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The Wolverine (2013)

wolverine_ver4I grew up in the 90’s watching the X-Men animated series, and that’s what my main knowledge and fandom of the property stems from.  It’s been sorry to say that the live action movies have, to me, failed to be remotely as faithful.  Simply said, I have had a number of issues with all of the previous films of this franchise, and I was skeptical about The Wolverine going into it.  Color me pleasantly surprised – I REALLY liked this movie.  I have barely a major issue to levy against this film, directed excellently by James Mangold.  While Wolverine has been a very central character in all the previous films, save for First Class, this film actually puts forth the honest effort to make him more than just an action bad ass.  Some might find the film less than exciting, but for me, this steers this character into the right direction.

After the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has become a vagrant lost and detached from society until he is sought out by Ichiro Yashida, the man whose life Logan saved at Nagasaki in 1945.  This now powerful businessman seeks to repay this debt to Logan by absolving him of an unending life via his mutant healing factor.  Regardless of consent, Wolverine is left physically vulnerable by secretive forces as he attempts to protect Mariko, Yashida’s granddaughter and heir to his empire, from the Yakuza and a band of deadly ninjas.  Wolverine is now pushed to his physical and emotional limits as he confronts not only lethal samurai steel but also his inner struggle against his own immortality to emerge more powerful than ever before.

This is one of those reviews where I’ll address my minor issues with the movie first before delving into what I very much enjoyed.  The Wolverine has a rather good tone keeping things mainly dramatically based, but it does inject some humor and levity.  However, it possibly could have pulled back in a few places.  Stuff like Logan and Mariko hiding out in a hotel which ends up being a “love hotel” where couples go to get it on.  Some humor comes out of this which is rather gratuitous.  The first half of the movie has these moments where there’s already been a fine balance of levity and drama, but adds in just a little more humor that makes it feel a tad extraneous.  It throws that balance off just enough to slightly detract from the dramatic progression of the film, but by the halfway point, these issues evaporated.

Also, I wouldn’t begrudge this movie if it intentionally disavowed X-Men Origins: Wolverine from its continuity.  I say this because in that film we clearly see that Wolverine’s memories were robbed from him via an adamantium bullet to the head.  However, in this film, Wolverine easily remembers events from Nagasaki, 1945, more than thirty years before his memory loss.  While the previous X-Men films have shown him recovering memories, particularly from the Weapon X program, it’s a bit of a shady area as to how he is able to so clearly remember these events.  Even then, if you went by the continuity of Origins, he was still going by the name James Howlett at that point in time, but Yashida knows him only as Logan, which he doesn’t adopt until the 1970’s.  This franchise’s continuity is extremely shoddy, and it’s that reason why I both eager and skeptical about how next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past will possibly resolve these continuity issues.

However, a more significant issue is very valid.  Wolverine’s healing factor is repressed for the bulk of this film where his wounds heal at the rate of a normal human being.  Yet, he is constantly extending and retracting his claws with not a drop of blood or sight of a wound on his knuckles.  I did buy many X-Men comics in the 90’s including X-Men #25 where Magneto ripped the adamantium from Wolverine’s body, and his healing factor is overloaded to where to stops working.  Thus, his knuckles continually bleed out every time he unsheathes his bone claws, and he keeps them wrapped in bandages.  I can understand that the PG-13 rating would never allow Wolverine going around bleeding profusely in graphic fashion through most of the runtime, but it is a serious oversight.  It didn’t take me out of the film at all, but it’s a definite flaw in the film’s logic that I felt should be addressed.

Now, onto the good stuff.  Undoubtedly, this is Hugh Jackman’s most dimensional performance as Wolverine.  The film takes him on a journey from this man living in the wilderness, cut off from everything after Jean Grey’s death, and vowing never to hurt another person.  We get an arc for Logan where he rediscovers his purpose, and finds a reason for living.  He reinvests himself in a reason to fight for someone else, and become that honorable, yet animalistic warrior that he once was.  Jackman does an excellent job showing the rugged anger early on, but he contrasts that with the vulnerable, physically weakened Wolverine.  There’s a great balance in his performance that really shines through, likely due to James Mangold’s smart direction.  I also like that despite having no healing factor, Wolverine still proves to be one of the toughest bad asses on the planet.  He gets shot up, slashed, and beaten, but does he ever push forward with everything he’s got.  And of course, Jackman is in the best shape of his life here as he finally achieved the lean, muscular physique he always wanted for Wolverine.  He is totally ripped, and that creates a real raw, intimidating presence.  The fight scenes are some of the best he’s ever done as this character.

Tapping into the vulnerability of Logan are two women.  The first is Yukio who seeks him out, and seems to have a great deal in common with him.  They are both warriors who have lost loved ones in their pasts, and are brought together by Yashida as wayward souls.  Yukio is able to keep Logan on his toes as she is as smart as she is deadly, but has formed a bond of trust and respect with him.  Rila Fukushima does a very, very good job in this role handling all the physical demands amazingly well, and making this a character who is enjoyable as well as dimensional.

Mariko is the one who peels back the vulnerability of Logan’s heart.  While there is never an overt romantic connection between them, the film builds an intimacy with these two.  They get very deeply involved with each other learning the pain and love that have affected them.  Logan is driven to protect her at every cost, and the emotional bond is built up with a lot of subtlety and grace.  I really found this to be the main cog towards exploring Logan.  Through Mariko, we see the change in him from the lost, fractured man to the fiercely determined warrior.  The chemistry between Jackman and Tao Okamoto is really sweet and endearing as the two characters grow closer.

I feel this film is filled with a strong set of characters that are well cast.  Will Yun Lee impressed me thoroughly as Harada, a ninja and archer who has dubious allegiances, and demonstrates some amazing physical feats early on.  When the Yakuza are chasing Logan and Mariko through the Tokyo streets, he’s jumping and flipping from one rooftop to another and picking guys off with his bow and arrow.  To me, he essentially put Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye to shame with just that one sequence.  Beyond that, Lee simply grabbed me right from the start with his edge and presence.  Plus, Harada has a really enjoyable arc as his loyalties and honor are certainly in question as he is associated with certain underhanded individuals, but has the best of intentions.

There are many characters that have their own personal sense of honor, however misguided it might be, and it creates this very strong gravity to each character.  Shingen Yashia, Mariko’s crime boss father, is really damn good exercising authority and conviction with a really imposing presence.  Ichiro Yashida is also solidly portrayed with a more honest breadth of honor, but he still has some turns to show for himself later on.  These characters all have depth and dimension making them intriguing and engaging.

However, the femme fatale villain of Viper was possibly the least captivating character.  The character is very well portrayed by Svetlana Khodchenkova giving her plenty of juicy material to wrap this venomous character up in, but ultimately, she’s just a hired villain with little purpose or motivation of her own.  So, she’s not nearly as interesting as all these characters who are enveloped in honor, tradition, culture, greed, and betrayal.  Their stories are much more strongly interconnected because there is family involved, and it is all tangled up in a treacherous web of deceit.  Regardless, there’s not a single weak link in this cast, and they all put forth great efforts that truly impressed me.  I cared about so many of these characters due to the strong performances behind them, and a solid writing by Scott Frank, Mark Bomback, and the uncredited Christopher McQuarrie.

What I really found refreshing in The Wolverine is that is doesn’t feel the need to have to throw action sequences down your throat to engage you.  I believe some may disagree and find the film lacking, but it really hit the spot for me.  Like I said, these characters are compelling enough all on their own for me, and it is quite a while before we get a real action sequence here.  The film invests you in following Logan, and seeing what kind of man he is now.  It peers you into his mind and pained heart as its central focus, and introduces action where the story requires it.  Especially with superhero films, we tend to see action thrown at us right from the beginning telling you that action is the central focus of this movie.  Director James Mangold tells you otherwise with how this film begins and progresses.  It has important substance to introduce you to so that when the action occurs, you can be invested in the danger faced by these characters, and that is highly admirable in my view.

And the action here is rather stellar.  From the trailers, I thought the bullet train sequence would not be very good, but I was so proven wrong.  I found it exceptionally well constructed especially with how Logan and his combatants have to keep dodging the overhead structures that keep flying over their heads.  Sometimes they duck, sometimes they jump over top, and sometimes, an unfortunate adversary goes on a very rough flight goodbye.  There’s more to it than that, and every clever element just made it work very well for me.  While it is all clearly CGI settings and backgrounds, there was still a sense of danger involved considering this is a train rocketing along at hundreds of miles per hour.

There are also some excellent fight scenes.  I have to love me some samurai sword fights mixed in with perilous acrobatic martial arts maneuvers.  When Wolverine faces off with Shingen, claws versus sword, it’s really the moment where the bad ass hero that we know re-emerges, and it’s a great moment and pay-off.  There is plenty of slashing and impaling of Yakuza upon Wolverine’s claws early on.  Now, I didn’t think of it at the time, but really, Wolverine never gets a full-on bezerker battle with ninjas.  I know that’s appalling because that’s practically the signature moment every die hard fan would want to see.  There is a confrontation leading into the third act, but there’s very little close range combat in it for Wolverine to start ripping at ninjas.  Also, the use of blood on his claws is rather inconsistent.  Sometimes, we’ll see blood on them after he impales a guy, but most times, we either don’t get a good look at them or there’s simply nothing shown.  James Mangold did do an interview this past week hinting at a bloodier, more violent unrated cut of the film on Blu Ray, but we’ll have to wait and see.  He supposedly did remove a more elaborate fight between Wolverine and the ninjas.  Why, I couldn’t tell you.

I honestly think this is the best score I’ve ever heard from Marco Beltrami.  Up until now, I don’t think he’s ever done anything this diverse or exceptional.  He really captures the flavor and feel of Japan in subtle ways throughout his score.  He never seemed to go for anything easy or expected in that realm.  It’s a very fine piece of work that also highlights some great moments with due weight.

The cinematography is indeed damn good.  I had desired a Wolverine film that was dark, gritty, and raw from when Darren Aronofsky was attached, but Mangold and his cinematographer did a lot to make this more polished look work.  The Wolverine gives us a strong, vibrant color palette, and the nighttime scenes have a pleasing neo noir quality.  It gives the film some mood where needed.  I especially found some beauty in the Wolverine / Shingen fight with his dim blue backlight, and the ninjas converging upon Wolverine in the snowy landscape.  The action sequences are essentially filmed very well keeping things steady and competent.

I can definitely say that the digital effects of The Wolverine are superior to those of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Surely, there are places where it’s not superb, but it’s fairly on par with your general effects-heavy summer film.  Believe me, I saw worse CGI in the trailers before this film, but there were areas for improvement at times.  Frankly, I can forgive some undercooked CGI if the film surrounding it is damn good enough.  That very much applies here because this is exponentially superior to its Gavin Hood-directed predecessor on every level.

The Wolverine might not reach the level of greatness, but I feel it is an almost perfectly solid piece of work.  The film takes its time to explore its characters, and give us a sense of depth and emotion with its title character.  Even the dream sequences with him and Jean Grey are very poignantly handled starting out as something that haunts Logan, but slowly reflecting his ability to absolve himself of the burden he has at the film’s beginning.  As you can likely tell, I very much respect and like this film’s focus on character instead of action.  It also doesn’t overload us with more and more mutants, trying to cram every last cameo it can into the runtime.  It takes the characters it needs, and builds the story around them tightly.  I can only imagine how insane X-Men: Days of Future Past is going to be with somewhere in the range fifteen to twenty characters populating the story.  Speaking of such things, stick around for a few minutes after the end credits begin.  There is a special scene that you will certainly not want to miss that sets up next year’s big sequel.

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Man of Steel (2013)

Man of SteelMan of Steel was my most anticipated film of the year.  Not for an instant did I doubt it from any piece of marketing that came out.  Each trailer and TV spot just got increasingly better raising my excitement for this more and more.  Everything kept giving me hope for an amazing film experience.  I know there’s a full spectrum of opinions out there right now, but take it from someone who grew up on Christopher Reeve as Superman, whose main inspiration in life has been Christopher Reeve, from some who loved Smallville, and feels Superman is the most epic and emotionally powerful superhero of all time – I really liked this movie A LOT!  There’s plenty to get into here, and you can count on zero spoilers.

