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G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

g_i_joe_ver11Growing up in the 80’s I was a fan of G.I. Joe, and owned many of the toys that the cartoon generated.  However, I was never that hardcore of a fan.  As I grew up, the franchise didn’t stick with me as I gravitated towards Transformers overall.  When this live action movie, directed by Stephen Sommers, was being made and released, it didn’t grab my attention.  I didn’t give it a chance until a strongly opinionated friend of mine, who was a big G.I. Joe fan, stated that he did enjoy this movie.  One iTunes rental later, and I was approving of this movie.  Yes, it has problems, and has some serious unfaithfulness to the source material, but it’s a big, enjoyable science fiction stylized action movie, regardless.

Two soldiers stationed in Kazakhstan, Captain “Duke” Hauser (Channing Tatum) and his partner Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), are ordered to transport special warheads created by MARS, an arms manufacturer controlled by James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston).  When they are attacked by a highly advanced terrorist group, led by Baroness Anastasia DeCobray (Sienna Miller), they are saved by a top secret, international special forces unit known as G.I. Joe.  The leader of G.I. Joe, General “Hawk” Abernathy (Dennis Quaid) is on the trail of these thieves: an evil organization called Cobra.  While Duke and Ripcord train to join the Joes, McCullen is secretly working for Cobra and plotting to recapture his metal-eating “Nanomite” warheads.  Duke and Ripcord, with help from Heavy Duty, Snake Eyes, Scarlett, and the rest of the Joes, must prove that they are Real American Heroes by stopping the launch of these warheads before Cobra uses them to take over the world.

There are several alterations to characters and their relationships from the familiar comic book and cartoon source material.  Why filmmakers have this compulsion to make changes of these kinds escape me.  I don’t mind adapting a concept or idea to suit the live action filmed media as opposed to the more fantastical mediums of comic books and cartoons.  However, the changes here didn’t need to be made to make the idea of G.I. Joe work as a live action movie.  They were simply creative decisions made for whatever reason to tell the story these filmmakers wanted to tell, despite whether or not it fit into who these characters had been for over a quarter century.  I’ll touch on these as I comment on some of the cast, as I have done some light research to understand the divergences at hand.

This movie has some acting talents that seem questionable to me at both the time it was released and in retrospect.  Obviously knowing Marlon Wayans from increasingly badly received comedic vehicles, he was the most peculiar casting choice.  While Wayans’ character of Ripcord does have a playful, somewhat silly personality at times, he’s decently enjoyable once you begin to take the film as a light, popcorn movie adventure.  He even has a moment or two of charm as he begins to develop some friendly relations with Rachel Nichols’ Scarlett.  As the film goes on, and the threats become more serious and imminent, Wayans rises to the occasion to make for a nicely respectable cog in this action centric cast.

Channing Tatum is someone that I’ve come to know as a rather uncharismatic actor with not much to offer.  While he surely doesn’t give us anything close to the Duke fans knew from the original cartoon series, who was a very strong, authoritative commanding officer, he is fine in this younger iteration of Conrad “Duke” Hauser.  It’s not a particularly dimensional performance, which could have helped in some instances, but Tatum decently fits the role as written.  It’s fortunate that the film has so many characters you can fixate on so not to be distracted by Tatum’s limited abilities.  It’s not an outright groan inducing performance, just a flat one that is aided by some decent comedic chemistry with Wayans.  Still, a far better actor was surely available to cast in this role to make him a more standout lead instead of blending into the ensemble.

Thankfully, we have some strong, vibrant villains to enjoy.  Christopher Eccleston is sophisticated, intelligent, but also despicably vile.  He injects charisma and slick savvy into McCullen, aka Destro, that is distinctly different from his Sunbow cartoon incarnation, but ultimately, follows the character as he has been developed through other media over the years.  Eccleston has a very good presence conveying a contemptuous weight towards the world without it feeling one dimensional.  He has a very elaborate, smartly devised plan to place himself in control of the world.  He works greatly as a global level villain whose motives nor agendas are shallow in the least.  Plus, the English actor works a very solid Scottish accent.

The filmmakers made serious changes to the Baroness, who is supposed to be an Eastern European straight-up villain, but is now simply Duke’s American ex-girlfriend Anna Lewis who has been specially manipulated into being a villain.  Regardless of this, Sienna Miller is endlessly and immensely hot in this very femme fatale role.  She plays it with a lot of bite and sexy assertiveness.  She is a bad ass villain that would’ve been perfect if the filmmakers played it faithful, but as it is, she does a damn good job making the Baroness alluring, dangerous, and intriguing.  Essentially, this character change was made in order to create a romantic relationship for Duke to grapple with, and while it’s nicely executed, it still would’ve been more pleasing to see the real Baroness here.

Lee Byung-hun and Ray Park are probably the best parts of this movie portraying Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, respectively.  Both characters are straight awesome here.  Storm Shadow is beautifully lethal and stealthy with a real cutthroat, edgy presence.  I think he truly lived up to many fans’ expectations through an excellent, sharp performance.  Obviously, Snake Eyes has no dialogue, but Ray Park’s expert athletic and martial arts talents shine through.

Cobra Commander is here in this movie, but doesn’t declare himself to be as such until the end.  We are essentially given an origin story for him that is very much inline with that of the Baroness.  For those that haven’t seen the movie, I don’t wish spoil the film’s intended surprises, but let’s say that it’s not the Cobra Commander you’re used to or expect.  He was my favorite character from the 80’s cartoon series due to being a rather excitable, egotistical fool, and even there, his back story was never entirely consistent.  What we even got in the animated movie was not very palatable to me.  So, when I saw this movie, none of this new back story really hit a bad nerve, but it would have been nice if the filmmakers attempted to make him look like Cobra Commander in his final moments on-screen.  Reportedly, they were fixated on the hooded look for the character, and avoided using it for understandable iconography reasons.  Still, as the sequel demonstrates, the chrome masked version was easily adaptable, and its absence comes off as even stranger since the filmmakers put an odd translucent mask on him at the end, anyway.

