In-Depth Movie Reviews & High Quality Trailers

Archive for February, 2012

Outlander (2008)

Sometimes, you see a trailer for a movie, and you just have to take a chance with it.  Make a real commitment to what you perceive as an awesome piece of cinematic work, and sometimes, it truly pays off beyond your expectations.  Of course, my luck being what it is, it was not easy tracking down a DVD of this movie in-store.  I ultimately found it in a re-sale store about twenty miles away.  Yes, I could have done an iTunes rental, but I felt so strong about how great this film would be that I felt a purchase was inevitable.  Beyond just the trailer, I have enjoyed some strong works from Jim Caviezel dating back to The Count of Monte Cristo and Frequency to the current hit CBS crime thriller television series Person of Interest.  Caviezel always brings a rich depth to his roles that is highly investing and entertaining.  So, that further fueled my interest as well as the fusion of science fiction and fantasy elements.

709AD, a space craft streaks across the night’s sky and crash lands in Norway with the only survivors being the warrior Kainan (Jim Caviezel) and a deadly alien stowaway.  Before he can track down this enemy, Kainan is captured by viking warrior Wulfric (Jack Huston), and held prisoner in the local village led by King Hrothgar (John Hurt).  He is questioned about his presence, and says he was hunting dragons, but in truth, it is a fiery bio-luminescent beast called a Moorwen from a planet his people attempted to wipe out and colonize.  Grudgingly accepted into the clan after saving the King’s life, Kainan confides in Hrothgar’s fiercely beautiful daughter, Freya (Sophia Myles), about his past.  As the Moorwen wreaks terror and destruction on neighboring villages, the threat of conflict between the clans escalates and Kainan is called upon to kill the creature.  They forge a strategy and weapons to defeat it, but victory will come at a cost and Kainan will find a new future for himself.

Getting right to the point, what satisfied me the most about this movie is how perfect the storytelling and character arcs are.  Every story or character element is introduced, evolved, and paid off with great emotional weight and impact.  As the bond between Kainan and the Vikings strengthens and expands, I felt the need for where this story should end, hoping for the characters to take the paths I anticipated for them.  Nothing is ever lightly given in this movie, nor is any plot development handled weakly.  Every emotion and character evolution is earned by the dedication of the actors and the filmmakers’ to this powerful adventure.

The visual effects are surprisingly awesome and consistent.  There were only two extremely quick moments where the CGI looked a little undercooked, but they are “blink and you’ll miss them” moments.  Every other instance is exceptionally good, and listening to the audio commentary you’ll learn how extensive and seamless these digital effects are.  The Moorwen is wonderfully realized with a brilliant bio-luminescent design making it appear as if it’s made of fire.  It burns throught the darkness of night attracting the attention of its prey. so that it can attack swiftly.  It comes off almost like a creature of legend, like a dragon, but it does have a little more science fiction edge to it.  In its few revealing moments, personality and intelligence come through in its face and actions as well as a fearsome demeanor.  This is a welcome choice as I wholly support the idea of the creature having personality like the Predator or Alien.  It makes them more memorable and effective.  The scenes on the alien planet are especially well done with a striking sense of scope and interesting, unique design.  Lots of creative thought was put into it to give it its own identity to offer up an epic sensibility for the film.  The amber color scheme of the planet is a nice contrast to the greenish-blue daytime scenes on Earth.

Cinematography is gorgeous.  A great deal of care and integrity were put into the photography of this picture giving it scope and weight.  Apparently, production was originally intended to take place in New Zealand with WETA Workshop doing effects on a larger budget, but to my eyes, I see no budget starved areas.  Ultimately being shot in Nova Scotia, Canada, the landscape is beautifully captured with some excellent aerial photography, and various shots which show the breadth and depth of the land which all sell a certain majesty of the film’s setting.  Gorgeous really does encompass it all.  The soft, warm lighting in the Viking Hall is like a master artist’s brushstrokes come to life.  The shadowy and fiery moments at night hunting the Moorwen establish a tense, fearful atmosphere that drives the emotional intensity of the story.  There’s plenty of subtle atmosphere to give the land life.  Outlander was shot with exceptional skill and scope by Pierre Gill, and I applaud his marvelous work here.

Jim Caviezel is an amazingly effective and powerful actor who brings a lot of relatable aspects to Kainan.  First off, there’s the courageous warrior who embodies a great hero’s journey.  He feels a need for redemption for what his people did to the Moorwens, and gradually, he seems to find that salvation with these people.  They come to trust in him and accept him as one of their own through a series of trials, both friendly and dangerous.  Caviezel offers up a growing humanity, an opening of Kainan’s emotions that allow an audience and the other characters to strongly connect with him.  Jim Caviezel also has a natural ethereal, soulful aura around him that serves the otherworldly aspect of the character well.  The strength of Kainan is constantly balanced with his own internal pain and doubts through the competence and thorough devotion of Caviezel to the role.  I simply love how much he digs into the character to bring out elements evocative of the heroes of Highlander and Predator.  Characters with a strong sense of honor, courage, and heart that come off as legendary heroes.  I would certainly say that Outlander could be categorized as a meshing of those sorts of films.  Caviezel himself said the film was “a light mix of Braveheart and Highlander.”  Many have mentioned comparisons to Beowulf.  By the film’s end, I viewed Kainan as a warrior of legend full of depth that was greatly worth investing myself in for 115 minutes.

The supporting cast really begins with Jack Huston.  He’s a great actor here that Caviezel works off of very well.  As Wulfric, Huston brings a youthful brashness to the story.  He’s a warrior with much ambition as the heir to his father’s throne, but he lacks the wisdom and experience to be ready to accept that role.  However, his impulsiveness and character is gradually tempered through this adventure.  Kainan and Wulfric learn much from one another, and they prove to be far better off for it.  They forge a kinship that fuels them into battle and further strengthens the foundation of the story.  Huston is charismatic and finely enjoyable.

I found Sophia Myles pleasantly surprising and powerful.  I really only know her from her role of the self-serving vampire Erika in Underworld.  Here, I absolutely love her!  Her introduction as Freya is strong and aggressive.  She handles the physical demands of Freya in stride in various fight scenes wielding a sword with expert competence.  She’s a woman who can defend herself and her people, if need be, and while she does have a softer, more heartfelt side, that is not how she wishes to be defined.  Sophia is a beautiful woman, especially with that red hair, who brings so much dimension to Freya.  She adds a fine texture and weight to this role which does have its tender areas of compassion and love opposite the pride and strength.  There is warmth and passion in her eyes, selling so much of how she relates and bonds with the male characters around her.  She holds her ground firmly with impressive depth and confidence while forging an amazing emotional core.

King Hrothgar is excellently portrayed by the engaging and insightful John Hurt.  Wisdom and honor mixed with conviction and compassion are what define his performance.  Ron Perlman has a smaller role as Hrothgar’s rival Gunnar which he infuses with gruff brutality and heartbreaking ire.  In general, the whole supporting cast maintains the depth and dimension that the leads established creating a very full and diverse world that feels realistic.

The production design has great detail and vibrancy applied to it.  Everything of the Vikings has a texture that speak of a culture with realistic history.  From the costumes to the sets to their props, they are all cohesive.  They create a complete world for these characters to inhabit.  Again, nothing feels budget starved.  There are large sets built to give scenes visual depth and wonderful lighting setups that bring it all to life.  The advanced technology of Kainan’s world is very well designed with a very consistent aesthetic.  For some viewers, it might take a little getting used to switching between the Viking world and the science fiction tech, but ultimately, everything meshes as well as anyone could expect.

The story here is amazingly well written and interwoven around its amazing characters.  Howard McCain and Dirk Blackman put together an inspired screenplay that turned into a fantastic, thoroughly pleasing feature film for me.  It is great that Kainan enters into a world of characters who have an established history, who have stories already in motion for themselves.  They are already on a certain path, and the arrival of Kainan and the Moorwen merely jump start those stories forward.  All of the character threads tie into each other and the main plot to create great arcs that culminate in something that legends are made of.

