In-Depth Movie Reviews & High Quality Trailers

Science Fiction / Fantasy Movies

Strange Days (1995)

Strange DaysMany know Kathryn Bigelow from her Academy Award winning and nominated films of recent years.  However, her earlier work features some stunning films that showcase a brilliant visionary style, and no other movie reflects that better than Strange Days.  Released in my favorite year in film, 1995, it bombed at the box office, but gained quite a lot of praise.  Roger Ebert even gave it a four out of four stars, and it was nominated for several Saturn Awards including Best Science Fiction Film with Bigelow winning for Best Director.  Time has since allowed for this film to gain a wider appreciation from genre fans, and I’ve wanted to share mine with you for quite a while now.  Strange Days is essentially the Blade Runner of the 1990’s, but even Blade Runner doesn’t do to me what Strange Days does.

It’s the eve of the millennium in Los Angeles, December 31, 1999.  Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop turned street hustler who preys on human nature by dealing the drug of the future.  A new technology, called “wire tripping,” allows for anyone to re-live actual life experiences tapping directly into the cerebral cortex for the ultimate escapist high.  However, Lenny is soon tangled up in a deadly plot, alongside limousine driver and security specialist Mace (Angela Bassett), when a set of murderous and controversial wire trip recordings end up in his possession that could have radical implications upon the entire city.  It’s an environment that will lead him deep into the danger zone when he falls into a maze filled with intrigue and betrayal, murder and conspiracy.

Kathryn Bigelow was married to James Cameron for a time, and even after their marriage ended, they remained regular collaborators.  Cameron was a producer on this film, co-screenwriter, and an uncredited editor.  I can definitely see his creative influence at work.  It’s that real depth of humanity on display with all of these colorful characters, real penetrating emotion, exciting science fiction ideas, and the exciting energy of storytelling which harkens back to The Terminator.  His creative fingerprints are clearly here, and they are wrapped up in Bigelow’s razor sharp pacing, incredible direction, and mind blowing visuals.

The look of the movie definitely has that dystopian vibe with a lot of grit, smoke, neon, and seedy locales.  Yet, it doesn’t look depressing, but instead, it’s exciting and intense.  The cinematography is just simply stunning, and it will escape me to no end how Batman Forever got nominated at the Oscars for Best Cinematography this year while Strange Days was entirely snubbed as well as The Usual Suspects, Seven, and Twelve Monkeys.  All of those are vastly superior looking and shot films on every level, and Strange Days is really in a league all its own from the signature James Cameron blue tinge style to Bigelow’s really dynamic visual edge that absorbs us fully into this dark, vibrant, mind-twisting reality.  The camera work is amazingly dynamic, intriguing, and inspired.  It’s a visual feast that really embraces a kinetic energy without ever sacrificing artistic integrity.  If you took Blade Runner and hyper-charged it with adrenalin and a riveting edge of flash, you would get Strange Days.

The movie jacks you into a wire trip from the start to clearly convey the language of the experience.  People are buying these recordings to experience the forbidden pleasures in life like armed robbery or sexual desires.  It’s an extremely tempting thing that gives you all the rush and excitement without consequence, but it’s entirely illegal forcing Lenny to be the king of this underground business.  Thus, he comes into the center of two related criminal plots.  The first involves a pair of corrupt cops, portrayed by William Fichtner and Vincent D’Onofrio, tracking down a damning wire trip recording that could erupt the entire city in violence and outrage.  The second is someone who stalked, raped, and murdered a friend of Lenny’s, and now is focusing his sick and disturbing torment on Lenny himself.  All of this melds together into a larger conspiracy that engulfs these characters into a powerful dramatic story that rips and tears at emotions with severe risks and consequences.

Now, I absolutely love Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero.  He’s the real crux of this whole film energizing it with his slick charm and charisma.  He’s a mesmerizing salesman selling fantasies with the sensation of pure, raw reality.  Yet, he never comes across as sleazy.  Fiennes makes Lenny very genuine in everything he does, and thus, he is the perfect unlikely hero with a yearning broken heart, a life of down and out black market seediness, and a real vulnerable quality to him.  Ralph Fiennes is an incredible actor, and he makes this a very deeply human and emotionally vulnerable character that draws you completely into the film.  Lenny Nero is not a man who views himself as a hero, but the frightening descent that he is caught up in forces him to take action, especially with his former love Faith, portrayed greatly by Juliette Lewis, at the center of it.  Faith has fully fallen into the deep end of the sleaze as a rock singer hooked up with Michael Wincott’s wire trip addicted record label owner Philo Gant.  Lenny desperately wants to win her back, or at least, pull her out of that deep end.  As a side note, I really love the wardrobe of Lenny Nero.  It’s very stylish and flashy with plenty of unique personality, much like Lenny himself.

Angela Bassett is absolutely bad ass here in a very gritty, powerful way.  Mace is exceptionally tough not taking any crap from Lenny, who hustles and leeches favors off her when he’s down and out, and as a security specialist, she can back up every ounce of that attitude.  Bassett exudes energy and strength in every frame, and intensifies every moment.  I’ve always been impressed by Bassett’s mixture of tough exterior with a tender interior.  She definitely brings that out in Mace with all the raw emotional power possible.

Now, you talk about Academy Award quality work, I honestly believe that both Bassett and Fiennes achieved that in this film.  Had Strange Days not fallen under the radar, I believe it would have been heralded with that kind of reverence at the time.  Both Bassett and Fiennes deliver stunning, deeply powerful performances, and the script fuses Lenny and Mace together in a very personal way born out of tragedy and heartbreak.  Furthermore, the chemistry between Bassett and Fiennes is spectacular.  They spark off amazingly whether it’s sharp wit and humor, vehement conviction, or deep emotional drama.  They are an electrifying pair which forge a riveting gravitas around them, but also make it a fun ride with their great rhythm and heart.

This film is just filled with an array of exceptional acting talents putting forth their best.  From Tom Sizemore to Juliette Lewis to William Fichtner to Vincent D’Onofrio to Michael Wincott, the supporting cast is bursting with charisma, awesomeness, and solidarity.  Everyone is equally as compelling and vibrant creating a very electrifying ensemble.  Under Kathryn Bigelow’s direction, everyone delivers a powerful and intensely memorable performance.  Bigelow seems to very much favor Sizemore as he appeared in Blue Steel and Point Break with much smaller roles, but here, he’s given a very prominent role as Max, a friend of Lenny’s who is still on the police force that weaves himself tightly into this plot.

On top of having that mind-blowing, amazing cast, Bigelow delivers an exciting, riveting thriller.  The mysteries are wonderfully interwoven with all the character dynamics, volatile social climate, and science fiction tech elements.  There’s wickedly tight tension and heart-pounding excitement at every turn.  The powder keg of Los Angeles is building towards an explosion, and the lethality of the situation only builds as forces converge.  This is a movie that constantly pushes further and further along the razor’s edge of madness, suspense, and danger.  Surely, there is action here handled with the riveting intensity that Bigelow demonstrated with Point Break, but saturated with larger doses of style and exhilaration, if that’s even imaginable.  The two corrupt cops dousing Mace’s limo with gasoline and lighting it on fire forcing her to drive it into in the bay, and then, make a shotgun glass shattering escape to avoid drowning is superbly executed, as is everything here.  This film is soaked in emotion and thrilling, edge of your seat suspense, but still finds those moments of pure entertainment to make it a greatly fun experience.

Surely, the odd aspect of the film is that it was released in 1995 and takes place in the year of 1999 featuring a very radical decline in society.  It’s a very narrow jump into the future.  However, I really do like that it uses that “end of the millennium” sort of craziness and chaos to enhance every aspect of the film.  Strange Days also reflects a lot of early 90’s Los Angeles culture with the earthquakes, riots, and police brutality incidents, and so, it feels very encapsulating of what one could pessimistically feel the future of that Los Angeles could have been.  People are packing assault rifles, cops are wearing tactical riot gear, and the entire city looks like it’s on the edge of all our war.  This is the vibe and energy that Bigelow injects into the fiber of the film, and it really erupts in the film’s climax.  Strange Days is more than just a cyberpunk thriller, it has real social commentary on the darkest parts of society with shocking consequences.  The climax leaves me speechless.  I really don’t have the words reserved to describe it.  There is no easy road taken in this story, and nothing is handled lightly.  This is a hard hitting, gritty, visceral film that holds nothing back on any level.

Fueling all of that is a stellar score by Graeme Revell and a very aggressive soundtrack of mid-1990s electronic, heavy metal, and edgy music.  Every creative element of this movie is jacked into that kinetic, cyberpunk style that soars to magnificent heights.  It’s a pure encapsulation of a stunning vision by Bigelow built on the foundation of a rock solid, stunningly intelligent screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks.

Strange Days is a brilliant, incredible movie with a lot of strong thematic material, wickedly amazing performances, and a spectacular visual style.  This is one of the best and most original movies I have ever seen.  My mind was blown all over again watching it for this review.  Kathryn Bigelow would not be nominated for an Academy Award until 2010, but the evidence of her shockingly amazing talent was evident in 1995 with Strange Days.  This is a film that deserves vastly more exposure, credit, and accolades than it has received.  Surely, Point Break fulfills every action film adrenalin rush satisfaction for me, but this is the remarkable, awe-inspiring film experience.  This is surely, without a doubt, the far superior film of the two, but both deliver on every promise and exceed expectations every step of the way.  My recommendation is that you must see this movie no matter what!


Riddick (2013)

RiddickReviews for this sequel have been pretty lukewarm, and while I don’t blame anyone for feeling as such, there are some high and not-so-high points.  This is not a blanket mediocre film, but the averaging out of the varied content can leave one feeling that way.  As documented recently here, I feel Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick are really strong films in their respective, specific genres, with my preference being for the latter movie.  Riddick does fall between the scale and premises of those films, but doesn’t live up to either one quite as well as it could have.

Betrayed by the Necromongers and left for dead on a desolate planet, Riddick (Vin Diesel) fights for survival against alien predators and becomes more powerful and dangerous than ever before.  Soon, bounty hunters from throughout the galaxy descend on Riddick only to find themselves pawns in his greater scheme for revenge.  With his enemies right where he wants them, Riddick unleashes a vicious attack of vengeance before returning to his home planet of Furya to save it from destruction.

There are three sections of this movie for me to critique which all have their distinct qualities.  The first act of the film feels very sparse as it is just Riddick fending for himself on this desolate planet.  There’s a few bits of narration from him and a flashback with the Necromongers that fill in some plot gaps from the aftermath of The Chronicles of Riddick.  It also contains the only and very brief appearance of Karl Urban as Vaako.  I had hoped for more from him here, but I figured it would be no more than a cameo.  Anyway, this first act didn’t do much for me.  It was kind of cool seeing Riddick wounded, vulnerable, and out in the wild getting back in touch with his animal side.  However, it is quite sparse not giving you much beyond the survival action set pieces to get involved with.  The film was starting to feel like an adventure that would play out in some prequel comic book – a very small scale transition piece story that is a stepping stone to something larger.

Thankfully, as I anticipated, once we get some bounty hunter characters injected into the mix, the film really started to entertain and engage me.  Sure, the premise is quite stripped down and basic feeling more in line with Pitch Black, but if you’ve got a couple of vibrant, enjoyable characters to fill out that premise, you’ve got enough to make it worthwhile.  It does take a few minutes to get them warmed up, but it’s the clashing dynamics between everyone that sparks it all off.  Essentially, there are two teams of bounty hunters, or mercs as they are called.  The first is lead by Santana, who is an enjoyably sleazy, down and dirty type with a very gritty, testosterone jacked team.  The other is a more clean cut operation lead by actor Matt Nable’s character who has personal ties to Riddick and the events of Pitch Black.  These two teams clash immediately causing a lot of conflict, and striking some very humorous, entertaining interactions.

Santana is portrayed very well by Jordi Mollà.  I found him the most lively and charismatic character of the film.  Mollà paints Santana as a very salacious individual with little respect for anyone else outside his team, and especially doesn’t like being ordered around by any of them when they’re forced to team up.  Santana has definite smarts, but his attitude surely digs his own grave with many characters, especially Riddick.  Also, former wrestler Dave Bautista is part of Santana’s team, and he does his part well, especially since Diaz doesn’t require much beyond being tough, formidible, and a little charismatic.

And color me majorly impressed by Katee Sackhoff.  She portrays the exceedingly tough Dahl, part of the opposing team of mercs.  She more than imposes her physicality upon Santana and others who try testing her, and has the attitude to go with that.  This isn’t some stereotypical tough chick routine.  Sackhoff kick ass as a bonafide hard edged, sharply skilled mercenary who has an extra distinctive flourish to her character.  I’m sold on the actress and the character completely.

Now, Matt Nable’s character, of Boss who does have a bit of a reveal that I’ll not spoil for you here, is fairly okay.  As I said, he adds a tether back to Pitch Black, but he’s really little more than that.  The character is confident, authoratative, and intelligent, but compared to the colorful Santana, the tough as nails Dahl, or the nicely fun muscle bound hired guns of Santana’s gang, this is a rather mild character.  He also sits on the fence never becoming an outright, reviled villain, and the ending reflects the reason why.  There’s some intended depth with this character, but because he is so much on the fence, you don’t know if you’re supposed to sympathize with him or view him as a vengeful enemy.  The film never galvanizes him into what kind of adversary he should be, and thus, comes off as quite forgettable and mild.

It is clear that Vin Diesel has a love for Riddick, and so do I.  I think he is very fascinating type of anti-hero that has so many avenues of expansion, but this film really takes no ambition with Richard B. Riddick.  The character is still written well by David Twohy, but that signature aura of mystique isn’t quite there.  That ambiguity of what kind of hero he might choose to be, or the cunning way he manipulates events and perceives deeper into others isn’t really utilized here.  Because the is a straight forward survival story with only bad guys and no potential good guys, you generally know how Riddick is going to deal with everyone.  There’s no one of morality or sympathy like Imam, Carolyn Fry, or Jack / Kyra here to sway or alter Riddick’s actions.  He’s out for himself, and will bargain however he can to escape this planet alive without being held captive.  So, there’s no place for a lot of those more complex elements of Riddick to exist in this story, and that’s unfortunate.  Diesel still does a really good job in the role, making him a fun, smart, highly capable, and entertaining protagonist.  It just doesn’t feel like we’re getting every element of the character that I love.  I kept perceiving something being missing from the performance or portrayal all throughout the movie, but couldn’t really put my finger on it.  There is more to this character that we have seen in both previous movies, but this movie is just a little too stripped down to allow him to develop or be fleshed out.  It also seemed like Vin Diesel didn’t wear contact lenses this time out, and instead, had Riddick’s “shine job” eyes digitally done.

I loved Graeme Revell’s score for both previous movies, but I wasn’t impressed with his work in this film.  The familiar main theme does make some subtle appearances, but we never get a full fledged crescendo of it.  Many of the action beats are scored appropriately well.  Yet, the rest of the score feels very different in many places from Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick.  There were a number of cues which just didn’t strike the right chord with me, same as some of the humorous bits of Riddick and the silly tricks with his dog-like pet.  Those were certainly there to forge an emotional bond with this animal, which seems to have a massive unexplaned growth spurt during the first act, but because it was such a poorly done CGI creation I just couldn’t care that much about it.

The digital visual effects are about on-par with those in The Chronicles of Riddick, but like with Pitch Black, it’s good that a large chunk of these effects appear during dark environments.  The creatures that strike at nightfall are considerably better rendered than Riddick’s pet, which is the only CGI that I cringed at.  Of course, there’s only so much you can do on a $38 million budget where entire landscapes are enhanced with digital effects, and thus, you’re stretching your dollars to their limit.  Thankfully, the CGI is pretty good in large part, and added to the film a whole lot more than it detracted.

I do like that David Twohy put forth the effort to build in connections to both of the previous movies.  Again, you’ve got some flashbacks with the Necromongers showing what happened after Riddick killed the Lord Marshal, and how it led to him being left for dead on this nearly barren planet.  Yet, I know this was not the film Twohy nor Diesel intended to make when they laid out their plans for The Chronicles of Riddick, and so, this is a smaller scale story intended to be a springboard towards a larger scale adventure.  As much as I absolutely want to see this franchise take off and allow these fimmakers to tell the Riddick stories that they want, I’m not sure this is the movie to get them there.  Like I said, this story is probably stripped down too much in terms of character and conceptual development, and focuses more on the entertainment value of action sequences.  While all of the action is very well executed making for a bloody, violent, and fairly exciting movie, it has one more major failing.

As I said, there are three sections of this film to critique, and the last one, clearly, is the ending.  Riddick is an action / horror survival story putting this character into increasingly treacherous and deadly scenarios where he must fend for himself.  People are going to betray him and attempt to kill him, possibly even stranding him on this planet to ensure their own survival.  I won’t detail the ending of this movie, but frankly, it is a terribly weak ending that is a copout to the entire premise.  There’s no dramatic punch to this ending, no rationale for the actions of the other characters involved with it, and leaves you hanging with an empty feeling.  The film builds to a tense, riveting crescendo, and then, fizzles out.  This film absoultely should have ended with a strong, impactful, emphatic statement for the character and franchise.  I even sat there through the end credits hoping for an extra scene to appear, but once those credits roll, that’s all there is.  Up until this point, I was enjoying myself, and was engaged in the excitement of the action.  I was interested to see how the machinations of these deceitful characters would manipulate the fate of Riddick.  It was a fun adventure with plenty of graphic violence pulling no punches, and just having a good, gritty time with itself.  It’s just those last few minutes of the movie where you just don’t know how Riddick is going to get out of this at all, and the entire movie cheats you out of even a decent pay-off.  I just felt letdown, and it’s worse yet because I know David Twohy can write something better than this.  He wrote Warlock, co-wrote The Fugitive, and co-wrote both previous Riddick movies.  It’s a whimper of a conclusion when it should have been amazingly awesome to re-energize audiences about the character of Riddick, and leave them wanting to see more bad assery from him.

I had been waiting for this movie for a long time, and I really wanted this franchise to be very successful.  So, it really, honestly pains me to give any amount of negativity to jeopardize that success, but this really feels more like a movie many would rent instead of rushing out to the theatre to see.  Even removing the ending from the equation, it is a fairly average sci-fi / action movie without the same stylized visuals or scope of Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick.  However, it has some extra punch in the graphic violence and some pleasing female nudity, and has some entertaining and well portrayed characters to liven up the uninspired story.  You can potentially have a good time with this movie, but I don’t feel it’s a strong enough outing to give Riddick the new injection of box office life that he needs for David Twohy and Vin Diesel to do what they desire with him, unfortunately.


The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

The Chronicles of RiddickYou don’t know how excited I was to watch this movie again, and then, wonder to myself why in the HELL haven’t I watched this frequently over the years.  Of course, I speak of the director’s cut which I feel is a vastly superior and richer story.  From every fan I’ve heard from, they are hardcore about Pitch Black, but not so much about this one.  I am really more the reverse.  The more expansive science fiction epic traveling to various unique worlds, and facing multiple dangers with colorful characters is right in my cinematic sweet spot.

After years of outrunning ruthless bounty hunters, escaped convict Riddick (Vin Diesel) suddenly finds himself caught between opposing forces in a fight for the future of all races.  An army of fearsome world ravagers known as Necromongers are “cleansing” and forcibly converting other species in their goal of universal conquest, but Imam (Keith David) and the Elemental Ambassador Aereon (Judi Dench) believe Riddick holds the key to a prophecy that could bring down Necromonger Lord Marshal (Colm Feore).  Now, waging incredible battles on fantastic and deadly worlds, this lone, reluctant hero will emerge as a champion, and the last hope for a universe on the edge of annihilation.

Vin Diesel and David Twohy really develop the character of Riddick further and in more depth.  There’s more emotional texture on the surface now, especially when conversing with Imam.  I absolutely love how this film expands this character without ever betraying what made him fascinating to begin with.  He’s placed into a larger story and a larger world which delves further into who he is, where he came from, and that’s exactly what a sequel should do.  Every bad ass, intriguing quality of him is intact, but circumstances force him to make choices he never thought he’d be faced with.  Diesel does an excellent job stretching Riddick out into this wider universe.  He still carries the air of mystique with him, but there’s more emotional weight and tethers to the character.  The connection with Imam is quite cool, if only for having two of the deepest, smoothest voices in Hollywood trading dialogue, but honestly, these are especially good scenes.  Diesel also gets more dynamic action sequences to shine in, and galvanizes Riddick into a bigger, smarter, more clever bad ass than before.  I also love the light touches of wit and humor that we are given.  Riddick has some clever, fun dialogue making him just as funny as he is threatening and dangerous.

Building upon his character is the relationship with Jack, who now goes by Kyra and portrayed by Alexa Davalos.  She’s grown into a jaded version of Riddick because she feels he abandoned her.  She’s a convicted criminal willing to kill for pleasure or to survive.  Davalos does a very good job in this role making a solid emotional connection with the audience, and shows her physicality is in prime shape.  Some might know her from her three guest appearances on Angel as the electricity powered Gwen Raiden, where she also showed she could throw down.  Davalos is a great successor to this role, and the film pulls no punches in tearing these characters away from Riddick, forcing him to stand more and more on his own.  I like that Kyra and Imam become involved in the Necromonger storyline, albeit in different ways, and so, all threads tie tightly back into the main plot.

The director’s cut absolutely makes this an excellent film.  The theatrical version cuts out the real meat of the Furyan subplot including the character of Shirah who comes to Riddick in visions and unlocks his power as a Furyan.  All of that is rather critical to the entire driving factors of the movie.  It gives motivation and purpose to Riddick and Lord Marshal, and propels them forward with more weight and depth.  Without all of that, the story becomes thinner and more basic.  I remember seeing moments in the trailer from this subplot, and being upset when they didn’t appear when I saw the film theatrically.  This aspect of The Chronicles of Riddick gives depth, purpose, and poignancy to Riddick, and simply makes it a more substantive story that I really, strongly endorse.

There’s also amazing action everywhere in The Chronicles of Riddick.  From the mercs chasing Riddick on the frigid ice world to the race against the scorching, lethal sunrise on the prison planet Crematoria, we get wickedly conceived and executed set pieces.  There’s plenty of violence, especially in the unrated director’s cut, as Riddick really cuts deep into his adversaries, and we get plenty of bang for our buck.  The stunt work is amazing, and the imagination on display is rich and refreshing.  David Twohy creates some very dynamic acrobatic moments that do strain physics, but it fits just fine into the hyper stylized intensity.  He absolutely goes for an expansive scope that stunningly sucked me into the film.  The entire look of the movie is just awesome with excellent cinematography and a brilliant, epic vision from Twohy himself.

The Chronicles of Riddick has a very lavish production design that I could compare to a big Dino De Laurentiis 1980’s science fiction / fantasy epic like Flash Gordon or David Lynch’s Dune.  This really goes all out in detailed costume designs, big sprawling landscapes, and simply elegant sets filled with depth and nuance.  Twohy really went for broke making this an exquisitely high grade production, and I think it immensely pays off at every turn.  Some of the visual effects are exceptional, but there are a number of moments that are quite noticeably less than excellent.  Regardless, the vast, stunning vision of David Twohy is realized impressively, and with stronger resources than what he had on Pitch Black.  The visual effects are a MAJOR upgrade from that movie allowing for Twohy’s vision to thrive on screen.  There might be a green screen effect here or there that could be a notch or two better, and the animals set loose in the Crematoria prison are the most obvious undercooked CGI elements, but the visual effects spectacle is very strong creating a fully realized and enveloping universe.  I thoroughly love every aspect of the look of this film.  It’s what hooked me from the trailers, and it’s what continues to excite me.  And yes, Graeme Revell does return to reprise his themes from the first movie, and does a remarkable job capturing the feel of this more action / adventure-centric sequel.

What I absolutely, deeply love in this film is Nick Chinlund as the bounty hunter Toombs.  He is a massive upgrade in entertainment value over Johns in Pitch Black.  Toombs is a rugged, sleazy, charismatic joy to be had all through his screentime.  He’s an excellent, fun adversary for Riddick.  Chinlund and Diesel have great adversarial chemistry to the point that I had always wanted Toombs to return for a sequel, but you can’t always get what you want.  This role made me an enthusiastic Nick Chinlund fan.

And damn, does Karl Urban not do his best in everything he does?  He’s a hardened, menacing threat as Vaako who schemes against the Lord Marshal to succeed him as leader of the Necromongers.  This might seem like a subplot that is a bit extraneous, but it has strategic impact on the main plot.  And Urban’s strong presence and dramatic weight really helps enhance Vaako and his role in this film.  As I always say, Karl Urban is an actor with a rich depth of talent who never gives anything but his absolute best every time he takes on a role.  He does rock solid, consistent, high quality work, and that has made him a wholehearted favorite of mine since The Lord of the Rings and The Bourne Supremacy.

And it’s odd to speak of the film’s main villain after all of these supporting characters, but Colm Feore is great as the Lord Marshal.  He adds the right balance of militaristic conqueror and haunting specter.  He is a man of supposed ultimate power seeking universal domination, and is fully consumed by his radical faith.  His unwavering mindset makes him immensely dangerous like a barreling down freight train, and Feore has the right eerie quality to sell all of this.  He fills the role just right making him a seemingly insurmountable enemy fueled by these fantastical powers of the Underverse.  He doesn’t have the entertainment value of Toombs, or the fierce intensity of Vaako.  However, he is the dominant presence that none can contend with, but you do get the subtle feeling that, whether it’s Riddick or Vaako, someone is going to take him down by the end.  The climax entirely plays upon that expectation, and executes it in a very clever way.

Pitch Black was the one-off adventure that introduced us to Riddick, and just allowed us a small glimpse into the potential of this character.  The Chronicles of Riddick was clearly the start of a larger, epic story that I have been excited to see continued for nine years.  David Twohy establishes a great, exciting, and vast universe for endless possibilities with this movie.  I love taking a character like Riddick and injecting him into a different kind of film.  So many sequels aren’t a tenth as ambitious as this film strives and succeeds to be.  Many would do the same old thing, playing it safe with audience expectations, but Twohy engages us with Riddick and develops him further in a story that forces that to happen.  It puts Riddick into the bigger picture of the universe, and sets the stage for something even more fascinating and expansive to occur.

With the third film, Riddick, hitting theatres this weekend, it’s great to see another chance being taken here with a franchise of ripe potential.  The Chronicles of Riddick was not profitable upon its theatrical release, and that was a terrible shame.  Twohy and Diesel had well plotted plans for two more films, but would need that larger budget to realize them.  So, I don’t expect Riddick to expand as wondrously and amazingly upon the concepts of this film, but more a fusion of the styles of Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick.  Finding a middle ground between them seems like it could generate success and appeal to fans of both films.  Again, my preference is towards the second film as it just breaks open the universe in a stunning realization of imagination, and is fueled by some great action sequences that have always stuck with me through the years.  The Chronicles of Riddick is greatly exciting, immensely enjoyable, and simply fascinating to see unfold with its fantastical ideas and purposeful spectacle.  If you haven’t been exposed to these films, I strongly encourage you to do so, and I hope that Riddick lives up to the years of anticipation.  Even if it’s smaller scale, I’m greatly pleased to see a solid, imaginative franchise get another chance at success.


Pitch Black (2000)

Pitch BlackDavid Twohy is one of those talents who deserves better success than what he has achieved.  He’s done some stellar screenwriting work with hits like The Fugitive and G.I. Jane, and many of his directorial efforts have received critical praise from genre fans.  With Pitch Black, he struck a cult following chord that still, hopefully, resonates to this day.  I’ve heard many say that Pitch Black is essentially a reworking of David Twohy’s rejected script for Alien 3, but my research does not confirm any correlation between the two projects especially since he co-wrote Pitch Black with two other writers in Jim & Ken Wheat.  However, it is very easy to see how this could have been part of that franchise, but thankfully, this was its own thing that launched its own franchise that I am glad to say that I am a fan of.  And yes, the director’s cut is the way to go for me.

When their ship crash-lands on a remote planet, the marooned passengers soon learn that escaped convict Riddick (Vin Diesel) isn’t the only thing they have to fear.  Deadly creatures lurk in the shadows, waiting to attack in the dark, and the planet is rapidly plunging into the utter blackness of a total eclipse.  With the body count rising, the doomed survivors are forced to turn to Riddick with his eerie eyes to guide them through the darkness to safety.  With time running out there is only one rule: Stay in the light.

It’s interesting the structure that David Twohy goes for here.  Once the crash occurs, most films would take on a gradual pace to establish many of these characters, and walk through the process of a slow burn build up to the lurking threats waiting for everyone.  Instead, Twohy does a lot to jump forward beyond those gradual beats and goes for the tight, faster rhythm.  He knows that the necessary focus is on Riddick, Fry, and Johns, primarily, and there are points that need to be hit with them before jumping headlong into the meat of the plot.  We then learn more about these individuals as the conflicts and tensions escalate, which really works.  Twohy keeps the pace very well balanced because of this approach.  It starts out exciting, and continues to hold to that rhythm throughout.  Danger is encroaching upon these characters, and that faster tempo is very essential to the effectiveness of the scenario.

