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Posts tagged “fantasy

Mortal Kombat (1995)

Mortal KombatTo this very day, I am still a Street Fighter II gamer fan, but I have never seen either of the live action movies based on that video game property.  Instead, Mortal Kombat is the one that I have always greatly enjoyed.  I was subscribed to a few video game magazines back in the day when I owned my Super Nintendo, and I remember all the hype and articles that were published on the making of this film.  With how poorly received the Street Fighter movie was, fans were clamoring for Mortal Kombat to succeed and dominate at the box office, which it did.  Although, I’m glad my tastes matured to realize how bad this film’s sequel was, but this rather impressive first film by, of all people, Paul W.S. Anderson still holds up rather well today.

Summoned to the mysterious land of Outworld by the sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), three martial arts warriors engage in the ultimate battle of good against evil – the supernatural tournament of Mortal Kombat.  The honorable Liu Kang (Robin Shou) seeks to avenge his brother’s death, action film star Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) desires a validation of his skills, and the dogged law enforcement agent Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) hunts a murderous underworld criminal.  They are all brought together under the guidance of Lord Raiden (Christopher Lambert), God of Lighting, to put them on the path to victory, or else Earth will fall to the forces of darkness forever.

Movies adapted from video games have been a notoriously bad film genre.  So many filmmakers find it difficult to adapt the material into a recognizable product, but Mortal Kombat had a very well fleshed out story built into it.  Still, Hollywood seems to make a habit out of screwing up the easiest of adaptations, but here, it is a stunningly near faithful job.  Sure, Kano is changed from Chinese to Australian, and maybe a few details are messed with here and there.  However, this film is executed exceptionally well from a fairly good screenplay with a lot of fun to be had.

The only real shortcoming this movie has, which does date the film, is the quality of the digital effects.  The filmmakers really kept the budget down under $20 million, which was very smart on all levels, but especially in 1995, that really limited what CGI could do for them.  Even the bad CGI of today is better than what we get here.  However, if the film is good enough in story, characters, and entertainment value, I can forgive substandard effects.  The most impressive effect, which is done entirely practically, is the towering Prince Goro.  Surely, if made today, he’d be 100% CGI, but these filmmakers made the smart and economic choice of creating an animatronic character.  He can be a little stiff at times, but frankly, I’d take a well implemented practical creature over a cheap CGI one, which we do get in the form of Reptile.

What really makes this film work, in my opinion, is that it does take the property fairly seriously, but keeps the tone comfortably open for humor and light fun.  There are bright, cartoonish characters like Kano, Sub-Zero, and Scorpion, but there’s a firm enough sense of danger and gravity attached to them to make them formidable, not funny.  There is an emotional story for Liu Kang to traverse dealing with fate, destiny, grief, guilt, and his own inner strength.  That gives the film its weight of drama and heart, but it’s never bogged down by heavier subject matter.  Anderson hits that right balance to give the film some substance, but maintain a tone completely conducive to fun.  It’s sad to say that many of his subsequent films couldn’t achieve that respectable balance.

They say a hero is only as good as his villain, and in this case, we have a great villain in Shang Tsung perfectly cast with Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.  He is a rock solid serious threat enveloping himself in a dark, haunting mystique.  You can tell he was enjoying playing this meaty role.  He has an authoritative presence, but wisely maintains a low key, confident manner showing that Shang Tsung is truly in control every step of the way.  However, Tagawa can unleash a vicious mean streak when the moment calls for it.  He just portrays a great, smart, subtly charismatic, and cunning villain that I have always thoroughly enjoyed.  Better yet, he gets to speak all of the game’s signature lines such as “flawless victory” and “finish him!”

While Johnny, Sonya, and Liu are treated fairly equally through most of the film, it is indeed Liu Kang that is the intended lead hero.  Robin Shou does a very admirable job taking Liu on a progression from the skeptical, slightly arrogant young man to a wiser, stronger fighter.  Shou shows he can handle the lightly introspective and soul searching qualities of the role very well, and is a very capable martial artist.  I really like the journey he takes Liu Kang on, but the film, almost wisely, doesn’t dwell on these character development aspects.  I have no doubt that Shou could have done more with it had the script called for it, but the film maintains a tight and consistent pace of excitement.  So, there’s hardly a lull in the action or momentum, and Paul W.S. Anderson fits everything comfortably into a 101 minute runtime.

Johnny Cage is charismatically portrayed by Linden Ashby.  He really is a well-rounded fit into this group of characters adding in the needed arrogant wiseass comments, but being charming and likable all the way through.  It’s interesting to note that the role had been previously offered, supposedly, to both Jean-Claude Van Damme and Brandon Lee.  Van Damme chose to do Street Fighter while Lee had tragically died before production began.  It’s interesting to think how the film would have been different with either of them as Cage.  Regardless, Ashby proved way more than capable, and really shined flawlessly in this role.

Of course, Christopher Lambert is just delightful.  I could probably watch a movie of any quality as long as Lambert is having fun in it, which says a lot for why I own the first three Highlander sequels.  As Raiden, he brings both a weight of wisdom and levity of charm into the mix.  His slightly raspy voice really lends towards the ancient mystique of the God of Lightning.  Lambert, overall, just delivers the dramatic, thematic weight of these warriors with Raiden’s perceptive words of wisdom, and just makes things a little more fun and charming at times.

Many of these actors really deliver on the physical and martial arts demands, and the film throws some regular action scenes their way.  While none of it is the best martial arts fight choreography you’ll ever see, it serves its purpose towards an exciting and thrilling movie.  The only weak link is probably Bridgette Wilson as she doesn’t come off as a very skilled fighter using very basic kicks and punches.  Even taken as just law enforcement training, it’s still nothing special.  Shou and Ashby show off much more diverse and dynamic skills, and are much more interesting and fun to watch in their fights.  Thankfully, they are the ones given the most opportunity to show off those skills.

