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Archive for July, 2012

Constantine (2005)

I very much love this film, and count it as an all time favorite.  I saw it twice in the theatre in 2005 because I was very much enthralled by the concept of the film and the excellent execution of all its characters and ideas.  It has since remained a strong favorite of the genre for me, and has driven my fandom of John Constantine further.  I was not knowledgeable about him before seeing this adaptation, but in the years since then, I have become a fan.  In the Hellblazer comics from DC / Vertigo, he was a blonde Englishman created by the widely revered Alan Moore and visually based off of Sting, the front man for The Police.  Obviously, that does not fit the description of Keanu Reeves, who portrays the title character as a dark haired American in Los Angeles, and there are numerous other changes here that deviate from the source material.  That inevitably irritated numerous hardcore Hellblazer fans, but since this was my introduction to him, I can allow both versions to co-exist in my fandom.   There are many reasons why I highly love this film including its gorgeous visual style, the world it showcases, and the potential of the characters.

It is said that whoever possesses the Spear of Destiny holds the fate of the world in their hands, and the Spear of Destiny has just been found and put into the hands of evil influences.  In Los Angeles, exorcist and occult detective John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) begins to see foreboding signs of something big and unfriendly coming with demons forcing their way into our world, but at the same time, the anti-social chain smoker is diagnosed with lung cancer.  It’s not so much the diagnosis that troubles him as the knowledge of where he’s going.  John was born with a gift he didn’t want, the ability to clearly recognize the half-breed angels and demons that walk the earth in human skin, and Constantine was driven to take his own life to escape the tormenting clarity of his vision, but he failed.  Now, marked as an attempted suicide with a temporary lease on life, the bitter hard-drinking, hard-living Constantine seeks a reprieve from his Hellbound fate.  He patrols the earthly border between heaven and hell, hoping in vain to earn his way to salvation by sending the devil’s foot soldiers back to the depths.  Unfortunately, he gains no absolution from the half-breed angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), and no consolation from strenuous allies such as the ominous former witch doctor Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou).  They all adhere to “The Balance” which keeps half-breeds from directly interfering in human affairs in order to settle a wager between God and the Devil for the souls of all mankind.  When desperate but skeptical LAPD Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) enlists his help in solving the mysterious death of her beloved psychic twin sister, their investigation pushes them deep into a subversive plot to use the Spear of Destiny to bring forth an evil that threatens to destroy humanity.  Caught in a catastrophic series of otherworldly events, the two become inextricably involved, and seek to find their own peace at whatever cost.

Director Francis Lawrence came from a music video background, and that can be hit or miss when moving to feature films.  However, Lawrence’s background was clearly a benefit as he injects a very powerful and epic visual style into this film.  Director of Photography Philippe Rousselot realizes that immersive vision brilliantly.  His composition is rock solid creating very engaging visuals that pull an audience into the story and characters.  There is depth to spare in his frames, and plenty of grace and integrity in how he shoots everything.  There’s never any handheld camera work.  It’s all fluid movement that contributes to the overall enveloping otherworldly tone of the picture.  The use of color temperatures is very key to the atmosphere as it accentuates the dramatic tones throughout with a vibrant palette.  This is a gracefully shot film with great attention to creating a unique atmosphere and tone in its visuals.

The overall quality of the visual effects are stunning.  They are exceptionally consistent and of an amazing high quality.  From subtle effects like the fiery glint in the eyes of demons to the enveloping landscape of the Hell version of Los Angeles, they create a complete, rich, textured, and full world for John Constantine to exist within that is truly convincing.  The fearsome demonic creatures seen throughout are designed with consistency and originality.  This feels like a world with its own weathered history, and attention is paid to every detail to present it as such.  The entire “into the light” effect in the climax is awesome as the shadows are literally pulled away to force the evil presence into view.  There is never just one effect used over and over again as a crutch.  The film is full of vibrant effects that give the film its fantastical flare.  Overall, every effect is just executed and presented with amazing artistry complementing Francis Lawrence’s vision beautifully.

I also very highly enjoy the score to Constantine.  It has a great atmospheric, haunting electronic style that further fleshes out the otherworldly quality of the film, but still incorporates plenty of traditional score elements that punctuate the rousing, dramatic sequences as well as the softer, more intimate emotions of the film.  Composers Klaus Badelt & Brian Tyler put together one hell of a unique musical accomplishment with this.  I’ve never heard a score quite like this before, and it works so amazingly well.  There is a great use of melody all throughout which enhances the emotional depth that this film is truly rich with.  This is definitely a film that takes a different approach to things to give an audience a very distinctive identity for an all encompassing experience.  The addition of the song “Passive” from A Perfect Circle is wicked cool in my opinion.  It truly set a great tone entering into Papa Midnite’s club.

These enveloping elements wrap together to create a very rich story with a tone full of integrity and gravity.  It can be a very haunting and scary film that uses horror elements at times, but is best categorized as a supernatural dark fantasy action film.  The action in the film are not big set pieces with spectacular stunts.  John’s not some bad ass action hero who can slug it out with a demon.  Instead, he uses his occult and demonic knowledge as well as his skills as a con artist to help him win battles.  He fights smart using the tools he has acquired which exploit the weaknesses of his enemies such as holy water, Moses’ shroud, a pair of Holy Cross brass knuckles, dragon’s breath, and various eclectic items provided to him by his allies.

This story is partially inspired by the Dangerous Habits comics storyline, which I have read.  There’s little directly adapted from that story, and is more just taking the premise of Constantine being diagnosed with lung cancer and having to cope with that.  How he deals with it and the resolutions of the comic and the film are very different, but both greatly show off John’s cunning skill as a con artist to varying degrees.

Constantine himself is very fascinating, and I think this version of him is well portrayed by Keanu Reeves.  I am quite a big fan of his work ranking Point Break as one of my absolute favorite films ever.  I find his work quite enjoyable, and he has some highly impressive acting ability.  I think his approach tends to be more subtle, and with Constantine, he really drives home a very diverse character.  Reeves showcases Constantine’s jaded personality with depth and purpose.  He brings out that worn down, weathered texture that makes the character so intriguing and surprising.  He can be an outright asshole because he’s been both plagued by the knowledge he has about the world around him, and that he’s destined to spend eternity in Hell, regardless of what he does.  He’s tired and frustrated by these rules that these so-called “higher beings” have imposed upon humanity for their own sport, and he knows there’s little he can do to combat that.  Keanu gives the character enough edge while still maintaining an underlying sense of humanity which evolves through the film.  As the story goes along, he becomes more and more invested in Angela as a person instead of just her being a cog in a larger plot.  You gradually see the bond form between the characters, and how that starts to drive John’s actions.  There’s a pivotal shift in there where he stops sulking in his own pain and starts seeing Angela’s.  He sees her regret and how far she’s willing to go to mend it.  John can still be an asshole, but ultimately, it’s just to those that deserve it.  Reeves portrays these subtle and strong emotional beats powerfully showing that there’s more to Constantine beyond that spiteful, embittered exterior.

Another subtle part of John that’s retained from the comics is how his friends constantly pay the price for his battles.  In the comics, John is haunted by the ghosts of his dead friends, and the screenwriters slipped a brief line in here about John not needing another ghost following him around.  So, it’s no wonder that he’s as cynical and jaded as he is, but it’s also these circumstances which drive him to fight.  He challenges everyone on their egotistical or hypocritical behavior, and allows no one to slide.

However, the arc for the character takes him from being a self-serving person who fights evil for his own sake to someone that does the right thing for the sake of others.  It takes nothing away from the hardened core of the character, it just makes him an actual hero by the end.  That is helped immensely by Rachel Weisz’s emotionally impactful performance.  Reeves and Weisz had previously worked together on the 1996 film Chain Reaction as love interests, and perhaps that added a stronger chemistry between them.  In this film, their chemistry is exceptionally solid and tight.  They have great back-and-forth dialogue with sharp timing and rich character dynamics.  Angela is also easily able to stand up to John’s abrasive attitude which is a welcomed quality.  Weisz strongly portrays the more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable counter-balance of the story.  This allows an audience to have a relatable conduit into the character of John Constantine and his supernatural world.  Rachel Weisz is an incredible actress showcasing a wide range of abilities here.  She is remarkably powerful bringing out the emotional pain that Angela has deep within.  However, while Angela is vulnerable, she is a police detective, and thus, Weisz never makes her appear helpless or incapable of defending herself.  She has a definite strong will and confidence about her mixed in with a grounded, engaging charm.  It’s simply that the character been impacted by tragic events, and is thrust into a potentially frightening scenario which brings out those fearful or unstable elements in her.  Weisz handles it all with dramatic weight and grace.

It is also immensely impressive how strong the supporting cast is in Constantine.  Djimon Hounsou has such an awesome presence as the witch doctor turned night club owner Papa Midnite.  His deep voice and subtle charisma give weight and gravity to his performance.  He can be greatly imposing and intimidating without even standing up in his initial scene.  Hounsou and Reeves spark a fascinating chemistry.  They play the characters with a sense of shared history which has its turbulent areas which causes friction and some antagonism between them.  The screenwriters had a good philosophy of the best way to convey exposition about a character is to show them working.  You get to know more about Midnite and Constantine through what they do and how they go about doing it than can really be conveyed through straight dialogue interactions.  This is showcased beautifully in the sequence with “The Chair” which allows John to see the path the Spear of Destiny has taken recently, and to find out where Angela has been taken.  It’s a manner of operating alluding to information that is necessary for them to know to do what they need to do, but is not necessary to be spelled out for the audience.  This further reflects the sense that this a world with a long, textured history between characters, and it is presented in a very smart way that never bogs down the film with extraneous exposition.  Midnite himself has a very pleasing arc in the story that ultimately shows Hounsou’s range and charm.  He makes the character very fascinating, imposing, but ultimately, highly pleasing.

Tilda Swinton is immaculately graceful and elegant as the half-breed angel Gabriel.  The filmmakers chose to go with an androgynous quality for the character, and absolutely wanted Swinton for the role.  They chose incredibly well.  Her performance has a gentle compassion that eventually turns into a subtle megalomaniacal mindset.  She also has an ethereal aura and presence about her that is pitch perfect.  It’s a nice dynamic when Constantine goes to see her with him ranting and calling out the hypocrisy at hand, but she offers up a very warm, motherly tone with him.  They are both trying to make each other see things from their perspective, and neither is entirely in the right.  There is a very aristocratic, snobbish mentality from Gabriel that John can’t stomach, and it works so exceptionally well for this character.  It’s such a remarkable performance that the words to describe it in depth escape me.

Now, this film was before Shia LeBouf started grating on peoples’ nerves, but here, there’s enough heart and charm with him as Chas to make his performance a pleasure.  Chas is spirited and driven to be given the chance to be of real assistance to Constantine instead of just his personal cab driver, but John just knows the danger of allowing him to do so.  Yet, Chas is eventually given the chance to show his worth.  As with everyone else, the chemistry is dead on the mark perfect.  Gavin Rossdale’s turn as the demon Balthazar is oozing with charisma.  He relishes being engulfed in evil, and that delicious smarmy arrogance just pours out over the screen.  The tension and spite between him and John is thick as can be.  You can’t help but love and hate him all at the same time.  All of the actors throughout the film really inhabited their characters with exceptional commitment and nuance, and came together as a cohesive whole to deliver something diverse and marvelous.

Of course, there is Peter Stormare’s magnificent performance as Lucifer himself.  There have been so many portrayals of the Devil over the years in cinema from some massively talented actors, and each portrayal has been unique.  Stormare takes unique to a whole new level here.  The physicality alone is unsettling as if he’s trying to uncomfortably fit back into a human form like it’s an old out of shape body suit, and it results in some peculiar and tense nervous energy.  The look is striking enough without devolving into shock.  The shaved eyebrows and shorn haircut along with the tattoos really present a standout visual that separates Lucifer from everyone else in the film.  Stormare takes all of this to forge a weirdly eccentric Devil that doesn’t need to flaunt an ego or boast of his power.  His creepy, chilling presence sells everything.  The addition of the pure white suit and bare feet was a nice touch, and it really fits the visual aesthetics of the film.

While I have nothing against a well done origin, it is very commendable that this is not an origin story spending a large percentage of the film showing how Constantine became the man he is today.  His back story is not even revealed until well into the second act as we get to know it alongside Angela, and allusions to other shared histories are sprinkled throughout.  The film treats its audience as intelligent by not having to explain every little thing.  It presents a world, gradually lays out the general parameters of how it works, and then, allows it to envelop the audience.  I like this approach for the character because there is a lot of John Constantine history that is very relevant to the character, but it would be nigh impossible to hit all the poignant marks to develop him fully in a two hour film.  Starting a film series here is very interesting because it takes John from the jaded, weathered depths to someone more purposeful and formidable.  It is a greatly executed arc wrapped up in a strong plotline backed by some excellent talents in front of and behind the camera.

It seems hard to judge where this movie stands in terms of general consensus.  It’s not one of those comic book movies everyone talks about, or includes on the list of the best or worst adaptations.  I seem to perceive this as a film that had good commercial success, but tends to get overlooked for no apparent reason.  Professional critics were divided on it, but the thing with critics is that they get paid to go see movies they are not always pre-disposed to enjoy.  This was a movie that appealed to my tastes via its marketing, and it did blow me away.  Again, the hardcore fans of Hellblazer likely had their passionate gripes with all the changes made to the established elements of the property, but it’s not a bad film at all.  It’s exceptionally well made from a filmmaker with great vision and artistry, and features an amazing cast that put their all into it.  From an objective point of view, it’s a greatly entertaining and satisfying film.  It has plenty of interesting action, an excellently crafted world, fantastic, stunning visual effects, a unique and fascinating score, and is just generally well written all the way around.  I really love this film, and I love what I’ve read in the Hellblazer trade paperbacks.  Both offer me something different but equally satisfying to my tastes for supernatural horror and dark fantasy.  If you’re unfamiliar with the property, this film can ease you into the heavier subject matter and grittier feel of the comics, but they are two unmistakably different presentations on the characters and the world they inhabit.  Taking the film on its own merits, it’s a highly imaginative, excellent piece of work that is worth investing your time and interest in.