Director / co-writer Howard McCain crafted a film full of adventure, action, tension, suspense, excitement, drama, and character depth that thrives on the screen.  Outlander has beautiful and brilliant visual flare that give the film so much vibrant life.  There are so many deeply talented people involved in this film that make it so amazing.  The score by Geoff Zanelli supports the epic scale of this adventure, and enhances the emotion throughout.  This was a movie that easily fell below the radar due to a limited theatrical release by the Weinstein Company.  That is why I am writing this review so that it can gain some more exposure.  I could reiterate many points I made here to push this further upon you, but the best way to promote this is to say I loved it.  This is a thrilling action adventure with plenty of character drama to satisfy a wide spread audience.  The science fiction and Nordic elements come together through the emotional elements which bond the characters together tightly.  This is one film you surely need to personally experience to fully understand its strength, but in more simple terms, Outlander entirely kicks ass!

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Aliens (1986)

It was an ambitious prospect to develop a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction horror classic Alien.  However, Twentieth Century Fox was highly pleased with what burgeoning filmmaker James Cameron was putting to paper that they waited until he finished production on The Terminator to have him complete that script.  It became a huge blockbuster hit in the summer of 1986, and earned several nominations and awards.  Unfortunately, for me, there has always been something about this film I never quite liked, something that made it nowhere near as great as people made it out to be.  Add to that the disdain I’ve developed in recent years for James Cameron.  I don’t think he makes films as good as he thinks he does, he has a huge unwarranted ego, and his pioneering of 3D digital technology really burns me.  I hate the trend, and I hate Cameron for igniting it.  I will truly brush these feelings aside, and critique this film as it is to pinpoint my issues with it.  There’s plenty for me to deconstruct here.

Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the sole survivor of the alien attack on the mining ship Nostromo, is awakened by a salvage ship after drifting through space in cryo-sleep for fifty-seven years in her escape pod.  After her rescue, officials at the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (regularly referred to as “The Company”) give her a cold reception by revoking her flight license.  Much to her horror, they reveal that planet LV-426, where her crew discovered the alien, has since been colonized without incident.  However, when communication with the colony is lost, Ripley initially refuses to help, but her recurring nightmares and coxing by a representative of the Company, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), convince her to accompany a group of Colonial Marines to investigate the situation.  What awaits them all is a swarm of Xenomorphs that have infested the colony, the likes of which these marines are not prepared for, but Ripley will ultimately not be deterred from confronting and destroying the horror that haunts her.

I hate to start off on a bad note because there are highly admirable qualities to credit in this film, but this is an exploration of me understanding what I haven’t like about this film for so long.  Only now, by way of actually analyzing the film, can I pinpoint those reasons.  However, that doesn’t mean I have all bad things to say of it, but let me get the nagging issues out of the way first.

I feel Aliens is downgraded by its aesthetics.  Part of that problem was the choice of film stock used in the Kodak Eastman type that was only in use for a very brief period of time.  The reasons for that begin with excessive grain and ends with a difficulty in processing blue screen effects.  Aliens is a very grainy film, and in addition to that, has very bleached out colors.  The color palette is very flat.  Blacks aren’t black, and with a film of this sort, creating light and shadow contrast is very important.  This creates a rather visually bland presentation that fails to match the highly atmospheric quality of Ridley Scott’s 1979 original.  I believe that some of these problems have been rectified on the Blu Ray release which Cameron himself supervised.  I wish I could view that version so that, maybe, some of my gripes with the film would evaporate.  However, that’s not all, but I will cover those later when I address the visual effects.

I have to take issue with some of the characterizations in this film.  Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, & Michael Biehn are all excellent, and inhabit their roles well.  Their roles are also well written and well conceived.  Them, I have no issues with.  It’s the arrogant, chest pounding, and sometime weak-willed Colonial Marines.  Yes, they are big, colorful characters that are memorable and quotable.  That doesn’t mean they’re well conceived characters.  For example, let’s compare these marines to the elite team from Predator.  A group that is memorable, quotable, full of personality, but also, not a bunch of guys you’d ever want to cross.  They are not arrogant, just confident, but know how to respect a dangerous situation when they enter it.  They operate like a cohesive unit, follow orders, have great respect for one another, and keep their mission objective clearly in view.  They get the job done, and never flex any ego.  The marines from Aliens do nothing but talk tough and act as if they’re invincible bad asses.  I understand the intent of showing them as if they believe themselves to be so great that nothing can best them, and then, get dropped into a situation of a cold, hard reality check.  The same thing happens in Predator, and I think it’s done better in that film because you see how realistically capable these soldiers are.  They’re the real deal, and when you see that these seriously experienced, professional soldiers are afraid of what’s out there, it sells the situation even more.  As for that reality check shocking the marines down to size?  You still have Bill Paxton’s Hudson acting like a buffoon all the way through the film.  Someone of this weak will and lack of backbone would never make it into any military organization today, and Hudson does more to sell the incompetence of this team than anything else.  These marines also don’t follow orders when they’re given, and instead, subscribe to foolish, egotistical behavior to satisfy their own ignorant bravado.  It’s the character I have issue with, not Paxton.  I believe Bill Paxton to be a very good actor that eventually was given to chance to break out of this buffoonish stereotype, and that was a very thankful turns of events.

What really downgrade the quality of this film, for me, are the visual effects.  Keep in mind that James Cameron comes from a visual effects background as I point out these issues.  Firstly, and briefly, the use of rear screen projection backgrounds come off as low grade.  Even George Lucas tried using this in Star Wars, but when he saw how bad it looked, he swore it off never to be attempted again.  Cameron uses it here instead of blue screen effects, likely, because of the aforementioned crappy film stock he chose to use.  Again, this is from a filmmaker who started in visual effects.  Next up, the miniature vehicle photography is not convincing.  Miniatures are small and lightweight, but the photography of them is meant to fool you into perceiving them as full-sized versions that weigh, sometimes, thousands of pounds.  Filmmakers tend to shoot them at a higher frame rate that when transferred to 24 frames per second, create a slower moving object with a lot of mass to it to sell their realism.  Here, all the vehicles and ships move about with no realistic weight.  They fly around or drive across the planet’s surface with no gravity or mass about them.  The drop ship banks, lands, and takes off like a radio controlled toy.  The armored personnel carrier throttles around and bangs into corridors like a go-cart.  Something with a lot of mass, like these vehicles should have, would maneuver slower with bigger, wider movements.  More mass means more power is needed to propel them.  Think of how an eighteen wheeler, a humvee, or a helicopter move.  They maneuver slower than lighter weight vehicles, but that is not translated into this film.  I also have had this exact same problem with the future war sequences in Cameron’s Terminator films.  SkyNet’s huge Hunter-Killer gun ships flying through the air and making hair-point turns always looked incredibly awkward and unrealistic to me.

An extension of all this is the lack of visual atmosphere used to hide the limitations of sets, miniatures, and visual effects. Ridley Scott and his team achieved this visual disguise greatly with Alien using light, shadow, and smoke to disguise any budgetary limitations, or to blend miniatures, live action, and visual effects into a seamless whole. Clearly, something Scott continued on with in Blade Runner. The bonus of this in Alien is that it created a rock solid mysterious horror atmosphere that intensifies the overall unsettling nature of the movie.  Here, you can see the lack of depth and scope in the shot where you know it’s a soundstage set when it’s supposed to be a convincing alien planet landscape.  I’d expect that from an old episode of Star Trek that didn’t have the budget or technical knowledge to disguise these production shortcomings.  I would not expect that from a film that had an even BIGGER budget than Ridley Scott’s film which achieved better results on a smaller budget.  Again, James Cameron comes from a background of visual effects where he should know how to blur those lines, but what is displayed here would not at all reflect that experience.

James Horner’s score is somewhat mixed for me.  The cues he uses for the marines early on are very thin and weak.  His snare drum track sounds like a demo recording done in someone’s garage.  Again, I have to refer to Predator as Alan Silvestri really brought a powerful, meaty militaristic theme to that film.  Since Aliens really is more of a science fiction action picture than a horror genre creation, I can’t critique a lack of suspenseful cues, but it could’ve helped.  The score services the big action moments well, but despite what praise it has been given in decades past, I never found it all that compelling or exceptional.