Of course, the possible biggest point of contention is that the video game was famous for being a very graphic and bloody video game, but this is almost an entirely bloodless PG-13 film.  However, this movie does its job quite well enough that the absence of blood and gore has never bothered me.  Certainly, many fans likely still wanted to satiate their cinematic bloodlust when the end credits rolled, but this Mortal Kombat movie is still primed to please, regardless.

While I wouldn’t say there’s anything special to say about the cinematography as a whole, Anderson does have everything shot very smartly.  A lot of sets are utilized to create the exotic feeling of Outworld, and enough is done with lighting, camera angles and framing, and a little bit of haze to make these sets work solidly.  There are some very visually sharp moments utilizing some light, shadow, and fog to build up mystique, which is really the film’s strong suit.  There’s a respectable amount of atmosphere in this film which creates the sense of unease and danger for our heroes.  Everything is being fought on Shang Tsung’s world and his terms, and that world is indeed very intriguing with some very smart production designs, borrowing from some Asian cultures for a little added exotic flare.

Mortal Kombat really does succeed in putting the concepts and characters of the video game into a respectable feature film package.  Unlike the live action Street Fighter, this movie is able to retain its tournament format as it is entirely connected with the larger plot.  Fight and lose, Earth falls to Outworld.  Fight and win, and we are free from their impending tyranny.  Every character motivation and arc is intertwined with that very logically, and the film smartly contains its cast of characters to avoid spreading itself thin.  Everyone has the right amount of screentime to flesh out their roles and progress the plot forward in just the right ways.  While the script is nothing spectacular, it hit all the right marks and kept everything very manageable in story structure and characters for its director to make the most of the concept under fairly tight constraints.

Mortal Kombat might not be a flawless victory, but it was a very solid first step forward to one that never happened.  Believe it or not, I actually gave this film’s sequel a positive review upon its theatrical release.  An avid video game friend of mine made me realize the error of my ways a few years later, and I retracted and rewrote that review in a much more negative, yet honest light.  Anyway, what we’ve got with Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 live action film is a surprisingly damn good movie filled with a consistent current of energy flowing through it, which is electrifyingly reflected by its intense electronic techno dance remix soundtrack.  Overall, it’s just a fun martial arts action fantasy film that is definitely one of the best video game-to-film adaptations ever done.  I really, seriously love this movie completely.  It’s a great piece of exciting entertainment that will get you jonesing to play one of these games all over again!

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Snow White and The Huntsman (2012)

Snow White and The HuntsmanI wouldn’t have thought of myself ever really checking out this movie out of self-ambition.  However, I came across a video review of it from a usually trusted source.  So, I gave it an honest chance, and to my pleasant surprise, I did indeed enjoy this movie a great deal.  There are two main reasons why I write reviews.  The first is because I love film in many of its forms, and I enjoy sharing my passions for it.  The second is to open up others to films that I feel are worth discovering, and in turn, I enjoy other people opening up my horizons to new, good films.  So, it’s great when others do the same for me.  With Snow White & The Huntsman, there’s a really solid fantasy picture here worth giving a chance to.

Years ago, the noble King Magnus fell prey to the enchantment of the evil Ravenna (Charlize Theron) who killed him and took reign over his kingdom.  Sustained by draining the life from others, Queen Ravenna remains forever young and beautiful, but the King’s daughter, left alive and imprisoned, has now come of age as the fairest of all in the land to threaten this darkness.  Snow White (Kristen Stewart) soon escapes the castle, and the Queen sends a rugged Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track her down.  However, the Huntsman soon joins with Snow White on a journey to see her father’s kingdom reclaimed through a land of treacherous enemies.

While watching this, I was really pleased that it kept selling me on it all the way through.  I liked the narration by the Huntsman who gracefully sets up the details of this story taking us through Snow White’s youth and the kingdom’s fall.  The movie is tightly paced, propelling its story forward in a lean matter, but still with plenty of meat to the characters and their stories.  In fact, despite watching the extended edition while writing this review, the film seemed to move along even faster than on my first viewing of the theatrical cut.  The extended version has a few good, new scenes that add a little extra depth and detail here and there.  There is a scene between the Huntsman and William, Snow White’s childhood friend and archer, in the extended cut that better sets up and pays off another scene with the obligatory poison apple.  Of course, we also get some very good action sequences, which are also tight and to the point.  They exist long enough to serve their purpose, and are solidly satisfying and exciting.  It all feels real and consequential.  The battles are never taken lightly, and there are casualties beyond just the obligatory background soldiers.

Now, really looking at this, I feel this is a fantasy film that could’ve hit in the 1980’s next to Highlander or Excalibur.  This movie has some stunning imagery and inspired cinematography.  Early on, I love how bold the blood reds are.  They standout as really symbolic.  Overall, this film has grit, murkiness, and dramatic weight.  Many scenes are smoky and moody.  It creates a tangible, grounded world that still allows for the fantastical to live and breathe.  It’s a dark world reflecting the grim bleakness the Queen has cast over it, and that just creates a very engaging look for me.  It has a lot of that same texture found in The Lord of the Rings movies, but with more of its own gritty mystical atmosphere and mood.  Snow White and the Huntsman is a really beautifully shot film helmed by a director who clearly has vision.

Surely, for some, Kristen Stewart would be an obstacle for them due to her work in the Twilight movies.  I have not subjected myself to those films for many reasons, but I believe this film shows that sometimes it’s not the actor but the material that should be questioned.  I am very pleased to state that Kristen Stewart does a very wonderful job here.  It did not take me long to see that she was a young woman of admirable talent.  There is a lot of depth to this character, and there is a strong arc for her that Kristen Stewart conveys remarkably well.  The fear is something she sells very realistically early on, but there is a hope and strength that grows out of that fear.  As Snow White progresses through this adventure, you see her mature into a stronger, more active character.  There is subtlety and beauty to what Stewart accomplishes here.  She really shows a lot of heart, warmth, but also a tinge of sorrow along the way.  And indeed, she has touching chemistry with Chris Hemsworth which also really drives this film forward on many great levels.

