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New Nightmare (1994)

After the horrendous Freddy’s Dead, New Line Cinema was willing to entertain ideas from series creator Wes Craven on a new entry to the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.  This film is partly a return to form for the series, but also ventures into a completely and radically new direction.  The entire film is set outside the realm of the franchise in our reality.  Many of the main characters and cameos are people playing themselves, to a degree.  Heather Langenkamp, the heroine from the first and third films in the series, plays herself.  We also have appearances by Wes Craven, John Saxon, and Robert Shaye – all playing themselves with some creative licenses.  Robert Englund is of course here, playing both a more eccentric version of himself and the demonic incarnation of Freddy Krueger.

Heather Langenkamp lives a content life with her husband Chase Porter (David Newsom) and son Dylan (Miko Hughes).  However, her sense of safety is compromised by a series of unsettling phone calls which Heather believes are from an anonymous stalker.  Coupled with this is some increasingly strange behavior from Dylan.  Heather gains little comfort from her former co-stars Robert Englund or John Saxon about either her paranoia or concern for her son.  While she does not allow her son to watch any of the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, with her promoting the ten year anniversary of the original, she cannot escape its looming shadow.  She soon finds out that Wes Craven is planning on making the definitive Nightmare movie, and that he has been plagued by nightmares of his own.  It has practically become an epidemic as the same disturbing dreams have come to Heather as well as Robert Englund himself.  Craven eventually tells Heather that what is haunting them is an ancient demon that has been roaming from story-to-story since the beginning of time, but has come accustomed to Freddy.  Now, it wants into our world, and Heather is the perceived gatekeeper betweens the realms of fantasy and reality since she was the first to defeat Freddy.  Dylan is a key focal point of this demon’s plan to lure in Heather.  As all the elements begin to converge, the world around Heather starts to transform into the twisted existence of this guised Freddy Krueger.

New Nightmare is a creatively successful film that was not a financial success in 1994.  I don’t think New Line Cinema knew quite how to market this concept in a way that was concise to an audience.  It’s a far more cerebral concept than had been introduced into the series prior, but even then, it still requires a good amount of exposition to get a handle on.  It’s very strange that at the time of release I had never even watched any of these films, and hadn’t spawned my horror movie fandom, yet.  Still, I was entirely aware of this film while no one else seemed to be.  Thankfully, time has given it the respect and admiration it deserved.

Wes Craven absolutely wrote an ambitious and smart screenplay.  I think this shows a maturing of his artistic sensibilities.  This is very high concept employing ideas that could not be competently handled by just anyone.  There have been plenty of poorly conceived and/or executed reality-bending films, but only a special few that have done it with inspiring results.  While that’s mostly true of any genre, this is one that doesn’t have as high of an output, and is usually only tried when a filmmaker feels ambitious.  Most fail because they don’t have the right intellect behind them to pull it off without becoming pretentious, contrived, or fall into a style over substance trap.  The films that do succeed have visionary filmmakers behind them who know how to convey the concept smartly and effectively.  In New Nightmare’s case, it connects you directly with the characters, and invests you in their plights while methodically building up its premise with fine dashes of foreboding tension and suspense.  It treats its horror and gruesome deaths with real human emotion and grief.  These are real people experiencing real terror and pain.  Thus, it increases the dread and danger of their situation with a heavy weight that an audience can truly feel.

This film is exceptionally solid while it’s not so much slasher horror as supernatural, psychological horror.  Craven relies more on subtle atmosphere and a series of creepy, unexplained events, much like a haunted house story, to scare an audience.  There is some gore, but it is only in a few scenes.  So, on a slasher film level, New Nightmare does feel very starved for gruesome bloodletting, and that does detract from the film for me.  There’s not enough visceral pay-off for the building up of suspense and atmosphere.  Heather is truly terrorized by what this demon does to her life, tormenting her at every turn, and claiming the lives of a few people closest to her as well as traumatically manipulating her son.  Those elements are executed outstandingly well.  You can feel her fear and frayed psychological state increase throughout the movie.  Freddy has very restrained screentime, which is a pleasant change from his overexposure in previous sequels.  Wes Craven instead uses the screentime to intelligently and clearly setup the reality transcending premise before unveiling the revamped Freddy Krueger.

This ancient demon has decked Freddy out in a generous use of leather, and a frightening new glove of razors.  It’s no longer rusted, but very shiny and skeleton like showing off Krueger’s burned hand.  The new make-up design is certainly fresh, but still looks like prosthetics instead of an organic piece of burned flesh.  It’s certainly better than the very rubbery appearance we got in the last few films, but I’ve still seen better burned flesh effects elsewhere.  Generally, the redesign does give the character a darker edge which supports the premise of the film, and that this is not actually Freddy but a demon taking on his appearance and persona.

All the actors are as great as could be imagined.  Langenkamp is even more beautiful here than ever before, and her performance is very true to the situation, despite its fantastical nature.  I refer mostly in regards to the parent-child relationship, and how she does whatever is necessary to protect her child.  Now, while this film blurs the line between reality and fantasy, this applies to the presentation of the people.  Much of the stalking elements in the story were taken from the real Heather Langenkamp’s own experiences with a stalker, and so, there’s a personal element to this story for her.  Overall, she brings a great weight of maturity and strong emotion to a role that was likely challenging for her to grasp.  It was bold and brave of her to put as much of her personal life on screen like this as she did, and if it wasn’t Wes Craven asking her to do so, I don’t think she would have done it.  On a related note, Miko Hughes shows a wealth of talent, and is really endearing.  Most kids in horror films tend to be annoying or worse, but he managed to be very likable and endearing.

Robert Englund, as always, clocks in with all he has.  This time, his Freddy performance is intimidating and fearsome.  There’s not a wisecrack to be had, and he still remains engaging as a dark villain.  His screentime is quite limited until the final act of the film, but enough is done throughout the picture to increase his menace and power.  I know for a fact that Englund did prefer portraying Freddy as darker, but most directors preferred the comical approach.  Thankfully, Craven brought the character back to where he works best, and Englund did a great job there.

John Saxon also returns in a supporting role, and I’ve always had a fondness for him.  He’s just such a captivating and marvelous actor with a very fatherly or commanding aura about him.  He always inspires confidence, and consistently does solid work.  I thoroughly enjoy every bit of work I have seen of him.  Tracy Middendorf stars as Julie, Dylan’s babysitter, and really comes off as sweet and caring.  She’s definitely the ideal babysitter.  I could easily go on and on about the cameos and solid acting, but to sum it up, the acting in this movie is wholly satisfying and exceedingly far above slasher genre standards, as is everything with New Nightmare.

This is definitely one of Wes Craven’s best and most modern looking films.  Director of Photography Mark Irwin gave the film a lot of visual integrity, firmly grounding it in a dramatic reality.  There’s a nice use of blue tones that add to the atmosphere that Craven nicely crafted.  This looks like a serious, intelligent film for a more mature audience, contrasting the more juvenile sensibilities of previous Elm Street sequels.  Mark Irwin really showed a great ability to artistically shoot a suspenseful film, and it’s great that Wes Craven used him again on Scream.  It’s only a shame that most of Irwin’s filmography after this were comedies, many of them rather stupid comedies.

The story behind the inception of New Nightmare is also interesting.  The concept was spawned from a meeting between Wes Craven and New Line executive Robert Shaye.  He wanted to know, from Wes, what he thought was done wrong with the series, and if the company had offended Wes in anyway.  Craven made a number of valid points about Freddy becoming a comical buffoon, and Bob offered Wes the chance to rectify these errors.  I’ve always liked that cordial mentality from Mr. Shaye who never cared for burning bridges, only building a better company built on professional integrity and respect.  With that, New Nightmare came into being.

Even without comparison to the wreckage that was Freddy’s Dead, this film shines and soars high as one of the best of the series right behind the original film.  The only major drawback of the film, I feel, is that this demon-as-Freddy is not dispatched in a very clever way.  There’s really no fantastical element to it, as one would expect from such a fantastical concept.  It is more of a physical method of defeating him instead of a supernatural, metaphysical, or psychological one.  And even though I’ve never taken much note of J. Peter Robinson’s score, it is widely recognized as one of the best horror film scores around.  Ultimately, this is still one to highly recommend alongside the 1984 original and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.  Those are the definitive classics of the franchise, and those reputations are rightly earned.


A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

You didn’t think I could let Forever Horror Month go by without a look at old Fred Krueger, did you?  I think A Nightmare on Elm Street came out at just the right time.  The slasher film craze had exploded, but then, began to water itself down with all the imitators.  There were still good ones out there, but it was already time for something fresh to shake up the genre.  Something to bring it back to a terrifying and original concept that was conceived by a master in Wes Craven.  Where the effectiveness of some other horror films have diminished over time for me. A Nightmare on Elm Street still holds a chilling nerve in my spine.