Batman Returns (1992)

This is the first Batman movie I saw theatrically, and at twelve years old, I loved it.  I think it’s a much more polished movie than Tim Burton’s 1989 film with a number of charismatic, excellent performances.  I’ve never perceived the film as weird or strange like many do.  I just see it as a damn good movie that I highly enjoy.  I think Batman Returns is far more of a Tim Burton style movie than the first, but in my opinion, that doesn’t make it a lesser Batman movie.

Gotham City calls upon its greatest hero, Batman, to combat its newest threats.  From the sewers, the deformed and hideous Penguin (Danny DeVito), head of the criminal Red Triangle Circus Gang, forges a fiendish alliance with the corrupt business mogul Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).  Penguin is discovered to be Oswald Cobblepot, the outcast son of a wealthy Gotham couple, and Shreck looks to set him up as the city’s Mayor to force his deceptive power plant upon the city.  However, the Penguin has his own schemes to wreak havoc upon Gotham.  Meanwhile, Max Shreck attempts to murder his frumpy secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) after poking around too deeply into his shady business plans, but she is resurrected as the dangerous and sexy Catwoman who seeks revenge on him.  Batman races into action to combat these villains, but as the caped crusader begins to put a dent in their plans, Penguin and Catwoman plot to discredit Batman, making him a criminal in the eyes of Gotham’s citizens.  While the Bat and Cat are at odds, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle quickly become romantically involved which further strains Selina’s already fractured psyche.  Batman must battle to stave off the treacherous, twisted plans of these eccentric villains before rampant destruction is inflicted upon Gotham City.

This is truly one of the very few superhero films that is able to balance out having multiple villains.  The plotlines are all interconnected smartly through the Max Shreck character.  The Penguin is the main villain while Catwoman is more of a subversive wild card, as she should be.  Her motives are more passionate while his are particularly methodical, but do later delve into the maniacal.  This film seems more character driven than the first, and has some stronger emotional context.  Selina has a wild ride that takes her through a slew of emotional states.  She is very conflicted between her vengeful psychotic side, and the one that is gradually falling in love with Bruce Wayne.  Michelle Pfeiffer just does a stunning job in this role ultimately making Selina grossly sympathetic.  The Penguin is fueled by spite for society for being rejected by it all his life, and goes through a character arc himself.  First, wanting to be accepted as man instead of a monster, but later, embraces the monster he has become to wreak havoc upon Gotham City.

I also love the plot of the villains launching an elaborate smear campaign against Batman.  They frame him for murder and more to position Cobblepot as the new face of hope for the city.  It makes for a more dire and interesting circumstance for Batman to deal with, but Bruce decides turnabout is fair play.  It’s all an excellently crafted story progression.  Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm really conjured up a great story that takes plenty of twists and turns that maintain excitement and interest in the characters.  It’s not just some colorful madman terrorizing the city, it’s more complex and involved than that.  There are numerous motivations at play with the main characters that create a more personal set of conflicts.  The Penguin does provide the larger scale threat near the end, but it’s still perfectly in line with his agenda.  He reaches a boiling point, and decides to let loose upon this city that has turned on him.  Everything builds up to him becoming that monster, and I believe it’s all greatly executed.  In general, the film is amazingly well paced always keeping a consistent energetic rhythm going.  At no point does the film feel like it drags.  There’s always something developing because of the multiple main characters and interwoven plots.  It never gets confusing either.  It’s all competently and tightly strung together.

I love the subtle detective aspects in Michael Keaton’s Batman.  While everyone else is very much buying the altruistic façade of the Penguin, he sees something that just doesn’t fit right.  Something nags at that inquisitive mind of his, and that is extremely faithful to the psychology of Batman.  He hardly needs to vocalize his intellect.  What is said is conveyed very succinctly as Keaton did a lot of trimming down of dialogue to keep Batman’s words sharp and telling.  The film also shows a little technical prowess with Bruce both having the forethought to record the Penguin’s rantings to cleverly use against him later, and showing Bruce attempting to repair the damaged Batmobile.  They are just subtle things which show that Bruce has these diverse skills.

This time out, Michael Keaton was given a wider canvas to stretch his talent across.  He still executes Batman amazingly well.  He is able to convey so much just through those intense eyes, and that sells the demeanor and intimidation of Batman so powerfully.  Of course, with the Catwoman dynamic, Keaton has more chemistry to strike up under the mask, and a few appropriate humorous exchanges while fighting with her.  Keaton has rich chemistry with the whole cast, and is able to offer up more as Bruce Wayne as well as Batman.  His relationship with Michael Gough’s Alfred is a little more light hearted and open.  One has to love the little jab about Alfred letting Vicky Vale into the Batcave.  Opposite Christopher Walken, Keaton holds up quite well, but Walken never makes it easy for anyone to stand up to his charisma.  Still, there’s a nice contrast in Keaton’s more grounded, respectable businessman to Walken’s wheeler and dealer type who definitely has skeletons in his closet.  What really shines, though, is that Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer have electric chemistry both in costume and out.  The romantic relationship is perfectly complicated as Batman and Catwoman are supposed to be.  There’s always some ethical or moral divide between them that cuts the pinnacle of their love short.  You can feel the affection Keaton puts into the performance to have the emotions strike deep within Bruce’s soul, and create the powerful connection Bruce and Selina are meant to have.  Even as Batman, Keaton shows that sparkle of fascination and intrigue for this seductive and dangerous Catwoman.  She, figuratively, hits him very close to the heart, and he sees someone possibly cut from the same jagged mold that he was.  There is much less of a sense of the brooding lone man in Batman Returns, but with the stronger love interest aspect and the story ties with Max Shreck, it naturally pushes Bruce Wayne out of the shadows and into a more active situation.  He no longer feels like the recluse he seemed to be in the first film.  He feels both like a real executive businessman and a human being here.  Bruce Wayne does have that dark shadow on his soul, but he has loved many woman in the comics and has been a responsible and quite public businessman.  So, it’s all perfectly in line with the source material, and Keaton, nor anyone else, could have done it better.

Danny DeVito is fantastic in this grotesque version of the Penguin.  In the comics, he’s just a short, stout crime boss dressed in a tuxedo and top hat with an affinity for birds.  Here, he’s made into a freakish man in both appearance and psychology.  DeVito just throws all of himself into this role making Penguin a disgusting, crude villain full of gross rage and despicable deceitfulness.  It seems like he purely enveloped himself in the character, and had the time of his life with it.  He puts on a sinister performance of a man who revels in his own vile intentions, and it couldn’t be better.  DeVito is immensely entertaining and charismatic.  The make-up design of the character is equally excellent creating a look that can be effectively unsettling.  Still, DeVito is easily able to show the wide range of subtle and verbose emotions of the character through the prosthetics.  It’s a masterful execution all around.

However, the absolutely stunning standout in this cast is definitely Michelle Pfeiffer.  She passionately embodies all phases and mental states of Selina Kyle.  From the meek and mousy secretary that awkwardly blends into the background to the bolder, more aggressive and seductive woman to the playful, sultry Catwoman to the ultimately fractured person whose emotions are strained between the love she has found with Bruce and the bloodthirsty vengeance she is driven towards with Shreck.  When she is that more lowly woman at the start, there is such a timid, oppressed quality about the character that you can’t help but feel bad for her.  Nothing seems to go right for Selina, and she couldn’t be more undeserving of Max Shreck’s intimidating and belittling treatment of her.  Then, when that nervous breakdown occurs, Pfeiffer turns on a truly manic performance that shows the traumatic transformation Selina has now gone through.  It’s the character violently breaking free of the restraints she’s had all this time, and out the other end of it comes this confident, aggressive woman.  This is a Catwoman that excites.  Beyond just the sizzling hot sexual aspects, she is electrifyingly dangerous between her ferocious fighting skills, the razor sharp claws, and the leather whip.  Pfeiffer slinks very smoothly into being Catwoman lusciously embodying her feline grace.  As Selina herself, she shows an amazing ability to subtly shift tone from humorous or casual to just plain dark and unsettling.  That venomous dark side seeps through beautifully.  Michelle Pfeiffer brings out such intense emotional pain and conflict which forges together an immensely fascinating and sympathetic character.  There’s so much subtle texture and emotional range in her performance that one could go on all day detailing it all.  Simply said, she put in a remarkably diverse and emotionally intense performance here, and greatly enhances the depth of the film.  From what she did in this role, you can definitely see why Selina Kyle had such a strong emotional impact on Bruce Wayne by the film’s end.  Pfeiffer absolutely left me wanting more in absolutely every good way imaginable.

Of course, you can never go wrong with casting Christopher Walken, and in Batman Returns, he’s definitely at his best.  He has fierce charisma that forces the character of Max Shreck vibrantly into the meat of the film.  He never gets lost or brushed aside in favor for the more fantastical villains.  There’s just too much weight and excitement in what Walken brings to the role for an audience not to welcome his presence.  Walken is massively intimidating when threatening Selina just before attempting to kill her.  You feel like Max Shreck is a powerhouse heavy.  He’s masterfully manipulative with a mesmerizing skill of twisting people’s minds with his words.  Walken just has such a fascinating delivery of lines that is a signature for him, but I think he adds something specially dynamic to this role.  He could carry this whole movie as the main villain if it had called for it.  Shreck is not damaged goods like Batman, Catwoman, or the Penguin, and that probably makes him the most condemnable villain of the film.  He’s a corrupt, deceitful, murderous human being wrapped up in the guise of a respectable businessman.  He’s an unethical vacuum of morality that will go to any crooked lengths to further his agendas and strengthen his legacy in Gotham.  He’s cutthroat to no end, and Walken embraces the unsettling, shrewd nature of the character powerfully.

Again, the look of Batman Returns is much more polished than the 1989 movie.  There is not as much grit in the visuals, and instead, has a stronger contrast.  Blacks are thick and rich.  They maintain a striking appearance as the shadows are nicely balanced with the light.  Burton and his Edward Scissorhands director of photography Stefan Czapsky give this movie its own visual identity.  I very much like the blue tones seen throughout which offer up a very complementary tone.  Batman Returns certainly doesn’t have quite as much iconic imagery as its predecessor, but it surely has its dramatic moments that are beautifully captured.  The snowy appearance of the film was a gorgeous choice as it further adds to the visual contrast and beauty.  It’s strange that while the subject matter is definitely darker than the first, Batman Returns actually doesn’t look nearly as dark as the 1989 movie.  It appears to be generally brighter and more inviting.  It has plenty of moody visuals, but moves away from the muted color schemes and grim aesthetics.  It’s definitely a pleasant experience for the eyes.

The production design is much sleeker, and that is reflected in the redesigned Bat suit.  It has a cleaner, more art deco armored design which makes sense.  Batman would likely evolve his suit into something generally more durable.  From a production standpoint, it just looks more refined and streamlined.  Gotham City looks more updated with a generally more modern feeling, but still showcasing an gothic industrial look as well as some 1930s or 1940s artistic mentalities.  It’s a beautiful city no longer tainted by grime and trash, but still has its darker qualities.  Even the Batcave gets a fine upgrade with more up-to-date technology and refined lighting schemes.  Plus, the Bat-Ski boat is a sleek addition which gives the film a little extra something near the climax.  The wardrobe is just wonderful all around.  The gorgeous pinstriped suits of Max Shreck have an excellent 1900s turn of the century class to them.  They make him feel like an iconic captain of industry, and the full grey head of hair was a nice touch to his look.  The Catwoman outfit could not be sleeker or more sexually charged.  It’s absolutely perfect for a character of this slinky nature, but also, reflects her fractured psyche with the stitched together look.  Even Penguin’s more upscale outfits, somewhat reflective of Shreck’s style, still have a grungy feel to them.  It creates a nice texture and contrast for the character.  Penguin’s lair is exceptionally moody, decrepit, and dank perfectly reflecting the striking image of the character.

Danny Elfman really broadens the musical landscape of the franchise with this film.  With more main characters come some very distinctive and marvelous themes that richly reflect the complicated natures of these characters.  Catwoman’s theme is so wonderfully complex representing the chaotic and unbalanced nature of the character, and throwing in a dash of sorrow and sympathy here and there.  Elfman adds a chorus into the score to enhance the operatic sense of everything, and the slight rearrangement of the main title march is very pleasing.  It is a heavily and finely textured score that is vibrant and epic.  The Christmas season setting of the film truly weaves its way into the score every so often, and makes for a very colorful and haunting listen.  While I’ve never seen A Nightmare Before Christmas, I have to imagine there’s some correlation between those musical styles from Elfman.

There is also a vast improvement in visual effects work here.  Before watching the featurettes on the Special Edition DVD, I never knew that the opening title sequence was entirely done with miniatures and effects work.  It always looked entirely natural to me.  Matte paintings are still great, but have a little more life to them with some extra color and integrated motion.  Since digital effects had progressed into the forefront, we definitely get the benefit of that higher end work here.  Being released in 1992, it was sandwiched right between 1991’s Terminator 2 and 1993’s Jurassic Park.  While the digital effects are not used on a massive scale, they are very seamless with both something like the armored shields on the Batmobile, and more so with the digital replication of the penguin soldiers late in the film.  Overall, it’s a very fine accomplishment from the visual effects department.  Stan Winston also provided his studio’s talent with creating numerous animatronic penguins that seamlessly blend in with the real life ones.

Tim Burton continues to show a great sense of action in this sequel.  Every single action sequence is choreographed and shot amazingly well.  They are smartly scripted making sure each one is organically different without forcing it.  With the eccentric nature of the Red Triangle Circus Gang, Batman has plenty of gimmickry to combat from the sword swallower to the fire breather and many more.  He handles each one with originality packed with some ironic entertainment value.  Igniting the Batmobile’s flaming turbine engine upon the fire breather is just too priceless.  Then, things get more interesting when Batman combats Catwoman.  She’s immensely skilled and agile making for a dynamically dangerous adversary that gets some stinging shots in.  Mixing that in with the sensuous aspects of their peculiar relationship, it creates a great twisting psychological unpredictability to their confrontations.  The climax of the film just blows me away.  There’s so much slam bang awesomeness packed into it which Burton handles with so much competency and balance.  The race to halt the Penguin’s missile attack on the city creates the fast paced excitement with the Bat Ski boat rocketing to its desination.  The explosive and poignant conclusions to the Penguin’s storyline are nicely balanced on either side of Selina Kyle’s own emotionally charged climax.  This entire sequence is tightly paced, and hits all the plot and character beats perfectly on the mark.  Everything is powerfully wrapped up to a highly satisfying degree.  Many superhero films with so many villains usually end up in a mess, but Batman Returns handles all of them exceptionally well all the way through to the end.