I am really a believer that Chris Hemsworth is on the verge of having an amazing career.  While my exposure to him has been very minimal outside of Thor, he continues to demonstrate a powerful presence and great depth of talent in everything he does.  Clearly, he handles the physicality here greatly.  The Huntsman surely has his humor stemming from his attitude and Hemsworth’s rich charisma.  Yet, there is a heartbreak to him stemming from being a widower, and Hemsworth really digs deep inside to evoke those potentially tear-jerking emotions.  It’s a very dimensional character backed by a performance that quickly and easily endears himself to an audience.  The only off thing comes from his accent, which I couldn’t place, but turns out it was supposed to be Scottish.  In the least, he puts forth more effort into his accent than Sean Connery has with any other accent in his entire career.

Charlize Theron is perfectly cast as the evil Queen Ravenna.  She plays it as someone on the frayed ends of manic obsession.  Ravenna is insanely consumed with her outward beauty, but surely, inside, she is a horrible monster.  Theron has more than proven her talent over the years, and this is an absolutely excellent performances. There is a tragic quality to this twisted character, and you see that soaked into every fiber of Theron’s performance.  There’s complexity and depth to her that runs very deep.  However, what sells it all the most is simply her eyes.  The glaring, crazed, unflinching stare is downright scary.  You can see just how far off the deep end she is between that and her explosive rants.  Theron even tore a stomach muscle because she was screaming so intensely, and I can believe it.

And there are still dwarves in this tale.  These roles are filled by great actors such as Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, and Ray Winstone, among others.  The same sort of techniques used for similar smaller statured characters in The Lord of the Rings films were used here, and done so with seamless results.  Hoskins is essentially their leader, and has the most dialogue.  However, while his line deliveries are quite good, I found it odd that he was practically stone-faced throughout.  I don’t think he registered a single actual facial expression in his screentime.  Regardless, the dwarves tend to add the needed levity to the heavier, dramatic story being told.  They never make things silly, just a little fun and light-hearted at times in the latter half of the movie.

I would say that the only segment of the film that didn’t wholly appeal to me was the latter half of the Fairy Sanctuary.  This is the land that has been untouched by Ravenna’s darkness, and it is flourishing with a lush landscape and fantastical wonders.  However, there’s just a lot of peculiar CGI woodland creatures that simply weren’t to my liking.  With so much gritty realism in the film, this just felt pushed too deeply into the vibrant, slightly cartoonish fantastical realm, but it’s not long before it shifts back into the dark, grittiness.

This does bring up the issue of the digital effects.  Most are really good, especially in the Dark Forest with all the almost pitch black creatures that slither and crawl out of the darkness, but in the Fairy Sanctuary, it is very obvious CGI that feels like it came out of another film.  That’s another reason why that sequence didn’t work too well for me.  Also, the withering age make-up on Charlize Theron is especially good, but some of the more elaborate morphing effects shots on her have room for improvement.  Generally, the digital effects are fairly good with some really good stuff, but there is some more prominently on display work that doesn’t come off all that well.  Thankfully, this film has very practical stunt work, and the realistic locations like the castles were actually built for the film.  The filmmakers didn’t rely on digital matte paintings.

This film, while taking a new approach to the material, still hits all the classic beats of the Snow White story, but uses them to propel this story into larger territory.  The poison apple from Ravenna to Snow White gives Hemsworth his best scene pouring out his heart over the dead Snow White.  When she returns from death, it inspires and motivates herself and everyone else to take up arms and charge into battle.  Kristen Stewart delivers a strong, inspirational, rallying speech to these people   The fire and passion she projects is great.  It is the moment where the character comes into her own, and becomes a leader to take back the kingdom that was stolen from her father.  Snow White and The Huntsman still has that fairy tale simplicity, but adds in significant depth to mature the content, which is what makes it work so well.  Every character has their sense of realism and dimensionality, and they serve both the gritty realism and the fantastical elements of the movie.

This film’s exciting, entertaining, it has a good, solid story, fine substance, satisfying character arcs, and overall, just has a great look to it.  Also, from the opening logos to the end credits, the score is just enveloping and moody.  That comes as no surprise from James Newton Howard, one of the best film score composers around today.  Directed Rupert Sanders simply does a very solid job with this material, and hones his actors into bringing this darker fantasy take to life.  I would say this is a hell of a good feature film directorial debut, and I hope he continues to deliver this kind of tight, cohesive quality.  I know a sequel has already been planned, and while there’s not much precedent for further Snow White adventures, I will be eagerly interested to see what story these filmmakers conceive for it.  There’s a great set of characters here that were well developed and filled by strong, rich talents.  So, there is potential there, but until then, I will be happy to revisit this adventure quite a few times. I highly recommend it!


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.


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.


November Update

Now that all the horror and James Bond movies are behind me, I will be returning to a much more leisurely schedule for reviews.  Forever Horror Month was a very rigorous output of content that I will not be repeating with posting one review per day.  There will be another Forever Horror Month next October, but it will be a much smaller undertaking.  It was fun sharing all of these horror films with everyone, but I did fall behind schedule due to several factors resulting in a difficult final week.  Yet, I was determined to make good on my word in completing the month.  So, I am proud to have pushed forward all the way through to the end with a total of 41 reviews published in 31 days.

I do have a few reviews planned for the next month or so.  There has been a very analytical review of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in progress since mid-September, and I intend to have that completed by month’s end.  I might do another Star Trek movie review depending on time and sustained interest in writing it.  If it happens, it will be posted ahead of The Undiscovered Country review.  I also have the urge to watch and write reviews of some more Highlander movies.  I have just ordered an alternate cut of Highlander: The Final Dimension on DVD for an impending review.  I have the original 1998 U.S. DVD featuring the actual director’s cut, but the 2005 and 2011 DVD releases have the European cut of the film.  So, I want to include some comparison in the review since I believe there are good and bad differences in both from what I have read.