The film has some very well crafted sequences that surely deliver on the suspense using silence, subtlety, and the darkness in very effective ways.  While it doesn’t send chills up my spine to tingle me with terror, it is thrilling nonetheless.  For me, I would veer this more towards an action vibe.  The intention is survival horror, but there is enough intense action here to cater to anyone who isn’t so easily scared.  Several characters are put into peril early on, some die, and that serves the tension later on knowing that anyone is expendable in this story.  Anyone can fall prey to these quickly striking nocturnal creatures, and when they are charging through hordes of them with only minimal light to clear their way, it puts an audience on edge.  Yet, little of this would mean anything if there weren’t well portrayed and written characters to involve yourself with.

I really like everything that David Twohy and Radha Mitchell do with Carolyn Fry, the now defacto commanding officer after the captain died during a hull breech.  We know throughout the movie that she is not an altruistic hero as she tries to jettison the passengers to save her own life during the impending crash landing.  So, there’s that condemnable quality that she works to redeem herself for through the film.  She struggles to lead these people to safety as she constantly pushes that responsibility away, but she has to ultimately accept that leadership role in order to survive.  Mitchell really stands strong in this role delivering a dimensional character that an audience can latch onto, emotionally, and invest themselves in as she grows and solidifies through this terrifying ordeal.  Fry is vulnerable, but shows her strength by the end.

Cole Hauser makes the bounty hunter Johns a very good, subtly unstable foil here.  He’s supposed to be a good guy considering he caught Riddick, but he’s a tough mercenary challenging everyone’s authority while feeding his drug habit.  He’s a hostile wild card that could motivate people to safety, or more likely, jeopardize lives, including his own.  He and Riddick are definitely set at odds, but the scenes between them are very interesting in the psychological aspect.  Riddick is a guy who likes to play on peoples’ perceptions of him, and give them a certain amount of unpredictability to what he’ll do next.  Johns knows plenty of Riddick’s tricks, and it’s interesting to see them subtly square off psychologically and physically.

Of course, the real star of the movie is Vin Diesel.  The character of Richard B. Riddick is very much an anti-hero.  He’s a convicted criminal who makes no excuses for himself, but knows how to use everyone’s fears and perceptions about him to his benefit.  Diesel is very subtle in these moments speaking softly with a smirk showing that Riddick has people wrapped around his finger.  Riddick knows just how far to push, and when to twist things back around.  First and foremost, he is a survivor, and he knows that you can’t always do it alone.  Vin Diesel injects confidence, intelligence, and cunning into the character, but also a very compelling mystique.  Just like a Snake Plissken type, the less he says, the more interesting he becomes.  His actions make him intriguing while what words he does speak weave a complex tapestry that simply sucks you in.  You can gradually see this character becoming an iconic role as the film progresses, and even his opening narration sets the focus intriguingly upon Riddick right from the start.

There are a couple of notable supporting roles here including Keith David as the Muslim passenger Imam.  He offers up a very solid character with strong beliefs and morality that add to the diverse personalities and attitudes of these characters.  David is always a charismatic actor who can do tough everyman like in They Live or The Thing, but turn around and give you a substantive, cultured character such as Imam.  Add to that is Jack, portrayed by Rhianna Griffith who comes to idolize Riddick, and forms some kind of attachment to him.  There’s an odd twist to the character that seems fairly unnecessary, but it’s another trait to make Jack a slight bit more memorable.  These are both well established, well portrayed characters which aid the film in very grounded, human ways.

Now, Pitch Black has a certain stylized look at times that never entirely sat right with me.  I do like some of the over exposed daylight shots driving home the triple sun environment, but the rather monochromatic color washes don’t quite appeal to me.  I just feel there must have been a better, more subtle way to color time these scenes to allow a slightly more varied color palette to shine through.  Also, the inverted colors used in one false scare moment and a few cinematography and editing choices feel more akin to a flashy, stylized music video.  These artistic choices just seemed more akin to stuff I had seen in the direct-to-video market than a theatrically released motion picture.  That is sad for me to admit because beyond these off-beat moments, there is a lot of excellent cinematography to be had here.  There’s a definite effort put towards production value with the cinematic camera moves and angles chosen.  When the film gets into the darker and darker environments, it really takes on a very moody, atmospheric, and dangerous visual intensity.  The whole planet eventually feels like a black, empty void perfectly reflecting the tense situation at hand.  I also like that, in contrast to the overly exposed daytime scenes, the full-on night time scenes seem straining a little for exposure.  You feel how dim the light is that these people have to work with and ward off these creatures, and that extra grain on the film stock just adds more gritty edge to the movie.  Those issues I had are present only in the early part of the film.  The remainder of it is shot, edited, and executed especially well.

Considering this was made on a $23 million budget in the early 2000s, I will say that the visual effects are fairly good based on those factors.  In the grand scheme of CGI, Pitch Black has a LOT of room for improvement.  These filmmakers were very ambitious with what they wanted to achieve on such a limited budget, and I can’t fault them for that.  There are some better looking moments than others, and it is likely best, by design, that so many of these effects are played out in dark environments.  In a brightly lit one, these creatures and digital effects would look really bad.  While Riddick’s “shine job” vision allowing him to see in the dark is pretty damn cool, the creature vision is quite primitive like some cheap Photoshop radial blur effect.  I hate to talk poorly about all of this because I see the ambition and visionary talent at work, but the budget could only be stretched so far to accommodate that, which is very unfortunate.  If you doubled this film’s budget, the visual effects would be approaching excellent, I’m sure.  As it is, if the characters and scenario pull you in, I think any shortcomings in the CGI will be forgivable in an audience’s eyes.

Another really exceptional quality here is Graeme Revell’s rich score.  The main theme is excellent, thrilling, and rather triumphant.  In an age of films that rarely attempt to forge a recognizable main theme of any kind, it’s refreshing to see especially a genre film crafting one that strikes a strong chord.  Even though it had been several, several years since I had seen either this or The Chronicles of Riddick, I still recalled the theme fondly.  Revell has done some stunning work when he really applies himself, such as on The Crow, Strange Days, and The Craft, and his effort really shows through here.

Surely, the basic concept of Pitch Black is not very original as I’m sure you can draw comparisons to the Alien franchise and various other science fiction / horror classics.  However, like I said, even if this film does tingle you with terror, it has action and excitement to engage you.  I definitely like the Riddick character.  He’s very intriguing, and a solid anti-hero in cinema is always a fun concept.  Vin Diesel was the right man for this role, and I love that he has had such a devotion to it alongside David Twohy.  Pitch Black is definitely a cult classic which has plenty of merit and entertainment value.  It’s a straight up type of film with certain plot conveniences to allow for this story to happen, but if it hooks you and you have fun watching it, none of it is gonna matter.


Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Star Trek The Motion PictureI had thought I had reviewed all of the past Star Trek films I was going to review, but I figured, “Why the hell not?”  I’m not going to run through all the back story of the production of this movie because it’s been documented in great detail already elsewhere.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture is definitely very far from being the best of the franchise, and is rightfully ranked low on the scale.  However, there are some elements of it that I have always liked, and have never heard anyone else give credit to.  So, here I am to provide you my perspective on this misstep in taking this 1960’s television series into a feature film franchise.

When a destructive space entity is spotted approaching Earth, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) returns to the newly retrofitted U.S.S. Enterprise to take command away from the young and driven Will Decker (Stephen Collins).  Kirk’s entire trusted crew is reunited with the addition of the alien navigator Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta), and the surprise return of Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who seeks deep, soul searching answers from the mysterious intruder.  Now, the crew of the Enterprise must intercept and find a way to stop this alien intelligence before it destroys every human life on Earth.

Okay, let’s get the obvious critiques out of the way.  This movie is especially dated in so many ways.  Even though this was made because Star Wars was a big success, this is distinctly a science fiction film more akin to those made before Star Wars existed.  The grindingly slow pace and the very cerebral focus fall more into a 2001: A Space Odyssey or Logan’s Run mentality.  The costuming and general look of the film are quite 1970’s like Battlestar Galactica.  The one piece jumpsuits with their muted color palettes don’t have much of a progressive feel from the vibrant, yet simple uniforms of the television series.  There’s a definite reason why these uniforms never reappeared anywhere in Star Trek – they’re instantly dated, impractical, and unappealing.  The cast utterly hated wearing them.  There’s so much in this film that feels like a step backwards for its time.  Amidst films like Star Wars, Alien, and even Superman: The Movie, which all made large leaps forward with the science fiction and fantasy genres with special effects, exciting storytelling, and progressive filmmaking innovations, Star Trek: The Motion Picture feels like it was lagging behind the times on all fronts.

The more immediate problem here is how little resemblance this bares to the television series.  Star Trek was an exciting piece of episodic science fiction.  It was usually quite intelligently written, and it had action, peril, consequence, and danger making for thrilling entertainment.  This film has almost none of that.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture has been called The Slow Motion Picture and The Motionless Picture by many people.  I do enjoy a slow burn, methodically paced film, but this is slow pacing simply for indulgence sake.  For example, this film takes almost an hour before the crew of the Enterprise actually encounters V’Ger at all, and every plot element is almost agonizingly drawn out with next to no impact.  Instead, this film concerns itself with a drawn out briefing scene, a malfunctioning transporter, a malfunctioning warp drive, and many graceful, yet frivolously time sucking visual effects sequences.  So much of this content could be chopped out entirely for an exceedingly tighter story structure, and leave room for building more substance and momentum into its intended story.

While there are character dynamics at play, the film takes no real time to develop a particular story to be engrossed in.  While Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta put in good performances as Decker and Ilia, respectively, not enough effort is put into developing them to the point where an audience is invested in their plight.  Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, just self-contained within this film alone, are infinitely more fascinating than Decker and Ilia.  This is firstly a script problem, and secondly, a directorial issue.  Robert Wise had a very highly acclaimed career, but nothing in his filmography says he was the right man to direct a feature film version of Star Trek.  This is the director who did several musicals like West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and methodically paced thrillers like Run Silent, Run Deep.  He could do critically acclaimed science fiction such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain, but none of his work aligns with the exciting, innovative style that was Star Trek.  Apparently, Wise really only directed this film because his wife was a fan of the television series.

Circa 1983, George Lucas did a very intelligent interview that coincidentally details the problem of this film, and unfortunately, makes you wonder where that George Lucas disappeared to.  He said, and I quote, “One of the fatal mistakes that almost every science fiction film makes is that they spend so much time on the settings, creating the environment, that they spend film time on it.  And you don’t have to spend too much film time creating an environment.  What they are doing is showing off the amount of work that they generated, and it slows the pace of the film down.  The story is not the settings.  The story is the story, the plot.”  Star Trek: The Motion Picture spends so much film time gushing over the exquisite detail of its models and visual effects that it forgets to actually tell an engaging, thrilling story.  I will admit that the models are excellent, but due to a rushed production schedule to meet an unrealistic release date, many of the film’s visual effects were less than what they were supposed to be.  The director’s cut released in 2001 went a long way to rectify that, but the fact still remains that this film is better suited as a dazzling visual effects reel than a well constructed and smartly conceived narrative movie.  However, while the script is terribly misguided, and the choice of director was way off the mark, there is one great element that flows through both the good and the bad first six Star Trek films – the core cast.

The one actual strength of this film are the character interactions.  The foundation of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is retained as solidly as ever.  When Bones first beams on board the Enterprise, I really love the exchange between him and Kirk.  How McCoy is still as fiery and cranky as ever is great, and how Kirk pleads with his friend because of how desperately he needs him on this mission has always been a favorite moment of mine.  It shows that the characters that we know are intact and the actors know exactly who they are inside and out.  Jim Kirk knows he can’t do it alone.  He’s already without Spock at this point, and so, he has to draft Dr. McCoy back into service.  Spock and McCoy balance out Kirk’s ego, passions, humanity, rationale, and decisiveness.  You can see this in the first minute that McCoy steps foot on the bridge, and once Spock joins them, the equation is complete.  DeForest Kelley did get all the best dialogue, and constantly proved to be an excellent talent in this role.  He doesn’t have a great deal to do in this movie, but the moments he does have are pitch perfectly filled with passion, depth, emotion, and wit.  Kelley is actually one of the few to inject a humorous, smart quip every now and then, which this film greatly needed to break up its monotonous tone.  It’s amazing that the entire original series cast did not miss a single beat slipping back into these classic characters after so many years, and that comfortable, sharp chemistry is part of what always made them work so greatly in any medium.

What I really like about James T. Kirk is that he is a man with an ego, but he’s not so consumed with it to not be aware of it.  He’s able to correct himself when he realizes he’s in the wrong, and that becomes clear when dealing with Decker.  When Kirk learns that his objection to Decker countermanding his phaser order was justified, he retracts his stance and acknowledges his error.  Later on, he catches himself quicker when Decker offers an alternative course of action in defending the ship, and it shows that he’s tempering his actions.  William Shatner really does a lot to enhance Kirk in this story as a man who is a little older and a little out of touch with his own ship.  He stumbles here and there, but is able to stay on his feet, on his toes.  The sort of ticking clock of V’Ger coming closer and closer to Earth forces him to make brash, impulsive decisions.  They may not be the wisest ones, but they are the chances he has to take as a Starfleet Captain.

The finest performance in this film, by far, is from Leonard Nimoy.  While other characters lack a through line arc, Spock is given one that is prominently at play throughout the movie.  In the midst of a Vulcan ritual that would purge all emotion from him, Spock telepathically connects with V’Ger, and begins to question if logic is enough.  He then abandons the Kolinahr ritual to seek out V’Ger in hopes of finding answers to his questions.  Early on, you can see Spock is troubled and distant.  Nimoy utilizes such subtlety in these moments, and it is very compelling seeing that unfold behind his masterful facial expressions.  Yet, we gradually see the more comfortable and familiar Spock take stage on the bridge.  The intelligent insight and perceptiveness of Spock is hit perfectly on the mark showing us exactly what value this character brings to this crew.  Spock progresses and develops as he explores V’Ger in depth, and he once again becomes whole through a introspective, soul searching journey.  What story there is in this film is really Spock’s in relation to V’Ger, but it certainly feels like a subplot that is almost drowned out by the constantly dull banality of the weak main plot.

What you have to give credit to is that despite all the blatantly obvious flaws of this movie, it does treat its characters with respect, and features some good character development.  At the beginning, Kirk is restless as an Admiral pushing the proverbial paper work around, and Spock is empty, incomplete, and searching.  By the end, Kirk has found his home and his purpose again as the commander of a starship, and Spock has embraced more than just logic.  And it is clear to me that there was supposed to be more going on with Decker.  He starts out ambitious and driven, a man who wanted this command, but had it robbed form him by the very man who endorsed him for the position.  In the end, he finds another purpose and path for himself.  While the film doesn’t convincingly drive him down that road at all, you can see there was an intention there for it.  The fact of the matter is, even if the movie is bad and ill-conceived, as long as the characters are treated with respect and the actors are solid in their portrayals, I can find some enjoyment and a little admiration for any Star Trek film with the original cast.

Now, I firmly believe that Jerry Goldsmith was the quintessential feature film composer for Star Trek.  I only find it unfortunate that he just happened to end up scoring some of the worst regarded films in the franchise.  While this film has its excessively long, drawn out sequences, they translate into some very inspired and wonderful compositions by Goldsmith.  Beyond the new main title theme, I have always loved his Klingon theme as it just encapsulates the feel of them perfectly.  Overall, Goldsmith sets the right tone with his score adding in cues that evoke danger, mystery, and the unknown.  Even if you can’t bare to sit through this film, listening to Goldsmith’s score is a pleasure.  I own the 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition CD, and it is one of the late maestro’s finest epic scores.

While the film has visual spectacle, is fairly well directed, and is technically sound, it was a severely misguided attempt plagued with problems.  Nobody was happy with this movie during production or upon release.  There were constant creative disputes amongst Gene Roddenberry, the screenwriter, Nimoy and Shatner, and the studio to where rewrites happened daily with the ending being conceived essentially on the spot.  Today, a movie like this would kill any chance for a franchise, but Paramount was willing to revamp the creative team and it resulted in what is widely regarded as the absolute best of this film franchise – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  With this first movie, I suppose if, by some slim chance, this film does engage your interest and attention, it could be fairly thought provoking about your place in the universe, but there’s a long way it could go to improve upon that material by simply adding more substance into its proceedings.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture simply does not have enough meat on the bone to satisfy, and instead, fills itself out with a lot of pointless fat in the form of mind numbingly long visual effects sequences.  There are certainly fan edits out there which trim this movie down to under ninety minutes, and it’s likely a little better off for it.  I think it is important to say that this is not so much a bad movie as it is a mostly unexciting and dull one.  I can’t really urge anyone to go see it if you haven’t already, but if you have seen it, I hope that what I’ve had to say here at least opens you up to seeing that it does have some merits, even if they are lost in a vast sea of stillness.


Mortal Kombat (1995)

Mortal KombatTo this very day, I am still a Street Fighter II gamer fan, but I have never seen either of the live action movies based on that video game property.  Instead, Mortal Kombat is the one that I have always greatly enjoyed.  I was subscribed to a few video game magazines back in the day when I owned my Super Nintendo, and I remember all the hype and articles that were published on the making of this film.  With how poorly received the Street Fighter movie was, fans were clamoring for Mortal Kombat to succeed and dominate at the box office, which it did.  Although, I’m glad my tastes matured to realize how bad this film’s sequel was, but this rather impressive first film by, of all people, Paul W.S. Anderson still holds up rather well today.

Summoned to the mysterious land of Outworld by the sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), three martial arts warriors engage in the ultimate battle of good against evil – the supernatural tournament of Mortal Kombat.  The honorable Liu Kang (Robin Shou) seeks to avenge his brother’s death, action film star Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) desires a validation of his skills, and the dogged law enforcement agent Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) hunts a murderous underworld criminal.  They are all brought together under the guidance of Lord Raiden (Christopher Lambert), God of Lighting, to put them on the path to victory, or else Earth will fall to the forces of darkness forever.

Movies adapted from video games have been a notoriously bad film genre.  So many filmmakers find it difficult to adapt the material into a recognizable product, but Mortal Kombat had a very well fleshed out story built into it.  Still, Hollywood seems to make a habit out of screwing up the easiest of adaptations, but here, it is a stunningly near faithful job.  Sure, Kano is changed from Chinese to Australian, and maybe a few details are messed with here and there.  However, this film is executed exceptionally well from a fairly good screenplay with a lot of fun to be had.

The only real shortcoming this movie has, which does date the film, is the quality of the digital effects.  The filmmakers really kept the budget down under $20 million, which was very smart on all levels, but especially in 1995, that really limited what CGI could do for them.  Even the bad CGI of today is better than what we get here.  However, if the film is good enough in story, characters, and entertainment value, I can forgive substandard effects.  The most impressive effect, which is done entirely practically, is the towering Prince Goro.  Surely, if made today, he’d be 100% CGI, but these filmmakers made the smart and economic choice of creating an animatronic character.  He can be a little stiff at times, but frankly, I’d take a well implemented practical creature over a cheap CGI one, which we do get in the form of Reptile.

What really makes this film work, in my opinion, is that it does take the property fairly seriously, but keeps the tone comfortably open for humor and light fun.  There are bright, cartoonish characters like Kano, Sub-Zero, and Scorpion, but there’s a firm enough sense of danger and gravity attached to them to make them formidable, not funny.  There is an emotional story for Liu Kang to traverse dealing with fate, destiny, grief, guilt, and his own inner strength.  That gives the film its weight of drama and heart, but it’s never bogged down by heavier subject matter.  Anderson hits that right balance to give the film some substance, but maintain a tone completely conducive to fun.  It’s sad to say that many of his subsequent films couldn’t achieve that respectable balance.

They say a hero is only as good as his villain, and in this case, we have a great villain in Shang Tsung perfectly cast with Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.  He is a rock solid serious threat enveloping himself in a dark, haunting mystique.  You can tell he was enjoying playing this meaty role.  He has an authoritative presence, but wisely maintains a low key, confident manner showing that Shang Tsung is truly in control every step of the way.  However, Tagawa can unleash a vicious mean streak when the moment calls for it.  He just portrays a great, smart, subtly charismatic, and cunning villain that I have always thoroughly enjoyed.  Better yet, he gets to speak all of the game’s signature lines such as “flawless victory” and “finish him!”

While Johnny, Sonya, and Liu are treated fairly equally through most of the film, it is indeed Liu Kang that is the intended lead hero.  Robin Shou does a very admirable job taking Liu on a progression from the skeptical, slightly arrogant young man to a wiser, stronger fighter.  Shou shows he can handle the lightly introspective and soul searching qualities of the role very well, and is a very capable martial artist.  I really like the journey he takes Liu Kang on, but the film, almost wisely, doesn’t dwell on these character development aspects.  I have no doubt that Shou could have done more with it had the script called for it, but the film maintains a tight and consistent pace of excitement.  So, there’s hardly a lull in the action or momentum, and Paul W.S. Anderson fits everything comfortably into a 101 minute runtime.

Johnny Cage is charismatically portrayed by Linden Ashby.  He really is a well-rounded fit into this group of characters adding in the needed arrogant wiseass comments, but being charming and likable all the way through.  It’s interesting to note that the role had been previously offered, supposedly, to both Jean-Claude Van Damme and Brandon Lee.  Van Damme chose to do Street Fighter while Lee had tragically died before production began.  It’s interesting to think how the film would have been different with either of them as Cage.  Regardless, Ashby proved way more than capable, and really shined flawlessly in this role.

Of course, Christopher Lambert is just delightful.  I could probably watch a movie of any quality as long as Lambert is having fun in it, which says a lot for why I own the first three Highlander sequels.  As Raiden, he brings both a weight of wisdom and levity of charm into the mix.  His slightly raspy voice really lends towards the ancient mystique of the God of Lightning.  Lambert, overall, just delivers the dramatic, thematic weight of these warriors with Raiden’s perceptive words of wisdom, and just makes things a little more fun and charming at times.

Many of these actors really deliver on the physical and martial arts demands, and the film throws some regular action scenes their way.  While none of it is the best martial arts fight choreography you’ll ever see, it serves its purpose towards an exciting and thrilling movie.  The only weak link is probably Bridgette Wilson as she doesn’t come off as a very skilled fighter using very basic kicks and punches.  Even taken as just law enforcement training, it’s still nothing special.  Shou and Ashby show off much more diverse and dynamic skills, and are much more interesting and fun to watch in their fights.  Thankfully, they are the ones given the most opportunity to show off those skills.

Of course, the possible biggest point of contention is that the video game was famous for being a very graphic and bloody video game, but this is almost an entirely bloodless PG-13 film.  However, this movie does its job quite well enough that the absence of blood and gore has never bothered me.  Certainly, many fans likely still wanted to satiate their cinematic bloodlust when the end credits rolled, but this Mortal Kombat movie is still primed to please, regardless.

While I wouldn’t say there’s anything special to say about the cinematography as a whole, Anderson does have everything shot very smartly.  A lot of sets are utilized to create the exotic feeling of Outworld, and enough is done with lighting, camera angles and framing, and a little bit of haze to make these sets work solidly.  There are some very visually sharp moments utilizing some light, shadow, and fog to build up mystique, which is really the film’s strong suit.  There’s a respectable amount of atmosphere in this film which creates the sense of unease and danger for our heroes.  Everything is being fought on Shang Tsung’s world and his terms, and that world is indeed very intriguing with some very smart production designs, borrowing from some Asian cultures for a little added exotic flare.

Mortal Kombat really does succeed in putting the concepts and characters of the video game into a respectable feature film package.  Unlike the live action Street Fighter, this movie is able to retain its tournament format as it is entirely connected with the larger plot.  Fight and lose, Earth falls to Outworld.  Fight and win, and we are free from their impending tyranny.  Every character motivation and arc is intertwined with that very logically, and the film smartly contains its cast of characters to avoid spreading itself thin.  Everyone has the right amount of screentime to flesh out their roles and progress the plot forward in just the right ways.  While the script is nothing spectacular, it hit all the right marks and kept everything very manageable in story structure and characters for its director to make the most of the concept under fairly tight constraints.

Mortal Kombat might not be a flawless victory, but it was a very solid first step forward to one that never happened.  Believe it or not, I actually gave this film’s sequel a positive review upon its theatrical release.  An avid video game friend of mine made me realize the error of my ways a few years later, and I retracted and rewrote that review in a much more negative, yet honest light.  Anyway, what we’ve got with Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 live action film is a surprisingly damn good movie filled with a consistent current of energy flowing through it, which is electrifyingly reflected by its intense electronic techno dance remix soundtrack.  Overall, it’s just a fun martial arts action fantasy film that is definitely one of the best video game-to-film adaptations ever done.  I really, seriously love this movie completely.  It’s a great piece of exciting entertainment that will get you jonesing to play one of these games all over again!


Snow White and The Huntsman (2012)

Snow White and The HuntsmanI wouldn’t have thought of myself ever really checking out this movie out of self-ambition.  However, I came across a video review of it from a usually trusted source.  So, I gave it an honest chance, and to my pleasant surprise, I did indeed enjoy this movie a great deal.  There are two main reasons why I write reviews.  The first is because I love film in many of its forms, and I enjoy sharing my passions for it.  The second is to open up others to films that I feel are worth discovering, and in turn, I enjoy other people opening up my horizons to new, good films.  So, it’s great when others do the same for me.  With Snow White & The Huntsman, there’s a really solid fantasy picture here worth giving a chance to.

Years ago, the noble King Magnus fell prey to the enchantment of the evil Ravenna (Charlize Theron) who killed him and took reign over his kingdom.  Sustained by draining the life from others, Queen Ravenna remains forever young and beautiful, but the King’s daughter, left alive and imprisoned, has now come of age as the fairest of all in the land to threaten this darkness.  Snow White (Kristen Stewart) soon escapes the castle, and the Queen sends a rugged Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track her down.  However, the Huntsman soon joins with Snow White on a journey to see her father’s kingdom reclaimed through a land of treacherous enemies.

While watching this, I was really pleased that it kept selling me on it all the way through.  I liked the narration by the Huntsman who gracefully sets up the details of this story taking us through Snow White’s youth and the kingdom’s fall.  The movie is tightly paced, propelling its story forward in a lean matter, but still with plenty of meat to the characters and their stories.  In fact, despite watching the extended edition while writing this review, the film seemed to move along even faster than on my first viewing of the theatrical cut.  The extended version has a few good, new scenes that add a little extra depth and detail here and there.  There is a scene between the Huntsman and William, Snow White’s childhood friend and archer, in the extended cut that better sets up and pays off another scene with the obligatory poison apple.  Of course, we also get some very good action sequences, which are also tight and to the point.  They exist long enough to serve their purpose, and are solidly satisfying and exciting.  It all feels real and consequential.  The battles are never taken lightly, and there are casualties beyond just the obligatory background soldiers.

Now, really looking at this, I feel this is a fantasy film that could’ve hit in the 1980’s next to Highlander or Excalibur.  This movie has some stunning imagery and inspired cinematography.  Early on, I love how bold the blood reds are.  They standout as really symbolic.  Overall, this film has grit, murkiness, and dramatic weight.  Many scenes are smoky and moody.  It creates a tangible, grounded world that still allows for the fantastical to live and breathe.  It’s a dark world reflecting the grim bleakness the Queen has cast over it, and that just creates a very engaging look for me.  It has a lot of that same texture found in The Lord of the Rings movies, but with more of its own gritty mystical atmosphere and mood.  Snow White and the Huntsman is a really beautifully shot film helmed by a director who clearly has vision.

Surely, for some, Kristen Stewart would be an obstacle for them due to her work in the Twilight movies.  I have not subjected myself to those films for many reasons, but I believe this film shows that sometimes it’s not the actor but the material that should be questioned.  I am very pleased to state that Kristen Stewart does a very wonderful job here.  It did not take me long to see that she was a young woman of admirable talent.  There is a lot of depth to this character, and there is a strong arc for her that Kristen Stewart conveys remarkably well.  The fear is something she sells very realistically early on, but there is a hope and strength that grows out of that fear.  As Snow White progresses through this adventure, you see her mature into a stronger, more active character.  There is subtlety and beauty to what Stewart accomplishes here.  She really shows a lot of heart, warmth, but also a tinge of sorrow along the way.  And indeed, she has touching chemistry with Chris Hemsworth which also really drives this film forward on many great levels.

I am really a believer that Chris Hemsworth is on the verge of having an amazing career.  While my exposure to him has been very minimal outside of Thor, he continues to demonstrate a powerful presence and great depth of talent in everything he does.  Clearly, he handles the physicality here greatly.  The Huntsman surely has his humor stemming from his attitude and Hemsworth’s rich charisma.  Yet, there is a heartbreak to him stemming from being a widower, and Hemsworth really digs deep inside to evoke those potentially tear-jerking emotions.  It’s a very dimensional character backed by a performance that quickly and easily endears himself to an audience.  The only off thing comes from his accent, which I couldn’t place, but turns out it was supposed to be Scottish.  In the least, he puts forth more effort into his accent than Sean Connery has with any other accent in his entire career.

Charlize Theron is perfectly cast as the evil Queen Ravenna.  She plays it as someone on the frayed ends of manic obsession.  Ravenna is insanely consumed with her outward beauty, but surely, inside, she is a horrible monster.  Theron has more than proven her talent over the years, and this is an absolutely excellent performances. There is a tragic quality to this twisted character, and you see that soaked into every fiber of Theron’s performance.  There’s complexity and depth to her that runs very deep.  However, what sells it all the most is simply her eyes.  The glaring, crazed, unflinching stare is downright scary.  You can see just how far off the deep end she is between that and her explosive rants.  Theron even tore a stomach muscle because she was screaming so intensely, and I can believe it.

