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Archive for September, 2012

Underworld: Awakening (2012)

For me, this was a “wait for it on cable” movie.  The premise for this fourth film in the series simply did not appeal to me.  Frankly, it seemed more like another Resident Evil sequel than an Underworld one.  I straight up didn’t like the more science fiction edge to everything.  It seemed to be trading off the wonderful depth of mythology and classy production design for hollow science and sleek, cold settings.  I could not get excited to see this, and from the way the trailers looked, I wasn’t going to spend money to see it.  Ultimately, I didn’t have to, and I’m glad for it.  Underworld: Awakening is not worth spending your hard earned money to see.

The vampire and lycan species have been discovered by humanity, and have waged a war of annihilation against both.  Twelve years later, vampire Death Dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) awakens from a cryogenic sleep in an Antigen genetics laboratory, and manages to escape her human imprisonment.  On re-entering this world, she finds that the lycans are almost extinct, but somehow, have begun creating stronger, enhanced lycans.  She also discovers that she has a twelve year old daughter, Eve (India Eisley), who is a vampire/lycan hybrid that everyone either fears or fights to re-capture for their own vile purposes.  While on the run, Selene is aided by vampire David (Theo James) who brings her to a diminished coven hiding underground led by Thomas (Charles Dance), who does not welcome her presence knowing her past, but David stands with her in her fight.  However, soon, all are thrown into danger as those who would use Selene’s daughter for a mysterious antidote abduct her, forcing Selene to take the fight directly back to Antigen, and uncover an unsettling truth.

I will say that the film didn’t turnout to be as bad as I anticipated it to be, but it wasn’t all that worthwhile either.  This franchise feels about a half step away from going direct-to-video.  The only thing that saves this film from feeling as such are the action sequences.  They are still very high grade with big, slam bang stunts and good choreography.  However, there are moments that felt a little too preposterous for me.  Granted, Underworld: Evolution didn’t have the time to really show the potential of Selene’s newfound abilities, but some of them just seemed ridiculous and beyond the laws of physics in Awakening.  Selene might be exceptionally strong now, but I don’t think that someone of Kate Beckinsale’s slim size and weight could possibly ram into a van and barrel it over like a freight train.  Enhanced vampire strength or no, it’s just a little too much for me to buy.  There are other little moments throughout the film that delve into that well of exaggeration.  Some have a mild pay-off like Selene actually reaching into David’s chest and restarting his heart with her bare hand, but most are just there to amp up Selene beyond the suspension of my disbelief.  It’s one blatant sign that the filmmakers have ceased to care about creating an interesting story, and just want to go for ridiculous indulgences.

The CGI might be a little better than the previous film – Rise of the Lycans – but it’s still not all that good.  There are some sequences that are better than others, but on the whole, it’s still distinctly below the exemplary standards of the first two films.  This mainly affects the appearance of the lycans themselves.  Sometimes they look cartoonish and silly, other times they appear more real and believable.  This could be the difference of some practical lycans having been used in some sequences as opposed to others.  Still, it’s all a real lazy job done with them as a whole.  None of the transformations were particularly impressive as they lack the harsh, visceral quality that we saw in the series’ earlier installments.  It really is a mystery why, with more than triple the budget of the first movie and nine years of progress in digital effects, does the CGI here look inferior to that of the original 2003 Underworld.  Maybe too much of that budget went to the 3D aspects of the film, which have no impact on a viewer who doesn’t view films in 3D, such as myself.  The vast majority of the digital effects of this film are a substandard failure.

I will confirm to you that Scott Speedman does not reprise his role of Michael Corvin in this film, but the character does appear.  The filmmakers simply hired a not-so-convincing look alike and used some digital effects to mask that fact, but it’s pretty clear to my eyes what they did.  As a result, Michael is barely seen in the film, and I think that is a severe negative mark against this film.  Firstly, what they did comes off as cheap and obvious.  If they could have gotten Speedman, we could’ve at least had some substantive scenes with the character who was so pivotal to the start of this whole series.  To do what they have done just feels disrespectful to the foundations of this franchise.  Selene developed into the character we now know because of Michael, and everything erupted in this first film over Michael.  To now sweep him under the rug or hide him in the dark corner works against the story that they have here.  It feels like there’s this gaping hole in the film that is never plugged up due to his absence.  It forces Selene into a more isolated and coldly violent state of mind which is a huge step backwards for her.

In the least, this felt like the wrong direction to take the series’ storyline in.  The end of Underworld: Evolution left the possibilities wide open for something radically different and brave to be done.  Instead, what we get is very bland and narrow.  I also remember the filmmakers saying after Evolution that they weren’t going to go the route of Selene and Michael having a child together, but here it is.  Not to mention, it’s done with the least amount of effort possible.  It just feels like they took the creative low road, and it resulted in a cheap substitute for not having Michael present.  There are now very few places they could take another sequel because they have setup a very restrictive world for our characters.  They can’t simply exist in the world as it is.  Any new film has to deal with vampires and lycans being exposed to the world at large, and thus, no film can just be about vampires and lycans anymore.  This is what I do not like about this film’s premise.  It takes the war between vampire and lycan and shoves humans prominently into it.  This makes the human race the dominant aggressors due to manpower and resources.  While the story is able to twist it back around to being primarily between the vampires and lycans, the world is already set as both races being fully exposed and hunted by humanity.  That just drains all the interesting qualities from the base premise of this series.  Compared to how immensely textured and fascinating these vampire and lycan characters had been, making humans such a large and oppressive cog in this dynamic hits like a dull thud to me.  The history of both species are essentially meaningless now.  None of that will be explored any further because it’s about genetics, cloning, and humans trying to eradicate both species like a plague.  There’s no personal depth to humans being the enemy.  The first two films were interesting because they dealt with personal loyalties, deceptions, secrets, lies, and emotional motivations on both sides.  It was a very complex web that was intriguing to see unravel, but now, all of these fascinating characters are dead and none of the new ones have any textured history to explore.  It’s very hollow, and that essentially explains this film in general.  It’s a lot of flash and action with little substance.  The story it tells doesn’t even push the franchise forward.  It leaves it stalled out, dead in the water.  This film really doesn’t care much for developed plots or characters, unlike it’s predecessors.

The actual villains in the film are boring to no end.  There’s nothing on the page or in the performances to make an audience give a damn about what they’re doing or why.  Stephen Rea is certainly a better actor than this film demonstrates.  He’s entirely phoning this performance in.  There’s no passion in anything he does as Dr. Jacob Lane, and the plot twist with him still left me not caring.  No one else around him does anything worth caring about either.  These are pointless, empty, disposable villains.  I can feel the lack of giving a damn coming directly from the script.  Previously, you’ve had Viktor, Lucian, and Markus as powerful, vibrant, and intense foils for our protagonists.  They had a lush depth and emotional vigor that made them compelling to watch.  They were written greatly and portrayed brilliantly by some amazing actors.  They felt dimensional, real, and purposeful.  The supposed villains of this film couldn’t be a more stark opposite to all of that.  When the scripts start falling this far off in quality from where the franchise started, you know the direct-to-video market is not far away.

I will admit that Charles Dance does a rather good job as Thomas, the head of the diminished vampire coven.  Dance puts in the effort to make a poignant impression upon the audience for Thomas to have relevance.  I felt him channeling Bill Nighy a time or two with his line deliveries.  Of course, it would’ve been wiser for him to not keep trying to talk through the vampire teeth, or at least, have him re-record his dialogue in post-production.  It just seemed to impede his performance a little, but overall, Charles Dance did well here with a solid, dimensional performance.  Theo James does a fair job as David, but ultimately, it’s a take it or leave it character and performance.  There’s simply no depth or charisma coming from him.  If he had remained dead, it wouldn’t have mattered to me.  Much the same could be said for the rest of the supporting cast.  They are just there to serve a role in the story, but they’re just disposable and forgettable.  Whether they are given some substance or not, they just have no lasting impact.  Even India Eisley offers nothing to endear herself to an audience.  She should be someone we come to care about, but neither the script nor her performance give you anything to latch onto.  Even when the previous films failed to reach an emotional connection with the audience, it wasn’t for a lack of trying by the screenwriters to give depth to the characters.  Here, everyone just exists in the film for the sake of the plot, and they offer up nothing else beyond those narrow, shallow confines.  I’d almost welcome another prequel film just to have some characters I care about show up again.