The question is if all of these objectionable changes make this a poor movie.  I suppose that depends on your perspective.  I would imagine many very serious G.I. Joe fans with a knowledgeable and loyal history for the franchise would be upset by these arbitrary alterations.  For a more casual fan, like myself, they don’t break the movie, but certainly make it less than it potentially could have been.  It’s a tad surprising that this movie was co-written by Stuart Beattie, who I recently gave vast amounts of credit for his screenplay for Michael Mann’s Collateral.  That was a brilliant, introspective movie of great, unique depth.  This is far from that.  Beattie’s co-writers have shallow filmographies with nothing much to really say they are exceptionally good or bad screenwriters.  I’m not saying that this script is bad, though it has some shortcomings and flaws, but in terms of attempting to be a faithful adaptation, it has a lot of wrong turns that I’m not sure who is to directly blame for them.

Now, the quality of the CGI here is about standard for a Stephen Sommers movie, unfortunately.  The effects in The Mummy were really good for 1999, and still hold up fairly well today.  However, Sommers’ films have since become larger scale productions requiring more elaborate visual effects, and this is evidence of that.  The CGI is used extensively, and is not really that good to be given so much screentime.  Among six visual effects companies that worked on this, there’s no real distinguishing level of quality.  I would be hard pressed to say any of the visual effects shots are anywhere in the neighborhood of great.

Still, despite the lacking digital effects, Sommers delivers some solid action sequences.  They are big, explosives scenes with some inventive ideas and nicely choreographed fights.  All of this action is very well shot showing that Sommers knows how to present and construct action sequences very competently.  Plus, he knows how to inject a real sense of entertainment value into everything, even if some of the funny bits are somewhat extraneous.  Still, the sprinkles of comedy entirely suit Sommers’ style that we saw in The Mummy and so on.  A definite action highlight is seeing Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow battle, and Sommers treats it as a special attraction.  There’s an early on battle between them, but the climax gives us the real juicy stuff.  It’s just bad ass all the way through, if delivered sparingly, and I only wish there was more of it.  Hopefully, I will get my wish in the sequel.

While G.I. Joe always had a bit of advanced technology giving it all a slight science fiction edge to it, this movie really pushes that full boar by even stating it takes places in the “not too distant future.”  This is a movie of very advanced technology with people communicating through holograms, using nanomite weaponry, energy based weapons, entire underwater Antarctic lairs, and various other fantastical items.  It does fit alongside much of the established franchise mentality, but it probably pushed the envelope further than it needed to.  I like a little high tech gadgetry in G.I. Joe to make it feel special and unique, but I think a live action movie should probably ground the ideas more.  Take it more away from the cartoony aspects, and make it a little tougher, more hard edged with contemporary weapons.  While I found the film fun, this film franchise really does need to go that direction so it can plant its feet in the ground and push forward with a strong foundation.  Take away the almost cyborg-like accelerator suits and the energy guns, and give us more down and dirty stuff.  Ultimately, I think that sells easier and stronger to a wide audience.  We can take a little fantastical science fiction every now and then, but if you’re setting the film in a recognizably contemporary time and not the especially distant future, sell it that way.  Give us a bad ass military guy unloading live rounds from a machine gun.  Laser weapons were used in the cartoons because they were cartoons.  You couldn’t show people getting shot with bullets and dying in that medium.  This is a live action PG-13 movie.  Mature the content a little, and give action fans and the adults who were kids in the 80s something that appeals to them more.  Don’t make it too violent, but do enough to be bad ass, which is what the soon-to-be-released sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, seems to have done.  Still, we’ll see about that in a few days.

The climax itself is full of plenty of action with both Ripcord piloting a Night Raven jet to intercept McCullen’s nanomite warhead missiles, and the assault on McCullen’s Antarctic lair.  Like with the whole film, it’s tightly edited with constant energy propelling the story forward.  The dramatic tension is kept high, and these intercut storylines flow very well.  We get some very good, heroic pay-offs, but we ultimately understand that this is just the setup.  G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is the story that puts all the heroes and villains into their proper places to give the franchise a launching point.  Plots have still been set in motion by Destro and Cobra Commander that will be followed up on in the next film.

Again, this is a film that I do find enjoyment from, but surely not frequently as I’ve watched it maybe four times in three years.  It’s a nice, enjoyable ride with some very well executed action sequences that do aim to please, and a fine dash of humor and levity to keep it fun.  It has a decent cast that generally does enough to be closer to Stephen Sommers better work, but it’s still a movie that could’ve benefitted from some better creative direction.  I’m hesitant to give it a big endorsement because, again, there’s plenty of bad CGI all over the place and it fails to faithfully adapt the source material.  For what it is, I think it’s mostly well done.  It’s not the G.I. Joe movie that fans wanted or expected.  The animated movie really diverted into very strange territory that I still find not to my taste.  I don’t own that movie, but I do own this one.  It’s closer to what a G.I. Joe movie should be focusing on terrorism and advanced technological warfare, but it did need someone at the helm that could shape it into what the fans desired.  I do think it’s a better movie than reputation has seemed to label it with.  There is plenty of entertainment value that surely never gets to the annoying levels of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.  I would recommend giving it a chance, but knowing that it still falls short of its potential in several areas.  If for nothing else, it’s worth seeing Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes clash.