On the planet Krypton, renowned scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) discovers the hope for his seemingly doomed society in his newborn son Kal-El, but it is nearly thwarted by an attempted insurrection by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is later sentenced to the Phantom Zone before the planet’s demise.  Years later, on Earth, a young boy learns that he has extraordinary powers and is not of this Earth.  As a young man, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) journeys to discover where he came from and what he was sent here to do.  But the hero in him must emerge if he is to save the world from annihilation by the now freed Zod and become the symbol of hope for all mankind.

Okay, I really, really enjoyed this movie, but I just want to get my one big critique out of the way right up front.  It’s nothing damaging, just a structural issue.  The film does follow a linear storytelling structure except for all of the scenes of Clark growing up, and everything with Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, who does a fine, heartfelt job here.  These scenes are all very good, but I really think the film needed for us to go on that journey with Clark instead of flashbacking to isolated moments in his upbringing.  I didn’t feel as much build up as I wanted to with Clark discovering his origins and donning the costume.  We don’t get to see the linear development of Clark struggling through the pain, the adversity, the fear, and the doubt in his youth to see how he really overcomes and grows stronger through that.  If there’s any one major flaw with this film, it’s simply that.  It worked wonderfully in Batman Begins because we still saw Bruce Wayne develop and find his way in the world as an adult before dedicating himself to becoming Batman.  Here, it feels a little short on that emotional journey and impact, and the film would feel a little stronger if that played out linearly instead of through flashbacks.  Clark dons the Superman costume within the first, probably, thirty-five minutes of the movie.

Of course, I suppose the main question for everyone is with Henry Cavill.  By no doubt, the film lives or dies by his performance.  For me, he does a great job.  He gives us a grounded portrayal that feels real and genuine.  The somewhat familiar Clark Kent secret identity is not fleshed out until the end, and so, it is a story of Clark deciding what kind of man he wants to be.  Cavill does embody an honest sense of hope, and has a strong physical presence.  He trained extremely hard to achieve this physique, and it makes all the difference when you see him walking down the street in that suit.  He just exudes power.  When he is not being Superman, he feels very grounded and honest.  He stays true to Clark’s Kansas farm boy roots being a man of morality and admirable strength of character.  Clark is developing throughout the film, and continues to push his limits of what he can do, not just in terms of powers but in terms of determination.  Superman is a hero who never gives up regardless of the odds, and here, the odds are tremendously against him.  Yet, through hell and back, Cavill’s Superman shows us an icon of power that can inspire others to greater heights than ever imagined.  While he doesn’t usurp Christopher Reeve’s inspiring magic, this feels like a Superman for a modern era that still has potential for further development in the already greenlit sequel.  I feel Henry Cavill is a great successor to the mantle of the Last Son of Krypton, and he gives us plenty of humanity that shines through on the screen.

And this film is going to challenge many people on their long held preconceptions of the traditional Superman mythos.  I’m sure there will be some that are resistant to this approach, but it ultimately laid my apprehensions to rest.  The relationship with Lois Lane is built up very differently as she is closely associated with Clark / Superman throughout the film, and they develop a great, emotionally intimate connection.  Amy Adams does a wonderful job as Lois Lane, and what she and Cavill have together is purely stunning.  There’s an honest depth of emotion and understanding between them that shines through beautifully.  Lois is not a damsel in distress either.  Yes, she gets into perilous situations, but she is an active part of this story and plot.  She’s very integral to stopping Zod’s genocide of humanity.  Because she becomes so closely tied to Superman, she remains relevant to everything that’s happening.  Of course, most pertinent of all, we see her as a dogged yet relatable journalist.  Adams swirls a lot of different qualities into Lois from her determination as a reporter to her compassion and strength.  She was a pleasure to witness here, and I think she also brings this character into a grounded, modern age that still remains true to the core, classic aspects of Lois Lane.

Having no easy shoes to fill himself, Michael Shannon takes General Zod and runs with him in his own way.  There’s absolutely no catering to fan service here.  He’s built up as his own character through Shannon’s awesome portrayal.  He’s a bonafide bad ass villain bred as a warrior to protect Krypton at any cost, and he’s given solid depth.  You understand what he’s doing, and why he’s doing it.  Everything Zod does is for the sake of the people of Krypton, but he is a megalomaniacal, genocidal madman willing to eradicate our planet to fulfill his inherent purpose.  This is no weak or generic adversary.  Shannon has great presence that really commands your undivided attention, and he delivers a chilling General Zod that can be frightening by his sheer mercilessness.  This is a Zod who’s going to kill everyone in his path without a moment’s hesitation, and that’s just awesome.

There’s a great supporting cast here, but in short, here are the heavy hitters.  Laurence Fishburne is a damn solid Perry White.  I know there are people bothered by the classic character’s change in race, but Fishburne is a tremendously awesome actor who delivers the goods with strength, nuance, and passion.  Diane Lane is a lovely Martha Kent bringing a subtle, tender touch at the right moments in Clark’s story.  Antje Traue portrays Zod’s second-in-command Faora-Ul fantastically.  She’s extremely imposing and lethal.  Anyone who thought this was just Ursa revamped, don’t do that.  She’s not given as much development as Zod, but she’s a hardcore ass kicking machine.  Beyond that, there’s just a lot of really quality performances throughout this film that does what a supporting cast is meant to do – build a solid foundation for the leads to springboard off of and launch the film into the stratosphere.

And indeed, lest I forget, we get Russell Crowe portraying the great Jor-El.  I found his performance quite admirable with a unique sophistication, compassion, and depth.  The real Jor-El is seen only on Krypton at the start, and it’s great seeing Crowe doing some action oriented work alongside some inspiring emotional beats.  Later on, we see Jor-El as merely a projection through Kryptonian technology, and there is indeed still that strength and emotion present when meeting with Kal-El or confronting Zod.  Yet, since he also works as sort of a computer program, there’s a more clinical portrayal of him in those instances where analytical guidance is needed.  While I don’t wish to draw comparisons for my own sake, I know people are interested in the comparison to Marlon Brando.  I do feel Brando wins in this situation.  I think Crowe is an amazing actor demonstrating his best performance in what I consider Michael Mann’s best film, The Insider.  However, Brando will always stand as one of the finest, most powerful actors of all time when he was in his prime.  Crowe’s Jor-El is more fallible and vulnerable, by design, where Brando’s was inspirational and infallible through and through.  For this Jor-El, Crowe hits it right on the mark, and I wouldn’t ask for him to change a thing.

Man of Steel also features plenty of action, and the more we get, the bigger and badder it gets.  It just builds and builds to flat out epic proportions!  We get moments where Superman has to push himself so hard to destroy Zod’s terra-forming machine that it becomes pure epic Superman awesomeness.  Earlier on, there are some brutal knock down, drag out fights between the Kryptonian soldiers and Superman.  While it almost seems futile for beings of seemingly equal strength and invulnerability to just keep pummeling one another, it generally works very satisfactorily.  What’s more impressive is when Faora is using her super strength and speed to just blitz through a dozen soldiers at a time.  This is all the kind of stuff Superman II couldn’t do because of the limitations of effects at the time, but this delivers in full throttle mode.

And I’m sorry, but The Avengers be damned with this climax.  Superman versus Zod is the epic throwdown of the decade!  They beat the living hell out of one another, smashing up Metropolis from top to bottom with full on ferocity.  While some of the CGI can get to appearing somewhat obvious at some times, you knew this was going to be a CGI-heavy affair from the start to achieve extremely fantastical feats.  So, aside from those small moments, this is some stunning and awesome digital effects work!  It integrates so beautifully and realistically with the grounded, slightly gritty feel of the film in my eyes.  The design of Krypton is very alien and somewhat bleak, but still stunning and enveloping.

And Zack Snyder has well proved he is a brilliant visual director.  I’m a big fan of the Watchmen movie he made, and it’s amazing how much his visual style shifted for the material here.  Indeed, I think the Christopher Nolan touch as a producer influenced that, but this is indeed Snyder’s film.  Director of photography Amir Mokri has clearly not done anything that would suggest a film of this visual depth and emotion, but he does a remarkable job realizing Snyder’s vision.  And again, that translates fully into the visual effects on every level.  Every moment reflects a film of epic scope in terms of size and emotion.

By no doubt, the score by master composer Hans Zimmer is perfect for this movie.  Yet again, separating this film from that iconic John Williams theme wasn’t easy for even Zimmer, but he honed his talent and found the sound for Man of Steel.  His main theme has weight and emotion creating a driving rhythm from twelve of the world’s best drummers.  When the scene is rousing and building towards something big and drama, the score is just powerful.  Still, he has a touching piano version of that theme which really plucks the heartstrings in the more tender, lower key moments.  It’s a stunning piece of work he crafted here, and this is a score that I will treasure to own right alongside that original John Williams score from the 1978 film.  Both work on the right epic and inspirational levels for the types of the films they accompanied, and I love them both!

Man of Steel does feature a certain amount of depth that I felt was very good.  Clark finding his purpose and learning who he wants to be has very apt and meaningful.  Although, I do feel there was one missed moment for a little more character development and reflection.  After learning his origins and having a discussion with Lois about Jonathan Kent, Clark returns home, and shortly thereafter, Zod’s message is transmitted around the world forcing that plot forward.  I feel a scene or two of reflection and development right before that plot is introduced would have been perfect.  It would’ve allowed Clark’s journey of discovery to settle in more, and understand where his mindset is at this point in time before being propelled into the public eye.  We do get a number of very good introspective scenes following this in regards to Zod’s ultimatum for Kal-El to reveal himself, but a short lull would’ve felt right to me.  But that’s just me.

Of course, once Zod arrives in Earth’s orbit, the film just propels forward at a very consistent pace.  It’s not break neck, but it certainly doesn’t slow down much for character building.  We do get moments of emotion, passion, and insight into Clark, Lois, and Zod at certain points.  Still, I feel that there is room for further development in a Man of Steel sequel.  I think there’s still much to explore about this Superman, and an even further distance for him to mature and grow.  The foundation is strongly and solidly laid out here, and director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer can launch everything into a even vaster and deeper place next time.

This is the best film of the year for me by a long shot!  Man of Steel might show some room for improvement, but it delivers on so many epic and powerful levels that I give this a wholehearted recommendation.  If you are a Superman fan willing to embrace a fresh approach that still carries on the spirit of everything that encapsulates the greatest superhero of all time, this is your film to see.  I have no problem with the redesigned suit now that I see it in full bombastic action, and this film has plenty of inspiring imagery.  While we came to believe a long time ago that a man could fly, today, we can believe that Superman can once again live and thrive on the big screen once again.  My hope is restored in full.


Superman II – The Richard Donner Cut (2006)

Superman II RDCThe preface to this review and this version of Superman II in general is that this is more of a rough draft reconstruction of Richard Donner’s original vision of the film.  As much of Donner’s footage was culled together and assembled for this edition, but there’s even a screen test used for one scene and a lot of special effects that are not comparable to what would have been done in 1980.  This version also follows the intended original ending for Superman: The Movie where it would’ve ended on a cliffhanger of Luthor’s missiles being hurled into space and its explosion freeing Zod and his cohorts from the Phantom Zone.  So, even then, this is not the film we would’ve gotten had Donner finished filming this sequel.  So, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get deep into this special and unique version of Superman II.

Freed from the Phantom Zone by an exploding missile in space, General Zod (Terence Stamp) leads his fellow Kryptonian criminals on the path to super-powered tyranny over the planet Earth.  Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from his own prison, and journeys to discover Superman’s secrets at the arctic Fortress of Solitude in hopes to harness that knowledge as a weapon.  As this all happens, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) forces a series of events for Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) to reveal himself as Superman.  This leads to a romance between Lois and Clark, but the sacrifices the Man of Steel will make for the woman he loves may leave the entire planet in dire circumstances under the tyranny of General Zod.