And there are still dwarves in this tale.  These roles are filled by great actors such as Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, and Ray Winstone, among others.  The same sort of techniques used for similar smaller statured characters in The Lord of the Rings films were used here, and done so with seamless results.  Hoskins is essentially their leader, and has the most dialogue.  However, while his line deliveries are quite good, I found it odd that he was practically stone-faced throughout.  I don’t think he registered a single actual facial expression in his screentime.  Regardless, the dwarves tend to add the needed levity to the heavier, dramatic story being told.  They never make things silly, just a little fun and light-hearted at times in the latter half of the movie.

I would say that the only segment of the film that didn’t wholly appeal to me was the latter half of the Fairy Sanctuary.  This is the land that has been untouched by Ravenna’s darkness, and it is flourishing with a lush landscape and fantastical wonders.  However, there’s just a lot of peculiar CGI woodland creatures that simply weren’t to my liking.  With so much gritty realism in the film, this just felt pushed too deeply into the vibrant, slightly cartoonish fantastical realm, but it’s not long before it shifts back into the dark, grittiness.

This does bring up the issue of the digital effects.  Most are really good, especially in the Dark Forest with all the almost pitch black creatures that slither and crawl out of the darkness, but in the Fairy Sanctuary, it is very obvious CGI that feels like it came out of another film.  That’s another reason why that sequence didn’t work too well for me.  Also, the withering age make-up on Charlize Theron is especially good, but some of the more elaborate morphing effects shots on her have room for improvement.  Generally, the digital effects are fairly good with some really good stuff, but there is some more prominently on display work that doesn’t come off all that well.  Thankfully, this film has very practical stunt work, and the realistic locations like the castles were actually built for the film.  The filmmakers didn’t rely on digital matte paintings.

This film, while taking a new approach to the material, still hits all the classic beats of the Snow White story, but uses them to propel this story into larger territory.  The poison apple from Ravenna to Snow White gives Hemsworth his best scene pouring out his heart over the dead Snow White.  When she returns from death, it inspires and motivates herself and everyone else to take up arms and charge into battle.  Kristen Stewart delivers a strong, inspirational, rallying speech to these people   The fire and passion she projects is great.  It is the moment where the character comes into her own, and becomes a leader to take back the kingdom that was stolen from her father.  Snow White and The Huntsman still has that fairy tale simplicity, but adds in significant depth to mature the content, which is what makes it work so well.  Every character has their sense of realism and dimensionality, and they serve both the gritty realism and the fantastical elements of the movie.

This film’s exciting, entertaining, it has a good, solid story, fine substance, satisfying character arcs, and overall, just has a great look to it.  Also, from the opening logos to the end credits, the score is just enveloping and moody.  That comes as no surprise from James Newton Howard, one of the best film score composers around today.  Directed Rupert Sanders simply does a very solid job with this material, and hones his actors into bringing this darker fantasy take to life.  I would say this is a hell of a good feature film directorial debut, and I hope he continues to deliver this kind of tight, cohesive quality.  I know a sequel has already been planned, and while there’s not much precedent for further Snow White adventures, I will be eagerly interested to see what story these filmmakers conceive for it.  There’s a great set of characters here that were well developed and filled by strong, rich talents.  So, there is potential there, but until then, I will be happy to revisit this adventure quite a few times. I highly recommend it!


Predators (2010)

PredatorsFor whatever reason, the Predator film franchise lied dormant after the release of Predator 2 in 1990.  It wasn’t until 2004 that we got the highly anticipated Alien vs. Predator films.  The first one I hated, and I still consider it the worst overall movie I’ve ever seen theatrically.  The second film I did a rather positive review of as one of the last Forever Horror website reviews and one of the first Forever Cinematic reviews.  However, the general consensus of both movies was decidedly negative, and thus, someone thought it was time to bring the Predator franchise back into its own.  Such a person was producer Robert Rodriguez known best for making big scale action on tight budgets.  Thus, twenty years after Predator 2, we are given another proper sequel.  The question is, was it good enough to breathe life into a damaged franchise?

Awakening in freefall, a collection of strangers find themselves dropped into an unfamiliar land with danger awaiting them.  Royce (Adrien Brody) is a mercenary who reluctantly leads this group of elite warriors in a mysterious mission on an alien planet.  Except for a disgraced physician, they are all cold-blooded killers – mercenaries, mobsters, convicts and death squad members – human “predators.”  But when they begin to be systematically hunted and eliminated by a new Predator breed, it becomes clear that suddenly, they are the prey!

I will admit that I wasn’t sold on this film pre-release.  I thought the premise of Predators abducting humans from Earth and dropping them on another planet to be hunted was against the idea of what a big game hunter would do.  You don’t take a lion out of his natural environment and throw him in your backyard to hunt him.  However, a positive reaction from a strongly opinionated friend of mine motivated me to see it theatrically.  Indeed, I really liked Predators.  I would still rank it third in my list of favorites, but all three films are ranked very tightly together.  They are all extremely well made with their own unique ideas, visual styles, and approaches which all work superbly.

Much like with Predator 2, you must find it peculiar to cast Adrien Brody as the lead in an action movie.  This film will entirely change your perspective on that.  He delivers incredibly in this role.  Brody can play tough bad ass with the best of them.  He brings the charisma of a leader, but clearly shows Royce is a man of sketchy origins and doesn’t mind being a loner.  Royce is also very smart and perceptive.  He would be fine going at it solo, but he sees that even his own survival holds better odds sticking with them than without.  You also see that he’s not a cold-blooded man, but he can be a savage, hardened killer when he needs to be.  The film’s climax sells every awesome thing about Royce, and solidifies that I want to see more of him.

Brody has very touching and honest chemistry with Alice Braga, portraying the Israeli sniper Isabelle.  They surely butt heads in certain circumstances, but they connect on an emotional level that does resonate.  They build a mutual trust and respect as the film progresses.  The rest of these trained killers, including the Rodriguez obligatory Danny Trejo, certainly don’t measure up to Dutch’s elite team from the first film, but they are a mismatched group that are weary to trust one another.  My favorite, who has extremely little dialogue, is the Yakuza member Hanzo.  He creates a very intriguing mystique around him through some interesting actions, and demonstrates a unique sense of honor.  Topher Grace portrays the aforementioned disgraced physician Edwin, and surely, the film didn’t require the presence of this character.  He just adds an extra wild card element late in the game which may or may not be easy to spot early on.  I think I had this reveal spoiled for me before I initially saw the movie.  The concept behind Edwin is a clever one, but probably not executed nearly as smartly as it could have been.

Laurence Fishburne makes a wickedly cool appearance as Noland, a soldier whose been trapped and has survived this planet for several years.  The result of that is hat Noland’s gone quite crazy in a delusional, psychotic type of way.  He’s more than skillfully dangerous, he’s psychologically dangerous.  Fishburne is entertaining and awesome in this fairly brief, very off-kilter role.  More than anything, this character is designed to sell the futility of an escape from the planet, and the idea of two rival tribes of Predators hunting out there, making it all the more difficult to survive.

The film’s first act of sorts might seem a little drawn out to some.  I believe I felt that way upon first viewing.  The characters are exploring this world, trying to understand where they are, and even the first action sequence is not until more than twenty-five minutes in.  Strange alien animals are throw at these characters as a test first, and so, there is a prolonged wait before the first Predator is actually revealed.  However, once that occurs, the film settles into a very familiar feel and tone.  Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal studied the first Predator in great detail to nail the vibe perfectly, and I think they got it just about dead-on while still adding to it.  Antal focuses on building the atmosphere and tension so that there is a pay-off with the action.

The overall feel is great with some rich color schemes which still evoke a dark, ominous feeling.  The cinematography gives this film scale and scope while still maintaining the isolated feeling.  The night scenes look great with a more subdued color palette, but with an excellent use of light and shadow for a beautiful moody vibe.  This really is a remarkably well shot movie with an abundance of artistic merit and dramatic visual weight.

The way the action plays out is very intelligent focusing on tension and imminent danger.  There’s plenty of intense gunplay, but it’s definitely used in conjunction with smart tactics and strategies by these characters.  The ominous feeling of being stalked and hunted is executed with great skill.  It’s a whole package of the visual style, stellar editing, and a music score that stays true to Alan Silvestri’s work.  This film definitely takes the filmmaking style and techniques from John McTiernan’s movie, and gives it a little more polish.  Nimrod Antal definitely puts his own stamp on the film, but was able to make this feel cohesive with the rest of the main Predator franchise.  The action scenes definitely reflect this as there’s really none of that modern shaky cam mayhem.  It’s well plotted, shot, and cut together for an extremely coherent and effective experience.  Beyond anything else, this film enhances the ferocity and frightening quality of the Predators.  They feel even more merciless and relentless than before, if you could even imagine such a thing.

I can’t help but love two fight scenes in Predators.  The first has Hanzo squaring off with his katana against the Predator.  This is beautifully setup, and is shot so gorgeously with a lot of wide angles and a wonderful overhead shot showing the wind blowing through the high grass.  It’s a graceful work of art.  What trumps it on the bad assery scale is when the New Predator battles the Classic Predator, which is portrayed by Derek Mears.  While I didn’t care for the remake of Friday The 13th, Mears was an awesome Jason Voorhees, and he makes for an awesome Predator.  Two Predators ripping and tearing at one another is pure gold, and the scene doesn’t disappoint at all.  This is savage, gory, and everything you’d hope it to be.

And indeed, the creature effects are excellent.  Oddly, neither Stan Winston Studios or Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. – who were responsible for all of the previous Predator effects – returned to work on this film.  Instead, the impeccable talents of KNB EFX were tapped, and they delivered on an amazing level.  There are some familiar designs with the Classic Predator, but the newer, larger Predators are even more impressive.  They do feel like a different breed, but are given a much better approach than what we saw in Alien vs. Predator.  And of course, the gore returns in abundance, and no one better to also fill that task than KNB EFX.  They’ve been the standard bearers for physical effects, especially those in the horror genre, for the last twenty years, and that quality is vastly on display here.

Predators does a great job of taking cues from the first movie, and adding its own flavor and ideas to them.  The climax is a great example as Royce uses some of the same tactics as Dutch with the mud, but uses it in a different context.  Instead of giving the Predator nothing to lock on to, he overloads the senses, and takes him on full boar while retreading some of Arnold’s quotable dialogue.  It all really works greatly while delivering the graphic violence quota that fans crave from this franchise.  The film ends on an excellent note that left me wanting to see where yet another sequel could go.

And thus, I do believe that Predators was indeed good enough to potentially breathe life back into this franchise.  Everyone involved steered it back in the right direction where exciting new stories could be told, and even on its own, this is a very solid and satisfying science fiction action movie.  However, with the same budget as Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, it pulled in just about the same amount at the box office, but the reviews and reactions to this film were substantially higher.  Predators set a good foundation for the franchise to build upon, but three years later, no news of a sequel has surfaced from Twentieth Century Fox.  That is quite unfortunate, but I think there is a great deal of potential to tap with this series which is evident here.  Nimrod Antal and Robert Rodriguez did an excellent job bringing everything back to its roots, and while they chose not to acknowledge Predator 2, they did nothing to contradict it either.  Again, I’d love to see more of Adrien Brody as Royce.  He’s flat out awesome.  While I’m sure some will view the film as leaning a little too heavily on the first movie, I really believe that what it takes from that movie was largely to its benefit, and the filmmakers still injected their own ideas and creativity to allow the franchise to move forward.  They expanded the universe and possibilities in a lot of very good and intriguing ways.  I do really like Predators, and I give it a strong recommendation.  If this film has slipped under your radar for the last three years, definitely give it your attention.  This is a franchise that deserves to live and thrive again under the watch of some really sharp and talented creative individuals.


Predator 2 (1990)

Predator 2There seems to be an idea out there somewhere, I don’t know where it came from, that Predator 2 is a markedly inferior sequel.  This is wholly unjustified.  Surely, everyone has their own opinions on how this measures up to the original classic, but to me, this is a great follow-up which expands on the ideas and premise in exciting new ways.  Predator 2 contains numerous admirable qualities, and is helmed by a director with a great eye for sleek visuals.  Anything it doesn’t recreate from the original it replaces with a higher energy and larger scale action.

In the urban jungles of Los Angeles, Detective Lieutenant Mike Harrigan’s (Danny Glover) police force is at war with drug lords and gangs. But just as Harrigan admits he’s losing the fight, one by one, gang lords are killed by a mysterious, fierce adversary with almost supernatural powers – the Predator.  Before long, the vicious creature begins to hunt the hunters – Harrigan’s men.  Now, Harrigan doesn’t just want to bring the creature in – he wants to bring it down.  However, he is hindered along the way by government Special Agent Peter Keyes (Gary Busey) who has a shady motive to his secretive investigation who knows more about this ultimate hunter than Harrigan even suspects.

Surely, you would think going from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Danny Glover would be a strange swerve.  I always imagined that if this was made a few years later that it would be Wesley Snipes as Mike Harrigan, but I’ll be damned if Glover doesn’t deliver here.  The character is designed as a seasoned cop who’s been fighting this unrelenting war on the Los Angeles streets for a long time.  He’s dogged, inventive, and is a cop who plays by his own rules, taking a backseat to no one.  Glover portrays this with the rugged determination of a consummate street cop.  He doesn’t like the politics that get rammed down his throat, and he slickly, yet passionately sticks it back in their faces.  However, he is wholly loyal to his team, and treats them with respect as comrades in arms because they are fighting a war.  Glover also demonstrates the emotional depth of Harrigan when his closest friend, Danny Archuleta portrayed by Rubén Blades, is gruesomely killed by the Predator.  The flashes of enraged vengeance, and the heartfelt moment at the gravesite show Glover had the talent and skill for this role, which also demanded a lot from him physically.  He greatly delivers on that end, too.  I think making him a distinctly different protagonist than Dutch was the right way to go.

Many will indeed enjoy Bill Paxton’s performance as the jokey Jerry Lambert.  He’s the newest member of Harrigan’s team known as “The Lone Ranger.”  He’s a guy that’s gotten a lot of ego stroking and glory, but he quickly becomes an enthusiastic team player.  This is Paxton at his full charismatic and comedic richness.  He adds the levity to break up the grisly heaviness of the film.  The rest of the supporting cast is filled out by Rubén Blades and Maria Conchita Alonso as the seasoned members of Harrigan’s team.  Both bring their top level enthusiasm and talent adding to the cast’s vibrancy.  Then, we get the late, great original king of trash television Morton Downey, Jr. as the appropriately cast tabloid sleaze-miester Tony Pope.  He’s puts in a fantastically entertaining performance.

Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger was approached to return for this film, but he turned it down to do Terminator 2.  Thus, his role was rewritten as Peter Keyes and re-cast with Gary Busey.  I think this was an equally beneficial turn of events.  The story works supremely better not knowing what Keyes’ agenda is, and allowing for him to be an adversary and foil for Harrigan.  Busey does an excellent job bringing forth his signature energy and leaning Keyes towards the smarmy, shady side.  He’s smart and cunning, but still a self-serving government agent who cares more about his findings for the military than Harrigan’s war on violent gang crime.

Also, I love the Jamaican gang here.  They are totally savage and chilling with King Willie being fantastically awesome.  He brings the mysticism into the fold with a wickedly cool scene opposite Harrigan, but also, a greatly visualized confrontation with the Predator.  Calvin Lockhart is so awesome in this role.  The theatricality, mystique, and powerful presence he brings entirely does justice to his Royal Shakespeare Company roots.  He delivers my favorite performance of the movie.  Knowing that director Stephen Hopkins was born in Jamaica, it doesn’t surprise me how rich and memorable these characters are here.

The visual effects are distinctly improved from the first movie.  The Predator vision is the most obvious example as the infrared and other modes have more distinct color separation and possibly are of a higher resolution.  The optical effects of the Predator’s cloak are used more dynamically and are integrated into more complex environments.  We see it in more motion and detail.  My favorite effects shots in the whole movie are when the Predator squares off with King Willie.  First off, the tracking shot of the cloaked feet walking through the water is brilliant work, and then, the reveal of the Predator in the rippling puddle is awesome.  Seeing how these are done in the featurettes on the Special Edition DVD are astounding and what I’ve always loved about movie magic.  These striking, innovative images are largely due to do director Stephen Hopkins’ great visual style.

Teamed with regular director of photography Peter Levy, Hopkins gives Predator 2 its own unique visual sleekness.  It has a great use of dynamic, intriguing angles.  The action is captured remarkably well, and we even get a few scenes of atmospheric, moody lighting.  Two of the best shot scenes are, first, inside the slaughterhouse bathed in blue light where the Predators assaults Keyes’ team, and then, the entire climax inside the Predator spacecraft.  Counterbalancing that blue with a largely orange color scheme there is another sign of Hopkins’ great visual sensibilities.  Beyond just the color schemes, these sequences have great use of sweeping cranes and steadicams shots enhancing the production and artistic value of the film.

This new Predator is recognizable, but has a bit different look and feel to him.  He feels more brazen.  He’s taking bigger chances, and taking on greater numbers.  Hunting in a major metropolitan area means he’s attracting more attention to his work.  So, he’s not as calculated, in general, but when he finds a prey he really likes, such as Harrigan, he takes his time to study him.  He also taunts Harrigan as if he’s issuing an honorable challenge.  I very much like that the filmmakers did this to show, even subtly, that this is another unique individual with his own personality, but with the same objective.  It’s also great seeing the arsenal expand with the telescoping spear, the projectile net, and the flying disc.  It gives the impression of a larger safari at hand where he’s equipped for bigger game.  Kevin Peter Hall, yet again, does an awesome, exceptional job overall.  He defined this role so perfectly, and it is a terrible shame that his life ended only a few years later.  However, what he did laid the template for others to succeed him in this franchise.

The strengths of Predator 2 is that it is much more energetic and diversely entertaining than the original.  The pace is faster as there is more going on here between the gang wars, Peter Keyes’ shady dealings, and Harrigan’s own dogged investigation.  The action sequences are bigger and more dynamic allowing for a higher body count, but not as much gore.  The film originally gained an NC-17 rating, but likely, Fox panicked and did more aggressive editing to secure an R rating.  There is still blood abound and plenty of violence, but far less cadavers begin ripped apart.  What we do see in that regard is obscured or done in heavy shadow.  So, it ups the energy and action, but reduces the graphic content a little.

I would agree that these characters are not quite as captivating as those in the original.  Neither film delves deeply into their characters, but it’s just the nature of battle hardened soldiers in a ominous jungle versus tough, seasoned cops on the streets of Los Angeles.  One if inherently more intriguing than the other.  There’s a little more levity in this film akin to a wisecracking John McClane in areas as Harrigan’s fear manifests in a few humorous quips.  Since the film focuses more on an energetic pace with a more divided focus, there’s little mystique about the Predator himself.  Again, he’s much more blunt and brazen, but you do lose that intensely dramatic build up to the third act.  The Peter Keyes subplot sort of veers the emotional drive of Harrigan off-track, and the climax just becomes about having to stop this alien one way or another.  There’s no more survival aspect, just hero versus villain.  There is some peril throughout the third act, but none of it rivals the dire lethality and immediacy of the first film.

Still, the little teases we get at the end with both the Alien skull in the trophy room, the reveal of the half dozen other Predators onboard the spacecraft, and the flintlock pistol with the engraving of the year 1715 on it lay big seeds for a follow-up.  However one might have felt about this movie, it surely left you intrigued to see how the next film could expand on these concepts further, but a proper third movie would not see fruition for another twenty years.

Predator 2 may not hit all the great qualities of the film first, but has entertaining trade-offs making it a more lively, faster paced action film.  It again has a solid cast filling their roles with vibrancy.  The violence and intense action are enhanced by stylish, sleek visuals and excellent editing.  The optical visual effects are stunningly impressive pushing the ambition further, and with more time to plan, Stan Winston Studios developed the Predator further with great new weaponry and a fresh look.  Alan Silvestri also returns adding some new flavors to his original themes, and adapting some of the feel to this film’s style and content.   I would like to pay tribute to Kevin Peter Hall, Calvin Lockhart, and Stan Winston who have all passed on since this film’s release.  All three did stunning work here that deserves notable credit and praise.  This franchise, outside of the AVP films, has maintained a fairly steady stream of quality.  The screenwriters of the first movie returned to expand on their own concepts, and it was executed very well by a competent and capable director.  Predator 2 s definitely worth your while.  It’s not as slam bang amazing as the first, but it’s a largely worthy sequel.


Predator (1987)

PredatorI think it goes without me saying that Predator is one of the best action films, ever.  More importantly, this is my favorite Schwarzenegger movie.  Smartly directed by John McTiernan, who would helm Die Hard the following year, this is an excellently plotted and cleverly devised concept utilizing a stellar cast to great effect.  With an alien hunter designed by the masterful Stan Winston, and backed by some of the best visual effects of the time, Predator was an instant classic that truly solidified Schwarzenegger’s career as a blockbuster action star.

Recruited by the CIA to rescue hostages held by guerrilla fighters in a Central American country, Major Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his elite team encounter an enemy unimaginably more deadly than any on Earth – because the Predator is not of this Earth.

The film starts out wasting no time by keeping the exposition succinct, and allowing for this team to progress to their objective quickly while still relating these characters to us.  No one’s explored in depth, but you get a clear, personality rich snapshot of each man.  Blain’s a hard ass, Hawkins is kind of a joker, Billy’s the stoic warrior, and so on.  The entire first act sets up who these guys are, and what they are capable of.  We see this is an expertly efficient team able to wipe out a legion of about thirty Central American soldiers within a few minutes.  They are tactically sound striking hard and fast using the element of surprise.  When Dutch’s team is referred to as “the best” early on in the briefing scene, we see that is not at all an exaggerated statement.  They prove they are the elite, but even then, you can see these guys are spooked by this jungle.  “Makes Cambodia look like Kansas,” sets the tone for how unnerved they are by its terrain and ominous feeling.  Encountering the previous team’s skinned corpses surely rattles them a bit, but they never lose their wits.  In fact, it practically heightens them for the more lethal danger that is stalking them.

Schwarzenegger shines here as Dutch.  In addition to everyone else, this is possibly his most quotable movie.  Arnold’s got that charisma going here with energy and authority.  I love that Dutch is a soldier with a code of ethics for his men.  He states straight out that his men are not assassins, merely an elite rescue team, and we see that conviction arise when he learns of Dillion’s deception.  Schwarzenegger shows Dutch to be an honorable and sharply intelligent soldier commanding his men with precision.  He proves himself to be a cunning warrior gradually picking up on the Predator’s methods, and adapting to them in order to survive.  He’s perceptive and level headed, which is undoubtedly the sign of a great soldier.  I think this definitely one of Schwarzenegger’s finest performances demonstrating the ability to realize a very authentic, dimensional, and smart character.  Not to mention, I don’t think he’s looked so awesome on-screen without delving into a cheesy or campy tone.

Bill Duke especially does a touchingly effective job.  Early on, he is a hardened soldier, but after Blain is lost, you see the grief and turmoil wash over him.  Carl Weathers is great here as well portraying a man who was once a trusted friend of Dutch’s that has been corrupted by the “everyone’s expendable” mentality of a pencil pushing desk jockey.  He’s lost sight of the qualities of a soldier and the value of life.  However, we see him turning the corner as he rushes into his final battle, and I really like seeing that small character arc.  Overall, this is a rock solid cast flexing both their acting muscles and their real ones in pure 80’s action movie bad assery.  They all exhibit distinct personality that are vibrant, memorable, and straight up killer.

What it is that we lose with CGI monsters as opposed to a real life performer is exquisitely evident here.  Kevin Peter Hall inhabited that beautifully textured and crafted Stan Winston suit, and created a character to live and breathe through it.  Compare it to the personality deprived CGI creatures from Cowboys & Aliens.  They were, as I said in that review, “just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.”  They had no distinct characteristics that made them any better than the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars.  The Predator has nuanced qualities that reflect an intelligence and cunning behavior.  He’s a unique individual amongst a unique race.  How he moves, reacts, and assesses a situation bring a subtle and intriguing depth created by Kevin Peter Hall’s amazing performance.  It has all the traits of a talented performer crafting a character, and I am so tremendously glad that this franchise has never abandoned the performer in the suit approach.

As I’ve said in many previous reviews, the work of Stan Winston is legendary, and stands the test of time.  He clearly revolutionized the creature effects industry with his artistic craftsmanship and captivating imagination.  The Predator is an astonishing creation in all facets.  The original creature the filmmakers put together for this film was ridiculous and was quickly jettisoned after only a few days of filming.  Winston was called in, and with a little input about mandibles from James Cameron, this iconic, ferocious, and frightening creature was born.  Beyond that, this is a very graphic and brutal film showing you skinned human bodies, spinal cords ripped from carcasses, and a disemboweled Jesse Ventura.  Everything feels so grisly and textured for a greatly realistic feeling.  This is some of the best gore effects I’ve ever seen.

And these visual effects essentially still hold up to this day.  Certainly, the sequels have shown how digital effects can be used to improve and enhance them, but this is impressive work that hardly feels dated.  This is mainly between the Predator’s cloaking technology where he appears as transparent ripples, and the laser sighting and discharges from his plasma cannon.  There are some especially impressive shots featuring the cloak with more dynamic camera angles and motion where you get the real three dimensional quality of it.  You see it’s not some animated effect, but a real optical composite of a real performer.  These are all excellent visual effects.

This all blends perfectly with the gritty, sometimes smoky atmosphere of the film’s look.  I think John McTiernan’s great eye for composition, interesting angles, and well constructed action shines through.  In this jungle, we get the feel of the dangerous terrain and mysterious qualities of the dense foliage.  The grit grounds this science fiction premise in a visceral reality where consequences are severely violent and lethal.  Great camera movements and stylish, dramatic imagery highlight the artist merit of the cinematography, and it is all expertly edited together for a tight film which propels itself forward from the get go. .

Alan Silvestri put together one amazing score for Predator that has endured for the whole franchise.  He incredibly blends a militaristic march and drive with a primal tribal, jungle beat.  He builds a sense of ominous foreboding reflecting the reality that there is something out there stalking these men.  For the majority of the climax, there is next to no dialogue of any sort.  It is carried along by the action, the visuals, and the exhilarating score which enhances all of the tension, apprehension, and danger that is unfolding.  It is perfect, superb work.

The action hits you at a regular clip, and the first main sequence is majorly explosive.  It sets the bar high for the remaining runtime, and McTiernan is able to meet that challenge.  It’s the mix of tension, the unknown, and the sheer scale of this rapid fire, big gun toting, grenade launching explosiveness that makes that possible.  Yet, McTiernan knows how to build it up, and work the subtle strings of an audience’s anticipation.  The danger escalates, and the peril becomes more immediate as the Predator moves in closer and closer to its prey.  He starts out attacking from a distance, but gradually engages his ultimate trophy – Dutch – in close combat because the Predator views him as a highly worthy adversary

And that entire third act where it’s just down to Dutch and the Predator is a masterpiece.  The strategy and makeshift tactics that Dutch puts together play out brilliantly.  He uses the Predator’s own method of invisibility and striking from a distance to his advantage.  However, it all elevates when the two finally meet face-to-face in a straight physical confrontation.  Everyone knows that Arnold is a BIG guy, but next to this hulking seven foot tall alien beast, he looks small and nearly ineffectual.  It’s only by his smarts and wits is he able to survive.

Predator is filled with chest pounding action and excitement wrapped in a smart concept and script.  Backed up by an excellent action director, and a vibrant, colorful cast lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was a surefire formula for success.  This is why I love Predator.  It never lags anywhere as the pacing is tight and the rhythm is consistent throughout right from the start.  It’s really a near brilliant structure which constantly keeps you invested and intrigued by what’s developing here.  You also can’t not quote the living hell out of this movie.  It’s sharp, witty, but never betraying the serious tone of danger and lethality it sets from the beginning.  It’s an absolute success that holds up incredibly well over time.  I entirely intend to give you reviews on both Predator 2 and Predators sooner than later.  Until then, revisit this classic.


Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into DarknessThis is a film that I didn’t love, but also, I didn’t hate.  It is a very entertaining, exciting movie, but has a number of downfalls mainly stemming from the rehashing of old ideas and characters while doing nothing to make them fresh or new.  For a franchise that was just rebooted with the last movie, this seems like filmmakers with a dry well of ideas when they should be going warp speed ahead into bold, new directions.

When the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has brought the fear of war and destruction to the Federation.  With a personal score to settle and sanctioned by the resilient Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction known as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).  As our heroes are propelled into an epic chess game of life and death, love will be challenged, friendships will be torn apart, and sacrifices must be made for the only family Kirk has left: his crew.

Now, I did not like the 2009 reboot movie.  I thought it was shoddily written with a lot of plot holes, big holes in logic, a weak villain with narrow-minded motivations, a style over substance approach, and a tone that did more to poke fun at these classic characters than show serious, due respect to them.  If the marketing campaign for this film wasn’t so good, I likely would not have been ensnared into seeing it.  However, despite my best resolve, I was compelled to check out spoilers after a spoiler-free review hinted strongly enough at a certain aspect of this film that I was not agreeable to in rumors.  There will be a spoiler section later to address that, but simply said, if I went into this film clean, without spoilers, I’m sure I would have at least been angry with the movie.  Instead, having foreknowledge of many pertinent aspects of the film allowed me to enjoy it more, and go into it with an open mind instead of a resistant one.  I was willing to let the movie change my mind, and to an extent, it did in how well the general plot is written.  However, there are several problems with story, characters, and concepts that I will address shortly.