The film certainly has more impact upon Bruce Wayne than Batman, but it all ties in very nicely.   The parallels of Batman and Catwoman versus Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle was an excellent idea.  How both are tied into one is exceptionally strong.  Just a simple unassuming line of dialogue is what triggers the revelation to them both, and injects a much stronger emotional element into the climax.  It also does create a fine arc for Bruce Wayne / Batman.  Seeing him connect with this woman that is very much like him, and how he ultimately wants to be able to save her from the vengeance that’s eating her alive is wonderfully done.  The Batman / Catwoman relationship has always been one of the most fascinating and complex ones in comics, and I believe Tim Burton and his screenwriters did an excellent job bringing that to the screen while Keaton and Pfeiffer made it exceed any expectations.

After watching Batman Returns again, I think this might be my new favorite Batman movie.  While it’s not really faithful to all the characters as, in the comics, Catwoman is just a cat burglar with no mystical type powers or psychological unbalances, and Penguin is just a sort of quirky, non-freakish crime boss, I really like what was done with these characters, and all the concepts were executed with depth and intelligence.  If it was all done poorly or just fell short of its potential, I would surely have some gripes with it all, but everyone involved just couldn’t have done a better job.  The tight pace is really what excites me about the movie.  It’s constantly moving somewhere with one character or another, and they are all logically and organically tied in together instead of some slap dashed plot to force multiple villains into the same movie.  It’s this tightly wrapped sordid web of interconnected characters and plotlines that are smartly interwoven.  I will say that there was a slight missed opportunity by Batman not having to really deal with being framed for murder by Penguin and Catwoman.  It is an unresolved plot point that is brushed aside rather effortlessly, and it’s a shame too.  It’s a storyline that could be very fascinating to explore, but the film just didn’t have room to resolve it.  Any such resolution can only be implied, likely through Batman’s rescue of the children from the Red Triangle Circus Gang.  However, for the trade off we get for it, I can generally overlook this issue.  I enjoy Batman Returns thoroughly now, and I think it’s gotten some bad press over the years.  People seem to act like 1989’s Batman was this bright, happy, fun adventure film for the whole family in comparison, but like I said in that review, at nine years old, my parents did not let me see it in the theatre.  It was a dark movie that could be unsettling to a young audience.  Batman Returns at least has a bit more levity via light, appropriate humor and great chemistry to balance out the dark characters and subject matter.  I would venture to say that this sequel is more fun and more exciting than the first movie.  I just find this more satisfying on numerous levels.  It has a stronger, more layered story with more rousing action, and a tighter rhythm and pace held together by an incredible cast.  I believe Batman Returns is an amazing movie, and a great sequel.  I won’t say it’s perfect, or that it will give you everything you want from a Batman movie, but it’s a damn good one, regardless.  I know it almost certainly will never happen, but I would be very interested in seeing Tim Burton and Michael Keaton return to the franchise with a proper sequel to their Batman movies.  I think they could still do a great job if collaborating with the right creative talents, and Burton could likely use a change of talents these days.


Batman (1989)

The summer of 1989 was one of the biggest with blockbusters like Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, The Abyss, When Harry Met Sally, and Licence To Kill, but none were bigger than Tim Burton’s Batman.  This was the summer of DC Comic’s caped crusader.  The merchandising was inescapable.  I have two posters from this film one with Keaton in the Bat suit and another of the Batmobile with all the vehicle’s specs on it, and I used to have a Batman cap until it got burned up in a small fire.  Unfortunately, because of the film’s dark nature and PG-13 rating, my parents did not allow me to see it theatrically.  I had to wait until Christmas for the VHS, and I still have that VHS twenty-three years later.  Batman is my all time favorite superhero, and I have seen every Batman feature film theatrically from Batman Returns onwards.  Unfortunately, ever since the Christopher Nolan films, I’ve found it hard to go back to these earlier movies because they just don’t fully satisfy what I want from Batman, anymore, but that doesn’t mean Tim Burton’s 1989 mega-blockbuster is not a good film.  It’s an undeniable classic that stills holds up well nearly a quarter century later.

Gotham City is a grim urban landscape of economic downfall plagued with crime.  Heading up the city’s organized crime is the powerful Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), and his “number one” is an egotistical psychotic named Jack Napier who, after falling into a vat of chemicals during a police bust setup by Grissom, is deformed into the maniacal Joker (Jack Nicholson).  However, out of the shadows of this hopeless city is a creature of the night, the mythic crime-fighter known as the Batman (Michael Keaton).  Secretly, he is millionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne who witnessed his own parents’ murder as a child, and that drove him to strike out into the night in this fearsome persona.  The Joker’s reign of terror begins to engulf Gotham as his toxic chemicals, which are hidden in ordinary products, claim innocent lives.  Meanwhile, photojournalist Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) teams with newspaper reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) to uncover the mystery that is Batman.  However, Vale quickly falls in love with Bruce Wayne, and soon finds herself caught in between the clashing Batman and Joker while Gotham City’s fate and hope remain at stake.

As a lifelong fan of the character, I have seen numerous versions of him from Adam West to Super Friends to Batman: The Animated Series and beyond.  It ranges a wide spectrum from colorful and campy to fun and exciting to dark and gritty.  What Burton gives us here is a very gothic inspired Dark Knight.  His intention was for Bruce Wayne to be a man who presents Batman as a frightening urban myth.  Something that truly appears supernatural through the use of theatrics and nightmarish imagery.  The Nolan films took a more ninja-like approach whereas Burton truly wraps the character up in horror ideals.  He’s not frequently using quick vanishing techniques to be just a vague idea.  Instead, he wants his prey to see him prominently in order to be scared out of their minds at the thought of him.  He builds up his own myth with the regular street trash while eyeing the organized crime players of Gotham City, and does it with artistic mastery.

There was a lot of uproar over the casting of Michael Keaton in the title role.  Physically, I can see what they were all worried about.  At 5’9”, Keaton is not physically imposing, and not the athletic specimen you think of as a superhero.  However, Burton’s thought was that a guy of Keaton’s build and ability would need to dress up as a terrifying figure to compensate for his physical shortcomings, and I think that works in this film’s approach.  Michael Keaton is an awesome actor, and I’d love to see more of him in front of the camera, again.  He has a certain manic charisma where you can believe Bruce Wayne is a bit psychologically unbalanced, and could snap at a moment’s notice.  He engulfs himself in a dark, brooding aura that could destroy a lesser man, but because he has a purpose he is dedicated to, Bruce Wayne is able to focus that psyche into something positive.  As just Bruce Wayne, Keaton has a light-hearted charisma and charm.  He has smooth chemistry with Michael Gough’s Alfred and Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale.  Keaton and Basinger might not have the most exciting or interesting relationship of all the Batman movies, but it’s nicely understated and casual.  For most of the film, it’s Vicky dealing with Bruce as Bruce.  It’s not until late in the film that she has to knowingly deal with his alter ego.  As Batman, Keaton is electrifying and powerful.  The persona entirely works.  You get to see the dichotomy of the man where he does desire a sense of normalcy and happiness, but is driven towards the shadows as Batman.  Keaton allows you to feel the character’s somber sense that impacts both sides of his personality.  Michael Keaton is amazing.

One thing that I have come to find odd is that the wealthiest man in Gotham City is hardly recognizable by most people.  Neither Vicky Vale or Alexander Knox, both professional news people, seem to recognize Bruce Wayne, and the Joker and his henchman Bob barely seem to know his name.  The idea almost seems to be that Bruce Wayne is a recluse, but reclusive people don’t often hold large fundraiser parties in their own mansions.  This doesn’t seem to be carried over much into the sequel Batman Returns, thankfully.

The Joker has also had numerous interpretations over the decades, and I have found many of them enjoyable.  Cesar Romero was always infectiously fun as the exuberant campy character, and Mark Hamill’s voice work as the Joker in the DC Animated Universe has been stunning.  What Jack Nicholson gives us is something with shades of something dark and troubling as well as fun and hammy.  He makes the Joker a larger than life villain, almost a twisted live action cartoon in a good way.  He definitely throws himself fully into the role making him disturbingly funny.  He’s truly psychotic, and really electrifies the screen with his vibrant presence.  With this version of the character, I couldn’t see anyone else doing a bolder, more charismatic job.  Unlike a lot of comic book characters, there’s rarely a wrong interpretation of the Joker as the character is so completely out of his mind that he can easily adopt a new personality depending on his disposition from day-to-day.  When Christopher Nolan brought the Joker back to the big screen for The Dark Knight, it was a great iteration that worked phenomenally for the story being told, and the world of his films.  For Tim Burton’s movie, Nicholson’s Joker was dead-on perfect.

Kim Basinger portrays Vicky Vale with a wonderful depth of class, but the character has just never done anything for me.  Her fascination with the Batman legend helps to drive her part of the story forward, and it is a fine low key romantic relationship between Vale and Wayne.  In concept, the two things being intertwined is good, but the script hardly plays with that at all.  Later films did a more satisfying job playing up those conflicted dynamics.  None of this is a failure of Basinger as she does all she can with the role, and she does it well.  I just don’t think the character was given enough substance to be what the script seemed to want her to be.

The supporting cast is entertaining and nicely cast.  Robert Wuhl adds a little bit of heart and humor to the picture as the upbeat journalist Alexander Knox.  He’s got a nice counter-balance chemistry to Kim Basinger, and allows for a few moments of levity in what’s generally a dark, heavy toned film.  Michael Gough, as the butler Alfred, also offers up a sense of family and heart opposite Keaton providing Bruce Wayne a fine confidant.  Carl Grissom becomes an excellent heavyweight crime boss in the hands of Jack Palance.  You would need someone of Palance’s imposing dramatic ability to rival Nicholson.  Now, it would’ve been nice to see more of Billy Dee Williams’ charismatic and charming Harvey Dent beyond this film.  The Christopher Walken character in Batman Returns was originally supposed to be Dent, and have the electrocution by Catwoman give birth to Two-Face.  I’ll never oppose the inclusion of Christopher Walken into a movie, but there was definite further intent with the Dent character in Burton’s hands that Williams was game to dive into.

On the down side, I’ve never been too pleased with this version of Commissioner Gordon.  Making him such an older gentleman with a more uptight sensibility took away the rich relationship Batman and Jim Gordon tend to have in the comics.  There is usually a strong sense of respect and close friendship between the two.  In this franchise of Batman films, that relationship is never developed, and I think that’s a definite negative mark against these films.  We never see how Batman truly earns the trust and respect of the Gotham City police because he hardly ever interacts with them.  Jim Gordon has been shown to be a great, rich character to explore, but this franchise just seems to include him because he’s supposed to be there.  This is not a hit against Pat Hingle, who does a fine job with the character as written, I just know that it was a wasted opportunity by not developing or truly utilizing the character at all.

Back on the positive side, Batman certainly has a 1930s retro production design while still maintaining a modern sensibility.  It gives the film an interesting appeal that avoids visually dating itself.  The color palette is nicely toned down so that the Joker’s vibrant outfits truly pop out on screen.  The overall artistic design of Batman is rather elegant at times while still integrating industrial aspects.  The Bat Cave reflects the very depths of the industrial design making it a totally utilitarian environment for Batman to work in.  It’s all just a striking achievement.  Building off of that artistry is how Burton creates dramatic introductions for the film’s iconography.  Batman enters the film with that powerful mythic and frightening style ambushing those muggers on the rooftop.  The Joker theatrically reveals himself just before gunning down his boss.  Even the Batmobile has an awesome reveal during the escape from the museum.  This is what gives the film such an iconic status.  Incredible moments are peppered throughout the movie to burn them deeply into an audience’s psyche.  There are quotable lines all throughout the film which further strengthened its place in pop culture.

I really love the mystique the film builds around Batman.  Tim Burton creates a sense of Batman being more than just a man in a suit capable of extraordinary things.  He maintains a shadowy air of mystery around him so that others can still perceive him as an unkillable supernatural being.  The leather and rubber suit gives a more black fleshy appearance to him, and the Batmobile is an imposing, fierce vehicle with a lot of muscle.  It looks absolutely awesome barreling down a darkened road.  It’s all carefully crafted to enhance the persona.  Batman never gives away enough of his personality and methods for anyone to really figure him out.  He is truly enigmatic.

The way the film is shot, with a lot of noir style lighting, strongly emphasizes that mystique.  It definitely looks like a Tim Burton film with its dark visual aesthetic, and it is beautifully done.  He worked with an excellent cinematographer in Roger Pratt who has also worked with the also off-beat Terry Gilliam on a few occasions.  So, you know this is a director of photography who knows how to realize a unique vision with amazing results.  I like the occasional Dutch angled shots to give the film a little bit of that comic book composition here and there.  The look of this film really sparked off a whole dark, gothic visual style for the next several years, and was probably best and most beautifully showcased in The CrowBatman itself has its own beauty and striking cinematic qualities thanks to Burton’s vision and Pratt’s artistry.

This film is filled with some great action sequences, and are all exceptionally well executed.  While the intent is that Bruce Wayne does not have amazing athletic ability, Batman is still shown to have sharp prowess in hand-to-hand combat.  He dispatches with thugs quite quickly and easily.  He throws kicks and punches with a nice dash of martial arts talent, but keeps it straight and to the point.  He’s very capable of holding his own opposite all styles of opponents with both physical capability and intellect.  The more explosive scenes are excellently paced and give the film more bombast.  It livens up the movie exactly when it needs a strong shot of adrenalin.  The climax is very well done with Batman fighting through a couple of henchmen working his way to confronting the Joker.  Although, I can’t say that making Jack Napier / the Joker the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents was particularly necessary.  Yes, it does add a more personal, passionate purpose to Batman’s fight with him, but it’s only a minor part of the climax.  Batman and the Joker have been passionately battling one another perfectly well in comics for decades without the aid of this element.  It doesn’t bother me all that much now that Christopher Nolan has given us a more faithful adaptation of that event, but it’s not something that the filmmakers needed to do here.