The highlights of this version are the inclusion of Marlon Brando’s scenes as Jor-El.  We get a truncated version of Zod’s trial from the first film, conducted by Jor-El, with a few different angles thrown in.  This better establishes Zod’s personal contempt for Jor-El.  However, the best Brando content is in the Fortress of Solitude.  Clark’s interactions with Jor-El as he professes his love for Lois is strongly substantive and nearly heartbreaking.  Jor-El pleading with his son to think about his actions and re-consider his choices is a powerful scene, and is further enhanced when Clark learns of Zod’s tyranny on Earth and seeks to regain his powers.  This is the single biggest and best improvement from the Lester to the Donner cut.  We see how he gets his powers back, and while Reeves’ acting is deeper and more powerful in the Lester version, the overall scene has more impact and meaning with this interaction.  Brando’s presence simply enhances the emotional and consequential scope of the story.  This is due to Jor-El’s overall importance, and the quality of Brando’s legendary talent.

This version also excises nearly all of the silly humor that Richard Lester put into the film.  This makes for a leaner, more serious movie, and that’s exactly what Superman II required.  It has plenty of substance and thematic weight that shines through more clearly with that consistency of tone.  However, there are some structural problems that arise from this.  While I find this to be a faster paced version of the film, I don’t especially see it as a more streamlined or as well plotted of a version.

This version does have good ideas and intentions, but I think the editing is too aggressive to excise more and more Lester footage.  Beyond just having this match Donner’s version, a certain percentage of his directed footage has to be present for him to take credit as the film’s director by DGA rules.  This, along with the new timeline of events, affects the pacing and structure of the film in some negative ways.  For instance, Zod and company are freed from the Phantom Zone, and then, don’t reappear for another twenty minutes.  Then, after the moon scene, they don’t appear on Earth for another fifteen minutes.  Then, once there, the film jumps ahead so abruptly that within a one minute cutaway scene to Lois and Superman having dinner in the Fortress, it goes from their abbreviated encounter with the two cops on the outskirts of the town to them reaching international television coverage on their reign of terror.  Scenes are strung together in choppy ways to excise Lester’s comedy and to remove entire sequences that might be a little funny but also establish informative plot progression and gradual build-up.  The structure has some good intentions by tightening up the pace in a more modern way, and getting straight to the point, but ultimately, it doesn’t feel well balanced or evenly paced.

And it might be a nit-picky thing, but if these events happen within a day or two after the first film, how in the world is Lex able to build both a holographic projector and his alpha waves detector within that time?  I was realizing how much more sense some of Luthor’s dialogue with Otis was with these events happening immediately after those of the first movie, and then, that idea sprung to mind.  Some stuff works in that context, but other stuff, not so much.

Some of what I don’t feel works as well in that compressed timeframe is Lois’ suspicions about Clark being Superman.  First off, I think it’s rather abrupt as she begins suspecting right from the film’s start.  It’s not something built up in the first movie, and is introduced here at full throttle.  Lois also does some insanely radical things to prove it such as jumping out the window of the Daily Planet.  Furthermore, Lois and Clark have only known each other now for a few weeks, and Clark’s now willing to give up everything for her.  The dialogue between him and Jor-El alludes to him serving mankind for a long time.  He says things like, “After all I’ve done for them….will there ever be a time where I’ve served enough?”  In this version of the film, he’s only been Superman, again, for a few weeks, at most.  It simply doesn’t fit.  In Lester’s cut, you get the feeling that he has been around for quite a while, possibly a few years, but here, that is not the case at all.  This film picks up almost immediately after the conclusion of the first movie allowing for no such leeway.

The screen test scene is where Lois forces Clark to reveal himself as Superman.  Of course, this scene is jarring as Christopher Reeve looks quite different, even from shot to shot, as his hairstyle and glasses are different from the rest of the movie, and two screen tests were combined for one scene.  He’s also particularly thinner.  However, I especially don’t approve of Lois’ drastic measures, yet again.  Even though she loads the gun with blanks, the connotation is abhorrent.  Blanks or no, Superman or not, it’s not something you do to someone you love.  Not to mention, I’m sure even Clark could tell that no bullet impacted his man of steel body.  However, the real downside of this scene is that it’s not remotely effective or has nearly as much build up as the scene in the Lester version.  There’s more subtlety and underlining character and emotion in the Lester version where Clark feigns burning his hand in the honeymoon suite fireplace.  It’s also better acted as, again, Donner’s version is probably the first time Reeve and Kidder ever worked with one another.  Even if it were a properly produced scene, I just don’t like Lois pulling a gun on Clark.

The new digital effects for this version are divided in quality.  The one exceptional area is in the Fortress of Solitude with Jor-El’s projections.  You can sometimes tell they are digital composites, but overall, they are the best CGI this film has to offer.  They have a near dead-on look and feel to what we saw in the first movie.  Sadly, there are some really atrocious digital effects and composites on display here, especially the ones in space.  Those outer space background plates look like terribly cartoonish and laughable.  You would NEVER release a film with these cheap looking digital effects into a movie theatre.  Even for a low budget direct-to-video feature they are horrible.  Some of the effects in the Earth based scenes are more easily blended, but still leave a lot of room for improvement.  It is sad that you see other films of that era like Blade Runner or Star Trek: The Motion Picture that have been given similar director’s cuts and digital touch-up jobs with immensely superior results.  The former being a cult classic that did poorly upon release, and the latter still being one of the more maligned entries in the franchise.  Superman II has always been a widely revered film since release, and fans had demanded a Donner version for years.  It’s a terrible shame that Warner Brothers didn’t allocate a larger effects budget to this project because it severely needed it.  History shows you cannot do good visual effects on the cheap, whether in the optical or digital eras.

Another arguable issue is that Richard Donner chose to downgrade the use of Ken Thorne’s original score for Lester’s version in favor of cutting and pasting various pieces of John Williams’ score from the first movie.  This reportedly includes some previously unreleased tracks.  For certain sequences, especially with Zod, Ursa, and Non on the moon, the original Thorne score is more effective highlighting more subtle flourishes and moments.  One can never deny the value of a John Williams score, but his tracks are compositions created for certain other scenes from another movie.  They aren’t going to flow or fit as well as Thorne’s music.  Not to mention, there are times where you can hear obvious chopped up cues that are simply manufacturing moments to fit the scene.  Again, this sort of stems from a low budget for this project.  If this project had enough money, they could have gotten it scored the way it was supposed to be instead of pasting random cues together.

On the upside, there are a number of other improved scenes.  I like the extended assault on the White House.  There’s a peculiar moment where Zod, bored at the lack of a challenge, picks up an assault rifle and starts just shooting the soldiers with it.  All the while he’s got this smirk of amusement on his face like a man playing with a child’s toy.  To him, that’s exactly what it is.  While the scene of Zod being bored after having ceased control of the world is present in both versions, I’d just like to comment on this exemplifying a thought of mine.  What exactly does an all powerful villain and tyrant do once they’ve conquered the world?  For Zod, he sits around being bored out of his skull all day long.  I find that rather funny.

The battle through Metropolis is extended with a few more fun and exciting moments, but the Lester version does feel a little tighter in places.  Yet, Donner’s cut removes so much of the humor that previously undercut the drama of the scene, which is very welcomed.  I also wholeheartedly feel that the climax in the Fortress of Solitude is vastly superior here.  It’s simply better written dialogue and interactions.  Zod and Superman have a more confrontational exchange of words that build upon elements from the Metropolis battle and Zod’s history with Jor-El.  It’s better staged and shot in a more interesting way.  It just has a better, more cumulative feel to it, and is not hampered by a battle of bizarre powers.  It’s very character based, and Donner knows how to pay-off characters amazingly well.

There is a problem with the ending of this version.  While the time reversal usage in the first film, which was transplanted from this film, was strange but nothing really objectionable, how it’s used here negates the events of the entire movie.  Superman reverses time back to the beginning of this movie so that none of it actually happened.  All of the maturing and development of his character is washed away because he no longer has to face the consequences of his actions.  Him destroying the Fortress of Solitude showing that he is now moving beyond that and standing on his own is negated because turning back time restores it.  I also don’t know how reversing time actually prevents the missile from not exploding and releasing Zod, Ursa, and Non from the Phantom Zone all over again.  That’s not addressed in the least.  Plus, Superman did nothing to prevent Luthor from escaping prison, and then, traveling to the Fortress to learn all his secrets all over again.  It’s an extremely sloppy ending, and far too much of a copout power for Superman to utilize.  Any mistake he ever makes can be immediately undone by reversing time.  This applies to the ending of the first film, too, but at least, it was used in a rage of emotion for an isolated incident.  This might as well have had Superman suddenly waking up at the end revealing that it was all a dream.  Furthermore, the jerk at the diner that beat up Clark when he didn’t have his powers, he’s still given a beat down by Clark in this version AFTER he’s already turned back time.  So, Clark is now beating up a guy for something he actually now hasn’t even done.  It’s just sloppy, incoherent structure.  Donner seemed to want everything poured into this without really rationalizing out what made sense to belong or not.

I think somewhere between the Richard Lester and Richard Donner cuts lies the ultimate version of Superman II.  Something that features the best quality performances, including Brando as Jor-El, with a main focus on serious drama, but with a more even pacing that does not favor one director’s footage over another’s.  Warner Brothers should put the right money into it to enhance the new effects, clean up the original optical effects, and get a composer to create a full score with a solid mix.  Not to mention, a semblance of a truly satisfying and smart ending that doesn’t rely on either a memory wiping kiss or a time reversal concept, if possible.  Again, I like the intention and creative direction of Donner’s version, but because it is only a rough draft approximation of the film he would have made, it doesn’t feel like a complete film.  If Donner had been able to shoot his complete film the way he intended to, I truly believe this cut would be so supremely better.  Instead, his ideas have to cut around and chop up footage he didn’t shoot and doesn’t care for.  It’s like trying to fix someone else’s mistake on a sculpture by chipping your way around the undesirable parts.  It’s going to look awkward and clunky.  I more or less believe Donner did the best he could with the footage he had in approximating his vision while adhering to the rules of the DGA to receive a director’s credit on this.  I really hate to speak so negatively about this version because it should be the better version of the two on principal, but on a structural level, it doesn’t really work the way it’s supposed to.  If this was a script, I would say it would need rewrites.  I really enjoy Donner’s extended cut of the first film, and I only own his director’s cuts of the first three Lethal Weapon movies.  So, he does make some great choices in the editing room, but this is too peculiar of a situation for him to forge the best, unbiased edition of Superman II.  This feels more like a workprint than a final product, and I would hope that a better revision on this film could someday exist in an official capacity.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesMy childhood fandom of the Ninja Turtles has not stayed with me into adulthood, except for this excellent live action film.  When people talk about comic book adaptations I don’t think many trigger this film in their heads due to the property’s larger visibility as a cartoon.  The cartoon was very goofy fun while the comic was very violent and dark.  This movie met them somewhere in the middle giving us something that was gritty and violent with strong substance, but also maintaining a great sense of fun.  Even more impressive is how these filmmakers brought the Turtles into live action in convincing fashion.

A mysterious, severe crime wave is gripping New York as thieves slip in and out even in broad daylight sight unseen.  Television journalistic April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) believes it to be the work of a Japanese outfit called the Foot Clan, and she is soon targeted by them in order to silence her.  However, from the sewers of the city come four mutated crime-fighting and fun-loving turtles – Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael – and their rat sensei Splinter who fight at her side.  Joining them in their battle is Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), a vigilante that utilizes sports gear as weapons.  At the head of the Foot Clan is the merciless Shredder who has revealing links to the origins of the Turtles and Splinter.

Now, I don’t care how evolved CGI will become, I cannot imagine anything outdoing the brilliant craftsmanship of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop team here.  Henson, for those that don’t know, was the premiere innovator of puppetry and animatronics in the 1970s and 1980s.  This film was indeed a pinnacle achievement for him and his company.  Nothing at all is sacrificed with the use of these elaborate suits of foam rubber and animatronic mechanisms.  They have a full, wide range of abilities in expression and movement creating Turtles that can perform all of the dynamic, agile action, and convey deep emotion and character.  Even adjusted for inflation, no film today could achieve with CGI what this film did on $13.5 million.  Each Turtle is given a distinct look, design, and feel with extraordinary detail.  They have a very realistic texture that feels natural to the environment around them and of the film as a whole.  Splinter is undoubtedly the most impressive accomplishment in all his articulation as there was no one in a suit portraying him.  He’s purely from the result of expert animatronics operators, and he still has the value of humanity to him.