In the town of Springwood, on Elm Street, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends are experiencing violent nightmares where they are stalked by a badly scarred man with a clawed glove of razors.  When Nancy’s friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) is brutally murdered in bed one night, Nancy believes that it wasn’t Tina’s boyfriend who killed her, but the man who terrorizes their dreams – Fred Krueger (Robert Englund).  Unfortunately, her claims are dismiss by her father, Police Lieutenant Donald Thompson (John Saxon), and her alcoholic mother (Ronee Blakley).  So, Nancy, aided by her boyfriend Glenn (Johnny Depp), Nancy fights to stay awake to discover the truth behind Krueger, and find a way to stop him for good or never sleep again.

Right from the start, the film sets a dark, gritty, frightening tone with Freddy’s construction of his bladed glove.  This film truly is a nightmare come to life with the shadowy boiler room being the perfect backdrop for Krueger.  It’s damp, steamy, and filthy – a dangerous industrial environment for a sleazy, twisted killer.  From there, the film haunts you with creepy, surreal images that touch your deepest fears.  Once you are in Freddy’s realm there is no safe harbor.  He wants you to know you’re trapped and ensnared in his sick, demented reality.  He’s the master of the domain that is your dreams, and that’s what’s most frightening of all.  He can violate you deep within your mind, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t go forever without sleep.  Eventually, you are going to fall asleep, and that’s all he needs to have his way with you.  Unlike other slashers, Freddy doesn’t just stalk and kill.  He gains vast pleasure by psychologically tormenting his victims so that when he finally goes in for the kill, it will be all the more sweeter for him.  Freddy is a glorious sadist.  He both literally and figuratively feeds off your fear.  It’s what gives him his power and pleasure.  The glove was also a brilliant idea by Wes Craven.  Most slashers just kill with whatever’s handy, but Freddy puts his own signature mark on his victims with a weapon custom built for himself.  It’s a direct and distinct extension of his twisted personality.

Robert Englund instantly created an icon here built off of Wes Craven’s imagination.  He absorbed himself into the weight and feel of this character through the amazing make-up effects, and the dingy, distinct wardrobe.  The body language alone conveys a sickening individual who takes perverse pleasure in everything he does.  Every little gesture with the blades, every wiggling of the tongue, every slinking movement creates a terrifying performance that burns itself into your psyche.  The fact that Craven keeps Krueger so secluded in shadow, and only highlights certain aspects of his figure or face, enhances the intimidating power of him.  This is the most vile rendition of Fred Krueger we have ever gotten, and I think it’s a real disservice to horror audiences that he became so campy and cheesy in the later sequels.  I know Englund preferred going the darker route, but most directors preferred the comical punch.  I cannot fathom why because Freddy proves to be his most frightening in his purest form.

Beyond just Robert Englund, the film is packed with a great cast.  Heather Langenkamp steps into a strong lead role as Nancy.  I love that the film sets up Tina as the potential protagonist, but swerves the audience when gruesome tragedy strikes.  This allows Nancy to overcome her own grief and build herself up to a confident, smart heroine.  Yet, she never loses her honest sense of compassionate emotion.  Nancy does feel fear, very intensely, but she fights to conquer it every step of the way.  Langenkamp looked and felt like a genuine fresh faced girl next door which made her performance vulnerable and realistic.  The strength she brought to Nancy was incredible making an audience believe in Nancy through every terrifying moment.

Johnny Depp, in his very first acting role, is also great showing off the charm and talent we’ve come to know from him.  As Glenn, he’s funny and sweet.  I also believe casting John Saxon is always a rock solid choice.  He brings a fatherly warmth to Donald Thompson showing concern for his beloved daughter.  He’s also entirely believable as a commanding police officer with a fine screen presence which just exudes strength and confidence.  Ronnie Blakley is quite remarkable as this drunken mother who is clearly unable to cope with the crime she helped commit.  Amanda Wyss puts in a great performance selling the intense fear of Tina, and showing the subtle terror that trembles underneath.  Overall, everyone in this cast does an immensely solid and greatly admirable job.  They make this a film filled with character you can genuinely cared about, and thus, seriously fear for.

Wes Craven shows such a talent for suspense here.  He carefully unnerves an audience with subtle sounds and glimpses of terror, firstly.  Then, when Freddy finally reveals himself, it’s a truly scary sight as he torments Tina with a grin and a despicable laugh.  Just as Freddy torments his victims, Craven uses those moments to freak out his audience to build up the suspense and tension.  He prolongs the fear with masterful skill so that the pay-off will be frightening beyond your imagination.  The kills are gruesomely brilliant with no lack of gore or blood.  The screen is soaked in crimson many times in the movie., and the violent impact of those four blades slicing into flesh is always terrifying and shocking.

All of the special effects in A Nightmare on Elm Street are absolutely impressive and truly ambitious.  Today, as the lackluster remake proved, a lot of these effects today would be done with severely unconvincing and unimpressive CGI.  Back in 1984, everything was done practically, and the results are just astonishingly excellent.  Even knowing how they did it takes away nothing from the viewing experience of the film.  The movie magic is still there, and it is still massively effective.  From Tina being dragged up the wall and ceiling of her bedroom to Freddy’s form pushing through the wall above Nancy as she sleeps to all the subtle tricks and slight of hand to achieve so much, these are timeless, classic images that are the result of talented, innovative minds.  They entirely sell the chillingly surreal qualities and power of Krueger.  It’s amazing that they achieve so much on a budget that was less than $2 million.  Compare that with the $35 million budget of the 2010 remake which couldn’t pull off the same effects with even a fraction of the artistic quality or effectiveness.

Charles Bernstein beautifully score this film with just the right approach.  The main theme is instantly recognizable with its sort of nursery rhyme melody, but has a haunting, foreboding quality lying behind it which is purely brilliant musicianship.  The score, in general, is purely enveloping with a wide, rich range using synthesizer in gorgeous fashion.  It disturbs and unsettles at nearly every dark turn.  The sound design works in tandem with the score by fully immersing an audience into Freddy’s world.  The sounds of the boiler room come to magnificent life in a full surround sound experience.  I think it’s one of the best audio presentations of any horror film I’ve ever heard.

Again, what really sets this film apart from its slasher brethren is the psychological aspect.  Freddy isn’t a killer you can simply outrun.  He’s lurking in the dark recesses of your dreams, waiting for you to fall into his clutches.  It’s amazing to me that Wes Craven is such a sweet, easy going, regular guy, but is able to delve so vividly into the chilling imagery and nature of nightmares.  Scary experiences from his childhood forged many of these inspirations, but so much touches a frightening nerve, such as the bloody corpse of Tina in the body bag beckoning to Nancy, that it demonstrates Craven’s creative brilliance.  He taps so deeply into the mechanics of horror, and is able to craft beautifully gruesome images that could dig their way into your own subconscious.  I think Craven is at his best when he’s pushing horror to a higher level beyond the visceral.  Whether it’s the psychological aspects of this franchise, or the mystery aspects of the Scream films, he has a unique quality to inject into horror films that I really enjoy.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror classic that goes beyond just the slasher genre.  It was created by a team of greatly talented and dedicated individuals in front of and behind the camera.  No other film in the franchise quite matches up to the dark, pure horror quality of Wes Craven’s original.  While there are sequels with their own enjoyable and respected qualities, there are many which simply lost sight of what horror was, and diluted the powerful and effective tone of fear the franchise was built upon.  Regardless of disappointing sequels or poor remakes, the 1984 original will always stand as an eternal horror classic.


Paranoia (2011)

As I have mentioned in several of my reviews here, I am an independent filmmaker.  From before I even was one, I was watching ultra low or even no budget filmmakers develop their talent aspiring for the day I would become one of them.  Now, as one, I truly enjoy supporting and promoting other independent filmmakers.  One I have become a great fan of in recent times is Brad Jones.  Some may know him as a comedic internet personality with characters like The Cinema Snob, 80’s Dan, or Kung Tai Ted, but he’s been an exploitation independent filmmaker for far longer.  Being a filmmaker who has grabbed inspirations from Michael Mann works like Thief, Manhunter, Miami Vice, Heat, and Collateral, I have really enjoyed the sleazy, sordid crime stories Brad Jones has told in feature films like Midnight Heat and The Hooker With A Heart of Gold.  However, in 2011 came a haunting thriller written by Brad Jones and directed by Ryan Mitchelle titled Paranoia.  It’s a definite shift in tone from what Brad Jones has given his fans in the past, but in my view, it’s still just as solid and satisfying only now, with Mitchelle’s help, has the technical quality to give his work a more professional polish and sheen.  The results are great!

A serial killer is terrorizing a small town.  Mark Bishop (Brad Jones) has just killed an intruder (Brian Irving) that attacked him in his home.  Mark’s not sure if this was the real serial killer, but on the night where his wife has finally left him, he is certain he doesn’t want the attention.  Mark needs to get rid of the body and avoid the authorities, but Mark can’t shake the feeling that the real killer is still out there.  As his peculiar, tiresome night unfolds, further unusual and violent circumstances impact him and the people he encounters towards unexpected ends.

