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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Real Steel (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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