Beyond all of that, I do still want to have reviews of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi up before the year is out.  If they do come within that time, they are certainly going to be happening in December.  And yes, I am very aware of the entire Disney purchase of Lucasfilm Limited, but until I know how Disney will handle the property of Star Wars, I have no opinion to pass upon it or the impending new trilogy of Episodes VII, VIII, & IX.  I’ll just wait and see.  It should be an interesting ride as they develop, regardless.

Lastly, you may have noticed some changes since November 1st.  This is because I decided to make Forever Cinematic an official product of RavensFilm Productions.  Since I put so much time and passion into this blog, I felt it was a logical choice to meld them together.  Nothing has changed beyond the slight cosmetics, but you can now see the Twitter feed for RavensFilm to the right under the Forever Cinematic Facebook feed.  I also expanded the social media sharing options for the blog posts.  I will be refining other minor aspects of Forever Cinematic over the coming weeks.

-Nick Michalak


Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I haven’t been a loyal follower of Tim Burton’s career, but the films I have seen from him, I very much do enjoy.  Sleepy Hollow is a very pleasant entry in his career, collaborating with Johnny Depp, that strikes the right balance between Burton’s quirky humor and dramatic gothic storytelling.  It’s fun, exciting, and scary all at the same time.

Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) of the New York police arrives in the small village of Sleepy Hollow in 1799 to solve a mystery of murders. With all the victims found with their heads missing, everybody in Sleepy Hollow is talking about the ghost of the “Headless Horseman.”  He is supposedly out in the woods seeking revenge for his murder many years ago.  Crane, believing only in logic, refuses to believe the public’s theory about the horseman and begins his investigations, only to find his faith shattered when he himself encounters the headless horseman.  Yet, he is compelled to resolve his investigation after falling deeply in love with the beautiful young Katrina (Christina Ricci).  Their fates intertwine as Ichabod attempts to unravel the supernatural and wicked mysteries that threaten everyone’s lives in Sleepy Hollow.  It’s a magical tale of sense against myth.

While I think general audiences today are a little worn out on the repeated Burton-Depp collaborations, Sleepy Hollow is an excellent piece of work that’s worth your while.  Depp does a brilliant job as Constable Crane.  He brings a certain young naivety to the ambitious investigator.  He has bold new ideas about using science and intellect to deduce crimes that his superiors lightly dismiss.  The contrast of everyone’s grim, fearsome attitudes to Crane’s more upbeat mentality creates an amusing dynamic.  Crane is definitely intelligent and educated, but Depp’s clever, delicate balance between the serious and the tongue-in-cheek tone of Crane makes him such a delight.  True to the source material, Ichabod is somewhat cowardly, but he can muster up courage when it counts.  Beyond all else, he’s determined to resolve this twisting mystery that seems to have an air of conspiracy about it.  That’s what makes him a character to invest yourself in.  Despite his own trembling fears, he picks himself back up and pushes forward to finish what he began.  Depp shows a lot of sweet charm and humor making Ichabod a pure hearted hero that both amuses and inspires.

I will absolutely admit that I once had a fascination with Christina Ricci.  She’s a beautiful and highly talent actress who doesn’t shy away from challenging material.  What she gives us as Katrina is a lovely, graceful young lady that is indeed bewitching.  She carries an ethereal aura about her reflecting Katrina’s depth and purity of soul.  Ricci and Depp have a gorgeous chemistry that really lights up the screen, and enraptures an audience with their magic.  They are such an excellent fit that I’d love to see more of them together.

At the time of release, it was kept a secret that the Hessian Horseman was portrayed by Christopher Walken.  It was an added pleasant surprise when I first saw the film in 1999.  Aside from some animalistic grunts as he slays his victims., the Horseman has no lines of dialogue, and doesn’t need any due to how he is portrayed and presented.  It was a great idea to tell the Horseman’s story early on to have the bloodthirsty psychotic face embed itself in the audience’s minds.  The Horseman filed his teeth to a razor sharp point that made him appear more frightening in his enemies’ eyes.  It’s an amazing, ferocious design that sends a chill up your spine, especially in conjunction with Walken’s charismatic physicality.  It’s also great that the Horseman is not the ultimate villain, but a weapon used by a treacherous conspirator.

Tim Burton really culled together a magnificent cast with several veterans of stage and screen as well as some fine young talents such as Casper Van Dien.  Adding in some Hammer Films alumnus like Christopher Lee and Michael Gough was a very nice touch.  Miranda Richardson has a wonderful turn in this film that she seemed very enthusiastic about throwing herself into.  Her overall performance is marvelous.

The visual effects of Sleepy Hollow are astonishingly good.  Just getting the Headless Horseman to become a reality on screen was a big challenge, I’m sure, and there is nothing but top notch quality on display here.  The various decapitations and other gory slayings are phenomenally done.  What else would you expect from Industrial Light & Magic?  The effects never cease to impress throughout the entire movie.  The film has a generous helping of blood and gore to make some squirm or jump in their seats while others will simply relish its exquisite glory.  The practical effects are seamlessly integrated with the digital effects for a visually amazing experience.  I cannot praise this work highly enough.  While there are some silly moments with the visual effects, they are perfectly at home in a Tim Burton movie.

The gothic aesthetics of Tim Burton are realized in a magnificent way.  The film has a slightly desaturated, gritty look giving way to a more grim feeling of looming danger.  Sleepy Hollow is shot beautifully, strongly maintaining that dark tone of horror and tension.  Yet, there are plenty of picturesque sequences, such as a series of dreams Ichabod has which further enrich the fantastical, and sometimes, enchanting aspects of the movie.  This truly is a visually gorgeous film in a style that could only come from the imagination of Tim Burton.  And of course, Danny Elfman created a powerfully grandiose score that fits perfectly with Burton’s gothic stylings.  It is a stunning, sweeping piece of work that enhances all the dark, lovely, and magical atmospheres of Sleepy Hollow.