Sigourney Weaver surely earned the respect and praise she received from her performance in this film.  The evolution of Ellen Ripley here is entirely on the mark.  Being the sole survivor of such a horrific experience, she would be a haunted woman waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, and be determined to see this species wiped out of existence.  She’s traumatized, but is able to battle through that.  She takes her fear, and uses it to focus her eventual leadership skills.  You constantly see her battle against her intense fear in order to see her real world nightmare end.  Weaver also projects a warm, motherly sensibility while caring for the equally traumatized Newt.  The makeshift family they create with Hicks is rather brilliant.

Speaking of which, Michael Biehn brings his great, natural humanity to Corporal Hicks.  He shows the character to be a natural leader with confidence, decisiveness, and intelligence.  Hicks is definitely the guy that will have your back all the way.  Just as he was in The Terminator, Biehn shines through as a wonderfully dynamic and emotionally powerful actor.  His warmth and chemistry with Sigourney strikes the right, soft chord.  They work extremely well together with a mutual respect that penetrates through the screen.  I’m not sure that the original casting choice of James Remar would’ve embodied those qualities so strongly or naturally.  Michael Biehn was an amazing, fortunate happenstance in this instance.

Paul Reiser had some nice breakout roles in the 1980s including his appearances in the first two Beverly Hills Cop movies.  Here, I love his performance!  Burke is the textbook company man working his public relations angle with a compassionate façade while hiding a smarmy corporate mentality.  Reiser plays both ends of that spectrum well, and he allows them to mesh into a cowardly weasel who always seems a slight bit suspicious.  At first, he comes off as a genuinely decent fellow, but as the story unfolds, Reiser gradually peels that back as Burke gets closer to his goal.  It’s a nicely subtle piece of acting that rides a fine line,, but it surely is effective.

At this point in time, Lance Henriksen was making an impact with some unique, standout performances.  Bishop is a career highlight, indeed.  “Artificial person” so fits the description of him.  He has human qualities, but they are slightly off.  Again, subtlety enters the approach with an air of eerie creepiness to the droid Bishop.  Not in a malevolent way like Ian Holm’s Ash from the previous film, but as something just uneasy, unsettling about him.  At first, he doesn’t appear to be anything but human.  However, the more time an audience spends with him, the more these peculiar aspects nag your attention.  Because of Ripley’s own unease around a droid, an audience can also gain an uncertainty about him, but it’s great how the relationship between Ellen and Bishop builds towards a place of trust.

Now, James Cameron bringing in Stan Winston and his team was a brilliant, logic move.  You would need someone of Winston’s caliber to put together something impressive like the Alien Queen.  The improved designs of the egg, facehugger, and chesterburster are excellent bringing more articulation and realism to them all.  Now, I don’t have a preference between the original “smooth head” Alien from Ridley Scott’s film or the more “ridged head” Aliens featured here.  I think they both work fantastically, and surely suit the demands and lighting aesthetics for their respective films well.  Here, the more detailed and ridged craniums give the drones more character with a few little highlights here and there to make them standout more against the darker environments.   Stan Winston was a legend in this field, and his contributions made the industry what it is today.  He will be missed beyond words due to his passion, personality, skill, and artistry.  He left behind a legacy of respect and admiration.

I have zero problems with the story in Aliens.  It is a great progression and a smart direction for a sequel.  Following Ripley through this journey from a troubled woman trying to avoid her trauma to one who confronts it head on to defeat it with intense courage is a powerful story.  She finds her strength through the new emotional bonds she forges with Newt and Hicks.  The more action oriented approach is something I don’t have much of an issue with, but a little more suspense and terror could’ve gone a long way here.  There are those moments, but they’re more “jump out and scare you” bits instead of finely crafted suspense.  Aliens has some exciting sequences that are well conceived.  The climax has become a cinematic classic with Ripley squaring off with the Alien Queen in the powerloader.  It was a very original, massive crowd pleaser that put Ripley into a great, forceful position.

I’ve only ever watched the Special Edition of Aliens as it is James Cameron’s preferred version of the movie, and while it has all the substantive character depth and proper storytelling elements, it does feel too long at just over two and a half hours.  Cameron seems intent on making overly long films that lack the rhythm and pacing he so excellently captured in The Terminator.  Once he got a big budget, he started over-bloating his scripts and cutting down on storytelling innovations.  Sometimes, the restrictions of a smaller budget and limited resources force a filmmaker into creating a better, tighter product than when they are given access to all the tools with free rein to use them how they wish.  I feel that is the case with Jim Cameron.  As time went on, he seemed less interested in making compelling stories and more interested in flexing his budgetary ego.  I respect the innovations he has motivated in the realm of digital visual effects, but great special effects alone do not make for a great film.  However, all he seems interested in is pushing technology forward at the expense of quality storytelling.

All of this began here with Aliens.  He still was creating a quality story backed by a few strong, solid actors, but he surely could’ve tightened it up in areas during scripting.  Still, what irritates me when watching this film are many of the technical issues with visual effects, rear screen projection, the photography of the miniatures, and the poor choice of film stock.  Furthermore, the poorly conceived Colonial Marines, aside from Hicks, are cartoonish buffoons that like to stroke their own egos instead of getting serious in a serious situation.  These are all elements that make a substantial negative impact upon the film for me.  It has plenty of good qualities to it from the strong lead performances and practical creature effects, but with a film so long, the negatives inevitably linger to repeatedly damage my enjoyment of the movie.  Maybe, one day, I will watch the theatrical version and feel differently about that shorter cut, but if I was to judge this the way I intended, it had to be the director’s preferred version.  This is an off occasion where I didn’t review the film for the sake of opening people’s eyes or rousing anyone’s interest.  It really was just so I could deconstruct what always bothered me about this movie, and see the shortcomings that have prevented my full fledged enjoyment of it.  I’m sure many would not perceive these same issues, but if everyone had the same point of view on everything, it would be a very uninteresting world.


The Thing (1982)

Right behind Michael Mann, John Carpenter is my favorite filmmaker of all time.  The diverse range of films he has given the world are entirely unique and wildly entertaining.  In 1982, he ventured to pay homage to one of his favorite filmmakers, Howard Hawkes, by helming a re-adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. short story “Who Goes There?”  Hawkes had done so previously in 1951 with The Thing From Another World.  What Carpenter gave us is what I consider the best film he’s ever made.  A grippingly effective science fiction horror film with an amazing atmosphere of slow building paranoia and sickening alien gore.  John Carpenter’s The Thing became a classic of the genre due not only to a solid ensemble cast, but an elite crew that make this such a fantastic film that continues to hold up thirty years later.

In the winter of 1982, a twelve-man research team at a remote Antarctic United States research station discover an alien life form that was buried in the snow and ice for over 100,000 years.  They soon realize that not only is it still alive after a deep freeze burial and a fiery defeat by a Norwegian camp, but that it has the ability to imitate any living thing to exact detail.  Before they know it, the alien organism has infiltrated their camp, posing as any number of these men.  Paranoia and distrust runs amuck in this isolated compound as no one knows who is human, and who is The Thing.

Time always seems to be the best judge of quality.  Upon its release, The Thing did poorly.  This was because 1982 was the summer of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, and many dark science fiction films did badly in the shadow of that wondrous, fantastical film.  Blade Runner, which opened the same weekend as The Thing, also suffered at the box office because of this.  However, since then, The Thing and Blade Runner have become two of the most revered films of the genre garnering massive praise, and are recognized among the best works from directors John Carpenter and Ridley Scott, respectively.  They are both amazing films in different ways, but have both influenced the genre immensely.

Beyond anything, what stands out the most in this film are Rob Bottin’s amazing creature effects.  What he achieves puts him on the same level with the absolute best in the business.  Effects master Stan Winston also lent a helping hand in a sequence or two, but Bottin is the main man responsible for the richly disgusting slimy alien gore and mind blowing physical creations here.  The detail he put into his work to create such twisted and purely alien designs remain as impactful and effective today as they were in 1982.  That’s the work of a master, and it lead to him working on blockbusters such as RoboCop, Total Recall, Se7en, Mission: Impossible, and Fight Club.  It is a massive loss to the industry that he has been absent from it since 2002.  Bottin was a fascinating personality with a wild artistic mind that was ripe with brilliance.  This film is eternal testament to his talents.