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The Living Daylights (1987)

The Living Daylights was the debut of Timothy Dalton as James Bond on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the franchise.  It also marked a distinct shift in tone from Roger Moore’s more light-hearted approach, and brought Bond back closer to the core of Ian Fleming’s character.  With Dalton came a more dangerous Bond who carried more weight and urgency with him, and it is a portrayal that I very much enjoy.  While this first outing was generally well received, I believe Dalton’s two film run with the character was unjustly maligned, and I hope this review and that of the following film will detail why.

After James Bond (Timothy Dalton) helps Russian officer Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) make a daring defection to the West, the intelligence community is shocked when Koskov is abducted from his remote hiding place.  Bond leaps into action, following a trail that leads to the gorgeous Kara (Maryam d’Abo), who plays Bond as easily as she plays her Stradivari cello.  As they unravel a complex weapons scheme with global implications, linking up with arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) and Russian General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies), James and Kara escape first to Vienna, then to Morocco, finally ending up in a prison in Soviet occupied Afghanistan as they track down the elements in this mystery.

The opening action sequence is very smart and exciting.  M sends three Agents to test the security of a military installation on Gibraltar, but are ambushed by an assassin.  I’ve always liked the touch by the filmmakers to cast two other actors who resemble previous Bond actors George Lazenby and Roger Moore before revealing Dalton himself.  Obviously, with marketing of the film and all, the trick loses its intended impact, but it’s a clever idea to keep an uninitiated audience guessing as these other agents fall by the wayside.  Regardless, this sequence sets the tone for this more action packed and daring approach of this new Bond.  It’s really a perfect start to a very promising film that does deliver in many satisfying ways.

The opening credits sequence for The Living Daylights is nothing special or distinct.  Watery images and silhouettes really don’t have much to do with the title song from Norwegian pop group A-ha.  It’s not particularly bad, just very uninspired.  While this musical track doesn’t have as much punch as Duran Duran’s had for the previous film, the high pitched vocals and melodic quality are still catchy and appropriately Bond-esque.  I like it quite a lot.

Timothy Dalton injects a seriousness into the role of Bond that I find very compelling.  He carries himself with sophistication and integrity creating a strong screen presence.  He firmly grounds Bond while still giving him charisma, wit, and a subtle depth of emotion.  He can be humorous and charming while never betraying the dramatic intent of the portrayal.  Dalton’s Bond is one that grasps the seriousness of situations, and acts with due intelligence and action.  There’s definitely a gritty vigor he brings into Bond that makes the film instantly more energetic and exciting.  It’s a dimensional performance that is thoroughly enjoyable, and creates a James Bond that can smartly weave in and out of the world espionage.  Beyond everything else, Dalton makes 007 a character that can be taken seriously, and allow for serious stakes to be highlighted in his films.  While there is room for fun, it is ultimately a better film when there’s real tension and risk at hand.  I think Dalton did an excellent job stepping into this role bringing realism back into the fold.  Timothy Dalton likely did many of his own stunts, and it really shows through, benefitting the quality of the action immensely.

The action of the film is excellent.  The chase sequence through the snowy landscape with the Aston Martin showing many of its “optional extras” is very thrilling and fun.  Plenty of explosive moments and clever twists and turns make it a memorable highlight of the film.  The foot chase across the rooftops of Tangier was very well done, also.  All of the action sequences are very fun and inventive using the unique locations, from the snow to the desert, to great effect.  The climactic action scene where Bond hangs off the back of a cargo plane, set to explode in a matter of minutes, while battling the Russian mercenary Necros is very tense and exhilarating.  Yet, it doesn’t end there as we get further explosions and a dangerous mid-air escape.  Then, Bond still has to finish off Whitaker in a great firefight.  It’s an immensely satisfying conclusion that does not hold back on the thrills.

Maryam d’Abo is probably not as alluring or sexy as most other Bond girls, but she is definitely a good actress that had a lot to bring to Kara Milovy.  She’s very likable and relatable as an innocent and talented young woman deceived by her deceitful boyfriend Koskov.  Maryam brings a strong will to the role, but also finds the vulnerability in Kara.  Kara and James share some moments of strong emotion that d’Abo conveys remarkably well.  She was a very good fit for this initial outing for Dalton as she satisfies on stronger levels than mere sex appeal.

I feel the only downside to the film are the villains.  Joe Don Baker is decently charismatic, but never really develops into a serious threat.  Opposite a more formidable acting talent in John Rhys-Davies, whose character is implicated as the true villain by Whitaker and Koskov, it’s even harder to perceive Whitaker as someone to contend with.  He’s portrayed as a man who doesn’t take anything too seriously, but any hint of arrogance or ego that could have been there, simply is traded off for a character that’s lacking in formidable competence.  Thankfully, he’s not a forefront villain.  Jeroen Krabbé’s General Koskov does definitely go down the path of arrogance, but it takes quite a while before he becomes intimidating at all.  He’s certainly the better quality villain of the two, ultimately, and at least has more of a detestable element to him due to how he eventually treats Kara.  Yet, he still could’ve used a lot more work.  I feel it’s more the near insurmountable odds that Bond faces which make the film tense and exciting than the villains he faces.  They are nothing major to contend with.  It’s just the forces they command are what create the danger the film needs.

I really like that the plot features a tangled web of deceit for Bond to unravel.  He has to tread cautiously amongst those he encounters before he can determine who he can trust, if anyone at all.  He works his way through a deceptive abduction, a faked assassination, opium trade, arms deals, and rebel fighters in the Middle Eastern desert to uncover the depth of this plot, and to stop it dead in its tracks.  It’s an excellently crafted story that never falls into a lull.  There’s a consistent development and progression of plot while never leaving our main characters of James and Kara in the dust.  Their motivations remain clear, and their relationship develops very solidly.  Despite James having to lie to her while attempting to determine her role in Koskov’s plan, Kara is able to eventually trust him, and they forge a convincing romantic relationship.  Everything is smartly wrapped together in a very satisfying package making for an entertaining ride.