This movie really is a lot of fun.  Burton doesn’t take it too seriously as he applies his own dark comedy to the more violent, gruesome moments.  So, while the Horseman is chasing down and chopping off the heads of hapless victims, there’s usually a humorous quirk in there, but Burton keeps it in check.  He never allows it to compromise the dramatic integrity of the story, and instead sort of does it at Ichabod’s expense, which is entirely fitting.  Said story has plenty of mysterious aura and thrilling moments of tense horror and suspense.  The Horsemen, head or no, is very scary and intimidating.  He’s mercilessly violent and very smart.  There are superbly executed plot twists that are never cheap.  This is a smartly crafted screenplay which weaves its way around these solidly conceived characters.  The secrets and manipulations abound under the surface of this quiet village make for a fertile ground for this sort of story.  How everything is unraveled in the end is quite wicked.

That said, this has a hell of a great climax with plenty of fiery action and dramatic revelations.  Characters are kept in serious peril as it becomes a race to save lives while the Horseman in unleashed once again.  Action and suspense build up to a highly energetic and exciting level, and the pay-off is quite ironic and fitting.  It is all very satisfying tying up all the plot and character threads with that classic Tim Burton wit and charm.

This is a beautifully crafted film in every aspect.  It’s a visual masterwork backed by an excellent script written by the deeply talented Andrew Kevin Walker with a story co-developed by Kevin Yagher.  The latter of the two also worked on the creature effects here, and doing a remarkable job at it, too.  There are many tried and true Tim Burton talents who were involved with this film which instilled it with an amazing depth of artistry and talent.  The film definitely delivers on exciting tension and fearsome scares with a light air of dark, quirky humor.  It also weaves an enchanting love story through its haunting and startling mystery.  I really, really like Sleepy Hollow because, beyond everything else, it’s just a fun watch with plenty to take pleasure in.  This is truly one of Tim Burton’s finest outings, and I’m glad that Johnny Depp was along for the ride.  They both do a brilliant job through every frame of this film.  I give Sleepy Hollow my full recommendation.  It’s more than worth your while.


Masters of the Universe (1987)

There are many things from my childhood that haven’t stuck with me in my adult years.  Various cartoons don’t hold up to those youthful memories, but what has remained an indomitable favorite of mine has been He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.  I own the entire original series on DVD, and I still enjoy those episodes as much today as I did as a kid in the 1980s.  It still rekindles that inspiring morality and heroic admiration in me.  The show had a lot of heart and genuine care put into it, and it did have some smart thematic writing amongst its silliness.  Beyond that, it was a fun cartoon that entertained me.  Obviously, with the success the show had a full scale motion picture was inevitable, but it came at the tail end of the franchise’s 1980s popularity.  It bombed at the box office for more reasons than just the franchise’s loss of popularity.  I grew up watching this movie repeatedly, and while it has its undeniable problems, I still find something entertaining and worthwhile in 1987’s Masters of the Universe.  Beyond anything else, it features one of the absolute best villainous performances in the history of cinema from one incredible actor.

For ages, the Sorceress of Grayskull (Christina Pickles) has kept the universe in harmony, but now, Skeletor (Frank Langella) – the evil lord of Snake Mountain – has taken absolute rule over the Planet Eternia, and Castle Grayskull is under siege from his sinister forces.  Now, the mighty hero He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) and his fellow Eternian warriors are the only hope for freedom, but these courageous heroes are soon transported to Earth via the Cosmic Key – the latest creation from the peaceful inventor Gwildor (Billy Barty).  Stranded on Earth, He-Man comes to the aid of a pair of youths (Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill), and their two journeys quickly become one as they battle through Skeletor’s mercenaries in the attempt to free the Sorceress and save the universe from the tyrannical domination of Skeletor.

What easily polarizes the faithful He-Man fans are the distinct departures or obvious omissions from the established property.  The Prince Adam alter ego is never addressed.  Dolph Lundgren is He-Man throughout the entire movie, and no mention is ever made of his secret identity.  No one questions where the Prince of Eternia is, and we do not get treated to the bombastic transformation sequence from Prince Adam into He-Man.  Thus, there is no Cringer / Battle Cat.  Orko, the comical sorcerer who floats around in the cartoon, is essentially replaced by Gwildor.  Most likely, that was due to the excessive cost of having an optical composite of a single character appearing regularly throughout the movie.  The only regular cohorts of Skeletor’s that appear are Beast Man and Evil-Lynn.  Blade, Saurod, and Karg are brand new characters that were exclusively created for this movie.  There are other minor things here and there, but those are the meaty chunks.  Obviously, new characters meant new action figures to market and make money from.  So, I doubt Mattel had many qualms about swapping out established favorites for fresh creations.  Of course, for those anticipating a big live action motion picture adaptation of these characters, Masters of the Universe certainly didn’t reach those base expectations.

However, there is still definite quality here that deserves some respect and credit.  Apart from the Earth-based sequences, where there’s not much to show off, the production design is highly impressive.  A great amount of thought and detail went into the matte paintings, sets, costumes, and props.  While budget constraints hindered the story, what we get presented to us shows a lot of hard work and care in what these professional filmmakers did do.  These were people who were trying to give us the best film they could, and I think it shows through the shortcomings.