Leonardo is the strong leader of the group trusting and enveloping himself in Splinter’s spiritual teachings.  He forges the soul of the team.  Donatello is more laid back, less like his scientist cartoon counterpart, but still works very enjoyably in this dynamic.  His voice is even provided by Corey Feldman.  Michelangelo is the fun loving party dude, and a bit of the mischievous one of them all.  However, my favorite is definitely Raphael with his more tough guy attitude.  He’s the most strong willed, but also stubborn one of them all.  He shows the most passion and frustration of the Turtles, and I really like his first encounter with Casey Jones.  It’s very funny to both of their credits.  It would be easy to drive this premise into silly territory, but this film takes these characters seriously.  The filmmakers do make them fun, but they are dimensional characters with interesting family dynamics and deep, real emotions that are beautifully conveyed.  It’s a masterful mixture of the live action performances, and incredible dubbing work by highly talented voice actors.  It all feels totally seamless and cohesive for an ultimate Turtle Power experience!

Judith Hoag does a stellar job as April O’Neil.  She’s a spirited, serious journalistic that is determined to crack open this crime spree, and even suspects the police of not doing their all to combat it.  Hoag injects a lot of spunky personality into the character, and as the film progresses, we see her heart and humor in touching fashion.  Hoag makes April a very energetic and fun character.  It’s a terrible shame that she declined to reprise her role in the sequels due to substantial cuts to some of her scenes here.  She does a wonderful job in this role through and through.  I also believe Hoag has some endearing natural beauty that entirely fits the tone of the film, and more important than looks is that she’s a pitch perfect casting choice.  She has wonderful chemistry with everyone she shares the screen with, and carries her own in every single scene.

The one person that I’ve always dearly loved in this movie is Elias Koteas as the hockey mask wearing Casey Jones.  For one, Koteas is one of the best, most consistently awesome actors I’ve seen.  As Jones, he’s greatly entertaining with a real hard edged but not-too-bright attitude.  Koteas is more of a street fighter, but shows off some good moves against the Foot Clan.  Casey is charming in a dunderheaded kind of way.  He’s surely street smart, but not all that smooth socially.  He means real well with his heart in the right place, but often his mouth and machismo screws him over.  Koteas and Hoag have this great endearing friction that Donatello perfectly relates to Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd on Moonlighting, which had that classic argumentative romantic tension.  By the end, however, you see Koteas has great comedic charisma, and has Casey show his heart to really win everyone over.

And of course, the portrayal of the Shredder is chilling and perfect.  The filmmakers set the right tone keeping him shrouded in shadows at first, and giving him grand reveals that elevate his mystique.  The role was the work of two performers.  James Saito was the on-screen performer giving the character all of his theatrical and frightening presence, and showcasing some stellar martial arts abilities.  However, his low, ominous voice was provided by David McCharen, and that’s a major cog in the Shredder’s overall power.  The theatrical trailer actually features a different dubbed voice which isn’t as effective, and so, all the right choices were clearly made with the execution and presentation of this arch-nemesis for our heroes in a half-shell.  And surely, I have to mention the really tough right hand man in Tatsu that leads the Foot into battle, and is a very solid complement to Shredder’s presence and character.

The action sequences are done remarkably well.  All of the martial arts action is superb with the Turtle suits impairing none of the stunt players’ ability with the fight choreography.  The violence holds nothing back, short of bloodshed, as weapons are used regularly, and the fights show plenty of inventive ideas to keep it fun and original.  The Turtles’ shells are often employed in quirky, smart ways.  It’s a great showcase of fun, dynamic, but also, gritty martial arts action.  When the Turtles finally square off against the Shredder, it’s a great sequence which intensifies the villain’s indomitable skill and cold blooded viciousness.  Yet, the climax still has some surprises and humorous beats to make it both a dramatic, perilous sequence, and something to elicit some chuckles and laughs from the audience.  It’s stellar and memorable all around.  It’s greatly satisfying.

It is immensely admirable how genuine this film is.  Director Steve Barron pays honest respect to this material, and never treats these six foot tall ninja fighting mutant turtles are jokes.  Of course it’s an absurd concept, but it’s only as convincing as how you present it.  If you can make the audience connect with the characters on a genuine, emotional level, a serious tone with the film will work, and it does so amazingly here.  Leo, Don, Mikey, Raph, and Splinter are given as much weight and poignancy as any other character you might find.  It is their film and they carry it.  And they carry it with tremendous success.  These are the characters you absolutely must fall in love with, and all of the work that went into them from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to the performers to the voice talents and beyond made that possible.

And this is one seriously catchy score by John Du Prez.  These themes have been engrained my mind for over twenty years.  He uses a strong urban flavor with electric guitars for most things, but there’s plenty of variation.  For instance, the main theme is light-hearted and melodically catchy.  Du Prez also gives us beautiful compositions in the more spiritual scenes with Splinter, and the tender moments out at the farmhouse where the Turtles, Casey, and April recover from their defeats.  And even more so, his score accentuates moments of tension and danger for our heroes.  It’s an awesome score that is filled with so much life and depth, but as with the rest of the movie, it never forgets the fun factor.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has excellent energy with spot-on rhythm and pacing.  While it has lower key moments with lulls in the action to further develop the characters, it never drags.  These filmmakers fill that 90 minute runtime tightly creating a film that is all kinds of fun while not skimping on the substance.  This is due to the great action and charismatic humor that populates it.  Every character is realized vibrantly and portrayed superbly.  The balancing of tone between the serious drama and fun levity is greatly handled by director Steve Barron backed by a really solid screenplay   It’s a shame this was at the end of the careers of both screenwriters.  They seemed to have a real great knack for entertaining diversity, well developed characters, and cohesive storytelling.

Altogether, this is seriously one great movie!  I really love it, and I think it holds up beautifully over the last twenty-three years.  The gritty look of it really grabs me, and sets the Turtles in a unique world where it feels very real but their mere existence opens up the doors to far more fantastical possibilities.  I think the spiritual qualities offered up are powerful as they add a further depth to these characters and concepts.  I find it a real disservice that the sequels took a much more family friendly and lighter direction due to objections from parents about this film’s violent content.  Neither sequel was received as well as this one resulting in declining box office returns for New Line Cinema.  This first film was produced independently, and at that time, it became the highest grossing independent film of all time bringing in $200 million.  That comes are no surprise to me because this is an excellent made film in every aspect striving to be more than just a fun flick.  It gives you a weight of substance that is essential, in my view, to any successful comic book adaptation.  Heroes will always battle villains, but it’s what you put into those heroes and villains that make it special.  And to me, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a very special film to me.  I give it a HUGE recommendation!


Superman (1978)

SupermanThe original superhero blockbuster was an epic task to achieve in the late 1970’s.  Richard Donner was the director given the main task of helming this ambitious project, but the true strength of bringing Superman to the silver screen lied within one man who remains, for so many, the quintessential embodiment of the Last Son of Krypton.  Christopher Reeve would carry this icon to soaring heights, and capture the hearts of audiences worldwide.

When the premier scientist of the planet Krypton, Jor-El (Marlon Brando), rightfully predicts the destruction of his peaceful planet, he sends his only son in a spacecraft to the planet Earth.  There, he is adopted by the kindly Kansas couple the Kents, but they quickly discover young Clark Kent possesses powers beyond that of any human.  As he grows to maturity, Clark (Christopher Reeve) learns of his alien heritage, and comes to Metropolis as a reporter for the Daily Planet.  However, when a perilous helicopter accident forces Clark to reveal his powers to the world as Superman, he becomes the target of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) who launches a diabolical plan to destroy the west coast and kill Superman.

When this film was being made, comic books weren’t taken very seriously, and so, these filmmakers intended to make a serious impression with Superman.  While this didn’t break the floodgates open for comic book movies to be produced, this laid the groundwork for things to come, especially 1989’s Batman.  Even though the tone isn’t consistently serious and epic, it never degrades the integrity of Superman.  That’s something I can at least say about all of the Christopher Reeve outings, regardless of how bad, cheesy, or stupid they may have gotten – Reeve maintains Superman as an icon of integrity and dignity.  However, he is not the only incredible acting talent on display in this epic blockbuster.

Casting Marlon Brando as Jor-El was a brilliant idea.  For those first twenty minutes of the movie, he carries it effortlessly bringing compassion, strength, and wisdom to this pivotal character.  No one could ever discount Brando’s talent, and he establishes a solid impression with just a few introductory scenes.  In addition to that, Glenn Ford really has only two scenes here as Jonathan Kent, but the substance of his talent and performance rings through purposefully.  It has weight and poignancy.  Both of these fathers are the moral building blocks of who Clark Kent becomes, and they are the men that forge the strength and virtue that are key to Superman.  Brando, in particular, sets a wonderful, heartfelt tone when he returns as this projection in the Fortress of Solitude to guide his son.  The film’s extended edition adds in another scene between Clark and Jor-El which is beautiful and touching.

And since Superman and Superman II were plotted out and conceived at the same time, we have an excellent setup at the beginning of this film with Terrence Stamp’s General Zod and his fellow conspirators.  Stamp makes a powerful impact in that one scene with a cold, tyrannical presence where he leaves Jor-El with a prophetic threat that pays off in the following film.

Richard Donner and his cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth do a remarkable job with the visuals here.  Krypton has its epic visual scope, but also, this intriguing utopian alien aesthetic.  The crystal structures are unlike anything that had been seen before reflecting a culture vastly different from our own, and the journey of Kal-El’s spaceship to Earth is wonderfully cosmic.  The scenes in Kansas are sprawling and picturesque.  They evoke that Norman Rockwell heartland of America feeling.  They use the landscape to stunning effect giving the film visual scope in distinct ways.  When the film shifts to Metropolis, it looks more standard with less visual flare.  More urban grit with locked down shots and less graceful camera movements.  The whole film also has this soft focus glow that I feel really works well.

Must I even say that John Williams’ score is amazing?  The man specializes in amazing.  However, what he does here I think is even more special.  No other theme in all of cinema, to me, reflects such hope, heroism, and inspiration as his theme for Superman.  It has lived beyond this continuity of films to be iconic with the character himself through all media and generations.  It is usually a surefire way to choke me up, especially with the right imagery, and it encapsulates Superman in the most epic ways possible.  The overall score is equally as stunning, and stands as one of Williams’ finest accomplishments.

This was a film of ambitious special effects as never before had the image of Superman flying through the air appeared convincing.  Largely, I do think many of these visual effects are still great.  They still work beautifully, but every once in a while you get a shot that looks quite dated and less than convincing.  However, the use of miniatures for certain shots, and every trick they used to make Superman fly is stellar.  Oddly, I really like the scene where he stops the car burglar from scaling the skyscraper, and you see Superman fly down across frame as the burglar falls.  It’s a simple shot that required no visual effects.  The opening shots on Krypton are stunning too especially after Zod and his cohorts are sentenced to the Phantom Zone, and we see that massive dome opening up.  It’s all about visual scope, and this film captured it with epic results.  In general, this film was an amazing achievement in visual effects that earned this team an Oscar.

Now, while this excellent special effects team made you believe a man could fly, Christopher Reeve made you believe in Superman.  That helicopter rescue scene remains possibly my favorite Superman moment of all time.  His moments at the end of that scene speaking with Lois are magical to me.  The confidence he projects with a glimmer in his eye is the moment I believed in the power of Superman.  Overall, Reeve brings the heart, humanity, compassion, and charm of the Man of Steel to brilliant life.  He even shows moments of emotional depth speaking again with Jor-El at the Fortress of Solitude after revealing his existence, and especially so opposite Lois.  But it’s the genuine kindness and earnest humbleness in Reeve’s performance that sells everything.  You can see that this is a character that believes in the best in humanity, and is truly a beacon of hope to all.  Later in life, we saw that Christopher Reeve naturally embodied these qualities in his struggle with paralysis, and because of his undying hope, he became one of the greatest inspirations in life to me.  He was a real life Superman.