On the upside of things, firstly, Star Trek Into Darkness has some stellar and exciting action sequences.  While the physical action with chase scenes and fights is not very traditional Trek, it is still very enjoyable stuff done with remarkable talent evident in all aspects.  It is a little hard to accept Spock running around in an action centric role during the climax since that’s always been Kirk’s role, but Quinto is at least more than capable of the task.  I did especially like the encounter with the Klingons where Harrison unleashes a one man barrage.  We see only one unmasked Klingon, but he does resemble the forehead ridged versions with a slightly different sleekness.  The starship battles are few, but feature excellent visual effects and rousing, perilous action.  The whole sequence with the Enterprise spiraling out of control, and Kirk and Scotty are running through the corridors as the gravity is spinning them all around is also fantastic.  J.J. Abrams, beyond anything else, knows how to create an exciting, action-filled movie aimed to entertain.

Now, the hardest part of assessing Chris Pine’s portrayal of James Kirk is that his version has so many changes to his back story that he’s ultimately not Shatner’s Kirk.  You don’t get that wit, cunning, and confidence that defined Shatner’s performance early on.  Instead, we have a young, brash, impulsive Kirk who does let his emotions get the better of him.  I do like that the film addresses one thing I didn’t like about the first movie.  Fresh from Starfleet Academy, off of one successful mission saving Earth, Kirk is given the Captain’s chair without having earned it through years of exemplary service and hard earned experience.  At one point here, his command is taken away from him due to his lack of respect for the Captain’s chair and Starfleet regulations.  He had the Enterprise given to him without having earned it, and now, he’s sort of put into the position where he has to make tough decisions and earn his command.  He has to challenge authority instead of dismissing it, and I think this element is handled rather well.  On the whole, I think Pine is a good actor, but I don’t think the writing and development of Kirk has yet to match his strengths.  His fiery emotions don’t resonate as strongly as Cumberbatch’s chilling, menacing presence.  Once again, Kirk does feel a little weak to me in this Abrams universe.  It’s that essential element of maturity and confidence of Kirk that’s missing which always made him interesting, and I hope that’s where these filmmakers are pushing him towards.  His arc in this film seems to suggest that, but I do feel it doesn’t get the forefront time it deserved to be properly poignant.

Zachary Quinto is given a rather meaty chunk of material in developing his Spock.  There’s a good weight of emotional insight we are given into him as he explores the ideas and fears of death.  Quinto reflects that depth immensely well, and the building of the Kirk-Spock relationship towards something more familiar is excellent in my view.  However, I do feel the whole Uhura relationship is still unappealing to me.  I’m glad they gave her more to do than operating the communications station, but I don’t see any major potential for that relationship.  In general, all of the regular crew members are given a stronger role here.  Sulu is given a taste of command, which I really loved as a subtle hint at him becoming Captain of the Excelsior in the original continuity.  Even Chekov, who I’m still unsold on the portrayal of, is given the run of engineering having to keep the ship intact in the absence of Mr. Scott.

This time out, I feel Simon Pegg did a far more faithful and solid Montgomery Scott.  In nearly every instance, he felt genuine from James Doohan’s original series portrayal.  He had more dramatic weight to carry, and had a bit of a subplot of his own to deal with.  He has justifiable conflicts with Kirk’s mission, and smartly weaves his way back into the thick of the plot by the third act.  I was far more satisfied with everything Pegg did here which still had moments of humor, but felt respectable overall.  With this character, it thrived from smart writing and a really good acting job by Pegg.

And continuing to prove my insistence that he’s one of the most solid and reliable actors around today, Karl Urban beautifully channels DeForest Kelly as Dr. McCoy.  He feels so authentic to the character while still feeling natural and passionate in his own right.  As with Kelley, Urban gets some of the best lines in the movie to the point where I’d love to just see a Dr. McCoy movie.  I really, wholeheartedly believe that Karl Urban is just on the verge of a major career breakthrough.  I’ve yet to see him do anything less than excellence in every role he’s taken on.  Urban just needs that one high profile leading role, and I cannot wait for that day.  He is the perfect successor to Leonard “Bones” McCoy.

Even Peter Weller does an excellent job as Admiral Marcus, who sanctions Kirk’s mission to take out Harrison, but the plot methodically reveals a lot of subversive dealings in Starfleet.  There’s even a great Deep Space Nine reference in regards to that.  What Weller delivers when those revelations occur is damn good, and fills a very solid part in this plot.  Also, Alice Eve does a nice job as Carol Marcus, the Admiral’s daughter, and strikes a small spark of chemistry with Chris Pine.  However, it doesn’t amount to much at all.  Also, I was rather confused as to why Carol Marcus now has a British accent when her Wrath of Khan counterpart did not, and nor does her father.  It was a distracting arbitrary choice that doesn’t really enhance the character in anyway.  It’s just peculiar.

Now, what really compelled me the most leading up to this film was indeed Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance.  That chilling deep voice with his intimidating, foreboding presence is so captivating.  His villainous character is intriguing with an air of mystique.  He has his secrets to keep and strategically reveal as his own agendas and plots unfold.  He’s written very intelligently, and we even get moments of emotional depth and pain in one scene.  His John Harrison character is certainly more than what he seems to be at first, and has many surprises in store for the crew of the Enterprise and Starfleet.  I really think, on a performance level, he’s one of the best villains this franchise has ever had.  He’s certainly the best movie villain since General Chang in Star Trek VI.  Cumberbatch is clearly an immensely talented actor, and he really owns this movie with a complex and rich portrayal.  However, there is a very important aspect of this character that I have to take issue with that can only be done in the spoiler section of this review.  Many loyal Star Trek fans may indeed find this to be intensely objectionable.

However, before we get to that, the problems of this movie are that it feels like a modern day remake of a vastly superior film.  How it rehashes old ideas that come off as second rate carbon copies that do more to remind you of how they were done better thirty or forty-five years ago are exactly reminiscent of creatively devoid remakes from unoriginal filmmakers.  Star Trek Into Darkness attempts to have original ideas such as Kirk dealing with failure and humility, but they are rapidly overshadowed by the plots involving Harrison and Admiral Marcus.  This theme with Chris Pine’s Kirk is never given enough time to flourish and take a solid foothold in the film when put in opposition to all of these retreaded characters, dialogues, and concepts.  These were likely intended as homages, but they come off as lazy, unoriginal writing.  The screenwriters couldn’t put together a wholly original screenplay with unique concepts, or at least, utilize smart enough writing to take solid ownership of what it does with these revisited elements.  Considering the majority critical opinions of them, I’m not sure what most should expect from the co-writers of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and the screenwriter of Cowboys & Aliens and Prometheus.  Frankly, I thought the purpose of rebooting the franchise with an altered timeline was to take these classic characters into bold, new directions with fresh ideas.  Instead, they just do the same old thing only not done remotely as well.  They are free and open to do whatever they choose, and they choose to do next to nothing new at all.  This makes it seem like they’ve already hit a dry well of ideas, and that doesn’t bode well for the future of this franchise.

Now we come to the SPOILER paragraphs.  So, if you don’t want to get a full disclosure of plot turns and revelations, please, jump beyond the next two paragraphs to remain free of such knowledge.  You have been given fair warning to avert your eyes.  Your temptation is your own, and I know the temptation of spoilers is indeed intense.  So, here we go.

What has been rumored over the last several months that I ultimately took issue with is this.  The villain of this film, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, is actually revealed to be Khan Noonien Singh.  Now, the screenwriters integrate him well into the story, weaving all the motivations around him very soundly, and the explanation of his presence absolutely makes sense.  It all ties into the themes of war and Admiral Marcus’ motivations in regards to that by having Khan help Starfleet develop new weapons of war including the Dreadnaught class warship that nearly kills the Enterprise and her crew.  However, we have already had our definitive Khan story with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the original series episode Space Seed is still a stellar piece of work.  I don’t discount the possibility that another great Khan story could be made, but this one falls behind both of those previous outings.  Furthermore, making Cumberbatch be Khan actually diminishes the quality and potential of what Cumberbatch does here.  Instead of being viewed as a strong, amazing performance of a brand new, fresh villain, he is going to be eternally compared back to Ricardo Montalban, which is a gross disservice to Cumberbatch.  Also, the fact is that his performance bares no resemblance to the Khan we knew.  Khan was a man of passion and regal self-image.  He viewed himself as a Prince bringing order to humanity.  This new Khan comes off like an ice cold, menacing shark of a murderer, a man almost devoid of passion.  The original Khan was a conqueror, a ruler and leader of men.  This Khan is more of the terrorist persuasion acting alone, and really succumbing to the will of others to strike out from underneath their oppression.  Straight up, Khan would never bow to another person’s will, no matter the level of force that opposed him.  In Space Seed, Khan frees his people almost single-handedly, and takes over the Enterprise nearly killing the entire crew in the process.  I could never see Khan acting the way he does in this film.  He was never a lone wolf seeking to terrorize.  He was a proud, cultured man seeking power and stature.  Surely, he wasn’t hesitant to bloody his hands, but him becoming a terrorist against Starfleet doesn’t fit for Khan.  He wanted more to be respected than simply feared.  He was also a man quick to exercise his superiority over others, especially Kirk.  The story works, and the motivation is sound, but the personality is simply not Khan.  Not to mention, Cumberbatch bares no physical resemblance to Khan with his Caucasian complexion and English accent.  I cannot see the character that Montalban originated in Space Seed fitting into the context, personality, and methods of the Khan we see in this film, regardless of how differently events unfolded in this new future timeline.  Everything that Khan was before his resuscitation from cryo-sleep remains the same as it was in the original continuity, and so, he wakes up as the same man in this continuity as in Space Seed.  Thus, I don’t feel there’s enough leeway to allow for Khan’s personality and methods to change so drastically.

Also, the film quotes lines verbatim from The Wrath of Khan, and in the climax, there is a reversal on Spock’s death scene where it is Kirk who rushes into the radiation chamber to restart the engines to save the ship and her crew.  It becomes distracting when Pine and Quinto speak practically the same dialogue that Shatner and Nimoy did back in 1982 only with the roles reversed.  The scene is well acted, but you lose every bit of emotional investment and poignancy of the scene because it is such a blatant carbon copy with no fresh life of its own.  Again, you can’t help but remember how brilliant and powerful it was in The Wrath of Khan when you see this lazy, plagiarist writing realized on screen.  And of course, in poor, unearned fashion, the scene is punctuated with Zachary Quinto’s Spock yelling the infamous line of “KHAN!!!” to very weak effect.  It was done perfectly once, but since then, any other use has always been done in comedic context.  Here, it feels borderline lame because it’s not an original idea for a genuine reaction.  Ultimately, Kirk is revived because Khan’s blood now has some entirely unexplained regenerative properties.  It is setup twice in the film, but it could still be a contentious issue for many.  And literally, it is never explained at all.  It’s just there as a plot convenience, and factors into nothing purposeful enough but to bring Kirk back from death.

Veering towards the technical side of the film, the cinematography of Dan Mindel is very, very good.  He really knows how to use that wide frame to give you a strong cinematic visual with the use of great color schemes, and the action sequences are competently done.  There might be a couple shots that I wasn’t all that keen about due to the more rugged camera work during the space battles or the like, but they were fleeting.  The lens flares are toned down a hell of a lot from the previous movie, possibly due to the intended post-conversion 3D effect.  From a few sources, they say the post-conversion is very good.  And the score by Michael Giacchino is also quite good, but I really would’ve liked to have heard that Alexander Courage theme before the last minute of the film.  Just a hint of it somewhere would have gone a long way.

Overall, I did feel like the story here was a little less than what it could have been despite being well conceived and executed.  It felt like a setup of ideas and scenarios for another film, which would likely deal with a Federation-Klingon war.  It’s setting up this climate of inevitable war from the Klingons encroaching through space and perceived heightening tensions.  Everything is built on that fear of war, and while it is a very good idea which builds upon the events of the previous movie, it didn’t feel like an idea that was used to boost the strength and foundation of this film.  It all felt like the setup for something larger, and in doing so, it partly dismisses this story as a stepping stone.  If the focus was on this story, and doing everything possible with it, including injecting original ideas and dialogue into it fully, this would be a stronger movie.

In short, I think Star Trek Into Darkness will please general audiences, but the loyal Trek fan might have more than a few negative things to say about it.  My apprehension about J.J. Abrams helming the next Star Wars movie is evident here in that he does favor style over substance, and even what substance he has is fairly minimal and not well conceived.  Maybe working with a new screenwriter will resolve these issues, but the last thing that franchise needs, as well as Star Trek, is more creatively disjointed outings that favor flashy visuals over a good, solid story.  Neither franchise will have vibrant, flourishing futures based on work like this.  Again, I did enjoy this movie, especially more than the 2009 film, but I was a long way from loving it.  I was really hoping for fresh, new ideas and an original villain that could stand on his own, but unfortunately, I really didn’t get either.  I do recommend seeing it if you are not apprehensive about some contentious issues with revisited characters and ideas from far superior Trek stories.


Alien (1979)

AlienRidley Scott’s Alien is a remarkable classic that was kind of hard for me to appreciate fully until now.  I did see the director’s cut screening in October of 2003, but it didn’t have the intended effect at the time.  However, thanks the Cinemark theatre chain, I was given the chance to see Alien in its original theatrical cut.  I went into the screening consciously putting myself into the proper mindset intending to experience it the right way.  I have always appreciated the filmmaking and artistic talents of the movie, but now, I can connect with it on a level of beautifully crafted horror and suspense.

When commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, heading back to Earth, intercepts a distress signal from a nearby planet, the crew are under obligation to investigate.  After landing on this hostile planet, three crew members – Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), first officer Kane (John Hurt), and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) – set out to discover the origin of the signal which Lieutenant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the ship’s computer soon decipher it as not a distress call but a warning.  Onboard a derelict alien spacecraft, Kane discovers a chamber filled with thousands of alien eggs, and in investigating too closely, he is attacked by a parasite.  When he is brought back to the Nostromo, the crew has no idea the danger they have brought upon themselves as this parasite soon gives birth to a vicious organism that is bred for only one purpose – death.

The strongest quality of this film that struck me was indeed the structure and pacing.  While for a modern audience it might be too methodical, Scott makes every slow burning moment count for something.  It’s all building towards something while establishing mood, atmosphere, character, or story.  The best result from this structure is that there are segments where Scott gives the audience a sense of false security.  This is best reflected in both after the facehugger dies and relinquishes its hold on Kane, and when Ripley has safely escaped aboard the shuttle at the end.  You feel as if the danger has past, but especially with the former, you feel like another shoe is waiting to drop creating this lurking uncertainty.  There’s still a long way to go in this film, and you know something much more threatening is waiting to emerge.  When the ship ascends from the planet, it’s signaling the elevation in threat for these characters and the audience.  And this film repeatedly elevates things to a new, unexpected level.

Scott also does an amazing job immersing an audience into the subtle sense of isolation and unsettling calm of the Nostromo.  This has as much to do with the cinematography as it does the amazing sound design.  The ship always has this ambient sound of probably the power running through it, which further unnerves an audience.  And when things get loud, it gets very loud to evoke the terror and visceral rawness of the moment.  This all creates a contrast of audio where Scott makes things extremely low and quiet when he wants to engage your attention and put you on the edge of your seat.  Then, he blasts something onto the soundtrack to jar you out of your seat.  I don’t find this to be jump scares.  This is an excellent manipulation of suspense and tension to effectively and skillfully scare an audience.  It’s putting you right in there with the unnerving feeling these characters are experiencing.

How Alien is shot is perfect in its use of wide compositions to reflect scope and solitude early on, especially during the excursion to the derelict spacecraft, and later on, how the cinematography moves in closer to highlight the claustrophobic nature of the Nostromo.  Even more intense is when Scott has the shot get right into the actor’s faces during the peak of fear and terror to where you can see every bead of sweat on their skin.  There’s some great and beautiful camera work from the large movements revealing the Space Jockey and using steadicams for sweeping movements.  Yet, I also love the subtle handheld work that creates a sense of unease and rawness at times.  The lighting schemes also create the signature Ridley Scott noir mood and atmosphere.  Light and shadow are used to stellar effect enhancing all the unnerving, heart pounding sequences, and Scott is known for immersing his films in thick darkness.  As the immediacy of everything reaches its apex as the self-destruct is counting down, the blasting exhaust vents and flashing lights intensely reflect the chaotic nature of the third act.  It’s shocking to me that director of photography Derek Vanlint has an extremely short filmography shooting only six films over a thirty-four year span.  Apparently, the bulk of his career was spent on television commercials.  What he did here would make you believe he had a largely notable film career because it was indeed the work of a master cinematographer.

Ridley Scott was very much inspired by the sort of “used future” production design of Star Wars.  Instead of the clean and polished aesthetics of a 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wanted something that felt gritty, textured, and lived in.  The Nostromo is a very utilitarian craft with very few sleek designs.  It was created to be functional and practical to maintain a sense of relatable realism for the audience.  It has the feel of a factory, oil rig, or submarine with all of its enclosed tight spaces and metal gratings.  And the design of the alien spacecraft and all things related to the Xenomorph by H.R. Giger are truly alien in all aspects.  It has a dark, gothic elegance to it.  Giger always meshes together this sexualized aesthetic with his fascinating and twisted designs, and it creates this unsettling undercurrent of sexuality to all of these creatures that victimize our characters.  Many have read a lot into these elements, but for me, it simply makes for a frightening and completely unique biology.  The Alien feels threatening in every way with all of its fanged teeth, exoskeleton design, and ultimately, it’s black as night sheen.  This is a creature meant to inhabit the darkness as an animalistic hunter.  How Ash describes it as the “perfect organism” has always struck me powerfully selling every single-minded quality about it.  It will use you to breed, and then, the others it will kill.  It has no other purpose to exist but to destroy.  I also love how the film constantly takes you by surprise as we witness the Alien’s life cycle.  First, it’s this tiny little creature, but next time we see it, it’s seven feet tall!  There’s an added shot in the director’s cut that I always liked when Brett goes looking for Jones the cat, and while he’s cooling himself off with the dripping condensation, there’s a shot of it hanging from the chains above.  This is before we know what the Alien now looks like, and so, you wouldn’t pick up on it unless you already knew.  Now, it did take a little bit of effort to put Prometheus out of my mind just to experience the originally intended mystique and fascination with the Space Jockey, but I was able to get there.  I still enjoy Prometheus, but I wanted to experience Alien in its purest form.

Now, despite this being a serious film of horror and atmosphere, the interactions of these characters portrayed by this excellent cast create some much needed moments of levity.  I constantly found what Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton were doing to be immensely pleasing and funny.  Parker and Brett are these two jokers who maintain the ship’s functions, and feel quite underappreciated for their hard work who try to leverage that out with some delightful exchanges.  Kotto and Stanton have a great chemistry that brings some rich personality into the fold.

Tom Skerritt is very solid as Captain Dallas.  He has that sense of authority and responsibility which clearly has him stand out as a leader.  Yet, he’s fallible making decisions out of passion instead of adhering to regulations, but also, owning up to those decisions and errors.  At the end of it all, he’s just a guy who wants to do his job and get home, but is forced to deal with something beyond his experience that ultimately does terrify him.

Then, we’ve got Sigourney Weaver who was an unknown talent at the time, and that played to an audience’s surprise.  This one person that they are unfamiliar with in the cast is actually the heroin of the piece, and Weaver shows her stellar talent every moment she’s on screen.  She holds her own opposite everyone very well projecting authority, strength, conviction, and decisiveness as Ellen Ripley.  Yet, of course, the absolutely soul shattering terror that Ripley experiences is powerful through Weaver.  She is vulnerable, but she can fight through it for her own survival.

This is unlike the constantly panicked Lambert who paralyzes with fear in the face of the alien, but her fear is entirely genuine and real with Veronica Cartwright’s fantastic talents making it something other than a potentially annoying character.  Many would find themselves reacting like Lambert does, and it’s a testament to the characters that are able to keep their fear and emotions in check to carry onward.

Ian Holm’s performance is brilliant.  It’s one of those things where you pick up on more in repeat viewings after you know the twist of Ash.  You see the sinister probing eyes that observe a situation like it’s some lab experiment.  Once you know who Ash is and what his purpose happens to be you can see his secret intent, especially during the chestburster scene.  This twist is carefully setup throughout the movie in how he repeatedly enables the safe passage of the alien aboard the ship.

The great thing about these characters is that, despite the futuristic setting on a spacecraft, these are relatable people.  They seem plucked straight out of our time and lives as rugged, blue collar space truckers.  They’re regular people just doing a regular job, but it’s only that they’re towing ore across interstellar space instead of a highway or the like.  They have realistic relationships such as Parker and Brett having some friction against the bridge officers because they get paid less even though the ship wouldn’t work without them.  These people all have conflicts, friendships, and complicated dynamics between them, and this is further aided by very realistic and honest dialogue.  The film surely doesn’t take time to explore the depth of these characters, but it is their behaviors and interactions that inform us of all we need to know about each one of them.  That’s really how you write an ensemble movie, much like John Carpenter’s The Thing.  You don’t need to get their life stories, you just need fully realized characters portrayed by great, suitable actors.  And I would be remised if I didn’t mention John Hurt here.  While he has the shortest screentime of anyone here, he puts in a solid performance that has a few moments of levity, but overall, is as authentic and strong as anyone else here.

The late Jerry Goldsmith seemed to regularly have conflicts with the filmmakers he worked with on how his scores should be crafted.  Oddly, I find that in these cases, what it is that he’s pushed towards creating is ultimately the better choice for the film overall.  Here, we get some great cues with the main theme being the best which exudes an aura of mystery, intrigue, and spookiness.  It’s a subtle melody that does a lot to make things feel lightly ominous and dangerous without ever being overt.  Simplicity can sometimes do so much in conjunction with how a film is shot and plotted.  The music that Goldsmith composed here is exceptionally effective even if how most of it was used went against how he thought it should be.

Usually, when you know a horror film well enough, knowing where the scares are coming and everything, it tends to become less effective.  However, upon this theatrical screening, many moments were still startling and scary.  I really feel that experiencing Alien in the immersive environment of a movie theatre is the best way to do it.  Maybe if you have a large HDTV and a stellar surround sound system, you could achieve that effect, but seeing all of the visual mastery on that large cinema screen was more than I could have imagined.  It just gave me the amplified experience I was looking for with this movie, and why I was compelled and excited for this experience.  Now that I’ve had that experience, my home viewing experience will be richer and more engaging.

It is undeniable that Alien is an eternal classic, but now, I am able to hold it up to that level of awe and recognition myself.  Scott took what was a B-movie horror idea and turned it into an A-grade picture full of masterfully crafted artistry in all aspects with the cast being a glowing example.  Ridley Scott is known for taking great care in creating immersive worlds not just on film, but for the actors and crew to live inside of.  He locks you into this enclosed maze of a dark spaceship where the Alien could be hiding anywhere, and you feel the claustrophobic tension eating away at you.  It can be a haunting, disturbing film for many, and while it has violence and blood, it is strategically used to intense effect.  The same can be said about the Alien itself – only seen it shadows, in pieces.  Scott only once or twice gives you a full fledged look at it.  He keeps it like a startling nightmare – brief glimpses that horrify, much like Jaws.  Unlike Jaws though, it wasn’t out of a necessity of the creature not working or being well designed, it was an artistic decision that worked brilliantly.  There’s a lot of crap that was spawned from this film with bad sequels, poorly conceived crossovers, and a prequel that has proved divisive for many.  Still, I can watch this film as a self-contained entity, and when done so, you can immensely appreciate that Ridley Scott and his vast team of highly talented artists and filmmakers made a stunning and iconic piece of science fiction horror.


The Shadow (1994)

The ShadowI have LOVED this movie since I first saw it.  I know this was met with mixed reactions upon release, and it was not a real lucrative success in theatres.  Frankly, I am baffled by this.  The Shadow, to me, is a marvelous film that is perfect Russell Mulcahy style, second only to Highlander.  It’s also a film that was never given its due justice on home video, but thanks to iTunes, I can now enjoy this film in beautiful high-definition widescreen!  I believe The Shadow to be a solid piece of work in every aspect as well as an immensely enjoyable superhero action film.

In 1930’s China, Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) is known as Yin-Ko, a murderous opium warlord, who is reformed by a Tibetan mystic who teaches him how to use his keen mental powers to manipulate others.  As penance for his past misdeeds, Cranston masquerades as a New York City playboy by day and secretly plays the heroic Shadow by night, staving off evildoers with a network of agents and a cab-driving sidekick (Peter Boyle).  A greater challenge arrives when a new enemy presents himself in Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the final descendent of Genghis Khan, who has received training from the same Tibetan master who instructed Cranston.  Khan desires to have the once savage Cranston join him in his conquest of the world through use of an atomic bomb, but finds only an adversary.  Meanwhile, Cranston encounters the alluring and intriguing Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller) who also possesses unique psychic abilities that complicate his life, but soon, they join together to combat the powerful Shiwan Khan.

Mulcahy shrouds this whole film in this wonderful mystique and atmosphere that is perfect for this sort of character.  The entire presentation of the Shadow reinforces the supernatural element of him – the smoke, illusions, and psychic perceptions.  He’s enigmatic to a vibrantly fascinating degree bordering on frightening.   I love the lighting trick of enveloping Cranston in shadow when he utilizes his psychic abilities.  The mystical and surreal visions we get as we delve into his psyche are stunning.  This film really envelopes an audience fully and deeply into Lamont Cranston’s mind which is endlessly fascinating, if not quite disturbing.  It also doesn’t bog us down with a lengthy origin story.  It’s quite succinct, telling us all we need to know, and even touching back upon it as the film goes on.  This way, it can jump right into the meat of the story.  While I’m sure something like a 120+ minute film could be made from this material, like a Batman Begins, walking us through Cranston’s change from the barbarous Yin-Ko to the heroic Shadow, I like the straight to the point mentality of this film.

I honestly believe Alec Baldwin was a dead-on perfect casting choice.  He has the dapper charm and charisma for Lamont, but with a tinge of shadowy mystique at nearly all times.  As Yin-Ko, he is a chilling, violent warlord who is hedonistic in his bloodletting.  He never ceases to satiate his lust for barbarism.  In the middle of Cranston and Yin-Ko, we find the Shadow where Lamont uses the darkness within to battle evil wherever it hides.  I love that Baldwin embraces and envelopes himself in that darkness, and even adopts a bit deeper voice, at times, that is both haunting and unsettling.  His eyes are also magnificently piercing with that intense, razor sharp stare.  Overall, I think Alec Baldwin put together a stellar and dynamic package here with a darker tinged hero with charisma, charm, and an edginess.  His performance here made me believed that Alec Baldwin could also have been a great Bruce Wayne / Batman.  He takes a character of complex depth and grim history, and makes him a nearly larger than life entity of justice.

Baldwin has such great chemistry with Penelope Ann Miller forging a unique but very pleasing romantic, lively relationship.  That Margo also possesses psychic abilities makes her an intriguing counterpart to Lamont Cranston.  She’s not going to be manipulated by his powers, and she can see directly into his mind, picking up his thoughts.  It forces them together, much to Lamont’s dismay, but this allows for a unique synergy between them.  They never have a love scene, but their bond goes so deeply into their psyches that a love scene would seem almost unnecessary.  Miller brings a great deal of spirit and assertion to Margo Lane making her both an elegant beauty and lovely character to invest your time in.

And oh, do I love John Lone as Shiwan Khan.  He has such theatrical presence that commands every scene he appears in.  He has such passion with his performance embodying Khan’s admiration for Yin-Ko, but also, the lust for violent conquest.  He hungers at the thought of the power and the barbarism.  He’s a perfect villain who reflects upon Lamont as the man he was and is still haunted by.  Khan challenges Cranston as an equal tapping into the deepest, darkest parts of his being, and even being superior to him in certain ways.  Shiwan Khan is an intelligent, calculating villain with patience and the merciless will to enact his plans of destruction.  It is an immensely satisfying portrayal from a very talented actor.

Tim Curry does a wonderfully pleasant job as the weasely Farley Claymore.  He embraces this sleazy, cowardly, power hungry character with great zeal.  He’s loving every minute of it, and he creates this great second foil that an audience can’t wait to see get what’s coming to him.  Curry is always just so much fun to watch in whatever he does, and this is no exception at all.

This film makes gorgeous use of both digital and optical effects.  For one, the filmmakers do an amazing job seamlessly recreating 1930’s New York with various matte paintings, back lots, miniatures, and more.  This creates a fully enveloping  reality for the film’s setting that has the feel of something made in that time period of cinema.  The visual effects used to cloak the Shadow in various instances, and even to morph Baldwin’s face from Cranston to the Shadow are simply fantastic.  I can’t really recall any film marrying optical and digital effects.  It was either one or the other all the way, but I think Mulcahy saw the value in both technologies utilizing each to their best results.  Even Jurassic Park only used CGI dinosaurs when it was necessary, and relying on animatronics for the rest.  Here, it all comes together for a stunning and masterful visual experience.