Skeletor himself and his mercenaries look incredible and frightening due to the masterful work of Michael Westmore.  He is most acclaimed for his work on numerous Star Trek television series and movies.  I constantly find it amazing how exceptional practical creature effects were done on budgets like this film’s $22 million.  Today, even with hundreds of millions of dollars, we continually see digital creature effects fall so far short that it’s sad.  When you have the talent on board to create these physical masterworks, they cannot be beat.  Skeletor is an amazing achievement creating a powerful and textured look that has both a bony and fleshy appearance.  The filmmakers made it a point to allow the make-up and prosthetics the ability to have Frank Langella’s performance show through in detail, and that was absolutely the right approach.  Beast Man can be ferociously terrifying just at the sight of him, not mentioning the violent things he’s capable of doing.  Saurod is just a brilliant creation with a great reptilian style that actor Pons Maar really accentuates with his performance.  The addition of the expanding gills just brings so much realistic life to the character.  Karg is probably the least fascinating on a character level.  He’s written as just a regular team leader, and doesn’t strike nearly as much fear as his cohorts do.  Still, the design of him is exceptionally realized.  However, my favorite character of the bunch, which features no make-up effects, but has a very sharp and dangerous outfit, is Anthony De Longis as Blade.  The character has plenty of vile charisma, and it’s nice to see a character designed to be a challenge for He-Man in a sword fight.  De Longis is an exceptionally accomplished swordsman and a master handler of the bullwhip.  He later appeared in two episodes of Highlander: The Series in some marvelous sword battles.  He was also Frank Langella’s stunt double for the film’s climactic clash.  As far as the bullwhip goes?  He was the trainer for both Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns and Harrison Ford in the fourth Indiana Jones movie.  Anthony De Longis is an amazing talent, and the filmmakers of Masters of the Universe were very fortunate to have him involved.

The visual effects produced by Richard Edlund hold up quite well.  Edlund had already worked on the special visual effects for all three of the original Star Wars movies as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, and Big Trouble in Little China.  His body of work speaks for itself, and this film showed no fall off from his standards of excellence.  The portal opened by the Cosmic Key looks magical and beautiful with its vibrant, swirling colors.  It’s amazing effects work that I don’t think even digital technology could improve upon.  It’s work done by the masters of visual effects, and that quality is richly evident.  The matte paintings are absolutely gorgeous.  I really love a beautifully done matte painting, and this film has a few with Castle Grayskull being the biggest standout.  Its design is a distinct departure from previous depictions, but it looks no less imposing or mysterious in this film.  The optical composites integrating flying objects and vehicles into the live action footage are generally alright.  The process always left a little something to be desired.  In this film, it’s quite good with probably the most strained quality coming in the hovercraft chase between He-Man and the Centurion.  The chase itself is well conceived and flows into the action of the overall sequence well.  The compositing itself is just about as good as it got, but the shots of them flying through the city streets and around buildings definitely lack a sense of real gravity or weight.  However, I can’t confidently say whether or not it could have been done any better than these filmmakers did it at the time.

I’ve heard people criticize the score done by Bill Conti as being a John Williams rip-off of Star Wars or Superman.  Conti did the scores for five of the six Rocky movies and all of the original films in The Karate Kid franchise.  The man has more than proven his worth as a composer to me.  While I clearly hear what it is those critics have pointed out, frankly, there is no other type of score one should expect from a 1980s science fiction / fantasy adventure film.  It entirely suits the tone and style of the film.  It’s very rich, colorful, dramatic, and epic.  It captures that rousing spirit that should come with a He-Man adventure.  There is nothing bad or wrong with the score Conti did for Masters of the Universe.

I do believe that Dolph Lundgren did a fine job as He-Man.  Between the script and his performance, the moral heroic nature of the character is maintained.  Lundgren projects a good depth of heart and compassion for his friends and the innocent.  He’s a hero that will sacrifice himself to protect others, which is purely He-Man.  There were plenty of times on the cartoon where He-Man would risk himself to even save an enemy because he believed all life was worth protecting, and much of that is respected here.  Lundgren did all his own stunts, and it clearly shows.  He handles the demanding and nicely dynamic action of the film very well.  Lundgren made He-Man a solid hero to get behind and believe in.  I know he had a difficult time shooting the film, but in the eyes of a devoted He-Man fan, I strongly feel he did the character great justice and respect.  I also love the quality put into his costuming.  Adding the elegant red cape was a very good choice for a live action version of He-Man.  It gives him a stronger visual aesthetic mixed in with the other finely detailed elements of the outfit.

However, what truly brings a bold sense of excellence to this movie is Frank Langella’s masterful performance as Skeletor.  Langella is a brilliant actor that regularly brings a great theatrical style to his performances, as I’ve also seen in his turn as Dracula, and in this role, he dominates the screen with a presence that enthralls and captivates an audience’s attention.  You can feel Skeletor’s lust for supreme power absorbing into every fiber of his being, and how his conquest of Eternia has fueled his ambition.  Langella brings an immense depth and power to a character that had always been cackling and comical before.  Skeletor is finally the frightening figure of villainy and sorcery that he deserved to be.  Vaporizing one of his own mercenaries due to their failure, inflicting vile wounds upon the innocent, and making the heroes suffer under his tyrannical rule are richly evil aspects which build towards a great character.  Under Langella’s talent, Skeletor is intelligent and calculating with a confidence that borders on arrogance.  The overall design further enhances his performance.  The deep contrast between the gorgeous black flowing attire and the stark white skull-like facial prosthetics created a bold, striking appearance that inevitably helped fuel the performance.  In my eyes, Frank Langella portrays one of the absolute best villains in all of cinema.  Between his performance and the depth of pure, unforgiving evil that Skeletor embodies here, I would even elevate it above Darth Vader.  It’s only a shame that it wasn’t in a more critically and commercially successful movie for Langella to get the wide spread recognition he deserved.  Thankfully, in interviews, Frank Langella has stated that Skeletor was one of his favorite roles, and that elevates my respect for the man higher than you can imagine.

Of course, Meg Foster turns in a magnificent Evil-Lynn.  Her naturally haunting, mesmerizing eyes were a perfect fit for this elegantly evil and darkly bewitching character.  She definitely brings a comparable amount of theatrical depth and presence to that of Langella.  She has a great intelligent authority about her which immediately puts someone like Karg back in his lowly place.  Evil-Lynn clearly has a deep desire and admiration for Skeletor that she hungers to have reciprocated, and she goes through a subtle arc in relation to this which is beautifully done.