Now, while the first fifty minutes of the film are very serious, dramatic, and vast in scope, the latter bulk of the movie shifts tones.  It delves more into a somewhat campy comic book tone.  You’ve got the charming yet bumbling Clark Kent creating a little bit of physical humor here and there.  Then, the introduction of the villains pushes the proverbial envelope.  Ned Beatty’s Otis is not to be taken seriously at all.  He’s an obvious dimwit, and Miss Teschmacher is not much better.  It almost seems like Lex Luthor surrounds himself with morons in order to make himself look like a genius in comparison.

Now, I am not a fan of this portrayal of Lex Luthor.  He’s little more than a ruthless con artist and a real estate swindler with bad fashion sense and maniacal aspirations.  I will give credit that he is a sociopath willing to exterminate countless lives for his own greed, and that does make him a serious threat.  However, regardless of the sort of silly characterization, Gene Hackman still puts in a damn fine performance.  The humor of Luthor is expertly done with sharp conviction, but what sells him as a villain is really the vile intellect.  The entire “greatest criminal mind of our time” thing does come off comically, but we do see moments where Luthor has a dangerous intelligence.  He can setup a cunning trap for Superman, but I’d love to be able to take the character seriously on a consistent basis.  I truly believe Hackman could have done a wholly serious, villainous performance, and done it awesomely.  Unfortunately, it really is the bumbling fools that surround Luthor which make him cartoonish for most of his screentime.  I don’t think the film needed silliness in any degree.  Regardless, Hackman is a magnificent actor, and his talent regularly shows here even if the material is a little goofy.

And the remainder of the supporting cast is exceptionally solid.  Jackie Cooper gives us a great, hard edged Perry White.  He’s a newsman who has gusto and aggression who motivates his people firmly.  Margot Kidder is indeed a stellar Lois Lane giving us both the assertive, ambitious journalist who will do whatever it takes to get the best story, but also, shows us the feminine vulnerability.  We see her genuine affection for Superman, and Kidder has solid chemistry with Reeve in both of his personas.  The scenes of tender heart and warmth are genuine while the bumbling Clark scenes have a nice contrast of humor and Lois’ aggressive nature.  It’s fantastically handled by two amazing talents, and honed by a great director.

This is a solid origin story and a colorful, vibrant film.  I do like the pacing of this movie because it is consistent even if it is slower than your modern day superhero epic.  Yes, Kal-El’s early life is kind of done in a Cliff’s Notes version as it just briefly touches on the largely important parts.  Then, when Reeve makes his appearance as the adult Clark / Superman, the pacing is more lax allowing for things to be stretched out further.  I did watch the expanded edition for this review as I like the extra content with Jor-El on Krypton, and Lex Luthor’s gauntlet that he lays out to test Superman.  There are a number of added segments throughout, but I do think they are mostly substantive and worthwhile.  The film has no overarching plot, and the extent of one is simply foiling Luthor’s crazed plan to blow up the west coat to make way for his real estate scam.  So, this isn’t a film of thematic material and heavy subject matter.  Yet, it accomplishes its goals – bring Superman to glorious life on the big screen in an epic sized adventure.  There’s really only two real action sequences – the helicopter rescue with a crime-fighting montage afterwards and the climax as Superman attempts to stop the missiles and save people from its destructive consequences.  The ending is rather ridiculous by most standards.  Reversing the Earth’s rotation to turn back time is a very cheap idea, but also very much in the style of the Golden / Silver Age of comics where logic didn’t figure into science.  So, given the time this was made, I can let it pass, but if a movie today did it, I’d cry out for someone to knock some sense into the filmmakers.

While it might be entirely perfect, Superman: The Movie was the wonderfully produced and directed film it needed to be.  It keeps things simple enough without sacrificing emotion and drama, but adds in touches of humor later on for a generally fun and enjoyable superhero film experience.  It set the foundation for where the franchise could go from here, and while directors, tones, budgets, and qualities would change, Christopher Reeve maintained the steady confidence of Superman through each film.  Here, there was no question that he was indeed the Man of Steel brought to cinematic life, and Richard Donner’s high quality direction with a great eye for visual scope made this a stunning success.  Add in the sweeping, epic, and iconic score of John Williams, and you have the greatest superhero of all time taking flight in a great and satisfying way.


Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Punisher War ZonePoor Frank Castle.  He can’t get a film franchise started to save his life.  It’s just reboot after reboot.  However, out of the three that have been made, I believe this is the one that gets the most right in the right places.  I did see this theatrically, twice in fact, and I was really blown away by it.  Regardless, it did poorly at the box office due to a lackluster marketing campaign by Lionsgate and an untimely December release date.  Conversely, this was the same year that gave us Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Dark Knight.  So, there was high caliber benchmarks set in 2008, and I would say that Punisher: War Zone did not disappoint, in most part.  To me, Ray Stevenson is the best Frank Castle to date, but there are some glaring problems with the villain of Jigsaw that impact the quality of the overall movie.

Ex-Special Forces officer Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) wages a one-man war on two fronts.  While targeting the vicious mob boss, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), Castle horribly disfigures the gangster in a firefight that also claims the life of undercover FBI Agent Nicky Donatelli.  Seeking terrible vengeance, Russoti takes the name “Jigsaw” and begins recruiting the underworld’s most notorious criminals while Agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) joins with the sole member of the NYPD’s Punisher Task Force, Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok), in order to avenge his partner’s murder.  However, Frank’s lethal mistake weighs on his conscience, and he is nearly ready to pack it in until he realizes the danger Angela Donatelli (Julie Benz) and her daughter are in.  Now, The Punisher must find a way to elude the law and decimate a deadly crime army before more innocent lives are tragically ended.

First off, I really like that the filmmakers didn’t make this film another retread of the Punisher’s origin story.  They instead chose for the Punisher to have already been operating for five years at the time of this story.  Although, they surely weren’t going to gloss over that origin considering this was another reboot.  We get tragic flashbacks to the aftermath of the Castle family’s slaying, and the story is briefly, yet poignantly told by Detective Soap to Agent Budiansky.  We get the details on what happened, and even more impactful is noting the Punisher’s track record and body count.  The entire basement of the police station is filled with files on every case, every murder involving the Punisher.  There are literally thousands of them.  This was a brilliant direction to go in to join Frank further down the road, and allow some perspective and reflection to enter into the equation of his character.  This is no longer a man in the heat of his passionate revenge.  This is a grim, weathered individual who is driven by his disdain for injustice, and has buried his soul deep down underneath all that pain and grief.  That’s a fascinating route to go, and it works directly and purposefully into the story.

Fan reaction was that this film was very faithful to the Punisher MAX and Marvel Knights comic series with its gritty, yet over-the-top violence and vibrant color scheme.  While I cannot comment on the accuracy of that sentiment, what I can say is that this is really what I’ve always felt a Punisher film should be.  It is unrelentingly brutal with a generous helping of blood, gore, and violence, but with proper depth to its characters.  The action sequences are slam bang amazing, even if they can tend to defy the laws of physics, at times.  However, Punisher: War Zone is clearly geared towards a very comic book style, just based on the gorgeous cinematography.  It is so vibrant, moody, gritty, and saturated with all the right colors that it often looks like it came straight off the pages of a comic book, and the action is indeed jacked up with that mentality.  Just in the opening sequence, we’ve got a good dozen mobsters getting shot, slashed, and just laid to waste in graphic fashion.  It sets an awesome, aggressive, relentless vibe for the whole movie which never disappoints or eases up.  It puts you in the world of Frank Castle, and delves you right into his bleak, graphic state of mind.  This is an action film that pulls no punches, and goes straight for the hard R rating all the way.

I also love how Castle moves and operates in the action scenes.  It’s all very militaristic, but exceptionally nasty.  No mercy, no prisoners – everyone dies.  While the previous Punisher films had plenty of action and unique use of weaponry, this film employs tactics and strategy that feel very authentic.  This is even more appropriate since this Frank Castle is actually revealed to have been a Marine.  Dolph Lundgren’s was a former police officer, and Thomas Jane’s was a federal agent.  I don’t know why it took a group of filmmakers so long to actually get Castle’s background correct, aside from the Vietnam aspect, but thankfully, it is well realized here in very subtle and clear details.  It is very much ingrained in Frank’s mentalities and disciplines.  Even his body armor reflects a man of vast wartime experience as it covers his torso up over his neck, and appears to be very heavy duty.  Frank looks like a man waging a war as he’s always prepared with another weapon at hand, and has precise, razor sharp reflexes.  This is a guy you’re going to have to massacre in order to stop, and he is not going to make that the least bit easy to do.  I love the moment early on when he uses a pencil to reset his broken nose.  That’s hardcore right there.  Frank himself is immensely intimidating just by the sight of him.  The slicked back black hair, beard stubble, and the obvious wear and age on Ray Stevenson’s face create a grim visage that says more than words ever could.  And the signature white skull on the body armor is the final glorious touch to put the fear of death into any criminal.

Of course, I stand very firm in that Ray Stevenson was a brilliant casting choice for this character.  I know Lundgren’s version had some sense of self-reflection, but I’m not familiar enough with Jane’s Punisher to know what he brought to it, depth wise.  I just know that the film he starred in is one I cannot sit through.  Here, Stevenson gives us every dimensional quality that could exist for Frank Castle.  Yes, he is a hardcore bad ass that is unwaveringly lethal.  Unlike most superheroes, The Punisher has no lines he won’t cross.  If you’re a criminal, you will be punished.  There is no gray area.  It doesn’t matter if the cops are right there to arrest the criminal, he exacts his own brand of justice every time.  The level of violence and carnage is absolutely appropriate for The Punisher.  It is necessary to have in order to understand the emotional and psychological mindset of Frank Castle.  The graphic violence he dishes out is the same which claimed the lives of his family.  It explains why he is such a grim figure, what the definition of a vigilante truly is, why the cops and criminals fear him, and why neither want him on the streets.  He is a man alone, and no one can truly understand him without seeing and feeling what it is he has gone through.  Still, you see that he does feel things, and that he has a morality and a soul.  Frank’s been emotionally shattered by the violent murder of his family, and that has resulted in a grim man with a lot of deep seeded pain, torment, and disdain.  Ray Stevenson brings those powerful, realistic qualities to the surface, and it creates the real solid core of this film.  The action, violence, and brutality are givens for a Punisher film, but it’s that serious depth of character which sets this film apart from its predecessors.  You see the fractured remnants of the caring family man Frank once was, and it really penetrates for me.  The story aspect of Frank accidentally killing an undercover cop instigates that deep exploration of his soul and heart, and creates an emotionally moving arc by the end with Julie Benz’s Angela Donatelli.  Stevenson is absolutely everything that you’d want from your Frank Castle thespian.  He handles the role with serious weight giving it credibility and humanity.  It is the most three dimensional Punisher I have yet to be exposed to, and shows that the character is more than just a vigilante with a bad attitude.  He has depth to spare, when put into the right creative hands.

Julie Benz is truly excellent as the grieving widow as she is not a wholly trembling mess.  Angela is a cop’s wife, and has strength and conviction within her to survive through all she endures.  There is a deep well of pain and emotion that pulsates through her performance.  While she is strong, she is vulnerable nonetheless, and it’s a great mixture she puts together that can really be felt by an audience.  I know Benz from her work as Darla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel, and so, her range of talent is not a surprise to me but is a great pleasure to witness.  She shares some substantive scenes with Stevenson, and they both work beautifully together.  The same goes for Stephanie Janusauskas who endearingly portrays the young and innocent Grace Donatelli.  Stevenson’s scenes with her bring out Frank’s adoration he had for his own daughter, and is the most tender insights into Frank.  Stephanie is wholly sweet showcasing some genuine talent that really forges an audience’s empathy for Grace.

