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Posts tagged “drama

Get Carter (2000)

Get CarterIn the early 2000s, Sylvester Stallone was struggling to rebuild himself from some of his cheesy action movies of the 90s, and these efforts didn’t all meet with much success.  Get Carter is a remake of a 1971 film of the same name starring Michael Caine in the title role, and this remake was received with negative criticism and a poor box office take.  However, I saw this film on opening weekend, and I have very much liked it ever since.  Having still not seen the original movie, I imagine I have the ability to view it much more objectively.  Still, almost any movie promising Sylvester Stallone in a fist fight with Mickey Rourke and a hilarious John C. McGinley is pretty cool to begin with, but I honestly feel the film has a lot of worthwhile merit in many regards.

His name is Jack Carter, and you don’t want to know him.  When it’s your time to settle your debts, you pay what you owe, or Carter will make you pay.  While working for the mob in Las Vegas, Carter (Sylvester Stallone) learns that his brother has died, and returns home to Seattle in order to learns the how’s and why’s.  His brother left behind a wife, Gloria (Miranda Richardson), and a teenage daughter, Doreen (Rachel Leigh Cook), which Jack feels he must now take care of since he was not around when it mattered most.  Though, when digging into the death of his brother, Jack comes to suspect that is was no accident, and that someone has to pay up.

Now, what even some of the middle of the road reviews gave credit to was that Stallone is solid as Jack Carter, and I enthusiastically agree.  I really like that Jack is a guy who carries a weight of regret with him to where he has this post-facto sense of responsibility.  He might be a guy who beats people up for a crime syndicate, but there’s a certain moral compass to Jack which Stallone grasps onto perfectly.  There’s a lot of subtlety to his performance showing the superb reversal on the over-the-top action hero roles of Judge Dredd or Demolition Man.  He brings with him a low key presence of intimidation, but still finds those moments of clever signature Stallone charm and wit.  Jack Carter has a warm heart and compassion for those he cares about, and this comes so very naturally to Stallone.  There’s such a great depth of dimension to what he does here.  Sly gives us a complex character who intensifies the emotional drive of the film.  It’s also amazing seeing how bulked up Stallone got for this movie.  He’s larger than ever, and it really works for Jack’s tough, bad ass presence.  Yet, it is that softer side of Jack Carter that really impresses as he shows a lot of pain after a certain point really hitting you deep in the heart, and that translates into a venomous vengeful determination in the film’s third act.  It’s an awesome, compelling performance by Sylvester Stallone that amazingly reminds you that he can be a stunning, complex actor.  I think it’s one of his best performances since First Blood.

A lot of the depth of heart and substance is carried on through Miranda Richardson and Rachel Leigh Cook.  Richardson is great as Gloria who is in this constant uncertainty about Jack.  At times she can confide in him about her problems with Doreen, but at other times, can condemn Jack for bringing further trouble upon them and being absent from their lives until Richie died.  Richardson has pitch perfect chemistry with Stallone standing strong on her own while showing the emotional turmoil inside.  Meanwhile, Cook very easily endears herself to Jack and an audience with some sad sweetness and sympathetic charm.  As certain things are revealed, and far more tragic layers are peeled back from Doreen, Cook is really able to demonstrate the soul of her heartbreaking talent.  It really ends up being the pulsating emotional core of this film.

I really like the scenes between Stallone and Mickey Rourke.  These are two actors who genuinely seem like they enjoyed working off each other.  They’ve got the right rhythm and chemistry that these two characters should have being old acquaintances and all.  Rourke has the right charisma and air of sleaze as Cyrus Paice which makes him very entertaining to watch, but also, a real piece of scum that you want to see get busted up by the end.  Rourke and Stallone are two buffed up bulls ready to lock horns regularly, and when they do finally trade punches, it’s a straight up bad ass brawl.

Anyone who loves John C. McGinley’s comedy work would also love him here.  He plays Con McCarty, an associate of Jack’s in the Las Vegas syndicate, and I swear he ad-libbed the majority of his dialogue.  It is just so brilliantly quick witted, off the cuff, and hilarious that he’s an utter, endless joy.  It’s a performance like this which shows that this is a film that is interested in balancing the heavyweight drama with sharp beats of levity.  And Alan Cumming is quite good as the geeky wet rag dot-com millionaire of Jeremy Kinnear who has gotten in way too damn deep with seedy individuals.  He is a pleasure to watch in this role as Stallone looms over him with his brute intimidation.  Of course, Michael Caine does a fine job in a somewhat small role as Richie’s now former employer, and Caine and Stallone have some solid scenes together.  Apparently, even Caine endorsed Stallone as a respectable successor to his original role, and including him in this cast was a really nice touch.

I really adore the look of this film from director of photography Mauro Fiore.  It’s soaked in this somber tone of overcast gloom of blues and greens that really absorb you into the tone of the movie.  Director Stephen Kay really pushed hard to have this filmed in Seattle, and the beauty of the rain soaked city makes the film feel a little more unique.  There’s also some unconventional style to Get Carter that might not work for many films, but all of the artistic flourishes really meld together beautifully, in my opinion.  The strategic slow motion beats add a sense of grace to the photography, and Fiore moves the camera extremely competently with plenty of steadicam.  I like that when Jack’s whole world turns upside down so does the camera accentuating a particularly unique filmmaking style that I really like here.  There is some stylish editing with a few jumpy cuts, flash frames, and speed changes.  I could see how some would find that irritating, but I really got absorbed into the mindset of this movie.  Stephen Kay uses these stylistic choices to slip you into a character’s perception such as Jack’s world fracturing.  Get Carter was edited by Academy Award winner Jerry Greenberg who also edited The French Connection, Apocalypse Now, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Scarface.  Here, he superbly executes Stephen Kay’s vision right from the opening credits sequence onward.

There is a great, moody collection of music here in addition to Tyler Bates’ unique and stylish score.  The original theme for the 1971 film by Roy Budd is utilized and remixed for this remake, and it is a beautiful composition that just tingles my senses.  There are some techno tracks infusing some dance club style vibes into the movie.  I particularly love the ethereal Moby track during the funeral scene.  All of this music creates a very soulful or energized originality to this film that melds well with its visual stylings.

There is some really well put together action including a couple of very smart, tense car chases.  Action directors who love their shaky cam could learn something from this film.  Stephen Kay does make use of some unsteady photography and tight framing, but the editing is properly paced so to not confuse an audience.  There are quick cuts, but because the lighting is clear, the compositions are just right using good angles, it all works.  The latter car chase is really great, and it has a really cool stunt crash at the end.  Yet, while there is exciting action, this film maintains that emotional and character based focus as Jack Carter delves further into the seedy underbelly of Seattle.

When Jack goes into full-on revenge mode, this movie gets dead-on bad ass.  The grit really surfaces in the visual style and Stallone’s performance.  Everything gets pretty dark and intense as Jack deals out his sense of personal justice in violent, sometimes lethal ways.  This is a revenge movie driven by a lot of emotional depth and substance.  Jack is going to clean out the trash, but the mending of emotional wounds is just as important to him, if not more so.  It’s all wrapped up in his personal sense of obligation to the extended family he’s neglected, and a need to prove to himself and others that he can be a better man than his history has shown.  There’s also a subplot where Jack Carter is involved with the syndicate boss’ woman back in Vegas, and this runs through the film a little.  It’s another emotional tether that puts stress upon Jack especially when Con is sent to “take care of business” with much intended finality.  Most revenge movies are just about the violent retribution, but this movie really delves you deeply into the hearts and souls of its sympathetic characters.

Get Carter is damn good, in my opinion, because it does take the time to develop its character and give you a dimensionality to connect with.  You feel Jack’s pain and his need to put things right, and your sympathy easily flows for Doreen as the film progresses.  Stephen Kay did do a really exceptional job with making these characters feel poignant, and have the consequences of everyone’s actions feel like they carry the weight of the world.  This is really the kind of revenge thriller that truly captivates me because it’s not just gunning people down for ninety minutes, which does have its satisfying qualities.  The substance of everything here saturates the film, and Stallone carries it all so amazingly well.  The ending might have used a little more weight and veracity, but the payoff  is satisfying regardless.  I highly recommend this remake of Get Carter.  If you’re a Stallone fan, like me, you should definitely give this a watch.


Heat (1995)

Heat The year of 1995 is my favorite year in film giving us so many beloved favorites of mine such as Lord of Illusions, The Usual Suspects, Seven, In The Mouth of Madness, GoldenEye, The Prophecy, Strange Days, and more.  This year also gave us a brilliant union of powerhouse talents when Michael Mann brought together screen legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat.  While I consider Manhunter my favorite, and The Insider to be Mann’s best film, I cannot deny that Heat is a crime saga masterpiece.  It is finally Michael Mann refined and matured to a breath-taking level developing his signature concepts to perfection.  I can think of no more appropriate film to hold the honor of the 200th review on Forever Cinematic than Heat.

Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a master thief who lives by the simple discipline of “have nothing in your life you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the “heat” around the corner.”  His crew of career criminals is a high-tech outfit pulling off professional jobs that impress even the likes of Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino).  But Hanna, a man driven through life only by his work, becomes obsessed, at the expense of his private life, with bringing McCauley down.  As McCauley’s crew prepare for the score of a lifetime, and Hanna’s team tries to bring him in, the two find that they are similar in many ways, including their troubled personal lives.  Ultimately, they find themselves challenged by the greatest minds on the opposite side of the law that either one has ever encountered.  With this much heat, the streets of Los Angeles are ready to sizzle and explode!

Heat is filled with excellent performances from everyone involved that it’s hard not to touch upon most of them.  Firstly, I am engrossed by the dynamic between Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley.  Hanna is a man whose life is wholly dedicated to his job, and thus, his home life is a disaster with multiple divorces to show for it.  Meanwhile, McCauley has his life in control as he takes precision high line scores, but lives a disparate life of bare necessities allowing himself no attachments he cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if circumstances require it.  Thus, despite these men being on opposite sides of the law, they find themselves in a near symbiotic relationship which fuels the compulsions of their lives.  They are both driven by their jobs being out there on the streets in the middle of danger, and everything else in their lives is sacrificed for that.  All they are is what they’re going after.  That’s what fuels their existences, and Heat is all about that electrifying synergy.

Al Pacino has always been known as a passionate, charismatic actor, and Vincent Hanna surely has that energetic, sharp edge which makes him immensely entertaining here.  However, it is the more subtle aspects of the performance that are where the real juice is.  You see the razor sharp mind of Hanna when he arrives on the armored car robbery scene.  He sees it, absorbs it, and hits all the marks deconstructing every detail of the crime.  He doesn’t miss a beat, doesn’t overlook or dismiss anything.  You see the proficiency of Neil McCauley and how his crew operates, and then, you see Hanna and his team operate on that same exact level only on the opposite side of that coin.  Yet, the depth of Hanna comes to the surface when Vincent converses with his wife, Justine.  The weariness and ugliness of his job forces an emotional rift between them, and Pacino’s performance reflects the inner angst and emotional toll that it wreaks on Hanna.  These things do affect him, but he never becomes a jaded, pessimistic, desensitized person.  Al Pacino absorbs all of that into a subtle and complex performance that energizes the screen.

And delivering a performance on an equal level of weight and intelligence is Robert De Niro.  He’s entirely formidable making Neil McCauley a very serious and definitive threat to everyone who opposes him.  De Niro has a serious, hard edged presence that dominates the screen, and every move, every word, every course of action he makes is efficient.  There’s a full immersion into the character in all his nuances and textures.  Sometimes, a great performance is seen in raw emotion, but other times, it’s all in the subtle complexities.  That is what De Niro give us here showing the versatile diversity of this character from cold, hard criminal to the loyal, caring friend and lover.  Despite being the antagonist in the story, we see a real heart when Neil becomes involved with Eady.  It’s takes a masterful actor and filmmaker to take a character like McCauley who will sanction and be entirely sociopathic about the murder of innocent people, and do something so human with him to where you genuinely feel his depth of heart.  Surely, that’s nothing you would want translated into reality, but in a fictional narrative, it provides a captivating dimensionality that Robert De Niro captures with pitch perfect substance.

Val Kilmer was really in his peak at this time after his stunning turn as Doc Holliday in Tombstone.  Thus, he was filming Heat concurrently with Batman Forever, really capitalizing on two excellent opportunities.  Here, his role might be overlooked by the presence of Pacino and De Niro, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t top notch.  Chris Shiherlis proves to be a really intense character with his gambling addiction and marital strives, and Kilmer really absorbs the weary heart of Chris deeply into his performance.  Despite infidelities on the part of Chris and his wife Charlene, portrayed tremendously by Ashley Judd, their final shared moment strikes deep within the heart to show just how much they both truly loved one another, but their marriage was never built to last.  Kilmer hits all the marks to make this character standout solidly alongside De Niro, and to a lesser extent, Tom Sizemore does the same as the more action junkie sociopath Michael Cheritto.  There’s a real strong brotherhood between Neil and Chris that shows through shiningly, and that relationship brings a lot of dimension to both characters.

I’m fascinated by the chain reaction of events here which create numerous exciting plot turns.  Essentially, Waingro is the key cog who sets everything in motion.  Without him going off the handle and facilitating the triple homicide, Vincent Hanna likely would not have been as dogged to track down McCauley and his crew.  He’d be intrigued by the precision professionals, but it would just be another robbery.  Then, Waingro betrays McCauley to his enemies, forcing the bank heist to turn into a violent, deadly shootout and propelling McCauley to make the irrational decision to go after him instead of escaping free and clear.  Waingro turns the tide of the story at pivotal moments because he is a wild card with no loyalty to anyone but his own base, primal impulses.  Furthermore, Kevin Gage is perfect in this role making for a wholly convincing hardened ex-convict sociopath who is dreadfully frightening and intimidating.  It’s sadly poetic that less than a decade later he would become a federal convict for cultivating medicinal marijuana.

The other intriguing quality of Heat are the women.  Michael Mann always makes the affectionate, strong women of his films vitally important to the arcs and stories of the male leads, and never objectifies them.  The significant others of Hanna, McCauley, and Shiherlis are all passionate, loving women who desire a stable life.  Justine Hanna grapples with Vincent’s internalized angst from the horrors he sees out on those streets, and just wants a husband who opens up to her instead of being distant, closed off, and vacant in their marriage.  She wants a marriage with love not ragged leftovers of a man who drifts through their lives empty.  Eady, portrayed by Amy Brenneman, is the most innocent of them all existing entirely outside the world of cops and criminals.  She’s a simple, honest, warm person that unexpectedly opens up Neil’s world and gives him something to be affectionate about.  For a man who lives with no attachments of any kind, it’s finally someone in his life that makes him care to have a life.  Charlene, however, is the real gold for me as Ashley Judd is confident, heartbreaking and truly empathic as Chris’ wife.  As I said, there is a deep down, genuine love between Chris and Charlene, but there’s so much addictive and combative garbage in the way that it was destined to crumble.  For me, the Shiherlis dynamic is the most complex and substantive one of the film because of that real quality of conflict and adoration between them.

Without a doubt, Danté Spinotti is a remarkable cinematographer, and he does an excellent, stunning job with Heat.  He composes so many carefully selected shots which tell a very visual story that holds weight.  Just as Mann had fully refined and developed his artistic sensibilities so had Spinotti making this a very sophisticated looking and composed picture.  There are pure moments of inspired artistry creating a masterful canvas that this story is told upon.  This is also a film that feels very engrained and engrossed in the fiber of Los Angeles because of the visual vibe.  Shots of the skyline in hazy daylight or glowing nighttime neo noir create that great backdrop that has substance and life.

Upon this watch of the movie, I picked up far more on Elliott Goldenthal’s amazingly original and pulsating score.  A lot of what he does are subtle textures and melodies that nicely underscore various scenes.  His score doesn’t fight for dominance in the audio mix.  It complements everything that Mann is doing with the emotion, characters, and story.  At times, Goldenthal’s score can be very powerful and striking such as the moment where Chris and Charlene are forced to abandon each other because of the police stakeout.  The emotional pain swells into the score in a haunting swirl.  Then, there’s the parting phone call between Neil and Nate that reflects the sorrowful feeling of two people, best of friends, saying goodbye for the final time, and Goldenthal’s score hits that mark so beautifully.  Every single moment is so perfectly punctuated, and should be considered amongst his best work.  Additionally, the two tracks by Moby are beautiful, superb, innovative tracks that saturate the power of their respective scenes, most notably being the ending with “God Moving Over The Face of The Waters.”

Of course, the big, electrifying selling point of this film was having two of America’s most celebrated actors, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, collide in all their glory.  That would not be complete without the excellent diner scene where Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley have a very probing conversation.  The very interesting quality of that scene is that this is the only point in time where these two men are able to be entirely open, honest, and reveal their inner workings.  They are more intimately connected with each other than with anyone else in their lives.  Again, the subtle performances of depth and honesty make this the absolute nexus of this entire film.  Heat was previously made as a TV movie called L.A. Takedown by Michael Mann, and when you watch this scene performed by very second rate, stiff or hollow actors with almost identical dialogue, you realize the gold standard quality of Pacino and De Niro.  In their hands, Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley are brilliantly fleshed out and fascinating characters, and this is the scene that shows them stripped down.  They show what haunts them and what drives them.  There is no pretense between these men, and they realize that they are very similar despite being the flip side of each other.  These are the only two people alike in this world of Michael Mann’s film that truly, undeniably understand one another.  Furthermore, this scene is entirely integral to how the film’s climax unfolds.

Firstly, that shootout in the streets of downtown Los Angeles is one of the most ear-blistering sonic experiences ever, and that’s coming from a heavy metal fan.  Michael Mann had considered using post-production sound effects for this, but realized that the realistic production audio created the true power and impact he wanted.  It conveys the violent magnitude of real life gunfire and enhanced the danger of this sequence exponentially.  The precision of every tactic is true to how Michael Mann approached his films.  He made sure that every detail was accurate to life, and that mentality makes his films far more interesting to witness than the more over-the-top action sequences we get in the big, fun blockbusters.

The climax of Heat narrows everything down to what the whole film has been about at its core – Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley.  These two men, who exist in a world separated from the mainstream of society and defined by its own rules, are now pitted against one another in an electrifying, tense, and suspenseful cat and mouse sequence that is absolutely pitch perfect, and showcases the unequivocal skill of Michael Mann.  The moment where McCauley sees Hanna just as he is to ride off with Eady is beautiful, painful, and eloquent.  Neil invokes his “thirty seconds flat” rule turning away from Eady for his own survival, and the ensuing chase towards LAX is wonderfully and smartly plotted.  The climactic moment is excellent and poetic.  Then, after it’s all over, these two men are bonded together in a strikingly profound moment that ends the film on an astonishing stroke of pure brilliance.

I had always taken Heat for granted as that great crime saga pinnacle for Michael Mann, but until now, I never peered deeply enough into it to see the subtle brilliance of it.  Many of his films are easier to see the inspired breadth and depth, but Heat has so many fine brush strokes of detail, interwoven threads, and subtext that only a real immersion into it made me absorb it all.  This is truly a brilliantly written, directed, and acted film that did not get the recognition it deserved during awards season.  Michael Mann himself received no nominations for his screenplay or directing, and Pacino, De Niro, or Kilmer received no acting award nominations either.  It’s amazing to me that so many incredible, mold breaking, and standard setting films were released this year, and those I hold in highest regard barely got any recognition from any major awards organizations.  This is why I find it hard to put much weight into these organizations because they’d rather nominate a movie about a talking animatronic pig over brilliant masterpieces like Heat, Strange Days, The Usual Suspects, or Seven for Best Picture or Best Director.  Today, nobody talks about Babe, but people still endlessly praise those others films because they launched careers, took stunning risks, set new standards, and blew peoples’ minds.  And when Michael Mann finally got his just nominations, he didn’t win a single one for what no one will ever be able to tell me wasn’t the best movie released in the year 1999 – The Insider.  However, for the next review, I go back to the beginning of Michael Mann’s feature film career with Thief.


Strange Days (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Purple Rain (1984)

Purple RainThe year of 1984 was the true galvanization of the decade.  It defined exactly what we remember the decade to be.  It was the year where the pop culture identity of the 1980’s exploded with stuff like Michael Jackson’s Thriller breaking album record sales, television series like Miami Vice premiering, and films like Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid, Ghostbusters, and The Terminator debuting.  Then, there was the solidification of Prince becoming a monster success as both an electrifying musician, but also, at the box office with a film that, at one time, I watched once a week, every week for months.  Purple Rain can be a surprising film if all you are expecting is just an entertaining rock music motion picture.  There is a compelling, emotionally striking story within that was likely taken from Prince’s own life and embellished on screen.

Prince make his movie debut as The Kid, a Minneapolis club musician as alienated as he is talented.  He struggles with a tumultuous home life with a failed musician father and The Kid’s own smoldering anger while taking refuge in his music and his steamy love for sexy Apollonia Kotero.  He is opposed by rival band The Time, lead by the smooth talking and charismatic Morris Day who attempts to force The Kid out of the limelight and steal Apollonia away from him.  The Kid’s life goes into a down spiral as everything falls apart even within his own band, the Revolution, forcing him down a turbulent road of survival and triumph.

Surely, this is one of the best movie soundtracks ever created.  Beyond just all being contenders for smash hit singles, and having won Grammys and Academy Awards, these songs strongly serve the plot.  Whether it’s lyrically or emotionally, they reflect the progression of these characters through this narrative.  The film opens up on a high energy number of “Let’s Go Crazy” that would be perfect for jump starting a concert, of course.  The music in the first act is very upbeat and lively as things are on an upswing for The Kid.  He’s rocking the stage and falling in love with Apollonia, but the second act features more aggressive or introspective tracks such as the classic hit “When Doves Cry.”  The final act gives us the emotional swelling of pain and resolution into a rousing celebration.  This is one of those films where it’s stellar soundtrack will always ignite your desire to watch the film again, but there’s so much more to Purple Rain than just its incredible music.

The love story is wonderfully handled and progressed.  There’s plenty of light-hearted wit and charm early on especially with the “purifying yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka” bit.  Then, when The Kid is up on stage belting out “The Beautiful Ones,” staring directly at Apollonia with her eyes welling up, that’s an intense proclamation of passion which is beautifully executed.  The romance then moves forward into more intimate, seductive territory before it all falls apart due to The Kid’s ego and him repeating his father’s self-destructive behavior, but it proves to not be the end of them.  Prince and Kotero really have an endearing and charming chemistry that lights up the screen.  It’s really the core narrative element of the film.  Everything really centers around and reflects off of that.

The reversal is the volatile relationship between The Kid’s parents.  What Clarence Williams III does in this film is on a whole other plane of riveting, powerful drama.  He’s heartbreaking and tragic as Francis L., this man who has seen all of his dreams die because no one understood his music, and is just trying to keep his fractured self and marriage together.  Yet, he grips on so tightly that he’s falling apart on every emotional level.  The culmination of this is powerful and world shattering.  Williams’ performance is mind blowing creating a sobering gravity and weight that no one expected going into this movie.  There is nothing but pain magnified and compounded within every fiber of his performance.  He is shockingly incredible to the point that I feel he deserved major awards for this performance, but he got no such recognition for it.  Whenever I see him in anything now, he has my undivided attention because of this one performance.