Of course, one has to praise Danny Elfman’s iconic score.  The theme he composed for Batman ranks right up there with John Williams’ Superman theme.  Elfman’s work here is operatic with a gothic feel, and I’ve even heard it said that it’s very evocative of Christopher Young’s score for Hellbound: Hellraiser II.  I surely cannot deny the similarities in the musical styles with the big, grand swells with the ominous, dark overtones, but I will never take away what Elfman achieved with Batman.  I will also never downgrade the work of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard on the Nolan films, but Elfman’s theme is near impossible to overshadow.  And yes, I am a fan of Prince.  He does some fine work here composing numerous original songs for the film that suit the tone overall.  They give the film some vibrancy in a few of the Joker’s most outlandish scenes, and help enhance some of the darker toned scenes as well.  It’s definitely not Prince’s best work, but it is quite notable amongst his body of work to have done this soundtrack.  Of course, even some of Prince’s lesser work is exceedingly better than some artists’ very best.

The story is very straight forward for a superhero film, but it does seem to lean more heavily on the Joker than Batman.  You get to see a full character arc for Jack Napier as he goes from this dangerous gangster to a fully psychotic deformed madman with an objectionable conclusion.  I generally don’t like killing off a villain at the end of the movie.  They’ve existed in comics for decades with countless stories told about them, and then, a filmmaker essentially says that they’re only good for one story in movies.  So, they dispose of them promptly at the end.  For one, it goes against Batman’s ideals to outright kill someone.  He stands for justice, and wishes to bring hope and balance back to his city.  If he starts killing them, he ultimately becomes no better than those he is trying to combat.  This became an ill trend in superhero movies, and I think it’s generally a bad idea in most cases.  I don’t mind it in a Punisher movie, or even the Blade movies.  It suits those characters to off their villains by the end, but not for Batman.  Of course, over time, I have mellowed towards Tim Burton’s Batman movies, and while I still don’t think it was a good idea what was done to the Joker, it doesn’t greatly annoy me.  Part of Jack Nicholson’s deal to star in the film was to get top billing, and it’s almost appropriate since the Joker is the one with far more back story and development put into him.  Batman is just Batman throughout the movie, and really doesn’t go through much of an arc at all.  The character remains fascinating and captivating, but he’s essentially the same guy at the end of the film that he was at the start.  It’s only peoples’ perceptions of Batman that change, not the character himself.  So, I would have to levy some criticism upon that aspect of the film.  It’s a Batman film that’s not really all that much about Batman.

The visual effects can come off as dated.  This was still in the optical composition, matte painting, and rear screen projection days.  I have a fondness for some of those days, but regardless, these effects don’t have a fine polish to them to make them all that seamless or timeless.  They do entirely fit Tim Burton’s filmmaking style of the time, and they serve the film’s visual aesthetics greatly.  Still, anyone that’s first seeing this in the twenty-first century would likely not take to them too well.  Thankfully, this is not a visual effects heavy film, and with these elements mostly being integrated into the final act of the movie, it can allow a modern audience member to comfortably adjust to this film’s style by then.  For the late 1980s, these were still rather high quality opticals that gave Batman some admirable production quality on top of the marvelously designed sets.

Again, this movie was a phenomenon back in 1989.  Everywhere you looked, there was that Bat symbol.  Hell, you can see it in Times Square in Friday The 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and the music video for The Cult’s “Edie (Ciao Baby).”  You couldn’t avoid it if you wanted to, and in 1989, I’m sure this lived up to the hype and exceeded expectations.  In retrospect, it is still a very good movie, and a greatly admirable true theatrical debut for Batman.  It creates an engrossing mystique for the character in a dark, gothic industrial world where he blends in beautifully.  There are amazing performances throughout the cast, but there are a few creative decisions that the film could’ve easily done without.  And while Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger have nice chemistry, the Bruce Wayne / Vicky Vale relationship wasn’t all that stimulating or interesting.  Personally, I do prefer Batman Returns over Batman.  It has some stronger plotlines and better character dynamics to make a more entertaining and exciting movie, in my view.  Regardless, Tim Burton’s 1989 film will always stand as a bonafide, respected classic which cemented Batman in our modern popular culture.


Drive (2011)

I have a tendency to miss out on great films in the theatre due to an uncertainty about them.  I can get so used to how mainstream films are marketed that when I see something distinctly different, it’s hard to be sold on it.  Thankfully, better late than never, some trusted word of mouth finally got me to check out Drive.  To my sensibilities, this is an astonishing, flat out amazing film.  This feels like if Michael Mann made a movie between Thief and Manhunter, and was scored by Tangerine Dream.  This is fully evocative of a 1980s neo noir crime thriller with its sense of tone and atmosphere and using a magnificent soundtrack to envelop an audience into its emotion.  Beyond that, I feel Drive is also brilliant.

Ryan Gosling stars as a Hollywood stunt driver by day that moonlights as a wheelman for criminals by night.  He’s employed and aided by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a former stuntman who is propositioning the shady Bernard Rose (Albert Brooks) to invest in a race car venture with this “Driver” as their star.  Though a loner by nature, the Driver can’t help falling in love with his beautiful neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother dragged into a dangerous underworld by the return of her ex-convict husband.  After a heist goes wrong, Driver finds himself driving defense for the girl he loves, tailgated by a syndicate of deadly serious criminals including Rose himself and the bull-headed Nino (Ron Perlman).  Soon he realizes the gangsters are after more than the bag of cash, and is forced to shift gears into a brutal, unrelenting head-on collision.

I will grant that the film is not heavy on plot.  It’s fairly simple and straight forward keeping itself contained to a small collection of characters.  Some might find that a letdown.  However, the substance of this film is in the presentation.  Ryan Gosling’s character is very minimal on dialogue allowing his presence and the atmosphere of the film to carry the Driver’s weight.  The performance alone is very understated and low key, but not skimping on intensity or humanity.  His carefully chosen words hold purpose, and Gosling’s soft spoken delivery forces an audience to focus their attention closely.  Sometimes, a lack of dialogue can bring a mystique and an intriguing quality to a character, and Gosling sparks that magic.  His performance allows you to read more into the man instead of him telling you about who he is, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off.  The scenes where the Driver and Irene are together bring a subtle charm and heart to the surface.  You see the brightness in the soul of this character that contrasts, and later, compliments his grittier, darker side.  When he has to become that more intimidating, brutal person later on, Gosling has no problem being convincing.  You can feel his visceral intensity permeating the screen.  I was impacted hard by those razor sharp moments, and this all comes together in a rock solid piece of work by Ryan Gosling.  This is my first exposure to his talent, and I couldn’t be more blown away.  Also, wrapping him in that Scorpion jacket is just wickedly cool.

Carey Mulligan puts in a gracefully beautiful performance.  She and Gosling have a fine chemistry that gives the film its warmth and purpose.  Their performances reflect nicely off of one another with heart and subtlety.  She never has to say a word to reflect Irene’s emotional conflict over her feelings between her husband and the Driver.  Mulligan touchingly shows that in her eyes and expressions, and how she gravitates to this new charming, under spoken man in her life.  It’s an engaging and inviting piece of work.

Albert Brooks is a shocking powerhouse heavy here.  He’s intimidating as all hell while still having his light hearted, humorous moments.  Still, I never stopped getting that shady feeling from him that he was a mob boss that could slash your wrist or stab you in the eye with a fork without batting an eyelash.  There’s such a fine line the character treads that Brooks walks with ease.  Even when he’s being friendly, there’s still that sense of unease behind everything he says, and even before you know he’s a mob boss, you get the feeling that there’s something not entirely straight about Bernie Rose.  For me, he ranks amongst the best like Christopher Walken in True Romance or Robert Prosky in Thief.  He can turn from being your best friend to your absolute worst enemy in half a heartbeat without even seeing a shift in the character’s manner.  It’s all rather matter of fact with him, and Brooks carries the appropriate weight to achieve these character traits throughout the picture.  I love Albert Brooks’ performance supremely.

The supporting cast is also finely textured.  Bryan Cranston has a broken down heartfelt sympathy as Shannon, the mechanic and former stuntman that aids and endorses Gosling’s character.  He’s a good natured person who gets in too heavy with the wrong people, and you can’t help but feel for him when things turn worse.  Ron Perlman’s gangster character of Nino is interesting.  He’s a Jewish man trying to make himself out to be an Italian mobster.  It’s not an overt part of his performance, but it ties into Nino’s motivations for being a “belligerent asshole,” as Bernie Rose puts it.  Nino has plenty of bravado and ego, but not a lot of good sense.  Perlman nicely inhabits those qualities with plenty of enthusiasm.  Oscar Isaac does well as Irene’s husband Standard.  The character clearly stands out as a person stuck in a number of unwanted situations.  These criminals are violently pressuring him to do this job for him to pay back his debt, and it’s subtlety obvious that his wife does not want to be with him, anymore.  Isaac shows the character’s regret well, and comes off more of a sorry man than a sympathetic one.  He’s a guy that’s made a mess of things, and knows nothing will ever be okay ever again.  The damage is done, and he’s just trying to sweep it under the rug as neatly as possible.  However, he’s endangered the lives of his wife and son, and the Driver has no sympathy for the man.  He only helps him out for the benefit of Irene and Benicio.  These actors all add a strong array of emotion to the film which heightens the tone and atmosphere.

Now, speaking of atmosphere, the score constantly hit me as something very akin to Tangerine Dream’s score for Risky Business.  It has that very light, dreamy quality to it most times, but does delve into very dark, heavy territories.  There are foreboding, tense moments in this score that are just mesmerizing.  Cliff Martinez crafts a deeply enveloping auditory experience which soaks into nearly every fiber of the film, but the filmmakers pick key moments where silence holds more weight than a soundtrack.  The collection of songs in this film retain that 1980s ambient synth-pop quality, but have a modern quality that is beyond my ability to articulate.  From my own independent filmmaking experiences, I know how insanely difficult it is to find modern original music that sounds like it came from the 1980s.  So, the fact that music supervisors Eric Craig and Brian McNeils discovered and assembled music of this amazing style and quality impresses me to no end.  I purchased the CD soundtrack, and it now ranks as one of my absolute favorites of all time.

The chase scenes of Drive are masterful.  The first one is exceptionally smart being tactical in evading the police instead of going for outright action.  That aspect come later after the botched robbery.  It’s short and to the point being very slam bang intense, and not over indulging in itself.  The opening sequence is exceptionally refreshing by being intelligent.  On top of being realistic and smart, it is an excellent introduction to our main character showing his precision as a getaway driver.  These scenes are expertly shot accentuating the distinct tones and tensions of both sequences.

When this film gets brutal, it holds nothing back, and hardly goes in predictable directions.  The Driver never relies on a gun, and instead, goes with blunt force trauma to inflict violence upon people.  The scene where he goes into the strip club wouldn’t be nearly as effective if he just brandished a gun the guy’s face.  When you see the Driver pull out a hammer, you know this is going to be dead serious business, and it’s not going to be pretty.  It’s a startling, powerful sequence which further propels the character’s threat level.  He’s not just some cool headed amazing driver, he’s a dangerous man not worth crossing.  The violence overall is graphic and gory, and shockingly unsettling.  Emotion just pours through these scenes.

I am further floored by the cinematography talents of Newton Thomas Sigel.  I’ve previously reviewed his work on The Usual Suspects and Fallen – both gorgeous films with their own identities.  Drive is no different.  No shot is ever wasted, and every composition is chosen with purpose.  How the film is shot reflects the artistic vision realized with the music, acting, and editing.  The film has inspired moments of absolute cinematic beauty due to Sigel’s artistic brilliance.  The elevator scene late in the film is a magnificent example of this.  The lighting and color tones used throughout create rich visuals which enhance the film’s atmosphere further.

This is a film where every element is cohesively used to create a powerfully enveloping experience.  The conservative editing style of Matthew Newman allows Sigel’s shots to hold their weight, and establish a somber or rich tone that draws an audience into every moment.  The music enhances those moments to create a wonderfully vibrant sonic quality for even the most still or fluid sequences.  I haven’t seen a film like this since Manhunter.  The music plays such a prominent role in creating a rich atmosphere that is as in the forefront of the picture as the actors.  Each aspect is integral towards what is a wonderfully engrossing motion picture.

Drive is something which shows what independent film can do.  It takes chances.  It goes for a filmmaking style that has not really been around in more than twenty years.  It takes an immensely effective way of crafting and presenting a film that a major studio would likely not embrace.  It’s an intelligent, fresh, and creative film that feeds the senses.  It gives you white knuckle action, a heartfelt romantic storyline, strong character drama, graphic brutality, gorgeous cinematic moments, intelligent writing, amazing performances, and a beautiful, exciting soundtrack.  It’s hard to imagine all of these phenomenal visual and auditory elements coming across in a screenplay, but Hossein Amini clearly wrote something truly inspiring on those script pages to inspire the amazing film we ultimately got.  I know nothing of the James Sallis novel this was based on, but clearly, the written word captured the vibrant imagination of these filmmakers.  I will admit that Drive is not a mass audience movie as it requires an appreciation for a certain filmmaking style, but for those that love a slick 1980s style crime thriller that utilizes strong atmosphere and a prominent synth-pop soundtrack to wrap you up in its story and characters, this is absolutely for you.  In my view, Drive is a meticulously crafted masterpiece of cinema born out of a bold vision from director Nicolas Winding Refn.  I love this film thoroughly, and I cannot give it a higher recommendation than that.


Friday The 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

By happenstance, it seems that I prefer the even numbered Paramount Pictures’ Friday The 13th films over the odd numbered ones, and this is no exception.  I won’t deny there are large flaws with this film, but it basically comes to whether or not I have an enjoyable time watching the film.  For Jason Takes Manhattan, I find a great deal of enjoyment from this, and tend to find myself watching this one most often when I just need a fun, easy slasher to watch.

