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Archive for February, 2013

The Terminator (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Savage Streets (1984)

Savage StreetsI’ve been looking for this movie on DVD in stores for months now.  Today, I went out looking for one exploitation movie at the re-sale shop and came home with another.  Savage Streets is a cult rape-revenge exploitation film from the late director of Friday The 13th, Part V: A New Beginning, Danny Steinmann.  As previously documented, I have a low opinion of that sequel, but Savage Streets looked really good and promising via the trailer.  I’ve heard some good things about it, and was very dogged about finding a copy of it.  Sometimes, a good word of mouth is enough to convince you to take a impassionate chance on a movie.  But now that I’ve seen it, does it live up to what I had hoped for it?  Was it worth the months of anticipation and hunting I put into it?  Well, let me impart a synopsis on you before answering that question.

Brenda (Linda Blair) is bad, bold and brash, but she absolutely dotes on her deaf-mute kid sister Heather (Linnea Quigley).  After nearly being rundown by a gang known as the Scars, Brenda and her friends trash the car of their leader, Jake (Robert Dryer).  Shockingly, he chooses to exact his revenge by getting his cohorts to gang-rape Heather.  Caught up in her rivalry with the cheerleaders, Brenda is at first unaware of the Scar’s involvement, but is eventually shocked with the full truth.  She then vows deadly vengeance in a skintight black suit as she searches out the gang members one by one.

Doing a blind buy of this movie was certainly taking a chance because I’ve had blind buys bite me in the ass before.  However, that was not at all the case with Savage Streets.  I did indeed greatly enjoy what I saw here.  It is quite a low budget picture with only $1.2 million to its credit, but this was definitely a time where most filmmakers knew how to make an effective movie within their limited means.  They could create something genuinely entertaining and worthwhile without needing a major budget.  While his Friday The 13th movie came off like a cheap direct-to-video outing, director Danny Steinmann pulled off a really solid genre movie here that I’m glad he had been commended on long before his 2012 passing.

The main thing that I was impressed by on this film was Linda Blair’s performance.  She strikes that perfect balance of a tough, attitude rich, yet still vulnerable and compassionate young woman.  You see her make those subtle shifts early on as she defends her sister from an ill joke, but then, lightens the mood a moment later with some well place charm.  Brenda will not back down from a fight, and doesn’t take any crap from anybody.  She stands up to everyone from bitchy classmate Cindy to the sleazy school principal to, of course, this malevolent gang.  She’s genuinely tough with the courage and mouth to back it up.  Yet, these tragedies that befall her sister and friends have deep, emotional impact upon her.  She cries, mourns, and grieves in her own harsh way while never veering away from her determination to find those responsible.  Brenda is someone who has a surplus of strength to pull her through this violent series of events, and Linda Blair puts her all into this performance to make Brenda that great heroine.  She’s also quite sexy and beautiful in this film, and her hard edged attitude is very attractive and exciting.  Blair packs a lot of charisma and passion into what she does here, and she really makes Savage Streets the excellent piece of work it is.  There’s not enough I can say about what she does in this role.

In the role of Jake, Robert Dryer does an exceptional job.  This is the dead-on perfect villain for this film as Jake has zero redeeming qualities about him, and is a full fledged sleazy, violent, womanizing, severely intimidating thug.  Just the look of the character gives you a very edgy impression with his slick backed hair, leather jacket, intense physical presence, and especially that razor blade earring.  Dryer has some dark charisma which amps up the character to the utmost vilified levels.  He definitely looks like someone who could snap your neck right after stabbing and slashing you to bits.  Just as much as Linda Blair invests you in the story, Dryer invests you in the need to see Brenda exact her revenge.  After all you see Jake do, and without an ounce of regret or mercy, you crave that violent comeuppance, and that is so much earned from Dryer’s performance.

The rest of the cast is very good putting a lot of enthusiasm and dedication to their roles.  You’ll certainly find some over-the-top dialogue and line deliveries, but it wouldn’t be an exploitation film without them.  John Vernon is excellent with his deep, intimidating, dramatic voice as Principal Underwood.  He has this underlying sleaze factor that surely hits with a peculiar impact, but it’s all great.  Johnny Venocur does some good work as Vince, the one guy in the gang who has a semblance of a conscience.  You can progressively see the humanity taking a hold of him, and it adds a nice dash of remorse into this story.  Lisa Freeman brings her own strength and spirit to Francine which shows she’s no pushover either, but you also get the tender side of her bride-to-be aspects.  Genre star Linnea Quigley makes Heather very wholesome and sweet without ever saying a word.  Linda Blair plays very sweetly opposite her bringing out that touching sisterly warmth and heart.  On the darker side, Quigley achieves the moments of silent terror with visceral intensity.  The entire sexual assault scene is powerful and disturbing, as it should be.  The film does not glorify it at all as it is depicted as a traumatic, frightening experience, which is commendable.  This is the darkest point in the film, but we are thankfully treated to some very enjoyable, entertaining elements throughout the rest of the movie.