The production design on The Shadow is simply astounding.  It has rich, detailed art direction and production values fashioning an elegant 1930’s look.  Everything feels authentic to the time with beautifully dressed sets.  Khan’s majestic room at the top of the hotel is gorgeously draped with bold Asian designs in fabric, and the Cobalt Club is so elegantly realized.  The costumes are excellent, especially those for Penelope Ann Miller who looks classy and gorgeous in those dresses.  The look of the Shadow is awesome with the long brimmed fedora, black cloak, overcoat, red scarf, and the twin shoulder holsters.  It’s a solid, yet simple iconic look that makes a striking impression.  I love how the cloak flows giving the Shadow a floating quality that reinforces the wraith-like glimpses we occasionally get of him.  Even the atomic bomb has a great art deco design.  This art department really did an amazing job here leaving no detail unpolished.

While the story is rather typical of a superhero film, bad guy wants to conquer the world, it’s really the characters and their motivations that make it different.  I always wonder what exactly a villain would do once they’ve taken over the world.  What’s left to do when everyone is your enslaved servant?  For Shiwan Khan, it’s not about being the ruler of the world, but indulging in the barbarism that comes with that power.  He doesn’t want to sit back and enjoy himself.  He wants to see the world tear itself apart in savagery and war.  He wants to strike terror into humanity, and see it descend into fear and butchery as he pits one army against another army.  The added dynamic between Khan and Cranston makes the story all the more compelling to me.  When you’ve got a hero and villain so tightly interwoven and connected like this, it creates a great sense of depth and intrigue.  Lamont must battle an adversary who is his superior, but gradually, must grow his abilities to eventually match those of Khan.

The film also features some smart, timely, and appropriate humor.  Mulcahy balances the darker atmosphere and peril with some quirky moments that never take you out of the vibe he’s running with.  The rhythm and chemistry between Baldwin and Miller creates plenty of levity, and there are even a few jovial bits with the now late Jonathan Winters, who portrays Lamont’s Police Commission uncle.  Mulcahy keeps the movie fun while still delivering thrills and intrigue on a grand tapestry.

The climax is just stunning from when the Shadow enters the Monolith Hotel to when he and Khan finally clash.  It’s a visually awesome sequence with some great effects shots.  All the shattering glass creates an amazing dramatically intense impact.  There’s a great sense of triumph for Lamont here as he is now taking the fight directly to Khan instead of lagging behind him, and the touches of character growth are excellent.  Alongside that, you’ve got some fun yet perilous moments with Margo and her scientist father, portrayed by Ian McKellan, trying to chase down and disarm the ticking time bomb that will nuke the city.  It’s fun stuff that still maintains tension in this solid climactic sequence.

Top all of this with a fantastic Jerry Goldsmith score, and I personally believe you’ve got a great, fun film on your hands.  I have never had any criticism for this film as I enjoy and love it thoroughly.  It’s a solid superhero film with a retro feel that is realized with vibrant vision by Russell Mulcahy.  He was the right choice for The Shadow bringing his great eye for cinematography and fantasy with an air of mystique to this very mysterious and fascinating character.  Anyone who has not seen this film is someone I strongly urge to do so.  I don’t understand where the negativity came from over this.  I think it’s a grand example of Mulcahy’s best work, and what made him the filmmaker that I love.  He gets great performances out of everyone in this cast, and just hit the style, tone, and atmosphere just perfect as far as I’m concerned.  The Shadow feels like a film that should have been a surefire hit, and be held in great admiration to this day.  Instead, it has merely a cult following, and has been saddled with a full screen DVD release.  Fortunately, it will finally receive a widescreen Blu Ray release this June.  Until then, you can rent it from iTunes or Amazon Instant Video.


Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

Star Wars - Return of the JediAs it has been announced since the Disney acquisition of LucasFilm Ltd, this will, apparently, will not be the chronological end of the Star Wars movie saga after all.  A sequel trilogy following the exploits of the original cast is on track for a 2015 release helmed by J.J. Abrams.  What will come of a new trilogy remains to be seen, but for the original trilogy, it ended on a very good note even if it lacked a little something.  I think this is the one movie of the original trilogy that has declined over time for me.  There is so much depth and peril in The Empire Strikes Back that this movie feels a little starved for that, on the whole.  Yet, it is still a highly entertaining, rousing, and powerful film where it truly counts.  And no, I’ve never had a negative disposition towards the Ewoks.  I certainly understand the issue people have with their part in the film, but it’s never really bothered me.  So, let us journey back to a galaxy far, far away one more time.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) must travel to Tatooine to free Han Solo (Harrison Ford) by infiltrating the wretched stronghold of Jabba the Hutt, the galaxy’s most loathsome gangster.  Once reunited, the Rebels team up with tribes of Ewoks to combat the Imperial forces on the forest moon of Endor.  Meanwhile the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and Darth Vader conspire to turn Luke to the dark side, and young Skywalker is determined to rekindle the spirit of the Jedi within his father.  The Galactic Civil War culminates in the ultimate showdown, as the Rebel forces gather to attack the seemingly defenseless and incomplete second Death Star in the battle that will determine the fate of the galaxy.

This was actually the first Star Wars movie I saw theatrically, and I was all of three years old at the time.  All I remember from the experience was getting scared by the loud noises and the scared visage of Anakin Skywalker.  At that age, you can hardly blame me.  This film does follow up rather nicely on the cliffhanger plot threads of The Empire Strikes Back.  Scenes of Luke visiting Yoda and Obi-Wan are given substantial weight and the comfort of time to play out with importance.  Many were in disbelief at Darth Vader’s revelation in the previous film, and they required reliable confirmation.  There were no two better characters for that than these Jedi Masters.  This is the main crux of Luke’s storyline as he struggles with trying to pull his father back from the Dark Side, and it provides the weight of emotion throughout the picture.  It is a little unfortunate that some scenes were cut from the beginning of the film that would have made this a far more constant and overarching element of the film.  As it is, none of this is addressed until forty minutes into the movie in favor of the action set pieces of Han’s rescue from Jabba’s Palace.

Never get me wrong.  The Jabba’s Palace scenes are expertly done featuring some of the highest grade puppetry in live action films.  CGI has never done Jabba the Hutt justice over the original tangible puppet by Phil Tippett of ILM’s Creature Shop.  The palace scenes subject audiences to an eclectic menagerie of fantastical aliens that demonstrate a fertile imagination and talented ambition.  While everyone holds the Cantina scene from the first film as the groundbreaker, George Lucas truly made this the new gold standard, and achieved something amazing with his dedicated team at Industrial Light & Magic.  The atmosphere of the sets is almost classic noir with the smoke all around in this den of seediness and crime.  The Rancor scene, matte lines or no, is still an impressive piece of work that has always been an action highlight for me.  This is a great example of 1980s fantasy film visual effects where more organic, large scale creatures were integrated into live action.  And yes, indeed, I do vastly prefer the original musical numbers by the Max Reebo Band.  I am reviewing the original theatrical versions for a distinct reason here beyond just the fact that those are the ones I grew up with and fell in love with.  Overall, this entire section of the movie is amazingly well done in every aspect, but unlike the previous movies, it takes quite a while for the story, action, and drama to pick up.  Even with Empire, while it didn’t have a rousing opening, it still had danger and peril to create dramatic momentum.  Return of the Jedi feels like it lacks an element of excitement and momentum from its outset.

The one thing that I really have come to notice lately about the structure of the film is a marked lack of intercutting storylines.  The previous two films used this story structure technique to maintain a tight rhythm and up tempo pace.  This made it feel like plots were progressing, and characters were converging.  With Return of the Jedi, there’s barely any such regular intercutting until the final third of the film.  Anything we do get before then is slowly plotted.  The entire Tatoonie sequence, which runs thirty minutes long, is presented without a single cutaway or linking element to anything else in the film.  It runs along as its own isolated adventure.  While it is smartly written, beautifully executed, and tightly edited, it is this structural issue that makes the film feel too compartmentalized.  There are a lot of long sequences in this film that tend to drag the pace of it down, but in the least, they have character building and storyline progressing purposes.  Still, maybe it’s just the familiarity of time, but that more deliberate pace seems to work towards the more somber tone for the end of a trilogy where character and story reach their ultimate juncture.  They take on a far more important role than action, which is commendable.  I’ve felt that the film has lacked something poignant or substantive for the longest time, but maybe it’s not so much an issue of what’s not there but how what is there is presented in terms of structure and rhythm.  Just about everything that needs to be there is there, but maybe it could’ve used some greater peril to give it more punch.

I think I have to agree with Harrison Ford and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan in that the film really needed a genuine low point.  Both of them firmly believed that Han Solo should have died to give the film that grave sense of peril and consequence.  This is probably the film where Solo has the least substantive things to do with no arc to traverse, and he does seem like he’s more just along for the ride instead of having much poignancy to the plot turns.  I’m certainly not saying that I would have wanted to see Han die, but I understand where Ford and Kasdan were both coming from.  In A New Hope, there were the deaths of Aunt Beru, Uncle Owen, and Ben Kenobi to give the film peril and gravity, and in The Empire Strikes Back, there were low points abound creating an emotional contrast and sense of real danger for the characters.  Luke surely has his dark moments in his confrontation with Vader and the Emperor, but they only resonate for about a moment.  The triumph of the heroes would hold more weight if we had felt some strong sacrifice or loss from them.

Now, there is a question of who really directed the bulk of this film.  While Richard Marquand is the credited director, many claim George Lucas was far more hands-on throughout production as many of the actors did not respond well to Marquand.  To me, there doesn’t appear to be any noticeable evidence to this effect.  This is a well-directed movie.  The Empire Strikes Back is a brilliant movie in all aspects for many reasons.  With Jedi, any problems it does have are really not a fault of direction, just a slower pace that may not have given quite as much prominent screentime to the Vader-Luke plot.  What we get of it is substantive and right-on-the-mark, but there’s not much thematic material in the film beyond this.  Rescuing Han from Jabba, or running through the forest with Ewoks is just fun adventure stuff.  The crux of this saga at this point is what is transpiring both internally and externally amongst Luke and Vader, and with so much meaty depth built-up between them in The Empire Strikes Back, I would’ve liked to have more of that spread throughout this movie.  I would’ve liked to see more of that internal conflict show through and be dealt with.  Ultimately, the film feels a little too light too often for what dramatic weight it is building up to in order to conclude the trilogy.

Regardless, this film features some of the best action scenes in the whole saga.  The rescue from Jabba’s sail barge is a rousing, fun, swashbuckling adventure piece where everyone gets their moment of heroism and excitement.  It’s great to see the full team of heroes together fighting against a large force, and faring better than they ever have before. This triumph is a great counterbalance to how we left them at the end of the previous movie.  It also builds up Luke as we know he was the architect of this plan, and the carefully crafted quality of it all demonstrates his maturing role as a leader and Jedi Knight beautifully.  The speeder bike chase is still fantastic making fine use of blue screen effects and optical composites to create this dangerous, high speed sequence.  And I hold the entire space battle sequence as the best I’ve ever seen.  What impresses me is the depth of elements piled into this energetic and dynamic battle above the moon of Endor.  Yet, they never clutter the frame, only add to the scope and visual storytelling of this climax.  The technical achievement of this sequence is amazing in the age of optical composites, and it still holds up solidly to any CGI creation made today.  This is further reinforced by this film’s Academy Award win for special achievement in visual effects.  Beyond just that, it has great tension, danger, and stellar dog fighting.  The entire three-way intercut climax gives everyone something purposeful to do, and no one ever gets lost in the mix.  Nor does it bog it down with any extraneous story elements.  It’s all evenly balanced and clearly conveyed to an audience.  It’s the most hair-raising, exhilarating, and epic climax in the saga, to date.

Now, again, I’ve never had an issue with the Ewoks.  I just always accepted them.  If I have any qualm about Endor is that it never feels sufficiently alien.  At least Tatoonie had alien creatures and felt like a full barren world, much the same for Hoth.  Meanwhile, Dagobah was lush with its own vibrant, otherworldly life.  Endor just feels too terrestrial with no unique personality.  There are times when it has a nice, moody feel, but that occurs in scenes that were surely shot on a soundstage.  There’s good production design with the Ewok village and a few nice matte paintings, but overall, Endor is a bit of a visual letdown.

The final confrontation with Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor is fantastically crafted and executed.  I like that the lightsaber battle is almost ancillary to the emotional and psychological struggle playing out between these three characters.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous Star Wars movie review, the lightsaber battles are really a plot device to motivate characters and events forward.  The action is not really the focus, it’s the character interactions and dynamics.  The temptation from the Emperor is masterful and devilish, and Ian McDiarmid plays it so damn good.  He never treads the line of over the top acting.  He keeps the Emperor a very real and frightening threat.  He has all this power over so many, and he barely has to raise a finger to exercise his will.  His power is in McDiarmid’s dark mystique and subtle, brilliant villainy.  What we see in this climax is a seduction to the Dark Side done correctly.  A little push here and there, edging Luke towards the unleashing of his emotions shows the cunning psychological manipulation that the Emperor possesses.  The symbolism we get when Luke finally lashes out and severs Vader’s hand is just brilliant.  The strength of Luke’s character and belief in his father shines through with inspiring honor as he throws down his arms and refuses to give in to the Dark Side.  He’s able to resist the temptation because he is not a selfish person.  There are good people that he believes in, and those that believe in him.  I like that even Obi-Wan tells Luke that his emotions do him credit.  Coupled with his maturity, Luke’s loyalty and emotional connections can lead him to the right decisions where we later saw that Anakin’s more intense, selfish emotions were his downfall.  I also like the motif of Luke’s attire.  In the first movie, it’s all white, in the next, it’s gray, and in Return of the Jedi, he’s all in black.  It shows a certain spectral progression for him, but ultimately, his journey is not towards darkness but bringing his father out of it.

The maturing of Luke Skywalker is one of the beauties of this trilogy for me.  Mark Hamill matures with the character from an eager young man desiring adventure to a far wiser, confident, and intelligent adult.  Luke’s learned a lot from his first encounter with Vader.  He’s no longer impatience and impulsive.  He makes calm, calculated, and selfless decisions towards ends he believes in with his heart and mind.  He’s more than just a respectable leader at this point, he’s a true Jedi that has taken the best qualities of those that came before and of himself.  Each film evolved Luke Skywalker another step forward which resulted in this wonderful, noble, and honorable hero.  Mark Hamill brings a fresh strength and air of subtle mystique to the role in this film.  He taps a little into what Alec Guiness had in the original Star Wars, but with the added aspect of optimism and hope.  He has not been weathered by defeat, but instead, made stronger and more decisive by it.  I think very highly of Mark Hamill’s acting talents, and I am excited to see what he will be able to achieve in this new sequel trilogy.

The ultimate pay-off in this movie is the beautiful way that Vader redeems himself.  I’m not going to analyze this in relation to the prequels.  I’m going to say that this has always been one of my favorite moments of the saga.  The silent contemplation, the internal struggle you can read so deeply into Vader’s scuffed up mask while Luke is on the verge of death from the Emperor’s Force lighting is just brilliant and gorgeous.  Vader doesn’t have to say a word, his actions speak emphatically for him.  The unmasking of Anakin Skywalker is beautifully touching, and the funeral pyre has always been a beloved moment for me.  John Williams’ score is amazingly heartfelt and wonderful here.  I also love the chorus-backed score in the climax.  His work is fantastic throughout this film, as always.  This saga would lose something immensely profound if John Williams had not been involved, and I hope that the sequel trilogy will maintain the integrity of his musical brilliance.

There is a great deal of good content in Return of the Jedi, but I wish the film had a stronger opening to pull me in more.  That’s what usually turns me off, initially, to the movie.  It takes a while for it to get exciting, much longer than most of the Star Wars films, but once it gets there, it’s great stuff!  This film has all the elements it needed, and delivers spectacularly on the plot threads and conflicts established in The Empire Strikes Back.  In the end, I do wish there was a little more meat on the bone to bring those aspects of character depth and conflict more into the forefront of the film instead of lingering in the background for most of the runtime.  Regardless, this is a fine conclusion to the trilogy that does satisfy on many levels, especially on fresh action scenes and emotional pay-offs.  Despite any shortcomings, this is still a pure, fun, and exciting Star Wars adventure that you cannot go without experiencing!


Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2 Judgment DayTerminator 2: Judgment Day is still one of the best action blockbusters ever made.  There was no equal in 1991.  I hadn’t even seen the film until a few years later, and I knew all the catch phrases and iconography from it.  This movie almost instantly came into the pop culture vernacular.  Many films today are huge blockbuster successes, but they don’t make the impact that T2 did.  While I consider The Terminator to be the best of the franchise and of Cameron’s career, this is one amazing second best to have that is massively better than most peoples’ number ones.  A few years ago I even had the pleasure of seeing Terminator 2 on the big screen thanks to a regular retro summer film series as my local Marcus Theatre, and it still felt like an event to me.

Over ten years after a killer cyborg was sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), her son John (Eddie Furlong), the future leader of the human resistance, is targeted by a more advanced Terminator – the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a liquid metal based machine able to take on nearly any form.  John’s only hope for survival is a re-programmed Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent by his future self to protect him.  Meanwhile, Sarah has become a quintessential survivor who has been institutionalized for her warning of the nuclear holocaust she knows is inevitable.  When these heroes converge while eluding the T-1000, the idea is sparked that Judgment Day could be averted by wiping out SkyNet’s entire existence.

Terminator 2 is one of those blockbuster movies that you really can’t call yourself an action fan if you haven’t seen it.  It is a masterfully crafted and executed piece of sci-fi action cinema that melds together the key signatures of James Cameron’s style.  It has heart, humanity, emotion, depth, character, thematic weight, and bombast all in plentiful amounts.  While I love the first movie for its killer pace, storytelling innovations, and intensity, this really is the big budget James Cameron style refined and smoothed out.  Aliens was his first foray into that style, but I think that film did drag in too many places killing the pace and momentum of the narrative frequently.  This film is a vast improvement over that.  While we don’t get that same innovation of storytelling like imparting exposition during a frenetic chase sequence, considering the complex nature of the T-1000, I think having a calmer scene to convey those “harder to wrap your head around” ideas is the better way to go.  The film has more important things to deal with overall than the frenetic action sequences, mostly.

Now, I may have had the Special Edition in my mind too prominently when thinking about the overall pacing of the film when writing my review of The Terminator.  While that cut does have many great additional scenes that build character and story beautifully, it loses some tighter editing and storytelling cohesion that the theatrical cut possesses.  For these reasons, Jim Cameron considers the theatrical version to be the better cut of the film.  Where the Special Edition lags a lot in the second act, giving us a lot more slow scenes of character building and such, the theatrical version is much tighter.  It moves along in a more streamlined fashion allowing a few bits and pieces to be logically filled in by the audience, and to direct the focus of the story more consistently on John, Sarah, and the T-800.  All of these additional scenes are well conceived and well executed, and I surely endorse watching the Special Edition for a more expanded view of this amazing story.  Still, it is the theatrical cut I am focusing on for this review because it is Cameron’s preferred version, just like with the Special Edition of Aliens.

It’s great that the movie begins very similarly to the first.  We get the future war sequence showing us more than before, but instead of a paragraph of text on screen, we get the Sarah Connor narration that sets the epic, emotional mood greatly.  Then, we see the T-800 appear and assault some people while seeking some suitable attire, just like in the original.  While many know going into the movie that Arnold plays the good Terminator in this film, Cameron sets it up as if you do not have that knowledge.  It treats both Terminators as potential lethal threats.  Yet, while the T-800 gets a shot of levity with the George Thorogood track “Bad to the Bone,” the T-1000 is given a far more threatening vibe throughout.  Still, Kyle Reese was initially presented in a dangerous, threatening capacity as well.  So, someone watching this cold could not wholly be certain when paralleling this sequel to the original movie.

The film plays on your misconceptions of being uncertain which time traveler is the threat, and it’s an even greater scene when Sarah herself encounters the T-800 during her attempted escape from the mental hospital.  Giving Arnold the line of, “Come with me if you want to live,” is excellent creating a surreal moment for Sarah, but one that resonates with her and the audience.  We already know this Terminator is here to protect, but making even the slightest connection of trust between Sarah and the Terminator is immensely important.  The scene is also excellent in that all of our main characters have converged, and finally sets the story along on its ultimate path in exciting fashion.

Everything I praise this film for goes along with praising James Cameron’s directing abilities, but also, I think this is probably his best screenplay.  It’s very smart taking the ideas of a formulaic sequel and making tweaks and twists here and there to keep the ideas fresh.  Cameron then builds upon every idea from the first film and expands upon it for a much larger story that digs even deeper into the humanity of these characters and ideas.  I do have one critique to get to much later on that affects the climax, but with the substance of the characters, themes, and story, I don’t think anyone could’ve done a better job developing and fleshing out these ideas.  Cameron really wrote a fantastic screenplay alongside co-writer William Wisher.  On the Cameron-Wisher audio commentary the Extreme Edition DVD, Wisher states that he has never worked on a film before or since that so precisely realized on screen what he envisioned in his head while writing it.  That’s a testament to Cameron’s filmmaking abilities, and the excellent quality of this motion picture.  He knew how to hit it directly on the head, and translate his vision to film in a near flawless fashion.

It is amazing how the film is able to humanize Arnold’s Terminator.  He eventually becomes our full-fledged hero, and the one we are wholly rooting for.  This is accomplished through so many elements.  From early on, John is instilling little pieces of morality and humanity into the T-800 that slowly pay-off.  The shift in the character is entirely seamless.  In almost every scene there is a subtle evolution that molds him from that cold, stoic cyborg into a character of personality and humanity.  You feel for this machine like you would for any noble, honorable, compassionate hero.  The relationship built between John and the Terminator becomes powerful and heartbreakingly emotional by the end.  The final moments between Sarah Connor and the Terminator are powerful, and her final words of narration are amazing.  It seems like something you’re not even aware of happening during the course of the movie, but once you’re there in those moments, you do feel something poignant for this character who was just a one dimensional bad ass who is now complex and dimensional.  It is surely one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finest, most subtle, and nuanced performances.  He is exceptional throughout this movie.

Linda Hamilton is scary here.  She goes from that wholesome, tender, but tough woman we saw with Kyle Reese to this near psychotic, militaristic, violent woman, and she makes it work stunningly.  If you knew the exact date that the world would suffer a nuclear holocaust, you would go a little insane and violent as well.  Especially if everyone you told didn’t believe you.  Hamilton got into such intense physical shape she even scared Arnold a bit.  She handles the physical demands of this film with shocking ability and precision.  The training she went through in every aspect honed the character into the hardened, effective weapon we see.  Performance wise, Linda Hamilton is amazing all the way through showing the profound inner turmoil and despair that has enveloped Sarah, but also the psychological mess that she has become living with this imminent apocalyptic knowledge.  Everyone around her is a walking corpse to her.  They’re ghosts who don’t know that they’re dead, yet.  That’s a scary mindset to live in, and Linda Hamilton goes full boar into the depths of Sarah’s corrupted psyche.  She has lost hope for herself and humanity, but she goes on a journey here to regain that hope.  Even when she attempts to kill Miles Dyson, despite trying to be as cold as the Terminator herself, when forced to look Dyson in the eye face-to-face, her humanity will not allow her to take an innocent life.  Hamilton is just a whole different animal in this movie, and it is a complex and powerful character that she brings to life.

Eddie Furlong is quite impressive in this, his first acting role.  He had a lot of help along the way to bring out his talent and mold it for this performance.  His John Connor has a fine arc going from this rebellious punk kid who respects no form of authority, and has little emotional attachment to anyone, to forging some massively strong bonds with both his mother and the T-800.  We see a vibrant emotional range from Furlong, and he meshes perfectly with Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.  He never gets lost amongst them as the film has so much pertinence for his character, and he holds the weight of that role strongly and profoundly.  I also highly endorse Cameron’s idea of never having John Connor fire a gun in the film.  He handles them, reloads ammo, but never discharges a weapon.  Cameron wanted John to be perceived as an intellectual leader instead of a brute force one.  Of this trio, he is the one with the most level headed mind and clear perception of morality.  He stabilizes the cold, amorality of the Terminator and Sarah’s erratic, psychologically fracture mentalities.  He might seem like a supporting character because of his age, but John Connor is a central, pivotal character in this story that anchors the humanity of all.  Furlong is tremendous all the way through this performance.

The performance of Robert Patrick as the T-1000 is just uncanny.  I like Cameron going back to the idea of the Terminator being far more average looking so it can be a cipher amongst humans.  Patrick has the right slender, average build, but is able to conjure up so much menace in a different way than Arnold did in the first movie.  He feels like a shark relentlessly hunting his prey where he can be silent and subversive, but ultimately, be efficiently lethal.  Even when Patrick is portraying the T-1000 as the kindly police officer, there’s something so subtle about what he does that puts his portrayal just slightly off-center.  You can’t put your finger on it, but there’s an odd quality to his manner that still evokes the menace and cold machine underneath.  His physical ability is incredible.  When he’s rapid firing a gun, he doesn’t blink once.  He runs with stunning speed, and maintains that fluidity of motion throughout.  He creates a complete character with brilliant nuances that are subtly and directly effective to an audience.  It also love that Robert Patrick’s career didn’t get pigeonholed into this unique sort of role.  He scored some meaty dramatic work after this movie, and has continued to have a very successful and diverse career to this day.  His dedication to a role is clearly evident here, and shows how much of a physical actor he can be when tested.

And on a final casting note, I believe Joe Morton was a remarkable choice for Miles Dyson.  This was the first thing I ever saw him in, and it set a standard of excellence with Morton that he has never failed to live up to.  He’s an actor that is able to channel a deep well of emotion and sympathy in such honest, human ways.  When you see Dyson, he is a man that is enthusiastic about his work, and in a scene from the Special Edition, he talks about all the good this technology could do for humanity.  He’s not a malevolent man.  He’s a wonderful family man with all the best intentions in the world, but when he learns the truth about his future history, it takes him about the length of a heartbeat to realize what must be done.  Joe Morton instills such passion and empathy into this character that even though he is a supporting character, he adds such poignant emotional impact and weight to the film.  Sarah realizes that the solution to SkyNet is not to destroy the people that created it, but to destroy the building blocks of it and allow humanity to survive.  And of course, Dyson’s final moments on screen are powerful due to Morton’s amazing acting talents.

At the time, this was probably the most bombastic action movie to date with the biggest special effects ever seen.  I remember news broadcasts covering the Cyberdyne building explosion, and shows going behind the scenes to show us how all these mind-blowing effects sequences were done.  It was massively fascinating.  This was the dawn of the digital age of visual effects, and we were able to be awed by it all.  The opening future war sequence blows away what we saw in the first film by miles.  It shows us a legion of T-800 endoskeletons stomping through the landscape, and large scale shots that really sell the scope of this movie.  The T-1000 CGI effects were amazing at the time, and still hold up pretty damn well today.  They brought to life something we had never seen before, nor something we ever could have seen before.  I believe, as the film goes on, the digital effects become better and more impressive due to how they interact with the physical reality around them.  It was a tremendous feat that revolutionized the visual effects industry.  Of course, you can never take anything away from the masterful practical effects created by Stan Winston Studios.  There was no equal in this field, and rarely a man better to embrace these new technologies and imaginations than Stan himself.  This film was a big part of the legacy he left behind, and he even directed the original teaser trailer which showed the construction of Arnold’s T-800 Terminator.  Pure awesomeness!

A great marriage of miniatures, practical effects, and visual effects were showcased in the Judgment Day scenes.  The nuclear explosion scenes are horrifying and have the deep penetrating impact upon an audience that they needed.  The film opens with a tease of it, showing us the world moments before, and shortly thereafter with the playground engulfed in an inferno.  It shows us what is at stake in Sarah Connor’s mind, the nightmare that she knows is coming.  Then, eventually, we see that dark reality that haunts her every moment of every day, and it is shocking beyond imagination.  Judgment Day is no longer an abstract concept to the audience, we see the near annihilation of humanity in a thermo-nuclear holocaust.  It is terrifyingly dark, but it motivates everything forward and sells the necessity of our heroes’ actions.  Overall, this is one of those great films that uses stunning and innovative special effects to tell a substantive story.  It doesn’t make itself all about the spectacle, it gives you something meaningful to invest yourself in, and then, blows you away with everything it achieves in every facet of filmmaking.

Terminator 2 is filled with some excellent action sequences that really drove the bar higher right near the outset of the 1990s, but kept it grounded with dramatic weight and peril.  There were plenty of big, over the top action movies, but this film gave you big, explosive action while maintaining the integrity of danger and drama.  The initial chase sequence down the storm drain has some awesome stunts and great tension.  The Cyberdyne building sequences are excellent as well with the Terminator unleashing the mini-gun and grenade launcher on the LAPD, or the showdown with the SWAT team.  All of the action in the film is exceptionally well done with some highly impressive stunt work and practical explosions.  Today, so much is done digitally that we don’t tend to see a lot of practical pyrotechnics or a real stuntman doing things not against a green screen.  Seeing all that done here just gives that extra sense of weight and realism to this film.

Brad Fiedel immensely improves on his score from the original giving it a wider, more epic orchestral style.  Watching the film this time, I swear I picked up on more cues that I hadn’t noticed before, and I didn’t even have the surround sound on.  I have owned this score on CD for longer than I can remember, and I clearly haven’t listened to it a long time.  This is terrific, gorgeous work all around.  The main theme is given its best rendition here over the opening credits, but Fiedel adds in many great themes and cues throughout.  The T-800 has a very metallic clanging theme while the T-1000 is given a more subversive, fluid sounding one highlighting the difference in styles of both Terminators.  Yet, the score soars during the most emotional parts of the film giving us the depth of humanity that is signature Cameron.