As I have watched more and more of Brad’s films, I have become increasingly impressed with not only his screenwriting talents, but the strength of his acting.  While most likely know him from his comedy work on his website, most of his films put him in very dramatic roles.  Paranoia is probably the most straightly dramatic, yet.  Mark Bishop is a very down and out man who I could feel for right from the start.  His life is starting to spiral out of control, and all he wants is for one thing to go right.  The film continually allows the audience to feel empathy for him as he bares his soul every so often.  He’s already a rather sad guy to begin with that just falls into one bad situation after another, and one can’t help but feel sorry for Mark Bishop.  Brad Jones shows a wide range of realistic emotions and inner turmoil in this role.  From the fearful urgency to the contemptuous conviction to the somber and cynical to the embittered, lonely man, he gives the character a strong, sympathetic depth.  He carries the film with a weight and ease.

The supporting cast is generally quite good.  Brian Lewis has a very genuine, endearing charm as Officer Randy who encounters Mark Bishop early on, and later, is shown to have an affection for the waitress Claire.  In that role, Jillian Zurawski gives a heartfelt and vulnerable performance.  Claire is sweet, but is clearly a little on edge being all alone in this restaurant late at night with a killer on the loose.  You can definitely feel for this isolated young woman who starts out trying to cheer up the tired and jaded Mark Bishop, but is subjected to more of Mark’s ill fortunes through an armed robbery gone awry.  Sarah Lewis has been increasingly excellent in all of Brad Jones’ movies, and she has a solid outing here as Marissa Bishop, Mark’s wife.  There’s that tired sadness and heartbreak in her performance conveying just how strained the Bishop marriage has become, and that really carries through with Mark’s emotional state after her departure.  Brian Irving is fairly alright.  He plays the intimidating aspects of Carl Stowers effectively, but the more humanistic scenes in the climax feel rather monotone.  A little more heart and soul in the delivery of lines could’ve added a lot weight to his words.  It’s not remotely a bad performance, but I feel it could’ve been pushed towards a place of more emotional depth.  Considering Irving took on the role about an hour before they shot those scenes, it’s forgivable that the performance lacks some of those qualities.

I absolutely love the tone of Paranoia.  It definitely feels like a late 1990s independent thriller.  Considering that’s when the script was originally conceived and written that is no surprise.  The first comparison that comes to mind, in terms of tone, would be David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Paranoia carries a very somber and mysterious vibe allowing every dark, isolated, and imposing element to soak deep within an audience.  The high definition cinematography is handled with great competence.  This looks like a very high grade feature film shot by people with the talent and tools to realize their vision.  Handheld camera work is smartly and realistically done.  Many big budget filmmakers like to add excessive shakiness to their handheld work, but from the independent filmmakers I’ve seen, they take a far more subtle, natural approach.  That’s what we get here, but there are plenty of instances where the camera is locked down for more rock solid compositions and still moments.  While no director of photography is listed in the credits, I believe director Ryan Mitchelle is to credit for all the camera work.  He and gaffer Jerrid Foiles created a very solid and consistent lighting scheme for this film.  Strong shadows are used throughout to great atmospheric effect.  A minor thought of mine was that some of the dialogue scenes could’ve used a few master shots to get more than a single actor in frame.  However, the coverage they have is quite good with different angles and focal lengths, and Mitchelle does a very fine job as the film’s editor.  He keeps an even, consistent pace that allows the tone to flourish amongst the tension and suspense of the story.  Some of the sound effects editing could’ve benefited from a little more volume or some reverb filters to integrate them more realistically into their environments.  As an independent filmmaker myself, sound editing is probably the hardest art to craft if you don’t have professional grade tools and skills at your disposal.  As the DVD commentary makes clear, Mitchelle made sure that the production audio was as top notch as possible, and the quality of it is very highly admirable and consistent.  The only piece of ADR that he mentions, a scream from Claire, is exceptionally and seamlessly done.

The score for the film captures the absolute perfect mood.  Michael “Skitch” Schiciano uses a very somber and mysterious mix of piano chords and synthesizers in his score.  At most times, it reflects the dark, lonely, isolated feeling of the film in a man alone roaming the streets not knowing what to make of the next moment.  The music is very in sync with what Mark Bishop is going through and feeling every step of the way.  At times, it has an ominous, pulsating relentlessness that is very unnerving, and perfectly complements the chilling and fearful aspects of the film.  You could definitely get an early John Carpenter vibe from the synthesizer part of the score, a la They Live, Prince of Darkness, or Assault on Precinct 13.  Schiciano does one hell of a remarkable job, and I’m glad to know that Jones and Mitchelle continue to retain his services for their subsequent films.

Paranoia has a superb twisting and turning surrealism to it.  It gradually eases you into it the same as it does Mark Bishop.  It’s a slow descent into a psychologically twisted reality.  To a point, you can buy into this all being in Mark’s physically and emotionally exhausted mind, but eventually, things deconstruct to where you know there’s something more at work.  Both the screenplay and the film itself nicely craft these subtle elements, and allow them to discretely pile up until the flood gates break wide open.  Some might call the ending a twist, but it has far more substance than most twist endings.  This is essentially the whole third act of the film, and deals with the meanings and repercussions of what is truly going on.  I still fully felt for Mark Bishop through to the film’s end due to the character I came to know for over ninety minutes.  Again, this a testament to Brad Jones’ very realistic and emotional performance, and the quality of the script written.

Paranoia really is a style of movie that I would’ve loved to have made.  It’s a very smartly written and executed film with a great atmosphere and tone that I find fascinating.  Ryan Mitchelle did an excellent job with Brad Jones’ material.  He is a very intelligent filmmaker who brings a high grade, respectable style to Paranoia.  The films Brad Jones directs always have a gritty visual quality to them reflecting his exploitation film influences, but for this film, the sleeker style is definitely to its benefit.  However, I do agree with Brad Jones that the film does play even better in black & white.  The stronger noir aesthetic just seems to add to the isolated and dark atmosphere of the film, and the contrast lighting directly supports a film noir style.  Brad has released an alternate “Writer’s Cut” of Paranoia for free viewing on his website which presents the film in black & white with some purposeful edits that adhere the film closer to the script he wrote.  It also adds in some pop songs from the 60s and 80s which enhance the ambient, sadly emotional musical atmosphere.  However, since he doesn’t own the rights or licenses to any of those songs, he cannot commercially release that cut of the film.  Both versions of Paranoia are great, and have their own distinctive and excellent qualities.  This is a very impressive and haunting thriller that strengthens my fandom of Brad’s filmmaking, and showcases the great talents he has surrounded himself with.  I had the pleasure of meeting Brad Jones at Wizard World Chicago Comic Con 2012, and he was as interested in hearing about me as I was about him.  He was the coolest, friendliest, most approachable person I’ve ever met, and it was truly a great experience hanging out with him.  His light-hearted enthusiasm showed through regardless of fatigue, and I was glad to have been able to share my admiration for his work in person.  I would highly recommend checking out the Writer’s Cut of Paranoia to help influence your decision whether or not to purchase the features-packed DVD from Walkaway Entertainment, as I did.


Timecop (1994)

Time travel is the biggest pain in the backside to comprehend.  It can become circular logical trying to make sense of the contradictions, continuity resolutions, and potential paradoxes.  Timecop certainly has these problems due to half thought-out ideas, but where these issues would normally sour the entire film to me, Timecop has just enough entertainment value to dwarf those concerns.  Peter Hyams, who shot and directed this film, clearly deserves much credit for bringing the right talents and elements together to achieve a result that is satisfying on all other levels.

In 1994, time travel is made possible, and upon learning of this, the U.S. government forms a confidential agency called the Time Enforcement Commission (TEC) to police time itself, and prevent changes in the past.  Washington, D.C. police officer Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) accepts an assignment to this new agency, but on this very day, he and his wife Melissa (Mia Sara) are attacked.  This results in Melissa’s death and the destruction of their home.  Ten years later, Max Walker grieves still, but has become a respected TEC Agent.  Max ends up having to take in Atwood, his own ex-partner, for tampering with the past with the stock market.  When coxed about who hired him to do this, the name Senator Aaron McComb (Ron Silver) is named, but Atwood refuses to testify to this fearing for the lives of his family.  McComb is a presidential candidate who has been stealing from the past to fund his campaign so that he can essentially buy the presidency.  McComb quickly learns of Walker’s knowledge, and continually seeks to eliminate him and shut down the TEC entirely.  Max becomes determined to expose the Senator’s criminal actions, which come to include multiple murders, but his TEC superior, Matuzak (Bruce McGill) keeps Max from going too far without evidence to support his claims.  However, all things become interwoven as McCombs’ manipulative plans take Walker back to 1994 where his past and future come into peril.  Can Max change history before it repeats itself?

There is just something about the old action heroes that is missing today.  While Jean-Claude Van Damme has amazing physical ability with remarkable martial arts talent, he also has plenty of charisma and heart to really make his roles empathetic.  He gives them enough dimension and charm to be someone an audience can thoroughly enjoy watching.  The young Max Walker is a warm, light-hearted man with a lot of passion and love.  The older Max Walker is more rough around the edges.  He’s a lonelier man that is very dedicated to his job, and takes his commitment to it very seriously.  He has a strong ethical and moral center that doesn’t allow him to back down from McComb.  Still, he retains the charm and wit of his younger self, but with a tinge of conviction.  Van Damme plays both versions nicely, and keeps an emotional connective tissue between them.  He carries the film with plenty of heart, humor, and dramatic weight.  He also has excellent chemistry with his co-stars.