The film at least has something somewhat worthwhile for Kate Beckinsale to do.  She’s given a decent emotional range to convey with some tears to shed, and some heartfelt concern to struggle with.  However, again, it feels like a step down from where she was in Evolution where there was the bond with Michael to flesh her out and open her up, emotionally.  Here, she’s even more cold blooded and vicious than ever before killing helpless humans left and right on a rampage to find the person she loves.  As always, Beckinsale looks great, and handles the physical demands of the role excellently.  Still, it is a film heavy on the action and lighter on substance.  In the hands of a screenwriter with some enthusiasm and ambition, a great deal more could’ve been done with Selene in this premise.  Themes could’ve been explored in depth about her uncertainty in this new world, and her finding a new purpose with or without Michael.  The ideas of rebuilding the vampires as a strong species could’ve been grappled with more intensely as well.  Instead, these are just background elements to the bland forefront storyline.  I believe Beckinsale has said she will not come back for another film, and I think that’s a wise decision.  She is a very good actress who should focus on expanding her career instead of shackling it to a franchise that is on a steep decline in creative quality.  Not to mention, the filmmakers and screenwriters seem to have no ambition to push the character to anywhere that challenges Beckinsale.  Rarely is any charisma ever is injected into the character, either.  Any expansion on the character’s range is marginal from film-to-film.  There are leaps and bounds they could take Selene with some powerful new stories, but there is just no place for that in this franchise, four films on.  Underworld has settled into a straight action film franchise with some thin emotional strands and increasingly weaker plots and characters.

I think the problem with the franchise is that the filmmakers have never been confronted with the problems of the films.  Therefore, they have never had critical pressure put on them to improve the aspects that have dragged along unchecked from movie to movie.  The odd thing is that they have all been different problems in each movie.  Whether it’s a lack of emotional vibrancy, thoroughly fleshed out stories, or a prequel that doesn’t just retread the same back story we’ve already been told about, the screenwriters and filmmakers just can’t balance out the vital aspects of these films.  There simply doesn’t seem to be a fire lit under the filmmakers of this franchise to push themselves to do more with it.  They settle for something adequate instead of striving for exceptional.  Underworld: Awakening is a blatant example of that slipping, lax attitude.

I honestly only took the time to watch this film in order to round out my reviews of the franchise.  There was nothing I saw of this marketing campaign that gave me any confidence in this sequel.  It is excessively mediocre in almost every aspect.  While I have never viewed any of the films in this series as great, there has been potential here and there that has just never been put together in the same film.  The best aspects of one film combined with those of another could be forged into just the right mix of story, action, and character to make a fully satisfying film.  Instead, we either get something too oppressive in tone and complex in story dragging the excitement of the film away, or something with a lot of good action and excitement with not enough substance to make it feel like a full film.  Underworld: Awakening is the latter done to an excessive degree in addition to populating itself with an array of forgettable characters and bland performances.  It’s never an outright bad film.  It’s just one I fail to care at all about, same as the filmmakers, evidently.  The creative forces behind this film put forth no effort to improve upon the franchise when there was ample opportunity to do so.  It’s disappointing when a franchise fails to reach its full potential when it has good ideas and good talent to start with.  It’s just plain sad when those in charge of it simply stop trying, and that summarizes my feeling on the Underworld series as a whole.  If another sequel is to come, I deeply hope the studio brings some talented writers and filmmakers on board with some original, ambitious ideas to revitalize this series.


Star Wars (1977)

In 1977, an extraordinary motion picture was released that changed filmmaking forever.  It captured the imagination of millions across the world, and has remained a magical and beloved treasure of cinema for more than three decades.  That film was Star Wars, and I am going to share my love and admiration for this film as it was originally released.  Before a mess of mixed quality digital effects were inserted, and other arguable changes were incorporated into the context of this masterpiece, there was the film I grew up with in the age of VHS and cable television.  This film was a major part of my childhood, and I could not even estimate how many times I have watched it.  This was the first program recorded onto my family’s first VHS tape from when it aired on ShowTime.  So, is it any surprise that this is one of the most important films of my life?

In a galaxy far, far away, a brave rebellion fights against a tyrannical Galactic Empire.  When the ship of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is attacked and boarded by Imperials troops, she hides secret plans to the Empire’s planet destroying space station – the Death Star – into the memory banks of an Astrodroid – R2-D2.  Along with his fellow droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), the two escape to the barren desert planet of Tatoonie where they come under the ownership of Owen & Beru Lars and their farm boy nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  Luke yearns for a life away from this dead end planet, but soon, he finds adventure when R2-D2 seeks out Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Alec Guiness).  Princess Leia recorded a holographic message for the former Jedi Knight and General of the Old Republic to help her in delivering the Death Star plans safely into the hands of the rebellion.  After securing passage aboard the smuggling freighter the Millennium Falcon by way of the cavalier rogue Han Solo and his wooly alien co-pilot Chewbacca, Luke, Ben, and the droids must evade Imperial troops and starships to rescue the Princess before she is executed by the vile Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and the powerful Lord Darth Vader.  Along this journey, Kenobi begins to teach Luke the ways of The Force, a mystical energy field that surrounds all living things, binding the galaxy together, and may hold the power to defeating the Empire.

I believe what captured my young mind with this film is the level of wonder and fun.  Having being born in 1980, I only lived in the era following the innovations of Star Wars, but that doesn’t lessen the amazing cinematic visual brilliance of this film.  I didn’t see a widescreen version until the films started airing on the SciFi Channel in the mid-1990s.  So, that’s saying something special about Star Wars.  The quality of everything is so great with dramatic angles, dynamic special effects, and fascinating locations that even only having half the frame still brought massive impact to my eyes.  Just based on nostalgia alone, I can still watch those old grainy VHS tapes in pan-and-scan for that youthful feeling of watching these films on some quiet afternoon in the 1980s.  Of course, no presentation rivals that of the full widescreen aspect ratio.  The compositions are immensely intelligent and rock solid presenting a film that shows it has a solid foundation in the technical qualities of smart filmmaking.

Simply everything about this film inspired my creativity throughout the years.  George Lucas was an ambitious visionary who knew what he wanted to achieve, but had to do some building to make it happen.  Industrial Light & Magic was created with a slew of young and passionate people who wanted to create innovative special effects.  They had to build the equipment with some of the first computer controlled cameras to do the blue screen visual effects shots, and basically, they had to invent new ways of doing this type of work.  Watching documentary footage of them doing all of this is immensely historic, and it looks like the pioneers of the industry taking those first major steps forward into a grander future.  Every ounce of sweat, hard work, and long hours paid off.  This is one of the absolute finest special effects pictures ever made.  While there had been other films that had done amazing outer space-based visual effects prior to this, they had never done anything as exciting or dynamic as was done here.  The fast paced motion of ships flying by in dogfights had never been seen before, and made this an intense feast for the eyes.  The scope of these effects were awe-inspiring such as the opening shot of the Rebel Blockade Runner being pursued by the relatively massive Star Destroyer, or the Millennium Falcon’s approach to the gigantic Death Star.  These filmmakers knew how to convey size, weight, and scope with these shots to give them a believable reality.  The laser blasts throughout the film, accompanied by the amazing sound design, are vibrant and intense.  They always convey power and danger.  Of course, while the lightsaber rotoscope effects were still a little rough, one could not help but be fascinated and enthralled by their appearance.