Speaking of which, John Carpenter’s pure horror talents have never been more taut or focused than in this film.  It’s the perfect blending of paranoia, creepiness, gory horror, tension, and suspense.  Nobody does it like John Carpenter, and only from his expert direction could this film have become as timeless and consistently effective as it has become.  Also from him comes a perfectly selected cast fronted by Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady – the cool and rational mind, the level-headed one of the bunch.  Also featured in this ensemble are Keith David, A. Wilford Brimley, Thomas Waites, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, David Clennon, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, T.K. Carter, and Donald Moffat.  They all inhabit their characters so distinctly and vibrantly.  Each man has their own look, and aren’t easy to mistake one for another.  Their personalities and characteristics set them all apart very nicely, and all of the cast grasped onto the growing paranoia excellently.  A beardless Brimley brings forth a fantastic performance as well as Blair flips out partway through the movie tearing apart the communications center.  He plays crazy to immensely entertaining effect.  Later, he is truly unsettling leading into the film’s climax.  Keith David is constantly entertaining as the gung ho, take-no-crap from anyone Childs.  However, Russell clearly remains the most central protagonist of the film bringing stability to the chaos, and handling all the various dimensions of MacReady awesomely.

The script written by Bill Lancaster is wonderfully constructed.  Sadly, Mr. Lancaster passed away in 1997 due to a cardiac arrest, and was not able to contribute his thoughts to Universal’s amazing Collector’s Edition DVD.  The Thing was the last piece of cinema Lancaster was directly involved with, and at least he could say that he bowed out of filmmaking on a seriously high note.  This happens to be a pure classic in the genre of science fiction & horror.  The dialogue is always great, never ever cheesy or cliché.  There are bits of humor, but nothing that works against the tone of the film or the scene.  Any director would be privileged to work with a script this well-conceived.

The cinematography is an absolute pleasure here, and that is forever to be expected from Academy Award winning director of photography Dean Cundey.  In the opening minutes of the film, we are given stunning shots of the immense arctic landscape that clearly establish how isolated our characters are.  The photography can even prove to be terribly creepy at times such as the storage room scene after MacReady breaks into the compound.  Kurt Russell looks ghostly with the brilliant blue lighting upon his snow covered self.  Cinematography in a Carpenter film has always been a strong point, and you cannot deny its strength here.  It helps evoke the proper emotions at the right times by capturing atmosphere in its compositions and lighting.  Another such element is Ennio Morricone’s score.  Right from the get go, it sets the tone for the entire film.  It grips you and never lets go.  This score is haunting, relentless, brooding, and terribly chilling.  This is such a powerful score, and despite that Carpenter did not compose it, it does have many elements of his own scores in it.  Morricone had scored many “spaghetti” westerns including The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, and we would later score The Untouchables.  To this day, Morricone continues to score many films, mostly Italian ones.

What makes this film so effective is due to the psychological aspect of the story.  The paranoia slowly develops in the company of these men while trust diminishes.  These characters are nicely setup from the start establishing their relationships and personalities so vividly that later you see how seamlessly the alien has infiltrated their ranks.  No one acts any differently, and it is surprising how complete the disguise is.  Under a human guise, the Thing turns down the chance to take over as the leader of the group.  The life form is not looking to be obvious.  It has no ego, and is possibly doing this out of fear for its own survival.  It wants to hide, be subversive so that it can keep doing what it does without suspicion.  Using covert methods, it can slowly take over the entire camp until it is in total control.  However, when threatened, it is a brilliant idea that each part of it is an individual whole that will fight for its own survival.  This makes it just that much harder to definitively defeat as even one molecule’s survival can be disastrous, in time.  Mixed in with the diverse and dimensional performances, every aspect of paranoia and fear that this film deserved is greatly fleshed out and realized here.

When taking in all of this excellence, one can’t help but realize they are watching a classic piece of science fiction / horror cinema with John Carpenter’s The Thing.  From Carpenter’s expert direction, Bottin’s masterful effects work, the stellar production values, the power of Morricone’s score, the amazing cinematography, and certainly the stellar acting talents of this whole ensemble cast you will get a perfect film.  The atmosphere in this motion picture is something that many filmmakers fail to inject into their own films.  My interest in horror films has waned in past several years.  First, it was the torture porn trend, and now, I just don’t see much of anything out there with this level of atmosphere and craftsmanship.  John Carpenter’s masterpiece gets a perfect, solid rating from me – 10 out of 10.  I did see the 2011 prequel, and while it excelled in the horror and atmospheric areas, it didn’t have the memorable characters or amazing creature effects that set Carpenter’s film apart from the competition.  You surely can’t perfectly imitate a masterpiece.


Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

I grew up on Star Wars.  Being born a matter of months before the theatrical release of The Empire Strikes Back made that inevitable.  The first of the films I saw theatrically was Return of the Jedi, and I have vague recollections of the experience with loud noises and the unsettling image of the unmasked Darth Vader (for a three year old, it was like A Nightmare on Elm Street to me).  These films have been part of who I am for as long as I can remember, and I feel it’s about time I share my thorough thoughts on the entire saga.  With the 3D theatrical re-releases on the horizon, it seems timely.  I don’t plan on seeing them in 3D, and I do not own the Blu Rays at this point.  When reviewing the prequels, it will be their original DVD versions.  When reviewing the original trilogy, it will be the original theatrical versions.  I have many editions of the original trilogy on VHS & DVD, but this is about what I grew up on.

For The Phantom Menace, I was part of the madness in 1999.  I stood in line with a lawn chair, a brand new CD Walkman, and a sunburn to get advance tickets for opening night.  I ended up sitting next to a guy dressed as Darth Maul that first night, and I did see the film multiple times in theatres.  However, with time comes perspective and maturity.  I know everything that needs to be said about this film has been said, but this is a forum to share my thoughts.  It also an opportunity to express what these films mean to me.  So, this is not me trying to add to a worn out battle cry against this film.  I’m just here to offer my point of view.  All eight pages worth.

Two ambassadors from the Jedi Order, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Nesson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent to the planet of Naboo to resolve a trade taxation dispute.  The politically powerful Trade Federation has setup a blockade of battleships around the planet to force their position, but they are actually working with someone of ulterior motives named Darth Sidious.  Viceroy Nute Gunray works on his behalf to manipulate the young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) to give into their treaty, but the Jedi soon learn of the Federation’s invasion army.  After surviving a battle droid attack, Qui-Gon & Obi-Wan escape to the planet’s surface where they are joined by the bumbling Gungan outcast Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), and rescue the Queen and her contingent to escape the planet.  With their ship damaged, they land on the outer rim desert planet of Tatoonie where they try to barter for replacement parts, but they are soon hunted by Sidious’ apprentice Darth Maul.  On this planet, Qui-Gon discovers Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young slave of the junk dealer Watto who has unusually strong Force abilities.  Qui-Gon believes Anakin could be the one prophesized to “bring balance to the Force,” and later champions him to be trained as a Jedi.  However, the Jedi Council is apprehensive about the boy’s future sensing danger and fear in him.  Meanwhile, Naboo Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) tries to coach the young Queen in the political matters of the Senate, and manipulates her into forcing Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) from the head of the Galactic Senate.  Eventually, all things converge back on Naboo where Queen Padmé Amidala attempts an assault to end the invasion and captivity of her people, and for the Jedi to learn the truth of whether or not the Dark Lords of the Sith have returned from a millennia of extinction.