The graduating class of Lakeview High is setting out on a cruise to New York, but after a late night diversion by two students out on Crystal Lake, Jason is electrified back to life for an unexpected journey.  Rennie Wickham (Jensen Daggett) is among the classmates with her uncle and biology teacher Charles McCullough (Peter Mark Richman), her caring literature teacher Colleen Van Deusen (Barbara Bingham), and boyfriend Sean Robertson (Scott Reeves).  Unfortunate for everyone on board is that Jason has hitched a ride on this ship which is sailing straight into a storm.  Jason stalks through the ominous, closed quarters of the S.S. Lazarus until the survivors are forced to abandon ship, but even the harbor of Manhattan, New York is not safe for them.  Jason Voorhees continues his muderous rampage through the streets of New York as Rennie continually gets chilling flashes of a young Jason which will lead to a personal revelation from her past.

The reason why I like this entry while so many trash it is because it’s quite fun.  There plenty of enjoyable characters portrayed by actors who do seem like they were having a fun time making this film.  I also truly like the idea of trying out some new ideas and breaking free of the old environments.  Unfortunately, there was vast potential wasted due to the film’s budgetary constraints.  Writer / director Rob Hedden explains in the film’s DVD commentary track that his original script had sequences taking place at numerous New York landmarks including Madison Square Garden and the Empire State Building, and the New York part of the story would dominate the film, leaving a much abridged section on board the S.S. Lazarus.  Regardless of what might’ve been, the film we are left with has definite problems which have to be addressed.

The lack of gore is obvious.  Too many off-screen kills make for a more bland slasher movie, but at the time, the MPAA were being very unrelenting with horror films.  Filmmakers had to hack n’ slash the gore from their films so badly, the entire genre suffered.  Granted, these slashers becoming more campy and less scary attributed to their lack of effectiveness, but the low gore levels didn’t help matters.  Still, this film has a few memorable kills with both the electric guitar and boxing decapitation kills.  It really is more in their inventiveness that make them memorable than any use of blood or gore.  Of course, the entire toxic waste flood taking out Jason with the intent of this being last Friday The 13th movie, ever, is very cringe inducing.  Some of the greatly more horrid footage from this scene was very thankfully discarded.  New Line Cinema does have to be thanked for not allowing this to be the ultimate cinematic demise of Jason Voorhees.

I will surely admit there is some bad acting in this film, but I feel it’s limited to a few minor roles.  Our main array of characters are very lively and amusing.  I highly enjoy spending time with someone like Julius who has some bravado and charisma, even if the performance can be a little over the top at times, but I don’t view that as a negative in this film.  Saffron Henderson’s J.J is a vibrant 1980s hot rocker who I felt departed the film far, far too early.  Wayne, the aspiring filmmaker, is also nicely geeky without becoming stupid or obnoxious.  These are characters that just add charm and a little bit of heart to the film.  Peter Richman’s stern, uptight McCullough is a great foil in the film that you can love to hate, and his veteran acting skills really benefit the role nicely.  Barbara Bingham brings some heartfelt motherly concern to Ms. Van Duesen as she tries to be an emotional counsel to Rennie.  Scott Reeves meshes decently well with the film’s female lead in Jensen Daggett.  Of the whole main cast, he’s probably the least noticable likely due to not having as much on the page to work with.

I do strongly feel that Jensen Daggett is among the best heroins of the series.  Rob Hedden gives her a very nice psychological storyline to deal with that ties into her own personal history, and links it up with Jason at the same time.  This gives her a sense of personal determination later on to defeat Jason.  Daggett gives Rennie a nice breadth of innocence and likability without losing her strength.  At the time of this film, she felt like a fresh faced young woman with a lot of potential and warmth.  There’s a fine range of emotions built into the character of Rennie, and Jensen Daggett proved to be a nicely talented choice to handle those demands.  I’ve always enjoyed what she had to offer in this role, and I feel she carries the forefront of the film very well.

Kane Hodder steps into the Jason role for the second time, and does what he does.  He surely looks more into the performance than in his later outing where he would over-accentuate certain character traits.  The only thing I think makes this return performance a little inferior to the debut one is just the trappings.  The violence is not as hard edged, the tone is not as heavy, and the appearance of Jason is scaled back a great deal.  So, it is a consistent Hodder performance, and a rather effective one, regardless.  I do have to say that the “teleporting Jason” style of editing does not strike me very well.  It simply succumbs to no logic.  The dance floor scene could be explained by an artistic license to reflect the disorientation of Kelly Hu’s character amongst the blaring music and flashing lights, but Jason consistently shows up in places ahead of other characters were he should be lagging far behind.  It does tend to bother me when watching the film, but only in those brief instances.

Regardless of such facts, I do feel Rob Hedden did an admirable job directing this film.  He had the imagination and initiative to try something new with transplanting Jason into new locations, and it feels refreshing.  Eight films in, and you need some new ideas to keep it interesting.  Of course, you can take it into really bad territory, such as with Jason X, but I digress.  I know Hedden could’ve made the film one thousand times better if he had the budget to realize his original script and ideas.  Not to mention, a chance to retain more of the blood and gore in the final cut.  Unfortunately, what’s done is done, and you’ve gotta live with it.  The suspense in the film is decent, but is compensated for by a nice array of exciting or startling sequences.  Instead of the usual third act chase through the woods, we get Jason stalking Rennie and Sean through the urban landscape of Manhattan on the streets, in the subway, and ultimately, through the sewers.  That money shot of Jason standing in the middle of Times Square is just priceless.  Even though most of the film was shot Vancouver, British Columbia, this moment in the film truly adds a sense of credibility and scope to the film.

Fred Mollin takes full reins as composer for this film, and like his work in The New Blood, I find it very good with a heavier, more haunting and relentless style than Manfredini’s work.  Both Mollin and Rob Hedden worked together on television’s Friday The 13th: The Series, and I think that helped their creativity to jibe well together.  The tone of the film is definitely enhanced by the score, offering one of the better works of the series.  Manfredini’s work has never really impressed me.  It tended to feel very one-dimensional, ringing the same bell over and over again.  There would be beautiful moments on rare occasion, but Mollin’s work seems to have a bit more depth, accentuating different styles of tension, suspense, and horror with more effectiveness.  Mollin also co-wrote the two songs that J.J. jams on early in the film, but it’s been revealed by his collaborator Stan Meissner that pretty much everything that was recorded for those tracks appear in the film.  That’s a bit of a shame since they are very stellar hard rocking tunes with a great 1980s pop sensibility.  They really have “hit song” written all over them, and I would buy them up in an instant if they were released as complete songs.  Mollin would reuse one of these tracks when he scored the pilot episode of Forever Knight a few years later.  The track “The Darkest Side of the Night” by Metropolis is one that I really love, and sets a good, yet different tone for the opening and closing of this film.  It is commercially available from their “Power of the Night” album, but not widely or easily so.

While there are instances of a lighter tone sort of playing up Jason’s iconic status, much of the film has a rather haunting and unsettling tone due to the psychological and hallucinatory aspects of the story.  Rennie’s visions of the young, deformed Jason are creepy, and give the film some dramatic weight.  Rennie herself doesn’t know what’s happening, and the audience has to learn the reasons why alongside her.  I just find the tone fresh and inviting along with much of the ideas Rob Hedden mixes into the old Friday The 13th formula.

All in all, the film really is entertaining and enjoyable.  It offers some good brutality, but lacks the proper gore level for a Friday The 13th film.  By today’s standards, these severely cut down slasher flicks are rather tame.  They could almost pass for a PG-13 rating these days, but there are enough creepy and unsettling moments to sway it otherwise.  In any case, despite the poorly conceived ending for Jason, I do find this to be a good, worthwhile way to spend a fun, laid back 90 minutes.  With the consistently shrinking box office takes for the franchise, Paramount Pictures decided that this would be the end of Jason for them.  I’m sure anyone anticipating a glorious swan song for the character would’ve been grossly disappointed even more than the failure to widely deliver on the film’s New York-based premise.

I fondly remember catching Jason Takes Manhattan late night on the USA Network in the early 90s, and it was always great when there would be a Joe Bob Briggs MonsterVision marathon of the films in the late 90s.  Despite all the ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses throughout the Friday The 13th films to this point, they are all classics of the genre, and sparked the whole 1980s slasher film trend that it rode out to the very end of the decade.  By 1989, it was hard to call any franchise the reigning king of the genre, but Friday The 13th surely was the juggernaut and iron man of the bunch.  While Jason Takes Manhattan is not the strongest film one could’ve hoped for, it’s a decent entry with a few flaws that I can generally overlook.  Kane Hodder maintained Jason as a force to be reckoned with, and unlike a character like Freddy Krueger, the integrity of the character can never be damaged by humorous or off-beat approaches.  Jason will always be as bad ass as he ever was no matter what type of film you put him in.  Of course, it’s still hard to get over Jason X, but thankfully, I have one more favorite in the franchise to spotlight before confronting that film, again.


Friday The 13th, Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

Now that the Tommy Jarvis storyline had concluded, it left the door wide open for anything to be attempted in Friday The 13th, Part VII.  Paramount had a great decision by hiring the awesome make-up effects master John Carl Buechler to direct the film, and then, there was the debut performance of Kane Hodder as Jason.  There were workable elements in this film to make it great, but whenever I watch it, I just feel this doesn’t hit the mark.  I don’t even think it’s a fault of MPAA censorship on the gore, of which there was an excessive amount.  It just sort of feels like a poorly executed concept with not enough talent behind the script or in front of the camera to make it what it could’ve been.

Tina Shepard (Lar Park-Lincoln) has the ability of telekinesis, but this ability has haunted her for years now as it caused the death of her father on the docks of Crystal Lake when she was a little girl.  As a young woman, she has returned to the lake with her caring mother Amanda (Susan Blu) and the deceitful and manipulative Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser), who wants to exploit Tina’s powers for his own fame.  However, the teenage residents of Crystal Lake have something more to fear than Tina’s emotionally charged powers as she accidentally frees Jason Voorhees from his watery grave.  He begins yet another killing spree, but is not prepared for the challenge Tina’s powers pose for the undead killer of Camp Blood.

I believe what I don’t like about this movie is the lack of worthwhile characters and fun.  There was always a sense of levity in these movies from even a few light hearted characters.  People that were just fun to spend some time with before the slaughter began.  The only characters in this film making any jokes are the insensitive jerks that are not worth spending time with.  Our female lead of Tina is far too troubled of a character to gain any levity or much relatability from.  There’s really nothing accessible about the character in how she’s presented.  I really don’t think Lar Park-Lincoln was a good casting choice in this instance.  She really does nothing interesting with the character, and spends most of the time with very dour or pouty expressions on her face.  The film starts out when Tina’s ten years old, but her behavior never matures beyond that of a child when we flash-forward.  While she is an active part of the story, it still falls back into that trap with Tommy Jarvis from A New Beginning in trying to make a hero out of a depressed, introverted character.  The potential of what this character could’ve been really required an actress of more textured emotional ability.  I don’t have an issue with the telekinesis idea as it’s something that really could’ve worked very well, but I don’t think it was well realized here.  It feels like a concept that was nothing more than something on the page.  It wasn’t developed with a sense of depth in concept or with the actress.  Like so much in this film, it’s flat and hollow.  The various effects are good for it, but it just needed a stronger character and performance behind it to really sell that this is someone worthy of combating the powerful undead Jason.

The rest of the cast is rather forgettable due to the uninspired writing.  These characters are once again shallow stereotypes played up for one note gags or bland character conflicts.  Not much effort is put into writing them.  I’ll grant that they are better realized stereotypes than most, maybe due to the decent acting talents here, but that doesn’t make them good.  I’ll certainly take this cast and its characters over the boring, disjointed group from Friday The 13th, Part 3, but I’d still rather spend my time with a more entertaining array of people.  On a side note, it’s an interesting retroactive quirk that Terry Kiser happens to be in this movie, and does get killed since he’s partly best known for playing a corpse in the two Weekend at Bernie’s movies.  Kiser is a solid actor with a fine range, but the role of Dr. Crews is such a badly written, one note, obvious bad guy that there was nothing substantive here for him to work with.

The music of the film is terribly uneven.  It features Manfredini cues recorded for Jason Lives and original pieces of score from composer Fred Mollin, and they don’t mesh at all.  They have very different tones and approaches.  Clearly, the Jason Lives music is a little lighter and more fun than the usual Friday The 13th scores mostly utilizing horns, and Mollin’s stuff is very heavy, dark, and menacing primarily using percussion and strings.  It suits the more grim, merciless, and dark edge of the film’s tone.  I have no idea why this mish mash of different scores were used, let alone why they used recycled recordings from the previous film.  This would be fine if they were comparable, but they clearly are not.  It would’ve been better to solely use Fred Mollin’s music throughout as I love everything he did in this film and in Jason Takes Manhattan.  Mollin also did some fine work as the composer on the unrelated television show Friday The 13th: The Series.  I think he took this film and the next into a far more dynamic and foreboding musical realm than Manfredini ever demonstrated.

The climax of this film, how Jason is defeated, is just a horrible idea that is terribly executed.  There’s just so much possibility that could have been taken advantage of with the film’s premise, but what the filmmakers do is just plainly bad.  I mean, you’re telling me that no one ever fished the body of Tina’s dad out of that lake to have a proper funeral?  They just left him to decay at the bottom of the lake forever, and he just happens to come back to life without a bit of decay on him?  In theory, it’s a nice reversal of the dream sequence ending from the first film, but I can’t buy Jason getting taken down in this ridiculous, piss poor manner.  The build up to this moment is excellent.  Great action beats with high production values really ramp up the danger and menace of Jason.  So much is thrown at him, and he just keeps coming back, more pissed off than before.  Kane Hodder even does a full body burn in a rather long take (slow motion or no).  Buechler really makes the whole third act impactful and visually impressive, but to have it end the way it does just feels like someone’s slap dash idea who got too tired to write a proper ending to the film.  It’s just a bad idea, through and through, which makes me want to forget I ever saw it.