In the late 1970s, films were rarely using traditional orchestral scores since disco and synthesizers were so popular.  However, George Lucas knew that something big, epic, and rich was needed to make this a timeless adventure film.  John Williams had already worked with George’s friend Steven Spielberg on the brilliant blockbuster Jaws, and it was Steven’s suggestion to employ Williams for this task.  In retrospect, there surely was no other way to go.  Star Wars is filled with iconic elements, but those gorgeous, masterful themes of John Williams go above and beyond anything else.  Williams has since defined what a rousing adventurous film score is, and that began here.  He captured every single emotion in this film from big and exciting to low and menacing to quiet and meaningful to magical and mysterious to deeply touching.  Star Wars itself does touch on a wide range of emotions and dramatic tones, and every single one is given such depth and soaring richness with this score.  The iconic scene of Luke peering out at the twin suns of Tatoonie yearning for something greater than himself is wonderfully punctuated with a powerful rendition of the main theme.  The flourishes Williams adds throughout just bring such beautiful life to every moment striking the perfect chords every time.  The musical brilliance of John Williams is lushly on display here, and he more than earned the Academy Award for Best Original Score here.  It’s one of the finest achievements of musical art ever committed to film, and he would still be able to build upon and surpass himself later on in this trilogy.

I believe the casting of Alec Guiness was an invaluable one.  He instilled such a wonderful depth of wisdom, warmth, wit, and world weariness to Ben Kenobi.  Guiness carries a sense of history about him that makes Kenobi fascinating and intriguing.  When Ben speaks of the Old Republic, there’s a heartbreaking weight behind it.  You feel the burden of history upon Kenobi’s heart and mind.  While Lucas had not yet concretely decided upon the back story of Star Wars as we’ve come to know it, you can surely read all that we do know into Guiness’ subtle, intelligent, and emotional performance.  His is one of the most powerful and textured performances of the entire saga.  He easily endears himself to an audience with his compassion and good nature.  It doesn’t take long for Ben’s wisdom and caring manner to influence Luke.  While the young Skywalker could still be a little brash, the trust is built right from the start, and it’s very much the tempered wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi that guides Luke down the right path.

Now, I have a lot of respect for Mark Hamill as an actor.  Seeing how he grew with the character of Luke Skywalker is a remarkable achievement that I don’t think enough people give him credit for.  Here, he starts out as an eager young man who is in awe of the wide, adventurous galaxy out there, and frustrated with being stuck on this barren world on the outer rim of that galaxy.  Through Luke, an audience is introduced to and experiences the excitement, danger, and wonder of this galaxy far, far away.  Mark Hamill brings that fresh faced youthful energy and desire to the role.  He feels natural and authentic in everything he puts into the role.  He embodies the wide-eyed and open minded innocence of Luke Skywalker perfectly.  Some have called Hamill whiny as Luke.  They’re not looking close enough at what he’s doing opposite such great talents as Alec Guiness and Harrison Ford.  I like the banter between Luke and Han.  The eager, young kid creating friction with the weathered ego of Solo results in some great funny moments that work very well.  Luke has no problem challenging Han’s ego, and eventually, I think Han comes to respect that spirit in him.

Of course, no one else could’ve portrayed Han Solo as well as Harrison Ford.  He brought a cool swagger and sex appeal which really popped off the screen.  The laid back confidence and charisma made the character feel seedy and dangerous.  He’s a guy who could casually fry an alien bounty hunter in a shady cantina without hesitation or breaking a sweat.  He doesn’t wait for Greedo to make a move.  He intends on shooting him right from the start, and only strings Greedo along until the moment is right.  He’s a definite rogue out for himself only, along with his loyal Wookie friend Chewbacca, but I love seeing how that loner attitude slowly softens as he starts to care for Luke.  Ford nicely shows that transition from rugged, egotistical outlaw to reliable, hopeful friend.  I find it sly and clever how Harrison Ford worked off of Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca.  How Ford leans up against his seven foot tall, lanky frame in certain scenes reinforces that casual swagger of Solo.  These two really felt like two old buddies who had seen it all and been through it all.  They’ll back one another up every step of the way, and aren’t afraid to rush into danger, whether it’s wise or not.

Princess Leia is a great change of pace.  She’s not a helpless damsel in distress.  She can easily handle herself in tough situations whether it’s trading stinging words with the icy Grand Moff Tarkin, or grabbing up a blaster and fending off Stormtroopers in a firefight.  She has solid, inspiring leadership qualities mixed with a sense of warmth and compassion that are strongly brought to life by Carrie Fisher.  It’s great seeing that this young woman can be a very diplomatic, even tempered person in addition to being sternly intelligent and aggressive.  She is not intimidated by Vader or Tarkin, but when others are threatened, you clearly see the humanity that is her core.  It’s also a great dynamic between Leia and Han Solo.  She’s not going to take any of his ego or machismo, and he clearly doesn’t want to suffer any of her insults.  It’s a beautiful piece of writing and chemistry that both Fisher and Ford play up well to comedic effect.  It’s a very nice building block for where the following film would take their characters.

The cast overall is great.  The characters are very distinct and diverse ranging all the way from Anthony Daniels’ sophisticated, yet cowardly droid C-3PO to the amazing Peter Cushing’s razor sharp, authoritative, cold-blooded Tarkin.  It’s interesting that Darth Vader is handled as a secondary villain under Tarkin’s command.  Vader has an undoubtedly powerful, imposing presence that makes him more mysterious and intriguing than Tarkin.  He’s truly a definite dark opposite to Ben Kenobi, but I take nothing away from Peter Cushing’s chillingly theatrical performance.  Having the voice of Vader being provided by the exceptional James Earl Jones was a stroke of genius.  Along with that brilliant respirator sound effect, Jones was integral in making the character as powerful and commanding as he has become.  While he looked immensely awesome and striking, with the wrong voice it never would have worked.

Now, there are people that regard the lightsaber duel between Vader and Kenobi here as the most boring.  I greatly disagree.  It’s actually one of my favorites.  It has a great sense of two old Samurai from a war long ago meeting again to close out unfinished business.  They are not the vigorous young men they once were, but there’s a matter of honor or revenge to settle that neither can deny.  There’s something to prove in one way or another for them both, and it is that aura which elevates the sequence for me.  Their words hold great weight on a very deep personal level, but for Kenobi, there’s something greater at stake than himself.

I believe the writing of humor here is very smart.  It’s always a natural product of the situation or contrasting personalities.  R2-D2 is kind of spunky, and C-3PO is certainly a little uppity.  So, there’s some magical comedic gold which extends from that, but never hijacks the tone of the film.  It adds to the fun and entertainment value.  It accentuates the personalities of the characters, and builds relationships.  The humor is used as an excellent tool to bond these characters together.  They might irritate one another, but eventually, they build a mutual respect through all the shared emotions in these intense life-or-death situations.

The film really does have a wonderful story structure.  We follow these two lowly droids firstly who constantly push the story towards introducing Luke, then Ben Kenobi.  Their actions initiate this slow assembling of an unlikely heroic team built through unexpected situations.  The story nicely transitions into Luke Skywalker being the audience’s guide through this world, allowing us to feel his plight, and incorporating his journey with that of the overall plot.  Ultimately, it comes down to an ensemble piece where each character has a purpose and opportunity to be heroic.  They all have their threads, either plot or character based, that carry them through this adventure, and that’s a clever achievement.  No one’s ever just tagging along without something to contribute or gain from this experience.

The Empire is firmly established right from the start as a dominant, oppressive entity in opposition of the smaller rebel forces.  It’s also a nice juxtaposition where the Imperial Stormtroopers are fully armored, masking their human features while the rebel troopers are clearly human.  It shows that the Empire is rather cold and lacking in humanity while the rebellion is very much about people.  This is a motif carried through the whole film.  Even the TIE Fighter pilots have full respirator gear on while the X-Wing pilots can clearly be seen to the audience.  It’s a very smart visual idea that is realized strongest in Darth Vader.