I was very pleased by John Barry’s score for this franchise entry.  He gave a little more edge to the traditional Bond theme in a few of the action scenes, and nicely incorporated the melody of the opening title track into the score during the third act.  It’s a very tight, very good piece of orchestration that complemented the film’s tone and pace strongly.  It was a very fine and respectable final bow for Barry as this was the last James Bond film he worked on.

Ultimately, The Living Daylights is a very good film in this franchise.  There is more than enough action to spare while still delivering a very smart and well plotted story.  It brings espionage more skillfully back into Bond’s world, and the film is better off for it.  The real cog of success was Timothy Dalton who made the character honest and real, again.  Between his presence and beautifully deeper voice, you get that sense of dramatic tone from him throughout the film.  He simply made the film more exciting and interesting.  While there is a more gritty, dark style to this film, it still has plenty of fun moments to smile at that do not betray the tone veteran Bond director John Glen was going for.  If the film had strong villains, or simply stronger performances from the villains, I could really give this a very strong endorsement.  They just lack that edge of intimidating and formidability to push them over as a major threat on their own.  The excitement and engaging narrative is due to the twisting and turning mystery Bond has to weave through, and it’s all done with expert quality and precision.  The Living Daylights is definitely a big step up from A View To A Kill, and for those desiring a more traditional Bond film from Dalton, this is definitely the one to check out.  I do very highly recommend the film despite any shortcomings it has with the villains.  It’s a fun, thrilling ride that will entertain you.  Next up, James Bond will return in Licence to Kill.


The Hills Have Eyes II (2007)

I still stand by my statement of Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes being “one of the most bad ass horror flicks I’ve seen in my entire life.”  Still, this sequel is a solid and worthwhile horror film, but Aja’s 2006 remake of the Wes Craven cult classic is clearly and easily superior to this sequel directed by Martin Weisz.  New director Weisz comes from the Michael Bay background of music videos, and this was his feature film directorial debut.  While a lot of the same behind-the-scenes talent remains in producers Wes Craven, Peter Locke, and Alexandre Aja, this film lacks a lot in terms of character and visuals.  Although, it does still offer some gruesome gore and intense frights, but not in quite as hefty doses as before.  Still, its gore level and disgust factor still puts Platinum Dunes’ Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboots to shame.

The film picks up two years after the first where the U.S. military has seemingly wiped out the mutated cannibals of the New Mexico desert.  Though, these dwellers of the barren landscape still hideout, but in depleted numbers.  They seek women to help repopulate the hills, and are certainly hungry for new flesh.  Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is setting up a cameras and surveillance equipment at old 1950s army base in the Yuma Flats, New Mexico, but they never see their brutal ends coming.  When a rather unremarkable and unrefined military detail from the National Guard arrives to drop off supplies, they find the camp empty, and are quickly led to believe there are survivors in the surrounding hills.  Though, it soon becomes apparent that they are prey suckered into a lethal and gruesome trap, and their own Sergeant becomes an accidental victim of their own clumsy inexperience.  With no radio reception to call for help, no transportation out, and only limited ammunition, they are in for a fight for their lives.

I had hope for this film as it started out.  Within the first five minutes, I said, “I’m impressed.”  The opening scene is as gruesome and sickening as anything Aja did in the first film.  While the gore level remains gooey for the remainder of the film, it lacks certain elements that made Aja’s film very strong.  It doesn’t have that gritty ferocity, but it still has a very complimentary impact to it all.  I didn’t feel like the filmmakers held back, but the violence and gore just could’ve been amped up even further.  Though, this all ties into character and emotion as well as other technical elements – all of which I’ll touch on later.

Now, the acting is not at all bad here, but it seems like the budget for casting was slashed on this film.  Aja’s remake had some strong, established names like Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan, Billy Drago, Robert Joy, and the rising star of Aaron Stanford.  This time through, there’s no familiar names aside from the returning Michael Bailey Smith (playing a different mutant in Papa Hades).  I connected in varying degrees with some characters, hoping they’d make it through, and was saddened a bit if and when they didn’t.  Still, most of those who died were easy to spot as part of the body count.  Sadly, even though I liked the two characters who asserted a solid authority amongst the group, they were very shallow characters, offering nothing more than a sense of confidence and decisiveness.  I did feel that Michael McMillian as PFC “Napoleon” Napoli had depth and real emotion to him.  He seemed to fit the Doug Bukowski template for this film being rather uncertain of himself and always getting the worst treatment by everyone.  He was the underdog, more or less, not showcasing the nerve or ability to survive this frightening experience.  However, I couldn’t wait for “Crank” (Jacob Vargas) to bite it!  He’s the guy who acts all hard up, tough, and bad ass, but can’t back it up.  He continually rushes headlong into situations, and always screws himself and others over in the process.  It’s just all about feeding his over inflated ego and proving how big his balls are to everyone.  He’s full of macho bullshit, and never learns to act otherwise.  Simply put, he’s an asshole from beginning to end, and he annoyed me to no end.

On the flip side, Aja’s film was rather unpredictable in that you couldn’t really tell who’d live or die, let alone when, where, or how it might happen.  The peril was so high, and the characters were so well written and portrayed, it was a tough call.  At times, you might’ve thought that no one would survive.  Plus, the characters were all such three-dimensional people that emotion played so deeply into the effectiveness of the film.  Everyone was just in such an equal depth of danger, you simply never knew.  In Weisz’ sequel, the characters do have some emotion and personality, but they’re just not remotely as strong.  Most don’t feel as genuine or as solid.  With one or two, some really cheap bits are pulled to generate some degree of sympathy for them, but it just comes off as just that – cheap.  It’s simply ineffective and amateurish.  I suppose I have to blame the script written by Wes Craven and his son Jonathan.  It just feels more like lazy slasher level characters instead of the realistic and textured ones from Aja’s film.  None of these characters reach a true peak of emotional distress that fuels the momentum of the film through to a rousing climax.