Purple Rain is also a great encapsulation of the problems a band faces, internally.  Clashing egos, mismatched personalities, and creative differences cause turbulence in even the best, most successful bands.  We see Wendy and Lisa trying to make their own music, but The Kid just won’t take his own ego out of it to allow it.  Apparently, this friction wasn’t far off from the reality in the band, and so, part of the effectiveness of these performances was likely due to that.  Regardless, it adds further baggage to The Kid as he struggles with all of these passionate forces in his life, and something is bound to break.

On the lighter side of the film’s tone, you’ve gotta love the humorous antics of Morris Day and Jerome Benton.  Their “who’s on first” style conversation about having a “password” for when Apollonia shows up is priceless and hilarious.  Morris and Jerome lighten up the movie at key times without going over the top with it.  Before I even knew Day was a musician, I saw him in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and found him sharp and funny there as well.  I even first saw Morris Day & The Time in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, clearly motivating my interest in Purple Rain.  Both Day and Benton have charisma to spare, and make for good foils for The Kid to contend with.  Still, it’s great that they’re not relegated to being only comedy relief.  Benton gets a serious moment that further digs at The Kid’s screwed up situation.  We get some dimension to Morris with a few honest moments, and we see he has a genuine human factor.  My favorite moment of Day’s is his moment of regret after saying a truly horrible thing about The Kid’s family after Francis has attempted suicide.  In a single moment, he goes from being a cruel, cold hearted jerk to being a real human being with a conscience.

Under the direction of Albert Magnoli, Prince proves to be a very solid actor.  Of course, his amazing work on stage comes naturally to him, but even then, there’s the added emotional context of his character interwoven with that.  He incorporates the character’s mindset into the intensity of his on-stage performance.  The most evident examples are the “Darling Nikki” and “Purple Rain” performances showing the different kinds of pain The Kid is feeling at those times.  The first being of scorn, and the second being heartbreaking despair and sorrow.  Off stage, Prince is damn good handling all of the heavy emotional weight of this story stunningly.  This character is shown to be one with serious faults that he has to confront and overcome by the end, and it is all executed an honest realism.  If Prince wasn’t that good of an actor, the film would not have worked, and would have been viewed as a lop-sided vanity project where the music was full of spectacle but the story and acting faltered.  He was clearly fully committed to the quality and integrity of this picture, and put forth his all in every aspect to make it this great.

Yet, it is Albert Magnoli who put everything on track to be so great overall.  The film does have style to spare in its stage performance visuals, and some of the sharp MTV style editing at times.  However, Magnoli balances the sleek style and energy with a grounded, dramatic gravity.  The characters are all well fleshed out, and have their passionate and conflicted qualities.  The attempted suicide scene crashes down like a ton of bricks, and erupts the raw emotional intensity of this film.  It is handled, along with the entire final act, with such weight and sincerity that it is what makes Purple Rain more than just a fun rock and roll movie experience.  It gives a meaning to the story and the characters, giving this film a real touching, tender artistry that I cannot admire and praise enough.  It really reflects the integrity and poignant detail that Prince puts into his music.  He hardly ever does anything in his music without a full fledged commitment to quality.

The final musical performances are beautifully executed.  “Purple Rain” is the culmination of everything The Kid has gone through, and he pours out every ounce of pain and sorrow in one epic, soaring song.  The aftermath of the performance can still choke me up a little, especially when The Kid and Apollonia lock eyes in that hallway.  Magnoli also does such the right thing with the editing in that performance because, aside from a few perfectly timed and well chosen shots of the audience, he keeps the focus on The Kid.  It’s not until the song crescendos with the guitar solo that the shots open up and allow for everything to flourish on screen.  “I Would Die 4 U” then comes as a breath of fresh air, and the correlating clips of The Kid visiting his sleeping parents in the hospital, organizing his father’s music sheets, and reconnecting with Apollonia earlier that day, bring a heart warming quality to the track.  All of the music in this movie is excellent on its own, but when adding it into the emotional context of this film, these songs transcend into another level of touching impact.

I certainly do have to take Purple Rain in a sensationalized way.  I have been close friends with a number of independent, small time local bands for the last decade, and these are people who aren’t making it rich on their music.  So, if this film was entirely realistic, none of these bands would be wearing all of these flashy designer outfits that likely cost thousands of dollars.  They would still put a great show, but what we see is an accurate representation of these acts as they were, on stage, in real life.  I wholly understand stylistic choice that I’m sure no one really gave much thought to.  Even then, despite owning a custom designed motorcycle and all of these flashy outfits, The Kid lives in his parents’ basement.  Most wouldn’t pick up on those oddities, but with the perspective I have, yeah, it pops into my head.  Yet, I don’t hold any of this against the film whatsoever because I understand where all of it is coming from, and clearly, Prince wasn’t concerned about blurring the lines between his reality and the film’s fiction.  It all ultimately works towards the film’s stylish benefit.

To me, Purple Rain is a magnificent film.  If you love the 1980’s in all its fashion, style, music, and movies, this is a movie that will excite and probably surprise you.  Surely, Prince’s music isn’t for everyone, but this is undoubtedly a collection of some of his finest mainstream work.  It is definitely one of the best soundtrack albums ever conceived and released.  Even songs by The Time, Apollonia 6, and Dez Dickerson are solid pieces that give a little different flavor here and there.  Yet, beyond all of that pop music excellence, you will find a film filled with love, heartache, tragic quality, dramatic weight, and artistic merit that is all perfectly blended together.  It had been a long time since I watched Purple Rain before this review, and seeing it again reminded me why I so love this movie.  It also reminded me why, nine years ago, I made this an imperative weekly watch for so long.  Prince’s subsequent feature film outings would, reportedly, not be so good as he chose to direct and star in both Under The Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge, the sequel to Purple Rain.  You need not pay attention to those films because Purple Rain is fully entertaining and satisfying in so many abundant ways.  This is an exciting, rock fueled picture with an admirable depth of substance and emotion.  This film was 1984 through and through, but still holds up perfectly nearly three decades later.  It is one of my favorite films of all time.


The Wolverine (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Shadow (1994)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Collateral (2004)

CollateralOn a midnight screening in August, 2004, my entire filmmaking aspirations changed with this film.  While I had seen Thief previously, Collateral struck a brilliant, fascinating chord in my creative mind.  While I consider The Insider to be Michael Mann’s best film to date, and Manhunter to be my favorite, there is a special unique quality to this movie that I love.  I believe it stems from the atmosphere of isolation and nature of introspection that Mann delves into.  Above all else, Tom Cruise puts in one of the best performances of his career under Mann’s direction.

Max (Jamie Foxx) has lived the mundane life of a cab driver for 12 years.  The faces have come and gone from his rearview mirror, people and places he’s long since forgotten – until tonight.  Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a contract killer.  When an offshore narco-trafficking cartel learns they are about to be indicted by a federal grand jury, they mount an operation to identify and kill the key witnesses, and the last stage is tonight.  Tonight, Vincent arrives in L.A., and five bodies are supposed to fall.  Circumstances cause Vincent to hijack Max’s taxicab, and Max becomes collateral – an expendable person in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Through the night, Vincent forces Max to drive him to each destination.  And as the LAPD and FBI race to intercept them, Max and Vincent’s survival becomes dependant on each other in ways neither would have imagined.

I love how the movie is soaked into this dark, isolated feeling of the night.  While the film has those first few minutes of transition from the late afternoon into nightfall, it feels right.  We are getting an easy, gradual introduction to Max along with a very brief and enigmatic one to Vincent.  At this point, the film is relaxed and getting you comfortable, but once night sets in, the mood begins to soak in.  Los Angeles descends into this sparse, disconnected landscape.  There’s a sense of vast emptiness which isolates our characters into a somber atmosphere.  There maybe pedestrians in the background, traffic on the roads, but Max and Vincent are in their own reclusive scenario apart from the awareness of anyone around them.  Michael Mann achieves that deeply penetrating mood throughout the movie with a brilliant use of cinematography, music, and environments.  The nighttime world of Los Angeles is alive with danger and lethal threats on an ever-accelerating ride into darkness.

In the beginning of the film, there’s some lovely, heartfelt chemistry between Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett-Smith in a cab ride together.  It’s a beautiful, warm introduction to both characters who we need to greatly empathize with as the film progresses.  This is especially true for Pinkett-Smith’s character of Annie, a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney, who doesn’t return to the film until the final act, but she makes such a wonderful, adoring impression that we haven’t forgotten a thing about her by then.  Both actors make a rich use of those few minutes of screentime together, and Michael Mann really strikes a different chord than he has before.  In his other films, it’s usually two people that have already had some history together, or are already married with some kind of emotional or ideological strain upon them.  We hardly see the initial spark of a romantic relationship, and never has it been this sweet and charming.  Jada Pinkett-Smith does a spectacular job in this role throughout all the light-hearted, heart-warming, and emotionally and physically intense demands upon her.

Jamie Foxx surely deserved the supporting actor Oscar nomination he got here.  He absorbs himself fully into Max, grasping the details of the character with a lot of care.  Max is surely a flawed person, but that’s what makes him relatable and real.  Max is an entirely unlikely hero.  He’s just a cab driver opposing a trained professional killer, but it’s that intensely real fear and genuine humanity of Max that makes him work.  He’s not designed to battle Vincent on a physical level.  Instead, it’s slowly getting into Vincent’s head, unraveling who he is and how he works that allows Max to gain some measure of courage to fight back against him.  However, it’s that journey from the guy who can’t even muster up the courage to ask Annie for her phone number, let alone out on a date, to someone that does take a stand against this cold, vicious killing machine which makes Foxx’s performance amazing.  It’s Max’s experience with Vincent, especially when he’s forced to impersonate Vincent in a meeting with cartel lord Felix, that begins to bring out that self-confidence.  Vincent repeatedly criticizes Max for taking abuse from his boss, allowing his mother to believe in false truths about his line of work, and being a general pushover that inadvertently mold and motivate Max into being an adversary instead of a frightened hostage.  Your attention might gravitate to the stronger personality of Vincent as the standout, but Jamie Foxx delivers a very textured, emotionally realistic, and genuine performance that does have a lot of substance and standout qualities about it.

Tom Cruise starts out as his usual charming self as Vincent, who warms himself up to Max so to convince him to hang with him through the night, feeding him a story of being a real estate agent.  It’s then a beautiful turn when that cold, calculating sociopath emerges.  That intimidating edge shows through immediately, and I love that you can see the gears turning in Vincent’s head.  He checks his surroundings, seeing who might’ve witnessed the dead body crashing onto Max’s cab, and determines his next move.  This is the detail Michael Mann instills in his actors in order to portray these characters as realistic, intelligent people with a specific way of thinking and reacting with a depth of history that stretches beyond the context of this story.  Vincent is a fascinating character with a complexity and depth that is the brilliant result of Mann and Cruise’s collaboration mixed with Stuart Beattie’s excellent screenplay.  He is a stone cold sociopath that has a justification for everything he does, and he regularly tries to impart that onto Max.  Perceiving a few dead bodies as insignificant on a cosmic scale makes it no wonder that he is so disassociated from any semblance of humanity.  Most of us rarely think of the repercussions of our actions on even a global scale, and the closer, more immediate the consequences are, the greater they have impact on our choices.  Vincent is likely the epitome of Neil McCauley’s “thirty seconds flat” rule from Heat of abandoning everything at a moment’s notice in order to stay ahead of the law.  McCauley dictated that in order to do so, you must not have attachments to anyone or anything, or risk being caught.  However, Vincent is even more than that as there’s clearly a far deeper, more emotionally fractured explanation for being as he is, and it is not just from a matter of staying out of a prison cell.  Tom Cruise conveys that complexity with masterful skill and a dash of natural charisma that makes him compelling.  There is so much depth and nuance to what Tom Cruise delivers in this performance of a sociopathic hitman that finds himself slowing cracking throughout this night that I couldn’t possibly detail all of it without making this into an entire essay about him.  If you want that, I immensely suggest listening to Michael Mann’s commentary on the film.  It provides more detailed insight than I can do justice to here.  In short, Tom Cruise is riveting and brilliant as Vincent, and delivers a relentless performance unlike any you’ve seen from him.  He’s an entirely different, fully absorbed animal in this film, and Vincent is a testament to Mann’s extensive work of building a character from the ground up, from the inside out with a massively talented actor.

The scene that sells the lethal threat of Vincent is the incident with the gangbangers who steal his briefcase.  The razor sharp reflexes he demonstrates in taking both of them down is near unreal, and shows that this is a man of hard earned, professional skills that should not be tested.  If he wants you dead, you’ll be a corpse before you know it.  As I’ve mentioned in past reviews, Tom Cruise is an amazingly dedicated physical actor.  He will put himself through whatever rigorous training is necessary to make his performance everything it needs to be on every level.  These skills are not learned easily or quickly.  Cruise had handled firearms before in the Mission: Impossible films, but this was a whole different level of discipline and dedication.  And indeed, it shows through in how he carries himself, how he cases his surroundings, and operates like an efficient machine in every action sequence.  He creates a full, total package that gravitates energy around him.

Furthermore, I really like Mark Ruffalo as Detective Fanning.  His look is excellent as a narcotics cop who looks like a dealer, but seeing him in the thick of things, you can see this is an LAPD Detective that is intelligent, instinctive, and seasoned.  He’s a consummate professional, but is also very streetwise and perceptive.  Ruffalo strikes that perfect balance which makes both work cohesively.  Fanning follows through on his instincts and intellect despite anyone’s insistence to the contrary, making him a capable secondary protagonist an audience can get behind.  He’s hotly on the trail of what’s going on as more and more bodies go down, and that motivates the law enforcement end of the story forward as they try to secure what witnesses they have left before Vincent can eliminate them.

Collateral is filled with solid supporting actors like Peter Berg’s combative Detective Weidner or Bruce McGill’s hard edged FBI Agent Pedrosa.  However, the two best standouts are Barry Shabaka Henley and Javier Bardem.  Henley portrays Daniel, the owner of a jazz club, and he gives us two brilliant showings in his scene.  The first is Daniel’s passion for jazz music as he relates a story about meeting Miles Davis, and the stunning impression it made in his life.  Then, when the scene turns imminently lethal, we see the purely human fear and subtle tremble that courses through his body.  It’s an inspired performance, and Daniel is someone that has a noticeable resonance upon Vincent.  This is the first moment where we see his sociopathic exterior cracking, and it is a gorgeous moment of dramatic and emotional storytelling.

Javier Bardem is just excellent as the cartel lord Felix.  He’s strongly intimidating and intelligent, but one of conservative emotion.  You can see the fire underneath when he learns that Vincent has lost his hitlist, but he’s a confident man that knows how to deal with problems decisively but has a short tolerance for failure.  Bardem has only one scene, but he makes a strong, intriguing impression that resonates for a quite a while after his screentime has ended.  It’s stellar work by him all around.

I think Collateral is possibly the Michael Mann film that most deeply peers into its lead characters.  While Manhunter gets very deep into their psychology, Collateral is focused more on the emotional level.  It shows what makes Vincent and Max who they are from the heart and soul outwards.  These two starkly different men are inexplicably connected on this violent, dangerous ride, and they each peer deeper into one another’s souls.  Collateral simply broods with this fascinating level of deep, introspective drama making itself just as much about the complex nature of its characters as it is about its adrenalin pumping danger and occasional action.

One of the things that attracted Michael Mann to this project was the idea of a compressed timeline.  All events take place over a single night which creates an inherent energy and urgency to the story and the actions of the characters.  Everything’s going down now, and there’s no tomorrow to deal with it.  There’s also the great feeling like we’re in the third act of another story, that of Felix’s impending indictment.  All of these events have already taken place to move these people into these exact situations on this night, and we’re dropped into a story where everything is already in motion.  Everything’s moving forward at a brisk pace, and there’s no slowing down now.  The whole movie has this feeling of an impending deadline.  The feeling that we’ve long passed the point of no return well before this movie began, and it’s all full speed ahead from here.  It’s not a film of break neck pace, but Mann is able to maintain that sense of urgency very cleverly through the actions and behavior of these characters.  The pacing itself is great, tight, and dead-on.  There’s such a great punctuation of drama and emotion using everything Mann has at his disposal at exactly the right doses at exactly the right times.  It’s an amazingly well edited movie.

Collateral features an awesome collection of score and music from eclectic artists.  The primary score is provided by James Newton Howard who creates the most emotional and stirring cues of the film.  It has the most presence and creates the grim sense of isolation and somber reality.  Howard is also responsible for the long form, tense, suspenseful, and ultimately, driving percussion score in the film’s action climax.  Antonio Pinto also has some excellent pieces of score that really penetrate the soul of select moments.  The addition of Audioslave to the soundtrack was a stroke of genius as “Shadow On The Sun” perfectly fits the vibe and tone of this movie.  It’s only one track, but it is used in a very memorable sequence.  Appropriately, we get some jazz in there, and a few other contemporary music tracks that oddly don’t feel dated in the least.  It’s been nearly nine years since the film’s release, and it still feels fresh, original, and excitingly new to me.  I own this soundtrack, and it is still a wonderful, moody listen to this day.

The vast majority of Collateral was shot on high definition digital video, and for this movie, it works beautifully and brilliantly.  Mann knew he couldn’t get that depth of clarity to see into the nighttime landscape of L.A. if he shot on film.  So, he embraced this new technology to create a signature look for Collateral.  What makes it work for this movie where it didn’t as much for Miami Vice or especially Public Enemies is how well it is shot.  I believe the cinematography work of Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe should have been given far more recognition at the time than it did.  It got some nominations and wins from a few organizations, but it may have been the unique digital video look of the movie that might have deterred some.  I embraced this look, and it inspired me to no end.  It still does.  Collateral is a brilliantly shot movie with an amazing use of color temperatures that evoke certain moods throughout.  It’s much different than Manhunter in that its feels very urban and grounded with the sodium vapor and mercury vapor street lights creating diffused orange, green, and turquoise tones.  It just makes the night come alive in a new way that had never been achieved with such vibrant, dramatic results before.  It’s also remarkable how so much of the film takes place in that cab, and each scene gives us a new camera angle or composition that suits the context of that scene.  It never gets repetitive or dull.  These filmmakers had to get inventive, and they ultimately achieved something with get artistic value.  There is plenty of handheld work, but it’s done immensely well.  Public Enemies was a blatant example of doing it terribly, and Miami Vice simply employed it too much to where it almost became a crutch.  The cinematography of Collateral is very similar to that in The Insider, but progressed further and given more vibrancy than before.  And those overhead aerial shots of Los Angeles are simply striking and inspired.  I’ve since seen this replicated in many other films and television shows, and I immediately make the connection back to Collateral when I do.

We have very few action scenes here, but the large doses we get are riveting and awesome.  The biggest is the Korean night club sequence where Max, Vincent, the FBI, and more converge in a violent exchange of physicality and gunfire.  It’s an excellently done sequence with sharp editing and a pulsating remix of Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready Steady Go.”  Vincent weaves his way through the sea of club-goers, dispatching of bodyguards with merciless efficiency, but it ultimately all breaks down into chaos.  Yet, it is this turning point in the film where all the law enforcement and other elements surrounding Max and Vincent are stripped away, and we’re left with a lean, intense final act.  As Vincent hunts his final target through a dark office of reflective surfaces, we are treated to some taut suspense and edge-of-your-seat tension.  This is another instance where only digital video could’ve been used.  On film, this would’ve been an unintelligible blob of nothing, but the high definition video gives the low light detail that feels so atmospheric and visually amazing.  The climax is just excellently done on so many levels, and ends with poignant drama.  I know there was a time early on that I felt the ending left a little to be desired, but I’ve since gained the understanding of it all with full respect and appreciation.  This is a very introspective film that documents Vincent’s somber emotional deterioration over this one night, and it ends with a weight of purpose and ironic reflection.  The climax might be very adrenalin pumping, ramping up the imminent, lethal danger of Max and Annie, but the final moments resolve the character depth and emotional resonance we’ve seen build up throughout this film.  It is a brilliant work of screenwriting by Stuart Beattie forged and meticulously crafted by the masterful talent of Michael Mann.

This is an amazing film that has a different substance of depth than Mann had given us before, and wraps that up in a very riveting, tense crime thriller.  Cruise and Foxx have excellent chemistry together that even sparks one or two humorous beats.  It’s just a great, happy surprise sparked from two great talents that have that charismatic spark of brilliance.  Overall, it’s a film that still inspires and drives me to this day to be a creative filmmaker in the dark crime genre where characters like Vincent are immensely fascinating, complex, and violent individuals.  I reference Michael Mann’s work often enough in my reviews of crime thrillers that I definitely want to actually get more reviews of his films done.  I’ve already done Miami Vice and Manhunter, but those were a good year apart.  Collateral should be the start of me covering more of his filmography in a shorter span of time with Thief, Heat, and The Insider surely on my slate for this year.  Reviews like this are more than just telling you if the movie is good or bad, but instead, they are delving into the depth of it all to really discover what truly makes it great and why it has enthralled me so much.  However, look for some potentially shorter reviews soon for a few soon-to-be-released movies that I hope will be quite good, but we’ll see.


Shakedown (1988)

ShakedownSo, after watching The Exterminator this morning, I chose to follow that up with a 1988 entry into James Glickenhaus’ filmography starring Peter Weller and Sam Elliott.  Backed by Universal Pictures, this film is a warp speed jump ahead in polished filmmaking, tight storytelling, and an entertaining picture with lots of energizing action.  Yet, it has plenty of substance and strong characters realized by great actors.  Shakedown was a fun ride that I would like to share with you now.

When a local drug dealer shoots a dishonest cop in self-defense, lawyer Roland Dalton (Peter Weller) and renegade undercover cop Richie Marks (Sam Elliott) join forces to clear him.  But when their investigation leads them into a maze of greed and corruption, they learn that in a town where everything is for sale, anything can happen.  Amidst this, Dalton realizes the prosecutor in this, his last case, is a former love interest, the smart and sexy Susan Cantrell (Patricia Charbonneau).  Throughout the trial Roland rekindles this former affair with Susan unbeknown to his fiancée Gail (Blanche Baker).  All of this twists and turns around Dalton and Marks as they battle through the web of corrupt cops who’d sooner see them dead at every turn.

This is a top notch movie all the way through.  We’re given a story that is sharply put together that always holds your attention, and keeps something moving forward at a tight rhythm at all times.  There are enough interconnected threads to allow the film to do that, but not remotely so many as to complicate things.  The trial of the drug dealer ties into the corrupt dealings of these New York cops, and with Dalton being the central focus of this plot, his own personal relationships branch out from that.  So, there’s always something unfolding and weaving its way into the momentum of the story to keep that energy and pace up.  Yet, even though the film has a polished style, it still delves into that seedy underbelly of New York that James Glickenhaus enjoyed spotlighting in his films.  So, we get something sharp, sleek, and immensely entertaining while still having that underlining presence of the sleazier side of things.  Glickenhaus hits the mainstream with great success fueled by a very well written script, and a spectacular cast of talent at his disposal.