I also love the seedy parts of the Mos Eisley Cantina sequence.  Touching upon Han Solo’s shady world of smuggling, bounty hunters, and gangsters gives even more flavor and depth to this universe.  It adds an extra layer of danger and treachery to this greater galaxy that we are being introduced to.  The alien designs, while rough with limited rubber masks, still remain effective today.  I can see and understand what George Lucas’ frustrations were with this sequence as he hoped for much higher quality masks and such, it’s still an iconic scene that really captured the imagination of audiences.

While Star Wars is generally a fun, rousing adventure film, it doesn’t shy away from the darker dramatic beats.  The death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru is a very striking moment that penetrates deep inside Luke’s heart and soul, as it does for the audience.  It’s an unsettling, grim scene followed directly after by Darth Vader about to implement a very foreboding interrogation upon Princess Leia.  These setup the dangers our heroes have to face that will motivate them forward.  However, it’s great seeing that Luke never goes down the path of vengeance.  He remains true to who he is and to his friends.  He also knows there’s a greater good to fight for, and he is fully committed to that.  These heavier dramatic beats throughout the film create emotional obstacles for Luke.  The loss of family and friends test his strength of spirit, and pushes him further towards believing in The Force.

The idea of The Force is an excellent one that plays into the mystical, spiritual, and magical.  Luke must believe in something beyond himself to tap into this power.  He learns to trust in himself by way of The Force to accomplish great things.  We are gradually shown the extent of The Force with subtle feelings and tricks at first, but it all builds up to and pays off largely in the climax as Luke lets go of the cold technology to embrace The Force to defeat the cold, oppressive Galactic Empire.  Kenobi becoming “More powerful than you can possibly imagine” to guide Luke in this assault on the Death Star enhances the depth of The Force overall.  It’s something greater than any one person or thing, but if you trust in it fully, it can be yours to command to achieve the incredible.

Speaking of which, Star Wars is filled with incredible action that brings back that swashbuckling mentality of those old serials George Lucas grew up loving.  Backed by that thrilling John Williams score, these are sequence that satisfy in a big way.  In an era of film where things had gotten mostly dark, gritty, and explicitly violent, Star Wars made action fun again without sacrificing suspense, tension, or danger.  The heroes keep getting into increasingly more perilous scenarios where they have to be smart and innovative to escape and survive.  It’s one bad turn after another, which brings the film some humor and excitement, but these situations are never played lightly.  There’s always a real, imminent threat.  This maintains a tight, solid pace.  The film simply has exceptional editing along with superb cinematography.  George Lucas had a great approach to the editing in having the edits dictate the rhythm and pace of scenes instead of the performances.  This ultimately created a much sharper and snappier pace.

The entire climactic assault on the Death Star is one of the best space battle sequences ever.  The amazing, dynamic visual effects cinematography creates an exhilarating cinematic experience.  George Lucas has always been fascinated by speed, and he accentuates that with this sequence.  The fighters are always in motion with an environment that blurs by at a breakneck speed.  The dogfights are nothing short of amazing.  It all builds to a nerve racking apex, and how it ends must have had audiences on their feet cheering back in 1977.

Star Wars remains a triumphant motion picture that should stand and be preserved for all time.  It’s a massive part of cinematic history which revolutionized filmmaking in every aspect.  It was innovative and marvelous on a technical level.  Still, despite all these awe-inspiring visual effects and technical achievements, this is a story that is all about its characters.  It never loses sight of the human aspect, and that is what drives this film into excellence.  George Lucas once said that special effects are just a means of telling a story, and that without a story, they mean nothing.  At this point in time, he showed us exactly what that meant.  He crafted a wondrous, exciting, adventurous, and emotional story first, and then, incorporated those groundbreaking special effects to tell that story in the most original and powerful way possible.  For the last thirty-five years, this film has excited audiences like few other films can.  Lucas took classic archetypes of literature and the classic hero’s journey, and molded and melded them into one of the best adventure films of all time.  Audiences at the time had never seen anything like this before, and could never imagine that another Star Wars film could equal, let alone surpass this one.  It would not be an easy feat, but in the right hands, it would become possible.


Manhunter (1986)

In my view, there are psychological thrillers, and then, there is Manhunter.  I have never seen another movie that gets so deep inside the psyches of its protagonist and antagonist as Manhunter does.  Every element of filmmaking is used to envelop you into the psychological state of its characters, and done so with amazing depth and beauty.  Adapted from the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon by writer and director Michael Mann in 1986, this is the best film featuring Hannibal Lecter that I have seen.  I never grasped what everyone was so enthusiastic about over The Silence of the Lambs, and that was my sentiment years before I ever watched Manhunter.  I have never watched the Brett Ratner helmed re-adaptation Red Dragon, and so, you will not find any comparison between the two here.  I have plenty to explore in Manhunter alone.  This is my favorite film from Michael Mann, and I am going to tell you why.

F.B.I. Agent and criminal profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) is drawn out of retirement by friend and partner Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) to track down and capture a serial killer known as “The Tooth Fairy.”  He is named as such due to the peculiar bite marks taken off his slain victims.  To reclaim the mindset needed to delve into the psyche of this new killer, who works on a lunar cycle, Graham must tap the mind of the psychopath he captured which led to his own retirement – Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox).  Graham must come to see through the eyes of this enigmatic killer in order to anticipate his methods, motives, and actions.  The psyches of both Graham and this killer, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), are eventually put into severe conflict even putting Graham’s wife and son into danger, but most importantly, Graham’s own sanity.  If Will Graham can enter into the mind of a psychopath, can he ever come back?

This is a beautifully layered psychological film.  It’s fascinating to see the process Michael Mann has Will Graham go through to absorb himself into the psyche of this killer.  It’s a slow descent where Graham is trepidatious stepping back into this mindset, but once he’s delved in deep enough, it starts to influence his emotions and manipulate his actions.  He’s gradually connecting with the psyche of Francis Dollarhyde, slowly putting more and more pieces of the puzzle together in his mind, and by the end, there is an obsessive impulse to destroy Dollarhyde so that Graham can simply be free of him.  When Graham was hunting Hannibal Lecktor, he integrated Dr. Lecktor’s psyche so deep into his own that he had to be institutionalized to in order to be brought back to good mental health.  It was a dark, terrible place for his thoughts to be that he is afraid to allow himself to go back there. However, in order to capture this new serial killer, he has no choice but to tap Lecktor’s mind to recapture that mindset.

Still, the real Will Graham remains beneath, but remains slightly detached from himself.  Graham has heartfelt moments with his wife and son at various points in the film that allow the humanity to show through the darkness.  These are brief reprieves from the troubling case at hand, but go a long way to show that Graham has not lost himself in this killer as he did with Lecktor.  All of these fascinating facets of Will Graham are brilliantly brought to detailed, nuanced life by William Petersen.  He deeply engulfed himself in this role so much that after production had wrapped, he couldn’t shake Will Graham from his head.  He had to shave off his beard and dye his hair blonde just to shed the character fully.  That’s an unsettling example of method acting.  Petersen puts so much emotional and psychological intensity into this performance that it is mesmerizing and captivating.  You can constantly see the emotional and intellectual gears moving in his head.  Petersen’s rich facial nuances and intense eyes also perfectly display Will Graham’s conflict and development throughout the film.  He leads this film with a wide breadth of weight and deep, amazing talent.  He forges a finely detailed and dimensional character.