Another point where the characters seem to appear inferior are the mutants.  While KNB EFX Group did the makeup effects for this sequel as well as the 2006 remake, the designs aren’t as interesting or as original as before.  There’s not enough diversity or personality to any of these freaks to truly generate any special interest in them.  Plus, they don’t work much as unit, in contrast to Aja’s film where they clearly do, and thus, form a far more dreadful threat.  Not to mention, they don’t have as much ferocity as before, and at least two or three kills are off-screen.  While these mutants operate with much the same methods as the previous batch, they appear to only do so as individuals.  Overall, they just don’t come off as fearsome or frightening as in the previous film.  Simply stated, they feel generic.  You never get a good sense of them in any fashion, and none of them do anything nearly as shocking or intense as the rape scene in Aja’s film.  Although, a much tamer and briefer rape scene is present in this film.  While most people would say to judge this film based on its own merits, everyone wants to know if it measures up to its predecessor.  So, you’re getting the comparisons right here.  Ultimately, none of the characters – whether human or mutant – come off as bad asses, let alone intriguing characters which Aja’s film was so rich with.  This sequel is second-rate, at best.

Now, the BIGGEST negative compared to Aja’s masterpiece of terror is the cinematography.  Sam McCurdy has never shot anything of note, let alone anything with scope.  Maxime Alexandre gave 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes a wide, sprawling scope with his cinematography.  You truly got the sense of isolation in that desert, that you were an ungodly number of miles away from anything remotely safe or civilized.  You were stuck in the middle of a barren wasteland.  You’re never going to find help, and no help is ever going to find you.  Alexandre’s photography was very wide open and had an amazing depth and scope to it all.  Still, it could also get in very intensely, helping to rack up the tension in the tighter scenes.  McCurdy gives you nothing like that.  It’s all very bland, narrow, and uninteresting.  The way he shot it, you’d think the budget was that of a direct-to-video feature.  There’s no depth, no scope, no artistry of any kind.  It’s all very flat and dull.  There’s so much that could’ve been done with the lighting to enhance the film’s atmosphere and tension, but nothing was delivered.  It’s very yawn inducing, and as a filmmaker working with practically zero budgets myself, I know you don’t need anything but vision and artistry to make a film look intriguing, engrossing, and even spectacular with lighting.

What also lacks any depth or true artistry is the score.  It really just pops in and out with a very limited array of forgettable cues.  Like the cinematography, it lacks any scope or impact.  Like McCurdy, Trevor Morris has never done anything of note, let alone scope.  TomAndAndy achieved something exponentially more powerful and intense with last year’s Hills remake.  It was, dare I say, an epic score with thrilling emotional highs, and disturbing stingers tearing through scenes.  The score for The Hills Have Eyes 2 is very cliché and uninspired, like many things with this film.

I also have to note that I was disappointed that the film only takes place over a couple hours – there are no night scenes (despite what’s hinted at in the trailer).  Some of the BEST and creepiest scenes in the 2006 remake were those night scenes, especially with Ted Levine at the gas station.  Here, it’s all taking place in either daylight or dark caves, but the whole creeping around in the dark mine shafts doesn’t lend much to the film’s atmosphere.  Martin Weisz apparently doesn’t have the talent for riveting, gripping suspense and terror which Aja clearly has so naturally.  It all goes back to the poor cinematography and weak musical score – there’s no one working to enhance the scene or setting.  There really is no atmosphere to wrap up the tension with.  The finale also doesn’t feel as climactic as the one Aaron Stanford offered us as Doug in Aja’s film.  The emotional hurricane just isn’t there, you don’t get that intense feeling of revenge and comeuppance.  Again, the script must be faulted for part of this, but as director, Weisz must take much of the blame.  I hate to keep comparing this to its predecessor incessantly, but when so many things fall short of their potential, I can’t help but point out how such a film was done better by way of comparison to another.

Now, I have noted a great many negatives against this film in light of Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake, but as I said before, this is a solid and worthwhile horror film.  The gore, the tension, and intensity might not 100% match up to the previous film, but it all still comes together as a good horror film.  There are definitely far superior horror films of this premise out there to better spend your time with.  However, I don’t think anyone should discount this film because it stands well on its own, and delivers what a horror film should – scares, fright, and gruesomeness.  Although, I think the kind of lazy tagline of “The lucky ones die fast” is poorly conceived since, aside from two very minor characters, no one has a slow death aside from the mutants.

Whatever the case, I would like to part by saying that the script could’ve been particularly stronger, and the cinematography could’ve been a HELL of a lot better along with the score.  Despite the fact that both the 2006 film and this sequel had the same budget of $15 million, The Hills Have Eyes II feels as if it had a far inferior budget, but likely, it’s due to being in the hands of far inferior talent.  It looks like a smaller scale film, and thus, appears to be made on a somewhat lesser budget.  Regardless, it is a horror film worth seeing.  It’s not the best it could’ve been, but it’s certainly far from being outright bad.  It has its problems and shortcomings, but generally, it should entertain a horror movie audience.


The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

“Oh fuck yeah!” – that was my response several times during my initial viewing of this film.  I know what many of you are thinking, “remake, ugh!”  Drop the misconceptions, people!  Let’s start fresh.  This is produced by Wes Craven, who directed the original The Hills Have Eyes among other horror classics like A Nightmare On Elm Street & Scream.  The director is Alexandre Aja, director of High Tension.  And to be plainly straight forward, this movie is a brutal piledriver of terror and madness.  This is, by far, the most intense horror film I have seen in years.  A few years prior, I felt that Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was the truest horror film in years – this movie beats the living hell out of it.  What you see in the opening moments of this film is absolutely NOTHING compared to what’s waiting for you later on.