John Cypher brings a solid seasoned quality to the weather soldier of Duncan, aka Man-At-Arms, and handles the lighter moments just as great as the heavier drama.  Teela is brought to spirited and credible life by Chelsea Field who holds her firmly.  Christina Pickles does a fine, convincing job as the Sorceress with what little she can do while held captive, standing still inside of Skeletor’s energy field.  Even James Tolkan does an immensely entertaining job as the tough, hardened Detective Lubic who is not afraid to jump into action.  The performance is pretty standard for him from similar roles in Top Gun and Back to the Future, but he puts his all into it playing very well off of everyone.  He was definitely having fun on this film.  Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill have a very genuine and realistic chemistry as Julie and Kevin.  Cox showcases the emotional depth she is well known for today, and McNeill offers up a lot of strength and heart opposite her.

However, I do have to agree with many that Gwildor is not a particularly good addition.  He’s essentially just irritating comic relief boosting the silliness of the Earth based scenes.  Yes, he is a replacement for Orko, but the difference between the characters is simple: charm.  Orko was an unintentional trouble-maker and surely not the wisest of the regular heroes, but he was endearing with a wealth of charm and good intentions.  He was a little guy with a big heart who could be valuable in the right situations, and always was lovable.  Gwildor is just quirky and lacks any endearing qualities in the long run.  Billy Barty does add some value to the character with his performance, but ultimately, it’s not a character that leaves a lasting impression.  In fact, he’s a conduit for a lot of the cringe inducing bad comedy of the film, which I will get into shortly.  To say the least, no one’s ever clamored for Gwildor to be integrated into any other He-Man continuity, and that’s for very good reasons.

Now, the sole major problem with this film is the fact that the bulk of it takes place on Earth.  This is where the budgetary constraints impacted the story that could be told.  Shooting in practical locations and city streets cut down on costs for sets, more matte paintings, and other convincing fantasy elements in the film.  Even elements on Eternia were constantly being cutout due to the tight budget including scenes set at Skeletor’s Snake Mountain.  This isn’t so much like Highlander II: The Quickening where the awfulness of the film stemmed from a poorly conceived script.  Those filmmakers had the money and talent to make something really good, but just didn’t have the sensible creativity to do so.  I believe, if Cannon Films had the lucrative finances to put more money behind this, which was their most expensive movie ever produced, we would’ve gotten a richer and more faithful adaptation of this property.  When you’re shackled by a budget to do less than what the property deserves, one can hardly blame the film’s failure on creative ambition.  The filmmakers wanted to do more, but were entirely unable to do so.  Conceptual artists created numerous excellent drawings for things that were jettisoned including a revamped look for He-Man’s sister She-Ra, and several scripted Eternia-based scenes were never filmed due to the budget.  Simply put, their ambition exceeded their resources, but that didn’t stop the filmmakers from doing the best they could with what they had.

The characters of Julie and Kevin are fine, and their story is just fine on its own.  Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeil put in very good acting jobs with this material making their characters quite likable and relatable.  The fact that they are part of a science fiction / fantasy adventure film is what doesn’t work so well.  Everyone intending to see this didn’t go into it wanting to see some teenage drama about a high school rock band keyboardist and his girlfriend who mourns the tragic death of her parents.  In its own appropriately themed movie, these would be well done character elements for a decent story, but it’s a lot of unnecessary baggage here to force Julie and Kevin more into the forefront.  It gets tied into the main story in a minor illusionary way which was actually done to great comedic effect in Spaceballs, released the same year.  Their roles in the film are very well written, and are purposefully integrated into the overall story.  Admittedly, I’ve never had a particular problem with the characters or their part in the movie, but I’m approaching it from a standpoint of, “Is this what the film really needed?”  The answer is no.  It’s one thing to take the story where they did due to budgetary shortcomings, but another to give Kevin and Julie equal screentime to He-Man and clearly more than Skeletor.  This is not a film that’s supposed to be about these two teenagers.  It’s a film about the heroes and villains of this scientifically advanced and wondrously magical world of Eternia battling for the power of the universe.  That’s what He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is meant to be about, and there’s just a little too much diverted away from that epic concept in this movie.  There is this fascinating array of vibrant characters to explore and spotlight, but the film gives a large portion of its attention to its two least fascinating characters.  It is thankful that good actors were cast in those roles, and they were well conceived and well written characters.  It’s just that they don’t belong in a Masters of the Universe motion picture.  It would be easier for me to gripe about this if the characters were stupid and badly portrayed, but they’re not.  It’s all very well done, but objectively speaking, it’s just not what this movie needed to have to be successful.

Again, the quality of what we get in performance and direction is something I have zero gripes with.  Gary Goddard did a very coherent and solid job balancing out these unconventional elements.  However, it does get quite silly, and it goes a little over the edge at times due to Gwildor’s comedic antics.  Granted, it is nearly impossible to avoid some of this silliness considering there is this stark contrast in juxtaposing a highly fantastical world with one that’s very much grounded in our own reality.  Characters are inevitably going to have peculiar, humorous reactions.  At this time, there seemed to be a running trend of fantasy movies which transposed sword and sorcery characters into a modern day Earth setting.  Beastmaster 2: Through The Portal of Time is probably the next most notable (or notorious) film that did this.  It’s a very strange trend that is difficult to understand how or why it repeatedly occurred.  This usually resulted in rather ridiculous movies that can’t be taken seriously.  Masters of the Universe does fare better because, on the whole, it’s keeping its serious characters on track with the urgent, dramatic storyline, and maintains the integrity of those characters.  The humor is just a by-product of that obvious juxtaposition, but Gwildor doesn’t help to reinforce the drama of the film.  The comedy interplay with the cow, the stealing of the bucket of chicken with a grappling hook, and the horrendous pink Cadillac introduced by him really push the film into stupid territory.  The film could’ve desperately done without those cringable gags.  Gwildor alone could’ve threatened to derail the film into farcical territory if the script had gone off the deep end.  Thankfully, enough restraint was shown, and we are spared that sort of horrendously bad cinema.