This might be a procedural crime thriller, but I find the psychological development of the plot to be richly exciting and fascinating.  The physical evidence is an important cog in the process, and the detail and urgent context in which these procedures are displayed make them compelling.  Michael Mann keeps them unfolding at a tight pace with sharp dialogue that quickly pushes the narrative forward.  Of course, the investigation truly comes together through the psychological methods of Will Graham.  Without Graham’s constant prodding and deconstruction of the mind of this serial killer, the pieces would never come together.  While Lecktor is someone that Graham fears, he respects Lecktor’s intellect.  Where someone else might discount or take offense to Lecktor’s manipulative or sickly unsettling perceptions, Graham understands the valuable insight.  He knows there’s something more intuitive underneath Lecktor’s words.  Still, how Graham reacts after his first meeting with Lecktor here, you see how disturbed he is allowing Lecktor into his mind at all.

I absolutely love Brain Cox’s subtle and subversive performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecktor.  Where Anthony Hopkins would later be a little more obvious and deliberately creepy, Cox slowly gets in under your skin.  He could be generally unassuming, but he can gradually deconstruct your mind right before your eyes.  He’s immensely intelligent and intimidating by way of his psychological prowess.  Yes, he is a psychopath, and certainly a sociopath.  However, the scene where Lecktor calls the office of Dr. Bloom shows how naturally charming and charismatic he is, and that is very unsettling.  Brian Cox based his performance on a real life serial killer.  Such people are usually able to blend seamlessly into society, many as charming and unassuming individuals, and to see Cox bring that quality to this fascinating role adds further intriguing layers to Lecktor.  While the character only has three scenes, he remains involved in the plot, and maintains a strong presence through much of the runtime.  Overall, I believe the magnificently talented Brian Cox put in a masterful performance that chillingly supports the intelligence of this film.

The performance of Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde makes just as major of an impact as Petersen and Cox.  His is a chilling portrayal of a fascinating and intimidating character.  His generally soft spoken voice creates an unsettling presence.  You know he is a frighteningly violent and lethal individual, and this restrained, subtle manner makes you fear for when that violent impulse is ultimately unleashed.  Michael Mann chose to leave out aspects of the character from Thomas Harris’ novel such as the Red Dragon tattoo on his torso, of which scenes were filmed with it, and much of his back story.  For Manhunter, this seems to truly work for the best.  Instead, the first half of the film is used to build him up as an anonymous threat through Graham’s investigation and psychological profiling.  When the film directly delves us into who Dollarhyde is, Noonan brings an incredible depth of emotion and internal pain to the role.  Where Lecktor is a sociopath devoid of compassion, Dollarhyde has a wealth of emotional turmoil stemming from his distorted self-perception.  Noonan’s performance reflects shame as Dollarhyde masks his face with his hands or sunglasses, and won’t allow the blind Reba to touch his face.  He’s absorbed himself into this mangled self-identity that he resents those who he perceives as having the idealized life, such as the suburban nuclear family.  This fuels his obsession as a serial killer.  Tom Noonan brings such immense power to the emotional core of this sympathetic monster, and probably more than anyone else, makes this movie as powerful and effective as it is.

Chicago native actor Dennis Farina puts in a great and strong performance as Jack Crawford.  It’s great to see how he showcases Crawford’s trust of Graham.  He rarely questions any of what Graham says or believes, but when he does, it has a purpose.  Crawford can’t fully understand the process that Will has to go through to do what he does, but he entirely respects it and understands the danger of him doing so.  He essentially goes to Will Graham as a last resort.  It’s also great seeing that Farina is able to keep up with Petersen’s intensity at times.  Late in the film when time, as well as patience, has run short, both Crawford and Graham are jumping down each other’s throats.  Crawford’s accepting defeat this time out, but Graham’s gone too far to accept that at all.  Still, you see the loyalty and faith return in Farina’s performance as Graham begins to puts the final pieces together.  I like the compassion and concern in his performance as Crawford tries to hold to his word of keeping Will as far away from danger as possible up until the last minute.  He wants this case closed and this killer captured, but not at the expense of his friend’s safety and sanity.

Stephen Lang does an excellent job as the sleazy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds.  He’s a great antagonist for Graham since Lounds only cares about his headlines.  He’s despicably charismatic, and a great character you’d love to hate.  However, the terror Lang puts into his performance when confronted and abducted by Dollarhyde perfectly sells the imposing and unsettling presence of Dollarhyde.  This once egotistical, arrogant grand standing man is reduced to a small man drowning in fear.  That is both the culmination of the film’s build up to Francis Dollarhyde, and the impactful introduction of the character in the flesh.  In my opinion, it couldn’t have been any more perfectly executed.

Kim Griest does a very solid job as Molly Graham, playing opposite William Petersen vey well.  She puts in just the right amount of compassion and concern for Molly’s husband.  She fears for his safety, and clearly wishes that Jack Crawford had never asked for Will’s help.  It’s not a comfortable position for her to be in knowing what Lecktor had done to him previously.  However, probably the least standout performance is Joan Allen as Reba, the blind woman who stimulates Dollarhyde’s affections.  She does a decent job, but it feels like the character with the least substance and depth.  She is given some strong scenes which intensify Dollarhyde’s character, such as with the sedated tiger, but there’s not much done with Reba to flesh her out like the richly dimensional characters around her.  This is likely due to a factor of time, and that the film is focused on Dollarhyde in these instances.

Now, without a doubt, Danté Spinotti is one of the best cinematographers around, and he brought a great amount of beauty, intelligence, and grace to Manhunter.  He creates some gorgeous, vibrant visuals that are awe inspiring.  Also, scenes are composed and staged very smartly.  It’s rarely just standard shots.  Every shot seems to be handled with a purpose to symbolize a character’s mindset, relationship with someone else, or to establish mood and tone.  In Graham and Lecktor’s first scene together, Mann and Spinotti compose it to where as Graham and Lecktor’s psyches begin to overlap and align, so do the shots of them.  The scene begins with a regular composition with Graham on the left side of frame and Lecktor on the right, but eventually they are dead center in the frame looking dead-on towards the camera by the end.  Both men reflect one another in this moment.  The visuals of the film have numerous mirroring aspects, and evolving motifs which visualize the psychological states and connections of characters.  There are a series of shots of Will Graham looking into mirrors, and each successive shot is more and more obscured until there is eventually no reflection seen to the audience.  This shows Graham’s journey in finding and ultimately detaching from Dollarhyde’s psyche.  Dollarhyde himself cannot even look at himself in a mirror due to his perception of how grossly disfigured he is.  Graham can confront the monster within himself, but Dollarhyde cannot.

The use of steadicam is greatly on display here giving us a film of very fluid motion, reflecting the intensely focused mindsets of Graham and Dollarhyde.  It’s very gorgeous cinematography.  Yet, in the film’s climax, as Dollarhyde destabilizes, the film also becomes chaotic with jump cuts and a surreal frenetic style.  This works amazingly well delving our protagonist and antagonist into an explosive conflict which will either destroy or free their respective psyches.

The use of color is also integral to the moods and emotions of the film.  Blue tones reflect safety as the love scene between Will and Molly demonstrates.  However, green punctuates a feeling of discovery as with Graham’s early wardrobe, or a subversive quality such as in the dark room scene with Reba and Dollarhyde.  There are even splashes of green lighting in Dollarhyde’s home at times.  In my own independent films, I have used color washes heavily to evoke certain moods and atmosphere, but it’s never been used with such deliberate purpose as in Manhunter.