I will credit the film for having a distinctly darker tone than the rest of the series.  Visually, it’s very dark and imposing.  It surrounds Jason in far more presence and aura than ever before.  This is also a credit to Hodder’s performance.  He created a very thorough body language and mentality for Jason, and it truly penetrated through the screen.  It truly made Jason frightening again, even if the film itself lacked suspense, a decent plot, or good lead acting.  I get that people are supposed to scream in horror movies, but Lar Park-Lincoln seems to inappropriately scream at the top of her lungs at almost everything in the third act.  It’s like she’s not there inhabiting the scene as an actor enveloping herself in the mood, but just screaming as if that’s the only reaction people are supposed to have in a horror movie.  There’s just no genuine fear or intensity in her performance, despite how purely menacing Kane Hodder is as Jason.  I think his debut performance was absolutely his best.  It’s just unfortunate that it wasn’t in a better movie.

Hodder is greatly aided by the stunning make-up design Buechler created for Jason Voorhees.  Seeing the bones stick out from underneath the decayed flesh, and making use of the partially shattered mask to show just a glimpse of Jason’s zombified face are brilliant touches.  This is a masterwork of special make-up effects artistry and craftsmanship, and is something that has not even been remotely challenged anywhere else in the franchise since.  What gore we do get after the MPAA’s severe slashing of this film is exceptionally good, but even still, you hardly see any of it.  This really was the most heavily edited down entry in the whole series of films, and I’m sure an uncut version would be filled with hardcore gore and graphic violence.  That surely feeds into the overall darker, more aggressive tone of the movie.  John Carl Buechler does give us a film that is nicely and consistently paced with a lot of creative kills that have become classics.  However, it all does just feel like a blunt instrument due to a lack of real suspense.  Anyone can show brutality and gore splattering across the camera lens.  It takes a skilled filmmaker to tightly craft suspense, and Buechler hardly makes an attempt to deliver that integral part of good horror.

It’s been said that Paramount Pictures and New Line Cinema considered the crossover idea of Freddy vs. Jason at this time, but the two studios simply could not come to an agreement.  Thus, what ideas Paramount had for the film were adapted for The New Blood – which is a horribly generic title for a slasher sequel.  It’s hard to picture it aside from a protagonist with a supernatural ability, but I doubt they had anything more than a vague thought of a plot for a 1988 Freddy vs. Jason movie.  Maybe just the thought of it got the screenwriters anxious to throw a more powerful adversary at Jason this time, and really push the supernatural angle further.  Of course, I think the script could’ve used more work overall to develop its premise and characters beyond just base concepts.

The New Blood had some potential, and did deliver on inventive kills and a hard edged approach.  It feels like a brutal horror movie, but without the graphic visuals to complement it, due to the MPAA required cuts.  However, it really comes down to a weak script, and some uninspired casting choices that just make this an unimpressive sequel for me.  This could’ve delivered it all, but ultimately, delivered very little of anything, in my view.  There’s not much entertainment value that I take from this sequel as the characters are often yawn inducing with the lead of Tina Shepard being the biggest offender.  Again, it is very difficult to give a damn about who lives or dies when the characters are badly written or poorly acted.  I know this film has its big fans, but I just need more than edited down, suspense deprived brutality and Hodder’s great debut performance as Jason to win me over.


Friday The 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

This has always been one of my absolute favorites of this franchise.  It delivers largely on entertainment value, and a far superior script and cast than A New Beginning had to offer.  This wraps up the Tommy Jarvis trilogy of films with a very satisfying climax, and there is so much that goes into making it such a great film.

Crystal Lake has been renamed to Forest Green in order to distance the town from its blood soaked past, but Tommy Jarvis (Thom Mathews) is not yet free of his past.  Tommy and his friend Allen Hawes (Ron Palillo) return to the town to dig up Jason’s corpse and cremate it to eradicate the nightmare that’s plagued Tommy since childhood.  However, an iron rod and a lightning strike resurrect Jason as an undead juggernaut, and he immediately resumes his killing spree.  Tommy attempts to motivate the local police into action, but knowing of Tommy’s institutionalization, Sheriff Mike Garris (David Kagen) writes him off as disturbed and has him locked in a holding cell.  However, the Sheriff’s daughter, Megan Garris (Jennifer Cooke), becomes intrigued and invested in Tommy while she and her friends re-open Camp Forest Green for the weekend to host a bus load of kids.  As Jason closes in on the camp and builds up his body count, Megan chooses to aid Tommy in bringing an ultimate end to Jason’s reign of terror.

Slasher films of the mid-to-late 1980s were getting tamed down by the MPAA requiring a lot of gore to be cut to gain an R rating.  That hurt the quality and effectiveness of so many horror movies at this time, but Jason Lives was able to offer more entertainment value beyond the gore.  Writer / director Tom McLoughlin approached this film with a love for classic horror, but also, a desire to add some appropriate humor to liven up the movie.  Bringing Jason back from the grave required a bit of leap for the franchise, but it was handled very smartly with the use of some classic monster movie ideas.  Jason being resurrected by a lightning bolt much like Frankenstein’s Monster is a clear example of that.  The atmosphere McLoughlin added stands out amongst the franchise.  The whole film has this wonderful blue tone with shadow and fog which sets a great visual atmosphere that is evocative of those old noir like Universal monster movies.  Unfortunately, the Deluxe Edition DVD of the film screwed up the color timing so the blue tones are now green, and if this ever gets a Blu Ray release, this is possibly the transfer they will use.

Thom Mathews is my favorite Tommy Jarvis.  He’s finally a full fledged hero taking action to combat Jason directly.  Mathews has plenty of diversity to easily handle the dramatic, action, and lightly humorous demands of the script.  Tommy’s presented as a stronger character than before, but still with an underlying twinge of obsession.  Still, he is ultimately driven to destroy Jason in order to prevent him from killing more innocent people.  That is the right turnaround from the previous film where Tommy just stood around and did next to nothing.  He’s still haunted, but is taking action to rid himself of this waking nightmare once and for all.  Thom Mathews is a strong lead that really shines through, and sparks up a wonderful chemistry with his female lead Jennifer Cooke.  She provides a very spirited and strong willed young lady that is hard to handle for her father or Tommy.  Cooke has charisma, energy, and allure to spare.  She carries herself very well amongst this fun and talented cast – always standing out but never eclipsing anyone.  Megan Garris is a tremendous lively addition to the formula as a smart, fun, assertive, and sexy female lead.

David Kagen is very impressive as Sheriff Garris.  He’s smartly written to be a well-rounded character that is never dumbed down for convenience’s sake.  Kagen makes a big impression right from the start as an assertive man of authority.  Yes, he’s antagonistic to Tommy Jarvis, but anyone would be hard pressed to buy his story of Jason rising from the grave.  Looking at it from Garris’ perspective, he’s acting entirely properly since he doesn’t know what we know as an audience.  He’s an excellent protector for the people of Forest Green and his daughter.  Kagen does a great job making him both a realistic hard ass that you don’t want to mess with, and a rational and often fatherly man with a heart.  It’s wonderfully diverse from McLoughlin’s writing to Kagen’s acting.  Certainly by the third act, he becomes a solid heroic figure that you’re rooting for all the way.

The rest of the cast is a lot of fun.  They feel very much of the 1980s with their fashions, haircuts, and just their general personalities.  Each character has plenty of richness to them to feel like fully realized people, and the cast have plenty of chemistry and charisma to remain entertaining and pleasant to spend time with.  This is one of the most talented casts of the whole franchise, and truly the most fun of them all.

The role of Jason Voorhees eventually fell to C.J. Graham in this film.  However, there are a few scenes, most notably the paintball one, where Jason is portrayed by someone else, but he was quickly replaced with Graham.  That was a very good choice because C.J. truly defined the undead Jason.  He gave the slasher a more menacing body language that was just enough zombie while still being aggressive and intimidating.  He’s definitely one of my favorites.

To aid Graham’s notable turn behind the hockey mask, Jason Lives offers up a slew of creative kills and substantial gore.  While a good deal of graphic content still had to be cut, the horror aspects still sell very well.  Hawes getting punched through the chest, and Jason ripping out his heart is very shocking early on.  It’s an excellent first impression of the strength of this resurrected Jason.  Tom McLoughlin definitely showed he had fun conceiving and creating this film with all the original kills, and indulging in some nice action sequences.  An RV gets flipped on its side driving down the road, and there’s a nice car chase between the cops and Megan’s classic red Camaro.  It’s all very exciting and new stuff injected into a franchise that needed a breath of fresh air at this point.  The addition of several great Alice Cooper tracks from his Constrictor album was just brilliant.  It gave the film an additional promotional boost, and for Cooper, it gained him me and many others as fans.  However, the song “Hard Rock Summer” didn’t see release until the 1999 “The Life & Crimes of Alice Cooper” box set along with the Movie Mix of “He’s Back.”

I’m sure the dark humor of the film turned a number of people off in 1986.  The box office takes of the films steadily declined after Part 3 until the big success of Freddy vs. Jason, and so, this was no bigger of a hit than A New Beginning.  However, since its release, Jason Lives has gained a strong standing in the franchise.  It’s regularly praised as one of the best, and it is easy to see why.  Again, it’s very exciting and filled with a strong visual atmosphere.  Of course, it’s the story and its pacing that are the strongest.  The film has almost a constant urgency about it with Tommy facing the obstacles of Sheriff Garris and the police while Jason is out slaughtering people.  There’s enough going on with the Tommy / police conflict to keep it exciting with him being escorted out of town, getting apprehended in the car chase, and then, having to breakout of his cell with Megan’s help.  It’s a very solid build up to a especially fresh, strong, and fiery climax.  Intercutting between two stories is usually the most surefire way to maintain momentum and rhythm in a film, and McLoughlin shows a great sense of both.  Editor Bruce Green deserves a lot of credit for also keeping the pacing tight and sharply to the point.

Composer Harry Manfredini’s music changed distinctly with this sequel.  I’m sure there are those that would have preferred him sticking with the classic sound of Friday The 13th, but I have no particular preference either way.  It’s become part of the overall identity of the film which tonally sets it apart from most of the other films.  While I’m sure a first time viewer might have difficulty adjusting the new sound, I still feel it’s appropriate for the film Tom McLoughlin made.

While Friday The 13th Part 2 is my favorite of the classic formula, Jason Lives really is my favorite of the undead Jason era.  I believe writer / director Tom McLoughlin put together a thoroughly satisfying sequel which strongly wraps up the Tommy Jarvis storyline, and is filled with a fun 1980s style.  After the creative failure of A New Beginning, he gave us a film that felt lively and entertaining with some highly memorable and enjoyable characters.  The self-referential humor is nicely balanced with the horror aspects, and careful avoids falling into self-satire or parody.  It remains light and realistic, never making the characters appear dumb or foolish.  It is a very smartly written film that is executed with an equal level of intelligence.  I give this film glowing praise all around, and I highly recommend it.


Friday The 13th, Part V: A New Beginning (1985)

So, Jason Voorhees has been hacked to pieces, and Paramount decided to launch a new direction for the franchise.  Fortunately, it was short lived with this lower grade, poorly conceived sequel trying to position Tommy Jarvis as the new killer of the Friday The 13th films.  Quite frankly, this has a lot wrong with it right from the start, and it’s easy to see why Paramount quickly rebounded with the far superior Jason Lives.  I’ve just never really liked this entry much because of it’s very direct-to-video production quality, bland execution, and lack of decently written characters.  The director and screenwriters simply did not have the talent to make this a good movie, regardless of the MPAA cuts.

A few years have past for Tommy Jarvis (John Shepard) since he saw Jason Voorhees killed, and after some time in a mental institution trying to recover from those horrific events, he’s been transferred to a halfway house far from Crystal Lake.  Unfortunately, soon after his arrival, a volatile young patient named Vic Faden suddenly murders the young, obnoxious, and obese Joey with an axe.  Shortly thereafter, it seems as though Jason has been resurrected from the grave to murder more people.  Meanwhile, Tommy suffers from hallucinations of Jason repeatedly, and they are slowly driving him mad.  As the bodies stack up, and Tommy seems to have disappeared, suspicions intentionally fall upon him.  However, it eventually becomes clear to the audience that this is not the work of Jason, but of a mysterious imposter using the Jason lore as a façade for his murder spree.  The aftermath of this violent experience hints at a new direction for the franchise that would quickly be discarded after backlash from the fans.

Firstly, John Shepard does a partially good job as the new Tommy Jarvis.  I think a lot of the hallucination scenes are excellently handled giving Tommy an obvious mental imbalance.  However, a lot of Shepard’s screentime is him standing or sitting around silent and introverted.  Shepard doesn’t put any effort into making Tommy seem like a troubled young man outside of those hallucinatory freak out scenes.  The screenplay doesn’t give him anything to do to showcase such behavior.  He also has almost no character interactions in this movie, and thus, it doesn’t give Shepard much to work with.  So, it’s a fine line to divide this issue which can also cut towards director Danny Steinmann’s way since he also co-wrote the script.  Instead of directing Shepard to demonstrate that internal turmoil, he just has him be a blank slate that shows nothing of what Tommy is going through.  Still, in the vast majority of his screentime, John Shepard just fills up the frame, and even in the big climax of the film, he still comes off as a waste of space.  Corey Feldman, who does cameo as Tommy in the opening dream sequence, did a stunningly impressive job with the diverse range the character of Tommy Jarvis offered in the previous film.  He hit everything dead-on-the-mark, and made a powerful impression throughout the movie.  There is nothing within John Shepard’s performance to remotely equal that exceptionally well-rounded and captivating performance from Feldman.  In the following film, Thom Mathews would serve as an excellent hero for this franchise, and do so much more than Shepard even tried to do in this sequel.