This journey into a desolate landscape of hell starts with a family taking the long way to San Diego, California.  The father / former police detective Bob Carter (Ted Levine) is a bold man with a penchant for guns.  His wife, Ethel Carter (Kathleen Quinlan) is somewhat of a religious woman, despite being quite the 60s hippie in her youth.  Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford) is married to their oldest daughter Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), and together, they have a newborn baby named Catherine.  There’s also the other daughter, Brenda Carter (Emilie de Ravin) who’d rather be in Cancun than traveling through the hot, dry desert.  Finally, there’s the son Bobby (Dan Byrd) who spends a lot of time chasing down the family dogs -Beauty and Beast.  After stopping to refuel at the only gas station within 200 miles, the attendant gives them a “shortcut” back to the highway.  Big Bob has no qualms about taking a dirt road detour, but that’s where things go wrong….very wrong.  After a tire blowout, their SUV is totaled, and they are stranded.  Attempts to find help are futile as this family is being watched from the hills of the New Mexico desert.  These predators are inhuman results of nuclear testing done by the U.S. government in this very same desert from 1945-1962.  They are savage mutants that feed off anything they can find – especially other human beings.  The carnage, insanity, and stomach-churning bloodlust that ensues will leave only few survivors.  The lucky ones die first.

This movie is a brutal masterpiece of racked up tension, grizzly gore, and relentless horror.  Aja has delivered, in my purely honest opinion, one of the most bad ass horror flicks I’ve seen in my entire life.  There isn’t any particularly new twists to this story, it’s mainly the same as the original, but Aja executes a vision that only a rare few will ever match.  As of late, horror film directors have attempted to push the boundaries of intense, cringe-inducing horror, but I don’t believe anyone has proven to be more effective or successful at it than Alexandre Aja.  There is such power and visceral intensity here that it had a hardened horror fanatic in me jumping, cringing, and tingling in my seat.  Aja so quickly established himself as a modern master of horror.  A lot of other horror directors get a lot of hype built up around them, but their films continually fail to live up to it – Aja proves to be the genuine article here.  By chance, I will use Rob Zombie as a perfect example.  Zombie has done a lot to build hype for his own movies, promising just how far he’s pushing the envelope with them, and how grossly disturbing they will be.  Unfortunately, despite some disturbing moments and such at times, Zombie’s movies fail to strike the correct chords or craft a powerful atmosphere with a coherent storyline.  What makes Alexandre Aja different from Rob Zombie is vision, pure and simple.  Aja knows how to create and rack-up the suspense and tension in a film.  He knows how to vilify a group of savages, and how to elicit certain emotions from an audience.  Some people have the talent, the natural gift for such filmmaking.  Aja clearly and undoubtedly has it.  Some other directors seem to require further practice to get even close to that skill level.  Simply put, you don’t need hype when you’ve got the talent because it speaks for itself.

Now, while we don’t get a massive helping of these radioactively mutated cannibals (which can be a good thing), every time we do see them, they make a frightening impact.  The most is made of their screen time, and it is not forgettable in the least.  From their first attack scene, they catapult the film to a completely different level, and the tension and madness just continue to climb from there.  These cannibals only become more feral, more animalistic as the film moves forward.   The makeup work by KNB EFX Group is amazing, disturbing, and overall realistic.  Their work here is worthy of major awards.  I couldn’t imagine how many actors were unrecognizeably transformed by KNB’s complex and intricate makeup designs.  You may know Desmond Askew from Doug Liman’s Go as the somewhat charming British fumbler Simon, but here, there’s no way you’d even know he was in the film without reading the credits.  Michael Bailey Smith takes over the iconic Michael Berryman’s role of Pluto, and he is no stranger to complex makeup work.  In his first role, he was Super Freddy in A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, and later portrayed (among other creatures) Julian McMahon’s demon alter-ego of Belthazor on Charmed.  Smith is really only 6’4″, but through whatever means, he seems even larger in this film.  Smith appears monstrous, towering over everyone else on screen.  He’s an intimidating physical force that makes the most frightening impact here.

Billy Drago (also a Charmed alumnus as the demon of fear Barbas) portrays the cannibals’ leader Jupiter, and despite his brief screen time, does an extremely sick job.  This entire movie is filled with sick moments, sick villains, and sickening imagery.  And man, is it great!  Drago’s a great actor, and his work in The Hills Have Eyes is very ferocious.  The same can be said of Robert Joy’s Lizard who teams with Smith’s Pluto in the most shocking scene of the film where the two mothers are assaulted inside the trailer – resulting in gruesome and dire situations.  The rest of the mutated cannibals are just as vicious, creepy, and/or crazed as the main ones.  They all make the film all the more disturbing, and all for the better.  Tom Bower also has a unique and interesting part as the gas station attendant which he pulls off with a bit of slyness, sleaze, and desperation.

The “human” cast, as it were, are great.  Enough time is given at the forefront of the film to flesh this family out, and allows us to relate to them.  They are real people, very human, and when this murderous band of inhuman maniacs befall them, the shocking moments never stop.  They are such a shock because we are so used to filmmakers pulling their punches for so many years, but this time, the punches connect – HARD!  Aja does not hesitate to bludgeon us with the brutal realism that this film deserves.  We crave it, and we get it in spades.  Still, you may not be ready for this level of intensity, and that’s just exactly the idea.  This cast is much more endearing in their own ways than some slasher film victims are, but this is much more intense than any slasher film I have ever seen.  The one cast member who deserves praise more than any other is Aaron Stanford portraying Doug Bukowski.  He starts out as the kind of person who would appear to be least likely to endure such horrific events, but Stanford evolves the character to the point where you believe in him fully – everyone in my packed theatre was rooting for him like MAD!  He does an absolutely incredible job here, definitely a performance that should get him well recognized.  Speaking of which, I didn’t even recognize him as Pyro from X-Men 2.  He appears to have grown up quite a bit since making that film, and all in all, he appears to have great potential for the rest of his career.