Terminator 2 is a beautifully shot, large scale film.  When I watch this, I constantly get the feeling of this is what an action blockbuster is meant to look like.  There’s just great camera work all over this film giving it a dramatic and cinematic visual beauty.  The strong blue tones really came to define a widely seen look in the early-to-mid 1990s, and it started here with some gorgeous cinematography by Adam Greenberg.  There are so many stunningly lit scenes that create beautiful mood and dramatic quality throughout.  Every single shot is composed masterfully and they each have a storytelling purpose.  Where the first film was a little rough edged and had an intense, raw energy to it, T2 is an epic scale film producing big, high quality shots while still pinpointing and highlighting the emotional depth of the story.  The action scenes are shot so amazingly well giving us strong dramatic moments, and maintaining a solid sense of geography amongst how it is shot and edited.  The most visually stunning sequence is indeed the steel mill climax with the beautiful use of vibrant blue and orange lighting.  It’s just great seeing that many of the same vital artists and filmmakers who worked on the first film were brought back for this sequel, and they had all evolved and improved upon their craft to such a marvelous degree.

I do very much like how James Cameron, again, takes a lot of the content from the first film, but presents it to us in a different context.  The role reversals of giving a lot of Kyle Reese’s dialogue to Arnold’s Terminator was a great idea that plays on the preconceptions of the audience, and to twist around the characters’ perceptions.  Even the T-1000 takes on some of the T-800’s dialogue from the first film in particular moments.  I think that gives everything a very intriguing quality of the presentation of the characters and the storytelling.  While the “I’ll be back” line doesn’t have quite as much dramatic impact in this film, it’s still used in a very telling way.  In most cases, these moments are cleverly done so to form a resonance with the audience.  They hit a familiar chord in the hearts or minds of the viewer, and they work really well.

However, if I have one major complaint, it’s that at a certain point it seems Cameron goes from paralleling events from the first film to almost outright remaking them.  There’s no need for the climax to mirror that of the first film with a car chase leading into a cat-and-mouse game in an industrial complex.  These are not poorly made sequences, but for me, they leave something to be desired, creatively speaking.  For this, and another reason, I feel the climax is a little less than it should be.  It feels like a retread of what we got the first time.  I really like the helicopter chase, but it is the tanker truck chase that feels like a lazy rehash.  I would have preferred a little more originality so we got something distinctly different instead of three successive chase sequences.  All of the necessary elements of the liquid nitrogen and the steel mill could still work with a little more innovative thinking to keep the ideas fresh.  The other reason that I feel the climax is lacking is that, after the first hour, the T-1000 almost becomes an ancillary part of the film’s plot.  The film becomes strongly and rightfully involved in the attempt to change the future by destroying Dyson’s research and any trace of the original Terminator’s technology.  It abandons the T-1000 for a lengthy period of time because he no longer is pertinent to where the plot is going, now.  The T-1000 has no thematic purpose in the story.  He’s just there to kill and nothing more.  The climax feels lacking to me because the movie has already dealt with its big plot points and thematic material, and now, it just needs to resolve the hanging thread of the other Terminator.  The film is about something thematic and poignant, but then, it just becomes about more action sequences until it has eliminated the T-1000 altogether.  Then, it gets back to the substance of the story.

This is not to say the climax is not good.  The fight between the two Terminators in the steel mill is really great.  Seeing the T-1000 using its morphing abilities to adapt and re-mold itself around the T-800’s attacks is awesome.  It creates a situation that the lower grade model is unable to sufficiently combat.  In terms of physical power, they are about matched, but the T-1000 can take more punishment because of its nature.  The T-800 cannot find anyway to physically damage this liquid metal advanced prototype, and this battle is great because of this dynamic.  Even though the T-1000 shows signs of malfunctions, he still proves to be a superior adversary that none of our heroes seem to stand a chance against.  If it weren’t for his malfunctions, he might very well have succeeded in his mission due to his cunning and mimetic abilities.  He never stops being a lethal threat, but is not indestructible.

The emotional conclusion to this film is powerful and unforgettable.  Never mind the obligatory action, what matters most is the journey these characters go on together which evolve them in ways they never could have imagined.  It’s also a tragic and sad end, but one that instills hope that no subsequent sequel was ever able to honor or live up to.  I am uncertain if I will get around to reviewing the other two sequels, but for the record, I thought Terminator 3 was a bad movie.  I wrote a review of it ten years ago, but I would prefer doing a fresh review.  However, I have no desire to actually watch that movie ever again.  Terminator: Salvation I did like quite a bit, and I do wish to revisit it.  So, you might see me jump straight to that one at some future point in time.  I will also say that the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles television series was excellent, even if it was unceremoniously canceled by Fox, and on the mother of all cliffhangers, no less.  This is why I no longer watch shows on Fox.

Anyway, do I really need a summation for this review?  I think I’ve hammered in all that is so great about Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Unlike modern day summer blockbusters, like from Michael Bay, that deliver on huge visual effects action, but lack even a halfway decent screenplay or even just a semblance of substance, T2 gives you all of that.  It delivers on every level giving you shots of adrenalin alongside a compelling, emotional, and epic story that is all about the characters.  This is the biggest grossing film of the franchise and in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career at over half a billion dollars.  Sometimes, the box office does reflect quality in a film, and that is surely the case with Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Thank you for enduring this very lengthy review, but for a film of this exceptional quality, there was no way I could boil it down any simpler.


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.


Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Star Wars - The Empire Strikes BackIt was an enormous task to make a second Star Wars movie.  To follow up that explosion of a success, that immense phenomenon must have been terribly challenging on so many levels.  What these filmmakers did with The Empire Strikes Back was a masterstroke of genius.  Instead of retreading the same tone, pace, action, and style of Star Wars, George Lucas and Irvin Kershner, along with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, chose to make this a film about character development and darker consequences as a second act in a trilogy.  Characters would mature, the dangers they faced were more dire, there would be heavy losses, and some major revelations would surface.  Whether it was the general consensus or not, I would still state that this is the best Star Wars film to date.

Despite the destruction of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance still flees from the might of the Galactic Empire to the remote, barren ice planet of Hoth.  There, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) receives a vision from a ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) to seek out Jedi Master Yoda on the planet Dagobah.  When the Empire finally locates the rebel’s base, an imperial assault drives them to evacuate in a crippling loss.  Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford) escapes with Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) aboard the Millennium Falcon, but with their hyperdrive damaged, they are forced to evade the Imperial fleet in an asteroid field.  Later, they seek sanctuary at the beautiful Cloud City from Han’s old gambling and smuggling buddy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).  Meanwhile, Luke begins his training with the wise and unexpected teacher in Yoda.  However, with the evil Lord Darth Vader vehemently intent on finding young Skywalker, Luke races to save his friends from a painful vision, against Yoda and Kenobi’s warnings of temptations of the Dark Side of The Force.  What awaits the Jedi-in-training is a startling revelation and great peril for him and his heroic friends.

I really like the reversal of structure on this film.  It starts out with the bigger adventure aspects, and the major battle between the Rebellion and the Empire.  Then, it descends into the more character driven aspects building towards very deep personal conflicts and resolutions.  It satisfies your expectations up front with some peril and fun, and proceeds to exceed them with a much more emotionally powerful storyline.  Where the first film had our heroes all gradually coming together for an adventure against a large scale threat, this one has them separate so to further explore their own personal journeys.  Ultimately, they come out of it wounded and changed.

The film really wastes no time in establishing the darker, more dangerous tone as Luke is attacked by a Wampa Ice Creature while on patrol.  It adds some well crafted fear and tension into the film.  This perilous sequence further builds the bonds of friendship between Han and Luke as Captain Solo risks his life to save his friend’s.  Luke’s ultimate escape from the creature’s cave gave us our first look at what The Force can do.  Before, it was mind tricks and a sort of second sight.  It was all very abstract and mystical, but when Luke uses The Force to pull his lightsaber to his hand to free himself, we see what that power can physically and practically do.  It’s a wondrous moment that sparks the magic of Star Wars.  Yet, the film shows us the true depth and nature of The Force when Luke seeks out Yoda, and brilliantly expands upon the vague ideas we got in the previous movie.  Yoda teaches him to change his perceptions in that the physical has no bearing on the potential of The Force, merely your will and clarity of mind are relevant.   Yoda shows Luke that it’s his own self-imposed perceptions and limitations that are the instruments of his own failures.  The tests Yoda puts him through are difficult ones that are meant to confront him with frightening truths of where his path may take him if he follows his impulses and passions.  Luke may have matured somewhat, but he still has an impatience and impulsive quality that puts him into danger.  He’s allowing his emotions to guide him without the wisdom or experience to temper those emotions.  It’s a fascinating journey that Luke takes in this film as he does begin to understand the philosophy of a Jedi, but the dire peril of his friends is something he cannot shake from his mind.  He knows it’s likely a trap, and is unprepared for what Lord Vader has in store for him.

The Battle of Hoth is excellently done giving us a land battle to contrast the space battles of the original Star Wars.  We see the rebels utilize some strategy in attempting to topple those awesome Imperial Walkers to buy time for the evacuation of Echo Base.  It’s a big, impressive, and exciting opening to this film that has Star Wars again showing us something that had never been seen before.  This sequence showcases the evolution in effects work by Industrial Light & Magic.  They really achieved something exceptional here, and continued to do so throughout the film.  They truly exceeded their own standards of excellence here.  The first Star Wars was groundbreaking in the realm of visual effects, and ILM was motivated to keep pushing the boundaries of what was possible.  The asteroid sequence is spectacular, as is so much from top to bottom here.  The Go-Motion effects with the Tauntauns remain excellent, and the model effects are still some of the most impressive in cinema history.  It is no wonder that this won a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the Academy Awards.  They, without a doubt, earned it with every new fantastic sequence of thrilling imagery.  And furthermore, the matte paintings are stunningly gorgeous, and are beautifully integrated into the rich visuals of the film.

The Empire is presented perfectly here.  The reveal of the fleet and the Super Star Destroyer creates a sense of scale and power to their presence.  To me, they feel like an even more formidable military force than they were in the previous film.  We have more troops, more ships, more personnel, and more resources, and their early victory over the Rebellion sets a tone of desperation and danger for our heroes.  Darth Vader himself is clearly unleashed in this film.  He’s not held back by Tarkin or the Emperor.  He’s assuming complete command over everything, and stops at nothing in attempting to crush the Rebellion and obtain what he wants.  There’s no one stopping him from Force choking Admirals, and promoting people to take their place, putting the fear of death into them to motivate their success.  Once the Emperor does endorse his quest to capture Luke Skywalker, Vader uses every resource at his disposal, such as the bounty hunters, and becomes an even more frightening threat.  This is a major part of why I think this is the best film of the franchise.  The villains are out in full force, not hiding behind protocol or deception, and showing their near ever-present might.  Nowhere else in the saga do the antagonists feel so hell-bent on crushing our heroes, and they’re nearly winning for most of the film.  It’s said that a hero is only as great as the enemy he faces, and this film shows us the vast scale and threat of the Empire like no other.  Our heroes are left with a steep failure to rise back up against for the next film.

I do like that, for all the darker tone and subject matter, the film never forgets to inject fun and humor at appropriate moments.  We still get the overly excited panic of C-3PO, the cute moments with R2-D2, and the humorous quips and sharp banter between the other heroes.  Even Yoda is given a nearly hilarious introduction into the film as he plays with Luke’s misconceptions, and has a playful time with him and his droid friend.  It’s all handled wonderfully to keep the film lively while never intruding upon the more dramatic and dire aspects of the film.  It’s a perfect balance, and it wouldn’t feel like Star Wars without it.

Speaking of Yoda, he proves to be an inspirational achievement.  I can definitely understand the apprehensions of the filmmakers in putting what was essentially a Muppet on film, and hoping it will come off as life-like.  However, with the amazing work of designer Stuart Freeborn and performer Frank Oz, this magical character came to stunning life.  Every word spoken had the weight and gravity of the most talented and credible actor behind it.  There are many subtle expressions worked into Yoda that further created a believable character that an audience never questioned the realism of.  This was all vitally important due to Yoda’s poignant role in the film in training Luke in the ways of the Jedi, and bestowing upon us the deeper ideals, wisdom, and philosophies of The Force.  Because of the brilliant work of all these fantastically talented effects masters and performers, he were treated to one of the most fascinating, insightful, and endearing characters of this saga.  We were previously intrigued by The Force, but I feel that Yoda truly made us believe in its power beyond all imagination.  He opened up our minds to its possibilities, and the potential it had within Luke.  Through Yoda, The Force was wondrously mystical and magical, and taught us the weight of commitment and responsibility to becoming a Jedi.  Everything that needed to be known about The Force was revealed to us in this film by a rubber puppet, and we never doubted it for an instant.  That is the magic of cinema.

The Empire Strikes Back is filled with some tight pacing and urgency.  The signature intercutting between storylines creates that great rhythm which keeps the film engaging without drawing any one scene out too much.  There’s almost always something interesting developing even if it’s not a rousing action sequence.  This is greatly helped by the expert, tight editing by Paul Hirsch.  He and director Irvin Kershner knew when to cut to the right angle, and when to let a shot play out.  And the film is shot so dramatically perfect with solid compositions and superb camera movements pushing in at the right moments and giving the film scope and scale with sweeping and subtle camera work.  Lighting is always excellent giving personality and mood where needed to the appropriate scenes.  Irvin Kershner really helped up the visual storytelling in The Empire Strikes Back, and the refined, polished quality enhances the overall picture immensely.  George Lucas was the executive producer and did have creative input, but he allowed Kershner to make the movie his own.  So, while it is generally Lucas’ story, this is Kershner’s film through and through.

This truly is an emotionally powerful film hitting us with a vast array of pain, fear, sorrow, heartbreak, and disturbing revelations and insights.  Our heroes are put through a maelstrom of hell in their journeys.  Luke learns the most from it on the most personal of levels which challenge him right down to his core.  I love seeing the maturity take form in Return of the Jedi showing that he has learned a great deal from these events, but he had to experience some terribly hard learned lessons.  Sometimes, we can only learn to commit ourselves to change when faced with the absolute worst of consequences, and that’s Luke’s journey here.

Even Han and Leia are faced with their own pain and heartache.  Their love for one another is apparent almost from the start.  They wouldn’t be so mad with one another if they didn’t care so much, but it takes a series of worsening pitfalls and dangers for them to begin to genuinely show that affection.  This is punctuated like a dagger through the heart in the Carbon Freezing Chamber scene where they have the most heartbreaking of parting words.  It is undoubtedly this moment, where we see the severe anguish on Leia’s face, that motivates Lando into taking action.  Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher have amazingly sharp chemistry in all their scenes together selling every nuance of Han and Leia’s relationship.  It’s a very emotionally natural progression of two characters who really did not like each other at first trying to hide their feelings through conflict, but their true emotions break further and further into the surface.  It is glorious work on both actors’ parts as well as Irvin Kershner’s detailed and masterful direction.

The returning cast shows a lot of growth.  Primarily, Mark Hamill matures with the character of Luke Skywalker.  He carries the heaviest weight in this film with a great deal of subtle emotions and deep rooted fears.  You feel the honest depth of Luke in Hamill’s performance as he struggles with his training, and the thread of fear that is ever present as he battles Darth Vader.  He tries to mask and control his fear, but he slowly realizes how outmatched he is as Vader gains the upper hand.  Hamill delves deep into a real well of pain and desperation by the end which really penetrates powerfully into an audience.  Mark Hamill was required to stretch his acting abilities much further than the first Star Wars film demanded, and he rose to the task admirably and successfully.  The wonder of Yoda is also sold through Hamill’s performance, and the urgency of the latter half of the film is driven by his remarkable acting.

We also get Harrison Ford maturing Han Solo as well.  He shows a lot more responsibility to himself and his friends, conveying respect to his fellow rebels, and leaving behind that “out for himself” arrogant attitude.  The more juvenile aspects only really show up in the heated moments when rash action is necessary, or when he’s arguing with Leia or 3PO.  However, when circumstances become more grim, Han shows that he is a far more matured character handling the situations with a lot of earnestness.  Ford probably puts in his best performance as Han Solo in this film because it has the most for him to work with between the romantic arc with Leia, the comic timing with Chewbacca and C-3PO, and dealing with the betrayal of Lando.  It was a strong and diverse spectrum for Ford to work with, and by no surprise, he achieved it with ease.

I truly love the addition of Lando Calrissian.  Where Han Solo was a very roguish outlaw, Lando’s a gambler.  He can come off as a legitimate businessman, but is able to manipulate people and events to his liking.  With Vader, he succumbs to the might of the Empire only until the stakes are too high where not acting is too costly of a choice to make.  Even with appearing in less than half the film, Lando has a strong character arc to traverse.  He tries to bargain everyone’s way out of a worse scenario while betraying his friends to the Empire, but as I said, when he sees the price of bowing to their demands, he shows who he is deep down inside by trying to save Han’s friends from a potentially terrible fate.  Billy Dee Williams puts in an excellent performance showing off Calrissian’s smooth charisma, but also reflecting the frustration and dire weight of Lando’s situation.  He walks the line of friend and adversary very masterfully.  Lando’s struggling with the effort to do right by everyone, and you can see that painful internal conflict play out in Billy Dee’s performance.

And of course, many fans would be remised if I did not make mention of Boba Fett.  The fascination with this bounty hunter really stems from something like Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name character.  A gritty, mysterious man who doesn’t speak much, but when he does, it carries a great deal of weight.  Fett is someone who only speaks when he has something important to say.  That creates intrigue.  It makes him standout because it creates a certain looming presence.  Also, the original voice for Fett provided by Jason Wingreen was absolutely perfect with its right amount of grit and vile attitude.  A voice can tell you a lot about a character’s personality, and get that with Wingreen’s voice work.  Additionally, Vader tells Boba Fett, specifically, “No disintegrations.”  That lays an air of ruthlessness on Fett, and smartly spotlights him amongst the other eclectic bounty hunters in that scene.  Plus, where everyone else has failed to capture Captain Solo and the Millennium Falcon, Fett succeeds using some subversive cunning of his own, which demonstrates the character’s intelligence.  He’s a subtly developed character that quickly builds that air of mystique around himself.  Furthermore, all of this is done without Fett ever having to fire a blaster.  He physically does very little in the movie, but it’s the results of his actions which count.  It surely helps that he, like Darth Vader, is hidden under a mask and armor.  It makes you wonder more about who he is.

I honestly believe this film features John Williams’ best work of the Star Wars saga.  With the more character driven story, he is given a broader canvas to work with, and to create a more diverse and powerful score.  The beautiful compositions pull at the heartstrings making one feel the immense weight of emotion throughout the film.  Every moment of magical wonder, ominous threat, romantic richness, and rousing excitement is lushly and gorgeously on display in every note he commits to this score.  “The Imperial March” is the most notable debut here creating a militaristic musical presence for the oppressive Galactic Empire, and is one of my absolute favorites.  However, Leia’s theme gets a sweeping enhancement accentuating the film’s romantic feelings.  I own the scores for all six films on CD, but this is the one I listen to most often because of its wider breadth of artistry and cinematic beauty.

The Empire Strikes Back also showcases a lot of great imagination in its production design.  It’s great seeing the scope of the Echo Base hangar with the full size X-Wings and Millennium Falcon there along with various other Rebel Alliance vehicles.  The integration of the ice caverns into the technology of the base is done with a lot of attention to detail for an interesting visual aesthetic.  However, the most notable environments are the swamps of Dagobah and the immaculate Cloud City of Bespin.  Yoda’s adopted home gives us a location full of lush life where one would imagine that The Force is very strong here, as life is what creates it and allows it to grow.  This was all created on a soundstage, and that is just a fantastic accomplishment.  This makes me think why the same effect of depth and all encompassing realism couldn’t have been achieved for the Genesis Planet sequences in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.  In that film, similar environments were created on a soundstage, and are blatantly obvious as being set on a soundstage.  Here, Dagobah looks and feels like a wholly authentic environment.  Never does it feel like a fabricated set.  That’s the immense care and hard work that were put into these films by exhaustive crews and talented artists.

Still, it is Cloud City that is my favorite Star Wars environment.  I’ve never seen another design in science fiction quite like it.  The rounded buildings and corridors with their subtly textured stark white walls give us a very picturesque locale.  It also feels like something elegant and futuristic that would come out of the era of 1980.  It feels like a peaceful city, and is surely a new, unique, and welcoming world to visit.  However, once things turn ill for our heroes, we are plunged deeper into the more industrial bowels of the city where it just gets darker and darker both literally and figuratively.  I think the overall design is beautifully inspired, and I am so glad to own the book The Art of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.  I fond memories of reading through this gorgeous large format book, and being inspired by the designs and matte paintings.  It made me want to run home and watch the movie that night.

While there is not as much action here as there was in the first Star Wars, there is no shortage of imagination.  I absolutely love the asteroid chase sequence as the Millennium Falcon weaves its way through this near certain death trap to evade the forces of the Empire.  John Williams’ score in this sequence is another one of my favorites which reflects both the rousing adventure aspect and the high tension and danger of it.  What Han does after escaping the asteroid field to further elude the Empire is ingenious, and perfectly on-the-mark for Solo’s craftiness.  It shows his intelligence and sharp thinking that define the cunningness of his character.

The entire climax is just brilliant all the way through.  Lando, Leia, Chewie, and the droids escaping Cloud City is wholly exciting giving us some fun and dramatic beats along the way, but ultimately, a sense of elation as they fly away on the Millennium Falcon.  However, it is the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader that is the centerpiece of the film.  The dark tone reaches its pinnacle in the shadowy, smoky Carbon Freezing Chamber where their duel begins with a chilling line from Vader, “The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi, yet.”  That dark environment, with its moody orange and blue lighting, establishes an ominous, foreboding atmosphere that is only heightened in the latter two parts of their escalating duel.  While it was never clear in the context of the film, after seeing a schematic of Cloud City, I could see that Luke actually does descend further and further into the depths of the city until he literally falls out the underside of it.  That descent is such a perfect metaphor for what is actually happening to Luke in this battle with Vader.  For the first two sections, it’s Vader testing Luke, seeing how proficient and resourceful he is.  He wants to be able to inform the Emperor of how advanced Skywalker is in his training, and how susceptible he is to the Dark Side.  However, the final part on the gantry is Vader letting loose entirely, and we see how truly outmatched Luke is against the dangerously aggressive Dark Lord.  Here is where Luke pays the price for rushing headlong into this confrontation without the proper training.  Yet, the action is not the ultimate pay-off.  The legendary and climactic revelation in this scene is shocking, and I’m sure, back in 1980, this left audiences stunned and in disbelief.  Mark Hamill’s acting in this scene is intense, and couldn’t be more perfect.  It’s a culmination of all the emotional trials he has battled through this entire film, and it hits him with all the dread in the universe.  It creates that final emotional stinger which carries the momentum of dire peril through to the film’s end, and leaves an audience in suspense for the resolution of everything in Return of the Jedi.

The Empire Strikes Back is an absolute masterpiece of cinema, in my honest opinion.  I would not change a single frame from the original theatrical release, period.  The late director Irvin Kershner did a marvelous job focusing this film so tightly and strongly on the characters, making their development the core of the story without losing what makes Star Wars entertaining and rich.  All that was crafted for this film from the screenwriters to Kershner’s input, made this not a sequel, but a second act in a trilogy.  That opened up the possibilities far wider allowing for growth to occur, and consequences to be faced that would require a final chapter to resolve fully.  The characters are hurt physically and emotionally, but also, they learn a great deal from their defeats.  The film may have a down ending, but that final scene where everyone is gathered back together, mending their wounds and setting plans to rescue Han, leaves an audience with hope that they will return for further heroics and redeem their losses.  As time has gone on, my choice for favorite film of the saga has shifted from the original Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back due to the depth of character, emotion, and consequence in the story.  Even more so now, I can vastly appreciate the level of filmmaking artistry and talent on display here from all involved, and it should be always heralded as one of the finest works of cinema.


Fire in the Sky (1993)

Fire in the SkyIt’s unusual to review a movie of this sort.  Fire in the Sky is based on a true story of alien abduction.  I know there are skeptics out there about this sort of thing, understandably so, and my stance is that I’m willing to believe, same as with the paranormal.  I can’t apply the same approach to a film of this sort, talking about characters like they’re fictional creations, or how clever the story is conceived and executed.  This is about how well the reality of these peoples’ lives are conveyed on screen, and the quality in which these events are portrayed.  What we have here is a great, solid movie that I really should have watched a lot more over the years.  I first saw it as a VHS rental back in the late 1990s.  I owned the DVDs for probably five or six years before I actually watched it.  So, I can accurately say that for this review, I watched Fire in the Sky for the third time, ever.

Six men saw it.  One man became a prisoner inside it.  But who would believe them?  In 1975, logger Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) and his co-workers discovered a hovering UFO.  Walton’s pals fled, but Walton was not so fortunate.  Whisked aboard the strange craft, he was subjected to a painful, unearthly medical study.  This is the amazing tale of that ordeal, and of the contempt and ridicule endured by his co-workers as they try to explain Walton’s mysterious disappearance.  Skilled investigator Frank Watters (James Garner) suspects their story may be a murder cover-up, but these men, led by Travis’ best friend Mike Rogers (Robert Patrick), stand by the extraordinary events they recount.  When Walton is returned in a severe traumatic state, questions become even more fantastical with the answers being more disturbing than they could imagine.

This film is smartly structured starting out with the aftermath of the abduction, and then, having Rogers and the other loggers fill in the story with their own words.  Everything that is shown about Travis pre-abduction is done in lengthy flashback, and I feel that was the perfect way to start out the movie and present Travis – show him through the eyes of his best friend.  This also presents the idea of witness accounts showing us the story from a subjective point of view, and sets up the real life oppositions these men had to face from their fellow townsfolk.  Next to no one would believe such a wildly fantastical story, and the police would surely look for criminal motives for Travis’ disappearance.  They have to fight for every ounce of credibility they can get, and the film takes us on that journey while focusing very deeply on their emotional turmoil.

D.B. Sweeney does a wonderful job in these flashback scenes showcasing a very lively, fun, and enthusiastic young man full of aspirations.  He’s clearly the brightest personality amongst these men with the biggest heart.  Showing the audience these substantive glimpses into Travis makes the impact of his traumatic abduction all the more terrifying and disturbing.  The abduction scene itself is frightening, and still gave me choked up chills.  This is a credit to the realistic, grounded, and textured nature of the film.  Director Robert Lieberman makes the danger feel paralyzingly real, and gives the film honest, emotional weight.

The last time I watched Fire in the Sky I made a note reminding me of just how great of an actor Robert Patrick is.  He really is the lead for most of the movie holding the weight of emotion on his shoulders, and doing so in masterful fashion.  The absolute depth of pain and fear is soaked into every fiber of his performance with his eyes selling so much.  Patrick is both very sympathetic as well as full of conviction and fire.  As Mike Rogers, he is both a confident, passionate leader and a man dealing with his own internal fears and grief.  There is so much humanity and strength in what he does here that this should stand as one of Patrick’s best performances.  He genuinely made me feel every emotion that he poured out of his soul, and it was a very wide and complex range of humanity offered by him.  It is only a shame that the only accolades he was offered for this film was a Saturn Award nomination.  He clearly deserves a lot more notoriety for having this level of talent.

This film is also packed with a strong supporting cast.  James Garner puts in a very solid performance as the consummate investigator Frank Watters.  You can sense the fair and just manner of Watters from everything Garner does on-screen.  He never jumps to conclusions or to condemn these men.  Even at the end, he’s not convinced of what they all say is the truth as the evidence is simply not there for him to make a conclusion.  He’s simply willing to wait and see.  Peter Berg and Henry Thomas greatly portray two of Travis’ friends, David Whitlock and Greg Hayes, both with their shaken qualities.  Yet, both actors showcase strength where needed to show that these men were standing by their statements.  Craig Sheffer has a surprisingly excellent turn as Allan Dallis, one of the loggers who has a bad attitude and doesn’t get along with anyone.  I’ve only seen Sheffer in some really poor Dimension Films direct-to-video sequels, and has never impressed me before now.  I think he did a very solid job making Dallis a very strong element in this story as a sort of wild card in the mix.  Dallis almost went out of his way to make it known he didn’t like Travis, and Sheffer’s performance really brings that friction and tension to the forefront.  Lastly, Noble Willingham fits very comfortably into the role of the local Sheriff Blake Davis bringing a trusted, honest, firm quality.  Overall, every performance feels very authentic with both obvious and subtle depth throughout.

In the latter third of the film, when Travis Walton does return, he’s in a terribly traumatized state with Sweeney putting in a great performance.  The lively young man that he once was has been entirely eviscerated leaving only a shell of a man behind.  This abduction experience forges a hard, deep wedge between Travis and Mike.  Travis is so traumatized that he resents Mike for running away from the scene of the abduction instead of helping him when he had the chance.  Unfortunately, this aspect is not given much screentime as the film shifts its focus deeply towards Travis’ struggles.  I certainly would’ve liked to have seen that strained friendship drama play out more to see how hard it truly hit Mike, and the process of how it damaged his life.  Fortunately, the film doesn’t forget about this as it is given its proper due by the end remembering that it is the people and their lives that mean the most here.