What really strikes me about this story, beyond plot holes born out of illogical actions, is that there is no central main character.  With the original Star Wars, it was crystal clear that Luke Skywalker was our hero that would guide us on this journey through a galaxy far, far away.  It was his arc that was mainly at play as he goes through emotional trials that would forge him into a heroic figure.  I have never seen any character arcs in The Phantom Menace.  No one ends up any differently from when the film began to when it ended.  They don’t evolve and grow into something more than they were before.  The film has no prominent focus on any one character.  Looking at the saga as a whole, perhaps it should have been Obi-Wan Kenobi’s arc.  The film would show an eager, young Padawan who matures from student to mentor, truly earning his stature as a Jedi by the end by facing the breadth of this adventure alone.  Unfortunately, he’s left out of the meat of the story and action so much that he ultimately has little to say for himself.  Ewan McGregor is an exceptional actor with a wide range of talent who could’ve carried this film quite well, as he demonstrated in the following two films.  He does have flourishes of endearing charm that create some bright moments, but his potential is sadly suppressed to a minor supporting character.  Earlier drafts had it where Obi-Wan actually was the one mainly involved in the story on Tatoonie, and he forms a bond with Anakin championing his path to becoming trained.  That would actually follow what was stated in Return of the Jedi¸ but for whatever reason, George Lucas decided to overhaul continuity in the prequels.  It is clear that the way Lucas potentially envisioned the prequels in the early 1980s was very different from how he saw them in the late 1990s.

Anakin is an even less likely main character since he doesn’t enter the story until forty minutes in, and once they’ve left Tatoonie, he becomes mostly a background character.  Jake Lloyd certainly didn’t have the spark of great talent that Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg is usually able to find in his child actors.  Lloyd makes Anakin almost a nuisance in the film.  He can become quite annoying acting like some kid on a rollercoaster ride instead of someone of mythic potential.  I would’ve anticipated a slightly more matured Anakin, despite his youth.  Someone that showed not just strength with the Force, but someone with the character traits to be the “great Jedi” Obi-Wan speaks of in the original trilogy.  Ultimately, Anakin never stops being the whiny annoyance he started out as until he is voiced by James Earl Jones as Darth Vader.  Here, not having Obi-Wan or Anakin as a main character works to the detriment of the prequels since their relationship is the linchpin of the saga.

This leads us over to Qui-Gon Jinn.  I really have a generous amount of respect for Liam Neeson.  He always does admirable work, and I have enjoyed his wave of action thriller successes in recent years.  With Qui-Gon, it’s hard to say much about him.  He’s stoic and little else.  There are brief, light touches of heart, but they lack substantial depth to be impactful.  Knowing Lucas’ direction style, I would definitely have to say that Neeson wasn’t given the proper direction to breathe appropriate life into the character.  Given the right context and perspective on Qui-Gon, I believe Neeson could have brought more depth to him.  Qui-Gon is the mentor, and I suppose he is meant to act as some form of main protagonist, but there’s not enough bold dimension in the characterization for him to standout amongst the blandness of the film.

Another amazing actor that occasionally comes off like a dull wooden board is Natalie Portman.  Anyone who has seen Léon (aka The Professional) knows that Natalie has had a wealth of stunning acting ability from an early age, and that talent has continued to flourish to this day.  She is one of the finest actresses around, and has been so for a long time.  She could’ve done so many impressive things with Amidala had she just been given something of substance to work with.  Instead, it’s all dry political ramblings that never give Portman an opportunity to break out and show some character depth.  There’s a little of that in her scenes with Anakin where the humanity of the character surfaces, but that’s not in the forefront of the picture.  It’s definitely there to lay the groundwork for the following two films where Anakin and Padmé develop a relationship, but outside of that, she seems almost robotic.  As the Queen, her line deliveries are entirely monotone, reflecting no humanity, concern, worry, or urgency.  I believe some of her dialogue was overdubbed by another actress due to Lucas’ intention to maintain the ruse of the bodyguard decoy scenario.  As Padmé, Portman does have more natural warmth, but I know she’s capable of much more than what I saw here.

George Lucas is not an actor’s director, and that tends to be his biggest failing.  I think he’s a great producer.  He manages all aspects of production with confidence, decisiveness, and skill, but he just doesn’t know how to bring greatness out his actors.  An actor brings their own talent to the table, but it is the director’s job to focus and filter that talent into a unique performance.  Without that, an actor has no guidance to know what to put into their character.  George’s writing also leaves something to be desired.  Sometimes, you get a Harrison Ford who just gets it right from the start because the character practically wrote itself, but for potentially more complex roles, it needs more on the page.  You can’t expect every actor to simply see more than what’s written.  It requires the director’s input to make it more than that, but Lucas simply doesn’t know how to approach those interactions.

However, the one actor who really shows something of substance and nuance is Ian McDiarmid.  While the story follows no reason or logic with the schemes of Palpatine / Sidious, McDiarmid captures a subtle subversive quality that makes him intriguing.  While the film never blatantly states it, the two are one in the same, and McDiarmid clearly integrates that into how he plays Palpatine.  He’s a man with sinister motives playing out in the back of his mind while keeping up the friendly personae of Senator, observing and manipulating people and events to achieve his goals.  McDiarmid brings Palpatine’s ominous perspective into his performance adding the right touches of restraint and foreboding malevolence to draw in an audience’s attention.  You can see in McDiarmid’s subtle expressions the moments where Palpatine’s plan is coming together, and he relishes it with silent restraint.  Conversely, as Darth Sidious, McDiarmid captures a straight up villainous and intelligent performance that is quite unsettling.  As the prequels went on, Ian surely delved wholly into the character playing up the feigned sincerity nicely, and having a broader canvas to work with than others were given latitude to do.

Now, the original trilogy were groundbreaking films in special effects that revolutionized the industry.  That’s a big reputation to live up to, and the success here is a little mixed.  This was 1999, the same year The Matrix was released, and while I’m no major fan of that film, it’s achievements in digital effects were more consistent and eye opening than The Phantom Menace.  It’s difficult to be entirely fair since the DVD transfer of Episode I is not the best.  The film comes off a little too grainy to grasp the clarity of the visual effects, and it has this odd pinkish hue.  Generally, the visual effects are quite good for 1999, but the leaps and bounds taken in CGI evolution would allow the following two prequels to be vastly superior in that area.  So, in comparison, The Phantom Menace looks a little undercooked in the visual effects realm.  It’s not a constant, but as I said, it is a mixed bag.  Most stuff is great, but some things just lack detail and depth.  Many of the hover tanks in the Gungan-Droid battle often look like an animatic or something from an old video game.  I would hope that these issues would be resolved with the Blu Ray and 3D releases, but Lucas doesn’t always fix what you think he will.  On the positive side, many of the computer generated characters are impressively detailed, creating very finely textured creations.  While Jar Jar is an insufferable character that grates on my nerves incessantly, visually, he is an amazing achievement.  If he had been as good of a character as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, maybe people could give more credit to the CGI work put into him.

Production design here is quite impressive.  Naboo is certainly a world with a lot of culture and sophistication, and that comes out in the architecture and their design of technology.  The capital city of Theed is exceptionally picturesque partly due to the location shooting in Caserta, Italy.  Coruscant entirely captures the intended scope and scale that Lucas always wanted for Star Wars.  There is an inevitable Blade Runner influence here, but instead of smog, rain, and industrialism bearing down upon the environment, Coruscant is a perfectly wondrous planet that stands as a beacon for the entire Republic.  However, I can’t say I care much for anything surrounding the Gungans.  Every element of them just seems to pander to the child audience.  It is sufficiently alien, but there’s just too much of a cartoonish element to all of it to accept it as anything but child oriented.  There is nothing about them that I can take seriously in their culture, characterizations, or dialogue.

