.  The youthful enthusiasm, again, feels purely authentic.  Makes a lot of the “teenage” performances of today seem flat and cliché.

As I say in reviews for the sequels, Donald Pleasence is the glue that binds the film together, and provides it with a weight and urgency it needs.  His performance in this first film is more low key than his incensed sequel appearances.  You can see Loomis’ fear surfacing as he speaks about his escaped patient.  Michael frightens him down to his core, and it is his own fear which motivates him.  He knows the hollow, emotionless, indifferent monster that Myers is, and cannot bare the thought of what will happen now that he’s loose.  I believe, in the sequels, it drives him rather mad.  His obsession is enhanced by the volume of bloodshed spilled by Michael, and is why he becomes so deadset and crazed later on.  Pleasance demonstrates a real brilliance in this role.  The dread and fear in his voice gives every last one of his words credibility which is so crucial to building up Michael to being more than just a mentally ill murderer.  He is the boogeyman, a presence, an indomitable, elemental force that cannot be reasoned with or destroyed.  The final look that Loomis gives, which came from Donald’s own brilliance, conveys to the audience, “I knew this would happen.”  It does not shock him, only frighten him further.  What he has believed all these years has been proven true – you cannot kill pure evil.

It is refreshing to watch the original film after weeding through the sequels.  John Carpenter’s Halloween is like a revelation, and reminds me how none of the sequels measure up.  It was never simply one element that made this film so great – it was every element.  The cinematography is worthy of awards alongside the direction and music.  The acting is, mostly, understated and firmly based in reality.  Characters like Loomis and Brackett keeping cool heads instead of either going way off the deep end, or being complete buffoons.  This film is an undeniable and justifiable classic.  I can’t say it’s the most frightening film I’ve ever seen, that honor goes to The Exorcist (which I still can’t pull myself to watch again), but this film will keep you rattled and unnerved to significant degrees.  While, I’m sure, there are minor technical gaffes here and there, it’s nothing that you will pick up in a casual viewing.  No film is perfect in all aspects, absolutely, but what this is, is an excellent piece of cinema that should continue to endure for all time.  There is no reason not to give this a full ten out of ten rating.