When we are finally shown what Travis Walton experienced during those five days, it is the most visceral and terrifying alien abduction sequence ever committed to film.  The production design is stunning like something out of your most dreadful nightmare with its surreal qualities and purely absorbing, grim reality.  It is something that would leave you scared out of your mind, and leave you never being the same person you once were, if you experienced it in reality.  This is a very elaborate and long sequence that will freak you out down to your very core.  This is possibly the most paralyzing sequence I’ve ever seen in a film.  Even after it ended, it took me a minute or so to ease myself out of it.  To even consider that this might have actually happened to another human being is unfathomable.  Industrial Light & Magic did an unspeakably remarkable job on this entire sequence.  The aliens themselves are so finely detailed and textured that you’d swear they were real, and this adds further to how visceral this all is on film.  It is stunning work down to the smallest nuanc.  So much so that this deserved special awards recognition at the time as well, but sadly, received none.  Of course, it’s very little in terms of visual effects as it is an overall collective work of production design, cinematography, physical effects, animatronics, sound design, and music that made this sequence so chillingly effective.

And of course, the cinematography is damn good all the way through.  Bill Pope and director Robert Lieberman clearly worked very hard to create a look for Fire in the Sky that was firmly grounded in reality.  There is such texture and weight to every shot to maintain that solid grip on the fact that this is based on a true story, and directly avoid injecting even the smallest sense of fantasy into this.  I know that sounds a little peculiar due to the alien abduction nature of the story, but even that feels shockingly real down to the grittiest of details.  This film is shot exceptionally well with wonderful angles and compositions which complement the dramatic scope of the story, both internal and external.  In all technical qualities, this is a superbly executed film made by a very solid crew of creative forces.

Now, the thing that tends to make films based off of true events different than fictional films is that there’s rarely a traditional conclusion to them.  The lives of these people continue on, and not everyone gains closure from what is documented in the movie.  So, there’s only so much of a complete story the film can offer.  Thus, Fire in the Sky is more focused on the people involved instead of a traditional three-act structured plot.  I’m sure there were a few tweaks to reality, such as the filmmakers reducing the number of loggers from seven to six for ease of storytelling, but I’m sure the human emotion of what happened remained very much intact and accurate.  Also, unlike many true stories, this one still requires the audience to believe in something they may not be inclined to believe in terms of extraterrestrial life.  However, even if you are not a believer, there is still a very strong, human story to experience in Fire in the Sky.

This is an amazingly effective and masterfully executed movie that brings more impactful reality to an alien abduction story than I’ve ever witnessed on film.  A viewing is highly worth it for two things  – Robert Patrick’s deeply emotional performance and the entire terrifying sequence aboard the alien spacecraft.  Even the film’s trailer is scary featuring only brief glimpses of that sequence along with a very foreboding voice over.  Ultimately, this is a hell of a great movie that is definitely worth your time, if this genre is your thing.  Again, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Mike Rogers in the aftermath of Travis’ traumatic return to give their reconciliation more pay-off, and to follow through on how this entire experience affected Mike, in detail.  Still, what we are given is solid, fascinating, and disturbing.  Fire in the Sky is a unique film that surely deserves more credit than time has seen fit to grant it, and I hope my words of praise here will help a little in that regard.


Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Transformers The MovieOutside of Star Wars, this is the film I grew up on, and loved with a severe passion.  I never owned the VHS as a child.  It was only by renting it incessantly over many, many years that I ever got to see it after the theatres.  My dad actually took me to see this in 1986 at the discount theatre that actually closed down about a decade ago, much to my dismay.  There were countless wonderful memories at that theatre in addition to the video arcade across the way in that mall.  In the late 90s, I found a Canadian website selling new VHS tapes of the movie featuring the American version, and with the help of a friend, I was able to purchase it. I prized this tape, and you couldn’t imagine how excited I was when I happened upon a DVD release of it years later.  So, what is it about this movie that has kept it a beloved favorite of mine for more than a quarter of a century?  Read on and find out!

It is the year 2005, and the battle between the heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron, has escalated all the way to their home planet of Cybertron, which the Decepticons have reclaimed.  The Autobots secretly plan to retake the planet from secret outposts, but the Decepticons move to thwart their efforts by waging a full-on assault against Autobot City on Earth.  Here, a new generation of heroic Autobots stand ready to fight including the young, impulsive Hot Rod, the consummate soldier Ultra Magnus, the elderly war veteran Kup, the compassionate Arcee, the triple changing Springer, and many more.  However, a greater threat to them all looms closer in the form of the evil entity known as Unicron, who’s ready to consume anything that stands in its way, but the only thing that he fears is the Autobot Matrix of Leadership.  Along the way, lives are lost, battles are fought, an old enemy is re-forged by Unicron, and a new Autobot leader is born as another dies.

This movie really was the pinnacle of any six year’s old life at the time.  You had a big, epic story with huge consequences, and the most climactic final confrontation between the heroic Optimus Prime and the vile Megatron.  To me, this was bigger than Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, bigger than anything else on the planet!  Prime was the ultimate John Wayne style hero, always sticking to his principles and morality, but able to throw down with the best of them.  Megatron was the most deceitful, ruthless villain around, and after two seasons of the television series, you finally got to see them collide like never before.  The movie was even marketed as showcasing their final battle, and it did not disappoint.  It starts with Prime proclaiming that, “Megatron must be stopped.  No matter the cost,” and then, proceeds to plow down and blast away a whole slew of Decepticons.  It firmly establishes that Optimus is a real bad ass worth rooting for.  This is the big hero of the Autobots, and anyone who gets in his way has got a real problem.  The fight between Megatron and Prime is them putting it all out on the line, and it couldn’t be more climactic.  It’s also an awesome looking sequence with great dramatic angles, and an awesome Stan Bush song backing it up.  Then, it ends on a wholly unexpected note.  The filmmakers really hit you for a big one in more ways than one.  Optimus Prime dies.  However, it happens within the first third of the film creating a sense of ultimate peril for everyone.  If Optimus Prime can perish in this movie, then, nobody at all is safe, and even before this, the Deceptions slaughter an entire ship of Autobots in fairly graphic fashion.  This film tells you just about from the start that it’s taking no prisoners, and the danger is real and imminent.  This creates huge odds for the surviving Autobots to overcome, especially in the face of Unicron.

With so many of the classic characters dying, the movie introduces us to a group of new Autobots which hooked me in immediately.  I loved Hot Rod, and was really behind him all the way through the story.  Judd Nelson did a great job voicing him giving the young, brash Autobot a lot of charm, charisma, energy, and humor.  Yet, where it counted, Hot Rod was heroic, and did show some depth to really rise up and come into his own.  The weathered and seasoned warrior Kup is given great texture by Lionel Stander making him a fun character with his incessant war stories, but also striking a good chemistry with Nelson’s Hot Rod.  The older mentor and the young hero is nothing new, but here, it feels like these two were friends more than teacher and student, which makes for a fun pairing.

Springer feels like a solid lieutenant in the Autobot ranks as the reliable, capable soldier, and has strong characterization with dashes of levity.  And you can say what you will about Ultra Magnus.  He’s certainly not the inspiring leader that Optimus was, but he was voiced by the late, great Robert Stack.  Being an old school Unsolved Mysteries fan, I could never slight Mr. Stack’s performance.  He does give Ultra Magnus some humanity and a steady confidence, but I think, by design, the filmmakers didn’t want Magnus living up to Optimus’ stature.  This becomes apparent by the film’s end.

The villains are given some new life with two impressive names added to the cast.  First, there is Leonard Nimoy voicing Galvatron in amazing fashion giving the new Deception leader an even more vicious streak than he had as Megatron.  After his brutal fight with Optimus Prime, Megatron is recreated as this far more powerful Galvatron, and that injects a far more menacing and cutthroat villain into the story.  Nimoy pushed his voice into a deeper, more guttural place for this performance, and it really served the character beautifully.  Galvatron is Megatron pushed to the next level, and I really love that idea.  However, the real major name involved here is Orson Welles as Unicron.  This was actually the legendary filmmaker’s final performance.  His heart attack death occurred five days after finishing this voice work.  Reportedly, Welles was pleased do the job stating an admiration for animated films.  While Welles could be an intimidating man, I’ve seen interviews of him being very friendly, humble, and enjoyable.  Still, that voice was gold, and there were not many actors who could’ve naturally given such a booming, massive presence to Unicron’s voice as Welles did.

With all these great characters, old and new, we are given endlessly quotable dialogue.  Nary a scene goes by without a great line being said which became a classic amongst fans.  These range from the dramatic to the comedic, and are all executed perfectly by this great voice cast.  They really deserve a vast amount of credit for inhabiting the personalities of their characters, and meshing so well together.  It sounds like every single one of them gave it their all, and likely had a real fun time working on this animated movie.  The regular cast of voice actors maintain their usual high standards, especially Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, among others.  The Dinobots are especially funny while still remaining formidable.  This is some very exceptional casting and voice directing in my opinion.

What really strikes me about the movie today is how briskly paced it is.  There is nary a slow point in the whole thing, and at 84 minutes long, one could hardly expect one.  Surely, these days, I would’ve loved to have seen it reach a full 90 minutes because that third act really hits you before you know it.  Regardless, the steady pace and rhythm of the movie creates so much excitement and fun.  There is no shortage of action, and any scenes of exposition are very succinct.  The regular progression of the story taking our heroes to new worlds and environments keeps it interesting.  Both the planet of Junk and of the Quintessons are dangerous in their own unique ways with great visual designs.  They give the film scope that was rarely offered on the television series.  Everything about this movie is amped up substantially from the episodic cartoon, and the action is no exception.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie, animated or live action, jam pack this much stellar and original action into such a compact run time while still maintaining such a rich sense of character and competency in its plot.  There’s so much energy pulsating through this movie it’s almost unreal, and it never becomes a mess.  Screenwriter Ron Friedman did a rather admirable job on this script, and it was put into the right hands to make it a reality.

Now, granted, there’s hardly a major through-line plot for our heroes.  In the most part, the Autobots are just trying to survive every new threat that surfaces in their path while Unicron sort of looms over everything in the background.  The action really just pushes them along from one dire scenario to the next until they must confront Unicron.  These are adventures which have the heroes proving their merit to the audience more than to each other.  It’s about us learning about the characters, and coming to care about them instead of developing them at length.  Transformers: The Movie doesn’t have the character growth or thematic exploration of something like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, but for what it is meant to be, a fun and exciting animated movie for kids, I think it is rather exceptional.  It doesn’t go much into heavy subject matter, save for the deaths early on, but it doesn’t treat its young audience as stupid.  It’s a smartly written story that keeps it simple enough to follow, but exciting enough to keep it interesting.  This is definitely a film that can be entertaining from the age of six all the way through to thirty-two.

One thing that strongly helps in that aspect is that the animation style is still amazing to my eyes today.  At the time of the film’s release, it was a style and quality not previously seen by mainstream American audiences.  The detail, shading, and dramatic, epic imagery created a vast cinematic visual impact.  The film remained vibrant and colorful despite having some very dark moments, and could have real moments of beauty.  While there are occasional animation gaffes and shots of lower grade artwork, on the whole, the artistry on display is really stunning adding a sense of edge and texture to everything never before given to the cartoon series.  This feels like a major motion picture event, and in comparison to the series, you can clearly see the vast amount of time and hard work put into the visual quality of this movie.

Probably the biggest thing that kept the film alive in my mind and heart between rentals was the amazing rock soundtrack!  I cherished that audio cassette for over a decade.  I made the vow to myself that when the tape eventually broke, I would buy the CD immediately, and that’s exactly what happened.  Most of these acts were generally unknowns like Lion, N.R.G., and Kick Axe (who were credited as Spectre General by decree of the record company), but contributed very solid songs that gave a lot of hard and heavy excitement to the film.  Of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic was quite well known at the time.  He contributed his quirky track “Dare to be Stupid,” which fit the catch-phrase referencing Junkions perfectly.  Stan Bush’s tracks have probably become the biggest hits amongst fans with the driving rock rhythm of “Dare,” and the inspirational “The Touch.”  The latter is a song that has come to really be able to pull me through into a stronger, more determined mindset when I’m feeling down.  It pushes me back up on my feet, and it does much the same within the context of the movie highlighting the biggest standing tall moment for our main heroes.  This is one of my favorite soundtracks ever, and it is only enhanced further by Vince DiCola’s very dynamic, electronic style score.

The climax of Transformers: The Movie is just flat out amazing!  I like the intercutting between the battle outside of Unicron as he fends off the attacks from Cybertron, and the multiple stories going on inside of him.  However, it hits its great crescendo in glorious fashion when the Autobot Matrix of Leadership comes into the right hands, and signals a new era for the Autobots.  The movie is filled with great, iconic moments such as this, but few as great as this.  In retrospect, it’s only a shame that the movie ends so quickly after this, but I suppose, in that regard, it’s a film that leaves you wanting more.  That’s rarely a bad thing, and it’s far better than overstaying its welcome or leaving itself open for any letdowns after such a great climax.

Despite the efforts of Michael Bay, this still remains the absolute best Transformers movie in existence.  It features a tight, exciting, and heroic story centered on the Autobots and Decepticons themselves that is vibrant as well as genuinely funny and entertaining for the whole family.  Of course, most versions contain a swear word or two that are surprising they made it into the PG rated film in 1986, but for fans, they wouldn’t want the movie any other way.  This 1986 movie treats its characters with respect and integrity, and gives many of them poignant weight at their most pivotal moments.  The new characters are just as exciting and colorful as the classic ones, and they give the film a real boost of energy and sense of discovery.  You’re going along for the ride with them as they rise to the epic task before them.  As I said, I was hooked in with Hot Rod from the start, and unlike many who saw the film as a kid, I actually didn’t cry during Optimus Prime’s death scene.  It’s unheard of, I know, but I was just enjoying the living hell of this movie.  At one time, I definitely would have listed this as my favorite movie of all time, and it is still among my favorites, as this review has undoubtedly shown.  While the film bombed at the box office, it has gained immense popularity throughout the fan base, and remains a major high point in the franchise.  All around, this is just a wildly fun movie that I will never get tired of.  While the television series doesn’t hold up nearly as well, this movie feels damn near timeless to me, and I don’t believe I am alone in that feeling.


Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Star Trek VI The Undiscovered CountryI have heard a few extensive reviews of Star Trek VI in recent times, all of which praising it glowingly with nary a blemish.  This is definitely one of the better films of the franchise, and the first Star Trek movie I ever saw, on cable no less.  It used to be my favorite, but over time I’ve come to feel as if this film lacks a certain something to get it all the way to greatness.  I certainly know what that is, but let’s give you a plot first before I share that with you.

On their way home from their first assignment, the U.S.S. Excelsior, now at the command of Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), monitors a massive explosion on the Klingon moon Praxis, the Empire’s key energy production facility.  This incident signals an eventual crippling of the Klingon Empire within fifty years, and thus, motivates a push towards peace between the Federation and the Klingons, championed by Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner).  Starfleet orders the U.S.S. Enterprise to escort the Klingon Chancellor to a peace conference on Earth.  This does not sit well for Captain Kirk (William Shatner) who is vocally opposed to the idea of peace for many personal reasons, not the least of which being the murder of his son by the Klingons.  However, despite his efforts to support the peace initiative, the hope for it is soon crushed when the Chancellor’s ship is fired upon and Gorkon himself is assassinated.  A malicious conspiracy becomes evident as all evidence supports that the photon torpedoes and assassins originated from the Enterprise.  Meanwhile, Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy are arrested and convicted for the crime, and banished to the frozen penal asteroid of Rura Penthe.  Now, the crew of the Enterprise must expose this plot, and rescue their comrades before all hope for peace in the galaxy is destroyed.

Before I actually point out the shortcomings of the film, I think it’s fair to detail a few behind-the-scenes points first.  Mainly, this film was rushed, to an extent.  Paramount Pictures wanted this out to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Star Trek, and it just made it with a late December, 1991 release.  So, the filmmakers didn’t have an abundant freedom of time to really develop this film fully, but this is not some train wreck where you can tell things were slap dashed together.  This is quite a well-made and conceived movie.  I merely say that if they had the luxury of no forced deadline, perhaps a few of my concerns with the script could have been resolved.  They are not glaring issues, but ones that I feel take away from the potential of the movie which require some in-depth analysis.

Let me also say that there is plenty of greatness in this film.  The ideas of prejudice and the struggles of overcoming those feelings for the cause of peace are very relevant.  This film was made at the time of the fall of Soviet Russia and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.  So, our world was going through a change of perspective and socio-political ideals.  The Klingons here were essentially Soviet Russia, and Praxis was an obvious allegory for Chernobyl.  This was a necessary story to be told considering that the Federation and the Klingon Empire became allies by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I feel this story was handled very well, in general.  For both sides, who had gotten used to hating one another, to finally have to reach an accord of peace and allegiance would not be easy at all.  Kirk is portrayed excellently in this story with him having to overcome his prejudice from the murder of his son David by Klingon hands and a life full of distrust towards them.  He truly goes through an arc that re-instills the outlook of hope and humanity that Star Trek has always strived for.

This film also rebounds amazingly well from the poorly executed and conceived Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  The serious tone is brought back with very solid and respectable performances by the entire cast.  Every regular cast member is given some forefront time, and I love the exchanges between Spock and McCoy in the climax.  Spock asks if McCoy would assist him with surgery on a torpedo, and McCoy responds with, “Fascinating.”  It’s a nice sly piece of dialogue that shows the respect and camaraderie between two characters that have not always seen eye-to-eye.  It’s also a treat to have seen Sulu be promoted to Captain, and given command of the U.S.S. Excelsior.  I like that Scotty gives praise to the ship now because of its captain when he was ragging on it back in The Search For Spock.  It’s another subtle show of growth for these characters, and the cast embodies those moments beautifully.

Now, there have been extended cuts of the film released on home video, and each cut of the film has their advantages.  The original theatrical version is quickly paced punctuating some dramatic beats a little better, but the extended versions make the film feel a little fuller.  The extra scenes don’t amount to too much with characters or plot, but sometimes, it helps to draw sections of a film out for more prolonged build up, such as going into Kirk & McCoy’s trial.  The pacing of the film in any incarnation is quite consistent, even if it is rather gradual.  What the film really lacks is a sustained sense of urgency.  I believe this stems from the fact that no one knows who the villains are until the final thirty minutes or so of the movie.  If the villains either don’t have a sustained presence in the film to maintain a threat level, or you don’t have them actually doing anything in opposition to the protagonists, you lose urgency in the plot.  The mystery plot isn’t enough without the dramatic pressure of active villainy going on around it.

Since Nicholas Meyer also directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I feel it’s appropriate to draw a comparison to that film.  In Star Trek II, the film was able to establish its villain in Khan and build him up as a substantial threat, and continually cut back to him to keep tension and suspense present throughout most of the movie.  As long as Khan was out there plotting his next move, there was a near constant sense of unease and immediacy throughout the film.  In Star Trek VI, the villains are completely hidden from us during the vast majority of the runtime.  There is surely an adversarial quality to General Chang, but all the way up to and through the trial, he’s never seen acting outside the bounds and expectations of his military position.  He’s not an overt villain until he’s revealed to be one until the end of the second act.  And while this film has the same general runtime as Wrath of Khan, it feels much slower and thinner.  There’s not all that much developing in the plot to build up momentum or create dramatic tension.

Since there is no urgency, there’s also an extreme lack of action and excitement in the film.  It would’ve helped to put more dramatic pressure on the crew of the Enterprise to uncover the evidence in their investigation either by way of a time constraint or consequence.  While Starfleet keeps demanding they return to Space Dock, it’s really a hollow plot device since there are no consequences or conflict involved with them constantly making up excuses to not return home.  It would’ve added a sense of urgency if there was more risk put upon them for disobeying orders, such as in The Search For Spock.  Even when the Enterprise infiltrates Klingon space to rescue Kirk and McCoy, there’s no real threat to contend with.  Throughout Star Trek, we’ve always seen Klingon ships patrolling the Neutral Zone border, protecting their Empire, but the Enterprise whisks in and only needs to fool some lowly Klingon at a patrol station with clearly the most primitive sensors around since they cannot even identify what ship it is detecting.  It doesn’t help that the entire scene is done humorously.  If it was handled as a tense and serious situation where they had to evade and strategically slip passed Klingon ships during their rescue mission, it would have, again, created urgency.

Tying into this is the lack of impact with the conspiracy and mystery.  Aside from one character who was briefly featured in The Voyage Home, none of the conspirators are anyone of note or poignancy to an audience.  They are just one-off characters that either don’t matter or are of no surprise that they are villainous.  The mystery of discovering who the assassins are has a strong setup, but eventually falls flat due a lack of tension.  The crew knows that treasonous murderers are on board, but no one ever feels a sense of unease aboard the Enterprise.  No one worries that two assassins are lurking on their ship capable of further ill-doings.  The assassins themselves are also throwaway, nobody characters.  Aside from Chang, there’s no real time spent with most of these characters to build them up one way or another to give their role in this conspiracy any weight.  In most part, they could have been just about anyone and it wouldn’t have made any difference.  It’s surely an aspect of this script that could’ve used a lot more work to integrate some character development and substance into this revelation.  I could’ve seen a plot like this working nicely during a season long arc on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where the writers could take their time to build up numerous characters in twisting arcs, and have a startling reveal later on.  In a 110 minute movie where relatively very little time is spent with anyone but the regular cast, it’s not likely to work out very well.

My other main bother with the film is the portrayal of the Klingons.  While the very honorable Next Generation Klingons could get tiresome and stereotypical after several years of overly treaded concepts, this film was made right at the strong suit of that portrayal.  While it had room for flexibility and expansion, these Klingons, in general, appear to have little substance or texture to invest any interest in.  Firstly, their uniforms had long been set in place as very hard and metallic, but here, most of the Klingons are wearing very soft, padded outfits which take away a lot of their visual edge.  It’s the only appearance of these outfits that I know of, and it doesn’t suit this aggressive alien race that has always been very vocally opposed to softness and comfort.  They are a harsh race never indulging in luxuries, but that ideal is not supported by this costume design.  Their attitudes are also watered down somewhat.  We already had the cunning and verbose Commander Kruge, the outspoken and aggressive Klingon Ambassador from The Voyage Home, and the rather brash and hard-headed Captain Klaa generally establishing the attitude and personalities of Klingons in this time period.  However, The Undiscovered Country simply tones them down far too much for my taste.  The bold and intimidating qualities which have made them such a great fan favorite are generally evaporated.  The fierce, proud warrior isn’t there.  While they are mostly political officers, I would expect more conviction and assertiveness in these portrayals.  Furthermore, the Klingon make-up is scaled back severely.  At this time, the great Michael Westmore was heading up all of the special make-up effects work and designs on The Next Generation, and the special make-up results here would’ve been far better if the filmmakers had employed his talents.  The vast majority of the alien prosthetics lack a sense of fine detail or organic feel to give them a sense of life and texture.  The Klingon forehead ridges are all too smooth and toned down.  They mostly appear rather obviously fake and rubbery.  It further adds to the out of place feel of these Klingons.  They simply do not fit into what had come before or after in the chronology of the franchise.  At times, they seem like a cheap imitation of a Klingon.  Gene Roddenberry himself was displeased that the Klingons came off as generic villains with no exploration of their society or cultural viewpoints, and Leonard Nimoy later agreed with him after the film’s release.  I agree with him as well.  Time has shown the vast potential of exploration for the Klingon culture, and I think not caring to acknowledge that here results in a very flat and uninteresting presentation of the Klingons, in general.

Now, I do very much like what Christopher Plummer did as General Chang, who is a distinct exception to my Klingon gripes in this film.  Right from his first moments, you can tell that he is someone to contend with.  He’s a definite skilled warrior with an intimidating quality.  He doesn’t give into hostility, instead he projects a patient and cunning demeanor.  Plummer works excellently in the trial sequence prosecuting Kirk and McCoy with great zeal.  He brings a fine theatrical sensibility to the character which allows him to command many scenes, and truly is the one that makes that trial compelling.  However, at no fault of his, but of the screenwriters, is Chang’s painfully excessive quoting of Shakespeare.  The bit was good for a little while, but it wears thin very quickly.  Eventually, the vast majority of his dialogue is directly quoting lines from Shakespeare plays.  I agree with Ira Steven Behr, who recorded a commentary track for the theatrical cut, that it’s simply lazy screenwriting.  The screenwriters couldn’t come up with anything original or freshly poignant for the character to say, and so, they just flippantly copy lines verbatim from another literary work.  When Khan was quoting literary works in Star Trek II, it did have a thematic purpose.  His obsession for vengeance or pain of exile were parallels to Ahab in Moby Dick or Lucifer in Paradise Lost, respectively, and these quotes were used at generally the most purposeful moments.  They had weight and meaning behind them for Khan.  With Chang, he just spouts these lines out randomly.  They hold no thematic weight or meaning at all because he has no thematic purpose in the film.  He might as well be quoting anything, or saying nothing at all, because it really makes no difference what he’s saying.  This lazy screenwriting becomes very irritating during the film’s climax.  Even Dr. McCoy says, “I’d give real money if he’d shut up.”

The film also makes blatant references to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Sherlock Holmes, and the only one I really thought was worthwhile, Peter Pan.  It eventually feels like too much referencing of other material instead of the screenwriters strengthening their own original material.  Whether they are appropriate references or not, it just feels as if almost every poignant piece of dialogue is lifted from another source, and that reflects a major weakness in the dialogue of the script.  Nicholas Meyer can be a great screenwriter and filmmaker, but at times, I feel he doesn’t view Star Trek to be good enough to stand on its own.  He has to prop it up by injecting ideas from other sources to make it great.  It worked brilliantly in The Wrath of Khan, but it simply does feel like lazy, uninspired writing in The Undiscovered Country.

The great and always respectable David Warner does a fine job as Chancellor Gorkon.  Nick Meyer envisioned the character as a meshing of Abraham Lincoln and Mikhail Gorbachev.  The Lincoln aspects definitely show through with both the make-up design, and Warner’s regal, wise performance.  However, I do believe Gorkon was grossly underused in the film.  His goal of peace is the crux of this story, and we are barely given any substantive time with him to grasp his ideals and values.  Essentially, all we know is that he wants peace, period.  This feels like another mark of an underdeveloped script.  Surely, the script had a good, solid foundation, but given some more time to refine and flesh it out, it could’ve had so much more dramatic impact, exciting tension, and a far wider scope.  This film feels like it needed a tighter pace and an extra half hour of runtime to fully flesh out and setup all of its ideas, characters, and conflicts for maximum effectiveness.

I certainly don’t want to be misunderstood with my critiques.  This is a mostly well-conceived and nicely executed film.  Production values are great as is the cinematography.  This truly looks and feels like a high grade film with a very polished cinematic style.  The acting overall is exceptionally good across the board with the entire regular cast giving it their all.  Even Kim Cattrall is very impressive as Valeris utilizing subtly in her performance, and striking a fine chemistry with Nimoy especially.  Not to mention, there’s plenty of fun dialogue and moments throughout.  The film lightly pokes fun at Kirk with the scenes opposite the shape-shifting Martia on Rura Penthe who continually seduces Kirk’s trust, and the brute of an alien that Kirk fights in the prison.  Even Kirk fighting Martia after she takes Kirk’s form harkens back to the original series episode The Enemy Within.  There, Kirk was split in two by a transporter accident, and he does battle with himself.  These bits pay tribute to classic Trek moments and Kirk traits for this, the twenty-fifth anniversary, without betraying the film’s tone in anyway. Star Trek VI has plenty of character building moments for James T. Kirk as he comes to terms with his prejudice and resistance to peace.  Spock gets a few moments of depth and growth, primarily with Valeris and Kirk.  The Undiscovered Country has a wealth of great qualities which both vastly succeeded in their potential, but also some that didn’t quite get developed as deeply as they could have been.

The visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic are some of the best of the film franchise.  Granted, the floating CGI blood in the zero gravity sequence leaves a little to be desired, but it’s certainly up to the standards of 1991’s other big special effects in Terminator 2.  Of course, I believe phaser fire should cauterize a wound, and not allow blood to go gushing out like this is a slasher film.  All other effects are superb.  The model work on all the ships is amazingly detailed holding up to great scrutiny, and being photographed beautifully.  The Praxis shockwave is a stunning feast for the eyes that starts the film off on a powerful note.  All the way through, you can see the remarkable quality that ILM was worth, and what Star Trek V was lacking without their talents.

With previous franchise composers James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith both turning down this project for their own vehement reasons, Meyer had to seek out someone new to provide a musical landscape for this darker toned film.  Cliff Eidelman delivered something right on the money.  It’s certainly not the rousing fanfares of old, but surely appropriate for the heavier subject matter and dangerous implications of the story.  He nicely throws in the right lighter cues at the perfect moments.  When Kirk and Spock have a discussion just before the third act, Eidelman brings out a poignant, warm feeling in his score.  His work complements the film’s various dramatic facets beautifully, and the film concludes with a gorgeous composition that sends the original crew out with class and style.