In the process of writing this review, I ecstatically discovered the complete Manhunter soundtrack album on iTunes.  I purchased it without a doubt, even though I already had a few of the songs from the film.  No other film have I ever seen makes as impactful, integral use of its soundtrack as Manhunter.  It’s all very atmospheric, ambient music from amazing, lesser known 1980s artists such as Shriekback, The Prime Movers, and Red 7.  The Shriekback tracks are the most enveloping in the film’s deep haunting mood.  “This Big Hush” punctuates the seductive and quietly powerful love scene between Reba and Francis.  It’s the deepest insight into Francis’ soul that we get, and this song made the scene what it is.  The score was composed by Michel Rubini and The Reds.  It’s very synthesizer based which might seem typical of the 1980s, but it sets an overall ominous, mesmerizing, and dangerous tone that absorbs itself into every fiber of the film.  Michael Mann employed Tangerine Dream to score Thief five years earlier which created a very sleek and beautiful soundscape of that noir crime thriller.  Here, the atmospheric synth music is very much in the forefront creating a bold and intense experience.  The soundtrack truly does follow in the style Mann had perfected on Miami Vice at the time using popular music along with striking visuals to tell an emotional and exciting story.  However, I feel Manhunter takes it a to higher level due to the overall tone and deep psychological aspects of the story.  The music takes the audience deep inside the emotions and psyches of the characters.  I love the cue of “Graham’s Theme” which accompanies and accentuates Will Graham’s slow revelation of the final pieces of the puzzle.  It is a brilliantly executed sequence.  Furthermore, the film brilliantly uses Iron Butterfly’s psychedelic classic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to orchestrate the entire climax of the movie.  It’s entirely edited and constructed around the various dramatic beats in that seventeen minute long jam.  The organ section of the song creates a haunting Phantom of the Opera style mood until it and Will Graham crash back into full blown action.  This is a score and soundtrack that simply blows my mind in how well executed and finely weaved into the fabric of the film.

This is undoubtedly one of Michael Mann’s absolute best films.  It is very tightly crafted with a taut, suspenseful atmosphere.  Manhunter is a deeply enveloping film utilizing all its aspects of sight and sound to create a thoroughly absorbing experience.  The investigative aspects are given a rarely implemented psychological focus built upon some solid and sharp procedural elements.  We are treated to a wealth of rich performances and fascinating characters.  There’s a depth of detail to everything which comes out in those performances, and they are presented in very intriguing ways to keep an audience riveted with every moment.

Manhunter has been a curiosity on DVD.  Four different cuts exist from both Anchor Bay and MGM.  The original theatrical version was actually the last one to be released, and that was from MGM which they also put out on Blu Ray Disc.  Anchor Bay released a two-disc set with both a video tape sourced director’s cut and a THX certified version billed as the theatrical cut, but contains some additional scenes and a few bits and pieces cutout.  A “restored director’s cut” was later released by them which features a vast improvement in quality, but leaves out one scene from the first director’s cut between Will Graham and Dr. Chilton.  It was likely cutout due to it not being shot very well.  There’s no one version I wholly prefer over another since they all add in or leave out something I like from another cut, but as far as quality is concerned, the THX certified DVD from Anchor Bay has the best transfer.  All other transfers have desaturated colors, are darker prints, and lack some sharpness.  I did personally assemble what I called the “Definitive Cut” adding in almost all footage from various cuts of the film into one amalgamation for a complete experience.  It’s just something for my own complete satisfaction of the film which I love so very much.

As I said, this is my favorite Michael Mann movie.  Although, I do consider The Insider to be the best film he has ever made for very distinctly different but immensely admirable reasons.  Manhunter really has been a major influence on me as a filmmaker.  It was the main influence on my psychological noir thriller Dead of Night.  I wanted to explore what would happen if a criminal profiler similar to Will Graham lost himself in his psychologically twisted work and went off the deep end by hunting down serial killers.  There was a similarly themed episode of Miami Vice titled “Shadow in the Dark” that had Sonny Crockett delving into the disturbed mind of a crazed home invader that I also really love.  However, nothing is as rich or as layered as Manhunter.  Where The Silence of the Lambs seemed more focused on regular investigative work to lead to the capture of its serial killer, Manhunter is all about the psychological construction and deconstruction as the main cog in tracking down the killer.  That is far more fascinating to me.  Not to mention, Will Graham is a vastly more intriguing character to explore, in my eyes, than Clarice Starling.  Graham is someone that’s been to some terrifyingly dark places, and has the capabilities to contend with Hannibal Lecter.  He is the one who captured the cannibalistic doctor to begin with, even if it was at a troubling price.  Simply everything in Manhunter appeals to my imagination, and I love that time has given the film the respect and praise it deserves.  It wasn’t a successful release in 1986 for many reasons, and thus, is why The Silence of the Lambs was never handled as an actual sequel.  I’m sure there are people who would be put off by the 1980s neon and pastel aesthetics of Manhunter today, but that’s no bother to me.  I love it.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Michael Mann showcased a very powerful vision with this film, more so than any other film I’ve seen from him.  While his last two films – Miami Vice and Public Enemies – have shown a sharp decline in overall quality, his general body of work maintains him as one of my favorite and most influential filmmakers of all time.


Masters of the Universe (1987)

There are many things from my childhood that haven’t stuck with me in my adult years.  Various cartoons don’t hold up to those youthful memories, but what has remained an indomitable favorite of mine has been He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.  I own the entire original series on DVD, and I still enjoy those episodes as much today as I did as a kid in the 1980s.  It still rekindles that inspiring morality and heroic admiration in me.  The show had a lot of heart and genuine care put into it, and it did have some smart thematic writing amongst its silliness.  Beyond that, it was a fun cartoon that entertained me.  Obviously, with the success the show had a full scale motion picture was inevitable, but it came at the tail end of the franchise’s 1980s popularity.  It bombed at the box office for more reasons than just the franchise’s loss of popularity.  I grew up watching this movie repeatedly, and while it has its undeniable problems, I still find something entertaining and worthwhile in 1987’s Masters of the Universe.  Beyond anything else, it features one of the absolute best villainous performances in the history of cinema from one incredible actor.

For ages, the Sorceress of Grayskull (Christina Pickles) has kept the universe in harmony, but now, Skeletor (Frank Langella) – the evil lord of Snake Mountain – has taken absolute rule over the Planet Eternia, and Castle Grayskull is under siege from his sinister forces.  Now, the mighty hero He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) and his fellow Eternian warriors are the only hope for freedom, but these courageous heroes are soon transported to Earth via the Cosmic Key – the latest creation from the peaceful inventor Gwildor (Billy Barty).  Stranded on Earth, He-Man comes to the aid of a pair of youths (Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill), and their two journeys quickly become one as they battle through Skeletor’s mercenaries in the attempt to free the Sorceress and save the universe from the tyrannical domination of Skeletor.

What easily polarizes the faithful He-Man fans are the distinct departures or obvious omissions from the established property.  The Prince Adam alter ego is never addressed.  Dolph Lundgren is He-Man throughout the entire movie, and no mention is ever made of his secret identity.  No one questions where the Prince of Eternia is, and we do not get treated to the bombastic transformation sequence from Prince Adam into He-Man.  Thus, there is no Cringer / Battle Cat.  Orko, the comical sorcerer who floats around in the cartoon, is essentially replaced by Gwildor.  Most likely, that was due to the excessive cost of having an optical composite of a single character appearing regularly throughout the movie.  The only regular cohorts of Skeletor’s that appear are Beast Man and Evil-Lynn.  Blade, Saurod, and Karg are brand new characters that were exclusively created for this movie.  There are other minor things here and there, but those are the meaty chunks.  Obviously, new characters meant new action figures to market and make money from.  So, I doubt Mattel had many qualms about swapping out established favorites for fresh creations.  Of course, for those anticipating a big live action motion picture adaptation of these characters, Masters of the Universe certainly didn’t reach those base expectations.

However, there is still definite quality here that deserves some respect and credit.  Apart from the Earth-based sequences, where there’s not much to show off, the production design is highly impressive.  A great amount of thought and detail went into the matte paintings, sets, costumes, and props.  While budget constraints hindered the story, what we get presented to us shows a lot of hard work and care in what these professional filmmakers did do.  These were people who were trying to give us the best film they could, and I think it shows through the shortcomings.