Ted Levine, as the father “Big” Bob Carter, does an excellent job as well.  Despite being somewhat of a jackass at first, I got to liking him more and more as things went on, and he has a fine night scene back at the gas station that Aja crafted beautifully.  Even those who are supposedly “the lucky ones” by dying first put in strong performances that last.  They stuck in my mind, and their fear only enhanced my own.  Dan Byrd (‘Salem’s Lot) as the son Bobby Carter delivers a concrete performance filled with strength, immense fear, and powerful grief.  A great piece of work by this twenty year old actor.  On a further note, all the female actors here are down right AMAZING!  I’ve never seen such genuine morbid fear captured on film!

And goddamn, how great was this score?  Talking about tying your nerves up in knots, and then, shooting them apart!  Tomandandy (aka Tom Hajdu & Andy Milburn) composed a score that demonstrates perfectly how valuable a score is to a horror film!  I actually enjoyed the few brief heavy guitar bits, but the meat n’ potatoes here are in the gut-wrenching moments of suspense that explode in an instant.  Just another masterful stroke on the canvas of this amazing motion picture.

Furthermore, the cinematography here by Maxime Alexandre is fantastic.  Never has there been so much scope of so much nothingness.  Working with this desolate landscape, there’s such a vast wasteland to capture and utilize.  The massive scope used in key moments illustrates how very isolated our protagonists are from everything.  The highly revealing shot in the crater scene is a perfect example.  There’s not another decent human soul to be found for what seems like eternity.  Even if you were to run away, there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to truly hide.  It becomes a game of kill or be killed because of this.  It’s also made clearly evident that cellular phone reception (as one would imagine) is completely non-existent out in the middle of nowhere.  Maxime Alexandre also provides great cinematography when the physical intensity kicks in, and the editing allows for Alexandre’s photography to be appreciated instead of flashed across the screen in a nanosecond like many films do in this age of filmmaking.

Overall, the editing is very well paced and consistent, the cinematography is beautiful and striking, the score is an excellent composition that enhances every single moment of every single scene, the performances are as strong as steel while others are as powerful as a sledgehammer to the face, and finally, the direction is tight, taut, unflinching, and immensely masterful.  Aja delivers a full-on balls to the wall horror film that aims to please, and for a great many, it truly has done that. My god, how long had it been since we were graced with a certifiable classic horror film on our hands?  Been way too damn long.  Alexandre Aja is definitely here to stay to scare the living crap out of us, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.


Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Unlike many, I wasn’t anticipating this film for a long time.  It was only when I saw the trailer before Transformers: Dark of the Moon that I became interested and excited for it.  It seemed like a very original film in style and concept populated by a fine cast, and helmed by a proven director in Jon Favreau (Iron Man).  The film does have merit with some fine performances and entertainment value.  However, I was disappointed that the concept was not realized to its fullest extent.

In 1873, Arizona Territory, a mysterious loner (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is, where he came from, or how the high tech device got latched onto his forearm.  After dispatching of some ill meaning folk, he proceeds to the small town of Absolution where is tended to by a local preacher, but soon makes trouble for the unruly Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano).  Things go further awry when the local law enforcement recognize him as Jake Lonergan, a wanted criminal.  Percy’s rich cattleman father, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), comes to collect his son, and Jake for stealing his gold.  However, the stand-off is cut short when the town is mysteriously attacked by alien flying crafts.  The device on Lonergan’s forearm starts beeping and flashing.  The ships abduct various townspeople, but not before the device helps Lonergan blast one out of the sky.  This sets Dolarhyde, Lonergan, and several other townsfolk on a mission to recover their lost loved ones.  Taking a particular interest in Jake is Ella (Olivia Wilde), who has some secrets of her own that she needs Lonergan’s help in resolving.  They all set out on this adventure of danger together for different reasons, but towards the very same goal.

The positives of this film start with Daniel Craig.  He has great presence like the western anti-heroes of old who doesn’t need to speak much to impact a scene.  Lonergan is a man of action, and those actions speak quite clearly for him.  Of course, he is also intelligent and cunning, but not without a dash of charm and compassion.  Craig is a perfect lead handling all that befalls his character with perfect reactions, and acting like a hero you can take stock in.  Another highlight is Clancy Brown appearing as Meacham, the town’s preacher.  The character has a very refreshing philosophy on his religion.  Things such as you have to earn God’s presence.  You have to make the effort to do good deeds, to improve yourself before he’ll grace you with good fortune.  Meacham seems to believe God is more of a guiding force that helps you along the journey instead of laying it out for you to walk without question.

Harrison Ford stars here as a former Colonel named Dolarhyde who pretty much runs things around these parts.  Ford’s had an amazing career playing so many versatile roles, but I have not seen him in anything much since The Fugitive.  Here, Ford is crusty, hardened, and mean-spirited.  To a certain point, that works for the character, but Ford barely deviates from that characterization to show us what the script is trying to do with the ex-Colonel.  In concept, Dolarhyde is meant to win over an audience by showing that he’s not as bad of a man as we think, it’s just history and circumstances that have jaded him.  That’s the intention, but Ford’s performance doesn’t show that depth.  He speaks the words, but there’s no variation of emotion when he does to convey a sense of a dimensional character.  He just exists in the film.  Ford handles the action of the piece well with guns, horses, and so forth.