Focusing more on the story itself, I find it quite dull and illogical.  I could probably write, at least, ten pages worth of criticism about the plot holes in this film, but let me dig into what’s most annoying to my intellect.  The actions that different characters take have no sense to them.  Darth Sidious orders his minions along a certain course of action that should lead to the opposite outcome for himself, but because all the characters apparently just read the script so that they can follow along an illogical course of action, it all works out right in the end.  Sidious wants the Trade Federation to force Queen Amidala to sign a treaty making their blockade legal to the point of invading the planet, but if they had succeeded in doing so, Palpatine could not have achieved placing himself as the head of the Galactic Senate.  Palpatine could not have foreseen all these plans going awry where the Jedi Ambassadors survive the Federation’s assassination attempt, escape to the planet, run into Jar Jar, make a deal with the Gungans for passage through the planet core to arrive in Theed just in time to rescue the Queen, and escape the planet through the blockade of battleships so that Amidala could reach Coruscant to ask for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum.  That is an impossible series of events to foresee or predict when your plan is clearly setup to kill the Jedi and keep Amidala locked up in a prison camp while keeping the Senate blind to what’s really happening on Naboo.  My only conclusion that allows this to make any sense is that Palpatine and Sidious are split personalities with conflicting motives intent on screwing each other over like a pair of warring siblings.  Obviously, that’s not the truth of the matter, but I can’t find a rational stream of consciousness to resolve this issue.  If Palpatine was playing both sides, pretending to help the Trade Federation as Sidious while actually focusing his success on Queen Amidala’s side so that he can ultimately seize control of the Senate, that would’ve worked brilliantly.  He would really use the Trade Federation as ignorant pawns who were always meant to fail for Palpatine’s further success.  He would get them to setup the blockade, but then, sabotage their plans from the inside out so that Amidala can easily escape to Coruscant and set the political stage for Palpatine to ascend to Supreme Chancellor.  Instead, every action Palpatine initiates is towards the ends of supporting the success of the blockade.  Sending Darth Maul to hunt down and attempt to kill the Jedi and drag the Queen back to Naboo to get the treaty signed is entirely counteractive to Palpatine’s endgame.  And this is the entire plot of the movie!

Other plot holes arise from the need of Lucas to make the characters dumb as a post so they make moronic decisions that move the so-called plot forward.  A single vote of no confidence from one representative of one planet out of thousands of governments, star systems, and planets immediately usurps Chancellor Valorum from office, and forces a new Supreme Chancellor to be voted into service.  I always say that the system works, it’s just the people within it that make it suck.  Here, the system sucks, and the people within it are stupid.  I can’t imagine how a government body like this could actually function if all it takes is for one person to voice their loss of confidence in its leadership.  You’d be voting in a new Chancellor every week.  Worse yet, this is not the last time this ridiculous plot device will rear its ugly head.

Further ridiculousness comes on Tatoonie as Qui-Gon goes to one dealer to find the parts they need, and then, since that dealer, Watto, won’t accept Republic currency, Qui-Gon simply gives up trying to locate the parts elsewhere.  Just because Watto says no one else would have these parts doesn’t make it true.  I wouldn’t trust Watto to be an honest businessman for a nanosecond, especially when he has a young boy and his mother as slaves with explosive devices implanted in them.  He’s clearly not moral or ethical.  So, why trust him to be an altruistic salesman?  Qui-Gon could’ve attempted to charter passage off Tatoonie like the elder Obi-Wan and Luke did in the original Star Wars, but again, the script requires the characters to be intellectually stunted so that the incoherent plotline can be furthered.  Because of this, all cunning and ingenuity that could’ve been injected into these characters to make them smart and innovative in tight situations is discarded.  These brain dead moments happen again and again and again in nearly every scene.  I have seen hundreds of films, and many bad, horrible piles of cinematic trash.  However, I can’t recall experiencing a film with such a shoddy script with dozens upon dozens of plot holes that mutilate all common sense from its pages.  It’s not like the plot is that interesting to really sacrifice intelligence for it.

I also have to say that Anakin Skywalker being the creator of C-3PO was ridiculous.  It adds nothing to anything in the saga, and is a pure fan service addition that, again, has no intelligent thought behind it.  A protocol droid is good for language translation and little else.  Shmi Skywalker has no practical use for such a droid, and I don’t know how anyone could believe otherwise.  And the fact that he builds the exact same droid that is mass produced throughout the galaxy seems stupid.  A real world allegory is that when people build their own custom personal computers, they don’t go constructing exact replicas of something they could’ve bought at Best Buy.  They customize it to their needs so it is a optimal tool for the work they need to do.  If Anakin had any ingenuity, he would’ve built something entirely original that could assist his mother with daily chores.  A protocol droid is not designed for manual labor.

Of course, I also have to address the sad attempt at humor in this film.  You see, in the original trilogy, the humor really arose from conflicting personalities and witty banter in heightened situations.  It could be a little immature, but Han Solo was a little immature at times and Luke was on a journey to maturity.  So, it fit the personalities of the characters.  Here, the supposed humor is so blatant and in your face, it’s not funny.  It’s like a bad stand-up comic trying too hard for a laugh through cheap physical comedy.  Jar Jar is here only for stupid comedic antics.  Yes, he is a conduit for certain plot developments, but this film already demonstrated that logic holds no substance here, so, I’m a little surprised he has any plot related function at all.  Everything he does is clumsy slapstick humor which couldn’t be more out of place for this saga.  Star Wars was originally created with the idea of bringing mythology into the modern era as adventurous films for the whole family.  I’m sure poop and fart jokes were not part of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a book of mythological archetypes that heavily inspired Lucas.  It really is sad how far George had degraded his standards for entertainment here.  He went from creating a fantastical world of colorful, iconic characters and thematic mythology-inspired stories to a world of flat, dull, lifeless characters that are devoid of intelligence and humanity in ass-backwards stories that follow no reason or logic.

Despite all this, people still thought there was something cool and awesome to be had in this movie in the form of Darth Maul.  I respect Ray Park’s athletic talents immensely, but it is only that mixed with a very stunning character design that makes Maul cool.  He has no character.  He’s a plot device to make a few action sequences dynamic.  He’s a henchmen with nothing to say for himself, and nothing of substance to add to the story.  Maul exists because Sidious needs a competent ally to go out into the field and do his dirty work him.  Yes, he makes himself intriguing through an air of mystique, but frankly, as soon as he departs the film, none of it matters.  He’s a disposable villain whose loss makes no impact on the story because he never added anything to it.  This is different from Boba Fett who had a cunning role in The Empire Strikes Back by outsmarting Captain Solo’s escape plan, and actually had something to say for himself that reflected a sense of character, personality, and attitude.

The action sequences are a little mixed, but mostly excellent.  All the lightsaber battles are amazing!  The choreography of these segments show what fully trained Jedi could do, and what a fully capable Dark Lord of the Sith could accomplish.  They are dynamic and exciting, but they can seem a little too choreographed at times.  I see many behind the scenes featurettes on action movies where they strive to maintain a spontaneity to their fight choreography.  While it is all well rehearsed, the choreographers, stunt performers, and actors focus on keeping it real in the moment.  They inject character and emotion into those moments so it never looks to be so ‘by the numbers.’  The lightsaber battles can tend to come off like a dance instead of a physically intense series of actions and counteractions where a single error could cause doom.  It lacks emotion and danger.  It also lacks a psychological aspect due to the absence of dialogue.  Before, there would be Darth Vader or later Dooku trying to play mind games through cunning dialogue and strategic intimidation.  They would try to put their Jedi opponents off-guard this way, and it made for a more multi-dimensional fight.

Meanwhile, the space battles are okay.  There are very few of them, and none of them really capture that urgent speed and suspense that most others in the saga have offered.  The climax ultimately gets sliced up too thin between four interconnected action sequences to really give enough coherent importance to more than one.  That being the Jedi versus Sith lightsaber duel, and it’s the least consequential fight of the film since there’s nothing at stake between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Maul.  Regardless, its speed and physical intensity give it the rousing action sensation that was needed in more abundance here.  The film starts so slowly and flatly laying out plot elements and briefly introducing a few characters while pouring out redundant dialogue that there’s not enough momentum to keep the film going.  It has a consistent pace, but that pace is a bit too sluggish here without anything of importance happening.  A methodical pace is workable when, like in The Empire Strikes Back, you are getting character development.  The Phantom Menace has no substantive character development.  Anything you learn of them is really surface stuff, very one dimensional insights.

The Gungan-Droid battle is uninteresting to me since I don’t care about the Gungans or the Droid Army.  It also comes off highly cartoonish and pathetically unfunny.  I wish like hell there was a way to excise this from the film, but Lucas himself realized that plot elements were too interwoven to do such a thing.  Another frivolous action sequence is the pod race.  It’s gratuitous in my eyes.  Theatrical or DVD cut, it’s far too long for such a minor element in the story.  This is not some sports movie where the entire film builds up to this critical sequence where everything is laid on the line, and all character, story, and emotional threads tie into it to make it pivotal and crucial.  Yes, it determines whether Anakin goes free or not, but Qui-Gon had already well demonstrated how much he was willing to cheat and manipulate events to get what he wanted.  I have no doubt that he would’ve done something unethical to free Anakin even if he had lost the race.  Simply said, the pod race overstays its welcome, and once it is done, it has no further relevance to the film.  Never has such a fast paced sequence slowed down a film so much.