Primarily among them is the late Ron Silver who made for an excellent cold blooded villain as McComb.  His charisma is very sharp as he commands the screen with intelligence and conviction.  He is very imposing and intimidating.  McComb is a man driven by the need for power, and everyone in his path towards it is expendable.  With the advantage of time travel, he can essentially prevent anyone from ever existing, but in some cases, he hardly sees a need to be so severe.  He also doesn’t mind doing his own dirty work.  He just can’t do it all himself.  The younger Senator McComb has ambition and vision, but is not hardened, yet.  His elder presidential candidate self is very cutthroat.  Silver brings immense weight to the picture that fuels the dogged motivation in Van Damme’s performance.  The two have very good chemistry playing off one another many times in the film.  They have a very effective counterbalance that keeps the movie compelling and entertaining.  They exchange several sharp, humorous remarks that entirely fit their characters, and maintain a tension between Walker and McComb that injects urgency into the plot.

I am continually impressed by Bruce McGill’s talent.  I was first introduced to him on MacGyver as the humorous con man Jack Dalton, but since then, I have seen the vast range and depth he is capable of.  From roles in The Insider, Collateral, The Last Boy Scout, Quantum Leap, and a very memorable episode of Miami Vice, I can seriously say that he is one of the best character actors around.  As Matuzak, he holds his ground very easily as Walker’s boss with the weight of authority and a quick witted levity.  He cares a good deal about Max, but he always keeps his priorities and responsibilities in check.  He never lets his friendship compromise his position, at least, not until circumstances become desperate and Matuzak has to stretch his trust in Walker.  McGill and Van Damme also have thoroughly entertaining chemistry that livens up the film, smartly.  Walker and Matuzak are good, tusted friends with a lot of history behind them which adds to the depth of the story.  Van Damme and McGill reflect that nicely giving the film some funny interactions that only a couple of good, long time friends could offer up.

Mia Sara is beautiful beyond just the physical.  As Melissa, you have zero trouble believing in Max’s deep love for her.  She’s compassionate, seductive, and lovely.  The love for Max is always in her eyes, and definitely connects through to an audience.  Mia Sara projects every emotion with heart-gripping depth.  Her interactions with Jean-Claude are wonderful, as are all the relationships in the film.  The whole cast really does a superb job playing off one another, hitting the right dramatic and tonal marks.  The performances are very consistent and complementary.  It’s almost surprising, but pleasantly so.

The visual effects are kind of mixed.  The optical composites putting two Van Dammes or two Ron Silvers into the same frame at the same time are generally pretty good, and the time travel “ripple” effect is well done.  There is also a wicked cool moment where Walker kicks the young McComb in the face, and then, the scar from it morphs onto the face of the older McComb.  These little flourishes are exceptionally nice, and add some originality to the film.  However, the more complex digital effects are rather primitive.  I can only imagine this was due to budgetary constraints.  CGI was likely still highly expensive in 1994 as only Steven Spielberg and James Cameron blockbusters got to make elaborate use of them.  This wasn’t Industrial Light & Magic at work here.  While there are only two such moments in the movie, one of which is a very critical moment that I cannot say how it will affect your enjoyment if you’re just watching Timecop now for the first time.  I’ve known what to expect since Timecop originally hit VHS in the mid-1990s, and so, it doesn’t bother me at all.  For a modern audience, it might be a sour note.

Finally discovering and getting my hands on the first ever widescreen release of this film on DVD, I can properly enjoy the wonderful cinematography by Peter Hyams (who also directed the feature).  I can definitely tell it was shot by him due to the use of contrast through heavy light and shadow.  The movie has plenty of visual atmosphere, but it never goes too far.  There’s a certain noir aspect to much of Hyams’ lighting and cinematography in addition to my beloved 2.35:1 aspect ratio that give Timecop some solid production values.  It also gives the film some distinctive identity and edgy dramatic weight.  Hyams captures and directs the action very, very well.  He has his pacing and composition crafted beautifully creating a very coherent string of action sequences that are thoroughly satisfying.  Hyams puts Van Damme’s talent nicely on display.  Jean-Claude has many awesome moments flexing his agility and ability.  The shot of JCVD jumping and doing the splits on the countertop to avoid the stun gun was a memorable moment from the trailer, and remains as such within the film.  His martial arts skills make for a unique and hard hitting style that really gives the film a lot of kick.  The choreography is plotted out greatly to make the scenes develop logically and organically.  The knife fight alone is a nice change of pace, adding to the creativity of the action.

Now, if it wasn’t for all this good talent elevating the quality of this film, it would not be a winner.  Again, there are so many confusing issues that arise from the underdeveloped time travel concepts and plot turns in this, that you cannot hold the screenplay as a gold standard of the genre.  The general story works very well supported by the acting talents involved, but analyzed at all and its mechanics fall apart.  It’s too complicated to dissect here, but simply said, the space-time continuum should’ve imploded by the end of this movie.  Paradoxes are abound with people being killed, partially erased from the timeline, resetting timelines, and people retaining knowledge of multiple timelines despite the continuity changing constantly with new incursions into the past.  There’s never any constant in what makes for a good time travel story as there’s always some inherent technical complications.  Even those that have a well stated theory of time travel can often fall apart, often with their sequels taking too many liberties with the plot.  There’s no Doc Brown or Sam Beckett type characters present to really speak to the screenwriter’s theories of time travel.  So, the film generally avoids getting too deep into it, and thus, it’s best to avoid rationalizing the logic of it all.  In any case, for a little more insight into this matter you can visit an old favorite website of mine which takes a few moments to breakdown the basic flaws: Temporal Anomalies in Popular Time Travel Movies.

The production design is very good with some large sets that offer up some additional scope.  The entire TEC facility has a slight futuristic quality, but retains a utilitarian mentality which grounds it.  The control room, offices, and launch bay retain a purely functional design idea that would be akin to a secret government facility.  It also allows Peter Hyams to create the aforementioned shadowy, noir inspired lighting schemes.  The only area where the “futuristic” time of 2004 crashes and burns is the design of these butt ugly automobiles.  I’ve never seen a concept car that took the armored, blocky design approach, and indeed, I’m glad that these filmmakers did not accurately foretell the future in this aspect.  Aside from that, the art direction is very good, and maybe a little reflective of 1990s visual aesthetics (something that I have no problems with).

The good fortune of this film is that the filmmakers and cast worked hard to make it entertaining and enjoyable.  The screenwriter abandoned any serious logic in the temporal mechanics so that the plot could work how he wanted it to.  That’s never a good thing, but there’s enough quality put on screen to mostly cloud that shortcoming.  Van Damme is great handling all the demands of the role smoothly from dramatic to humorous to emotional to the physical.  The supporting cast is just as strong keeping the film consistently entertaining.  The characters are well written, and even better realized with solid casting choices.  Peter Hyams deserves a lot of credit for creating a film that features high production values with appealing performances and action sequences built on a script that didn’t make much sense, but was satisfying nonetheless.


Fallen (1998)

Evil is everywhere, and in everybody.  That is never truer than in this film.  I saw Fallen in its original theatrical run fourteen years ago.  I loved it then, and I still love it today.  I owned in on VHS, and later, it was one of the earliest DVDs I saw.  At the time of release, I stated it was one of the best suspense thrillers I had seen.  Now, even after being exposed to a wider array of films in that genre, this still holds up strongly for me.  The supernatural twist surely adds to that.  Fallen really is an inspired film of its genre that is gripping and engaging on multiple levels from the awesome beginning to the masterful ending.

Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) has already arrested serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas).  He’s been convicted, and is now awaiting his execution in the gas chamber.  Although, for a man facing his inevitable and imminent death he’s remarkably upbeat.  Is he psychotic or is he something else?  Hobbes witnesses the execution, and sees Reese die in the chamber.  The case is closed, and it’s on with life.  That is until a new series of murders arise which eerily share characteristics with those of Reese’s, but Reese is dead – isn’t he?  An ancient, unseen evil known as Azazel took control over the man known as Edgar Reese a long time ago, but where Reese died, it endured.  Now, it’s set its sights on Hobbes to enact revenge on him.  Hobbes’ partner Jonesy (John Goodman) is naturally creeped out over the apparent links between these latest murders and those Reese committed, and their commanding officer – Lieutenant Stanton (Donald Sutherland) – is very shady, eluding to knowing a lot more than he’s willing to divulge.  Hobbes attempts to solve the puzzle of why there is a space between “Lyons and Spakowski” that Reese left for him – before and after his death.  This clue leads Hobbes to the death of a police officer who is survived by his daughter Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz) who becomes Hobbes’ path to answers that he is not easily willing to accept.  What this mystery drags Hobbes into is a dark and dangerous reality which may only end up in death for all those who stand between this fallen angel turn demonic spirit and John Hobbes.