The mood and scares are decent enough.  I especially feel Violet’s stalk and slash death scene is exceptionally effective with the soundtrack of “His Eyes” by Pseudo Echo behind it.  Unfortunately, you definitely get very little gore due to the MPAA’s stringent standards of the time.  Still, the big problem of this film is the lack of decent characters to give a damn about.  There are a lot of random people added to the body count who only show up for one scene to get killed.  That’s one sense of why I feel it comes off like a bland and cheesy direct-to-video movie.  You can contrast the characters in this film to those in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.  The main characters in both are all in a mental health facility with their own quirks and personal issues.  In Dream Warriors, the roles are smartly written and greatly cast to create a very strong ensemble of young characters that add vibrancy and emotional relatability to the film.  In A New Beginning, the characters all seem very under-developed as if they are just there to just fill up the screenplay.  They are not given any depth or background, let alone particularly likable aspects  They either come off as too weird, too irritating, or just uninteresting.  They bring no life to the film for an audience to really get scared for them, and the casting is not all that memorable.  There are some decently entertaining bits here and there with one or two characters, but other characters are just blandly written or underwhelmingly acted.  Nobody stands out.  They all blend into the background creating a film with no real tension, energy, or charisma.  Considering The Final Chapter and Jason Lives have two of the best young casts of the series with nicely fleshed out characters that are memorable and enjoyable, this makes A New Beginning even more of a sore thumb in the franchise.  Horror and suspense work best when an audience cares about the characters in the story, and I really could not care less about these.

While, like I said, the mood is decent, I do feel this movie is lit a little too brightly.  It feels a little too slick and polished taking away the dark and gritty feeling the series had up to this point.  That takes away from the effective, harder edged horror atmosphere the previously films generally had.  Plus, without having some abundant, high end gruesome gore effects to elevate the graphicness of the film, it all just feels cheap.  The Final Chapter felt like a franchise high point as a standard bearer for what a slasher film should be.  This film is just the opposite.  It shows the bottom of the barrel quality of what the genre should avoid becoming.

The direction of Danny Steinmann is just not very good.  I know there are far worse, more ineptly made movies out there, but for a mainstream horror franchise, this is as bad as you’d ever fear it would get.  Again, everything is cheap – the characters, the gore, the cinematography, the story, and the screenplay itself.  Steinmann co-wrote this with Martin Kitrosser, one of the writers of Friday The 13th, Part 3, a film that shares many of the same problems as this one, only not to this degree.  The third writer, David Cohen, wrote two other films no one’s heard of and that was it.  Steinmann never made another film after this one, and it is severely evident why.  This is not a theatrical release quality film.  It does reek of direct-to-video quality with its abundant cheesiness, poor script, and bland direction.  The attempt to make Tommy seem like the killer in this is lazily handled.  The film tries to throw a number of red herrings into the mix, but really, it plays up no mystery aspect whatsoever.  It’s entire intent is to push Tommy to becoming the new killer of Friday The 13th, but puts nearly no effort at all into fooling you into believing he might be the killer at large.  Anything that is dropped in to allude to that seems like a weak afterthought.

I’m not singling Steinmann out for any personal reason.  His 1984 revenge exploitation film Savage Streets has a strong cult following, and while I have never seen it, I am generally intrigued to see it.  With that cult following, it does seem to say that Steinmann was capable of making a satisfactory film filled with violence, sexuality, and grit.  Maybe Friday The 13th, Part V: A New Beginning was just a wrong choice of film for him, or he worked with the wrong creative team.  Anything is possible, but the fact remains that he did not handled this movie well in any creative aspect.  Even if the gore was re-instated into the film, it would not make up for the poorly executed story, the flat characters, or the overall cheesiness of the film he made.

And it’s hard to even be fooled into thinking this is Jason Voorhees back from the dead.  Frankly, he looks and moves more like a poor Michael Myers imitation than a decent Jason Voorhees ones.  The blue coveralls, the slender build, the more mechanical movement, and the lackluster hockey mask just scream “bad imposter.”  Even the old VHS box cover couldn’t get the hockey mask right.  It looked like some cheap plastic mask you’d buy at the corner drug store.  Everything about this film just drives home the fact that this isn’t Jason, and we’re not even trying to fool you.  Conversely, the Jason seen in Tommy’s hallucinations looks very authentic in every detail.  Now, that clearly shows that the filmmakers could have given the imposter a more faithful design to heighten the second guessing of whether this really was Jason or not, but chose to just cheap out on that aspect.  They even still give this regular mortal man superhuman strength, just like Jason, but in every visual aspect, he clearly is not Jason Voorhees.  It’s simply bad conceptualization and poor execution.

The climax is easily one of the weakest of the franchise.  I really did not like having some wise-ass kid running around this film in Reggie, and him being part of the climactic action is just cringable for me.  He’s treated like a big hero in the whole thing, and there’s even a big music cue to support that intention.  I simply couldn’t get invested in these weak characters to really care who survived or if there was a true protagonist here.  Tommy is such an inactive part of the story that the film, in order to build suspicion that he’s the killer, is able to have him disappear for a good long while, and it doesn’t make a single bit of difference at all.  It’s very hard to sell Tommy as a potential hero when, at the same time, you are lazily trying to sell him as the potential villain.  It just comes off as very shoddy work.  This is a script that just meanders from one death scene to the next with no idea of what story it’s trying to tell.

All in all, this is really a sad sequel that delivered next to nothing worthwhile, and Paramount heard the cries of fans everywhere regarding it.  They ignored what this film attempted to setup for the Tommy Jarvis character, and took the following film into a far more satisfying and enjoyable direction.  I think it was a very fortunate turn of events that Corey Feldman was already working on The Goonies at this time, and could only do a single scene cameo.  It undoubtedly gave his career a massive boost to be working with great filmmakers like Richard Donner and Steven Spielberg on an eventual blockbuster instead with Danny Steinmann on a low grade slasher sequel.  Again, there are vastly worse films you could subject yourself to, but there are also so many better slasher films around than this sad entry in the Friday The 13th series.  However, there is one worse entry in this franchise, in my opinion, but it’s much, much further down the line in the New Line Cinema era.


The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The short version of this review if that The Amazing Spider-Man is a pretty damn good film.  I liked it.  Now, I fell off from being a fan of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies.  The first one was okay, but very cartoonish.  The first sequel is something I passionately hate, and have no desire to ever subject myself to it again.  Thus, I never bothered with the third film.  That made the news of a reboot immensely pleasing to me.  I was very excited to see all that muck washed away, and allow a new filmmaker to start with a clean slate.  Mainly, what I like about this movie is how character driven it is, and how well developed the emotional qualities of it are.  Instead of a very self-pitying Peter Parker, we get one that feels like the character I’ve wanted to see, and is one that is highly enjoyable to invest myself in.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is an outcast high schooler who was abandoned by his parents as a boy, leaving him to be raised by his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). Like most teenagers, Peter is trying to figure out who he is and how he got to be the person he is today. Peter is also finding his way with his first high school crush, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and together, they struggle with love, commitment, and secrets. As Peter discovers a mysterious briefcase that belonged to his father, he begins a quest to understand his parents’ disappearance – leading him directly to OsCorp and the lab of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father’s former partner. As Spider-Man is set on a collision course with Connors’ alter-ego, The Lizard, Peter will make life-altering choices to use his powers and shape his destiny to become a hero.

I want to start out with the tone of this film.  Some may have labeled it a “darker” approach, but that is an incorrect term.  This is a serious, dramatic approach to the character with substantive depth.  However, that doesn’t mean it is not fun.  In fact, this is a very fun movie that finally gives us the witty, charismatic Spider-Man that was sorely absent in the previous three films.  There is a scene where Spidey to webbing a criminal to a brick wall, and the Web-slinger is spouting off the funniest wisecracks which never border on campy or cheesy.  Spidey’s never been an intimidation type of hero like Batman or the Punisher.  He uses his sharp wit and humor to throw his adversaries off balance, but most importantly, it shows that Peter Parker is having a lot of fun being Spider-Man.

The more dramatic tone is handled exceptionally well by director Marc Webb.  The character is treated with love, respect, and integrity.  The relationship between Peter and Gwen is very heartfelt, and never shies away from Peter’s understandable awkwardness.  It makes the character endearing and likeable.  Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have solid chemistry making every loving moment magical.  Of course, the emotional resonance for Peter goes deeper and further than this.  When Peter loses loved ones in the film, it deeply penetrates through the screen.  The connection and mystery surrounding his parents’ death is the linchpin of Peter’s story here.  It’s what drives him forward through the narrative, and causes a lot of heartache and emotional pain for him.  He’s sad, angry, and curious about it at different points in the film.  Both Webb and Garfield make Peter’s pain strongly relatable and sympathetic.  It pours out even stronger after what happens to his Uncle Ben, which is handled with similar circumstances as in the original comics.

Marc Webb and the screenwriters made some smart choices in presenting a similar yet slightly different origin for Spider-Man.  Long standing events in the character’s origin still exist, but are simply given a different environment.  Same general context, but presented in a way to not be carbon copies of what was done in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man.  These sequences entirely retain the purpose and resonance they’ve always have, but we just get to see a different take on how they happen.  For instance, Peter gets bitten by the genetically altered spider because he goes snooping around OsCorp seeking answers on his father.  It’s not a pure chance that’s he’s at the lab.  Specific actions are taken by Peter to place himself in that situation, and Spider-Man is born out of it.  Again, these events are driven by character motivations.  They are plot elements that link back up with one another and tangle up quite nicely.

I love the newly designed costume.  Admittedly, I’m more of a general Spider-Man fan, not a die hard one.  So, I felt that Spidey’s costume could use a little updating, and this fits the bill very well.  The costume slowly comes together as Peter refines how he operates.  I also love how the web-shooters come about.  Sam Raimi decided to make them organic in his films because he didn’t think it was believable that Peter Parker could create an adhesive that some big corporation couldn’t invent.  Here, it is invented by a big corporation – OsCorp – and Peter merely obtains a supply of the material. That’s a brilliantly simple solution.  The mechanical shooters, however, are his creation.

The overall look of the film maintains that dramatic tone with a rich color scheme and respectably moody lighting.  Cinematographer John Schwartzman really does a fine job giving weight and beauty to the dramatic character scenes, and plenty of rousing, exciting camera work to the action sequences.  It looks like a big movie.  As always, I only go see the 2D versions, but I can see a few sequences theoretically turning out rather impressively in 3D, especially the Spidey point of view shots when he’s web-slinging.  There are plenty of dynamic and big shots in the action sequences to give your eyes a pleasant visual feast.  Complementing that is James Horner’s gorgeous score.  He’s done scores I’ve not cared much for, but he’s also done some wondrous work that I think highly of.  He does an exceptionally strong job here giving the film both its poignant emotional moments and its big heroic themes.  Marc Webb really pulled together all the right elements to encapsulate a cohesive tone overall.

And yes, Andrew Garfield is stellar in this role.  I like his take on the character.  He’s not some lowly geek with no spine.  He’s much more modern as a teenager who has a good heart and the desire to stand up to the bully in Flash Thompson, but just doesn’t have what it takes to physically or confidently take a stand.  He can be a little socially awkward here and there, but you can see his heart and charm shine through.  Garfield brings out a fully dimensional character that I truly felt for throughout the movie.  It’s a character journey where Peter has to come to grips with a lot of emotional struggles, and to grasp onto his responsibilities.  He helped Curt Connors find the missing equation that allowed him to become this mutated menace, and Peter knows he has to clean up his own mistakes.  As it has to be said, Garfield AMAZINGLY handles all these diverse aspects from the socially awkward to the heartfelt teenager in love to the emotionally hurting to the humorous wise cracker to the inspiring hero.  He is truly a rock solid fit for this character, and a substantive actor who can carry this franchise for a long time to come.

Emma Stone is equally as good.  She has talent to spare that makes an audience take investment in Gwen Stacy.  She’s a loving, caring, well rounded character brought to textured life by Stone.  She is beautiful and intelligent, making it no wonder why Peter Parker would be so fully taken by her.  I know that, in the comics, Gwen Stacy is killed by one of Spider-Man’s villains, but frankly, with an actress of this quality and breadth of talent, it would be foolish to dispose of her in any soon-to-come sequel.  Again, she has glorious chemistry with Andrew Garfield, and this film definitely takes its time to develop their loving relationship.  I hope to see it grow and flourish in any sequels Columbia Pictures chooses to make.

I also very much liked what Denis Leary did with Captain George Stacy.  Leary easily could’ve slipped into an area of comedy with his line deliveries, harkening to his role on Rescue Me with cynicism and such.  However, he keeps it restrained.  Leary has impressed me vastly with some dramatic roles in the past while also balancing humor such as in Suicide Kings.  Here, he keeps Captain Stacy a respectable man with a serious, focused mind.  He makes the character strong and pertinent as well as showing us some heart along the way.  It’s very exceptional that so many characters are given noticeable development as the film progresses.

I even like how Flash Thompson is given some development.  At first, he’s the usual hard ass bully muscling people around, but he’s given a few scenes where he softens a little.  He expresses compassion for Peter’s loss, and even sort of kids around with him at the film’s end.  That’s such an excellent touch to not make Thompson a one dimensional convenience.  So many times, a bully is just a shallow foil for the hero to overcome.  Here, we see that he is a human being with the capacity for being more than just a jerk.  That’s very nice work by the filmmakers with excellent execution by actor Chris Zylka.

Greatly compelling in the role of Dr. Curt Connors is Rhys Ifans.  He’s an intelligent character who slowly becomes more obsessed with his increasingly crazed machinations.  Once he’s injected with that serum, it begins to change him both biologically and psychologically.  Ifans goes from a fascinating, if distant character to much more unnerving and intimidating.  It’s a rather subtle performance he puts in, never trying to go over the top.  It entirely goes with the film’s general tone, and surely builds Connors up to being threatening as his psychological state becomes more unhinged.

Lastly with the cast we have Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May Parker.  I really, really liked them in these roles.  Sheen conveys the feeling of a surrogate parent doing the absolute best he can to be as good as Peter’s own father.  He’s compassionate and understanding, but also, stern when called for.  With the limited screentime he has, he creates a character that can resonate with an audience through Peter’s perspective.  Sally Field gives Aunt May a more modern sensibility than how the character is usually portrayed as some soft, grandmotherly type.  Field still gives her vulnerability and compassion, but feels like a parent most can relate to.  She has some spirit, humor, and inner strength that I very much admired.