On the brighter side, as is always a highlight that elevates the quality of any movie is John Williams’ score.  “Duel of the Fates” still is a brilliant, operatic piece that gives the climax a sweeping, epic majesty.  It was a perfect composition that has always marked what I call, “where the movie really begins.”  The only thing the score lacks is due to the lack of it in the picture is rousing adventure.  The action sequences are few and far between, and so, it requires the score to be more in the background instead of crashing into the surround sound with heart soaring excitement.  Regardless, I own two versions of the CD soundtrack including the two disc ultimate edition, and it is a fantastic listen.  So, I give it high marks all around.

The only other thing to address are the midichlorians.  You see, the Force used to be something entirely spiritual where it required great commitment and discipline to master.  It’s a power anyone can tap into it if they are willing to open their minds and trust in it fully.  Yoda spoke to this perfectly in The Empire Strikes Back in that the Force doesn’t rely on the physical.  It’s all about the character of the person which determines how great of a Jedi they could become.  Now, George Lucas tells us that everyone’s ability to use the Force is based on how many of these microscopic organisms are present in your bloodstream.  This means you are biologically limited to how potent of a Force user you can be, and you can never become anything greater than that.  No amount of spiritual strength or Jedi training you go through will make you as good as someone with more midichlorians in their body.  That entirely crushes the sensibility the Force was originally built upon, and that is another terrible idea injected into a film already ripe with terrible ideas.  Before, it was an inspiring idea and philosophy that added a fantastical quality to Star Wars that captured and enthralled peoples’ imaginations.  Now, it’s cold science.  Just like how I don’t need to know where immortals came from in Highlander, I don’t need to know the clinical origins of the Force.  Magic is magic, and that’s all I need to know.  And the fact that Lucas uses these midichlorians to say that Anakin Skywalker is the result of a virgin birth created by the midichlorians themselves is just a smack in the face to me.  There was never any need to inject such an idea into the saga, and it has extremely little relevance to anything.  It is only ever mentioned again in Revenge of the Sith by Palpatine, and it’s practically glossed over entirely by Anakin in that same scene.  I suppose it’s meant to give Anakin a more mythic or prophetic aura around him that neither Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christiansen ever remotely live up to.  While I’ve never had an overt issue with the whole “prophecy” aspect, it is another idea that Lucas developed exclusively for the prequels.  This revisionist mentality is no surprise to anyone now, but frankly, it gets to being a bit aggravating in the prequels as George keeps altering the original trilogy to accommodate it.

That’s really the perils of making prequels.  How do you introduce something new to the story that hasn’t already been said without betraying what has already been established?  It is not impossible, especially considering Ben Kenobi’s line about “a certain point of view.”  There are many things Lucas could’ve altered that could still be true if looked at from a different perspective, but nothing about prophecies, midichlorians, Qui-Gon (not Obi-Wan) discovering Anakin, or anything else can be taken in that way.

As I said, I could go on and on about the flaws and failures of this film that bother me, but this has already been an obscenely long review as it is.  Still, it feels like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of it all.  There are people who think we just don’t “get” the prequels as if we’re unable to accept them for what they are, and that’s why we rag on them.  The truth is that we are fans who just expect a product with a little thought, care, and integrity be put into it.  A plot that makes sense with smart, entertaining characters.  Frankly, that is not difficult to deliver, but somehow, George Lucas failed on all fronts.  Again, I enjoyed the film upon release in 1999 because I was just in awe of the spectacle, but as I have matured, I can see beyond that to focus on how poorly conceived this film was at its most base level.  I’ve said for a while now that if this was the original first Star Wars movie, it would not have sparked the same phenomena that we have enjoyed for the last 35 years.  It just doesn’t have the rousing adventure aspect or lively, iconic character qualities that made Star Wars so successful in the first place.  I don’t enjoy watching this movie, and I don’t believe seeing it in 3D would give it any more actual dimension or entertainment value.  My reviews on the entire saga will continue as the prequels do improve beyond this point, but flaws still exist.  In one case, my fondness for one prequel film will allow for some forgiveness.  In the least, I believe my following reviews will be no more than half as long as this one, thankfully.


Real Steel (2011)

I really liked this movie!  It always seemed entertaining, but I was never sure if it was exactly for me.  Turns out, it absolutely was, and I wish I had seen it in theatres for that big rousing experience.  Real Steel is a heart warming story with a lot of exciting action, lovable humor, and strong emotional drama.  This is a crowd pleaser, and a wonderful family oriented film.

In the near future, boxing as we know it has changed from human athletes to robotic competitors.  This has left former boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) down on his luck shopping his worn out bot fighter Ambush around to small time fairs and events.  He’s broke with large debts hanging over his head to many people, and his con man bravado constantly gets him in over his head.  However, his life is about to change when the mother of his estranged eleven year old son passes away, and her sister, Debra (Hope Davis) wants to claim fully custody of Max Kenton (Dakota Goyo).  Charlie negotiates a deal with the clearly well-off Uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn) to take the kid for the summer with a $50,000 price tag up front while Debra and Marvin take off to Italy.  Charlie uses the cash to buy a new robot, but Max will not be dumped off with Charlie’s girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) who tries to keep her late father’s boxing gym open.  So, he joins Charlie out on the bot fighting circuit where they constantly come into odds with one another, but when their big time Japanese bot gets mutilated during a main event bout, they head to the junkyard to scrap together parts for a new fighter.  Here, Max discovers Atom, an old sparring bot, buried under the mud, and Max dedicates himself to fixing up and championing Atom as their new fighter.  Charlie doesn’t have faith that Atom is worthwhile, but eventually, their combined efforts and warming attitudes help lead them all to great success.  The two reach great heights with Atom and as a family.  Although, they hit many turbulent moments that tear them apart, but also, bring them closer together to forge a father-son bond that is stronger than steel.

I have to hand it to everyone involved in this movie.  I don’t think it could’ve been better.  Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) certainly had great input from producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis to create such a well balanced film.  There are many elements in Real Steel that are very akin to the films they made back in the 1980s.  It is very heartfelt and endearing with plenty of enjoyable, well developed characters.  Listening to Levy’s audio commentary, I can’t help but to love his passion and love for what he does.

I’ll certainly get to Hugh Jackman, but I absolutely wanted to credit Dakota Goyo.  This young actor makes this film work beyond expectations.  It is so often that child actors grate on an audience’s nerves due to unnatural attitude or overt, sickening cuteness, but Dakota is nothing of the sort.  He comes off as a sharp, intelligent, mature, and charming kid.  He has vast potential, and so much of that is fleshed out here.  He carries his equal weight opposite Jackman, and their chemistry is amazingly fantastic!  They keep each other on their toes, demanding higher and higher standards from one another throughout the story.  Max brings out the best in Charlie and so many others through his confident, ambitious, yet still youthful spirit.  He does have attitude, but it works to show that Max isn’t going to back down from Charlie, who needs someone to kick some sense and maturity into him.  And how Max bonds with Atom is amazingly heartfelt, like a boy bonding with his dog.  Atom certainly is given that personality of a kid’s best, loyal friend, and the child-like innocence of that relationship is beautifully realized.  In the hands of any lesser of a talent, the film would’ve had a fatal weak point, but Goyo truly elevates the film.  He projects sympathy at key moments, and while he is a tough kid, he does have his vulnerability.  He can elicit a wide range of emotions from an invested audience.  I love the fact that Max is just looking for someone who will fight for him, to be needed and loved by someone so bad, and the moment he reveals that is heartbreaking and powerful.