Denzel Washington – as always – delivers a powerful and solid performance.  His character of John Hobbes is very human with a wide range of emotions, but most importantly, he’s loyal and dedicated to those he trusts and cares for.  In the start of the film, Hobbes is depicted as a solid professional and a confident detective.  He’s no glory hound with the media – he’s just a cop with a job to be done, and is glad that Reese has been brought to justice.  As the story becomes stranger and more unreal, Hobbes slowly unravels the mystery with great skill.  Denzel carries the film with ease.  He handles the subject matter in a very grounded way making it all relatable through his usual charm, heart, and humanity.

This brings us to Elias Koteas who, despite his relatively short screentime, retains the biggest impact of the entire film.  He makes every second of his time on screen count.  Elias put a lot of hard, hard work into this performance so that it would stay with an audience throughout the length of the film.  I’ve seen Elias in many different roles, the first of which was as the crime-fighting Casey Jones in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live-action movie, and later, among the powerhouse cast in The Prophecy.  No matter the film, whatever role he takes on, he makes it memorable.  This one is no exception.  Reese comes off as a very haunting and disturbing individual without rolling into Hannibal Lecter territory.  Koteas brings an intelligence to the role that is hidden under layers of charisma, riddles, and supposed psychotic behavior.  He entirely grasped the intent of the character in the story, and the depth of this evil entity.

Next, you’ve got John Goodman as the warm-hearted and emotionally supportive Jonesy.  Goodman always amazes me with his natural talent.  He can go from comedic and humorous to intense and dramatic at a moment’s notice.  I thoroughly enjoyed his work on Roseanne as well as other movie roles, and in this film, he really puts it all out there.  I don’t want to drop any major spoilers, but his performance at the film’s end is just everything he could ever pour into a performance and then some.  Donald Sutherland does fine work – as always.  His Lieutenant Stanton really offers a stricter and secretive counterweight to the more open relationship between Hobbes and Jonesy.  He puts Hobbes at unease as he delves into this unsettling mystery.  There’s also a smaller supporting role with James Gandolfini as a fellow Detective with a unique personae and attitude.  Of course, he pulls it off with much charisma and energy that adds to the colorful nature of the cast.

How the supernatural aspects are handled add to the class and sophistication of this film.  Fallen angles who were deprived of form that have lived on through the centuries possessing humans could have faltered if presented in the wrong way.  Embeth Davidtz was given the task of conveying this exposition, and she hit it perfectly on target.  As Gretta Milano, she offers up a strong, yet compassionate performance with a confident core set of beliefs that keep the film grounded, but allow for Hobbes and the audience to believe in there being something more out there.  Something beyond what we can see that is still a very powerful threat.  The film is set in Hobbes’ world of procedural police work where there is a simple explanation and tangible evidence.  Gretta slowly convinces Hobbes to look beyond the obvious and open up his mind to the supernatural truth.  Davidtz strikes up a good chemistry with Denzel that allows for a sense of trust to build between their characters.  This, along with Davidtz’s strength of character, allows Hobbes and the audience to embrace the reality of Azazel.

Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography on this film is filled with fantastic depth and color temperature contrast.  I still remember when I first watched this on DVD, and was highly captivated by the vibrant visual quality of the film.  It is beautiful while remaining moody.  The autumn setting is captured with gorgeous artistry.  It is my favorite season of the year much due to how wonderfully colorful it becomes.  They don’t just have it there because that’s the time of year they shot film, they make it an overall part of the film’s tone and color scheme.  The “demon vision” look is effectively creepy and otherworldly.  The score further adds to the haunting, mysterious atmosphere of the film.  Of course, the use of the Rolling Stones’ “Time is On My Side” was terrific and inspired.  A great choice that fits the manic and peculiar sense of humor of Edgar Reese.  The song is constantly sung by those possessed by Azazel throughout the film as a sort of playful tease from the demon to Hobbes.  Of course, John Goodman puts in the best performance while mimicking some moves of Mick Jagger.

This all adds up to an exceptionally effective thriller.  The suspense of the feature is very taut creating a haunting sense where, eventually, John Hobbes becomes deeply unsettled by.  Being stalked by a supernatural killer that is generally intangible who can transfer itself from one person to another with a simple touch was brilliant.  There is a chase scene with Gretta Milano which uses this one concept to great effect.  The misdirection of the film is also ingenious, and the bookend scenes happen to be a storytelling method I’ve come to use in many of own independent films.  This story is all told from a certain perspective that you will not put into alignment until the end.  Denzel’s voice overs are excellently handled to be both ambiguous as to the truth the first time around, but also, be entirely perfect on repeat viewings fitting into what you already know.  This is mainly a testament to the screenplay of Nicholas Kazan, and the direction of Gregory Hoblit.  Voice overs can tend to be a little dry without the proper direction and context given to the actor.  Denzel gives them the right tone which feeds into the detective noir investigative aspect of the story, and ultimately, as something much more.

Kazan’s screenplay alone seems excellent.  The concepts and how they are handled are done with a fine depth of intelligence and emotional poignancy.  The philosophical discussions amongst these characters show exceptional attention to well developed characters, relationships, and storytelling detail.  The actors inhabit those roles, along with all their beliefs and attitudes, perfectly.  These are essential elements to explore for John Hobbes to develop through the film.  He doesn’t give into wild paranoia, but more of a cautious, weary mindset that drives him to a very clear perspective.  Azazel’s actions throughout the film makes Hobbes a man with his back against the wall, but he doesn’t flinch or become desperate.  He gets smart, and decides upon a course of action that is quite cunning and smart.  That’s very telling of the film.  There’s nothing cheap or dumb about it.  Everyone involved works towards creating a very smart film that maintains a sense of humanity.

Checking wikipedia for some credits on the film, I see there were many mixed reviews of Fallen upon its initial release.  There were critics describing it with words like “convoluted,” “far-fetched,” “recycled,” and “not very engaging.”  As a friend of mine consistently remarks, what good are critics anyway?  I can hardly understand where they come from myself most times.  I personally believe too many have forgotten how to simply enjoy a film as a piece of art or entertainment instead of analyzing it like a science experiment.  How they could not see the rich depth of this movie is beyond me.  I find it entertaining on many levels with dimensional, enjoyable characters, incredible tension and  suspense, a fine interwoven mystery, excellent performances all around, and clever storytelling.  Again, I felt this way in 1998, and I feel the same now in 2012.  I’m sure I will continue to feel that way forever.  This partially follows in the mentality of 1990s crime films post-Se7en, but there’s so much more self-identity and humanity within this story that is not often found as much in this genre.  Fallen is a definite must-see for anyone who enjoys suspenseful thrillers with supernatural elements.  This is a highly satisfying, sophisticated thriller which receives my strongest endorsement!


American Psycho (2000)

Brilliance!  That is what this film has always been to me.  It had controversy surrounding it when it was made and released, but time resolves these issues.  Films that take chances and tackle some explicit subject matter often polarize audiences, but all I ever saw from this was a hell of an entertaining, genius piece of cinema.  A true twisted classic that introduced me to one of my favorite actors of all time.

Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is an empty man.  He lacks emotion, he lacks a sense of reality, and seriously lacks a genuine sense of humanity.  “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman…but I simply am not there.”  For whatever perverse reason, Patrick Bateman is completely disassociated from the rest of humanity.  He’s a Wall Street executive that really does nothing all day long, but earns loads of money despite it.  He finds many people despicable from his girlfriend Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) to his own co-workers to the random homeless man on the street.  By night, he has a terrible bloodlust that he is slowly losing control of.  But the question ends up being – what is reality and what is just pure fantasy?  This is a dark, dark journey through the mind of one demented and empty individual – welcome to the life of Patrick Bateman.

Christian Bale is a marvel!  I really was not familiar at all with Bale before this film, but afterwards, I took close notice of him.  When I heard he was up for the role of Batman / Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins I was 100% in support of him, and he proved me and many others right.  The man has brilliant acting abilities, and fully immerses himself within his roles, both mentally and physically.  As Patrick Bateman, he plays the role with a lot of fun.  The manic and maddening nature of Bateman is brought out fully under Bale’s talents, and it becomes a wholly satisfying performance that will disturb and entertain.  Bateman is a seriously sick man, and honestly has no comfort zone in this world of ours – probably why he becomes lost in his own world of fantasy. Bale just plays it up like I believe no one else ever possibly could.  His moments of introspection are unsettling as he knows that he’s a sociopath, but has no idea just how far off the deep end he will go.

The supporting cast is wonderful as well.  They give quite the counter-balance to Bateman’s madness and hysteria.  Reese Witherspoon has a small, yet pertinent role as Bateman’s girlfriend who is a regular materialistic, high society snob that’s rather oblivious to Patrick in general, and Bateman, in return, cannot stomach her.  Willem Dafoe wonderfully portrays Detective Donald Kimball, who is hired to investigate the disappearance of one of Patrick’s co-workers – Paul Allen (Jared Leto).  Through the brilliance of Dafoe’s acting and Mary Harron’s directing, you never quite know what Kimball does or doesn’t know.  He keeps Bateman guessing – not to mention sweating.  While much has been admittedly attributed to editing two different performances by Dafoe, he delivers both qualities with a great deal of skill.  He has fantastic chemistry with Bale.