Skeletor himself and his mercenaries look incredible and frightening due to the masterful work of Michael Westmore.  He is most acclaimed for his work on numerous Star Trek television series and movies.  I constantly find it amazing how exceptional practical creature effects were done on budgets like this film’s $22 million.  Today, even with hundreds of millions of dollars, we continually see digital creature effects fall so far short that it’s sad.  When you have the talent on board to create these physical masterworks, they cannot be beat.  Skeletor is an amazing achievement creating a powerful and textured look that has both a bony and fleshy appearance.  The filmmakers made it a point to allow the make-up and prosthetics the ability to have Frank Langella’s performance show through in detail, and that was absolutely the right approach.  Beast Man can be ferociously terrifying just at the sight of him, not mentioning the violent things he’s capable of doing.  Saurod is just a brilliant creation with a great reptilian style that actor Pons Maar really accentuates with his performance.  The addition of the expanding gills just brings so much realistic life to the character.  Karg is probably the least fascinating on a character level.  He’s written as just a regular team leader, and doesn’t strike nearly as much fear as his cohorts do.  Still, the design of him is exceptionally realized.  However, my favorite character of the bunch, which features no make-up effects, but has a very sharp and dangerous outfit, is Anthony De Longis as Blade.  The character has plenty of vile charisma, and it’s nice to see a character designed to be a challenge for He-Man in a sword fight.  De Longis is an exceptionally accomplished swordsman and a master handler of the bullwhip.  He later appeared in two episodes of Highlander: The Series in some marvelous sword battles.  He was also Frank Langella’s stunt double for the film’s climactic clash.  As far as the bullwhip goes?  He was the trainer for both Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns and Harrison Ford in the fourth Indiana Jones movie.  Anthony De Longis is an amazing talent, and the filmmakers of Masters of the Universe were very fortunate to have him involved.

The visual effects produced by Richard Edlund hold up quite well.  Edlund had already worked on the special visual effects for all three of the original Star Wars movies as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, and Big Trouble in Little China.  His body of work speaks for itself, and this film showed no fall off from his standards of excellence.  The portal opened by the Cosmic Key looks magical and beautiful with its vibrant, swirling colors.  It’s amazing effects work that I don’t think even digital technology could improve upon.  It’s work done by the masters of visual effects, and that quality is richly evident.  The matte paintings are absolutely gorgeous.  I really love a beautifully done matte painting, and this film has a few with Castle Grayskull being the biggest standout.  Its design is a distinct departure from previous depictions, but it looks no less imposing or mysterious in this film.  The optical composites integrating flying objects and vehicles into the live action footage are generally alright.  The process always left a little something to be desired.  In this film, it’s quite good with probably the most strained quality coming in the hovercraft chase between He-Man and the Centurion.  The chase itself is well conceived and flows into the action of the overall sequence well.  The compositing itself is just about as good as it got, but the shots of them flying through the city streets and around buildings definitely lack a sense of real gravity or weight.  However, I can’t confidently say whether or not it could have been done any better than these filmmakers did it at the time.

I’ve heard people criticize the score done by Bill Conti as being a John Williams rip-off of Star Wars or Superman.  Conti did the scores for five of the six Rocky movies and all of the original films in The Karate Kid franchise.  The man has more than proven his worth as a composer to me.  While I clearly hear what it is those critics have pointed out, frankly, there is no other type of score one should expect from a 1980s science fiction / fantasy adventure film.  It entirely suits the tone and style of the film.  It’s very rich, colorful, dramatic, and epic.  It captures that rousing spirit that should come with a He-Man adventure.  There is nothing bad or wrong with the score Conti did for Masters of the Universe.

I do believe that Dolph Lundgren did a fine job as He-Man.  Between the script and his performance, the moral heroic nature of the character is maintained.  Lundgren projects a good depth of heart and compassion for his friends and the innocent.  He’s a hero that will sacrifice himself to protect others, which is purely He-Man.  There were plenty of times on the cartoon where He-Man would risk himself to even save an enemy because he believed all life was worth protecting, and much of that is respected here.  Lundgren did all his own stunts, and it clearly shows.  He handles the demanding and nicely dynamic action of the film very well.  Lundgren made He-Man a solid hero to get behind and believe in.  I know he had a difficult time shooting the film, but in the eyes of a devoted He-Man fan, I strongly feel he did the character great justice and respect.  I also love the quality put into his costuming.  Adding the elegant red cape was a very good choice for a live action version of He-Man.  It gives him a stronger visual aesthetic mixed in with the other finely detailed elements of the outfit.

However, what truly brings a bold sense of excellence to this movie is Frank Langella’s masterful performance as Skeletor.  Langella is a brilliant actor that regularly brings a great theatrical style to his performances, as I’ve also seen in his turn as Dracula, and in this role, he dominates the screen with a presence that enthralls and captivates an audience’s attention.  You can feel Skeletor’s lust for supreme power absorbing into every fiber of his being, and how his conquest of Eternia has fueled his ambition.  Langella brings an immense depth and power to a character that had always been cackling and comical before.  Skeletor is finally the frightening figure of villainy and sorcery that he deserved to be.  Vaporizing one of his own mercenaries due to their failure, inflicting vile wounds upon the innocent, and making the heroes suffer under his tyrannical rule are richly evil aspects which build towards a great character.  Under Langella’s talent, Skeletor is intelligent and calculating with a confidence that borders on arrogance.  The overall design further enhances his performance.  The deep contrast between the gorgeous black flowing attire and the stark white skull-like facial prosthetics created a bold, striking appearance that inevitably helped fuel the performance.  In my eyes, Frank Langella portrays one of the absolute best villains in all of cinema.  Between his performance and the depth of pure, unforgiving evil that Skeletor embodies here, I would even elevate it above Darth Vader.  It’s only a shame that it wasn’t in a more critically and commercially successful movie for Langella to get the wide spread recognition he deserved.  Thankfully, in interviews, Frank Langella has stated that Skeletor was one of his favorite roles, and that elevates my respect for the man higher than you can imagine.

Of course, Meg Foster turns in a magnificent Evil-Lynn.  Her naturally haunting, mesmerizing eyes were a perfect fit for this elegantly evil and darkly bewitching character.  She definitely brings a comparable amount of theatrical depth and presence to that of Langella.  She has a great intelligent authority about her which immediately puts someone like Karg back in his lowly place.  Evil-Lynn clearly has a deep desire and admiration for Skeletor that she hungers to have reciprocated, and she goes through a subtle arc in relation to this which is beautifully done.

John Cypher brings a solid seasoned quality to the weather soldier of Duncan, aka Man-At-Arms, and handles the lighter moments just as great as the heavier drama.  Teela is brought to spirited and credible life by Chelsea Field who holds her firmly.  Christina Pickles does a fine, convincing job as the Sorceress with what little she can do while held captive, standing still inside of Skeletor’s energy field.  Even James Tolkan does an immensely entertaining job as the tough, hardened Detective Lubic who is not afraid to jump into action.  The performance is pretty standard for him from similar roles in Top Gun and Back to the Future, but he puts his all into it playing very well off of everyone.  He was definitely having fun on this film.  Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill have a very genuine and realistic chemistry as Julie and Kevin.  Cox showcases the emotional depth she is well known for today, and McNeill offers up a lot of strength and heart opposite her.

However, I do have to agree with many that Gwildor is not a particularly good addition.  He’s essentially just irritating comic relief boosting the silliness of the Earth based scenes.  Yes, he is a replacement for Orko, but the difference between the characters is simple: charm.  Orko was an unintentional trouble-maker and surely not the wisest of the regular heroes, but he was endearing with a wealth of charm and good intentions.  He was a little guy with a big heart who could be valuable in the right situations, and always was lovable.  Gwildor is just quirky and lacks any endearing qualities in the long run.  Billy Barty does add some value to the character with his performance, but ultimately, it’s not a character that leaves a lasting impression.  In fact, he’s a conduit for a lot of the cringe inducing bad comedy of the film, which I will get into shortly.  To say the least, no one’s ever clamored for Gwildor to be integrated into any other He-Man continuity, and that’s for very good reasons.