I find it difficult to express a counter-balance to my criticisms to support my opinion in that this is still a good movie.  I will never deny that is, but I think it succeeds only well enough instead of exceeding where it could have.  Simply put, what I’m saying about Star Trek VI is that it is a good film that still had plenty of room for improvement.  It’s themes are smart and topical for the time, and still have some resonance today.  Peace is a difficult thing to strive for, and some people are more comfortable with continuing to be at war with a lifelong enemy than try to learn to co-exist with them in peace.  These are ideals that primarily Kirk has to deal with and overcome, and that is the best handled thing about this entire movie.  While there has been a lot of criticism in this review, it’s simply to point out that many of the good aspects of this movie could have been great, if given more time to fully develop them at the script level.  As I said, I have felt as if there was something lacking in this movie, and in short, that something was a lack of tension and urgency in the plot as well as a need for more substance added into many of the newly introduced characters.  It has great, strong subject matter which felt like a necessary story to be told in the annals of Star Trek, but for as much as you can read into them, there’s just as much that didn’t end up on the page or the screen to flesh out those details.  This is a movie I still like very much, and I think it is a respectable send-off for the original cast of Star Trek.  I give it a very strong recommendation.  Again, being that it was the first Trek film I ever saw, I think this is one that could draw you into the franchise, and show you it does have substance and relevance to offer.


Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

First off, I do not hate this movie.  There are things I like about it, I find some parts funny, but there are obviously bad aspects to it.  However, I’ve always found something enjoyable about it even if it is a mess of a movie.  As anyone who has regularly read my reviews knows very well about the summer of 1989, where movies were concerned.  It was massively huge with numerous blockbuster contenders hitting almost every week, but Star Trek V, despite being projected to do very well, really took a nose dive at the box office.  It was one of the bigger disappointments of that summer in relation to its projected success.  The main reason for its failure?  The ego of William Shatner, who was the film’s star, writer, and director, who took on a project he didn’t have the skill to deliver based on the studio’s restrictions and his own misconceived vision.  Even Gene Roddenberry went on record calling the film “apocryphal,” and most simply regard it as if it never happened.  There are undeniable reasons for that, but I seem to be one of the very few that gains some entertainment value from this movie.

On Nimbus III, the Planet of Galactic Peace, a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) has taken three ambassadors hostage with a radical plan.  Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the newly christened U.S.S. Enterprise-A, which has ship-wide malfunctions, are recalled from shore leave for a rescue mission to the planet, but the distress call attracts the attention of a Klingon Captain intent on making a name for himself by engaging a Starfleet vessel in combat.  The rescue mission goes awry when it is revealed that Sybok has used a unique telepathic ability to draw the hostages under his sway.  Matters are further complicated when Spock (Leonard Nimoy) reveals that Sybok is his half-brother, also a son of Sarek.  Sybok and his followers thus seize control of the Enterprise to fulfill his lifelong search for the fabled planet of Sha-Ka-Ree where he believes all life began, and that God himself waits for them.  Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy struggle to regain command of the Enterprise from this apparent madman before they reach the supposedly impenetrable Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy.  However, what awaits them on the other side is not what any of them expected.

This definitely had a peculiar behind the scenes scenario for such a problematic film.  Star Trek V had the second largest budget of the franchise up to that point, and so, it wasn’t a matter of a lack of money for director William Shatner to achieve his vision.  Instead, it seems to come down to both a mishandling of the budget as well as terrible timing all around.  Industrial Light & Magic was responsible for the visual effects work on the films since The Wrath of Khan, but when this film went into production, ILM was hard at work on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Constraints of time and money meant the filmmakers of Star Trek V couldn’t wait for them to be available, nor could they contend with what Spielberg and Lucasfilm were paying ILM to secure their expert services.  It’s also slightly ironic since both films were distributed by Paramount Pictures, and released within about two weeks of one another.  So, Shatner and Paramount had to go with a lesser effects company, and the lower grade results are obvious.  They simply do not measure up to the dynamic and gloriously cinematic quality of ILM, and this further impacts the overall level of quality of the movie.  Shatner had wild ideas for this film that were axed either in scripting by the studio, or simply because they could not be achieved with the resources he had.  Apparently, none of these ideas were anything better than what did make it into the film, and in most cases, were far, far worse.  The biggest of which was instead of encountering an evil entity claiming to be God, they would literally meet God himself, and do battle with the real Devil.  As bad as you thought it was, it was intended to be terribly worse.

This film is indeed bad with foolish concepts that shouldn’t exist in a Star Trek story, and has some terrible comedy.  It also portrays much of the regular cast in a very uncharacteristic fashion.  With the loyalty they’ve shown, especially in The Search For Spock, it is difficult to accept that they would so easily turn against Kirk in favor of Sybok’s telepathic therapy.  So, why do I enjoy this film at all?  Camp value.  I do find some of the comedy funny in a very ridiculous and cheap way.  Yes, it is badly written low brow, broad comedy, and it is surely not the context I would want the crew ever depicted in again.  Yet, when I take the film as a lower grade feature, I can just indulge in the camp value of it all.  I find myself quoting lines from this probably more than any other Trek film.  Where the humor of The Voyage Home was very situational stemming from the “fish out of water” context of the film, here, it is just out of place, awkward, and silly.  While I do enjoy it, I can still look at it objectively and critically.  Simply put, William Shatner did not demonstrate good screenwriting abilities on this film.  I will grant that it is very incompatible to have comedy of this sort in a film about finding God.  Shatner tries to balance broad comedy and serious drama, but that is just not a combination that mixes.

However, while the film is wrought with out of place humor and silliness, there are some excellent dramatic and character moments found throughout.  I like Kirk, Bones, and Spock sitting around the campfire talking about how Kirk knows that as long as he has his friends around, he knows he won’t die.  They have saved each other’s lives so many times that this does resonate for me, and is quite a good moment of depth and insight into James Kirk.  He says he’ll die alone, and that was something that always stuck with me.  Thus, making his ultimate demise in Star Trek: Generations even more of an insult.  The scenes between Spock and Sybok have some fine dramatic substance as their shared history is played out.  And undeniably, the scene where Sybok has McCoy relive the death of his father is the most powerful scene of the film, and possibly DeForest Kelley’s most profound acting in all his tenure as Leonard McCoy.  In these moments, Shatner, as director, does get the dramatic side of the film down nicely, and is definitely helped by very strong acting talents.  Still, they are not enough to raise the film up to respectable standards since there is so much low grade junk weighing it down.  They are mere glimpses of a stronger and more tonally consistent film that could have been, if handled by better talented filmmakers.  I may enjoy the film, but certainly, I will never deny that it is filled with a lot of crap.

Case in point is that what thin semblance of a plot there is doesn’t make much sense.  It’s hard to fathom why Sybok would choose such a worthless rock of a planet like Nimbus III, a failed public relations stunt of peace, to launch his quest from.  Obviously, he had a starship transport him to the planet in the first place, and so, he had the means to secure interplanetary travel at some point.  There was no express need for him to travel to Nimbus III just to hijack a ship.  I mean, there are far easier ways of obtaining a starship than taking ambassadorial hostages on a desolate planet no one gives a crap about.  Thus, all Sybok really needs from this planet are followers to bear witness to his quest, and he chooses the dregs of the galaxy.  This doesn’t seem like the most efficient or credible plan to me.  Beyond that, the most that is going on is Kirk, Spock, and McCoy trying to take back control of the ship, but by the time they have the chance, Sybok’s already arrived at his destination.  From there, it’s just a matter of exploration and survival.  The entire subplot of the Klingon Bird of Prey hunting the Enterprise is more of a minor action plot device, and doesn’t feed into anything substantive.  The themes of religion and finding God also aren’t really explored by any of the characters, except for Sybok, and he does tend to come off like a fanatic or cult leader.  That is entirely intentional, but it also diffuses the poignancy of the topic.  No one takes the issue seriously because he is viewed as a delusional person who is risking lives for his own fanatical validation.  More time is spent on discussing who Sybok is, and the power that he possesses than his belief in finding God at the center of the galaxy.

I also have to criticize the idea that the Great Barrier has been perceived as impenetrable.  The key idea is perception.  I can’t wrap my head around how everyone is dead-on certain that no ship can survive entering the Barrier when no ship has ever tried, nor have they acquired any data on it to support such a claim.  All they know is that no probe has ever returned, which hasn’t stopped starship captains from entering into the unknown before or since.  Everyone considers it dangerous, tantamount to madness and suicide to try, yet the Enterprise and the Klingon Bird of Prey traverse it without even the slightest problem.  Even taking the film by its own warped logic, if passage through the Barrier is merely a matter of belief that it is an illusion, that still doesn’t explain how the Bird of Prey was able to make it through.  If the ships had to survive some danger to pass through that ominous barrier, then I could say that these fears were justified.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  The idea simply doesn’t hold any credibility.

Furthermore, the physics of space travel are completely screwed over as it would take decades for the Enterprise to reach the center of the galaxy even at top warp speeds.  Of course, the most lauded criticism of the film is why would Starfleet send Captain Kirk out on an important hostage rescue mission in a ship that is falling apart.  Starfleet does say there are other ships in range of Nimbus III, but no experienced commanders.  So, it wouldn’t be difficult to put Kirk and his crew on one of those vessels for a temporary assignment.  It also doesn’t make sense that the fleet would build a brand new Constitution class starship when two films ago, which in the chronology of Star Trek was maybe a couple months ago, the original Enterprise was essentially called old and obsolete with no plans to refit it for continued service.  The original intention was that the Enterprise-A was rechristened as such from the U.S.S. Yorktown, but this film screws that idea over completely.  The idea of the Enterprise-A being a shambles is simply to remove the convenience of using the transporter to rescue the hostages, or allow for an easy escape for our heroes when the evil entity turns on them.  Still, you can have the transporters be inoperable without the entire ship being a disaster.  Of course, it’s also there for more moments of humor when turbolift doors won’t open, or the Captain’s electronic log book, which is independent of the ship’s systems, goes kaput.  The U.S.S. Enterprise presented here is as much of a mess as the film itself.

Now, there is foolishness and stupidity abound in this film that really cannot be taken seriously because it hardly takes itself seriously.  I’ve barely gotten started on the criticisms this film deserves.  I could go on and on about the inanities and stuff that doesn’t make sense, and normally, I would keep going for quite a while to really scrutinize it all.  However, this has already been detailed by SFDebris in his Opinionated Trek Movie Guide videos.  I almost didn’t go forward with this review for fear that most of what I would say would just be a retread of his review.  He essentially covered it all in excellent fashion.  However, what pushed me forward with this was sharing what I do enjoy about the film, despite its flaws.  I can enjoy the badly conceived and poorly executed aspects of the film while still finding genuine merit in a few areas.  What originally motivated me towards doing a review at all was giving credit to one aspect of the movie that I have never heard anyone offer before.  That is the performance of Laurence Luckinbill as Sybok.

The filmmakers originally wanted Sean Connery for this role, but again, due to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, they had to look elsewhere.  However, unlike the visual effects, they did not end up with a low grade result.  Luckinbill instills great passion and theatrical zeal into the role.  He is very charismatic, making Sybok a personality to contend with.  He’s not out to destroy or seek vengeance upon anyone.  Instead, his threat is based in his radical ideology, and that required someone not intimidating but vibrant and intelligent.  He didn’t need to be cunning and lethal like Khan, but a man who views himself as enlightened but is perceived as a con man, similar to the televangelists that inspired the character.  Yet, Luckinbill makes the character interesting and compelling as well as sympathetic by the end.  When Sybok realizes the error of his ways, he takes responsibility for his arrogance and ego, which creates a great character arc.  I think Sybok has a good ending which redeems his character, but unfortunately, its poignancy is overshadowed by the remainder of the climax with Kirk seeking to escape the evil entity.  Luckinbill created a fascinating character through his performance that I actually would’ve loved to have seen more of.  I think exploring Sybok in more depth would be a great thing in this actor’s talented hands.  If placed in a better film, I think both Laurence Luckinbill’s performance and Sybok himself would have gained more praise, but far too often, a marvelous performance is overlooked due to the quality of the film it appears in.  Luckinbill carried a lot of weight on his shoulders with this movie, and I think he carried it with more ease, grace, and integrity than anyone else in the film.  While the script written around Sybok is certainly not the smartest or most logical, the character himself is given a credible life by this actor, and I think he deserves a lot of overdue praise for what he did.

The other performances are especially mixed.  Even with much of the humorous content, I do feel that Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly do a very solid job, maintaining far more integrity than the script would suggest they could.  Much of why the humor amongst them and Shatner works any bit as good as it does is because of their long standing chemistry.  They’ve always worked beautifully together, and that goes a long way in this turbulent film.  James Doohan is certainly entertaining handling the cheap humor pretty decently, and just being his charming Montgomery Scott self.  I do genuinely laugh at his comedy moments.  However, the rest of the main cast doesn’t have as much to work with, either good or bad, and thus, doesn’t offer much for me to comment on.  Cynthia Gouw, however, puts in an entirely disingenuine performance as the Romulan Ambassador.  Her line deliveries lack any substance, and she comes off like a hollow shell of a person with her light airy voice and naïve smile.  There is no acting ability in what she does.  She just smiles and looks pretty for the camera, which makes it no wonder that she was a model before attempting to be an actress.  The usually great David Warner is criminally wasted in the role of St. John Talbot, the Federation Ambassador on Nimbus III.  There is nothing in the role for him that is worthwhile.  The only fortunate result from this is that this introduction into Star Trek allowed for him to take on two far more impressive roles in Star Trek VI and an excellent and powerful two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Beyond this point in this cast, it just becomes far too one dimensional to even bother mentioning.  Captain Klaa fits solidly into a Klingon stereotype, but he is nothing more than that.  He’s just on a shallow quest for glory.

Now, yes, I must address William Shatner as an actor here.  There is an obvious ego trip going on in front of and behind the camera.  This doesn’t necessarily lead to a bad performance from him, but you can definitely see how the film is designed to raise James T. Kirk up while pushing everyone else down.  Shatner is entirely capable of delivering great performances, but it does take the right director to know how to wear Shatner down to get it out of him.  Nicholas Meyer, director the second and sixth Star Trek movies, says on one of his commentary tracks that he had to run many takes with Shatner to get the right one.  This was, as he said, because Shatner would start out trying to act like a big star in the spotlight, but as the takes went on, he’d get more worn down by the process and then give the more natural and real performance.  That’s where Meyer would find the gold, and I imagine Leonard Nimoy had a similar process on the previous two Trek movies.  When Shatner is directing himself, it’s inevitable that more of that big star ego will show through, but there are several moments of solid dramatic acting from him.  It’s not a terrible performance at all, but it could’ve used more wrangling in, more molding to shape it properly.  Regardless of the acting, there is just no denying how overly focused this film is on Kirk.  Shatner takes every opportunity that he was allowed to separate Kirk in any way from the rest of his crew.  Either by them betraying him, or simply being at odds with Spock or McCoy, Shatner wanted Kirk to fight this all on his own, but that simply is uncharacteristic of especially those two to abandon Kirk at all.  Whatever logic he had to break, or characterizations he had to betray, Shatner was going to focus that spotlight on himself as much as possible.  Thus, that is the film’s crucial failing.

Now, I never realized this myself, but a friend of mine pointed out that Star Trek V is actually the film that’s actually the most like the television series.  The lower grade effects, the slight corniness, and the use of the rocky California desert as some generic alien planet are purely straight from the original television series.  The storyline has the feel of something from the original series as well, in concept, anyway.  Encountering strange larger than life entities like in The Squire of Gothos or The Doomsday Machine, passing through cosmic barriers like Where No Man Has Gone Before, and the Kirk action sequence along a rocky landscape like in Arena all tie the movie strongly to the roots of the television series.  Granted, the writing of this film is a long way off from the best standards of the series.

The last thing to really give note of is composer Jerry Goldsmith’s return to the franchise here, and he brings all his original themes back with him.  The great opening fanfare, which had become the theme for The Next Generation by now, and the excellent Klingon theme return in great fashion.  It’s a very good score that is quite to my general liking, but Goldsmith just had terrible luck by being saddled with the two most critically bashed films of the series so far (the other being Star Trek: The Motion Picture).  He wouldn’t return to Trek again until First Contact due to the critical and commercial failure of this movie.

Despite my own personal enjoyment of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I cannot defend it as a whole.  There are admirable parts to it, but they are grossly overwhelmed by all the negative qualities present.  I happen to enjoy this on a campy, bad movie level, but there is hardly anyway I forge a set of conditions under which I could generally recommend it.  You’re either going to like the movie for the low grade work that it is, or you’re going to hate it, passionately.  There were plenty of problems surrounding the development and execution of this film, but they do not excuse much at all of the end result.  William Shatner believed he could make this movie work with his objectionable story, and the studio mandates of making another “fun” movie like The Voyage Home.  He failed miserably, and this nearly killed the film franchise entirely.  A better director never would’ve touched this film with Shatner’s script, and a better screenwriter would’ve scoffed at the film’s concept.  I can certainly see why people revile this movie so much, but for me, there are far worse Star Trek films in existence than this one.  However, others have thoroughly scrutinized those movies in far more depth than I can get to, and I have nothing new to say about any of them.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have some critical statements to make about one of the more highly regarded films in the franchise, though.


Highlander: The Final Dimension (1994)

Coming three years after the disaster that was Highlander 2: The Quickening, this sequel absolutely plays it safe.  It also demonstrates a lack of ambition or originality in how much it directly borrows from the first movie without even disguising it.  The highly successful television series starring Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod was already on the air, but the producers of the franchise decided to give Connor MacLeod another theatrical outing.  It surely doesn’t measure up to the first film, as it is a formulaic sequel, but it is an enjoyable film that did have some good potential.

In 16th century Japan, immortal Scotsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is mentored by the sorcerer and master of illusion Nakano (Mako).  However, when an evil, ravaging immortal named Kane (Mario Van Peebles) raids a nearby village, and comes looking for the sorcerer, the ensuing quickening from Nakano’s death seals Kane and his minions in the mountain cave for the next four centuries.  In present day, an excavation is underway to determine the truth of the legend of Nakano, headed up by archaeologist Alexandra Johnson (Deborah Unger).  However, this excavation aids Kane in his escape from the cave, and immediately begins his search for MacLeod.  Since his defeat of the Kurgan, Connor has adopted a son, but also, lost his wife Brenda to a car accident which he survived without a scratch.  He’s known he was not the last immortal, and now, he knows that it is Kane who still lives.  Both Connor MacLeod and Kane travel to New York, the site of the Gathering, to do battle and claim The Prize once and for all.

This story is fairly good, but would even be rather average for the television series.  It’s nothing exceptional or stunning.  It’s not trying to do anything original or break new ground for the franchise, and it knows it.  It’s more playing around in the world of Highlander, having a little bit of fun, but not trying to build upon anything.  As with the previous sequel, gone is the sense of magic and mystery.  Connor MacLeod is still portrayed well by Christopher Lambert, still injecting some charm and confidence into the role.  However, it really is that sense of world weariness that made him captivating to begin with.  You could feel the weight and aura of centuries lived in Lambert’s performance.  It gave the character depth and texture.  Here, all that is absent, and instead, we get a much more standard protagonist who is enjoyable, yet lacks gravitas to really draw in an audience.  The thing is with this movie is that it feels like a second rate version of Highlander, but in the least, it never takes itself too seriously for too long.  This is mainly by way of the character of Kane.

Mario Van Peebles is an excellent talent in front of and behind the camera, and I know this is not representative of his highest acting qualities.  There are both positives and negatives to say about his performance as Kane.  How you take his performance is based on how you want to perceive the movie.  In general, he’s basically a carbon copy of the Kurgan only not written as well, and portrayed with an especially over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek mentality.  Van Peebles even puts on a very gravely Kurgan-esque voice as Kane, which bares next to no resemblance to his natural voice.  As Kane, he certainly has formidable moments where we see how lethal and vile Kane truly is, solidifying his weight and threat as a villain.  However, Van Peebles is entirely indulging himself in this role, and if you choose to view the film as a fun, lightweight flick, you can certainly find enjoyment from this performance.  Mario Van Peebles is clearly enjoying living in the skin of this villain with his performance bordering on campy.  He’s certainly a long way off from chewing as much scenery as Bruce Payne did in Highlander: Endgame, though.  Still, Kane is written with some rather unrealistic dialogue.  For a guy that’s been buried in a cave for the last four hundred years, he certainly has picked up late twentieth century slang quite swiftly in addition to learning how to drive a car.  Throughout the film, even in the sixteenth century scenes, he entirely comes off like a modern villain instead of one displaced in time and culture.

Also, while the design of Kane is pretty awesome with the long hair, goatee, and tattoos, I think the nipple rings are just a tad too much.  They are on both his armor and himself, and just make Kane more modern looking than he should be.  Thankfully, we’re not exposed to them long as Kane adopts some very good looking Asian style threads.  It again comes off as an attempt to emulate the style of the Kurgan, but with a 90s flavor.  I really do believe Kane could’ve been taken in a much more credible direction, and made for a slightly more original and straightly serious villain.  Instead, the filmmakers chose the route of levity.  Still, there are other issues which hold the film down from being as good as it could have been.

Regardless, whether you call this The Final Dimension or The Sorcerer, this does feel more like the kind of sequel one would expect.  It follows up on the police investigation threads from the first movie, and uses footage and dialogue from the original to further the story and character points forward.  It might seem a little frivolous at times, but I don’t have much of a gripe with it.  I like how this was done in Endgame as well.  However, there is flashing back to the first movie for context, and then, there’s badly copying scenes from that same movie.

Such is the case when Kane goes on a psychotic joy ride with Connor’s adopted son.  It’s a real poor excuse considering none of the danger is actually real, just an illusion generated by Kane.  It’s a pathetic and blatant attempt to recapture something awesome from the first film while doing it with only a fraction of the talent. Even if done nearly as well, it would still be lame because it’s a retread instead of trying to do something original.  Even kidnapping a loved one of Connor’s to force a final confrontation also emulates what the Kurgan did in the first movie.  It is stuff like this which make this movie a pale imitation of the original Highlander.

I will give credit to the aspect of the police investigation.  Lieutenant John Stenn remembers the original string of beheadings, and who the sole suspect was at the time.  With MacLeod back in town with a new beheading, he immediately puts it all back together.  It is a part of this story that makes the film feel like a continuation of the first, and I do feel it was well done.  Stenn has an understandable contempt for MacLeod, and is quite dogged about his investigation.  It is a pretty good performance by actor Martin Neufeld.

Deborah Unger is very good in her dual roles.  However, I do find the entire aspect of Alex bearing a dead-on resemblance to a centuries past lost love of Connor’s to be unnecessary and a little forced.  The romantic relationship between Alex and Connor could’ve easily worked without that odd connection, and possibly could’ve had more time to develop without those flashbacks.  I think this idea was only there so that the filmmakers could have occasional flashback sequences to better resemble the style of the original movie.  It’s not badly handled, but it does feel like a diversion from the actual relevant aspects of the plot.

Regardless, Unger does a very fine job as the film’s female lead.  Her performance is very grounded showing a fine range of levity, passion, and dramatic weight.  She carries herself very solidly, and works very well opposite Lambert.  Also, Deborah Unger is probably the sexiest, most sultry looking woman of the Highlander films.  She even insisted on not using a body double for the fully nude and steamy sex scene late in the film.  While the romantic storyline between Connor and Alex doesn’t develop as strongly as other Highlander loves have, it is serviceable, and nicely played by both actors.

I will also hand it to this film’s cinematographer.  This is a very well shot and well lit movie.  The bowels of the hospital where Connor encounters Kane’s henchman has some gorgeous blues and oranges creating a beautiful atmosphere.  Overall, we get some very cinematic camera angles and movement with stellar work when it comes to the action sequences and sword fights.  While the film lacks the epic grandeur and sweeping visual quality that was a given with Russell Mulcahy, I will give it credit for looking quite a bit better than your usual 1990s fare from Dimension Films.  This can possibly be credited to director Andy Morahan being primarily a music video director, same as where Mulcahy started out.  He knows how to capture great visuals, and that is in no dispute here.  Although, it seems Morahan never broke out from music videos.  This was his first feature film, and he’s not done much of anything else outside of music videos ever since.  He directs this film pretty well, handling the action, drama, and levity of it very evenly.  It certainly isn’t an example of a breakout directorial debut, but there have been far worse action filmmakers out there who have had bigger careers making lower quality films.  So, I will say that this is a decent first outing for Morahan.

As far as action goes, I actually think the film’s best sword fight is not the climax, but when Connor and Kane fight inside the former Buddhist temple.  It’s a very dynamic fight with some great physical and dialogue exchanges.  With the duel being on Holy Ground, it ends in a very startling way as the blades of Connor and Kane’s swords shatter.  It shows one ominous way such betrayals of the rules are dealt with.  The final climactic duel is a well executed sequence with great cinematography and good effects.  It is very physically intense.  However, it has one stinging point I will get to momentarily.

The orchestral score by J. Peter Robinson is very good.  I particularly enjoyed the Japanese and Middle Eastern flourishes at the appropriate moments creating a unique musical atmosphere.  The score is very thrilling and vibrant with a plenty of character.  What I have a problem with is the clunky use of second rate hard rock songs in this film.  With the original movie, Queen naturally brought an epic and emotionally rich depth to the film with their songs alongside Michael Kamen’s gorgeous score.  Highlander 2 essentially focused only on Stewart Copeland’s grand, operatic score.  With this film, these rock songs are just bad and obnoxious, and don’t complement Robinson’s score at all.  The worst part comes in the climactic battle between Kane and MacLeod.  Someone recorded a blatant knock-off of Mötley Crüe’s “Dr. Feelgood,” and it terribly degrades the entire climax.  I’m sure Robinson could’ve composed something beautifully dramatic and triumphant instead of that schlock.  Where the filmmakers get it right with the licensed music is with Loreena McKennitt’s version of “Bonny Portmore.”  This is a gorgeous and deeply emotional song which would become a staple of the franchise from here on out.  I really adore its beauty.

On the up side, the visual effects are very good.  During the 90s, movie goers were treated to a lot of primitive CGI, but this movie really gives us some good quality effects.  The illusions of Nakano and Kane are given a great, magical look that flow very smoothly with the on-screen action.  There’s nary a bad effect anywhere in the film, save for the quickening flashing across the Moroccan desert sky.  Otherwise, this really is some beautiful work.

Although, I think the filmmakers kind of took a wide liberty with the term “illusion.”  An illusion shouldn’t allow Kane to transform into a bird and fly away.  Even the ability to create solid objects from either Kane or Nakano is arguable as an illusion.  They should’ve just came out and said it was straight up magic.  Although, I know even that gets into a muddled area in that, if it is full-on magic, why would it be that either man can do only so little with the power.  Nether of them is exactly Merlin casting spells and unleashing epic, fantastical wizardry.  So, it’s a real strange line to walk, and is probably best not to scrutinize it.  Still, this is a review, and that’s what I’m meant to do.

I think what this film lacks the most is depth.  Emotions don’t run very deep, and we don’t really get much under the skin of these characters.  Again, Connor doesn’t feel like the same textured and fascinating character we had from the first Highlander.  I hate to continually make comparisons back to the first movie, but this film begs so much comparison that it is impossible to avoid it.  Nakano is a decent character, but has really no depth of any kind to offer.  The late Mako was very beloved in certain fandoms, but I don’t find his performance here very inspiring.  Whether or not you compared him to Sean Connery’s Ramirez, he is quite forgettable.  The film does have its moments of touching beauty and decent depth, but it does entirely feel like the filmmakers playing it safe.  They are not trying to dig into the soul of their characters, and that’s really a major mistake.  Case in point would be the French Revolution flashbacks would have worked so much better if there was more substance to grasp onto.  We get only glimpses of Connor and Sarah being in love.  It’s very weakly presented, and since it bares no relevance or impact upon the main plot with Connor and Kane, the filmmakers don’t spend great amounts of time on it.  I’m certainly not saying this is a terrible script, just a mediocre one that could’ve had better potential in more talented and motivated hands.  It worked for a fun action adventure film, but against the brilliant standards set with the original movie, it’s undoubtedly mediocre.

I had intended to offer some comparison between the director’s cut and the European cut of the film, but any differences are very minor.  The director’s cut adds in some more effects shots to enhance Kane’s sorcery, most notably with his arrival in New York being via a portal instead of just walking out on the docks as if he traveled by ship.  At the end, the European version excises the reuse of effects shots from Connor winning The Prize in the first Highlander that were present in both the theatrical and director’s cuts.  Sadly, the only change in the soundtrack comes at the end credits where the director’s cut has another bad hard rock track while the European cut features “Bonny Portmore” once again.  Both cuts are available on Region 1 DVD.  The original 1998 DVD has the true director’s cut, but the 2005 and 2011 DVDs, which claim to also be the “Special Director’s Cut,” are actually the European version only with the opening title card changed from Highlander III: The Sorcerer to Highlander: The Final Dimension.  I would lean towards buying the newer DVD since the film is given the anamorphic widescreen treatment resulting in vastly superior picture quality.  The image is clearer and colors are much more vibrant.  So, I am glad to have purchased it, regardless of there being no dramatic differences in the content of the film.

Ultimately, Highlander III is that sequel in the franchise that doesn’t get much attention.  The others have very notable issues that are hotly contested amongst fans, but this one keeps a low profile despite also having its fair share of mild problems.  While it surely doesn’t re-ignite the magic that the original movie captured, it’s a fun, disposable film that has its merits, but ultimately, can be forgotten about without a problem.  As is the difficulty in making a sequel to the original, where it ended definitively, the filmmakers had to indulge in a cheap end-runaround to make a sequel where there are still immortals out there.  Again, if you’re looking just for a fun movie that’s not going to take itself too seriously, then you can enjoy this movie.  I do find it entertaining but lacking in substance.  In my opinion, it’s a step in a better direction than Highlander 2: The Quickening, but not as good as what was being done on the television series at the time.


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.


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.