Jared Leto is also wonderfully hilarious as Paul Allen.  There’s enough satire in what he does to make the character not simply a stuck-up moron.  Leto plays stupid very intelligently.  He holds up his end of the scenes with Bale equally well.  He’s immensely entertaining, and an excellent encapsulation of this film’s satirical mindset.  The entire cast is just great.  They all play very intriguing characters, and they all do so extremely well.  There’s not a negative note about any of it.

The music in this film plays up the off-balance mental state of Bateman.  It goes between very high class music reflecting an affluent sensibility, and Bateman’s love of contemporary pop music.  With this being set in the late 1980s, the soundtrack is rich with songs from Phil Collins, Robert Palmer, and Huey Lewis & The News.  When this music is set against particular scenes, it accentuates Bateman’s dementia to an extreme.  My favorite is with Lewis’ “Hip to be Square” where Bale engages in the lamest little dance which is actually a stroke of improvisational brilliance on Christian Bale’s part.  If ever I were to meet Mr. Bale, I’d love to put this song on the stereo, and have him re-enact that moment.  It cracks me up like crazy.  The score is beautifully composed by John Cale, and it was an absolute stroke of genius to take this route.

This film is a dark satire on 1980s American capitalism in how the desire for wealth dominates everyone’s lives, and how it dwarfs their sense of humanity and morality.  Most of the characters are so full of themselves that they can barely tell one person apart from another, or at least, don’t place enough worth on anyone else to care.  Mistaken identities are abound in the film, which is an allegory to how Bateman has no real sense of self.  Everything in the film reflects upon that since it is all told from his perspective.  With Christian Bale being a Welshman, I’m sure that allowed him to bring an original perspective towards the satirical subject matter and Bateman himself.

American Psycho was mainly controversial for its use of explicit sex, violence, and twisted psychological subject matter.  That means the film is not for everyone as these are all taken to generous extremes, especially in the highly satisfying unrated cut.  There are a lot of great sequences in this film because of those elements, none that I will spoil for you, but many are there to reveal the fact that Patrick Bateman tries to emulate certain behaviors.  From a pornographic video to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he integrates them into his twisted fantasies, but there remains the question – how real are they?  The psychological ambiguity of this film is masterful.  There is plenty of evidence to support whatever theory you choose, but you have to look at the subtleties to truly grasp all the possible meanings.  Did Bateman actually do all these horrendous, violent acts, and the world is just so consumed with greed, self-importance, and indifference that it doesn’t matter?  Or is Bateman so far out of his mind that he cannot separate his own sick fantasies from hard reality?  Both theories are fascinating to explore, and neither can be entirely discounted.  This is not one of those films which presents you all the evidence, and just leaves you blowing in the wind as the credits roll.  That’s where Patrick Bateman’s internal monologues come in.  They give you a perspective on these things, and allows you to see it all through his eyes.  And even at the end, Bateman doesn’t know what to believe, but with that internal voice, an audience gains the only thing that matters – what it all means to Bateman.

American Psycho is a crazed psychological descent into a giant black void that is filled with immense entertainment values. You can indulge yourself in Bateman’s over-the-top manic madness, or get completely freaked out by it – or both.  Whatever the case, director Mary Harron delivered a massively unique and fascinating adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel.  It gave Christian Bale what was most likely his breakout role.  I absolutely love this film, and if that means I’m a bit strange, then I find that to be nothing new.  I give American Psycho a perfect score and my strongest recommendation to whoever feels this is for them.


Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)

There is a myth in Star Trek lore that the even numbered movies are good and the odds numbered ones are bad.  That’s fairly simplistic, and not entirely a fair statement.  Yes, the franchise has had poorly conceived and problematic films in its lineup, but that hardly means that all the lesser entries are terrible.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture has a lot going against it, but as evidence by it, the talents of Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley have always been able to add redeeming qualities to all the original cast films.  Their chemistry, charm, heart, charisma, and depth have always shone through.  While there is a potential future review from me for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I wanted to delve into the follow-up to the franchise’s most critically successful film.  I wanted to address Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.  While the first and fifth films have very obvious problems that have been well vocalized, I feel Trek 3 gets too much of a bad wrap.  I can pinpoint and agree with the reasons why, but I believe it’s been overly beat up because of it being in the shadow of The Wrath of Khan.  Time for someone to give it a more fair viewpoint.

The starship Enterprise is heavily wounded in the aftermath of her battle against Khan, but her crew survives by way of the sacrifice of Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy).  His body is launched from the ship in a memorial ceremony, and crash lands on the Genesis planet.  As the Enterprise and her crew arrive home to Earth, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) finds his close friend and confidant Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelly) in Spock’s sealed quarters talking crazy, and eventually finds himself in lock-up after trying to charter passage to Genesis.  The hits keeping coming as Kirk learns that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned as the Starfleet brass believe her day has passed.  This is ever more apparent with the experimental new U.S.S. Excelsior ready to begin trial runs, ushering in a new era of Starfleet engineering.  However, Kirk is soon paid a visit by Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard), who tells him that Spock’s katra (i.e. everything that is not of the body) still lives, and they determine that Spock mind-melded with McCoy before his death.  This commits Jim Kirk to a course of action that could cost him his career by stealing the Enterprise to rescue Spock’s body from the newly formed Genesis planet, and reunite it what’s in Leonard McCoy’s mind.  Meanwhile, a ship of rogue Klingons, headed up by the cunning and merciless Commander Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), seek to learn the secrets of the Genesis Device for the protection of the Empire with the science team on U.S.S. Grissom, including Kirk’s son David (Merritt Butrick) and Lieutenant Saavik (Robin Curtis), caught in the crossfire.  The sacrifices of the crew of the starship Enterprise will be dire as they endeavor on their search for Spock.

I believe why this film is not as highly regarded as others is the lack of a strong theme.  In The Wrath of Khan, there was a prominent exploration of age, life, and death.  What they all mean in context to one another, and how someone like Jim Kirk dealt with them.  Here, there was enough room left open for strong themes to be explored, such as sacrifice and rebirth, but the opportunities are not taken with much ambition.  Considering all Kirk has battled through from Khan to the death of his friend, ship, and son, the story was ripe for deep resonance.  Of course, The Voyage Home doesn’t have such dramatic elements to it, and it has been widely beloved.  The Search For Spock is a segue between the tones of the films its sandwiched between.  It has its strong, dramatic elements, but also a lot of fun and light-hearted charisma.  One would think it would be praised for that fine blend, but it does lack the ambition that those other two films had.  They took some chances, pushing themselves for higher standards, and they succeeded.  While this second sequel doesn’t have much scope, I do gain enjoyment from it.  There are many aspects that I find are worth commending.

I love how the film is able to show the loyalty of the Enterprise crew.  Admiral Kirk gives them the opportunity to walk away before getting too deep into this rogue mission, but they have no hesitations in voicing their loyalties.  They are willing to stand by Kirk, regardless of the repercussions, because of  what they owe him, and ultimately, what they owe Spock for his sacrifice.  That strong, indestructible bond is not something that all Star Trek casts have been able to achieve, and that history amongst the crew of the original U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701 sells so much of Kirk’s motivations here.  Even if the film doesn’t dig deep enough to show how it penetrates to his soul, a seasoned viewer already knows it.  Tying into that is the always solid chemistry amongst the regular cast members.  They work as an ensemble that is very cohesive, and always on the mark.  Regardless of the quality of the film they are making, or how troubled the production may have been, the actors never get lazy or sloppy.  They respect their characters and the legacy they leave behind.  No pun intended, but Shatner puts in an admirable performance giving the film its constant pace through his wit and charisma.  He adds in the right touches of humor, as do his co-stars, but focuses the drama of the screenplay when it’s needed.

This film was really the dawn of the revamped Klingons.  The makeup redesign happened in the first film, but here, they finally explore the revised culture of the warrior race.  The concepts of honor, guile, and glorious death are well explored through Christopher Lloyd’s excellent Commander Kruge.  While the character himself is not explored with as much depth as he could have, Lloyd plays a surprisingly solid villain.  He’s cunning, deceitful, intelligent, and treacherous.  Lloyd has been known for a wide range of eclectic characters, but here, he delivers an excellent, calculated performance with a fine operatic screen presence.  Essentially, all Klingon actors followed in his footsteps as he laid the foundation and template for them right here.  I also enjoyed Kruge motives, which could have been the basis for fleshing the character out.  Like with Khan, Kruge sees the potential for Genesis as a weapon, but instead of using it as an instrument of revenge or tyranny, the Klingon Commander seeks it to protect his people.  He will not let the Federation have sole claim to something that could be used to commit genocide on his people, and he will stop at nothing to learn its secrets.  It could almost be an allegory to the nuclear arms race if Genesis was created as a weapon instead of as a terraforming device.  Kruge is calculating, and accepts nothing but the absolute best from his crew, lest they be met with fatal punishment.  Lloyd as Kruge was also the first to use the fully realized Klingon language.  It was great having the alien race’s culture more fleshed out and developed for this film to give the actors something solid and powerful to work off of.  The always impressive John Larroquette is here as one of Kruge’s subordinates, Maltz.  It’s a minor role, but he embraces it with his usual full commitment and high quality.  This film also introduced one of my favorite Star Trek starships – the Klingon Bird of Prey.  It’s an amazing design that is fierce and dangerous.  The green paint job was a smart departure from all the dull grey ships we had seen until then.  It gives the Klingons more personality from the moment the ship de-cloaks.  It is given an imposing, threatening introduction that serves the Klingons thoroughly.