Peter Weller is just amazing in this movie.  As Roland Dalton, he’s a very charismatic and lively guy who loves his Jimi Hendrix and has plenty of enjoyable flare.  He’s a very relatable and intelligent character portrayed by an actor who exemplifies those qualities.  Weller works the courtroom scenes with compelling energy and sharp wit.  He also carries strong emotional and dramatic weight throughout the film.  The building romantic relationship with Susan is touchingly handled with beautiful chemistry.  It help creates a full, well-rounded character that has various aspects to his life that all tie into the threads of the plot.  Weller really does have the meat of screentime, and thus, properly gets top billing.  Weller’s character never shies away from action or danger in his pursuit of truth.  He regularly gets himself into dangerous scenarios, but is able to handle himself competently.  Weller takes all of this in stride melding together a very fascinating, dimensional, and entertaining character.  I loved watching him every minute he was on screen.

Of course, this takes nothing away from Sam Elliott who fits comfortably into this rugged loner.  Richie Marks is very grounded, soaked into the thick of the grit of the city.  We first meet him waking up in a 42nd Street grindhouse movie theatre with crack vials littering the floor, and brushing his teeth in the graffiti laden restroom.  This is a guy whose luck is just about dried up, but he’s still a solid cop that can rundown the worst the New York streets have to offer.  Sam Elliott was only 43 years old when he made this film, and so, his shaggy gray hair and beard make him look older and gruffer than he truly was.  Thus, he was still able to throw himself into some physically demanding action scenes, which are great.  Elliott has a sly personality and fine charisma that make Richie charming in contrast to the filthy environment he surrounds himself with.  He’s a straight arrow cop that knows the crooked dealings in the department, but until now, hasn’t had much motivation or back-up to do anything about it.

Elliott and Weller simply work excellently together.  It’s not the typical buddy cop formula where two conflicting personalities clash with a single purpose to bond them.  Dalton and Marks might be distinctly different in how they lead their lives, how they present each other, but they are similar-minded men of law and justice that don’t need convincing to join forces.  They’re friends from the outset, and we see they are more alike than superficial appearances would suggest.  The two actors are tight fits, and have a sharp chemistry and wit that keeps the film energetic and entertaining.

Every other actor in this film does a tremendous, expert job.  I’ve loved Larry Joshua in everything I’ve seen him in, and he portrays the main corrupt cop Rydell.  He’s got that streetwise, slimy quality mixed in with Joshua’s usual charismatic edge and energy.  Rydell is enjoyably corrupt with just the right amount of despicableness to make a villain you love to hate.  You really want to see him taken down well before the end  Patricia Charbonneau is excellent as Susan Cantrell.  She brings a lively vibe with her, but balances that with a solid, assertive dramatic presence in the courtroom scenes.  It’s a full, well-rounded performance that holds up strongly opposite Peter Weller.  Richard Brooks, who portrayed Paul Robinette on the first few seasons of Law & Order, portrays the drug dealing Michael Jones, and he is a really, strong fit for this role.  It’s also a very well written role that works very much to Brooks’ strengths, and he couldn’t be better.  And for those that love him, John C. McGinley has a brief energetic and funny role as a lawyer and friend of Dalton’s.  There are no weak links in this cast anywhere at all.

Shakedown also has some first rate action sequences.  Glickenhaus seems very proficient in this realm as he always finds a way to amp up the scene at some point beyond your expectations.  He never settles for the standard chase scene.  He adds something especially exciting on top of what already was a damn good sequence, and gives you that memorable punctuation.  I was genuinely blown away at the intensity and impact of many of these scenes.  They really deliver in full force on every bit of adrenalin and pay-off you’d expect from a solid action film.  And I love that the film easily balances the action with the drama of the story.  The struggle for justice in the courtroom is given as much poignancy as the crime on the street.  They go hand-in-hand with this story, and it’s great to see that both sides are executed equally as well making for a very satisfying narrative.

As I mentioned, there’s more to the film than just action.  With Roland, you can see that the relationship with his fiancée does have its turbulence, but doesn’t come off as something that’s falling apart.  He starts out as a man on the verge of changing his life with a new career and a wedding on the horizon.  However, the man that he is becomes anchored by Susan coming passionately back into his life both professional and intimately.  It strikes a sentimental and deep chord with Roland, and I love where the film takes him by the end.  It’s a very satisfying character arc, and it never feels clichéd or contrived.  It’s smartly written with touches of levity, tenderness, and honesty.  All of the dialogue in the film is smartly written highlighting personality throughout, and keeping things fresh, sharp, and entertaining.

Shakedown is also really damn well shot.  I liked the use of wide angle lenses which highlighted either the excellent scenery of New York, or simply enhanced some big, dramatic action shots.  The film has a slick, polished quality that still delves into the seedier areas of 42nd Street with the grindhouse theatre and a sleazy sex club.  We get some nice uses of light and shadow mixed with neon colors that create a solid atmosphere.  There is nothing here that is not shot superbly.  I find it amazing what good filmmakers could do with $6 million back in the 80s.  This film is high quality all the way with great authentic on-location shoots in New York, crane shots, steadicams, and just a big budget polish to everything while never losing an edginess or personality for the film.  The editing is also excellent.  Editor Paul Fried had a short career that ended the following year, and it’s a shame because I can’t levy a single critique against what he did here.  It’s an exemplary editing job from start to finish.  It’s tight and sharp hitting all the marks and beats dead-on-the-mark.

The music of Shakedown is also really good.  It’s a solid action score using more of a rock driven style that really complements the energetic quality of the film.  Jonathan Elias doesn’t have many notable credits to his name, but the fact that he worked alongside John Barry, the regular composer of the James Bond films through to The Living Daylights, is a big mark of quality in my eyes.  If this film is any example, he learned quite a lot from Barry, and applied to with his own style that couldn’t have been better for this film.  Add in a little Jimi Hendrix “Purple Haze” and a solid upbeat rock/pop tune to close out the film, and you’ve got something that is greatly appealing and fun.  It’s a shame no soundtrack was ever released for Shakedown, and that aforementioned end credits song “Lookin’ For Love” by Nikki Ryder is really nowhere to be found.

As if I need to say it, I really, really liked this movie!  It was a lot of fun, and it gave me entertaining, dimensional leads with a lot of fresh chemistry and charisma to offer.  I cannot reiterate it strongly enough that Peter Weller is stellar in every second of screentime here.  I loved the character and his performance.  Meanwhile, Sam Elliott delivered beautifully on his end of things.  Shakedown was decently successful on its theatrical release grossing $10 million from a $6 million budget, and I think it deserves exposure to a wider audience.  I rented this off of iTunes, which has the film available for purchase or rental in high-definition widescreen.  I was thoroughly satisfied with this movie, which was released in international markets as Blue Jean Cop, and this gets my full fledged recommendation.  I will be glad to add this to my DVD collection, and I hope you will give this 112 minutes of your time.  It’s an exciting, fun ride that has a lot to offer the action movie fan.


Midnight Heat (2007)

Midnight HeatFor whatever reason, I just felt the need to review something of a different style, a different whatever from everything I’ve been doing lately.  I’ve come to find that what I most enjoy spotlighting here are films that are hidden gems.  Stuff that’s not too widely known, but is of a certain admirable quality.  I really like allowing others to discover movies through my reviews, and that’s not going to happen reviewing Star Wars or Terminator movies.  Showcasing something that also inspires me as a filmmaker on a more personal level is the other thing I gravitated towards with this review.  I’ve previously reviewed the film Paranoia from internet comedic personality and independent filmmaker Brad Jones.  Midnight Heat is a 2007 feature length effort from him that was made with a lower grade production value, but for me, the quality of the writing, most of the acting, and the direction really shines through the very rough digital video camcorder, micro-budget quality of the movie.  This is the type of movie that really inspires me and drives me to be a creative and ambitious filmmaker.  Seeing someone else achieve this with even less resources than I have today is further inspiration, but let’s breakdown the plot of this sleazy 1980’s exploitation film homage first.

Midnight Heat is a story of cops, hookers, killers, and pimps; all centered around one sleazy night in the late 1980’s.  A cocaine addicted homicide detective (Jake Norvell) is brought out of suspension in order to trail local prostitute Donna Diggs (Bianca Queen) who may become the next victim of The Scalper (Nick Foster), a serial killer who preys on the city’s hookers.  Meanwhile, her mentally unstable pimp Martin (Brad Jones) attempts to get out of the business while finding it harder to protect his girls from both the killer and from an abusive rival pimp (Buford Stowers).

I will make one preface about the technical quality of Midnight Heat and the relative standards of quality I judge this by.  I’ve both been an independent filmmaker for several years, and have watched these types of movies since the late 90’s.  In this realm, you make the best story you can make with the equipment and resources you have at your disposal.  Not every independent filmmaker has the cash to buy boom mics, pro lighting gear, or a high quality camcorder.   If all you have is a Digital Hi8 camcorder and a solid screenplay, you go for it.  It may indeed be difficult for some to acclimate themselves into the experience, but if you can get beyond the digital grain from the low lighting and less than perfect audio, there is a very entertaining and well written sleazy crime thriller waiting for you.  The film is only available, completely free, through Brad Jones’ website.  So, all it costs you is time to give it a chance.

This film is Brad’s tribute to 1980s sleaze flicks like Vice Squad, Savage Streets, and The Exterminator while taking strong vibes from Miami Vice.  This really translates from both the story being soaked in the nighttime world of sex, drugs, and murder, and the choice of soundtrack.  The reason the movie is only available for online viewing is because it features tons of unlicensed 1980s pop songs.  I greatly used these sorts of songs as temp music for my feature film The Fixer, and I wish I could commercially release it with those tracks because they perfectly capture the vibe I was going for.  Brad Jones was just interested in putting the film out there without a mind towards commercial release.  With it being specifically set in 1987, I couldn’t imagine Midnight Heat working without these era-specific tracks.  Songs from Glenn Frey, Phil Collins, The Cars, Scandal, Loverboy, Kim Carnes, Animotion, and many more pulsate throughout this movie.  They are the entire score, and it instills the film with energy and a very familiar emotional feeling for me.  At times, it would be preferable if the songs were lower in the mix so they don’t compete too strongly against the dialogue, but the music never drowns it out.  Brad Jones did the best he could with the actual production sound, as is stated in his intro video to the movie on his website.  Still, if there’s one thing that could’ve been improved, it is just the mixing of music and sound effects around the dialogue.  Often gunshots and other dramatic sound effects don’t have the sonic impact they should have, but I am able to forgive and move beyond that to understand the intentions on display.  If this was a multi-million dollar budgeted film with professional sound engineers, you could rightfully attack that with great zeal, but not in this case, not at all.

While most of the cast are not professional actors, we are treated to some very strong and substantive performances.  Jake Norvell’s Detective Rick Wilson is the perfect sleazy 1980s corrupt cop.  A cocaine snorting, prostitute indulging, foul mouthed burn out that is distrusted by the police department, and is stuck with an assignment no one else cares about.  Norvell appropriately portrays him in an over the top fashion in a performance that really dominates a lot of the movie.  This is a character of ego and abrasiveness, but also has that tinge of emotional value.  Norvell intensely portrays the erratic, substance abusing behavior of Wilson making him an unpredictable wild card.  This repeatedly complicates matters with Donna, but there’s always that sordid emotional connection between them that really pulls them together.  Norvell’s performance grows and solidifies in the third act, and becomes damn near powerhouse in a very fun, indulgent way.  He’s really feeling the energy of this character throughout, but it is punched up in that last twenty-five minutes.

Bianca Queen is quite good as the female lead.  She brings a lot toughness and grit to Donna, but is not at all afraid to delve into the required sleaze of the role.  She holds her ground very solidly opposite Norvell, and the relationship they strike is combative, yet complicated.  She wonderfully conveys the sordid, argumentative history between Donna and Rick without ever backing down.  She also slinks very enthusiastically into the sexy, seductive aspects of the character.  Ultimately, by the end, we see even more depth from Queen that makes her standout beautifully next to her male co-stars of Jones and Norvell.

Obviously, I am a major fan of Brad Jones’ work, and for very good reason.  The man is exceptionally talented as both a writer and actor.  In the role of Martin, he is channeling something complex and intriguing.  He’s this pimp that tries to run a good operation, but just wants to find a clean way out of this life.  Yet, this is the night that everything is deconstructing around him.  The stress pulls at him too agonizingly, and he can’t help but crack over and over again.  Jones portrays this character with a strong wealth of sympathy that transcends all the irredeemable violence Martin inflicts, but also brings plenty of weight in a role that gradually slips into being an antagonistic force.  The trippy dream sequence Martin has really pushes the idea of the fracturing psyche even further.  Jones is entirely convincing as an intimidating presence, but that complex nature regularly comes back into play where Martin is not just on a violent rampage.  He can be a relatable character when baring his soul, but Jones’ performance is never too far removed from that psychologically messed up behavior.  By the end, both sides of the character mesh together greatly with some smartly written dialogue and ideas.  Overall, Jones’ performance is a major highlight of the movie.

Buford Stowers is a great heavy as the ruthless pimp Phil.  He carries himself with a weighty presence and a good measure of sleaze-laden charisma.  Every scene he has is punctuated with an aggressive authority.  Stowers throws his all into the role, but keeps it grounded and intimidating.  He feels like a serious threat that no one would risk crossing.  Stowers and Jones have excellent chemistry as rival pimps, and have some solid scenes together.

The remainder of the cast has some good performances including Kim West as Nikki, Phil’s premiere working girl.  Sarah Lewis always impresses me in Jones’ films with her best performance coming as the lead in The Hooker With A Heart of Gold.  Here, she has only a few scenes as Donna’s friend Mindy, but it is very well acted on all levels.  Alex Shyrock is very good as Detective Mike Nero who is a cop who doesn’t seem like he gives much of a damn anymore, and doesn’t enjoy having to screw around with Wilson throughout the night.  Shyrock has that right stressed out, frayed quality showing that Nero is sick and tired of this Scalper case, and just wants it done with however possible.

The most substantive scene is when Martin and Rick cross paths and have a lengthy conversation together.  Both men lay out their troubles, how they got to where they are now, and talking frankly about what has damaged them.  Jones and Norvell put in excellent performances here.  The two are great, close friends in real life, and that chemistry shows through.  It’s a fairly brief pair of scenes between them, but it is a solid turning point that motivates the characters into the third act..  Their confrontation at the film’s end is equally as good.

Handheld camera work is the standard here, as is Jones’ style.  He has said that he relies on this so much due to the fact of having only the built-in microphone on his camcorder to record audio.  So, he regularly needs to have the camera close-in on the actors to get consistent audio.  Still, while the framing can regularly be a little too tight when trying to pan between two actors, and the handheld being a little rough, there are many scenes with quite good camera angles and editing.  For the most part, the flow of the movie is very good with only a few rough transitions here and there.  I can entirely see that if Jones had the right equipment and the ability to refine his technical quality, this would be a greatly polished movie on all levels.

I really like movies with intercutting stories.  They inherently create an energy that propels the narrative forward with great rhythm.  Midnight Heat regularly cuts between Martin’s descent into self-destruction and Rick and Donna’s turbulent night together.  Both stories parallel one another until they eventually intersect and collide.  This structure works beautifully, and maintains a streamlined flow throughout.  Jones writes very vibrant and interesting characters with some excellent dialogue.  Midnight Heat is an exploitation film through and through, but the quality of the writing is comparable to that of a Michael Mann film like Thief or Collateral.  Characters are dimensional and feel quite real and textured.  This is the real strength of the movie, and it is what immensely impresses me about it.  As I said, beyond the rough, low grade technical qualities there is a wealth of talent on display fueled by Jones’ amazingly written script.  There is substance in this story.  It never falls back on letting the sleaze weigh down the film for a fun, cheap thrill.  Jones absolutely was putting his best dramatic effort forward, and it shows through.  That’s what I think makes for a great independent filmmaker – to have the quality of your talent and vision shine through even the most rugged of technical shortcomings.

While I believe Brad has stated that directing isn’t his favorite part of the process, I do believe he put together a cohesive and well directed movie here.  While everyone cast in the movie is part of his wide circle of friends, he is able to make the best use of them in key roles, and they gave him their best.  The compressed time frame of the film also creates an energy and momentum not too unlike Michael Mann’s Collateral.  Everything occurs over a single night, and that creates a compact, compounded intensity that builds as the film progresses.  I used to have many extremely late nights out to where I didn’t know late night from early morning anymore, and Midnight Heat gradually captures that feeling in its third act.  The film narrows out its cast of characters, and focuses in on its leads of Rick, Donna, and Martin enhancing the sense of isolation and loneliness of those hours of the night.  The climax is not action based, but character based.  It brings everything to a head in a very solid and satisfying way.

I strongly believe Midnight Heat to be one of Brad Jones’ best films.  The writing is excellent and the full cast really puts their all into it.  I love the neo noir style of it all taking place at night.  It soaks you deep into this grimy, dark world, and that’s just perfectly my style.  There’s very little action in the movie as it is built and driven by its characters, which are excellently developed and realized.  At nearly an hour and forty minutes, I think this is a well put together independent film that was made with a lot of passion and enthusiasm.  At the time he posted this on his website in July of 2011, Brad stated this to be his favorite film out of all the ones he had made up to that point.  Knowing him as well as I do through his website, this really is where his love of film is the strongest, and I’m intrigued to know that a sequel is planned, likely for this year.  It was a combination of seeing this movie and Brad’s v-log movie review of Drive that got me to see that brilliant movie which is now one of my favorites of all time.  Coincidentally, the opening credits to Drive are nearly identical to those of Midnight Heat, same font and all.

As I said, you can exclusively watch Midnight Heat on Brad’s website for free.  Clearly, I give the movie a very strong recommendation for anyone that enjoys neo noir crime thrillers or the sleazier side of 1980s cinema.  You can watch the rather low quality trailer here.  Give it a few minutes of your time, and see if it appeals to your interests.


Dead Man Down (2013)

Dead Man DownI only got turned onto the existence of this movie last week, and the trailer did blow me away.  It seemed like a very visually captivating piece of art in the violent crime genre.  I certainly do not feel the trailer was wholly misleading, as it does capture some of what the film has to offer, but it did give me a somewhat exaggerated expectation.  Dead Man Down is indeed a very good film from the director of the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev, with a slow building substance and good performances.  It felt like it was giving me a different approach to the revenge film archetype focusing more on the emotional depth of those affected by these tragedies instead of delving into the clichéd Death Wish type of scenario.  I do have some critiques to levy against the movie, partly due to expectations, but in general, I did find some enjoyment with Dead Man Down.

Victor (Colin Farrell), a rising gangland player, has infiltrated the crime empire run by ruthless kingpin Alphonse (Terrence Howard), with the single purpose of making Alphonse pay for destroying his once happy life.  As he meticulously orchestrates his vengeance from his high-rise home, Victor watches and is watched by Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a mysterious young woman who lives in the apartment across from his. On the surface a fragile woman-child, Beatrice seethes with a rage of her own.  When she uncovers Victor’s dark secrets, she threatens to expose him unless he helps her carry out her own campaign of retribution.  Each fixated on avenging the past, they devise a violent and cathartic plan that could change their worlds forever.

As I said, this film focuses on its emotionally and physically scarred victims of injustice instead of shoot ‘em up action.  That’s what really captivated me about the film as it went on.  It does take a while for the film to get into the depth of our protagonists, but that ultimately fits with the film’s style.  It slowly builds the relationship between Victor and Beatrice from a fractured need for violent retribution to something far more of the heart and soul.  This slow development might not be for everyone, but I did enjoy those moments when the film arrived at them.  The gradual progression paid off well, and that’s mainly due to the very good performances and the quality of the direction.

While I’ve rarely seen the potential of Colin Farrell fully realized on film, I’ve had a lot of faith in his talent, and I like seeing him in films.  There are a few I do need to see where he is very charismatic and potentially wildly entertaining.  In this film, we get subtlety and depth.  We, firstly, see the glimpses into his character’s pain.  The tragic loss he has endured is shown through in very touching moments of him watching a home movie of his family.  Where the standard action revenge film has the lead essentially turning into the Punisher, this film highlights the pain within and deals with the substantive choices of the heart and mind that these actions have.  What we see grow out of the relationship with Beatrice is indeed a rediscovery of humanity for him.  Colin Farrell really made me feel the anguish of the love Victor forges with Beatrice.  It’s genuine and touching, and it’s what makes the film worthwhile.

Noomi Rapace is equally excellent.  I felt for Beatrice possibly even more than Victor.  Her life has also been shattered, but she is left with the physical scars to always remind her of what she’s lost.  The injustice she has faced is internally and externally crippling.  The neighborhood kids assault her, insult her by calling her “monster.”  Her pain evokes sympathy at every turn, and her screaming at Victor to give her revenge is something we cannot fault her for.  Rapace puts in a beautiful performance of heartbreaking depth, but also, we see that heart mend along the way.  She and Farrell do work very well together striking a substantive emotional chord that resonates.  I was emotionally effected several times during their most painful and poignant scenes together.  With the direction of Niels Arden Oplev, these scenes are given weight and prominence through fine cinematography and effective use of music.

Now, I also really like Terrence Howard as an actor.  I’ve seen him in enough to really enjoy his charisma and intelligence.  As Alphonse, he does carry some very good weight.  It’s not a powerhouse performance, but he does get his scenes to shine in.  He can be ruthless and cunning as well as a little bit intimidating.  I did like what he did in this role, but I do feel there could’ve been more added to him.  While we know what he has done to deserve this methodical campaign of torment and revenge, we never really see him doing anything on-screen to further that perception of a vile, cold blooded crime lord.  Alphonse does still have people he answers to in the hierarchy of organized crime, but we certainly get the impression he is substantially formidable.  I feel Howard’s best scene is when he meets with Victor to have him weed out the one responsible for this torment.  It’s an excellently staged, shot, and acted scene that I wish went on a little longer.  I felt it ended a little abruptly, but nonetheless, it is a stellar scene that I really liked.

The film also has some nice small performances by Armand Assante as Alphonse’s boss, and F. Murray Abraham as Victor’s Hungarian father-in-law.  Both actors bring their best quality forward to really give some strong support to these minor but no less pertinent characters.  Abraham certainly has more screentime to work with, and more emotional content to convey.  All the rest of the supporting cast does a really fine job.  No weak links here at all.