What makes Savage Streets distinctly 80s is the awesome pop soundtrack.  There are no big names that stick out for me, but the songs generally hit that excellent 80s vibe with strong vocals, vibrant keyboards, and a driving intensity.  It also kills me that this soundtrack is available only on the original vinyl or audio cassette releases, and are rare collectors’ items.  The only CD release was done independently in a very limited capacity.  So, if you want these songs, you’ll have to turn to YouTube.  The one notable track is “Nothing’s Gonna Stand in Our Way,” which is performed here by John Farnham, would later be covered by Canadian band Kick Axe (aka Spectre General) for Transformers: The Movie in 1986.  The soundtrack for this movie really enhances the vibe all around making it a very rockin’ experience, but the original score is also very effective especially during the film’s climax.

The cinematography of Stephen L. Posey is very good and solid.  It’s nothing amazing, but what he does entirely suits the gritty nature of this movie.  The editing is also very tight never allowing the film to lag anywhere at all.  The pace is kept consistent throughout, and has plenty of well put together sequences.  On a technical level, this is a well shot, well made movie that is competently executed by knowledgeable talents.  Furthermore, director Danny Steinmann does all around impress me with what he did here.  There are a few minor critiques still pending, but on the whole, Savage Streets is a well written, well directed film for this genre.  Steinmann really brought out a lot of strength and vibrancy from his cast, and crafted together an effective revenge movie that has emotional weight to it.  It’s surely not one dimensional in the least, and I commend Steinmann and his co-writer Norman Yonemoto for that.

Now, the one thing that threw me off about the movie is that the trailer would make you believe that Brenda would be hunting these guys down through most of the movie.  Instead, her armed quest for revenge begins in the final third of this 93 minute movie.  I do not state this as a criticism, just as an expectations adjustment.  The first hour of the movie is consistently and solidly paced as the Scars repeatedly terrorize Brenda’s friends and other unfortunate individuals.  The film takes the time to build these guys up as increasingly more sickening people, and that’s saying quite a lot since their first act against Heather would be more than enough already.  Yet, it layers the crimes and tragedies upon Brenda and the audience.  It develops her character and her friendships so that you understand the importance these people have on her life and the lives of others.  It also uses this escalation of violence to further drive a wedge between Vince and the other gang members, which is a smart idea.  Now, once Brenda moves into full-on revenge mode, decked out in a sleek back jumpsuit and crossbow, I absolutely loved it!  A great little montage ensues with a solid rock track behind it, and we’re into a pretty damn good final act.

The only criticism I have towards that final act is that while we do get blood and gore, it is not all at the right moments.  Some of the deaths don’t have the desired satisfying impact because we don’t witness them in graphic or explicit enough detail.  However, we do see the bodies displayed with their bloody wounds minutes later, but it wasn’t quite enough.  Considering how explicit the film had been already up to that point with violence, language, and nudity, I figured we would get some graphic gore where it counted the most.  Thankfully, this is not so for all the kills in the climax.  It’s about fifty/fifty, but I really wanted to see those despicable scum meet some gruesome ends.  Watching Brenda squaring off against Jake was thick with tension and emotion as that rage and pain within her really penetrates in this sequence.  She is being blatantly sadistic, and you are really reminded of why she wants him to suffer so badly through her dialogue.  Ultimately, we get a very tight climax with some great moments of suspense and dramatic pay-off.