I have always held Mark Lenard as Sarek in high regard.  You never get to meet the parents of the other Enterprise crew members, but for Spock, it has always been important to his character to see his family.  Lenard has always been able to portray Sarek’s wisdom and logic with a touch of heart.  While it’s hard to link emotional terms with the performance of a Vulcan, I would say that Sarek shows his soul in this film.  Losing his son is like losing a part of himself, as is the same with Kirk.  So, they share a rare moment which only Spock’s death could compel from them.  While Sarek & Spock’s father-son relationship has had its conflicts, Sarek is still a fine father that cares for his son more than he can ever allow himself to express.  No parent should see their child’s life end before their own, and Sarek sees a chance to reverse that tragedy.  Any parent would take that chance, no matter the odds.  Mark Lenard gave Sarek his wisdom, grace, conviction, and noble depth of character.  He was an incredible, inspiring actor that forged a legacy in this franchise that will stand for all time.

A possible issue of contention with this movie is the recasting of Saavik.  The role was originated by Kirstie Alley in The Wrath of Khan, but financial demands from her agent prevented her reprisal.  Instead, it went to Robin Curtis.  Both actresses play the role differently, but it was necessary to keep Saavik to maintain the character and story threads from the previous movie.  Both Alley and Curtis offer unique and admirable performances.  Alley’s Saavik was decently Vulcan with a subtle emotive quality.  She was a very untested Starfleet cadet with promise.  She came to grow over the course of the adventure, earning her keep.  Curtis’ Saavik is more confident and capable with a stronger Vulcan characterization and a sensitive nature that proves to be a strength.  She has a stronger will and sharper intellect to create a more complex character.  With the guidance of director Leonard Nimoy, she was given the freedom to make the character her own without the baggage of Kirstie Alley’s portrayal.  In the Vulcan legacy of Spock and Sarek, she adds great depth to Saavik beneath the surface.  Alley’s version entirely served the needs of The Wrath of Khan while Curtis’ portrayal suits the demands of The Search For Spock just as perfectly.

The visual effects are solidly up to the levels of the first two Star Trek films, as handled by Industrial Light & Magic.  They are definite proud achievements that hold up excellently today.  Model work and optical effects, when done by the master craftsman of the era, entirely stood the test of time, and should always remain available as milestones in cinematic history.  What doesn’t quite stand up over time are the scenes on planet Genesis.  The limitations of the budget are painfully evident with the obvious soundstage sets and painted backdrops.  Because of the limited budget, the filmmakers obviously couldn’t fly their actors to exotic locales around the world to feature all the diverse climates of this manufactured planet.  I can’t say that there was a feasible way to do this better at the time this movie was made, but even if it was the best solution, it’s still a detractor to the film’s production quality.  This is not a constant for every scene on Genesis, but the evidence is frequently apparent, regularly reminding you of this fact.

Another thing that I don’t care for here is James Horner’s score.  I’ve always been underwhelmed by his music for Star Trek.  For me, Jerry Goldsmith will always be the one and only master when it comes to cinematic Trek.  What John Williams is to Star Wars, Jerry Goldsmith was to Star Trek, in my view.  He ultimately defined the vast, sprawling, epic musical landscape of the franchise for me on the big screen.  Horner’s themes and cues are fine work, but they never became signature, identifiable themes for Star Trek.  Evidence of this is that Goldsmith’s theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture became the theme music for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Jerry was brought in to score five total films in the series over thirty-four years.  Horner was kept around for a total of three films, but I never cared all that much for the music he produced.  It was never outright bad, but it just never lived up to the musical potential of what Star Trek demanded.  It’s nicely arranged and gives the film some character, but it simply never does enough for me.  In this film, I seriously miss one of my favorite Goldsmith themes – the Klingon theme.  I can only imagine how awesome it would’ve been to see that Bird of Prey swooping around for the kill with that glorious fanfare in full orchestral breadth.  Kruge surely deserved a verbose and powerful theme to accompany his commanding presence, but James Horner makes no attempt to give the Klingons any presence in the film’s score.

The screenplay was written by producer Harve Bennett who was more akin to writing for television (such as The Mod Squad and The Bionic Woman) which, at the time, didn’t explore big thematic storylines with strong emotional resonance.  So, the scope of the film feels small for that reason.  As I said before, the limits were not pushed here to be ambitious and reach for something bigger or deeper.  That doesn’t mean the script is bad.  It certainly has its moments.  I truly like the part where the Excelsior’s Captain Styles tells Kirk that if he goes ahead with stealing the Enterprise, “You’ll never sit in the Captain’s seat again.”  Kirk doesn’t even flinch as he  just orders, “Warp speed.”  The first two films made a definite point that Kirk’s worth in life is directly tied to being a starship captain, but there’s something far more important at stake here.  He’d rather lose everything in his career if there’s a chance to bring Spock back to life, and restore McCoy’s mind to peace.  The dialogue is good and entertaining while encapsulating the characters perfectly.  The action scenes are nicely conceived, especially with the fight between the Enterprise and the Klingon Bird of Prey.  Seeing how the old NCC-1701 is overmatched because it is wounded and undermanned being run on automation was a fine touch.  It is entirely realistic that she can’t take the pounding.  While it would have been a glorious moment to see Admiral Morrow proven wrong with his statements of how old and outdated the ship is by seeing it triumph against such steep odds, I think it better fuels how much Kirk has to sacrifice to get his friend back.

While, clearly, I’ve said much about what is sacrificed on Spock’s behalf, but McCoy is at risk as well.  Jim Kirk has one friend dead and another in turmoil.  These two men – Leonard McCoy & Spock – are pieces to the whole that is James T. Kirk.  I always enjoyed the moment in Star Trek: The Motion Picture where Kirk drafts Bones back into service because he can’t do what he has to do alone.  “Dammit, Bones!  I need you!” says Kirk to McCoy.  Only after he has the wisdom, perspective, heart, and soul of these two men at his side can he succeed.  They bring balance to his ego, passion, guile, and intellect.  They re-enforce and focus his confidence.  They help him reflect upon himself.  Leonard McCoy is a vital piece of that formula bringing passion and humanity to the table.  Kirk can’t allow to see his friend’s mental state deteriorate, and lose him as well.

Regardless of anything else, ultimately, I have to praise Leonard Nimoy on his feature film directorial debut.  It was both a tough and enviable position for him to be in.  On one hand, he was unproven as a movie director, and had scrutinous limitations and supervision put on him in the shadow of a critically and commercially successful film.  However, he was working largely with a cast he had known for over fifteen years who knew their characters thoroughly, and that could allow Nimoy to direct with a built-in sense of respect.  I’m sure he had his difficulties, but his talent is clear to me.  He surely was allowed to soar with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home based on his success here.  It is a serious cinematic disservice that his career as a feature film director ended before it had a chance to soar.  He started out with solid hits including Three Men and a Baby.  However, he faced a crushing defeat, both critically and commercially, in 1994 with the comedy film Holy Matrimony which grossed less than $800,000 (less than 20% of its production budget).  Leonard really appeared to be a wonderful filmmaker with a great handle on action, drama, and humor.  I believe he would’ve had a lot to offer in a lengthy career had he gotten the right projects to his credit as a director.  Here, he delivered a very consistently paced and well balanced film that keeps is story elements in focus.  While there are likely plot holes in the reasoning of some characters here and there, they are minor bits and pieces that are relatively inconsequential.

At the end of this, I feel Star Trek III: The Search For Spock should not be viewed as a “bad movie.”  It doesn’t live up to the thoroughly solid thematic work of the previous film or the fun adventurous spirit of its follow-up, but it’s a nicely enjoyable film that had potential to be more than it was.  It has plenty of action, drama, and humorous moments to make it a consistent, satisfying and entertaining film.  The screenplay could’ve benefited from getting in deeper to the soul of the story.  It certainly touches upon it several times, but doesn’t stay there long enough to really develop the underlying themes in the story.  As it is, there is no reason to rank it poorly in the franchise.  It was commercially successful, and remains a fine classic Trek adventure for the original cast.  It merely in contrast to the exceptional and vastly superior films it is sandwiched between that give it a perceived smaller stature, and that I can understand.  But sometimes, you need to take things a little out of context to give them their proper due respect.