What action scenes there are in Dead Man Down are well done.  I particularly liked the chase / escape scene after Victor’s sniper attack.  It’s very well conceived and executed with stellar results.  While there is handheld camera work here, the editing is relatively conservative allowing for the geography of the action to be maintained.  I was never lost in these sequences.  The visual grammar was very solid and flowed nicely.  As always, that’s partly due to a very good editor that knows the right way to let the action play out in a coherent fashion.  The rest of it is an intelligent director and a damn good director of photography in the form of Paul Cameron.  He has previously worked with Michael Mann on Collateral and Tony Scott on Man on Fire.  Both films had very different styles, but were both helmed by filmmakers who knew how to competently and intelligently shoot action and hefty drama.  Dead Man Down is no different as it is very well shot with its own grounded style, but with special artistic touches that I found very intriguing and visually enjoyable.

The score by Jacob Groth, a regular collaborator with Oplev, is very well done accentuating the emotional strengths of the film.  Generally speaking, his work here is very effective and sets the right tones at the right times.  Not much really stood out, but his score was very pivotal in enhancing the moments of the film that hit my strongly on an emotional level.  I think that says plenty.  In the context of the movie, there’s only a single rap song, and that’s from the outset shootout sequence.  Admittedly, I am not a fan of that genre of music, but it was used quite well and I enjoyed its momentary inclusion.

The story we have here is presented and executed quite well.  While it did take a while to get me to a point where I connected with it, emotionally, it’s great once it does get there.  We finally get into the meat of the story that’s unfolding here, and I do believe Niels Arden Oplev does quite a good job at telling that story.  He never really rushes through anything.  He takes the time for the weight of the characters and their actions to be absorbed by the audience.  We get to understand what’s happening beneath the surface of these characters.  While I was never wholly energized by the film, I was engaged by it.  I do wish that the film delivered more on the artistic visual awe that I was ensnared by in the trailer, but as it is, I did generally enjoy what I experienced.

However, the main critique I have against the film is that the film really felt like it was building towards something more substantive and emotionally powerful than the climax it gave us.  Simply put, without delving into spoilers, we essentially get a straight up action sequence that more than borders on your standard action revenge film climax.  It’s not a badly done sequence, but it wasn’t mind blowing either.  That’s the one thing the trailer really drove me towards expecting – action scenes presented in an artistic, mind blowing fashion.  Something that would be visually beautiful while maintaining a graceful substance of emotion.  Thus, the climax left me underwhelmed.  It gives us a moment or two of substance, but aside from the initial fiery slow motion explosion, it’s generally your standard action film climax with gunfire everywhere and splashy stunts to jump start it all.  It felt a little shallow for a film that had so much depth, and a tad cliché for something that seemed to give us a fresher perspective on the revenge thriller idea.  I also felt that what happens to Alphonse was a little too much out of a B-grade action movie because it allowed for no emotional poignancy for the characters or story.  I think the film demanded something with more dramatic weight and emotional satisfaction.  Again, the climactic action sequence is well made, but from the artistic point of view, it left me wanting something more substantive.

I would buy Dead Man Down when it hits DVD.  I think it has enough admirable and valuable qualities that I could enjoy watching it again.  The performances are quite solid all around delving us into a realistic well of emotion.  The development of the love between Victor and Beatrice is beautifully done with two excellent actors really digging down deep to pull at my heartstrings a few times.  The film only has about three action scenes in it, and they are all well done.  Still, it is not something to expect a lot of excitement or high charisma for.  If there’s anything that does deter anyone from it, I believe it is that fact.  The film deals with subtle, grounded performances with a gradual pace that does pay off, but might leave some audiences cold.  You’re either going to become invested in these characters or you are not, and if not, then there’s really little else to engage your attention.  Now, you may notice a peculiar WWE Studios logo attached to this film, as in the professional wrestling company.  I really believe that’s only there because one of their wrestlers, Wade Barrett, has a very minor role as a mafia henchman.  He has maybe three or four lines in the whole movie, and is mostly background muscle in a suit.  WWE Studios likely had next to no creative input on this film as it’s certainly far above their low grade, cheap schlock standards.  Don’t let that peculiar logo at the start of the film throw you off.  Dead Man Down is mostly very good, but overall, it’s just pretty good.  Regardless of my trailer induced expectations, it does have a few shortcomings with the climax and the lack of a particular emotional veracity, but if any of what I’ve conveyed to you is to your tastes, I feel the movie is worth checking out in one form or another with the right set of expectations.


Punisher: War Zone (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Deception (2008)

DeceptionI’ve really liked this film ever since its theatrical release.  It didn’t get good reviews, and was a bomb taking in only $17 million out of its $25 million budget.  It continues to show me that while I may love erotic thrillers, they are rarely marketable to a mass audience.  However, the sexual aspects of this film are a backdrop for what I view as a fairly solid twisting thriller.  What engages me about Deception are the performances of its leads in Hugh Jackman, Ewan McGregor, and Michelle Williams, and the rich, stunning neo noir cinematography by Danté Spinotti.  The latter is no surprise as he has shot many Michael Mann films including Manhunter and Heat.  I find Deception to be an intriguing thriller that is heavily aided by that striking visual atmosphere, and some smart directing from Marcel Langenegger.

Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) is an auditor in Manhattan, moving from office to office checking the books of various companies.  While working late, a smooth, well-dressed lawyer named Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) chats Jonathan up, offers him a joint, and soon they’re pals.  Jonathan is a very lowly, modest man, but Wyatt soon opens him up to a world of pleasurable desires and sexual confidence.  When their cell phones are accidentally swapped, Jonathan answers Wyatt’s phone to a series of women asking if he’s free tonight.  He soon discovers it’s a sex club where busy, powerful people meet each other anonymously in hotels for discrete encounters.  However, he fully breaks all the rules when he falls for one of the club members, whom he knows only as “S” (Michelle Williams), whom he’s also seen on a subway.  Yet, during an intimate night out, she goes missing, patterns emerge, and Jonathan faces demands involving violence, murder, treachery, and a large sum of money.

An excellent neo noir tone of mystery and isolation is struck right from the beginning with the quiet and moody opening title sequence.  It’s just Jonathan sitting in a conference room, alone, late at night, but the vibe just sinks in very deeply to establish his isolated nature.  He’s isolated from the world around him, always removed from the activity of the offices he’s working at, and has no real social life to speak of.  The film is very regularly set in at nighttime inside clubs, hotels, offices, taxicabs, and elsewhere allowing for that dark, subversive tone to seep in.  However, even the daytime scenes have a certain drained quality that maintain that atmosphere.  The visual tone eases up just enough in those moments allowing you to not get bogged down by the visual darkness.  What we get, overall, is a multi-toned film that moves from that lonely isolation to a lively and exciting world that is full of mysterious passion, but then, segues into a very heartfelt romantic connection that becomes the emotionally motivating element of the story.  From there, it delves fully into the tense and threatening first, main twist of the film where our villain reveals his true colors.

Within only fifteen minutes, the film establishes a strong relationship between Jonathan and Wyatt.  It hits all the right beats fleshing out their personalities with quick, substantive exchanges, and showing us how Wyatt just pushes Jonathan out far enough to take some chances.  He opens Jonathan’s mind to being outgoing and perceiving the pleasures that one can indulge in, when the opportunities arise.  This then sets Jonathan off on his own seductive, sexually charged encounters that really liven up his life.  The sex and nudity are never raunchy.  Everything has a beauty, vigor, and sensual quality that is very elegant and classy.  We are given context for this anonymous sex club as it is something for the excessively busy successful person to gain “intimacy without intricacy,” as Charlotte Ramplings’ Wall Street Belle states to Jonathan.  Still, for someone like Maggie Q’s Tina, there’s a compulsion to the danger of being with someone mysterious and anonymous.  It has an attraction and outlet for almost anyone, and for Jonathan, it builds a more confident man.  However, as I said, the erotic elements are merely a backdrop, a facilitating plot element that surrounds the film, but never dominates it.  They tie directly back into the plot regularly, and the sex scenes are never gratuitous.  They all serve a purpose towards the development of the story or characters.  Most erotic thrillers use sex scenes as frivolously as many lower grade action films use action sequences.  When they have relevance to the story, they work, but when they are just there to fill the skin quota, that’s when you’ve got a late night Skinemax flick.  Deception surely and thankfully fits into the former category.

Furthermore, there is nothing wasted in the run time of this film.  The pace is tight with an even rhythm and stellar editing.  The plot develops very organically, and progresses without a hitch.  It’s never too brisk to sacrifice character, but never lags at the cost of the story.  Every aspect of the characters and plot fit in snugly, and propel the narrative forward in every scene.  The filmmakers knew how far to weave their plot threads, and never stretched them out or rushed through anything.  It’s all evenly balanced to achieve the right pace.  The story is rather lean, and maybe some would prefer a little more proverbial meat on the bone of the script.  However, it really didn’t require or demand more.  What we are given works very well giving us enough substance to make this a full narrative, and avoiding any over complicated indulgences or dragged out sections of the film.  We are given a few well placed twists that are well earned, and more importantly, are setup with care and intelligence.  The little seeds of knowledge are laid out here and there to make the deceptions solid and convincing.  All the qualities of the narrative flow together very smoothly and smartly.  The second half of the film shows Jonathan’s development as he has the confidence to take action against Wyatt, and become a more capable protagonist when under pressure.  I also think the development of the romantic relationship between Jonathan and S is done beautifully, and brings a warm levity to the right parts of the film.  This really sets the film apart from other seductive thrillers as they rarely feature a genuinely decent and charming romantic storyline.  Ultimately, it is this element that the film is most concerned with, and does continue to make it a point of importance for the characters.

Ewan McGregor is an actor that I have a true fondness for.  While I haven’t seen many of his movies, I do find him an exceptional talent who always shows dedication and enthusiasm for his work.  As Jonathan McQuarry, he demonstrates a very modest quality.  He’s clearly a man of humble upbringings that’s never been adventurous or daring.  His new sexual experiences do energize him, but don’t taint the man he is underneath.  He matures into a fuller person not held back by his old timid hesitations, but never loses the decency and heart that define him.  When he meets and gets to know S, he is genuinely enamored by her in a touching, heartfelt way.  McGregor embodies these endearing qualities authentically and with all the kind-hearted charm possible.  There’s nothing disingenuous about his performance.  It all comes straight from the heart, and when Jonathan’s forced into the more adversarial aspects of the film, the tension and fearful weight of the plot are carried wonderfully by him.  He makes for an engaging and sympathetic protagonist.

I am also highly impressed by Hugh Jackman here, as I usually am.  He’s also an actor I believe has incredible talent, and he really sinks his teeth into this role.  He starts out as a somewhat charming individual who enjoys indulging in all the lustful pleasures of life.  He’s charismatic and quite the arrogant jackass, but he’s able to ensnare Jonathan out of his shell with temptations of new, daring experiences.  Despite Wyatt’s abrasive ego, you are able to accept him as an intriguing instigator of excitement in Jonathan’s life.  Now, I don’t believe I’ve seen Jackman portray a full-on villain before, but he is intensely intimidating as one here.  His manipulative turn later in the film is dark and devilish.  There’s enough mystery about his character to make him threatening, but when you find out what he is capable of, that only backs up and enhances the severe, frightening qualities of Jackman’s character and performance.  Overall, I think he relished playing every facet of this character, and it really shows through while never betraying the grounded weight of the film.  Being a producer on the movie I’m sure only benefitted the quality of his on-screen work.

Michelle Williams puts on a beautiful performance, reflecting her own gorgeous physical beauty.  She brings out a warm, soulful depth of heart to S.  She just glows on screen with her bright smile and sweet presence.  She also presents a sexually confident woman who is sensual and seductive, but not aggressive.  Williams has a sparkling, heartfelt chemistry with Ewan McGregor that is the shining quality of this film.  They play off each other with such genuine loving emotion that you truly feel how special this is for both characters.  She is able to convey a rich array of emotions that really forge a connection with the audience in relation to Jonathan.  She is a vibrant ray of light that gives this film an endearing emotional weight that we are regularly reminded of, and really has resonance in the end.

The score was done by Ramin Djawadi, who also later scored the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House, and he is amazingly consistent in his style and quality.  As I mentioned in my Safe House review, his compositions are very evocative of the scores heard in many Michael Mann films such as Collateral.  Meshed with Spinotti’s cinematography, that couldn’t have created a more desirable result for me.  Djawadi does an impeccable job layering in tension, suspense, and an alluring, elegant mystique to the film.  It’s just a work of excellence, in my view, and I’m glad to experience his work regularly on the TV series Person of Interest.  He puts so much depth and lush sensuality into the Deception score, and I highly recommend checking out the soundtrack release.

Deception was partially shot on digital video giving a bold, clear visual quality to all these dark environments, and this film pushes the visual darkness to a new, deep level.  The strip club scene early on has rich, pristine colors.  Yet, other scenes are more muted mostly utilizing soft greens and ambers to evoke a very inviting visual mood.  Danté Spinotti’s cinematography just makes such gorgeous use of color, as he’s been doing since Manhunter, and his camera work and compositions are stunningly beautiful.  This man makes art out of every frame using light, shadow, movement, and depth of field to masterful extent and detail.  The Chinatown sequence is a special favorite of mine that motivated me to visit Chicago’s Chinatown shortly after the film’s release.  The Chinese architecture and visual culture really creates a romantic mystique for Jonathan and S’s most engaging encounter.  Deception has a visual style that really is a feast and a pleasure for my eyes.  It sets my artistic filmmaking imagination on fire.  Now, I will admit that the first few times I saw the movie, the scenes in Spain at the end left me wanting from a visual standpoint.  The rest of the movie was so rich with seductive atmosphere and shadowy moodiness that the soft, muted quality of the daytime scenes in Spain didn’t do much for me.

The ending in general, story wise, left me a bit unsatisfied for a while as well.  I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that the film deserved a stronger, more intense pay-off.  It could’ve used a more personal and emotionally charged comeuppance in light of everything that Jackman’s character had done.  On early viewings, it did lack an especially impactful punctuation to that aspect of the story.  Ultimately, it’s focused on the relationship between Jonathan and S, and I can surely accept that as a vital part of the story.  I just felt that the ending we got just didn’t have as much resonance as I would have wanted between McGregor and Jackman.  I’m not sure what that resolution would be, but it seemed like it needed a little more build up and pay-off.  Of course, on repeated viewings, I have been able to easily accept it by way of familiarity.  I still would prefer a stronger resolution to the adversarial conflict of the film, but I can enjoy the film quite well as it is today.

Regardless of this, I still feel that screenwriter Mark Bomback, along with creative input by director Marcel Langenegger, put together a very well crafted and sharply written script.  The characters are fully developed and vibrantly inhabit this world and the story, and the plot is tightly wrapped around them.  I think the character of Jonathan McQuarry has a wonderful arc that allows him to fully break free of his meek shell, and into a bright world of possibilities.  Yet, he has to trudge through a dangerous and seductive world to get there, but it’s an evolution that he earns.  The deceptions that weave into the story are very cleverly threaded, and culminate in some chilling, intimidating moments that sell the danger Jonathan becomes trapped in.  It’s surely not the greatest mystery of all time, but for someone that just cannot write a mystery to save his life, I have to commend someone when they achieve a rather intelligently written manipulative tale.

So, the big critics didn’t like it, and many didn’t care to give it a chance.  I’m not saying it’s some unsung gem of cinema, but Deception is a fine film handled with care by a lot of exceptional filmmaking talents.  I really like the narrative it tells, and the qualities of emotion and heart it focuses on in our loving leads.  Unlike many dark, edgy, and dangerous thrillers, it doesn’t delve you into the gritty violence or erotic sleaze.  It’s an elegantly made film enveloped in a very shadowy, sultry world of treachery and passion.  If you have an appreciation for neo noir, I highly recommend this film for the gorgeous, brilliant cinematography alone.  Still, there’s plenty to enjoy and find beauty in, and being a major fan of crime thrillers, I’m very pleased to see this film go into some different directions and find something other than fractured souls and tragic crimes.  Of course, that clearly means I’m going to have to review some more Michael Mann movies shortly.


Highlander: The Final Dimension (1994)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Skyfall (2012)

Usually, these introductions are the first thing I write in these reviews, but this time, I had to write the whole thing before collecting my thoughts for this.  I will say that Casino Royale is my favorite James Bond movie to date, and this film did not change that.  The previous Bond film, Quantum of Solace, has been admitted by the handlers of the franchise to be a real misstep that they intended to rectify with this film.  Unfortunately, I do have some points of criticism to levy against Skyfall from a first act that did not grab me to some tonal issues to a prominent character plot point that oddly disappears.  However, overall, the film is masterfully executed with a very strong and deeply personal story with one of the best Bond villains I’ve ever seen.  So, get ready for one of my infamously long in-depth reviews.  There’s a lot to talk about on both the positive and critical side of things.

007 (Daniel Craig) becomes M’s only ally as MI6 comes under attack, and a mysterious new villain emerges with a diabolical plan.  James Bond’s latest mission has gone horribly awry, resulting in the exposure of several undercover agents, and an all-out attack on M16.  Meanwhile, as M (Judi Dench) plans to relocate the agency, emerging Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) raises concerns about her competence while attempting to usurp her position, and Q (Ben Whishaw) becomes a crucial ally.  Now, the only person who can restore M’s reputation is 007.  Operating in the dark with only field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to guide him, the world’s top secret agent works to root out an enigmatic criminal mastermind and cyber-terrorist named Silva (Javier Bardem) as a major storm brews on the horizon.

Okay, I do have to start out with how the film had me doubting it first before I get into how it grabbed me.  While the pre-credits sequence has some nice bits, it ultimately left me unsatisfied as it featured next to nothing innovative or rousing that wasn’t spoiled in the trailers.  It has plenty of action, but it just didn’t have a high level of tension or dire circumstances for it to really do much for me.  Of course, things could have turned around if the film had a very inspiring theme song or amazing title sequence.  I have to admit that I just cannot stand the music of Adele.  It bores me and grates on my nerves.  The only reason I’ve heard her music is because it’s part of the mind searing music that plays incessantly at my place of employment.  Her title song for Skyfall could’ve put me to sleep.  It’s a dull thud of a song that offers no vibrancy, beauty, or diversity.  To my ears, it was monotone droning like she didn’t care, and neither did I.  The title sequence itself did nothing for me.  It seemed like an over thought menagerie of random images that had little to no coherence or context.  The digital animation wasn’t very good either.  After you’ve seen the whole film, some of the visuals make sense, but I think the visual tone was drastically off with no clear, direct focus.  I’d sooner take a generic or bland opening title sequence like The Living Daylights or Licence to Kill than one that just gets it all wrong.

From there, the film took a while to energize its plot.  MI6 gets blown up, M is facing bureaucratic pressure from her failures, and Bond comes back worse for wear.  These are surely steps the film needed to take, but it didn’t build momentum.  What finally jump started the film for me was the Shanghai sequence.  Personally, this is the most gorgeous part of the whole film.  Bond stalks Patrice, the man he was chasing at the start of the film, and it is inside a skyscraper which is all lit, at night, by brilliant neon glows reflected in an environment of pure glass.  It’s the most neo noir sequence I’ve seen since Blade Runner, and that is exactly the sort of visual style that excites me.  These visuals set a very captivating, dark, and subversive atmosphere.  The ensuing fight between Bond and the assassin Patrice is excellent.  Glass cracking and shattering all around them created a fantastic visual feast that ends on a very precarious, intriguing, and deadly note.  This beautiful cinematography carries over when Bond travels to Macau to further his investigation with a more Asian aesthetic and golden light saturating every frame.

This beauty and so much more is due to the work of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins.  Alongside director Sam Mendes, he creates a picture with amazing visuals and a very strong, personal scope.  The film does look absolutely stunning with beautiful and powerful compositions, highlighting the dramatic weight and action perfectly.  This is a strong turnaround from the bad shaky cam and quick editing incompetence of Quantum of Solace.  Here, the action is handled with more than competence.  It is handled intelligently never resorting to cheap tricks to make them intense or dangerous.  While some of the desaturated visuals aren’t really stimulating for me, they are dead-on reflections of the bleak and dire tone for this story.  Shots displaying the wide open, cold terrain of Scotland are gorgeous and display plenty of depth.  For me, the visuals really do excel in the darker settings where light and shadow are used to gloriously beautiful effect.  Overall, Deakins continues to solidify his artistic reputation with the immaculate quality of this picture.  What’s most startling is that not one frame of film was used to shoot this movie.  Deakins shot is all digitally, and I challenge anyone to tell the difference between this and a high quality film presentation.  Not once did this strike me as a digitally shot movie, but in retrospect, the bold clarity, especially in those dark environments, could only be produced via a digital format.

Skyfall does go darker and more grim with its story and tone.  While the previous two Daniel Craig outings were gritty, visceral, and personal in nature, this digs so much deeper.  While there is definitely a deeply penetrating personal quality for Bond here, this film takes great advantage of Judi Dench’s M.  Silva is a villain directed at her, specifically.  He challenges everything that she is, decisions she has made which parallel those she has made with Bond, and forces her to confront the consequences of her actions.  However, these are not decisions she regrets or ever thought twice about, but are ones that Silva holds against her for turning him into what he is now.  He feels there’s some penance to be done for them both, but she concretely does not share that sentiment.  Adding in a personal vendetta for the villain makes him immensely more dangerous as he will stop at nothing, will short no extent to see her dead and disgraced.

Javier Bardem creates for us one of the most fascinating and brilliantly conceived villains of the franchise.  The first thing I have to note is Silva’s very obvious homoeroticism.  This is blatantly on display in his first meeting with Bond, and it’s almost like, “I can’t believe they went there.”  It’s just the fact that the filmmakers allowed him to go so far as to where innuendo would not be an appropriate term for his behavior.  Even then, Bond plays along with him for a moment.  It’s a very surprising interaction between them.  Yet, this aspect seems to work for the character giving him a very effeminate and uncomfortable manner reflecting that he is an enemy who knows our heroes intimately.  He knows their secrets, and knows how to exploit every bit of knowledge he has on them.  He wants to get in under their skin and twist them around as badly as he has been.  The sort of A View To A Kill Max Zorin blonde hair on the Spanish Bardem also creates a unique, off-beat style for him.  It further pushes his enigmatic, unpredictable personality which is based in how thoroughly he has planned things out ahead of anyone’s anticipation.  It strikes me now what other people have been talking about with this film’s parallels to The Dark Knight.  That’s exactly the sort of villain the Joker was – unpredictable, intelligent, and a man who thoroughly planned out a complex series of events to get himself exactly where he wanted to be, unexpectedly turning the heroes’ victories into grave failures.  Director Sam Mendes did state that Christopher Nolan’s film did have definite influence on Skyfall, and however you want to take it, I think it was an effective and beneficial influence.  It certainly had impact on the tone and visual quality of the film.

Once again, Daniel Craig gives us a Bond that has depth, and is once again a wounded man.  He portrays these detailed, emotional qualities very well while mixing in some traditional Bond wit and suaveness.  He seems to be very comfortable with this more fleshed out and developed Bond.  Craig excellently balances the fun and charismatic aspects of the character with the more grounded, hardened qualities.  He still projects confidence for the future of the franchise under his tenure.