Savage Streets is damn good!  It’s especially gritty with visceral violence and a strong core of emotion by way of some solid performances.  Linda Blair definitely stands out as an excellent lead giving us both the heartfelt compassion to be sympathetic and relatable as well as the brash attitude and confidence to be a convincing action heroine.  I love the dialogue she gets on both ends of the spectrum which really reinforce the strength of Brenda.  My favorite is the “double jointed” quip near the climax, which is also Linda Blair’s favorite.  It hits me as one of the best lines in an action film, ever.  Overall, Blair is just bad ass and awesome through and through.  She delivers on all demands of the role in a very satisfying and entertaining performance.  There’s a lot to enjoy in the tight 93 minute run time, and I really have to hand it to Danny Steinmann for the work he did here.  This is a kind of movie that just doesn’t get made anymore, and even if they are, I imagine they aren’t made as good as this.  I can entirely see here what brought Steinmann to doing a Friday The 13th movie.  It’s only too bad that film was not remotely as cool and good as Savage Streets.  This certainly may not be a film for everyone.  As I said, it is very explicit and casual with its profanity, female nudity, and violence, but if that fits your tastes, I highly and strongly recommend checking out Savage Streets.  While it was tough finding it in a store, it is easily obtainable on Amazon.com in a 2012 digitally remastered special edition DVD set.


Urban Legend (1998)

Urban LegendUrban legends in general are quite fascinating to me.  I’ve spent many late night hours reading through whole websites dedicated to these modern day myths, and they are a fertile ground for an imaginative horror movie.  Of course, this movie came out in the wake of Scream and does a lot to follow in that style.  Unfortunately, it was an extreme rarity that any of those types of trend cash-ins were any good.  I clearly remember seeing this on opening weekend and regarding it as not scary at all.  In no way do I expect that sentiment to change after fifteen years.  I’m reviewing this because it was high time I got back to some very critical reviewing, and nothing’s better than a disappointing post-modern slasher film for that task!

When New England college student Natalie (Alicia Witt) finds herself at the center of a series of sadistic murders seemingly inspired by urban legends.  Natalie and her friends are all involved in the Folklore class being taught by Professor Wexler (Robert Englund).  Wexler regales his class with urban legends, which include Pendleton’s own urban legend about a Psych professor who murdered six students at Stanley Hall 25 years ago.  As the fraternities prepare to celebrate the macabre anniversary, and Natalie’s friends fall victim to this axe wielding murderer, she discovers that she is the focus of the crazed killer’s intentions in the ultimate urban legend – the story of her own horrific murder.

This is not a badly made movie.  It has respectable, polished production values and top notch gore effects.  Cinematography is wholly competent with solid compositions and smart camera moves punctuating the dramatic moments.  The editing is mostly great, side from the gimmicky flash cuts.  So, I think the problem with the effectiveness of this movie is that these urban legends are so terribly familiar to us that the movie becomes damn predictable.  There’s little tension or suspense when you know how the kills are supposed to be plotted out.  While playing them out verbatim perfectly fits in with the killer’s ultimate motives, creatively, it would have been more effective to put a fresh twist on them.  Have them play out not exactly as you would expect them to, but still be evocative of the classic tales.  Of course, the various false jump scares don’t help matters either.

The red herrings we get as to the identity of the killer are also quite underwhelming.  They are dashed about as quickly as they are brought up.  This sort of thing worked better in Scream where no one was ever entirely absolved of potential guilt in the eyes of the audience.  Everyone was an equally viable suspect, but here, the suspects are not very credible nor are they main characters.  They show up for two or three scenes total.  The main characters are not implicated as the potential killer, and that evaporates a lot of heightened tension and paranoia that could have existed in the movie.  As it is, there’s not much focus put on who the killer is, but more the methods that this killer uses.

And one last negative critique would be that the look of the killer is not all that intimidating.  A relatively small statured person in a hooded parka leaves a lot to be desired in the realm of chilling imagery.  All the great, iconic slashers have not only a instantly recognizable, unmistakable look to them, but they also have a distinct personality in how they move and act.  This slasher, which doesn’t even have a name to its credit, comes off entirely generic with no distinct personality in its movements.  This takes away a lot of the menace this killer could have had, and thus, further adds to the lack of effective horror in this movie.  While Ghostface was a different person in each Scream movie, the image of Ghostface was iconic and carried a strong weight of horror with him.  The Urban Legend slasher is just terribly forgettable.  If this killer wasn’t wielding an axe, you wouldn’t feel any serious imposing threat from him/her at all.  I think my critiques hold weight with the makers of the sequel Urban Legends: Final Cut since they entirely revamped the look of their killer.

Still, the film has a few exciting sequences such as when the killer is chasing Tara Reid’s Sasha.  It’s fairly intense and suspenseful as Sasha tries to evade this axe wielding maniac.  Shortly thereafter, the climactic chase sequence in the storming rain is pretty good with some good tension and strenuous physicality for Alicia Witt.  Proving my point, this is when the killer turns away from urban legend themed kills, and just starts going after people full boar.  These are the scenes that work because they’re not so predictable.  They keep an audience more on edge in the midst of random peril.  They’re surely not wholly original inventions in the slasher genre, but they are staples of it because they are effective.  So, it is that final 20-30 minutes which actually become intense and suspenseful, but for a 100 minute horror movie, that’s not very adequate.