Now, the sole major problem with this film is the fact that the bulk of it takes place on Earth.  This is where the budgetary constraints impacted the story that could be told.  Shooting in practical locations and city streets cut down on costs for sets, more matte paintings, and other convincing fantasy elements in the film.  Even elements on Eternia were constantly being cutout due to the tight budget including scenes set at Skeletor’s Snake Mountain.  This isn’t so much like Highlander II: The Quickening where the awfulness of the film stemmed from a poorly conceived script.  Those filmmakers had the money and talent to make something really good, but just didn’t have the sensible creativity to do so.  I believe, if Cannon Films had the lucrative finances to put more money behind this, which was their most expensive movie ever produced, we would’ve gotten a richer and more faithful adaptation of this property.  When you’re shackled by a budget to do less than what the property deserves, one can hardly blame the film’s failure on creative ambition.  The filmmakers wanted to do more, but were entirely unable to do so.  Conceptual artists created numerous excellent drawings for things that were jettisoned including a revamped look for He-Man’s sister She-Ra, and several scripted Eternia-based scenes were never filmed due to the budget.  Simply put, their ambition exceeded their resources, but that didn’t stop the filmmakers from doing the best they could with what they had.

The characters of Julie and Kevin are fine, and their story is just fine on its own.  Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeil put in very good acting jobs with this material making their characters quite likable and relatable.  The fact that they are part of a science fiction / fantasy adventure film is what doesn’t work so well.  Everyone intending to see this didn’t go into it wanting to see some teenage drama about a high school rock band keyboardist and his girlfriend who mourns the tragic death of her parents.  In its own appropriately themed movie, these would be well done character elements for a decent story, but it’s a lot of unnecessary baggage here to force Julie and Kevin more into the forefront.  It gets tied into the main story in a minor illusionary way which was actually done to great comedic effect in Spaceballs, released the same year.  Their roles in the film are very well written, and are purposefully integrated into the overall story.  Admittedly, I’ve never had a particular problem with the characters or their part in the movie, but I’m approaching it from a standpoint of, “Is this what the film really needed?”  The answer is no.  It’s one thing to take the story where they did due to budgetary shortcomings, but another to give Kevin and Julie equal screentime to He-Man and clearly more than Skeletor.  This is not a film that’s supposed to be about these two teenagers.  It’s a film about the heroes and villains of this scientifically advanced and wondrously magical world of Eternia battling for the power of the universe.  That’s what He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is meant to be about, and there’s just a little too much diverted away from that epic concept in this movie.  There is this fascinating array of vibrant characters to explore and spotlight, but the film gives a large portion of its attention to its two least fascinating characters.  It is thankful that good actors were cast in those roles, and they were well conceived and well written characters.  It’s just that they don’t belong in a Masters of the Universe motion picture.  It would be easier for me to gripe about this if the characters were stupid and badly portrayed, but they’re not.  It’s all very well done, but objectively speaking, it’s just not what this movie needed to have to be successful.

Again, the quality of what we get in performance and direction is something I have zero gripes with.  Gary Goddard did a very coherent and solid job balancing out these unconventional elements.  However, it does get quite silly, and it goes a little over the edge at times due to Gwildor’s comedic antics.  Granted, it is nearly impossible to avoid some of this silliness considering there is this stark contrast in juxtaposing a highly fantastical world with one that’s very much grounded in our own reality.  Characters are inevitably going to have peculiar, humorous reactions.  At this time, there seemed to be a running trend of fantasy movies which transposed sword and sorcery characters into a modern day Earth setting.  Beastmaster 2: Through The Portal of Time is probably the next most notable (or notorious) film that did this.  It’s a very strange trend that is difficult to understand how or why it repeatedly occurred.  This usually resulted in rather ridiculous movies that can’t be taken seriously.  Masters of the Universe does fare better because, on the whole, it’s keeping its serious characters on track with the urgent, dramatic storyline, and maintains the integrity of those characters.  The humor is just a by-product of that obvious juxtaposition, but Gwildor doesn’t help to reinforce the drama of the film.  The comedy interplay with the cow, the stealing of the bucket of chicken with a grappling hook, and the horrendous pink Cadillac introduced by him really push the film into stupid territory.  The film could’ve desperately done without those cringable gags.  Gwildor alone could’ve threatened to derail the film into farcical territory if the script had gone off the deep end.  Thankfully, enough restraint was shown, and we are spared that sort of horrendously bad cinema.

Veering back towards the positive is the excellent cinematography.  Listening to Gary Goddard’s audio commentary on the film’s DVD reveals that he had to fight to get the Cinematographer to use more colorful or “hyper-reality” color schemes.  So, it is Goddard to credit with the richer neon lighting and slight haze that gives the film a visual vibrancy or atmosphere in many scenes.  However, the camera work is very solid.  There are plenty of great long shots which sweep around and move in on Skeletor’s face to punctuate a scene, or just one take scenes which smartly keep the actors moving with different shot sizes and compositions.  Camera movement is used very effectively.  The sets and locations are really well displayed with strong lighting, and we get a good amount of scope where it counts.  The film has plenty of artistic visual merit.

There is just some good, solid action in this movie.  He-Man is definitely given some steep odds to combat to sell his greatness as a powerful warrior and hero.  He’s built up nicely as having nary an equal.  He is a valiant champion who fights with all his heart and might.  This makes the build up to the climax even better when Skeletor finally has him as his prisoner, and He-Man must battle back after being beaten down and almost defeated.  This leads to a very good final duel between him and Skeletor.  Surely, something more elaborate was originally intended for this climactic clash, but director Gary Goddard had to plead to get some extra money from Cannon Films, who was in financial trouble at this time, just to shoot this more stylized and limited climax.  It’s certainly not as excellent as say Optimus Prime versus Megatron in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie, but it’s a fine duel that caps off the film nicely.

I didn’t realize how long this review was going to be.  So many people have panned this film outright that I thought I had another Highlander II: The Quickening to more or less talk about, but once I actually started thinking about it, Masters of the Universe is not remotely that bad of a movie.  This is most certainly due to the amazing high caliber talents employed on this picture.  You have an Academy Award winning visual effects producer, an Academy & Emmy Award winning special make-up effects artist, an Academy Award winning film composer, and the Academy Award winning film editor of Lawrence of Arabia that all worked on Masters of the Universe!  There was conceptual artwork done by the amazing artist Moebius, who also did designs for Alien and TRON before this, and later, Willow and The Abyss.  This might have been a Cannon Film produced by Golan-Globus, which were bonafide marks of B-grade 80s action-ploitation cinema, but with that depth of artistic merit behind it, it now does not surprise me that this film turned out as good as it did.  This review started out with the thought of pointing out a few positive marks in an otherwise bad movie that I have always enjoyed, and while this film still had far to go to be the exemplary adaptation it should have been, this is a very well made movie.  While the concept is undeniably flawed, it is generally well written and executed, save for the sillier bits.  Most of the things that are bad in Masters of the Universe are really just bad in concept as the execution is largely very good, even great at times.  I know there are people out there that aren’t going to believe that this movie is not as bad as its reputation suggests.  Expectations definitely feed a lot into one’s overall reaction to a movie, and maybe I have the luxury of growing up on this from age seven onwards to give it this expectation-free point of view.  I still really love the original cartoon to this day, and I might happen to enjoy this movie just a little more now after this in-depth review.

As I’ve just learned, the film will be released on Blu Ray Disc from Warner Bros. on October 2nd, 2012.  It is touted as a “25th Anniversary Edition,” but aside from a high-definition transfer and comparable surround sound audio tracks, it features nothing different than what was on the 2001 DVD release.