Although, the wounded man aspect of Bond having clearly lost a step is completely abandoned as soon as Silva is captured less than halfway through the film.  He’s apparently worked through it without showing us, and is more of an aspect by the filmmakers used to subvert Silva once Bond is in his lair.  This is surely not a fault of Craig’s performance, but the fact that the film can only focus on so much for so long.  During the time it is part of the plot, it is very good, and explored with plenty of nuance and emotional depth by Craig.  It’s only a shame that it wasn’t a constant element of the story to give Bond something more to deal with and overcome while battling an enemy that is several steps ahead of everyone while Bond has actually lost a few.  It’s certainly teased with, but it evaporates a few minutes later when Bond single handedly guns down about a half dozen henchman in a matter of seconds.  He’s suddenly back to one hundred percent, and I think that was a missed opportunity that is never properly resolved, just glossed over.

I do like that the filmmakers have increasingly given Judi Dench more to do as M, and made her a more integral part of Bond’s development.  They have a very real and honest relationship that has built up a strong foundation for 007.  Judi Dench is unsurprisingly excellent here.  Skyfall gives her more than ever to work with, for very good reasons, and she handles everything perfectly.  Her scenes opposite Bardem as intriguing and compelling.  It’s great seeing the reverse side of her M who is usually a very confident and tough woman be faced with real fear.  It’s a situation that she’s not capable of dealing with hands-on, but it’s surely not for a lack of trying.  Dench gives a memorable performance that leaves an indelible impact on the franchise.

While Skyfall does have Bond girls, they don’t play a prominent role in the film for very long.  The most forefront of the two is Naomie Harris as Eve.  She develops a seductive relationship with Bond that results in a few very sensual moments.  Harris and Craig have good chemistry, and that is quite important when you reach the film’s ending.  She will be a recurring character, and Harris is quite capable of the role she was given, maybe even overqualified depending on what they do with her.  She does a fine job, but there’s not much for me to comment on without revealing major spoilers.

On the more dangerous side, I really liked what Bérénice Lim Marlohe did with Sévérine, the provocative lady Bond meets in Shanghai and Macau.  Firstly, she is very seductive, a true femme fatale with a wonderful edge and elegance.  That accent is so enrapturing as well, and she really slinks her way through that casino and into Bond’s attention.  Then, Bond digs deeper into her to reveal how truly terrified she is of Silva.  Marlohe sells this petrifying fear so concretely and realistically.  While her role is ultimately rather small in the overall movie, she does an exceptionally stunning job.  And yes, this film has its marvelously sexy moments that are pure Bond bravado and sensuality.  The only thing that wasn’t well put across with this character, which is a definite spoiler, is the certainty of whether or not Silva actually did kill her.  It was far too implied as the moment is handled too artistically, and that we never see her up-close after the gunshot.  I kept thinking she was a loose thread in the film that I was waiting to see tied up at some point.  It’s not like Bond to just stand there to watch someone innocent get murdered when he demonstrates a minute later how entirely capable he is of gunning down and disarming everyone there.  He could’ve save her life and captured Silva at the same time.  Of course, earlier on, Bond stands by as he watches Patrice use a sniper rifle to kill a random somebody.  So, that confused me too.  Thankfully, the internet cleared this issue up for me, and confirmed that Silva did shoot and skill Sévérine.

Moving on, I have zero problems with the casting of Ralph Fiennes.  While my only exposure to his work is Strange Days, that’s more than enough to get me excited for his inclusion here.  His character of Gareth Mallory might seem like a hard ass, a potential bureaucratic adversary, but through the film, he gradually shows that he is more ally than adversary.  He really takes a massive leap forward in the likability factor while protecting M in a firefight.  As always, Fiennes does a remarkable job, and I think the franchise would be well off to keep him around.

Skyfall finally revives the role of Q with a much younger and more soft spoken portrayal by Ben Whishaw.  He feels very authentic showcasing someone that is very highly proficient with modern computers and technology.  He only gives Bond two gadgets – a radio transmitter homing beacon, and a Walther PPK with a sensor that is fitted to 007’s handprint so that only he can use it.  Yet, Q becomes more vital later on when tracking the escaped Silva via security cameras, and then, laying an electronic trail for Silva to follow out to Scotland for the final confrontation.  Whishaw gives us a character that is very modern and highly relatable as a technologically savvy hipster.  While he is more low key than Desmond Llewellyn or John Cleese, he still has plenty of witty exchanges with Bond that are quite enjoyable.  I won’t spoil anything.  However, Skyfall does gives us back all of those Bond regulars at MI6 that have been absent in the Daniel Craig films, and it does it in a very clever and refreshed way.

Now, aside from that pre-credits sequence, which left me a little flat, the action scenes of Skyfall are ultimately very impressive.  Director Sam Mendes had not done anything action oriented before, but he shows a great skill for it here.  Tension and suspense surround them due to the plot driven implications, and that enhances the danger immensely.  Bond gets into plenty of tight situations, but is able to use his confident ingenuity to slip out of them.  Surely, the Shanghai sequence is my favorite of the movie because of its visual style.  However, there is not a sequence with Silva that is not exciting and riveting.  Because he has planned things out so thoroughly and so far in advance, there is an unpredictability to everything he does.  He’s never truly cornered until the very end of the film, and that sells his intelligence and threat level enormously.  There is one massively tense sequence after Silva has escaped that is masterfully done.  Silva springs a surprise on Bond, and gets a long head start towards his goal of killing M.  The tension and emotional peril is at a sharp peak.  What we get is an amazing firefight that manages to a solidly further develop a few characters, and throw all things out of whack for Silva.  This is a brilliantly executed section of the film where anything could happen, and you know it.

The climax is very unconventional for a Bond film where our heroes are holed up in the old Bond family estate named Skyfall.  Setting up traps and secret explosives does both have a classic Bond idea behind it, but with a more gritty, low tech approach.  This is a very long and full sequence that continually ups the scale with larger explosions, more dire situations, and higher tension as Silva closes in on his target.  It really is one of the best action scenes I’ve witnessed this year, and really holds to the visceral style of Daniel Craig’s James Bond.  I found the ending to be very original and effective on many levels.  I didn’t expect this ending, but it was indeed great, regardless.  It has emotional power and resonance for the character of James Bond.  It also sets up new possibilities for Daniel Craig’s run with the character, and does so with a very sly, signature Bond style.

Skyfall is eventually an expertly crafted film that goes deep beneath the surface of its main characters, and takes us to some especially personal places, literally, than I ever expected from a Bond film.  Rarely has much been delved into about James Bond’s family and heritage, but this takes us to where James grew up and tells us many insights into the young man he was before and after his parents tragically died.  It’s great to see the relationship between Bond and M become more personally intertwined, and pay off a lot of what Craig and Dench have done over these three films.

Thus, we have a Bond film that is very different from all others with its more grim, dark tone that focuses on the personal, character driven drama primarily.  All the talent on display is superb in the acting, artistic, and technical departments.  Aside from those first twenty to thirty minutes where the film is unable to gain traction with its plot, it’s a solid piece of filmmaking that will undoubtedly be heralded as a success by most.

Perhaps you can anticipate that there is a catch I’m getting to here, and here it is.  For as exquisitely executed as this film is, the element of fun entertainment is not very high.  While I left the theatre very satisfied with what I just saw, on a dramatic and action level, I don’t see myself gravitating towards watching it over and over again like Casino Royale.  Again, while the film has some amazing action, there’s not that thrilling adrenalin rush high that I got with The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill, GoldenEye, or Casino Royale.  What allowed for that in those movies, at least, was levity and charm.  It’s all about tone allowing an audience to be invested in the suspense, but being able to rejoice in the elation of triumph.  While Skyfall certainly has its good, fun moments, they are just a few moments.  Because of the grim tone, it’s hard for the film to break free into something that feels enjoyably exciting instead of urgently dire.  It can’t have much fun with itself, and when it tries, it feels distinctly out of place.  Case in point is that whenever the film delves into a moment of quirkiness to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise, it really disrupts the film’s generally serious tone.  It takes a self-indulgent step outside of itself to poke fun at the conventions of the franchise.  Some moments are more smoothly handled than others, and it is done immensely better than the fortieth anniversary campiness of Die Another Day.  Yet, while on the run from Silva, Bond takes his vintage Connery era Aston Martin out of storage, and comically threatens to use the ejector seat button on M if she insists on complaining throughout the ride.  It is an entirely extraneous silly bit that would’ve been more in place in Die Another Day, and this film would’ve been just that much more consistently credible without it.  Also, when Bond fights off a trio of bodyguards in the Macau casino, he falls into a pit featuring a CGI komodo dragon.  While it plays only a small part in the scene, a film of its grim, dark tone didn’t need a computer generated lizard in a cheeky humorous bit of dragging a bodyguard off to his death.  This is more self-indulgent behavior to poke fun at the franchise when a real tribute would be the make the best, most consistent film you could.  Don’t dilute the tonal integrity of the film by throwing in these nostalgic gags, please.  It would be like The Dark Knight taking inappropriate moments to pay tribute to the Adam West 1960s Batman television series.  They don’t mesh at all.  Skyfall does slightly self-sabotage itself with its heavy tone in making it very difficult to get enjoyable fun of it.  It is highly thrilling and dramatically powerful, but it cannot ease up on the tone to make things fun without making those moments seem out of place.

For as much as I went on about those last bits, they are not a large part of the film, but they were sore thumbs to me.  Most any Bond film I’ve seen, good or bad, has usually been a fun ride, but as I said, this is a very different style of film for the franchise.  I believe Skyfall is a really damn good movie, but I won’t be saying it’s the best Bond of them all.  Casino Royale still ranks as my favorite for many reasons, which I hope to get to in its own review.  That film meshed the fun and gritty aspects perfectly with enough charisma to make it a rousing adventure with personal and emotional depth to spare.  Skyfall goes fully for the darker tone, and director Sam Mendes executes that tone amazingly well.  The villain we are given is greatly memorable who is fantastically written and brilliantly realized by Javier Bardem.  He’s a far more fascinating enemy than most because of his eccentricities coupled with his very personal and deadly nature.  It’s a villain that makes the film exciting and spontaneous.  You cannot predict what the next turn in the story will be because of him.  There is ultimately even more that could be said and discussed about Skyfall.  However, to boil it down simply, it might not be entirely perfect due to that “worse for wear” Bond storyline vanishing part way through, and the lack of ability to be genuinely fun, but it is a vastly successful film in delivering a bold new direction and tone for the franchise.  While Casino Royale brought James Bond back to a more grounded sensibility, Skyfall simply strips more away for a grittier and bleaker storyline.  It is a vast improvement from Quantum of Solace, but I would hope that the next Bond film eases up on the tone a little to allow for more rousing action and more appropriately fun character dynamics.  I do give Skyfall a very strong endorsement, but I don’t think it is the best of the 007 franchise.


GoldenEye (1995)

GoldenEye is the first Bond film I ever saw.  My sister has been a big Pierce Brosnan fan since Remington Steele.  So, us and some friends saw this on opening weekend, and even if there wasn’t that sentimental value, I would still call this one of the finest James Bond films I’ve ever seen.  While it’s not perfect, it excels far beyond so many others that I’ve already reviewed here, and even Brosnan’s follow-ups.

Nine years ago, British Secret Agent James Bond 007 (Pierce Brosnan) infiltrated a chemical weapons facility in Russia with friend and fellow MI-6 Agent Alec Trevelyan 006 (Sean Bean), but the mission went awry when corrupt Russian military officer General Ourumov (Gottfried John) murdered 006.  Today, Bond is assigned by his new boss, a female ‘M’ (Judi Dench) to recover GoldenEye, an orbiting Russian radiation pulse weapon that can destroy any electronic device within its blast radius.  The GoldenEye has been stolen from the Severnya research station by General Ourumov and the lethal and deadly Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), where they also slaughtered the entire staff.  However, there was a lone survivor in computer programmer Natalya Siminova (Izabella Scorupco) who Bonds seeks out in addition to the criminal figure named Janus who Ourumov and Xenia are working for.  Yet, after navigating through the Russian criminal underworld, 007 soon comes face-to-face with the man himself, revealed to be a scarred but living Alec Trevelyan who now seeks to wipe out London with GoldenEye.  With Natalya’s help, Bond races to save London from destruction as well as combat a man that knows him better than he knows himself.

GoldenEye features a great pre-credits sequence that is smart, suspenseful, and lays a strong emotional groundwork for the film, introducing two of its lead villains and our new Bond in Pierce Brosnan.  It also gives the sense of unfinished business amongst these characters which is greatly punctuated by the mysterious title song sung by Tina Turner and written by Bono and The Edge of U2.  The song feels like classic Bond with a gorgeous sound which fits Ms. Turner beautifully.  The title sequence is equally breathtaking with its fall of communism theme.  Making great use of digital effects, this is a title sequence that is able to be very ambitious with its ideas and make them pure reality.  It makes a fantastic splash to an audience that had been without new Bond for six years.

Pierce Brosnan’s Bond both embodies a serious sense of action and dramatic weight as well as a sly, suave, and fun mentality.  He’s a man that enjoys indulging himself in the finer things, and sharing some witty repartee with his friends or adversaries.  Brosnan gracefully balances the slightly immature or playful aspects of the character with the straight seriousness Bond must demonstrate as an agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  He’s sophisticated, charming, classy, and elegant.  Brosnan certainly had the charisma and sex appeal to make his portrayal exciting and fresh.  Beyond all else, Brosnan is clearly taking a lot of pleasure in his performance.

The screenwriters and especially director Martin Campbell do an excellent job of building up suspense in this story.  Plot elements are strategically and methodically laid out setting the stage for a very strong story and masterfully executed film.  It has plenty of atmosphere and dramatic tension as 007 weaves his way through the Russian criminal underworld.  What starts out seeming like a subversive plot by a man Bond harbors feelings of revenge against develops into something far more startling for 007.  Revenge is abandoned for betrayal, and the plot becomes a more dimensionally personal one for James Bond.  We get many strong moments of emotional depth from various characters.  Natalya especially shows sorrow, grief, and anger, but is able to connect with James on a very honest and passionate level.  She is able to give him perspective on his feelings of betrayal, and he is able to focus them into a very sharp and clear intent.  The script gives every featured character dimension and purpose with their own relationships.  Natalya has some payback to deliver to Boris, the Severnaya computer programmer who also works for Alec and Ourumov, and James has plenty of sordid business with Ourumov, Xenia, and certainly Alec.  It’s all woven together into a very smartly structured and interconnected plot.  No issues are left unresolved, and everyone has their moments of prominence and purpose.  Simply said, this is a great work of screenwriting with a fresh approach that brought Bond strongly and smartly into a post-Cold War world.

The filmmakers use a combination of digital, practical, and miniature effects work to create some absolutely stunning sequences.  The destruction of the Severnaya facility alone is spectacular.  While the mixture of effects are noticeable to my well trained eyes, they are still damn great.  They create a high quality look for Bond’s first foray into the 90s, and deliver on the standards that you’ve come to except from this series.

The cinematography is also excellent creating some strong atmosphere that gives the film some edge, but never gets especially heavy.  It greatly holds the dramatic weight and urgency of the story with gorgeous lighting and an expert use of angles and composition.  All of the action is shot superbly giving us a great sense of fast paced movement while never sacrificing a clear sense of geography.  This is a golden example of how to competently and thrillingly shoot an action movie.  Enhancing that is some tight, solid editing.  Further credit goes to director Martin Campbell for knowing how to assemble all of these stunning elements into an amazing, rock solid, and exciting film.

My favorite action sequence is indeed the tank chase through St. Petersburg in Russia.  Bond commandeering a Russian tank to chase after Ourumov, who has captured Natalya, is just pure Bond excess and indulgence which has its equal shares of thrills and humor.  It comes off as light-hearted and fun, but never truly silly.  Other sequences are immensely excellent defining the tone of Brosnan’s Bond, and building up a very rousing action film with plenty of consequences.  The climax is absolutely awesome with plenty of big action and fiery thrills to result in an excellent pay-off.  James and Alec battle on the satellite dish in Cuba at a very precarious height.  Both Brosnan and Bean show their immense physical condition and ability to create a very intense and dynamic fight.

GoldenEye features three very good and enjoyable villains.  I think my personal favorite is General Ourumov.  He’s perfectly underhanded and slimy.  Actor Gottfried John put a little bit of wit and humorous charisma into the role making him a lot of fun to watch.  He’s very entertaining during the tank chase where he’s drinking from a flask, obviously a little stressed out, but John maintains him as a cunning and threatening villain.  It’s only a little too bad he doesn’t make it through to the final act of the film, and gets a rather unceremonious departure.

Of course, there’s the incredible Famke Janssen as the very lustful Xenia Onatopp.  She is a very wild woman who gains sensual ecstasy, not from sexual pleasure, but from violence and murder.  Janssen puts so much vile, dangerous passion into this role that she is instantly memorable.  The fact that Xenia likes to kill men by squeezing the life out of them with her legs wrapped around them is only found in a Bond film, and enhances the sexual drive of the character.  This is the role that easily broke her career wide open, and she has enjoyed the subsequent success ever since.

This film also introduced me to Sean Bean and his fine acting talents.  I think it was a great idea to have a villain with a personal connection to James Bond, someone that was once his friend, and could be viewed as his equal in many ways.  Instead of it being a revenge motivation like in Licence to Kill, we get a story of betrayal.  Bean’s performance is almost a dark reflection of Bond, but with a more malicious, malevolent vibe instead of a sly arrogance.  The best part of Alec and James’ exchanges are how deep their words penetrate past their facades or personas.  Still, it seems Alec has the upper hand in bruising James’ soul, probably because he still has one to bruise.  Sean Bean gives us a solid Bond villain who doesn’t fall into the clichéd tropes of old.  He’s more modern and personal of a character that was a fresh, solid fit for this film.

Alan Cumming also chimes in as the very funny and charismatic Boris Grishenko.  Cumming is a marvelously diverse actor who can do practically anything, and he does it amazingly well.  As Boris, he delivers a particularly salacious character who is so entertaining that it’s hard to entirely hate him.  While he is a traitor that left Natalya to die, Cumming’s too much of a vibrant source of laughs to condemn Boris fully, but you still enjoy it when he gets his comeuppance.

On the heroic Bond girl side, Izabella Scorupco proves to be a remarkable talent who shows a wide range of emotion as Natalya.  She can be fun and endearing as well as dig down deep with the pain and grief, such as in the ruins of the Severnaya facility.  What Scorupco puts forth in those scenes is very powerful and a bit heartbreaking.  The emotion really penetrates through the screen as it flows out of every fiber of her being.  She also has plenty of strength and fire as well as compassion and vulnerability to make Natalya a very well rounded and realistic person to invest our sympathies with.  Unlike some other Bond girls, she’s not just along for the ride.  She has a strong, personal stake in everything, and is willing to fight right alongside James at every step.  Her and Brosnan have great chemistry and rhythm between them sharing in the funny, dramatic, and heartfelt moments.  They were a beautiful fit that really gives this film even more strength and weight.

Also, we get a far more satisfying performance from Joe Don Baker here as CIA contact Jack Wade than with his Bond villain turn in The Living Daylights.  He uses his charisma and comic timing to great effect making Wade a genuinely funny personality that became a welcomed returning character in Tomorrow Never Dies.  Considering Felix Leiter got his leg chomped off by a shark in the previous Bond film, the filmmakers decided to change things up with a new CIA contact for Bond, and I think they created a very fresh and entertaining character that contrasted Bond while still complementing him.

Last, but not least, Judi Dench was a brilliant choice for this role, and the idea behind the character was brilliant as well.  Making the head of MI-6 now a woman made the old Bond concepts fresh with new perspectives applied to them.  Her “M” only has two scenes early on, but she really sets a tone that challenges James Bond’s misogynistic and cavalier attitudes.  Yet, for as much as she creates friction with Bond, she also shows her compassion by wishing Bond to come back in one piece.  Dench’s character is appropriately hard when she needs to be, but soft when it counts.  Through both Brosnan and Daniel Craig, she has really developed an excellent character who has become a welcomed highlight of every Bond film for the last seventeen years.

If there’s one thing to levy against GoldenEye is the lack of the classic Bond style scope.  The bulk of the film takes place inside Russia with the final half hour in Cuba.  There are not many exotic locales, or a wide spread canvas for Bond to traverse.  Because of this, the film feels a little narrow in scope.  This was definitely rectified in Pierce Brosnan’s subsequent Bond films, but I feel those films lost the edge this film had.  While Brosnan’s performances never went down in quality, the scripts or filmmakers could never quite hit the personal or passionate nerve that GoldenEye hit for the character.  While not all Bond films need to have plots of a strongly personal nature, I think that element helps to keep the films grounded.  Die Another Day certainly tried to walk the line of personal revenge and over the top indulgence, but the latter tended to dilute the former.  So, while the scopes of the following three films were certainly broadened, the stories didn’t quite have the personal drive of GoldenEye.  While it’s not the perfect or quintessential Bond film that Brosnan could’ve made, I do feel it’s his strongest, most consistent outing.  Although, this is just my personal taste.

After such a long absence from cinemas, many questioned whether or not James Bond was still relevant after the end of the Cold War.  GoldenEye dealt with that blatantly, and answered it with a resounding “yes.”  Director Martin Campbell brought together just the right elements to make this a refreshing, revitalizing success.  It’s no wonder that he was brought back about a decade later to reboot the franchise with yet another fresh approach and tone.  With this film, Pierce Brosnan made a big impact with a James Bond that instantly won over audiences.  It returned us to the suave and sophisticated sensibilities of the character while losing none of the intense action oriented excitement that we all desire from 007.  With a great cast inhabiting some solid and entertaining characters, and a solid foundation of talent behind the camera in all departments, GoldenEye still proves to be an excellent and highly satisfying entry in this franchise.  And yes, James Bond will return, again.


From Hell (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Manhunter (1986)

In my view, there are psychological thrillers, and then, there is Manhunter.  I have never seen another movie that gets so deep inside the psyches of its protagonist and antagonist as Manhunter does.  Every element of filmmaking is used to envelop you into the psychological state of its characters, and done so with amazing depth and beauty.  Adapted from the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon by writer and director Michael Mann in 1986, this is the best film featuring Hannibal Lecter that I have seen.  I never grasped what everyone was so enthusiastic about over The Silence of the Lambs, and that was my sentiment years before I ever watched Manhunter.  I have never watched the Brett Ratner helmed re-adaptation Red Dragon, and so, you will not find any comparison between the two here.  I have plenty to explore in Manhunter alone.  This is my favorite film from Michael Mann, and I am going to tell you why.

F.B.I. Agent and criminal profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) is drawn out of retirement by friend and partner Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) to track down and capture a serial killer known as “The Tooth Fairy.”  He is named as such due to the peculiar bite marks taken off his slain victims.  To reclaim the mindset needed to delve into the psyche of this new killer, who works on a lunar cycle, Graham must tap the mind of the psychopath he captured which led to his own retirement – Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox).  Graham must come to see through the eyes of this enigmatic killer in order to anticipate his methods, motives, and actions.  The psyches of both Graham and this killer, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), are eventually put into severe conflict even putting Graham’s wife and son into danger, but most importantly, Graham’s own sanity.  If Will Graham can enter into the mind of a psychopath, can he ever come back?