On the acting end of things, Alicia Witt delivers a solid leading performance making Natalie sweet, vulnerable, smart, and tough.  I like when she punches Joshua Jackson’s Damon Brooks right in the face after a bad come-on in a parked car showing there’s some assertiveness in her.  Witt is a strong actress with a lot of talent to her credit.  Plus, she’s a beautiful redhead, and I absolutely adore redheads.  Jared Leto has a decent performance here as college newspaper reporter Paul Gardner, but his character just doesn’t have much personality on the page to speak of.  Paul’s constantly trying to pry information out of everyone for his news story, but he doesn’t come off as the least bit imposing or ethically objectionable as that statement would suggest.  Rebecca Gayheart is a fine talent working well as Natalie’s best friend Brenda, but offering little more, initially, than the qualities of the supportive friend.  The latter end of the film gives her a lot more juicy material to work with that she really sinks her teeth into, and does an excellent job with.

Now. Michael Rosenbaum is plain awesome.  After seeing him for so many years as Lex Luthor on Smallville it’s great seeing his comedic charisma in full swing here as the fun loving Parker.  He’s charged up with energy and personality to spare, but Rosenbaum has enough charm to shy it away from becoming obnoxious.  Tara Reid has a great promiscuous role as the saucy, sexually charged radio talk show host Sasha.  Halloween franchise alumnus Danielle Harris clocks in as Natalie’s Goth roommate Tosh.  It’s a good minor performance, and she looks quite hot in all that black garb.

Urban Legend features some notable horror legends in Robert Englund and Brad Dourif.  Both of which put in solid performances.  Dourif portrays a stuttering gas station attendant at the film’s start, and he’s sufficiently creepy.  Englund gives Professor Wexler plenty of dignity and a little bit of theatrical edge for a strong, respectable performance.  Both actors put a good measure of enthusiasm and quality into their roles here, and are small highlights that gave this film particular notoriety upon release.

The film’s score is provided by Christopher Young, who also did the music for the first two Hellraiser movies and last year’s highly effective horror film Sinister.  Here, he does a far more understated but still admirable job.  It has plenty of strong, tense cues throughout, and is probably a notch above the standard slasher film fare.

Now, I do really like the dark, shameful secret that Natalie has in her past, and how it ties into the motivation of the killer.  It is all smartly and realistically put together.  It makes for a nice twist in the climax that does get setup from Natalie’s story earlier on.  The climax itself is pretty decent and typical for a slasher movie, but it’s surely far from terrible.  It delivers some satisfaction, but it’s nothing that will stick with you like the endings of Halloween or Friday The 13th.  The somewhat quirky coda fits for the movie, but also, doesn’t make a lot of sense.  It could’ve used a better resolution that was more pertinent to the actual characters and story.  It kind of goes with the half-baked feeling of the movie.  It had good ideas, but just didn’t do anything worthwhile with them.

Ultimately, this is a real disappointment of a slasher film that just isn’t scary at all.  They had a very talented cast to work with, and a premise that could’ve worked very well if it injected some original thinking into it.  Instead, it just comes off as generic and predictable.  The killer is entirely forgettable, and offers no menace or threatening presence.  Director Jamie Blanks does a respectable job with Urban Legend, but the script is just devoid of ambition.  He handles his cast exceptionally well, knows how to shoot a film very cinematically, and shows some talent for suspense.  Yet, the film fails because the script uses a gimmick purely at face value without trying to add anything fresh or innovative to it.  A killer offing people using urban legends is a clever idea, but screenwriter Silvio Horta progressed it no further than that.  I know Jamie Blanks can make a good slasher movie because he did it with his next film Valentine, which I think is quite underappreciated.  Given a stronger script, he can certainly deliver a much more effective product.  It certainly won’t hurt you to watch Urban Legend, but it’s nothing special you’re missing out on.  It did spawn two sequels that really were rather horrible that I would strongly advise avoiding.  I saw them each once, and that was more than enough for me.  This film is decent enough if you just need a mild way to kill 100 minutes.  It likely won’t make you cringe, depending on your slasher film tastes, but it likely won’t excite you either.