Final Destination 5 (2011)

I joined the party a little late with Final Destination.  I didn’t see the first film in theatres as I was more interested in the then-ending of the Scream trilogy, but once I did see it, I became a fan of the franchise.  However, while I thoroughly enjoyed the first two films, the following sequels signaled an ill decline in quality and tone.  The third film felt like a direct carbon copy of the first, and the fourth was a big failure, in my eyes.  I even saw it in 3D, and that was the last 3D movie I will ever see.  So, that comes to the latest entry in this modern horror franchise.  I believe I was skeptical at first, but reviews for FD5 were quite positive.  A friend of mine even highly enjoyed it, but time was not my ally as I could not get to seeing it theatrically.  So, I had to wait a few months for the home video release.  An iTunes rental it was, and now, the DVD is part of my ever expanding collection.  So, what did Final Destination 5 do right that the last few sequels got wrong?  There are many answers to that inquiry.

Death is unleashed after Sam Lawton (Nicholas D’Agosto) has a premonition that saves himself and several of his coworkers from a disastrous suspension bridge collapse.  Now, they are marked by death to correct this wrinkle in its plan.  Federal Agent Jim Block (Courtney B. Vance) comes in to investigate this incident, and to probe into how and why these few survived.  The survivors are chilled by the haunting, foreboding words of coroner William Bludworth (Tony Todd) about how death doesn’t like to be cheated, and all he has to say comes to shape everyone’s fates in how they attempt to cheat it further.  Sam is joined by his uncertain girlfriend Molly (Emma Bell), his self-assured but soon grieving friend Peter (Miles Fisher) and his gymnast girlfriend Candice (Ellen Wroe), the attitude-heavy office assistant Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), the not-so-slick Isaac (P.J. Byrnes), the young factory foreman Nathan (Arlen Escarpeta), and their boss Dennis (David Koechner).  They are all on the top of Death’s list, and time is not on their side as they frantically attempt to find a way to escape its sinister agenda.

Firstly, everything starts with the tone.  The last two movies delved into dark humor, or more appropriately, bad humor.  The more serious, suspenseful tone of the first film had been forgotten.  FD5 revitalizes that approach to the franchise, and not just in direction or acting.   Cinematographer Brian Pearson filmed this movie with a lot of dramatic character.  The lighting alone has a great deal of weight and beauty.  Just because it’s a horror movie doesn’t mean it can’t have artistic integrity, and I feel Pearson gave the film plenty of that.  The visual style strongly compliments the direction of the movie.  While none of the actors will really win any awards here, they generally hold up well.  Those who need to be sympathized with are nicely cast.  Those that are meant to be reviled or disliked seemed to work right for me, but it’s hard to tell if P.J. Byrne’s Isaac was supposed to be a misogynistic ass to like or dislike.  I chose the former.  Nicholas D’Agosto is a decent lead handling the more vulnerable side of Sam well, but he doesn’t have quite as much to work with as previous leads in the series.  I feel Miles Fisher had the most to carry as the film went on with his grief morphing into something unforeseen.  Coincidentally, Fisher bares a resemblance to Tom Cruise, and I certainly read a lot into that facial similarity.  However, seeing beyond that, he confidently shoulders a lot of emotional weight by the film’s end, and he handles himself very well in both dramatic and action oriented scenes.  Courtney B. Vance certainly shows his worth handling Agent Block with the right amount of uncertainty and inquisitive sense about him.  He doesn’t buy into the supernatural explanations at first, but as things develop, he becomes willing to believe there is something more at work here than he can deduce.  It’s quite original from the other law enforcement figures the series has offered us before.

So, okay – the acting is good, the thing is shot well.  How good of a horror flick is it?  Very good!  As the end credits song from AC/DC says, “If you want blood, you’ve got it!”  Final Destination 5 has a hefty helping of blood and gore that will satisfy any fan’s splatter craving.  The deaths remain original and inventive.  They become more elaborate with misdirection by laying out elements that take a little longer to pay off.  While that is usual for the series, I feel this entry pushes it further towards more unique results.  Every little element that Death sets into place is simply part of a chain reaction of events that don’t lead you to the death you are anticipating.  This helps to enhance the suspense and tension throughout certain sequences by leaving you wondering how that loose screw the gymnast didn’t step on will factor into the scene later.  You think she avoided the imminent danger, but the actual danger has yet to fully show itself.  These scenarios slowly develop hooking your attention in more and more until the pay-off hits you like a punch in the teeth.  This also shows that the screenplay is smartly written.  That’s a good upswing from the screenwriter of the atrociously dim-witted A Nightmare on Elm Street remake.  The brilliance of this franchise has been using a force of nature as the killer itself.  There’s no personality to tap into, and no way to just turn around to see the maniac with the machete, butcher knife, chainsaw, or claws coming up behind you.  It forces the characters to be more intelligent and aware for them to survive, and it also forces the screenwriters to become more inventive in how to setup each death.  No longer can they rely on an off-screen kill or someone just getting stabbed in the blink of an eye.  So, I am glad that Eric Heisserer has stepped up his game with FD5.  Now, I won’t spoil anything for anyone, but I very much loved the turn in the film’s climax.  The story elements laid out by the returning Tony Todd’s William Bludworth are tied up into a very original and enjoyable departure for the franchise.  The climax twists things around a little bit creating a more physical confrontation than we’ve had before, but it doesn’t all end there.  As with all the Final Destination films, there’s an extra added punctuation after the climax just when the characters feel everything is fine.  For those not in the know, it is a hell of a turn that the film only lays extremely subtle clues at throughout the picture.

Now, director Steven Quale appears rather interesting.  He’s only had a sparse list of credits stemming back to 1988, and I seriously mean sparse.  This is the fourth film he’s directed in 23 years.  I don’t know why that is, but I would hope that success with Final Destination 5 would open doors to push his career forward with more velocity.  I say this because he displays a lot of great talent here in handling and balancing horror, drama, and action into a highly entertaining film.  Apparently, Quale has worked with James Cameron on The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies, Titanic, & Avatar.  So, it is no surprise that the apparent 3D effects shots look great even in 2D.  They still have visual and visceral impact without the three-dimensional effect.  Begrudgingly, if I had the choice to now see this in 3D, I’d take the opportunity.  In the past, the tech has not worked for me.  I have no optical impairments.  It’s mainly due to the fact that when images jumped out at me they became misaligned, like seeing double, and thus, ruined the illusion.  I saw My Bloody Valentine 3D as well earlier in 2009, and that offered no better results than The Final Destination.  So, I swore it off vowing I would never see another 3D film, but when things look this good in 2D, I’d have to concede that the proper three dimensional presentation would likely be quite impressive, to say the very least.

In regards to the visual effects, right from the opening title sequence, in both visuals and music, this movie made me feel like I was in for something ready to kick my ass.  The credits sequence is awesome and original giving an audience some eye candy right up front to prepare them for the visual intensity of Final Destination 5.  Again, since the only time I saw the previous two films were in their original theatrical runs several years ago, I cannot compare improvements in CGI, but from many accounts, it is superior here.  The entire opening bridge collapse is massively successful, and CGI never entered into my thoughts while watching it.  All effects were seamless and convincing meshed with some amazing cinematography.  Quale clearly took a lot of time to construct this sequence to give it the visual scope and unnerving urgency it needed in every aspect.  Each film in the series does try to top the opening disaster sequence of the previous, and I would be very intrigued to see if a sixth film can keep up that trend because this is a very intricately plotted out sequence.  Much attention to detail was given.  Now, the CGI in the rest of the film is as perfectly seamless, but it is very good.  There is never any visual effects shot that takes you out of the motion picture.  The quality is quite consistent and nicely integrated into the live action surroundings.  It’s just how in your face they are that bring out any less than perfectly realistic qualities about them.

The make-up effects can sometimes be overlooked because of the CGI gore, but when I take a minute to think of them, they are immensely important to the strength of this film.  Most of the gore in the film appears as a combination of special make-up and visual effects elements, but scenes like the acupuncture mishap perfectly display the quality of the practical effects.  Of all types of films, it is the horror genre where I thoroughly enjoy seeing the behind the scenes look at how these things are done.  Being able to marry the computer generated and practical effects work impresses me, and a film like this makes me appreciate the hard work that goes into it all because the use of the effects is never subtle.

While the characters may try to cheat death, fans are certainly not cheated with this movie!  This is a winner!  Final Destination 5 hits all the right marks, and delivers some bloody good horror.  It’s possibly the best shot film of the franchise with a lot of high quality given to it in both large and quiet moments.  Steven Quale deserves a lot of credit for delivering something so solid, impressive, and entertaining.  I enjoyed this on many levels, and it gives fans what they basically desire as well.  The entire series comes full circle with a smartly written screenplay that brings the right story elements together and wraps them up and around the characters very nicely.  Everything flows easily without complicating the story.  I am very impressed by this entry in the franchise, and I would hope that another Final Destination movie could come along to maintain this level of quality.  Horror has taken many turns in the last decade that I haven’t cared for, and that has diminished my interest in the genre.  However, that could change if this movie is a sign of things to come, if only for the franchise.  Final Destination 5 receives a strong, positive recommendation from me!  It is a reassuring return to form for the franchise that gives you more than you ever expected.  Thoroughly satisfying is what this is!