Olivia Wilde is about what you expect from her.  It’s no breakout performance, and it might not be everything that it should be.  However, it’s not bad.  Things in the film tend to range from mediocre to great.  Of course, too much languishes on the lower end of that spectrum.  Wilde services the role decently enough making for an all right female lead, but next to Craig, she falters.  His is such a strong character and performance that she doesn’t stand out as well as him.  The character has a nice arc, and secrets of her own to reveal.  However, like much in this film, it’s played too safe.

The supporting cast is a little mixed.  Walton Goggins is his always entertaining and memorable self as a member of Lonergan’s former band of thieves.  Paul Dano is very entertaining and a nice fit for the immature, unruly, and troublemaking Percy Dolarhyde.  He’s mostly a comic foil to contrast Craig’s harder edged character in their few scenes together, and plays it perfectly.  However, Adam Beach comes off far too flatly.  It’s clear that, by the end, we’re supposed to have some emotional resonance with the character, but there’s nothing within Beach’s performance to grasp onto.  He seems like a plain supporting cast member.  Attempts are made throughout the film to have him bond with Ford’s Dolarhyde character, but as I said, Ford doesn’t give much to help his character be anything of anything.  Sam Rockwell portrays the local bartender who has tried to make a new beginning for him and his wife here, but faces trouble every step of the way.  He’s a man facing circumstances he doesn’t have the courage or confidence to overcome.  To me, he seemed like the guy that gets dragged along on the journey even though he has nothing to contribute.  So, they slap some clichéd story arc on him of a man that’s never handled a weapon, never fired a gun, and finally comes through at the end to save someone’s life by firing a shot.  It’s terribly by the numbers.

As I said, the premise and concepts of Cowboys & Aliens should’ve been pushed further for a more fantastical experience, but that never happens.  I just felt like everything was held back.  That they had a fertile idea here that never went beyond the basics of cowboys clashing with aliens.  While meshing western and science fiction genres is not a new thing, I have not seen this particular premise played out before.  The closest would be Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which married the two concepts well in a futuristic setting.  It meshed the ideals and themes of a western into a futuristic science fiction setting, and maybe that’s where the strength of the idea lies.  Aliens abducting people from old west towns seemed cool at the beginning of the film, but the premise falters a little when you find out why the aliens are even here at all.  It was ridiculous to me that all they wanted was to mine for one natural resource because it’s valuable to them.  It’s not like it’s a fuel they need to power their machines, or a precious resource they need to sustain their species.  They just want it because it has monetary value.  That comes off as a very weak idea that someone thought up in two seconds, and never decided to evolve further.  The aliens create their own problems by coming out and abducting people.  Had they just stayed hidden in the mountains, no one would have ever known they were around.  Had they been discovered, and were almost fighting back in defense of themselves, that would be something.  Unfortunately, the aliens just come off as foolish through and through.  Their motives and methods really have no rationale or logic behind them.  Humans posed no threat to them until they unnecessarily revealed their presence, and started abducting them for the sole purpose of the learning the weaknesses of a enemy that knew nothing of their existence.

I’m also rather tired of the personality deprived alien concept.  Predator got it right by making the alien silent, but also having it demonstrate a great deal of character and personality.  That is birthed mainly from having the right person inside the suit along with someone brilliant like Stan Winston behind the design of it.  CGI has robbed us of a performer’s nuanced quality when it comes to creatures like this.  One comes off no different than another, and that is just from a lack of creativity.  They are just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.

The visual effects are about mid-grade.  They are generally okay, but they won’t win any awards.  They service the story, and that’s about it.  They are better in some instances than others, depending on the setting and what the effect actually is, but yeah, there’s not much to really say about them all.  They definitely could be far better to improve the overall quality of the film, but that’s hardly the only shortcoming of this movie.

Another thing that I felt kept the film from reaching its full potential is a lack of atmosphere with the visuals.  The sound design and score are really solid.  I love the meshing of musical styles in the score, and I think that achieved more than the film itself did in combining western and sci-fi themes.  However, with the marketing campaign as it was, showcasing a lot of colorful, shadowy, and moody visuals, I had hoped there would be more of it than we got.  Those such scenes are handled excellently.  They are lit and shot in a very effective way as something conceptually evocative of Ridley Scott’s Alien.  However, much of the film unfolds in broad daylight scenes which offer no stylized vibe to them.  Yes, it suits the western side of things fine, but again, if this is a meshing of genres, the lines should be blurred between them.  It should be that the two styles mix to create something unique and consistent instead of switching from one look and tone to another as it shifts from the western plot elements to science fiction ones.  The film is rarely ever both a western and a science fiction film.  It’s either a western, or it’s a science fiction movie.  It doesn’t really deliver on the potential of the premise by meshing them both together in smart, clever ways.  Generally, this is a film where style and substance should have reigned in abundance, and they skimped on both.

Favreau does handle the action scenes very well.  They are compelling sequences filled with suspense, tension, and excitement.  The initial nighttime abduction scene is stellar all around with the sharp visuals, beautiful colors, and exciting tone.  Later, when everyone is hiding in a ravaged and upside down river boat, and a lone alien comes stalking, all is handled with style and horror movie level tension.  Favreau’s skill in this matter does help build up the intimidation level with the aliens.  I only wish they did make them more than just monsters to fight.

Again, Cowboys & Aliens has its bright points with Craig in the lead role, and a few of the supporting roles.  Now, the movie doesn’t become outright bad.  It’s just underdeveloped by the filmmakers, or underplayed by certain actors.  What felt like it should have been a rather memorable and remarkable genre-bending film really never takes off at any point.  Nothing is delivered on to its fullest extent, and the ending feels a little short on emotional impact for the characters.  It is an enjoyable and generally entertaining film that is worth some of your time, but expectations need to be wrangled back before watching it.