Bullet to the Head (2013)

Bullet to the HeadI have no preface for this review except to tell you that Walter Hill and Sylvester Stallone are a blockbuster combination that have delivered an excellent, hard-as-hell and graphic action film that you MUST SEE!  Simply said, this has Walter Hill’s vintage style all over it, and I love it!  If Bullet to the Head signals a turning of the genre back to its best roots of hard edged bad assery, I’m all for it!

After the seasoned criminal Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone) and his partner Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda) carry out a hired hit, they are targeted by a mercenary named Keegan (Jason Momoa) who kills Blanchard, but fails in his attempt against Jimmy.  With the mark for the hit being a former corrupt Washington D.C. cop, it brings Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) to New Orleans to investigate who he was hooked up with, and why he was killed.  However, Kwon soon finds himself lethally targeted, and joins forces with Jimmy in order to weed out and bring down whoever wants them both dead.  The unlikely duo soon take on all who stand in their way, but where Kwon wants procedural justice, Jimmy is ready to exact brutal, unforgiving revenge.

I revisited both 48 HRS. movies within the last two months, and so, Walter Hill’s classic style is really fresh in my mind.  I am a longtime fan of The Warriors, but Bullet to the Head certainly follows more in line with that sort of buddy cop dynamic.  I could really feel that vibe coming off this movie right from the start, and it had me hooked in by the end of the opening credits.  I was loving this movie within the first five minutes, and it never disappointed me.  Aside from the modern technology aspects, this feels right at home with a solid 1980s hard-hitting action film, but Hill does throw in some modern style to update it a little.  Bullet to the Head has a neo noir edge to it, but it doesn’t go down the Michael Mann route.  This vibe is mainly due to large chunks of the film taking place at night, and we get some very appealing cinematography out of it.  There are some shaky cam tropes used every so often, but it’s far from being the worst I’ve seen.  There’s some restraint used to keep the action scenes really satisfying, and while I would’ve preferred more restraint or at least wider compositions, it did work quite well for this film.

Stallone is excellent through and through.  He shows that he’s still got what it takes to be a top tier action hero.  He is really in phenomenal shape showcasing a lean, ripped physique that presents a man that can clearly rip you to pieces.  Sly gets plenty of chances to show his physicality with some really bone crunching hand-to-hand combat in addition to all the brutal, graphic gun violence.  Yes, indeed, there are numerous people getting their own bullet to the head throughout the movie.  Acting wise, Stallone’s solid.  He really carries the dramatic weight of Jimmy well, much in part to his grizzled voice.  The film’s not dripping with emotional grief or anything, but you definitely feel Jimmy’s dead set determination in finding the people responsible for his partner’s murder.  The scenes Sly shares with Sarah Shahi, who portrays Jimmy’s tattoo artist daughter Lisa, are really well done.  There’s definitely a rocky relationship there, but not one of heavy friction.  They play well off of each other creating a mature and honest father-daughter relationship that has some weight and grit.

The humor in the film is really played out nicely between Stallone and Sung Kang.  The trailers did do it justice as it seemed a little low grade, but in the context of the film, it really had me laughing quite a bit.  I like how Kang’s Detective Kwon keeps poking fun at Jimmy’s age, and it’s handled in an almost bad ass way when Stallone retorts that still sells a laugh.  It’s nicely written and smartly performed.  Both actors really grasped the tone and chemistry the film was going for, and it kept the tone light and fun when needed in between the slam bang action scenes.  That is a perfect example of a 48 HRS. Walter Hill style and balance of tone.  The humor works with the hardened action tone of the film, and invests you in the characters in how they contrast and complement one another.  It’s certainly something not every director can do, but Hill proves he still has that skill.

I will admit that Sung Kang himself start out a little weak in the film.  He wasn’t really selling me for the first few scenes, but once he clicked into the chemistry opposite Stallone, he really fit in quite well.  Detective Kwon is a very by-the-book type of cop.  He’s using Jimmy only as a means to an end, and is quite set in his ways of adhering to the law all the way through.  So, there’s this tough, seasoned hitman paired with a rather mild mannered police detective who wants to keep what they do on the straight and narrow.  However, they regularly clash in stellar fashion creating both some of that humor, but also, a fine building of a relationship that keeps forcing them back together.  Still, despite Kwon being very conservative with his violence, he regularly impresses by having the skills to take down an adversary quite efficiently either by hand or by gun.  So, Stallone doesn’t get all the action glory.  Sung Kang has his fair chances to show us something unexpected and satisfying in that vein.  There might be some that feel he wasn’t the absolute best choice for this role, especially since Thomas Jane was originally cast in it, but I think he earns his merit before the end.  Beyond anything else, Kung and Stallone work very smoothly together making this a very entertaining film.