This is a beautifully layered psychological film.  It’s fascinating to see the process Michael Mann has Will Graham go through to absorb himself into the psyche of this killer.  It’s a slow descent where Graham is trepidatious stepping back into this mindset, but once he’s delved in deep enough, it starts to influence his emotions and manipulate his actions.  He’s gradually connecting with the psyche of Francis Dollarhyde, slowly putting more and more pieces of the puzzle together in his mind, and by the end, there is an obsessive impulse to destroy Dollarhyde so that Graham can simply be free of him.  When Graham was hunting Hannibal Lecktor, he integrated Dr. Lecktor’s psyche so deep into his own that he had to be institutionalized to in order to be brought back to good mental health.  It was a dark, terrible place for his thoughts to be that he is afraid to allow himself to go back there. However, in order to capture this new serial killer, he has no choice but to tap Lecktor’s mind to recapture that mindset.

Still, the real Will Graham remains beneath, but remains slightly detached from himself.  Graham has heartfelt moments with his wife and son at various points in the film that allow the humanity to show through the darkness.  These are brief reprieves from the troubling case at hand, but go a long way to show that Graham has not lost himself in this killer as he did with Lecktor.  All of these fascinating facets of Will Graham are brilliantly brought to detailed, nuanced life by William Petersen.  He deeply engulfed himself in this role so much that after production had wrapped, he couldn’t shake Will Graham from his head.  He had to shave off his beard and dye his hair blonde just to shed the character fully.  That’s an unsettling example of method acting.  Petersen puts so much emotional and psychological intensity into this performance that it is mesmerizing and captivating.  You can constantly see the emotional and intellectual gears moving in his head.  Petersen’s rich facial nuances and intense eyes also perfectly display Will Graham’s conflict and development throughout the film.  He leads this film with a wide breadth of weight and deep, amazing talent.  He forges a finely detailed and dimensional character.

This might be a procedural crime thriller, but I find the psychological development of the plot to be richly exciting and fascinating.  The physical evidence is an important cog in the process, and the detail and urgent context in which these procedures are displayed make them compelling.  Michael Mann keeps them unfolding at a tight pace with sharp dialogue that quickly pushes the narrative forward.  Of course, the investigation truly comes together through the psychological methods of Will Graham.  Without Graham’s constant prodding and deconstruction of the mind of this serial killer, the pieces would never come together.  While Lecktor is someone that Graham fears, he respects Lecktor’s intellect.  Where someone else might discount or take offense to Lecktor’s manipulative or sickly unsettling perceptions, Graham understands the valuable insight.  He knows there’s something more intuitive underneath Lecktor’s words.  Still, how Graham reacts after his first meeting with Lecktor here, you see how disturbed he is allowing Lecktor into his mind at all.

I absolutely love Brain Cox’s subtle and subversive performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecktor.  Where Anthony Hopkins would later be a little more obvious and deliberately creepy, Cox slowly gets in under your skin.  He could be generally unassuming, but he can gradually deconstruct your mind right before your eyes.  He’s immensely intelligent and intimidating by way of his psychological prowess.  Yes, he is a psychopath, and certainly a sociopath.  However, the scene where Lecktor calls the office of Dr. Bloom shows how naturally charming and charismatic he is, and that is very unsettling.  Brian Cox based his performance on a real life serial killer.  Such people are usually able to blend seamlessly into society, many as charming and unassuming individuals, and to see Cox bring that quality to this fascinating role adds further intriguing layers to Lecktor.  While the character only has three scenes, he remains involved in the plot, and maintains a strong presence through much of the runtime.  Overall, I believe the magnificently talented Brian Cox put in a masterful performance that chillingly supports the intelligence of this film.

The performance of Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde makes just as major of an impact as Petersen and Cox.  His is a chilling portrayal of a fascinating and intimidating character.  His generally soft spoken voice creates an unsettling presence.  You know he is a frighteningly violent and lethal individual, and this restrained, subtle manner makes you fear for when that violent impulse is ultimately unleashed.  Michael Mann chose to leave out aspects of the character from Thomas Harris’ novel such as the Red Dragon tattoo on his torso, of which scenes were filmed with it, and much of his back story.  For Manhunter, this seems to truly work for the best.  Instead, the first half of the film is used to build him up as an anonymous threat through Graham’s investigation and psychological profiling.  When the film directly delves us into who Dollarhyde is, Noonan brings an incredible depth of emotion and internal pain to the role.  Where Lecktor is a sociopath devoid of compassion, Dollarhyde has a wealth of emotional turmoil stemming from his distorted self-perception.  Noonan’s performance reflects shame as Dollarhyde masks his face with his hands or sunglasses, and won’t allow the blind Reba to touch his face.  He’s absorbed himself into this mangled self-identity that he resents those who he perceives as having the idealized life, such as the suburban nuclear family.  This fuels his obsession as a serial killer.  Tom Noonan brings such immense power to the emotional core of this sympathetic monster, and probably more than anyone else, makes this movie as powerful and effective as it is.

Chicago native actor Dennis Farina puts in a great and strong performance as Jack Crawford.  It’s great to see how he showcases Crawford’s trust of Graham.  He rarely questions any of what Graham says or believes, but when he does, it has a purpose.  Crawford can’t fully understand the process that Will has to go through to do what he does, but he entirely respects it and understands the danger of him doing so.  He essentially goes to Will Graham as a last resort.  It’s also great seeing that Farina is able to keep up with Petersen’s intensity at times.  Late in the film when time, as well as patience, has run short, both Crawford and Graham are jumping down each other’s throats.  Crawford’s accepting defeat this time out, but Graham’s gone too far to accept that at all.  Still, you see the loyalty and faith return in Farina’s performance as Graham begins to puts the final pieces together.  I like the compassion and concern in his performance as Crawford tries to hold to his word of keeping Will as far away from danger as possible up until the last minute.  He wants this case closed and this killer captured, but not at the expense of his friend’s safety and sanity.

Stephen Lang does an excellent job as the sleazy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds.  He’s a great antagonist for Graham since Lounds only cares about his headlines.  He’s despicably charismatic, and a great character you’d love to hate.  However, the terror Lang puts into his performance when confronted and abducted by Dollarhyde perfectly sells the imposing and unsettling presence of Dollarhyde.  This once egotistical, arrogant grand standing man is reduced to a small man drowning in fear.  That is both the culmination of the film’s build up to Francis Dollarhyde, and the impactful introduction of the character in the flesh.  In my opinion, it couldn’t have been any more perfectly executed.

Kim Griest does a very solid job as Molly Graham, playing opposite William Petersen vey well.  She puts in just the right amount of compassion and concern for Molly’s husband.  She fears for his safety, and clearly wishes that Jack Crawford had never asked for Will’s help.  It’s not a comfortable position for her to be in knowing what Lecktor had done to him previously.  However, probably the least standout performance is Joan Allen as Reba, the blind woman who stimulates Dollarhyde’s affections.  She does a decent job, but it feels like the character with the least substance and depth.  She is given some strong scenes which intensify Dollarhyde’s character, such as with the sedated tiger, but there’s not much done with Reba to flesh her out like the richly dimensional characters around her.  This is likely due to a factor of time, and that the film is focused on Dollarhyde in these instances.

Now, without a doubt, Danté Spinotti is one of the best cinematographers around, and he brought a great amount of beauty, intelligence, and grace to Manhunter.  He creates some gorgeous, vibrant visuals that are awe inspiring.  Also, scenes are composed and staged very smartly.  It’s rarely just standard shots.  Every shot seems to be handled with a purpose to symbolize a character’s mindset, relationship with someone else, or to establish mood and tone.  In Graham and Lecktor’s first scene together, Mann and Spinotti compose it to where as Graham and Lecktor’s psyches begin to overlap and align, so do the shots of them.  The scene begins with a regular composition with Graham on the left side of frame and Lecktor on the right, but eventually they are dead center in the frame looking dead-on towards the camera by the end.  Both men reflect one another in this moment.  The visuals of the film have numerous mirroring aspects, and evolving motifs which visualize the psychological states and connections of characters.  There are a series of shots of Will Graham looking into mirrors, and each successive shot is more and more obscured until there is eventually no reflection seen to the audience.  This shows Graham’s journey in finding and ultimately detaching from Dollarhyde’s psyche.  Dollarhyde himself cannot even look at himself in a mirror due to his perception of how grossly disfigured he is.  Graham can confront the monster within himself, but Dollarhyde cannot.

The use of steadicam is greatly on display here giving us a film of very fluid motion, reflecting the intensely focused mindsets of Graham and Dollarhyde.  It’s very gorgeous cinematography.  Yet, in the film’s climax, as Dollarhyde destabilizes, the film also becomes chaotic with jump cuts and a surreal frenetic style.  This works amazingly well delving our protagonist and antagonist into an explosive conflict which will either destroy or free their respective psyches.

The use of color is also integral to the moods and emotions of the film.  Blue tones reflect safety as the love scene between Will and Molly demonstrates.  However, green punctuates a feeling of discovery as with Graham’s early wardrobe, or a subversive quality such as in the dark room scene with Reba and Dollarhyde.  There are even splashes of green lighting in Dollarhyde’s home at times.  In my own independent films, I have used color washes heavily to evoke certain moods and atmosphere, but it’s never been used with such deliberate purpose as in Manhunter.

In the process of writing this review, I ecstatically discovered the complete Manhunter soundtrack album on iTunes.  I purchased it without a doubt, even though I already had a few of the songs from the film.  No other film have I ever seen makes as impactful, integral use of its soundtrack as Manhunter.  It’s all very atmospheric, ambient music from amazing, lesser known 1980s artists such as Shriekback, The Prime Movers, and Red 7.  The Shriekback tracks are the most enveloping in the film’s deep haunting mood.  “This Big Hush” punctuates the seductive and quietly powerful love scene between Reba and Francis.  It’s the deepest insight into Francis’ soul that we get, and this song made the scene what it is.  The score was composed by Michel Rubini and The Reds.  It’s very synthesizer based which might seem typical of the 1980s, but it sets an overall ominous, mesmerizing, and dangerous tone that absorbs itself into every fiber of the film.  Michael Mann employed Tangerine Dream to score Thief five years earlier which created a very sleek and beautiful soundscape of that noir crime thriller.  Here, the atmospheric synth music is very much in the forefront creating a bold and intense experience.  The soundtrack truly does follow in the style Mann had perfected on Miami Vice at the time using popular music along with striking visuals to tell an emotional and exciting story.  However, I feel Manhunter takes it a to higher level due to the overall tone and deep psychological aspects of the story.  The music takes the audience deep inside the emotions and psyches of the characters.  I love the cue of “Graham’s Theme” which accompanies and accentuates Will Graham’s slow revelation of the final pieces of the puzzle.  It is a brilliantly executed sequence.  Furthermore, the film brilliantly uses Iron Butterfly’s psychedelic classic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to orchestrate the entire climax of the movie.  It’s entirely edited and constructed around the various dramatic beats in that seventeen minute long jam.  The organ section of the song creates a haunting Phantom of the Opera style mood until it and Will Graham crash back into full blown action.  This is a score and soundtrack that simply blows my mind in how well executed and finely weaved into the fabric of the film.

This is undoubtedly one of Michael Mann’s absolute best films.  It is very tightly crafted with a taut, suspenseful atmosphere.  Manhunter is a deeply enveloping film utilizing all its aspects of sight and sound to create a thoroughly absorbing experience.  The investigative aspects are given a rarely implemented psychological focus built upon some solid and sharp procedural elements.  We are treated to a wealth of rich performances and fascinating characters.  There’s a depth of detail to everything which comes out in those performances, and they are presented in very intriguing ways to keep an audience riveted with every moment.

Manhunter has been a curiosity on DVD.  Four different cuts exist from both Anchor Bay and MGM.  The original theatrical version was actually the last one to be released, and that was from MGM which they also put out on Blu Ray Disc.  Anchor Bay released a two-disc set with both a video tape sourced director’s cut and a THX certified version billed as the theatrical cut, but contains some additional scenes and a few bits and pieces cutout.  A “restored director’s cut” was later released by them which features a vast improvement in quality, but leaves out one scene from the first director’s cut between Will Graham and Dr. Chilton.  It was likely cutout due to it not being shot very well.  There’s no one version I wholly prefer over another since they all add in or leave out something I like from another cut, but as far as quality is concerned, the THX certified DVD from Anchor Bay has the best transfer.  All other transfers have desaturated colors, are darker prints, and lack some sharpness.  I did personally assemble what I called the “Definitive Cut” adding in almost all footage from various cuts of the film into one amalgamation for a complete experience.  It’s just something for my own complete satisfaction of the film which I love so very much.

As I said, this is my favorite Michael Mann movie.  Although, I do consider The Insider to be the best film he has ever made for very distinctly different but immensely admirable reasons.  Manhunter really has been a major influence on me as a filmmaker.  It was the main influence on my psychological noir thriller Dead of Night.  I wanted to explore what would happen if a criminal profiler similar to Will Graham lost himself in his psychologically twisted work and went off the deep end by hunting down serial killers.  There was a similarly themed episode of Miami Vice titled “Shadow in the Dark” that had Sonny Crockett delving into the disturbed mind of a crazed home invader that I also really love.  However, nothing is as rich or as layered as Manhunter.  Where The Silence of the Lambs seemed more focused on regular investigative work to lead to the capture of its serial killer, Manhunter is all about the psychological construction and deconstruction as the main cog in tracking down the killer.  That is far more fascinating to me.  Not to mention, Will Graham is a vastly more intriguing character to explore, in my eyes, than Clarice Starling.  Graham is someone that’s been to some terrifyingly dark places, and has the capabilities to contend with Hannibal Lecter.  He is the one who captured the cannibalistic doctor to begin with, even if it was at a troubling price.  Simply everything in Manhunter appeals to my imagination, and I love that time has given the film the respect and praise it deserves.  It wasn’t a successful release in 1986 for many reasons, and thus, is why The Silence of the Lambs was never handled as an actual sequel.  I’m sure there are people who would be put off by the 1980s neon and pastel aesthetics of Manhunter today, but that’s no bother to me.  I love it.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Michael Mann showcased a very powerful vision with this film, more so than any other film I’ve seen from him.  While his last two films – Miami Vice and Public Enemies – have shown a sharp decline in overall quality, his general body of work maintains him as one of my favorite and most influential filmmakers of all time.


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.


The Bourne Legacy (2012)

I have never been so bored out of my skull in a theatre as I was watching this movie.  I’ve never walked out on a theatrical screening, but this tempted me to.  Not because it’s some atrocious motion picture, but just by how boring it is.  If I was watching this anywhere other than in a theatre, I would’ve stopped watching within the first half hour.  I have thoroughly enjoyed all three previous entries in the Jason Bourne franchise, and while on paper this might seem to have a lot of potential to be a decent Bourne-less sequel, it entirely fails.  There are so many factors that feed into the dull, lifeless quality of this film.  Not the least of which are a flatly conceived new lead character and a mess of exposition trying to impart three movies of back story which ultimately have no consequence on this story.  There is nothing exceptional or engaging in the least about The Bourne Legacy.  Why must my summer movie experience be filled with so much disappointment?  Oh well, here we go, again.

In the wake of Jason Bourne’s dismemberment of Operation Blackbriar, the CIA discretely enlists the expertise of retired USAF Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) to investigate and purge all incriminating evidence between the agency and Blackbriar.  The CIA then decides to dispose of their other black ops programs, which includes the termination of their field agents.  However, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an agent from Operation Outcome, escapes from being executed in the Alaskan wilderness and, with the help of Outcome scientist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), sets out to find a permanent solution to the Outcome physiological enhancement medication he has become dependent upon while fighting to survive those who would try to terminate him.

This is a very peculiar film.  One would think that this would be a sort of fresh new beginning for the franchise without the Bourne character, but it’s weighed down to suffocating depths with back story which could easily have been excised for a far leaner and more streamlined story.  If you haven’t seen the previous three films, you’re going to be so lost and clueless about what’s going on as characters bombard the audience with events that overlap with and fallout from The Bourne Ultimatum.  However, after a while, the film ultimately has nothing to do with anything that happened in the previous three movies.  Having seen The Bourne Identity, Supremacy, & Ultimatum multiple times, I was still lost within this maze of excessive and pointless exposition.  There is such a massive volume of explanations of things that just don’t amount to anything.  It’s not confusing, per se, but the prolonged complex dialogue scenes eventually blur into mind numbing ramblings very quickly.  For example, Edward Norton’s character is meeting with so many people early on giving them a breakdown of what the ramifications are of everything that’s happening, but it’s so painfully convoluted and overbloated that the point of it all gets lost in the mix.  I’m sure a far more focused and sharp screenwriter could’ve condensed fifteen minutes of exposition amongst numerous one-off characters into a straight-to-the-point two minute conversation.  The film also gets so wrapped up in its own severe grounded realism that it forgets to clearly or efficiently relate information to an audience.  Nothing is explained in laymen’s terms.  Dr. Shearing fully explains what these chemicals do to Aaron’s physiology, but it’s explained in such pure clinical science terms that I would doubt that Cross himself would understand much of what she’s saying, let alone a general audience.

Some scenes are so drawn out to the point where they are counteractive to their own point.  For a spoiler example, a team of undercover operatives try to off Marta by staging her suicide.  They go under the guise of investigators or psychiatric counselors, and that psychiatric conversation is dragged on and on for several long, pointless minutes before they actually get around to attempting to stage the suicide.  The act is only broken up when Aaron Cross shows up out of nowhere at her home, to which it’s never explained how he knows where she lives.  It’s a terrible plot contrivance and a hole in logic that the filmmakers just expect us to not question.  For all the mind numbing time they spend explaining everything else in this film, you’d think they could take half a minute to explain that.

This film has several great and highly capable acting talents in Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz, and Stacy Keach, but there is just nothing here for any of them to work with.  There are barely any proper introductions for any of these characters for an audience to even learn many of their names.  If the film can’t clearly convey that simple aspect of the characters, it’s no surprise that the film never develops any substance into these characters.  I barely knew anything more about these people at the end of the film than I did at the start.  There is no depth and barely any diversity of emotion shown to build up an empathy with anyone.  Every actor does as good of a job as they could do with what they were given, but this is such a lifeless, soulless movie with purely one dimensional characters.  I was indifferent towards every single character, and that partially contributes to a lack of tension or suspense in the film.  What also adds to that is the fact that Aaron Cross never sustains so much as a scratch jumping off cliffs and rooftops, fighting wolves with his bare hands, dodging gunfire, beating people up, and running for his life.  Every adversary seems all too easy for him to take down, and thus, there’s no one that poses a real threat to him in any of the extremely few action scenes this film has.

The action sequences are very few and very far between.  Where my review of the Total Recall remake suggested there was probably too much action and not enough character development in that film, The Bourne Legacy has an extreme lack of action in addition to an extreme lack of character development.  The action sequences probably add up to ten, maybe fifteen minutes of the more than two hour long runtime.  Ultimately, these are all terribly forgettable and tired action sequences.  There’s nothing fresh or particularly exciting about them.  Director Tony Gilroy had said that the film would not employ the use of Paul Greengrass’ notorious shaky-cam, quick cut action style.  Well, he lied.  While it’s not consistently as bad as what Greengrass does, it does eventually get to being that bad in the lackluster climax of the movie.  As with the previous three movies, Legacy gives us another motor vehicle chase sequence.  This time, it’s mostly on motorbikes, but like how some dialogue scenes drag on and on without a point, so does this climax.  It seriously goes on for the better part of ten minutes where there’s barely anything at stake in it.  The villain that’s chasing them is just some random hired gun who has no investment in the plot.  The exposition about who he was got so jumbled up in all the other procedural dialogue that I never understood exactly who he was.  I just kept waiting for this chase sequence to finally end, but it just kept picking itself back up off the pavement for more.  And this ending has no pay-off.  With no emotional depth to the story, there’s ultimately nothing anyone is actually fighting for, and thus, nothing to triumph over.  There are no passionate principles or struggle for a new self-identity for Aaron Cross to dedicate himself to.  There is no change to who he is at any point during the movie, and we barely know anything about him.

There is some back story given about Aaron Cross, but none of it mattered to me.  His story isn’t tragic, it’s not conflicted, and it certainly has nothing sympathetic about it.  The film takes well over an hour to actually tell us why he keeps jonesing for these meds, the same amount of time it takes for an actual semblance of a plot to develop, and the reason isn’t convincing.  One of the pills he takes enhances intelligence and brain function, and his recruitment officer had to falsify his IQ by 12 points so he could qualify for service.  He goes off the meds, he becomes dumb, again.  So, his whole motivation in the film is to obtain more medication so he doesn’t lose his fabricated intelligence.  That just doesn’t sell as a credible, relatable motivation.  It lacks any self-less quality or humanity for an audience to connect with.  I also find it peculiar that he has been physically enhanced to be stronger, faster, and more resistant to pain.  However, Jason Bourne had none of those drug induced enhancements, and was still able to do every impressive physical feat that Aaron Cross could do in this movie and more.  Not to mention, he could still do many of them while injured and beaten up.

As Jeremy Renner has demonstrated with both Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Avengers, he can capably handle a role of this nature.  He can give us a strong action oriented performance fueled by a relatable and charismatic character.  However, that character is not Aaron Cross.  He’s a guy fighting only for himself, and is only aided by Marta because she’s being hunted by these same people.  After he initially saves her, he doesn’t start inquiring about her well being after nearly being killed.  He straight up, aggressively asks if she has any of the medication on hand so he can get his fix.  Cross has no charm, no heart, no depth.  I don’t know if there was an intention to spark a romantic connection between Aaron and Marta, but Renner and Weisz certainly have no spark.  I surely wouldn’t want Aaron Cross to be a carbon copy of Jason Bourne, but it’s hard to replace such a powerfully dimensional character in Bourne.  Jeremy Renner handles all the physical demands of the role very convincingly, but the character just has nothing interesting to offer.  It’s certainly not Renner’s fault that the script was so overbloated and shallow.  The dialogue and story give him no room to breathe life into the role, to give it charisma, levy, or emotional depth.