I really just enjoyed how everything felt more contemporary here.  Characters felt like products of the world we live in, and have realistic depth.  It’s a long period of time before Peter Parker dons a costume in this because a lot of time is taken to develop the characters and the context of the world they inhabit.  It all feels very rich and dimensional.  This now feels like a film franchise that can have many layers to it that is not so action dependent.  It can create a compelling story driven by the characters and their emotional states.  Marc Webb definitely leaves the mystery about Peter’s parents open to be further explored and unraveled in another film or two.  There is a single scene just after the start of the end credits featuring Dr. Connors speaking to this effect with an unidentified character.  It’s a definite tease that keeps that storyline in the forefront of the minds of the audience.  I also like how Norman Osborn is continually mentioned, but never shown.  This sets up an unknown reveal of if and how the Green Goblin may enter into this franchise.

The visual effects are pretty good.  There’s a lot of really good stuff, and some effects that could still be better.  The Lizard himself can seem a tad lacking in the seamless realism.  Granted, it’s difficult to make a nearly seven foot tall Lizard appear realistic, but I just felt that it didn’t always interact well with its real world surroundings.  It could be a little cartoonish, especially when tumbling around with Spider-Man at times.  However, it never soured the movie to me.  Admittedly, the digital creation looks better in darker environments such as the sewers or nighttime exteriors, and that’s mostly where we see him.  Thankfully, essentially everything with Spider-Man as a digital effect is practically seamless.  I wasn’t so sold on it from the trailers, but in the film itself, I really can’t see any difference.  The motion of the character remains consistent with realistic weight given to his movements.  No loss of texture was evident to my eyes, either.

The action sequences tend to be very smart.  It’s very much making great use of Spidey’s various powers, and the environments they are set in.  I immensely loved the subway car scene where Peter is first discovering his powers, by accident.  You see the Spidey Sense in action as he reacts instinctually to threats and showcases his speed, agility, and strength without even realizing what he’s doing.  It’s also a rather funny sense as Peter unintentionally assaults some troublemaking subway riders.  There is a sequence showing Peter being overwhelmed by these strong powers, but he slowly reigns them in as he gets more comfortable having them.  It’s handled with some wit and humor along the way.  More dire action scenes really demonstrate the great dynamic between the Lizard and Spider-Man.  The former has the strength and size advantage, but that just forces Spidey to be more inventive and strategic in how he battles this foe.  The climax of the film is very well handled entirely shying away from the worn out “damsel in distress” scenario, and going with something far more organic from the plot that has more dire consequences for the whole city of New York.

However, as I said, this is a character driven story, and the film doesn’t end two minutes after the action climax.  It takes what time it needs to tie off the emotional and character threads that the film spent so much careful time developing.  I really, really like that, and it’s qualities like that which really elevate this film for me.  While I wasn’t astounded or floored by the film as a massively exciting experience, I found more value in that it was structured around character and the intent on building a deep, rich palette to draw upon for stories with more emotional depth and resonance than what was given to us previously.  I can definitely see some people not quite liking this film so much as does feel like a 136 minute film with its more easy pace.  It is a film that takes its time, but balances the drama with plenty of fun.

If Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 was the equivalent of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, then The Amazing Spider-Man is the Batman Begins equivalent for this franchise.  I give The Amazing Spider-Man high praise and a wholehearted recommendation.  I was disappointed that The Avengers had such a weak plot and a totally stock villainous force with no emotional depth or character development.  This is just the opposite as I came to care for practically every pertinent character on screen because the writing was so strong and the direction was very strong and deeply impressive.  The story is injected with plenty of substance with beautiful chemistry from its romantic leads.  It never gets lazy by falling into clichés, and is intent on being fresh and weighty with a nice sense of fun.  The more I think of it, the more I love what this movie has to offer.  I wholly believe it is worth your time to experience it.  While it doesn’t have as much big action punch as The Avengers, I damn well enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man a hell of a lot more.  It feels like a full, fleshed out film with a world of possibilities to explore in subsequent entries.  I just hope most of the audience can see the value in it that I do because I really want to see more of this Spider-Man.


Seven (1995)

Back in my favorite year in film, 1995, David Fincher brought us a terribly disturbing and gripping crime film in Seven that changed the genre dramatically, and set Fincher forth on a very successful, high profile directorial career.  His previous film was Alien 3, and that was plagued with production difficulties and creative clashes.  It was not a success, but Seven showed what an unencumbered David Fincher was capable of.  Supported by a powerful cast and a brilliant screenplay, this didn’t just spark his career, it ignited it.

Lieutenant Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a seasoned investigator who is on his final days before retirement.  Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) is a young, impulsive cop looking to make a difference, and maybe even a name for himself, here on the grimy, ugly side of this nameless city.  They are put together on a series of murders that Somerset soon determines is the work of a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world’s ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Each crime is more ghastly than the last as this sociopath “John Doe” uses them as a garish method of preaching.  While Mills is quickly convinced that this killer is a certified whack job, Somerset sees the calculating, educated rationale behind these crimes.  Both men slowly descend into this frightening and disturbing world that culminates in an unforgettable climax that tests the resolve of both men.

While there had been serial killer films before this, Seven really applied an original concept and environment to the subgenre.  Having the killer, John Doe, be motivated by the seven deadly sins opened up the film to social commentary, and that is handled exceptionally well.  Somerset is someone who you would like to know what kind of person he was before he was damaged by the apathy and amorality of the world.  He’s someone that appears to have once strongly believed in certain admirable principals, but has since lost his zeal for them.  He’s perhaps looked far too deep for too long into the grimy darkness of humanity, and Mills is someone who, likely, hasn’t looked deep enough.  He judges everything on surface appearances, and doesn’t entertain the possibilities of a deeper psychological analysis of their adversary.  Somerset slowly tries to educate Mills to be a more insightful and knowledgeable investigator, and while it brings them more into alignment with one another, it can’t wholly change who Mills is at his core.  The scenes of both Detectives discussing philosophies on Doe’s motives and how they reflect upon society are amazingly well written and perfectly acted by Freeman and Pitt.

With the film never stating what city this takes place in, it creates an enveloping environment in which one can never get quite comfortable, and you’re not supposed to.  The world of Seven is dangerous, seedy, disturbing, and filthy.  This feels like a city where decency of any kind is in the extreme minority.  The production design creates a world that is probably even more weathered than Somerset is.  There is deep texture put into every aspect of every setting to give it a worn down history.  There’s nothing new and shiny here.  It’s all old and deteriorated by time.  The grime seeps through in every frame of film, and the color timing adds to that further with a slightly de-saturated quality.  The near constant rain just adds to the miserable conditions that these characters have trudge through every day.  It was an excellent choice to have the entire climax take place outside of the bleak urban environment and put it into a sun-baked desolate open field.  The visuals in that sequence depict a dead landscape.

The cinematography of Darius Khondji enhances the production design further with a modern noir quality to it.  This is much different than a Michael Mann type of neo noir where things are glossy and colorful, but still offering a depth of darkness.  This is a style of noir that emphasizes the dreadful and macabre aspects of this world.  It’s meant to show off a gritty, unsettling realism that will horrify.  Khondji composes shots with a lot of dramatic weight, and makes use of dolly tracks very well in specific moments.  I love the tracking shot after the duel interrogation scene after the “lust” killing.  It’s just Somerset and Mills sitting in separate interrogation rooms quiet and still.  They are taking a long moment to recover from everything they’ve just witnessed and experienced.  The shot smoothly tracks from the one-way window of Somerset’s room to Mills’ room.  It’s a quiet downbeat moment for both the characters and the audience to soak it all in.  The main action sequence of the Detectives chasing after John Doe is exceptionally well shot maintaining a solid sense of geography with each character, and letting each shot count as the sequence moves from one location to another.  The scene constantly evolves adding in new obstacles and dangers along the way.  Every aspect of its execution is excellent.  Overall, the cinematography of Seven is superb and masterful.  It is definitely a result of a cohesive artistic vision.

Rob Bottin was a special make-up effects master starting with his amazing achievements in John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982.  In Seven, his signature grotesque and stunningly detailed work is highly evident.  He knows how to bring out the garish realistic horror in his creations.  It fits Fincher’s visual style dead-on presenting the smallest details with great clarity to make you believe that everything your seeing is frighteningly real.  Bottin worked with great filmmakers like Joe Danté and Paul Verhoeven before joining with Fincher, and I could praise Bottin’s body of work to endless extent.  It has always had a particularly off-beat and strange approach which reflects Bottin’s personality very well.  While Seven went grossly under-appreciated at the Academy Awards with only a well deserved nomination for Best Editing, Rob Bottin won a Saturn Award for his work here, and it was also very well deserved.

It is a very taut and suspenseful story that Andrew Kevin Walker wrote and Fincher executed.  No time is really wasted getting our characters into the plot.  We learn about them along the way through the investigation instead of introducing them in a standard first act structure of seeing them go through their daily lives before something adverse occurs.  How they each approach the case tells us all we need to know about Mills and Somerset, as I stated earlier.  The case and plot unfold with a strong sense of mystery and intrigue as both Detectives uncover the chilling theme behind these murders.  Each homicide becomes increasingly more graphic and horrific, thus, heightening the twisted psychological state of the killer.  Meanwhile, there is Somerset getting to know David and his wife Tracy, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, who tries to adjust to their new home, which she is not very fond of.  She confides in her husband’s new partner after getting to know his sensible and compassionate manner.  These scenes and character beats are nicely interwoven to continue developing these characters and their relationships.  This maintains an audience’s invested interest in how they deal with everything that’s going on, and the repercussions of what they encounter.

The film presents a definitely interesting psychological state of its killer.  How he gets into police custody is quite unexpected, and sets up a very compelling final act where John Doe is in control.  He might be in handcuffs, but he’s the one leading the Detectives towards a chilling conclusion.  A friend of mine believes that Brad Pitt over acts drastically in this climax.  I’ve never had a problem with it.  In that moment, David Mills is severely torn in an agonizing emotional state where he wants to lash out, but repeatedly tries to restrain the urge.  He’s already established as an impulsive and brash person, and attempting to not lash out in anger would be extremely difficult for a man like David Mills to do.  He’s fighting raw, instinctual emotion, and that would likely result in the reaction Pitt presents here.

Brad Pitt’s performance all around is rich with depth and emotion.  Mills is a guy who cares about what he does, and wants to make a difference.  He could easily become an ignorant jerk of a character with his brash attitude and closed mindedness, but Pitt gives him enough heart and humanity to make him likeable.  He takes the hard headedness, the intensity, the loving husband, the optimistic outlook on humanity, and the naivety and mixes them into a cohesive whole.  As do all the characters in this film, David Mills has his complexities, and Pitt makes it all work and make sense.  Pitt also visually inhabits the role well giving Mills a dirtier, more gritty look than Pitt had ever adopted before, and truly makes the character seamless with the world he inhabits.

The synergy between Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman is solid.  They counterbalance one another beautifully with their characters existing with polar opposite mentalities.  They hardly ever agree on anything, but are both motivated to see this investigation through to the end.  When they occasionally do get on the same page, it’s a great spark that quickly motivates the story forward.

Freeman, as always, is exceptional.  He embodies the dour philosophical mindset of William Somerset wholly.  Again, he’s a man worn out from the moral decay of society, and only reluctantly gets pulled towards this case.  At first, he wants to avoid it, but Somerset’s intuitive and educated mind drives him towards it.  Freeman greatly captures that reluctant attraction, and conveys the character’s psychological investigative approach with a great deal of skill and weight.  Somerset is very meticulous, never jumping to conclusions, and Freeman has the right seasoned quality and grasp on tone to sell those qualities well.  So much of the film’s tone is sold through him.  Prior to the appearance of John Doe, all of the religious ideology and deconstruction of motive is carried by Morgan Freeman, and I don’t think anyone else could’ve done it as well as he did.  While the screenplay explains it all very well, if handed over to the wrong actor, it might not sell remotely as well or as coherently.  Again, it’s all in the tone, which is pitch perfect through Morgan Freeman’s deeply talented abilities.

In the same year that Kevin Spacey gave us his exceptional performance in The Usual Suspects, he also gave us this fascinating surprise performance as John Doe.  It’s a greatly subdued and conservative piece of work that makes Doe so much more unsettling.  Throughout his screentime, there’s that knowledge that Doe is not done, yet.  There is something more chilling and frightening still to come, and Spacey’s performance is very foreboding in the most subtle way possible.  He’s in control, and he is reveling in the impending completion of his masterpiece.  It’s all amazingly compelling.  Spacey won an Academy Award for his turn as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, and this role is equally deserving of that accolade.

The supporting cast is very solid.  R. Lee Ermy is the tough Police Captain, but never falls into that Full Metal Jacket stereotype people like to shoehorn him into.  While he doesn’t have a great amount of screentime, his character is given enough character beats to make him feel fleshed out and genuine.  Gwyneth Paltrow is perfectly cast as Mills’ wife Tracy.  She’s a very compassionate and loving woman who is not pleased with their current situation moving into the city, but has no desire to cause David any stress or turbulence by voicing her worries.  She is an exceptionally decent young woman that definitely is out of place in this decaying urban setting, and Paltrow plays these emotional beats with depth and heart.  Everyone else filling out the cast holds their own strongly, and help to create a very full and dimensional world for this film.

Lastly, Howard Shore composed a strong score by bringing weight to the grim, horrifying atmosphere.  It truly emphasizes the drama, urgency, and intensity of the film.  It’s not a score that jumps out at you, and nor should it be.  It maintains and enhances dramatic tone throughout.  Shore has proven to be a widely diverse film composer, and he is able to complement David Fincher’s darker cinematic style so very well here.

Andrew Kevin Walker put together a deeply impressive and stunning screenplay here, and Fincher was the absolute perfect choice to realize it.  Much of what I write in these reviews is more than just saying if the film is good or bad.  In a case such as this, it’s about spotlighting the brilliant achievements in filmmaking, and analyzing what made it such an instant, powerful classic.  Seven is a landmark film for the genre, and especially for New Line Cinema.  It was really their first A-list type of film attracting high profile movie stars like Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey, and securing an amazing director with incredible vision in David Fincher.  It’s entirely shot as a major studio film, and strongly moved New Line Cinema into contention as a serious, big budget studio.  Only six years later would they release The Lord of the Rings trilogy to massive commercial and critical success.  This was a pivotal film for both the studio and David Fincher.  It is an all around shocking and amazing piece of work that delivers an intelligent story with thematic and dimensional elements along with startling images of graphic horror.