Now, this film is easily divided up into two separate sections of quality.  Everything that does not involve Jigsaw is tremendously bad ass and awesome.  Unfortunately, almost everything that does involve Jigsaw is really ridiculous and silly.  Now, Dominic West did a superb job with Billy Russoti.  He was charismatic, threatening, a little intimidating, and a perfect fit for an Italian Mafioso.  He had all the elements just right for this slick, underhanded villain.  If he had remained as this character throughout the film, I think the tone would have been much more consistent and balanced.  However, after he’s disfigured at the hands of the Punisher, that’s when we’re subjected to a very comical villain that poorly contrasts with the dark, heavy, serious tone of the film.  Jigsaw becomes almost cartoonish in his behavior, attitude, and look through most of his screentime.  He’s clearly overacting through those facial prosthetics, and it’s nothing but detrimental.  There are better moments here and there, but in general, it’s the one major element that brings the film down for me.  It’s not even like a Jack Nicholson Joker where he’s at least morbidly comical in his homicidal tendencies.  Jigsaw is very much plucked out of a twisted cartoon concept where it’s difficult to take him seriously after a while.  His criminal recruitment montage sequence is almost enough to force a face palm reaction.  It’s not a purely bad performance, but there’s far more bad than there is good from Dominic West once he adopts the Jigsaw persona.

There is one semi-saving grace amongst the villains, and that’s Doug Hutchison as Looney Bin Jim.  It’s a character strictly created for the movie, but his psychotic qualities really do help boost the threat level.  He’s immensely agile and brutal, and thus, is able to take the fight right to Frank Castle near the film’s climax.  In the least, the character gave Jigsaw someone to bounce off of, someone who feels like a trusted and capable right hand man, and that’s commendable for the filmmakers to have done.  Hutchison is surely over-the-top in his own right, but for the character, it does work immensely better than for Jigsaw.  It would have worked better had Jigsaw been a much more serious character and threat to create that contrast of Jim appearing far crazier.

The remainder of the cast is solid starting with Wayne Knight as Frank’s arsenal securing friend Micro.  Knight does a fine job keeping the character enjoyable, but still dramatically poignant and sympathetic.  He and Stevenson work very well together creating an honest, open relationship between Micro and Frank that feels genuine.  Dash Mihok also does an exemplary job as the enthusiastic, innocent minded Detective Martin Soap.  I liked the twist with the character about midway through the film.  It’s very comical but terribly appropriate as it makes a fun kind of sense, and makes Soap appear more capable than he tends to appear.  I really enjoyed the character, and Mihok made him endearing.  On the more bad ass side, Colin Salmon is excellent as Agent Paul Budiansky.  He’s a very take charge type of guy who doesn’t shy away from danger, and is deadest determined to haul in the Punisher no matter what.    Salmon brings a lot of heart to the role, and the script gives him depth to work with as he owes Nicky Donatelli his life and career after Budiansky got hooked on narcotics.  There’s a debt to repay, and he’s not going to take a backseat to anyone.  Budiansky throws down with Frank, and with a guy of Salmon’s size at 6’4”, he absolutely looks like a guy who could hold his own against real bad dudes.  Overall, this is a film with some mostly solid and dimensional performances that not enough comic book films strive for, but should.  It’s easy for a lesser grade screenwriter or filmmaker to gloss over character depth in favor of spectacle or action, but that’s exactly when they’ve already failed.  This film succeeds, and in many different ways.

I mentioned the cinematography a bit already, but I’d like to elaborate on it.  While the film does have a very vibrant color palette, it is soaked in dark, shadowy environments.  It has plenty of moodiness and atmosphere to spare.  Even the daytime scenes are a little washed out to enhance that bleakness.  The richest visual feast occurs in the church scene where Frank meets with Budiansky before the climax.  This location is filled with brilliant colors, but has the added beauty of numerous lit candles.  The scene has some exquisite depth of field and artistry to it that, while it fits solidly with the rest of the picture, gives this scene a special aura all its own.  The action cinematography is excellent.  There is absolutely zero shaky cam quick cut editing.  The camera work is wholly competent going regularly for fluidity instead of chaotic motion.  That shows there were some smart filmmakers behind this.  They were able to give this film a unique style that is very comic book in nature while never becoming cliché or showy.  It’s clever, sharp, and beautiful all around.  Cinematographer Steve Gainer deserves a load of credit for making this film look so stunning, and director Lexi Alexander deserves credit for pushing for many of the stylistic composition choices.  It all works to amazing effect.

And while this movie was shot in Québec, Canada, the filmmakers had enough perspective on the material to seamlessly integrate some excellent stock footage of New York.  My favorite bit of this is when Frank’s standing on the rooftop and the Chrysler Building is over his shoulder in the distance.  It was surely some sort of green screen shot, but when I saw this theatrically, I couldn’t tell that this movie wasn’t shot on location in Manhattan, New York.  So far, this is the only Punisher film to actually have the film blatantly set in New York, and actually go to the extra effort to sell that illusion.  That is something I cannot commend them enough.  Nearly every Marvel superhero is based out of New York, but if there’s any one character from Marvel Comics that is a tonally perfect fit for the urban grit of New York, it is the Punisher.

Now, the music of the film is a bit divided for me.  While I am a big heavy metal fan, I admit that it rarely has an appropriate place in a film.  Most times, like in this film, it tends to be intrusive and a bit overblown.  Maybe if these were songs from bands I actually liked, perhaps I’d be more welcoming of them.  However, there is some great score performed by Michael Wandmacher.  It brings out the dark, dangerous tone of the film, but also, highlights and enhances the moments of emotional depth and turmoil.  It’s a very well rounded piece of work that perfectly complements this stellar film.

Aside from the comical elements of Jigsaw, I think Punisher: War Zone has a very solidly put together story and script.  Every Punisher film that ever has and ever will be made is always going to have Frank unleashing an all-out assault on organized crime, but it’s what’s beyond that which makes such a film standout.  Beyond the action and violence, this has some very strong emotional plot threads and character arcs.  There are elements of guilt, grief, forgiveness, responsibility, revenge, and trust running through Frank, Angela, and Budiansky.  These arcs are handled exceptionally well, and really flesh these characters out in a great way.  Even Soap and Micro have their say in Frank’s struggle with his murder of Agent Donatelli.  These aspects are treated with great care and are executed wonderfully.  It’s also great seeing everyone’s different viewpoint on the Punisher.  Some see him as a menace to be thwarted and condemned.  Others consider what he does a service.  The NYPD put together the “Punisher Task Force” as merely a public image joke as they mostly couldn’t care less about what trash the Punisher executes on the streets.  This is evident by the fact that Detective Soap is the sole member of the task force, and the NYPD dumps Budiansky there just to brush him aside.  How all these elements and characters converge and end up relying on the Punisher is smartly done, and really develop organically from the plotlines and character motivations.

The entire climax is just a magnificent onslaught.  It’s the Punisher set loose massacring probably half the street criminals in New York, working his way through the Bradstreet Hotel to rescue Angela and Grace from Jigsaw’s clutches.  The stunts are spectacular, and the sound design of all the different styles of gunfire and explosions as well as the crunching of bones and the splat of blood is just absolutely brutal.  This is hardcore action all the way through.  It is as unforgiving and merciless as the Punisher himself.  Still, this climax has some emotional turmoil for Frank, but I won’t spoil a thing for you.  Simply said, it has resonance and weight to it that add to the dramatic realism that the film is so rich with.

All in all, this is definitely the Punisher movie that strived to do the most with its characters and concepts, and it succeed in nearly every regard.  I do love the movie very much, but the fact that Jigsaw is a ridiculously comical villain you can almost never take seriously does negatively impact the film.  It doesn’t kill Punisher: War Zone, however, because everything outside of Jigsaw is so amazingly good that it’s near impossible to topple it with one bad performance.  Ray Stevenson is hugely blockbuster in his portrayal of Frank Castle.  He brings so much depth and pure bad assery that it would be a steep mountain to climb to top or rival him.  He makes the Punisher a character that could thrive on the big screen, and that is also largely due to director Lexi Alexander.  She showed a massive wealth of talent here as well as the ability for a vibrant, hard-hitting, and compelling vision.  So many action films today come off as lackluster carbon copies of the last big theatrical hit that it’s invigorating to see someone inject some fresh style and depth into the genre.  We’ve been treated to many great comic book movies over the last several years, and so, the standards have gotten pretty high.  In my mind, I truly believe that Punisher: War Zone just about reaches that standard.  The only major element that a Punisher movie needs at this point is a rock solid villain that’s worthy of squaring off against the Punisher.  So far, I don’t feel we’ve gotten that, and it is the only real failing of this movie.  For my parting words, let me just say that the last moments of the film are just flat out bad ass!  The very final shot is perfectly iconic and foreboding.  Ray Stevenson is my quintessential Punisher, and there is just not enough I can say about his detailed and awesome performance to do it justice.  Punisher: War Zone gets a damn strong recommendation from me.


From Hell (2001)

The benefit of doing Forever Horror Month is that it has forced me to watch films that have been collecting dust in my DVD collection for about a decade.  I saw From Hell theatrically at the discount theatre with a number of my friends in 2001.  I do recall general impressions and plot details from back then including a slight letdown of the film’s conclusion.  Of course, my tastes have certainly matured since that time, and so, it will be interesting to see if my opinion of the film has altered any today.

Set in London of 1888, Jack the Ripper has been running amok in the Whitechapel district murdering and dissecting prostitutes. Scotland Yard Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), aided by his partner, Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), are on the case to figure out who this serial killer is and why he is killing these women in such a brutal manner. Abberline is an opium addict and when “chasing the dragon” he is able to have visions of the future, a certain psychic ability that allows him to solve cases. As Abberline and Godley investigate the crimes, they become acquainted with the prostitutes who were friends and colleagues of the victims. Abberline begins to fall in love with Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), one of the prostitutes, or as the nobles called them “unfortunates”, being hunted down by Jack the Ripper.  Abberline digs deeper and deeper into the conspiracy and attempts to solve the case before Mary Kelly is the next victim.

This was adapted from the comic book series by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell by the Hughes Brothers – Albert & Allen.  It’s not one I’ve ever read, but the comic book visual aesthetics occasionally show through.  There are striking moments of heavy reds or sickly greens that are very stylized, and do work with the editing approach to those gruesome moments.  The rest of the film is competently shot maintaining a natural look to the time period.  The identity of Jack the Ripper is kept artistically hidden through shadows, shots from behind, and smart framing.  It doesn’t get gimmicky.  It plays scenes out with the Ripper with an imposing, mysterious quality that builds up the threat of him.  It’s very solid work from a director of photography who started out shooting Evil Dead II and later occasionally working with surreal filmmaker David Lynch.

Now, this is a genre that kind of hits me in a pleasant place.  Mixing crime drama with a suspenseful, bloody horror genre just feels like my kind of taste.  The Jack the Ripper case is an iconic one in many peoples’ minds, and this film crafts the investigation and mystery very smartly.  It incorporates some great forensic knowledge which further enhances the quality of Inspector Abberline’s abilities.  This is very important as Jack the Ripper happens to surgically remove various organs from his victims, leaving behind a sickening and horrifying sight.  While the film inevitably takes liberties with the known truth, and hypothesizes about the unknown truths, what we get is tightly and sharply crafted.  It’s a very good script realized by some richly talented filmmakers.

The production design and wardrobe departments did an amazing job.  They seem to have realized the late nineteenth century with beautiful detailed realism.  The wardrobe is especially impressive with the distinct styles given to each character.  This extends to hairstyles and the overall grooming of the actors.  It’s elegant craftsmanship through and through which gives the film its grounded texture.  The filmmakers took great care to reproduce the sights of the murders and the wounds inflicted upon the victims.  While the film lays back on its graphicness for most of its runtime, it does have visceral impact through sharp editing styles and some impressive practical make-up effects.  There is one very graphic throat cutting scene that would likely have many squirming in their seats.  As the film chillingly drives towards its climax, the violence becomes immensely more graphic and disturbing.

Getting down to the performances, I believe Johnny Depp does a very fine piece of work here.  I like the accent he adopts for the role.  Very different from the one he used in Sleepy Hollow or as Captain Jack Sparrow.  He clearly worked on the details very meticulously to bring this intelligent person to life.  While, Frederick Abberline was a real life Inspector for Scotland Yard, the clairvoyance and drug use was reportedly not true about him.  Regardless, the character that is Abberline here is given a good measure of charm and perceptive intelligence.  Depp cautiously balances out Abberline’s assertiveness with the manner of a gentleman.  While he is a man that indulges in less than respectable vices and beliefs, he is still a man that is respected in his profession.  It is an impressively strong and dimensional performance.  Depp leads this film excellently.