The one word I keep going back to in my mind to describe this movie is “pointless.”  The story it tells has no point, the characters have nothing purposeful to say, and the action serves little purpose to exist.  This is a film that doesn’t showcase any potential at all to be good.  It’s not a steaming pile of garbage, but it just lacks passion and motivation.  The script seems like something that should’ve gone through a few more drafts to chop out all that tiresome, go-nowhere dialogue, and build some strong characters and a thrilling story.  Doug Limon directed The Bourne Identity, and had a great sense of gritty, coherent action and a vibrant, character driven story.  Despite the cinematography drawbacks of Paul Greengrass’ style, he is an amazing director who can craft a powerful, deeply emotional story with some hard hitting drama and action.  Tony Gilroy falters greatly with The Bourne Legacy.  He can write and direct some great stuff.  Michael Clayton was an excellent dramatic film that he wrote and directed amazingly well, and has been a co-writer on every film in this franchise.  So, I don’t know what happened here.  Beyond just how he made such a terribly boring, lifeless, hollow movie, I don’t know how Universal Pictures backed this script.  Usually franchise cash grabs are train wrecks or just reek of second rate indulgence.  This is just not trying at all, and that just hurts.  I wish there was more to analyze about this movie to deconstruct it further, but there really isn’t.  It has no substance or ambition to be anything worthwhile.  I found nothing interesting, exciting, or redeeming in the fabric of this film.  Again, it’s not a horrendous film that will make you curse its existence, but it simply had no reason to exist.  I do not recommend seeing The Bourne Legacy.  I found it to be a waste of time.  You’ll be far more pleased re-watching The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, or The Bourne Ultimatum instead.


Batman Returns (1992)

This is the first Batman movie I saw theatrically, and at twelve years old, I loved it.  I think it’s a much more polished movie than Tim Burton’s 1989 film with a number of charismatic, excellent performances.  I’ve never perceived the film as weird or strange like many do.  I just see it as a damn good movie that I highly enjoy.  I think Batman Returns is far more of a Tim Burton style movie than the first, but in my opinion, that doesn’t make it a lesser Batman movie.

Gotham City calls upon its greatest hero, Batman, to combat its newest threats.  From the sewers, the deformed and hideous Penguin (Danny DeVito), head of the criminal Red Triangle Circus Gang, forges a fiendish alliance with the corrupt business mogul Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).  Penguin is discovered to be Oswald Cobblepot, the outcast son of a wealthy Gotham couple, and Shreck looks to set him up as the city’s Mayor to force his deceptive power plant upon the city.  However, the Penguin has his own schemes to wreak havoc upon Gotham.  Meanwhile, Max Shreck attempts to murder his frumpy secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) after poking around too deeply into his shady business plans, but she is resurrected as the dangerous and sexy Catwoman who seeks revenge on him.  Batman races into action to combat these villains, but as the caped crusader begins to put a dent in their plans, Penguin and Catwoman plot to discredit Batman, making him a criminal in the eyes of Gotham’s citizens.  While the Bat and Cat are at odds, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle quickly become romantically involved which further strains Selina’s already fractured psyche.  Batman must battle to stave off the treacherous, twisted plans of these eccentric villains before rampant destruction is inflicted upon Gotham City.

This is truly one of the very few superhero films that is able to balance out having multiple villains.  The plotlines are all interconnected smartly through the Max Shreck character.  The Penguin is the main villain while Catwoman is more of a subversive wild card, as she should be.  Her motives are more passionate while his are particularly methodical, but do later delve into the maniacal.  This film seems more character driven than the first, and has some stronger emotional context.  Selina has a wild ride that takes her through a slew of emotional states.  She is very conflicted between her vengeful psychotic side, and the one that is gradually falling in love with Bruce Wayne.  Michelle Pfeiffer just does a stunning job in this role ultimately making Selina grossly sympathetic.  The Penguin is fueled by spite for society for being rejected by it all his life, and goes through a character arc himself.  First, wanting to be accepted as man instead of a monster, but later, embraces the monster he has become to wreak havoc upon Gotham City.

I also love the plot of the villains launching an elaborate smear campaign against Batman.  They frame him for murder and more to position Cobblepot as the new face of hope for the city.  It makes for a more dire and interesting circumstance for Batman to deal with, but Bruce decides turnabout is fair play.  It’s all an excellently crafted story progression.  Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm really conjured up a great story that takes plenty of twists and turns that maintain excitement and interest in the characters.  It’s not just some colorful madman terrorizing the city, it’s more complex and involved than that.  There are numerous motivations at play with the main characters that create a more personal set of conflicts.  The Penguin does provide the larger scale threat near the end, but it’s still perfectly in line with his agenda.  He reaches a boiling point, and decides to let loose upon this city that has turned on him.  Everything builds up to him becoming that monster, and I believe it’s all greatly executed.  In general, the film is amazingly well paced always keeping a consistent energetic rhythm going.  At no point does the film feel like it drags.  There’s always something developing because of the multiple main characters and interwoven plots.  It never gets confusing either.  It’s all competently and tightly strung together.

I love the subtle detective aspects in Michael Keaton’s Batman.  While everyone else is very much buying the altruistic façade of the Penguin, he sees something that just doesn’t fit right.  Something nags at that inquisitive mind of his, and that is extremely faithful to the psychology of Batman.  He hardly needs to vocalize his intellect.  What is said is conveyed very succinctly as Keaton did a lot of trimming down of dialogue to keep Batman’s words sharp and telling.  The film also shows a little technical prowess with Bruce both having the forethought to record the Penguin’s rantings to cleverly use against him later, and showing Bruce attempting to repair the damaged Batmobile.  They are just subtle things which show that Bruce has these diverse skills.

This time out, Michael Keaton was given a wider canvas to stretch his talent across.  He still executes Batman amazingly well.  He is able to convey so much just through those intense eyes, and that sells the demeanor and intimidation of Batman so powerfully.  Of course, with the Catwoman dynamic, Keaton has more chemistry to strike up under the mask, and a few appropriate humorous exchanges while fighting with her.  Keaton has rich chemistry with the whole cast, and is able to offer up more as Bruce Wayne as well as Batman.  His relationship with Michael Gough’s Alfred is a little more light hearted and open.  One has to love the little jab about Alfred letting Vicky Vale into the Batcave.  Opposite Christopher Walken, Keaton holds up quite well, but Walken never makes it easy for anyone to stand up to his charisma.  Still, there’s a nice contrast in Keaton’s more grounded, respectable businessman to Walken’s wheeler and dealer type who definitely has skeletons in his closet.  What really shines, though, is that Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer have electric chemistry both in costume and out.  The romantic relationship is perfectly complicated as Batman and Catwoman are supposed to be.  There’s always some ethical or moral divide between them that cuts the pinnacle of their love short.  You can feel the affection Keaton puts into the performance to have the emotions strike deep within Bruce’s soul, and create the powerful connection Bruce and Selina are meant to have.  Even as Batman, Keaton shows that sparkle of fascination and intrigue for this seductive and dangerous Catwoman.  She, figuratively, hits him very close to the heart, and he sees someone possibly cut from the same jagged mold that he was.  There is much less of a sense of the brooding lone man in Batman Returns, but with the stronger love interest aspect and the story ties with Max Shreck, it naturally pushes Bruce Wayne out of the shadows and into a more active situation.  He no longer feels like the recluse he seemed to be in the first film.  He feels both like a real executive businessman and a human being here.  Bruce Wayne does have that dark shadow on his soul, but he has loved many woman in the comics and has been a responsible and quite public businessman.  So, it’s all perfectly in line with the source material, and Keaton, nor anyone else, could have done it better.

Danny DeVito is fantastic in this grotesque version of the Penguin.  In the comics, he’s just a short, stout crime boss dressed in a tuxedo and top hat with an affinity for birds.  Here, he’s made into a freakish man in both appearance and psychology.  DeVito just throws all of himself into this role making Penguin a disgusting, crude villain full of gross rage and despicable deceitfulness.  It seems like he purely enveloped himself in the character, and had the time of his life with it.  He puts on a sinister performance of a man who revels in his own vile intentions, and it couldn’t be better.  DeVito is immensely entertaining and charismatic.  The make-up design of the character is equally excellent creating a look that can be effectively unsettling.  Still, DeVito is easily able to show the wide range of subtle and verbose emotions of the character through the prosthetics.  It’s a masterful execution all around.

However, the absolutely stunning standout in this cast is definitely Michelle Pfeiffer.  She passionately embodies all phases and mental states of Selina Kyle.  From the meek and mousy secretary that awkwardly blends into the background to the bolder, more aggressive and seductive woman to the playful, sultry Catwoman to the ultimately fractured person whose emotions are strained between the love she has found with Bruce and the bloodthirsty vengeance she is driven towards with Shreck.  When she is that more lowly woman at the start, there is such a timid, oppressed quality about the character that you can’t help but feel bad for her.  Nothing seems to go right for Selina, and she couldn’t be more undeserving of Max Shreck’s intimidating and belittling treatment of her.  Then, when that nervous breakdown occurs, Pfeiffer turns on a truly manic performance that shows the traumatic transformation Selina has now gone through.  It’s the character violently breaking free of the restraints she’s had all this time, and out the other end of it comes this confident, aggressive woman.  This is a Catwoman that excites.  Beyond just the sizzling hot sexual aspects, she is electrifyingly dangerous between her ferocious fighting skills, the razor sharp claws, and the leather whip.  Pfeiffer slinks very smoothly into being Catwoman lusciously embodying her feline grace.  As Selina herself, she shows an amazing ability to subtly shift tone from humorous or casual to just plain dark and unsettling.  That venomous dark side seeps through beautifully.  Michelle Pfeiffer brings out such intense emotional pain and conflict which forges together an immensely fascinating and sympathetic character.  There’s so much subtle texture and emotional range in her performance that one could go on all day detailing it all.  Simply said, she put in a remarkably diverse and emotionally intense performance here, and greatly enhances the depth of the film.  From what she did in this role, you can definitely see why Selina Kyle had such a strong emotional impact on Bruce Wayne by the film’s end.  Pfeiffer absolutely left me wanting more in absolutely every good way imaginable.

Of course, you can never go wrong with casting Christopher Walken, and in Batman Returns, he’s definitely at his best.  He has fierce charisma that forces the character of Max Shreck vibrantly into the meat of the film.  He never gets lost or brushed aside in favor for the more fantastical villains.  There’s just too much weight and excitement in what Walken brings to the role for an audience not to welcome his presence.  Walken is massively intimidating when threatening Selina just before attempting to kill her.  You feel like Max Shreck is a powerhouse heavy.  He’s masterfully manipulative with a mesmerizing skill of twisting people’s minds with his words.  Walken just has such a fascinating delivery of lines that is a signature for him, but I think he adds something specially dynamic to this role.  He could carry this whole movie as the main villain if it had called for it.  Shreck is not damaged goods like Batman, Catwoman, or the Penguin, and that probably makes him the most condemnable villain of the film.  He’s a corrupt, deceitful, murderous human being wrapped up in the guise of a respectable businessman.  He’s an unethical vacuum of morality that will go to any crooked lengths to further his agendas and strengthen his legacy in Gotham.  He’s cutthroat to no end, and Walken embraces the unsettling, shrewd nature of the character powerfully.

Again, the look of Batman Returns is much more polished than the 1989 movie.  There is not as much grit in the visuals, and instead, has a stronger contrast.  Blacks are thick and rich.  They maintain a striking appearance as the shadows are nicely balanced with the light.  Burton and his Edward Scissorhands director of photography Stefan Czapsky give this movie its own visual identity.  I very much like the blue tones seen throughout which offer up a very complementary tone.  Batman Returns certainly doesn’t have quite as much iconic imagery as its predecessor, but it surely has its dramatic moments that are beautifully captured.  The snowy appearance of the film was a gorgeous choice as it further adds to the visual contrast and beauty.  It’s strange that while the subject matter is definitely darker than the first, Batman Returns actually doesn’t look nearly as dark as the 1989 movie.  It appears to be generally brighter and more inviting.  It has plenty of moody visuals, but moves away from the muted color schemes and grim aesthetics.  It’s definitely a pleasant experience for the eyes.

The production design is much sleeker, and that is reflected in the redesigned Bat suit.  It has a cleaner, more art deco armored design which makes sense.  Batman would likely evolve his suit into something generally more durable.  From a production standpoint, it just looks more refined and streamlined.  Gotham City looks more updated with a generally more modern feeling, but still showcasing an gothic industrial look as well as some 1930s or 1940s artistic mentalities.  It’s a beautiful city no longer tainted by grime and trash, but still has its darker qualities.  Even the Batcave gets a fine upgrade with more up-to-date technology and refined lighting schemes.  Plus, the Bat-Ski boat is a sleek addition which gives the film a little extra something near the climax.  The wardrobe is just wonderful all around.  The gorgeous pinstriped suits of Max Shreck have an excellent 1900s turn of the century class to them.  They make him feel like an iconic captain of industry, and the full grey head of hair was a nice touch to his look.  The Catwoman outfit could not be sleeker or more sexually charged.  It’s absolutely perfect for a character of this slinky nature, but also, reflects her fractured psyche with the stitched together look.  Even Penguin’s more upscale outfits, somewhat reflective of Shreck’s style, still have a grungy feel to them.  It creates a nice texture and contrast for the character.  Penguin’s lair is exceptionally moody, decrepit, and dank perfectly reflecting the striking image of the character.

Danny Elfman really broadens the musical landscape of the franchise with this film.  With more main characters come some very distinctive and marvelous themes that richly reflect the complicated natures of these characters.  Catwoman’s theme is so wonderfully complex representing the chaotic and unbalanced nature of the character, and throwing in a dash of sorrow and sympathy here and there.  Elfman adds a chorus into the score to enhance the operatic sense of everything, and the slight rearrangement of the main title march is very pleasing.  It is a heavily and finely textured score that is vibrant and epic.  The Christmas season setting of the film truly weaves its way into the score every so often, and makes for a very colorful and haunting listen.  While I’ve never seen A Nightmare Before Christmas, I have to imagine there’s some correlation between those musical styles from Elfman.

There is also a vast improvement in visual effects work here.  Before watching the featurettes on the Special Edition DVD, I never knew that the opening title sequence was entirely done with miniatures and effects work.  It always looked entirely natural to me.  Matte paintings are still great, but have a little more life to them with some extra color and integrated motion.  Since digital effects had progressed into the forefront, we definitely get the benefit of that higher end work here.  Being released in 1992, it was sandwiched right between 1991’s Terminator 2 and 1993’s Jurassic Park.  While the digital effects are not used on a massive scale, they are very seamless with both something like the armored shields on the Batmobile, and more so with the digital replication of the penguin soldiers late in the film.  Overall, it’s a very fine accomplishment from the visual effects department.  Stan Winston also provided his studio’s talent with creating numerous animatronic penguins that seamlessly blend in with the real life ones.

Tim Burton continues to show a great sense of action in this sequel.  Every single action sequence is choreographed and shot amazingly well.  They are smartly scripted making sure each one is organically different without forcing it.  With the eccentric nature of the Red Triangle Circus Gang, Batman has plenty of gimmickry to combat from the sword swallower to the fire breather and many more.  He handles each one with originality packed with some ironic entertainment value.  Igniting the Batmobile’s flaming turbine engine upon the fire breather is just too priceless.  Then, things get more interesting when Batman combats Catwoman.  She’s immensely skilled and agile making for a dynamically dangerous adversary that gets some stinging shots in.  Mixing that in with the sensuous aspects of their peculiar relationship, it creates a great twisting psychological unpredictability to their confrontations.  The climax of the film just blows me away.  There’s so much slam bang awesomeness packed into it which Burton handles with so much competency and balance.  The race to halt the Penguin’s missile attack on the city creates the fast paced excitement with the Bat Ski boat rocketing to its desination.  The explosive and poignant conclusions to the Penguin’s storyline are nicely balanced on either side of Selina Kyle’s own emotionally charged climax.  This entire sequence is tightly paced, and hits all the plot and character beats perfectly on the mark.  Everything is powerfully wrapped up to a highly satisfying degree.  Many superhero films with so many villains usually end up in a mess, but Batman Returns handles all of them exceptionally well all the way through to the end.

The film certainly has more impact upon Bruce Wayne than Batman, but it all ties in very nicely.   The parallels of Batman and Catwoman versus Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle was an excellent idea.  How both are tied into one is exceptionally strong.  Just a simple unassuming line of dialogue is what triggers the revelation to them both, and injects a much stronger emotional element into the climax.  It also does create a fine arc for Bruce Wayne / Batman.  Seeing him connect with this woman that is very much like him, and how he ultimately wants to be able to save her from the vengeance that’s eating her alive is wonderfully done.  The Batman / Catwoman relationship has always been one of the most fascinating and complex ones in comics, and I believe Tim Burton and his screenwriters did an excellent job bringing that to the screen while Keaton and Pfeiffer made it exceed any expectations.

After watching Batman Returns again, I think this might be my new favorite Batman movie.  While it’s not really faithful to all the characters as, in the comics, Catwoman is just a cat burglar with no mystical type powers or psychological unbalances, and Penguin is just a sort of quirky, non-freakish crime boss, I really like what was done with these characters, and all the concepts were executed with depth and intelligence.  If it was all done poorly or just fell short of its potential, I would surely have some gripes with it all, but everyone involved just couldn’t have done a better job.  The tight pace is really what excites me about the movie.  It’s constantly moving somewhere with one character or another, and they are all logically and organically tied in together instead of some slap dashed plot to force multiple villains into the same movie.  It’s this tightly wrapped sordid web of interconnected characters and plotlines that are smartly interwoven.  I will say that there was a slight missed opportunity by Batman not having to really deal with being framed for murder by Penguin and Catwoman.  It is an unresolved plot point that is brushed aside rather effortlessly, and it’s a shame too.  It’s a storyline that could be very fascinating to explore, but the film just didn’t have room to resolve it.  Any such resolution can only be implied, likely through Batman’s rescue of the children from the Red Triangle Circus Gang.  However, for the trade off we get for it, I can generally overlook this issue.  I enjoy Batman Returns thoroughly now, and I think it’s gotten some bad press over the years.  People seem to act like 1989’s Batman was this bright, happy, fun adventure film for the whole family in comparison, but like I said in that review, at nine years old, my parents did not let me see it in the theatre.  It was a dark movie that could be unsettling to a young audience.  Batman Returns at least has a bit more levity via light, appropriate humor and great chemistry to balance out the dark characters and subject matter.  I would venture to say that this sequel is more fun and more exciting than the first movie.  I just find this more satisfying on numerous levels.  It has a stronger, more layered story with more rousing action, and a tighter rhythm and pace held together by an incredible cast.  I believe Batman Returns is an amazing movie, and a great sequel.  I won’t say it’s perfect, or that it will give you everything you want from a Batman movie, but it’s a damn good one, regardless.  I know it almost certainly will never happen, but I would be very interested in seeing Tim Burton and Michael Keaton return to the franchise with a proper sequel to their Batman movies.  I think they could still do a great job if collaborating with the right creative talents, and Burton could likely use a change of talents these days.


Batman (1989)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Drive (2011)

I have a tendency to miss out on great films in the theatre due to an uncertainty about them.  I can get so used to how mainstream films are marketed that when I see something distinctly different, it’s hard to be sold on it.  Thankfully, better late than never, some trusted word of mouth finally got me to check out Drive.  To my sensibilities, this is an astonishing, flat out amazing film.  This feels like if Michael Mann made a movie between Thief and Manhunter, and was scored by Tangerine Dream.  This is fully evocative of a 1980s neo noir crime thriller with its sense of tone and atmosphere and using a magnificent soundtrack to envelop an audience into its emotion.  Beyond that, I feel Drive is also brilliant.

Ryan Gosling stars as a Hollywood stunt driver by day that moonlights as a wheelman for criminals by night.  He’s employed and aided by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a former stuntman who is propositioning the shady Bernard Rose (Albert Brooks) to invest in a race car venture with this “Driver” as their star.  Though a loner by nature, the Driver can’t help falling in love with his beautiful neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother dragged into a dangerous underworld by the return of her ex-convict husband.  After a heist goes wrong, Driver finds himself driving defense for the girl he loves, tailgated by a syndicate of deadly serious criminals including Rose himself and the bull-headed Nino (Ron Perlman).  Soon he realizes the gangsters are after more than the bag of cash, and is forced to shift gears into a brutal, unrelenting head-on collision.

I will grant that the film is not heavy on plot.  It’s fairly simple and straight forward keeping itself contained to a small collection of characters.  Some might find that a letdown.  However, the substance of this film is in the presentation.  Ryan Gosling’s character is very minimal on dialogue allowing his presence and the atmosphere of the film to carry the Driver’s weight.  The performance alone is very understated and low key, but not skimping on intensity or humanity.  His carefully chosen words hold purpose, and Gosling’s soft spoken delivery forces an audience to focus their attention closely.  Sometimes, a lack of dialogue can bring a mystique and an intriguing quality to a character, and Gosling sparks that magic.  His performance allows you to read more into the man instead of him telling you about who he is, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off.  The scenes where the Driver and Irene are together bring a subtle charm and heart to the surface.  You see the brightness in the soul of this character that contrasts, and later, compliments his grittier, darker side.  When he has to become that more intimidating, brutal person later on, Gosling has no problem being convincing.  You can feel his visceral intensity permeating the screen.  I was impacted hard by those razor sharp moments, and this all comes together in a rock solid piece of work by Ryan Gosling.  This is my first exposure to his talent, and I couldn’t be more blown away.  Also, wrapping him in that Scorpion jacket is just wickedly cool.

Carey Mulligan puts in a gracefully beautiful performance.  She and Gosling have a fine chemistry that gives the film its warmth and purpose.  Their performances reflect nicely off of one another with heart and subtlety.  She never has to say a word to reflect Irene’s emotional conflict over her feelings between her husband and the Driver.  Mulligan touchingly shows that in her eyes and expressions, and how she gravitates to this new charming, under spoken man in her life.  It’s an engaging and inviting piece of work.

Albert Brooks is a shocking powerhouse heavy here.  He’s intimidating as all hell while still having his light hearted, humorous moments.  Still, I never stopped getting that shady feeling from him that he was a mob boss that could slash your wrist or stab you in the eye with a fork without batting an eyelash.  There’s such a fine line the character treads that Brooks walks with ease.  Even when he’s being friendly, there’s still that sense of unease behind everything he says, and even before you know he’s a mob boss, you get the feeling that there’s something not entirely straight about Bernie Rose.  For me, he ranks amongst the best like Christopher Walken in True Romance or Robert Prosky in Thief.  He can turn from being your best friend to your absolute worst enemy in half a heartbeat without even seeing a shift in the character’s manner.  It’s all rather matter of fact with him, and Brooks carries the appropriate weight to achieve these character traits throughout the picture.  I love Albert Brooks’ performance supremely.

The supporting cast is also finely textured.  Bryan Cranston has a broken down heartfelt sympathy as Shannon, the mechanic and former stuntman that aids and endorses Gosling’s character.  He’s a good natured person who gets in too heavy with the wrong people, and you can’t help but feel for him when things turn worse.  Ron Perlman’s gangster character of Nino is interesting.  He’s a Jewish man trying to make himself out to be an Italian mobster.  It’s not an overt part of his performance, but it ties into Nino’s motivations for being a “belligerent asshole,” as Bernie Rose puts it.  Nino has plenty of bravado and ego, but not a lot of good sense.  Perlman nicely inhabits those qualities with plenty of enthusiasm.  Oscar Isaac does well as Irene’s husband Standard.  The character clearly stands out as a person stuck in a number of unwanted situations.  These criminals are violently pressuring him to do this job for him to pay back his debt, and it’s subtlety obvious that his wife does not want to be with him, anymore.  Isaac shows the character’s regret well, and comes off more of a sorry man than a sympathetic one.  He’s a guy that’s made a mess of things, and knows nothing will ever be okay ever again.  The damage is done, and he’s just trying to sweep it under the rug as neatly as possible.  However, he’s endangered the lives of his wife and son, and the Driver has no sympathy for the man.  He only helps him out for the benefit of Irene and Benicio.  These actors all add a strong array of emotion to the film which heightens the tone and atmosphere.