Hugh Jackman gives Charlie Kenton an extra dimension that allows him to be likeable even when, by all rights, he shouldn’t be.  Again, with any less of an actor, Charlie would’ve been despicable and obnoxious.  Instead, Jackman brings a slightly sympathy to Charlie which allows him to be forgivable and redeemable.  This story truly is an evolution for Charlie from a guy at rock bottom that’s entirely self-serving without a genuine, honest relationship to a father who comes to care deeply for his estranged son who wants to do all things right by him.  Charlie starts out a little pathetic, but not entirely innocent of the problems that befall him.  He talks a good game, but his bravado gets the better of him.  He’s a man that had his taste at greatness, but the change in the fight game abruptly ended those dreams.  So, he feels broken, and wants to avoid showing his feelings by masking with an arrogant, if immature demeanor.  However, the more time he spends with Max, the more Charlie’s hardened swagger softens.  Jackman beautifully captures those moments of Charlie’s heart and compassion breaking through the surface such as a moment where Charlie saves Max from a mudslide fall right before they discover Atom.  Dakota’s performance pulls out these qualities in Jackman’s character forcing him to come to terms with his past and character flaws.  Charlie becomes a better person because of Max, and Jackman plays that subtle development brilliantly.  He only puts in what charm and swagger that are needed at any given moment.  He finds the perfect balance between the old Charlie and the new Charlie in every scene as he journeys from one end of that spectrum to the other.  Beyond all else, Hugh clearly had a fun time making this movie, and shared a lot of respect with Dakota.

The father-son relationship is the entire core of this film, and casting these two deeply talented, smart actors was the best, first step to achieving success.  They were fully committed to the story and characters here.  Both of their performances become painfully heartbreaking, but also immensely exciting.  There is so much nuance to their performances allowing them to work off of each other, and create that charming bond which drives the whole film.  I simply cannot say enough about them that you will have to experience them yourself.

Rounding out the core cast, Evangeline Lilly’s Bailey is excellent as well.  Bailey tries to keep from having to sell her father’s old boxing gym, but Charlie’s debts to her make that difficult.  However, Charlie has enough charm with her to slide by, but she never makes it too easy for him.  Evangeline has a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and passion to inject into the movie.  She plays off of Jackman exceptionally well as his love interest.  The relationship is playful, intimate, and honest.  Bailey is an easy going woman that you can entirely see the history and connection she shares with Charlie, and how her hope in him grows as the story builds.  She is very easy to connect with, and remains strongly tethered to the heart of the film.  Her visceral moments cheering on Atom during the fights are awesome, and that likely reflects the audience’s enthusiasm to see our heroes achieve glorious victory. There is just so much heart and emotion that pours out of this film, and these actors saturate it with incredible performances.

The supporting cast strongly hold the smaller areas of the film together.  Hope Davis as Max’s Aunt Debra is very caring and protective of her nephew.  His Uncle Marvin, played by the solid James Rebhorn, is not unappreciative of Max, but is also not ready to drop everything to be his father figure.  Kevin Durand portrays the Texan Ricky with a slick, ill-favored attitude, but he’s just enough of an intimidating yet foolish character to be amusing.  The smug, arrogant duo of Olga Fonda and Karl Yune as Zeus’ owner and creator, respectively, are great foils for Charlie & Max who are full of humanity and determination.  These nicely textured characters, backed by solid acting talents, add a strong foundation to build these great character dynamics upon that are the substance of this film.

Mauro Fiore’s cinematography is stunningly gorgeous and powerful.  The frame holds substantial weight and emotion with brilliant, beautiful lighting.  The subtle movement in the more tender emotional scenes brings class and sophistication to the film.  There are also many great shots that show off the scale, production quality, and depth of the film.  Levy and Fiore brought a great artistic detail to the visual quality, and production designer Tom Meyer also deserves credit for creating such a visually appealing world for them to capture.  The selection of locations and aesthetics of the slightly futuristic world is highly impressive and enveloping.  Each scene is given importance and artistic resonance.  The boxing scenes are greatly captured with coherent motion that respects the action it is capturing.  Again, the film shoots for higher standards by dismissing cheap shaky cam nonsense for solid camera movement and cinematic integrity.

The robots themselves are such a delight.  The personality and fun these filmmakers put into these designs are so pleasing.  They are not hard edged designs like Transformers, but more marketable, vibrant, engaging designs that would bring smiles to a wide audience.  This gives the film so much character and entertainment value.  Every robot boxer has their own distinct identity to give each fight a certain tone.  Midas is a very punked-out underground fighter bot that reflects the gritty, dirty environment he battles in.  Twin Cities, a two headed bot, is a very inventive design that Charlie & Max have to be innovative in order to defeat.  Zeus is effectively intimidating with his bulk, strength, and square jawed design.  Charlie’s first bot, Ambush, is like an old faded out car that once had its day, but is far from top of the line now.  Noisy Boy, the former big time bot Charlie buys on the black market, is sharply designed with a Samurai motif.  He’s very showy with sleek lines and bright LED colored lights, but Atom is the real marvel.  He feels like the underdog as he’s not big and bulky or particularly showy, but the strength of the design is how an audience can project whatever they feel into Atom’s face.  The big glowing turquoise eyes are very endearing, and the welding scars on its screened face work as a makeshift smile and nose.  He’s a little wounded, beat up, but he has an innocent, youthful quality to him.  This is also due to the sound design of Atom’s little murmurs and wails.  He’s a wonderful creation that embodies the heart and determination of the story, and with his shadow mode, he reflects upon the qualities of Charlie and Max repeatedly.

The effects of Real Steel took a very smart approach by building and using practical robots for many purposes, and interchanging them with digital effects.  This ultimately allowed for far more photo-realistic fighting robots that interact with their surroundings seamlessly.  They used motion capture on real boxers for all of these fights to give the robots realistic movement and unique personalities.  These performers were supervised by the great and legendary Sugar Ray Leonard.  Learning that Levy had all these great collaborators on this film, including Leonard, Spielberg, and Zemeckis, that makes it easy to see how Shawn Levy was able to create such a powerful and impressive film.  He had the right studio backing him up, and a wide array of fantastic, top line talents guiding the creative process along.  These visual effects are excellent standard bearers, and many filmmakers should look to the methods and skills used in Real Steel for future effects-filled features.

Now, I surely must have missed large chunks in the evolution of Danny Elfman’s film composer career.  While I know him best from films like Batman, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man, I never knew he was capable of something of this caliber.  Director Shawn Levy said that the list of composers who could do what Elfman did is extremely short.  He creates a wide range of depth to the score between the guitar strumming ambience to the rousing big fight action cues.  This entirely compliments the overall emotional landscape of the movie from the visuals to the acting and beyond.  How Levy orchestrates the timing of these cues is very original as he delays the punctuation of these moments.  I feel this allows the emotional beats to be more raw and tender which only enhances them further.  This is really the sign of a great filmmaker with a strong, clear vision of what he wanted to achieve, and he got it.

The story itself is not new, but as is the real skill, it’s how effective and fresh a filmmaker can make a well treaded story which makes it special.  I believe that was successfully achieved here.  Emotions are finely crafted around the character relationships and internal personalities.  And where a normal boxing movie is more violent and brutal, the robot boxing allows for the fights to be fun, exciting, and enjoyable.  There’s so much adrenalin pumping action that it is bound to please almost any audience.  The film always seems to find character building moments in its plot developments.  I also love how the film doesn’t start with a boat load of exposition.  It allows an audience to ease into the story and characters, and only later, after they have been comfortably established does the history of robot boxing and Charlie’s own boxing career get detailed.  It shows what the true focus is here – the characters, and that it is its greatest strength.

Overall, Real Steel is a real winner!  I was thoroughly entertained and surprised by this movie over and over again.  The climactic fight between Atom and Zeus is stellar, genius stuff!  While the film clearly had templates of other boxing and sports movies to follow, the advantage of the robots and technology allows for an unexpected turn during the final round that gives Charlie his moment to shine and gain redemption for his boxing career.  Everything is beautifully crafted wrapped with heart, humor, and humanity.  There really is so much I can say, but it’s not easy to articulate it.  Sometimes, you just have to experience it to comprehend the depth and excellence of a film.  To everyone involved in the making of Real Steel, you have my deepest respect and highest praise!  I loved it!