Depp also displays a subtle heart and passion opposite Heather Graham.  She inhabits this particularly lower class woman with a lot of spirit and compassion.  While the love between Mary and Frederick is not a major part of the story, it is developed through the building of trust and charm between them.  The chemistry of Graham and Depp is solid and genuine.

Robbie Coltrane does very well as a Police Sergeant who takes his job with a lot of serious weight.  Sergeant Godley is written well as both a consummate street level investigator, and a trusting confidant for Abberline.  It’s a very well rounded performance that instills credibility and faith in Abberline’s unconventional methods for the audience.

The highly revered Ian Holm is also especially strong as the former surgeon Sir William Gull.  He shares some solid scenes with Depp throughout the movie, and delivers a fine dramatic performance that also offers up an intimidating quality late in the film.  He really portrays all facets of the role remarkably well.  All around, this is just a stellar cast with a great depth of talent creating an array of fascinating and realistic characters.  They all make a distinct impression upon an audience.

The affluent pretentiousness of Abberline’s superior, portrayed by Ian Richardson, strikes me funny.  His assertion that no Englishman would be capable of such an act shows how much sensibilities have changed in law enforcement over the decades.  Today, everyone’s a viable suspect, no matter who you are, but back in the 1880s, an educated or even sophisticated person would never be thought of as a violent criminal.  It was preposterous.  Furthermore, his arrogance impedes Abberline’s investigation to the point of obstructing justice.  Unlike Sergeant Godley, he has little faith in Abberline’s deductive abilities.  He cares only for the perception of the investigation, not the truth that it should uncover.  It’s simply another fine detail which exemplifies the era this is set in, and what struggles Abberline has to surmount and combat to prove his theories correct.  It sets a treacherous path that he must walk to expose this gruesome killer.

Ultimately, the Jack the Ripper plotline is resolved in a ghastly psychological manner that has a sort of fitting quality.  Considering, in reality, he was never publicly, definitively identified, the ending to this has to have an air of secrecy.  There’s really no way around that.  So, it couldn’t have ended as a standard crime story with an arrest and conviction.  Still, it lacks any sort of dramatic gratification of justice.  Grisly, unspeakable murders are committed, and for an audience, it demands something equally harsh. It’s sort of a subjective feeling.  If for nothing else, this conclusion just lacks a real punch.

Again, the romantic aspect is gracefully handled, but it can get a little lost amongst the main plotline.  Abberline becomes deeply invested in Mary’s well being, but it’s more of an ancillary story.  It comes and goes in the film never really dominating the characters’ actions too much, but it does surface every now and then when it has relevance.  It possibly could’ve been developed into a fuller part of the film to have more substantive impact.  The conclusion to this story is also a little downbeat.  I’m not sure it was necessary for it to end as it did, but it’s definitely not a bad ending.

So, yes, I think my initial impressions about the film remain about the same.  It has a very good story with plenty of suspense and intelligence, but the pay-off is quite lacking.  Maybe there are those that can appreciate it more than I can, perhaps those that have read the comic book series.  There was more than enough rich talent involved making this a very well made and slightly stylish horror crime mystery.  The Hughes Brothers did a very high quality job with this material, and Johnny Depp puts in a very satisfying lead performance.  While it’s not as quirky as some of his better known roles, this is a nice departure into more serious ground that I did enjoy.  “Do I recommend From Hell?” is the pressing question.  Sure.  While it’s ultimately not as wholly satisfying as desired, it’s still a worthwhile watch for many reasons.  If for nothing else, it’s a respectably well executed moody and chilling piece of horror cinema.


Batman (1989)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Green Lantern (2011)

DC Comics have certainly languished behind Marvel Studios in bringing their popular characters to the big screen in the last decade.  At times, I had thought it was because Warner Bros. wanted to take their time to do things right, and make good movies instead of cheap, fast cash grabs.  Marvel has had plenty of those.  Of course, you need to have not just good talent, but the right talent behind a project to make it all it should be.  With Batman firmly established and a Superman reboot rigorously in the works, Green Lantern would’ve been the springboard for other DC Comics film adaptations, but its box office performance was not what was hoped for.

There have been many Green Lanterns throughout the decades, but Hal Jordan has been the most popular one for over fifty years.  I have some fond history with Hal Jordan originating back to the time of The Reign of the Supermen event which set him on a path from fallen hero to super villain to spirit of vengeance to redemption and resurrection.   I enjoyed this journey which took a whole decade to see fulfilled.  It has since made me a fan of Hal, and I became a supporter of having a Green Lantern movie made.  We finally got one, but it wasn’t all I had hoped for.  The resulting film has some serious flaws in it, but very satisfying elements do exist.  Let’s set the stage, first.

Billions of years ago, the Guardians of the Universe divided the universe into 3,600 sectors to be policed by their Green Lantern Corps, assembled from the most fearless beings throughout the universe to maintain order and justice.  When one of their finest, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) is attacked by the yellow fear-essence entity Parallax, he is mortally wounded, and crash lands on Earth.  He commands his ring to find a worthy successor here.  That person is the reckless and cocky aircraft test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) who is no stranger to fear.  As Jordan slowly learns to use his power ring when he is whisked off to the planet Oa, the home of the Green Lantern Corps.  Here, he is trained by the best Lanterns including Sinestro (Mark Strong) and Kilowog (voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan), but also has his failings and fears brought to light.  Meanwhile, Parallax creates death and destruction as it moves through the universe towards Oa.  The Corps’ attempts to thwart this enemy fail with more casualties, and they consider harnessing the yellow power to fight fear with fear.  On Earth, scientist Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is summoned by his father Senator Robert Hammond (Tim Robbins) to do an autopsy on Abin Sur’s body at a secret government facility, and is infected by the yellow fear entity developing telepathic and telekinetic powers.  Hal returns home where he must combat Hector’s increasingly dangerous and villainous behavior, and confront his own insecurities before he can become a true Green Lantern.  Soon, the fate of Earth and the entire universe will be in the hands of Hal Jordan.

What I need to say first is that I do not believe Ryan Reynolds was miscast as Hal Jordan.  Yes, there could have been better choices, but Reynolds was not a bad choice.  I have seen him in dramatic roles such as in Buried where he portrays a man buried alive in a coffin in the middle east.  The raw, wide range of emotion he put on display in that film solidifies my faith in his acting abilities.  The problems in this film that diminish his effectiveness here were far beyond his control.

The main problem here is how unbalanced the film is, and I can entirely pinpoint all the aspects.  Fundamentally, the film is divided between the Earth-based scenes and the intergalactic ones.  They both follow different plotlines and carry different tones and scopes.  Everything involving the Green Lantern Corps on Oa or elsewhere in the universe has a serious urgency to it, and a vast wondrous visual landscape for an epic adventure to take place in.  The Earth scenes have a lighter tone with no such urgency to the storytelling process and a fairly contained scope.  Events in one setting do not have enough effect on those in another.  It can feel like two different films meshed together with Hal Jordan as the only linking thread between them.  There is no cohesion to bring the plotlines tightly together, and when they do converge at all, it’s done too late.  To boil it down simply, everything that didn’t take place on Earth happened to be the best parts of the movie.  Every time the film cuts away from the cosmic, intergalactic part of the story, I couldn’t wait to come back to it.  I had no such anticipation for the Earth-based scenes.

The story involving the Green Lantern Corps and Parallax is so compelling because it deals with a threat on a large, epic scale.  Billions could die, and so many have already perished in its wake.  Therefore, every action and decision the Corps makes has the weight of that menace bearing down upon it.  There are strong characters and fleshed out personalities in these extraterrestrials that easily dwarf those of the human characters.  Sinestro stands out as the strongest and most compelling character in the entire film for me.  I would’ve liked more time spent with him than anyone else to delve deeper into his psychology and emotions.  Knowing that Sinestro becomes an enemy of the Green Lanterns in the comics, he would’ve been a deeply fascinating character to explore in detail before he became that enemy.  Mark Strong does an amazing job with him reflecting many subtle nuances, and he does leave me wanting a hell of a lot more.  It’s a wasted opportunity that more wasn’t done with such an excellent actor in this strongly written role.  On the lighter side, I’m sure fans gained enjoyment from Kilowog, who is particularly entertaining.  Michael Clarke Duncan has a good amount of fun playing this character that he is so much a fan of.  The Guardians themselves have some gravitas to them because of their looming, stoic manner.  They are mysterious, but much can be read into them, as Hal does late in the movie.  They set a very ominous tone that is integral to building up the threat of Parallax.

The visual effects that create these alien landscapes are beyond gorgeous!  In those respects, I can see where all those millions of dollars went in this inflated budget.  They are breathtaking vistas filled with rich depth, color, and textures to create worlds that are enveloping.  Green Lantern is given a strong cosmic sense to it with a universe filled with millions of years of deep history.  The visuals offer a massive scope along with a perfect visual tone to compliment the story.  I have not often seen interstellar science fiction cinema with this amount of extraordinary, beautiful detail.  They surely put the CGI in the Star Wars prequels to shame, in most regards.  All of the CGI aliens in the Corps are fantastic looking!  They all have their own textures, body language, and unique character traits that give the film a wealth of visual personality.  Although, the motion capture animation can tend to appear lacking in realism, mostly in wider shots.  There is not enough weight (or mass) given to their movements in these instances is what I perceive.  However, it’s only in brief, sparse moments.  Conversely, when the shots get in close on Reynolds while wearing the energy suit, the effect is not very convincing.  It can look cheap at these moments, and since Hal Jordan is the main character with a generous amount of close-ups, these moments are frequent.

Over on the Earth based story, so much feels like throwaway content.  It might be necessary content to develop Hal’s character, in theory, but so much fails to have any worth.  The girlfriend is the girlfriend.  Carol Ferris provides the usual emotional support, and she has some amusing moments.  However, I failed to see much depth in the character.  She fulfills a role in the story, but there doesn’t appear to be much potential for her to be more than that.   She’s also the damsel in distress that the hero must save because she must be used as a hostage for the useless villain in Hector Hammond.  Peter Sarsgaard certainly does an excellent job with the quirky, bizarre, and twisted Hammond.  Everything he does is great and dead on the mark, but Hector really has no purpose in the story.  His sinister actions do add a certain dynamic to this part of the story as he slowly mutates into this whacked out super powered agent of Parallax.  It creates conflict amongst a few ancillary characters, but his inclusion gives way to a bunch of unnecessary elements that get in the way of the main plot.   There was no need for the covert organization Checkmate or Amanda Waller in this story.  They exist here only as a conduit for Hammond to become accidentally infected by the yellow fear entity via an autopsy on Abin Sur.  Waller herself is not presented well.  Angela Bassett has all the skills to bring Waller to powerful life, but she’s not given enough meat to sink her teeth into.  Pam Grier did a perfect job with Waller on Smallville, but Bassett could’ve given her an impeccable performance to rival.  Still, what matters here is that the story of Hal Jordan becoming a hero and defeating Parallax requires neither the presence of Hector Hammond, Amanda Waller, or Checkmate.  Hammond is there as a physical adversary for Hal to combat until Parallax actually arrives on Earth, but once that occurs, Hammond is disposed of promptly.  While he does a serve a purpose in attracting Parallax to Earth, a creative screenwriter could’ve easily reworked plot elements to achieve that same result if Hammond were excised from the film.  I feel it would’ve been wiser to save Hammond for a more focused story in a later sequel.  Frankly, all of these extraneous elements only serve to chop up the story, creating more fundamental problems.  There are too many subplots going on detracting from the potential streamlined flow of the main plot.

The unevenness of the movie is further attributed to the more lackadaisical pace of the Earth-based story.  While there is impending doom tearing through the universe, Hal Jordan returns to Earth to talk with his jokey friend, deal with his girlfriend, and have some fun being a superhero.  No dramatic pressure is put on Jordan until the final act when Parallax diverts to Earth because of its link to Hector Hammond calling him there.  This should’ve happened much sooner in the film.  If so, it would’ve put that needed pressure on Jordan to overcome his fears in face of an inevitable doom over a longer period of time, and thus, creating a correlating urgency with the rest of the film.  As it is, the fear element in Hal’s character evolution is not well executed, and the ending feels weak and rushed.