Now, I was extremely impressed by Jason Momoa.  His role of Keegan is a very stern faced killer, but one that is simply a massacring bad ass.  As his employers say in the film, he enjoys the work he does.  He takes pleasure in killing, and he gets a ton of chances to indulge himself.  He never just walks in to kill one person.  He’s there to kill everyone in sight, and Momoa delivers to us a genuinely sadistic villain that you’d love to hate.  He may only be a hired gun, a mercenary, but he fits right into that perfect role of like James Remar from 48 HRS or Andrew Divoff from Another 48 HRS.  He may not be the mastermind criminal, but he is the number one force to contend with and is the one that we really want to see taken down.  Momoa is really awesome in this role, and he seemed to have loved playing it.  He makes Keegan intimidating and heavily threatening, despite his impressive muscle bound size of 6’5”.

Christian Slater has a nice turn as the somewhat sleazy Marcus Baptiste, a rich lawyer who enjoys his women and narcotics quite a bit.  He only has a few scenes, but Slater does sell the antagonistic character with plenty of zeal.  Baptiste is working with the actual mastermind of Morel, an African gentleman portrayed with sophistication, arrogance, and amoral villainy by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbajeas.  It’s a very subdued performance, but one that works quite well for the character.  Both actors gives us some firm antagonists with realistic motives that solidly fit the film and story.

And indeed, this is a hard R rated action movie with plenty of bloody gunshots and some explicit female nudity.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an action film be so casual and open with showing nudity, and it was very much a pleasing sight to my eyes.  Baptiste has a masquerade party where many of the masked women are wearing little else but those masks.  It was very titillating, but it does not distract the film away from its plot.  It doesn’t indulge in anything gratuitous beyond that.  Conversely, this may not have as much graphic violence as Dredd, but it surely lives up to that standard I just recently discovered.  Just like in Dredd, and again, living up to its title, people get shot in the head continually.  The film even sets up the need for it early on when a guy doesn’t go down until he’s shot in the head.  So, Jimmy Bobo is dead-on-the-mark, accepting nothing but point blank kill shots to the cranium.  While some of the blood splatter is likely CGI, it at no point did it distract from the awesomeness of this movie.  We get some big explosions in this that kick ass, and tell you that this movie is taking no prisoners.  It’s going to deliver that hardcore bombast that has been missing in most action films these days, and it’s gonna to do like only Stallone and Hill can.  What I really loved was when Jimmy and Keegan duel with those axes.  That is not something I believe I’ve seen in an action film before, and it seriously made for one really intense and suspenseful fight.  On wrong move, and you could be missing a body part.  It was a tremendously climactic and amazing action scene that amped up the level of tension and brutality that I wasn’t expecting.  From the trailers, I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t expect it to be that damn good of a scene.  It was fuckin’ great!

I also really loved the score by Steve Mazzaro.  It’s very bluesy with some hard electric guitar and prominent and beautiful use of harmonica, giving this a real seasoned and down to Earth feel.  It sets a real down south vibe for this New Orleans set film that really just works amazingly well.  However, most of the action scenes are very minimal on music.  At most, you get a little underscore for a low end vibe, but mostly, you’re hearing the sound effects of guns firing, fists crunching bone, bodies slamming into hard surfaces, and axes clanging together.  I think that worked excellently with this very hard edged action as there is a lot of impact with those sound effects.  They really enhance the brutality of the movie, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Seeing both this and Dredd within the same month really energizes me into believing that hardcore R rated action movies are making a genuine, high quality comeback.  Talented filmmakers, both old and new, are delivering to us some really amazing movies lately that are giving the action genre that hard hitting adrenalin shot it needed.  Stallone is in top form and clearly enjoying himself in this movie, and he was in masterful hands with Walter Hill as the director.  I had a HELL of a great time watching this in the theatre, and if a friend of mine was going to see it later, I’d tag along for a second viewing.  Bullet to the Head is a fun, exciting, ass kicking 90 minute thrill ride that is worth taking more than once.  It keeps itself simple by not trying to complicate the plot with any big twisting narrative.  It’s very straight forward and right to the point.  This is one awesome movie that satisfied me from the very beginning to the very end.  And this is literally a movie that starts with a bang!  I give Bullet to the Head a definite SLAM BANG recommendation!  This year now has a lot to live up to in terms of action movies for me, and I damn well hope it delivers.  So, 2013 – you have been put on notice!