Now, speaking of atmosphere, the score constantly hit me as something very akin to Tangerine Dream’s score for Risky Business.  It has that very light, dreamy quality to it most times, but does delve into very dark, heavy territories.  There are foreboding, tense moments in this score that are just mesmerizing.  Cliff Martinez crafts a deeply enveloping auditory experience which soaks into nearly every fiber of the film, but the filmmakers pick key moments where silence holds more weight than a soundtrack.  The collection of songs in this film retain that 1980s ambient synth-pop quality, but have a modern quality that is beyond my ability to articulate.  From my own independent filmmaking experiences, I know how insanely difficult it is to find modern original music that sounds like it came from the 1980s.  So, the fact that music supervisors Eric Craig and Brian McNeils discovered and assembled music of this amazing style and quality impresses me to no end.  I purchased the CD soundtrack, and it now ranks as one of my absolute favorites of all time.

The chase scenes of Drive are masterful.  The first one is exceptionally smart being tactical in evading the police instead of going for outright action.  That aspect come later after the botched robbery.  It’s short and to the point being very slam bang intense, and not over indulging in itself.  The opening sequence is exceptionally refreshing by being intelligent.  On top of being realistic and smart, it is an excellent introduction to our main character showing his precision as a getaway driver.  These scenes are expertly shot accentuating the distinct tones and tensions of both sequences.

When this film gets brutal, it holds nothing back, and hardly goes in predictable directions.  The Driver never relies on a gun, and instead, goes with blunt force trauma to inflict violence upon people.  The scene where he goes into the strip club wouldn’t be nearly as effective if he just brandished a gun the guy’s face.  When you see the Driver pull out a hammer, you know this is going to be dead serious business, and it’s not going to be pretty.  It’s a startling, powerful sequence which further propels the character’s threat level.  He’s not just some cool headed amazing driver, he’s a dangerous man not worth crossing.  The violence overall is graphic and gory, and shockingly unsettling.  Emotion just pours through these scenes.

I am further floored by the cinematography talents of Newton Thomas Sigel.  I’ve previously reviewed his work on The Usual Suspects and Fallen – both gorgeous films with their own identities.  Drive is no different.  No shot is ever wasted, and every composition is chosen with purpose.  How the film is shot reflects the artistic vision realized with the music, acting, and editing.  The film has inspired moments of absolute cinematic beauty due to Sigel’s artistic brilliance.  The elevator scene late in the film is a magnificent example of this.  The lighting and color tones used throughout create rich visuals which enhance the film’s atmosphere further.

This is a film where every element is cohesively used to create a powerfully enveloping experience.  The conservative editing style of Matthew Newman allows Sigel’s shots to hold their weight, and establish a somber or rich tone that draws an audience into every moment.  The music enhances those moments to create a wonderfully vibrant sonic quality for even the most still or fluid sequences.  I haven’t seen a film like this since Manhunter.  The music plays such a prominent role in creating a rich atmosphere that is as in the forefront of the picture as the actors.  Each aspect is integral towards what is a wonderfully engrossing motion picture.

Drive is something which shows what independent film can do.  It takes chances.  It goes for a filmmaking style that has not really been around in more than twenty years.  It takes an immensely effective way of crafting and presenting a film that a major studio would likely not embrace.  It’s an intelligent, fresh, and creative film that feeds the senses.  It gives you white knuckle action, a heartfelt romantic storyline, strong character drama, graphic brutality, gorgeous cinematic moments, intelligent writing, amazing performances, and a beautiful, exciting soundtrack.  It’s hard to imagine all of these phenomenal visual and auditory elements coming across in a screenplay, but Hossein Amini clearly wrote something truly inspiring on those script pages to inspire the amazing film we ultimately got.  I know nothing of the James Sallis novel this was based on, but clearly, the written word captured the vibrant imagination of these filmmakers.  I will admit that Drive is not a mass audience movie as it requires an appreciation for a certain filmmaking style, but for those that love a slick 1980s style crime thriller that utilizes strong atmosphere and a prominent synth-pop soundtrack to wrap you up in its story and characters, this is absolutely for you.  In my view, Drive is a meticulously crafted masterpiece of cinema born out of a bold vision from director Nicolas Winding Refn.  I love this film thoroughly, and I cannot give it a higher recommendation than that.


The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The short version of this review if that The Amazing Spider-Man is a pretty damn good film.  I liked it.  Now, I fell off from being a fan of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies.  The first one was okay, but very cartoonish.  The first sequel is something I passionately hate, and have no desire to ever subject myself to it again.  Thus, I never bothered with the third film.  That made the news of a reboot immensely pleasing to me.  I was very excited to see all that muck washed away, and allow a new filmmaker to start with a clean slate.  Mainly, what I like about this movie is how character driven it is, and how well developed the emotional qualities of it are.  Instead of a very self-pitying Peter Parker, we get one that feels like the character I’ve wanted to see, and is one that is highly enjoyable to invest myself in.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is an outcast high schooler who was abandoned by his parents as a boy, leaving him to be raised by his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). Like most teenagers, Peter is trying to figure out who he is and how he got to be the person he is today. Peter is also finding his way with his first high school crush, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and together, they struggle with love, commitment, and secrets. As Peter discovers a mysterious briefcase that belonged to his father, he begins a quest to understand his parents’ disappearance – leading him directly to OsCorp and the lab of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father’s former partner. As Spider-Man is set on a collision course with Connors’ alter-ego, The Lizard, Peter will make life-altering choices to use his powers and shape his destiny to become a hero.

I want to start out with the tone of this film.  Some may have labeled it a “darker” approach, but that is an incorrect term.  This is a serious, dramatic approach to the character with substantive depth.  However, that doesn’t mean it is not fun.  In fact, this is a very fun movie that finally gives us the witty, charismatic Spider-Man that was sorely absent in the previous three films.  There is a scene where Spidey to webbing a criminal to a brick wall, and the Web-slinger is spouting off the funniest wisecracks which never border on campy or cheesy.  Spidey’s never been an intimidation type of hero like Batman or the Punisher.  He uses his sharp wit and humor to throw his adversaries off balance, but most importantly, it shows that Peter Parker is having a lot of fun being Spider-Man.

The more dramatic tone is handled exceptionally well by director Marc Webb.  The character is treated with love, respect, and integrity.  The relationship between Peter and Gwen is very heartfelt, and never shies away from Peter’s understandable awkwardness.  It makes the character endearing and likeable.  Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have solid chemistry making every loving moment magical.  Of course, the emotional resonance for Peter goes deeper and further than this.  When Peter loses loved ones in the film, it deeply penetrates through the screen.  The connection and mystery surrounding his parents’ death is the linchpin of Peter’s story here.  It’s what drives him forward through the narrative, and causes a lot of heartache and emotional pain for him.  He’s sad, angry, and curious about it at different points in the film.  Both Webb and Garfield make Peter’s pain strongly relatable and sympathetic.  It pours out even stronger after what happens to his Uncle Ben, which is handled with similar circumstances as in the original comics.

Marc Webb and the screenwriters made some smart choices in presenting a similar yet slightly different origin for Spider-Man.  Long standing events in the character’s origin still exist, but are simply given a different environment.  Same general context, but presented in a way to not be carbon copies of what was done in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man.  These sequences entirely retain the purpose and resonance they’ve always have, but we just get to see a different take on how they happen.  For instance, Peter gets bitten by the genetically altered spider because he goes snooping around OsCorp seeking answers on his father.  It’s not a pure chance that’s he’s at the lab.  Specific actions are taken by Peter to place himself in that situation, and Spider-Man is born out of it.  Again, these events are driven by character motivations.  They are plot elements that link back up with one another and tangle up quite nicely.

I love the newly designed costume.  Admittedly, I’m more of a general Spider-Man fan, not a die hard one.  So, I felt that Spidey’s costume could use a little updating, and this fits the bill very well.  The costume slowly comes together as Peter refines how he operates.  I also love how the web-shooters come about.  Sam Raimi decided to make them organic in his films because he didn’t think it was believable that Peter Parker could create an adhesive that some big corporation couldn’t invent.  Here, it is invented by a big corporation – OsCorp – and Peter merely obtains a supply of the material. That’s a brilliantly simple solution.  The mechanical shooters, however, are his creation.

The overall look of the film maintains that dramatic tone with a rich color scheme and respectably moody lighting.  Cinematographer John Schwartzman really does a fine job giving weight and beauty to the dramatic character scenes, and plenty of rousing, exciting camera work to the action sequences.  It looks like a big movie.  As always, I only go see the 2D versions, but I can see a few sequences theoretically turning out rather impressively in 3D, especially the Spidey point of view shots when he’s web-slinging.  There are plenty of dynamic and big shots in the action sequences to give your eyes a pleasant visual feast.  Complementing that is James Horner’s gorgeous score.  He’s done scores I’ve not cared much for, but he’s also done some wondrous work that I think highly of.  He does an exceptionally strong job here giving the film both its poignant emotional moments and its big heroic themes.  Marc Webb really pulled together all the right elements to encapsulate a cohesive tone overall.

And yes, Andrew Garfield is stellar in this role.  I like his take on the character.  He’s not some lowly geek with no spine.  He’s much more modern as a teenager who has a good heart and the desire to stand up to the bully in Flash Thompson, but just doesn’t have what it takes to physically or confidently take a stand.  He can be a little socially awkward here and there, but you can see his heart and charm shine through.  Garfield brings out a fully dimensional character that I truly felt for throughout the movie.  It’s a character journey where Peter has to come to grips with a lot of emotional struggles, and to grasp onto his responsibilities.  He helped Curt Connors find the missing equation that allowed him to become this mutated menace, and Peter knows he has to clean up his own mistakes.  As it has to be said, Garfield AMAZINGLY handles all these diverse aspects from the socially awkward to the heartfelt teenager in love to the emotionally hurting to the humorous wise cracker to the inspiring hero.  He is truly a rock solid fit for this character, and a substantive actor who can carry this franchise for a long time to come.

Emma Stone is equally as good.  She has talent to spare that makes an audience take investment in Gwen Stacy.  She’s a loving, caring, well rounded character brought to textured life by Stone.  She is beautiful and intelligent, making it no wonder why Peter Parker would be so fully taken by her.  I know that, in the comics, Gwen Stacy is killed by one of Spider-Man’s villains, but frankly, with an actress of this quality and breadth of talent, it would be foolish to dispose of her in any soon-to-come sequel.  Again, she has glorious chemistry with Andrew Garfield, and this film definitely takes its time to develop their loving relationship.  I hope to see it grow and flourish in any sequels Columbia Pictures chooses to make.

I also very much liked what Denis Leary did with Captain George Stacy.  Leary easily could’ve slipped into an area of comedy with his line deliveries, harkening to his role on Rescue Me with cynicism and such.  However, he keeps it restrained.  Leary has impressed me vastly with some dramatic roles in the past while also balancing humor such as in Suicide Kings.  Here, he keeps Captain Stacy a respectable man with a serious, focused mind.  He makes the character strong and pertinent as well as showing us some heart along the way.  It’s very exceptional that so many characters are given noticeable development as the film progresses.

I even like how Flash Thompson is given some development.  At first, he’s the usual hard ass bully muscling people around, but he’s given a few scenes where he softens a little.  He expresses compassion for Peter’s loss, and even sort of kids around with him at the film’s end.  That’s such an excellent touch to not make Thompson a one dimensional convenience.  So many times, a bully is just a shallow foil for the hero to overcome.  Here, we see that he is a human being with the capacity for being more than just a jerk.  That’s very nice work by the filmmakers with excellent execution by actor Chris Zylka.

Greatly compelling in the role of Dr. Curt Connors is Rhys Ifans.  He’s an intelligent character who slowly becomes more obsessed with his increasingly crazed machinations.  Once he’s injected with that serum, it begins to change him both biologically and psychologically.  Ifans goes from a fascinating, if distant character to much more unnerving and intimidating.  It’s a rather subtle performance he puts in, never trying to go over the top.  It entirely goes with the film’s general tone, and surely builds Connors up to being threatening as his psychological state becomes more unhinged.

Lastly with the cast we have Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May Parker.  I really, really liked them in these roles.  Sheen conveys the feeling of a surrogate parent doing the absolute best he can to be as good as Peter’s own father.  He’s compassionate and understanding, but also, stern when called for.  With the limited screentime he has, he creates a character that can resonate with an audience through Peter’s perspective.  Sally Field gives Aunt May a more modern sensibility than how the character is usually portrayed as some soft, grandmotherly type.  Field still gives her vulnerability and compassion, but feels like a parent most can relate to.  She has some spirit, humor, and inner strength that I very much admired.

I really just enjoyed how everything felt more contemporary here.  Characters felt like products of the world we live in, and have realistic depth.  It’s a long period of time before Peter Parker dons a costume in this because a lot of time is taken to develop the characters and the context of the world they inhabit.  It all feels very rich and dimensional.  This now feels like a film franchise that can have many layers to it that is not so action dependent.  It can create a compelling story driven by the characters and their emotional states.  Marc Webb definitely leaves the mystery about Peter’s parents open to be further explored and unraveled in another film or two.  There is a single scene just after the start of the end credits featuring Dr. Connors speaking to this effect with an unidentified character.  It’s a definite tease that keeps that storyline in the forefront of the minds of the audience.  I also like how Norman Osborn is continually mentioned, but never shown.  This sets up an unknown reveal of if and how the Green Goblin may enter into this franchise.

The visual effects are pretty good.  There’s a lot of really good stuff, and some effects that could still be better.  The Lizard himself can seem a tad lacking in the seamless realism.  Granted, it’s difficult to make a nearly seven foot tall Lizard appear realistic, but I just felt that it didn’t always interact well with its real world surroundings.  It could be a little cartoonish, especially when tumbling around with Spider-Man at times.  However, it never soured the movie to me.  Admittedly, the digital creation looks better in darker environments such as the sewers or nighttime exteriors, and that’s mostly where we see him.  Thankfully, essentially everything with Spider-Man as a digital effect is practically seamless.  I wasn’t so sold on it from the trailers, but in the film itself, I really can’t see any difference.  The motion of the character remains consistent with realistic weight given to his movements.  No loss of texture was evident to my eyes, either.

The action sequences tend to be very smart.  It’s very much making great use of Spidey’s various powers, and the environments they are set in.  I immensely loved the subway car scene where Peter is first discovering his powers, by accident.  You see the Spidey Sense in action as he reacts instinctually to threats and showcases his speed, agility, and strength without even realizing what he’s doing.  It’s also a rather funny sense as Peter unintentionally assaults some troublemaking subway riders.  There is a sequence showing Peter being overwhelmed by these strong powers, but he slowly reigns them in as he gets more comfortable having them.  It’s handled with some wit and humor along the way.  More dire action scenes really demonstrate the great dynamic between the Lizard and Spider-Man.  The former has the strength and size advantage, but that just forces Spidey to be more inventive and strategic in how he battles this foe.  The climax of the film is very well handled entirely shying away from the worn out “damsel in distress” scenario, and going with something far more organic from the plot that has more dire consequences for the whole city of New York.

However, as I said, this is a character driven story, and the film doesn’t end two minutes after the action climax.  It takes what time it needs to tie off the emotional and character threads that the film spent so much careful time developing.  I really, really like that, and it’s qualities like that which really elevate this film for me.  While I wasn’t astounded or floored by the film as a massively exciting experience, I found more value in that it was structured around character and the intent on building a deep, rich palette to draw upon for stories with more emotional depth and resonance than what was given to us previously.  I can definitely see some people not quite liking this film so much as does feel like a 136 minute film with its more easy pace.  It is a film that takes its time, but balances the drama with plenty of fun.

If Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 was the equivalent of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, then The Amazing Spider-Man is the Batman Begins equivalent for this franchise.  I give The Amazing Spider-Man high praise and a wholehearted recommendation.  I was disappointed that The Avengers had such a weak plot and a totally stock villainous force with no emotional depth or character development.  This is just the opposite as I came to care for practically every pertinent character on screen because the writing was so strong and the direction was very strong and deeply impressive.  The story is injected with plenty of substance with beautiful chemistry from its romantic leads.  It never gets lazy by falling into clichés, and is intent on being fresh and weighty with a nice sense of fun.  The more I think of it, the more I love what this movie has to offer.  I wholly believe it is worth your time to experience it.  While it doesn’t have as much big action punch as The Avengers, I damn well enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man a hell of a lot more.  It feels like a full, fleshed out film with a world of possibilities to explore in subsequent entries.  I just hope most of the audience can see the value in it that I do because I really want to see more of this Spider-Man.


Interview With The Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994)

There are countless interpretations of vampires out there.  Whether it is from Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, John Carpenter, or Joss Whedon – vampires will continue to be explored in literature, films, and television.  What Anne Rice has presented the world is a very classical, romantic, and aristocratic view of nosferatu.  It seems that many may have soured to this interpretation in recent years, at least in the filmed media.  With films like The Lost Boys, Fright Night, John Carpenter’s Vampires, and the television series of Angel and Buffy The Vampire Slayer integrating vampires into a modern setting with pop culture references and humor.  Still, Anne Rice’s view will likely remain the most traditional perception.

Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt) has chosen to grant an interview to a persistent reporter in Daniel Malloy (Christian Slater) in present day San Francisco, California.  Louis is, in fact, a vampire.  This easily takes Daniel by surprise, and is even more shocked to learn it is true.  Louis tells the tale of his life in darkness, as a vampire.  After the death of his wife and child in the year 1791, life lost its meaning for him, and he welcomed death at every turn.  Although, it would never come until he met Lestat (Tom Cruise), who offered him a new life where pain, death, and disease would no longer be a burden to him.  Still, he would have no idea the endless agony that would await him.  Louis spins the tale of two hundred years from Louisiana to Paris and beyond.  Encountering others of his kind, leaving a trail of blood, pain, sorrow, and death behind him.  It is a compelling and enthralling story which has many twists and some surprises.

There’s so much to praise about this film.  Director Neil Jordan gives us a beautiful sense of time and place.  With so much of this film being a period piece extending from the late eighteenth century to the present day, that is the most critical element in this film.  The landscapes are indeed gorgeous with a rich depth and a textured history.  The production designs and values are impressive and masterful.  This is award winning work.  I don’t think I really have the words to express how spectacular, epic, and grand it all is.  Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography compliments it all greatly and beautifully.  I have never seen anything else from Jordan, but I know that this film shows an immense breadth of artistry that I’m sure transcends into his other films.  Though, elegance is essentially the one word to describe this film.  Every second is filled with it from Elliot Goldenthal’s classical score to the performance of the actors.

Brad Pitt is sympathetic as a tortured man condemned to endure it all forever.  As a vampire, who knows for certain if he has a soul (again, depends on your chosen interpretation of them), but it becomes hard to dispute that Louis does.  He so tries to fight against his nature, to be a decent person, and thus, eventually finds nothing but agony from this eternity.  He does not seek death – he could easily step into the daylight and let himself fry – but some form of peace and solitude from eternal damnation.  Pitt portrays and emotes all of this to a tragic degree, but by the late twentieth century, he seems to have come to terms with most everything.

The flip side of this comes from Tom Cruise.  His Lestat finds nothing but pleasure and wonder in his reign as a vampire.  He is somewhat reminiscent of Julian Sands in Warlock – someone with a high sense of elegance and charm, but underneath this gentle facade is pure, delicious, sadistic evil.  Although, Lestat is far more naturally cultured and arrogant.  Up until this film, Tom Cruise had been the young heartthrob leading man with the million dollar smile.  He was the hero, the nice guy.  Here, he shows us his dark side, a striking performance that showed the world he had a talent no one imagined he had.  Cruise wouldn’t step into another dark, let alone villainous role for another nine years in Michael Mann’s Collateral as the sociopathic contract killer Vincent.  As Lestat, he shines with ease, and enjoys every magnificent moment of it.  Kirsten Dunst won several awards for her portrayal of the girl who would be eternally young by way of the blood of a vampire.  Those awards were well deserved, and easily launched her young career forward starring in dozens of films in the subsequent years.

The story eventually moves forward to Paris where new characters come into play.  Stephen Rea portrays Santiago as a very playful, mischievous, but still sadistic creature of the night.  It’s a fun performance, giving the film a different spark of life when it really needs it.  After the departure of Lestat from the story, these new personalities are quite welcomed.  Antonio Banderas, as always, is marvelous.  As Armand, he carries much weight about him, and has a powerful presence and allure.  He easily becomes the main antagonist at this point in the film.  He is more directly evil and seductive than Lestat.  Outside the view of the public, he makes no allusions to being anything but what he truly is.  Louis calls he and his minions monsters, and that is indeed true.  The final talent to mention is Christian Slater.  While his role is minimal, it is well played with an apprehension and fear.   The late River Phoenix was originally chosen to play this role, but when he met an untimely and tragic death, Slater stepped in to deliver a solid performance.

Louis’ story is filled with much emotional richness with so much tragedy, love, heartbreak, and pathos.  It surely has a different quality to something like Highlander where immortals are still human, can still do most things any other person can, but simply have to live for centuries on end enduring life on a larger canvas of time.  Here, Louis is tortured because he has become something ungodly and so against his nature.  He’s a man who comes to realize that he only traded one kind of pain for another, and now, must live with it for eternity.  It’s a journey that might be a little romanticized, but it is mostly sorrowful and somber.  His story is populated with rich, fascinating characters in a wide, sprawling, gorgeous world.

Overall, I must say that this is a remarkable film.  It is wonderfully constructed.  Everything blends and weaves together in an enrapturing narrative.  The editing remains wholly coherent and competent.  You never got lost in the timeline of events, or in the few flashes from the present to the past.  Anne Rice adapted her own novel for the film, and while I know nothing to the novel itself, I surely get the feeling that it is faithful from how much care clearly went into the film.  The film also definitely has its share of scares and frightening moments while gore is kept to a respectable minimum, but showcases some wonderful makeup work.  The movie concludes with a Guns N’ Roses cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil,” which I find very appropriate.  The lyrics of the song are very much akin to Lestat and those like him in the film.  Many never liked this cover deeming it tacky, but I truly enjoy it.  It was the last thing recorded with anything resembling the classic line-up of the band.  However, as far as the film goes, it was critically and commercially successful.  I have no qualms about it, and give it a perfect score!  While it might not be every horror fans’ taste, this is an extremely well made film showcasing an abundance of talent in every frame from everyone involved.  It gets my highest recommendation.