I can’t help but compare Green Lantern to Batman Begins due to this similar theme of fear.  Where Batman Begins explored the concept very thoroughly as both an internal conflict for Bruce Wayne to overcome, and then, an external element to be utilized and combated, Green Lantern just kind of talks about it over and over again.  Nothing is really explored or exploited.  You never see Hal actually be defeated by or struggle with fear.  It is something talked about.  He talks about being afraid, and others talk about him having the courage to overcome it.  You don’t see the struggle he has to face to actually triumph over those things.  It should have been a weakness that takes away his confidence while battling an enemy.  It would force him to face a crushing defeat that would motivate Hal to rise back up as a confident hero by the end, but it hardly happens.  There should be emotional conflict to punctuate this story element, considering it is fear.  Batman Begins showed us, in many ways, how Bruce Wayne confronted fear, overcame it, and was able to turn it back around as a weapon against his foes.  There is not enough adversity thrown at Hal Jordan either by his own internal struggles, or anything external to really build up dramatic suspense or tension in his ascension to superhero.

Breaking away from plot elements, I do want to credit the score by the always impressive James Newton Howard.  It truly gives the film the big, epic scale it demanded with some strong and mysterious themes.  Everything Howard seems to do is sure gold, and he truly reaches for the stars on this one.  Like all great film composers, he is able to adapt himself to the needs of the picture pulling on all his diverse musical skills to create a unique experience.  It is surely one constant throughout the film that did not falter.

Action sequences are nicely handled.  Martin Campbell has done two James Bond films before along with other rousing action pictures, and so, he has the skills to put together coherent action sequences.  Dion Beebe’s cinematography maintains an integrity throughout by not giving into clichés of the genre.  His cameras hold to the grand scope of the story by giving us shots with depth and patience.  This is a stark contrast to the work he did on the mostly handheld digital video-shot Michael Mann movies Collateral and Miami Vice.  As with Howard, it seems Beebe is able to adapt his style to the needs of the picture.

Making my final story related notes, there is a lot of repetitive dialogue reiterating exposition as if we didn’t get it the first or second time.  The script really could’ve been tighten up to make way for more poignant character or story elements to be fleshed out.  Not to mention, tightening the script could’ve balanced out the urgency of the plot.  The character stuff is very drawn out, and the plot elements are very short.  The good things were really good, but too much of the film is too light and clunky for the good elements to win out.  It was enjoyable, but it’s a little too forgettable.  I don’t think it has anything to do with Ryan Reynolds.  It’s all in the script and direction.  Reynolds can pull off the kind of performance this film needed, but he either just wasn’t pushed into it or the script didn’t call for it.  The movie needed more dramatic momentum to make itself work right.  Director Martin Campbell has had many excellent and successful films to his credit including GoldenEye, Casino Royale, & The Mask of Zorro.  Of course, he has the off-the-mark Mel Gibson revenge thriller Edge of Darkness more recently to his credit, but Green Lantern is even further from the mark.  It really is a combination of an unrefined screenplay, loose editing of the various plotlines, and his direction that leave the movie feeling lopsided and ineffective.

Green Lantern had the makings of a really good movie, but it didn’t go deep enough with the characters to make Hal Jordan’s ascension and success epic enough.  It had potential, but it was too uneven to succeed.  There are other bits and pieces I could criticize, but they are pretty inconsequential when there are such larger problems to address.


Batman: Under The Red Hood (2010)

My interest in comics was re-sparked recently.  I’ve bought them on and off since the 90s depending on cash flow.  Since childhood Batman has been the absolute pinnacle of superheroes to me.  The Adam West show, Superfriends, Batman: The Animated Series, the live action films from 1989 to 2008, and beyond has made me a hardcore Batman fan!  My latest enthusiasm lead me to take an interest in the DC animated movie Batman: Under The Red Hood.  There is some background to offer with this review on Batman comic history.  In the 1980s, DC Comics decided to mature Dick Grayson, the original Robin, into his own man and became Nightwing.  Batman was now without a sidekick, and DC hurried a new Robin into the comics.  His name was Jason Todd.  After a company wide continuity revamp called Crisis on Infinite Earths, what was previously a poorly conceived Dick Grayson carbon copy was changed into a punk kid that divided fans.  So, a storyline was developed where the fans would call a 900 number to determine Jason’s fate.  The vote came down to about 72 for Jason’s death at the hands of the Joker.  About twenty years later, the choice was made to resurrect Jason Todd as a Batman villain in the guise of the Red Hood – the Joker’s original criminal identity.  This animated movie adapts that story, and I feel it delivers an excellent piece of entertainment.  Of course, this comes from someone who never read the “A Death in the Family” or “Under The Hood” graphic novels.

International terrorist Ra’s Al Ghul, one of Batman’s most formidable adversaries, comes into great regret over his latest actions which involve hiring the Joker as a diversion for the Dark Knight.  It goes terribly wrong when the Clown Prince of Crime claims the life of Robin #2, Jason Todd.  Years later, a new masked figure appears in Gotham City calling himself the Red Hood.  Part vigilante, part crime lord, he begins cleaning up crime with masterful efficiency, but without Batman’s ethical moral code.  He rattles the cage of the biggest crime kingpin in Gotham, the Black Mask, and they launch into a violent war.  And when the Joker is brought into the mix, everything begins to fly out of control.  However, Batman’s suspicions over this new violent player forces him to seek out startling revelations and confront hard truths that open old wounds.

What might first strike you about this is the darker, more violent tone of the animated film.  It is rated PG-13.  So, it’s not a children’s film.  There is blood and a guy getting set on fire.  There’s brutality and murder.  It has heavy themes rolling through it of death, murder, redemption, revenge, sorrow, grief, and regret.  It is designed for a mature audience able to handle heavier subject matter, and grasp the emotional weight of the story.

Now, I grew up with Kevin Conroy as the voice of the animated Batman from Batman: The Animated Series on through to Justice League Unlimited.  I own all those series and movies featuring his voice as the Dark Knight.  I even hear his voice when I read Batman in any comic book.  However, Bruce Greenwood was tapped to voice Bruce Wayne / Batman here, and I was not at all disappointed or put off by it.  Greenwood inhabits the tone of both the character and the story excellently.  Much credit is to be given to screenwriter Judd Winick for capturing the essence of Batman here, but Greenwood slips into the proverbial cape and cowl smoothly.  In true Batman style, he expresses his heart in subtle, brief moments.  Similarly, John DiMaggio absorbs himself into the Joker.  At first, I wasn’t entirely certain if I was hearing veteran Joker voice actor Mark Hamill or not, but DiMaggio brings a deeper voice to the microphone that makes Batman’s archenemy more unsettling.  He’s a little darker, more Heath Ledger like in his portrayal, but still delivering the exuberant insanity that Hamill was a master at.  It is a very appropriate portrayal for this darker edged story.

The focal point of the story is Jason Todd, and he is voiced by Jensen Ackles of The CW’s Supernatural.  I feel Jensen does an admirable job here, but at times, the voice sounds a little too mature, too deep for the character’s age.  Jason’s probably in his late teens, maybe early twenties.  Jensen does lighten up his voice from what he uses in his signature role of Dean Winchester.  However, he does portray the role here very well projecting Todd’s charisma, humor, intellect, aggression, hatred, and conviction in well rounded form.  Jason started as a punk kid that Batman attempted to mold into a better person, but he never succeeded.  What he evolves into is someone that has the same core ideal of Batman to combat crime and using much the same tactics, but with more extreme methods drawing the line of how much violence is enough farther out.  He believes that Batman cannot ultimately succeed because he puts limits on himself.  Jason is a character I have become very intrigued by as he walks that thin anti-hero line where he could be a hero or a villain at any given moment depending on circumstance and motive.

In the role of Nightwing is Neil Patrick Harris who perfectly captures the light-hearted charisma and sharp wit of Batman’s original protégé.  How the story portrays Dick Grayson is fantastic.  Dick & Bruce work in tandem battling foes with grace and efficiency.  They finish each other’s thoughts, both thinking the same amount of steps ahead to swing in at the right time for the save.  I’ve always enjoyed Nightwing as a character full of potential.  Here, he’s mainly involved in just the action sequences, but he makes them so much more dynamic with his acrobatics and sense of fun in the face of danger.  I am wholehearted believer in the unlimited potential of Nightwing and Dick Grayson.  By trusted accounts, he made for a wonderful Batman following the “Battle for the Cowl” comic story arc.

I was never exposed to the Black Mask before this, but after this, I am very pleased.  I laughed so hard at his scenes.  His character is blowing a gasket at how the Red Hood is beating down his criminal empire, and he takes it out on every henchman he has.  Slugging them left and right, and ultimately, fending for himself when danger comes crashing through his window.  I found the character immensely entertaining here, but I’m sure, in normal circumstances, he’s portrayed in a more calm, in control, and vile fashion.  Wade Williams just delivers an entertaining, personality rich performance that practically makes the whole movie for me.

I highly enjoyed the animation style.  Very easy on the eyes with smooth motion, and fine, fresh character designs.  They capture the characters very sharply with a good deal of personality injected into their look and movements.  The action sequences are handled with so much detail and dynamic motion.  They are beautifully cinematic and enjoyably exhilarating.  The characters move fluidly with amazing fight choreography.  There’s a fight between Batman and Red Hood late in the film inside a bathroom filled with hard surfaces where you not only get some inspired visceral moments, but the emotion is strongly, deeply ingrained into the intensity of the fight.  However, what I very much love is the look of Gotham City.  The color scheme of the city at night is very alluring and beautiful.  It has a fine glow that gives it atmosphere and ambience, something Gotham must always have.  It is a character unto itself with a personality all its own that forges these characters down these darkened paths.

I think how the story is handled is very smart and poignant.  There are flashbacks throughout the film, but they are injected into the story and visuals in two ways.  One is the straight flashback, but others are more ghostly.  Ghosts of the past haunting Batman when Red Hood leads him to a place of remembrance.  It brings special emotional context to this troubling story that puts so much in conflict for Bruce and Jason.  The climax is brilliantly written and performed.  Everyone gets their moment to shine at their strongest.  Joker has probably the most hilarious, manic moment my memory can recall.  You’re almost excited for him because he’s so exuberant.  Still, it is the deep sense of love that Jason and Bruce have for each other like a son and father which strikes deep.  By the end, it can be heartbreaking.

The only other thing to address with the movie is the absence of Tim Drake, the third Robin.  In the comic book storyline, Tim was Batman’s current sidekick, and was apparently involved in the story.  However, I understood why they did not include him in this adaptation.  They introduced Jason as Robin, and then, introduced Nightwing as having been the original Robin.  Throwing yet another one in there that came after Jason’s death could’ve been confusing for an uninitiated audience.  You would see Robin die, and then, you see Batman working alongside another Robin without an immediate explanation that they are different characters would be highly disorienting.  This is especially so since all three characters have the same basic character design – lean, athletic build with black hair in similar red-green-yellow costumes.  Nightwing essentially fills the role that Tim Drake would’ve had in this story.  No disrespect to Tim, but for me, I think having Dick Grayson present was a smart change.  This is because he and Bruce have a longer history together, and really are like best friends instead of mentor and student at this point in time.  It allows for a stronger contrast from Bruce’s original protégé who became a crowning achievement for him against the failure that was Jason Todd.

With all that said, watching this film makes me want to by the graphic novel to experience this in more depth.  It is a wonderfully conceived and executed piece of work that I have watched three times within a week and a half.  My only negative mark I have for the film is that it only runs 75 minutes.  A full 90 minutes would’ve felt more fleshed out and a little more satisfying.  However, DC Animated has been keeping about a 75 minute cap on their feature films, likely due to production costs.  Regardless, what is here is powerful and impactful.  It feels like a true Batman story filled with a lot of fun action, deep emotional drama, and rich, well developed characters.  If you have enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s live action Batman films, I think you will find a lot to enjoy on a similar level here.  I give it a very strong recommendation to anyone that has a love for Batman, as I do.