Veering back towards the positive is the excellent cinematography.  Listening to Gary Goddard’s audio commentary on the film’s DVD reveals that he had to fight to get the Cinematographer to use more colorful or “hyper-reality” color schemes.  So, it is Goddard to credit with the richer neon lighting and slight haze that gives the film a visual vibrancy or atmosphere in many scenes.  However, the camera work is very solid.  There are plenty of great long shots which sweep around and move in on Skeletor’s face to punctuate a scene, or just one take scenes which smartly keep the actors moving with different shot sizes and compositions.  Camera movement is used very effectively.  The sets and locations are really well displayed with strong lighting, and we get a good amount of scope where it counts.  The film has plenty of artistic visual merit.

There is just some good, solid action in this movie.  He-Man is definitely given some steep odds to combat to sell his greatness as a powerful warrior and hero.  He’s built up nicely as having nary an equal.  He is a valiant champion who fights with all his heart and might.  This makes the build up to the climax even better when Skeletor finally has him as his prisoner, and He-Man must battle back after being beaten down and almost defeated.  This leads to a very good final duel between him and Skeletor.  Surely, something more elaborate was originally intended for this climactic clash, but director Gary Goddard had to plead to get some extra money from Cannon Films, who was in financial trouble at this time, just to shoot this more stylized and limited climax.  It’s certainly not as excellent as say Optimus Prime versus Megatron in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie, but it’s a fine duel that caps off the film nicely.

I didn’t realize how long this review was going to be.  So many people have panned this film outright that I thought I had another Highlander II: The Quickening to more or less talk about, but once I actually started thinking about it, Masters of the Universe is not remotely that bad of a movie.  This is most certainly due to the amazing high caliber talents employed on this picture.  You have an Academy Award winning visual effects producer, an Academy & Emmy Award winning special make-up effects artist, an Academy Award winning film composer, and the Academy Award winning film editor of Lawrence of Arabia that all worked on Masters of the Universe!  There was conceptual artwork done by the amazing artist Moebius, who also did designs for Alien and TRON before this, and later, Willow and The Abyss.  This might have been a Cannon Film produced by Golan-Globus, which were bonafide marks of B-grade 80s action-ploitation cinema, but with that depth of artistic merit behind it, it now does not surprise me that this film turned out as good as it did.  This review started out with the thought of pointing out a few positive marks in an otherwise bad movie that I have always enjoyed, and while this film still had far to go to be the exemplary adaptation it should have been, this is a very well made movie.  While the concept is undeniably flawed, it is generally well written and executed, save for the sillier bits.  Most of the things that are bad in Masters of the Universe are really just bad in concept as the execution is largely very good, even great at times.  I know there are people out there that aren’t going to believe that this movie is not as bad as its reputation suggests.  Expectations definitely feed a lot into one’s overall reaction to a movie, and maybe I have the luxury of growing up on this from age seven onwards to give it this expectation-free point of view.  I still really love the original cartoon to this day, and I might happen to enjoy this movie just a little more now after this in-depth review.

As I’ve just learned, the film will be released on Blu Ray Disc from Warner Bros. on October 2nd, 2012.  It is touted as a “25th Anniversary Edition,” but aside from a high-definition transfer and comparable surround sound audio tracks, it features nothing different than what was on the 2001 DVD release.


Constantine (2005)

I very much love this film, and count it as an all time favorite.  I saw it twice in the theatre in 2005 because I was very much enthralled by the concept of the film and the excellent execution of all its characters and ideas.  It has since remained a strong favorite of the genre for me, and has driven my fandom of John Constantine further.  I was not knowledgeable about him before seeing this adaptation, but in the years since then, I have become a fan.  In the Hellblazer comics from DC / Vertigo, he was a blonde Englishman created by the widely revered Alan Moore and visually based off of Sting, the front man for The Police.  Obviously, that does not fit the description of Keanu Reeves, who portrays the title character as a dark haired American in Los Angeles, and there are numerous other changes here that deviate from the source material.  That inevitably irritated numerous hardcore Hellblazer fans, but since this was my introduction to him, I can allow both versions to co-exist in my fandom.   There are many reasons why I highly love this film including its gorgeous visual style, the world it showcases, and the potential of the characters.

It is said that whoever possesses the Spear of Destiny holds the fate of the world in their hands, and the Spear of Destiny has just been found and put into the hands of evil influences.  In Los Angeles, exorcist and occult detective John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) begins to see foreboding signs of something big and unfriendly coming with demons forcing their way into our world, but at the same time, the anti-social chain smoker is diagnosed with lung cancer.  It’s not so much the diagnosis that troubles him as the knowledge of where he’s going.  John was born with a gift he didn’t want, the ability to clearly recognize the half-breed angels and demons that walk the earth in human skin, and Constantine was driven to take his own life to escape the tormenting clarity of his vision, but he failed.  Now, marked as an attempted suicide with a temporary lease on life, the bitter hard-drinking, hard-living Constantine seeks a reprieve from his Hellbound fate.  He patrols the earthly border between heaven and hell, hoping in vain to earn his way to salvation by sending the devil’s foot soldiers back to the depths.  Unfortunately, he gains no absolution from the half-breed angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), and no consolation from strenuous allies such as the ominous former witch doctor Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou).  They all adhere to “The Balance” which keeps half-breeds from directly interfering in human affairs in order to settle a wager between God and the Devil for the souls of all mankind.  When desperate but skeptical LAPD Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) enlists his help in solving the mysterious death of her beloved psychic twin sister, their investigation pushes them deep into a subversive plot to use the Spear of Destiny to bring forth an evil that threatens to destroy humanity.  Caught in a catastrophic series of otherworldly events, the two become inextricably involved, and seek to find their own peace at whatever cost.

Director Francis Lawrence came from a music video background, and that can be hit or miss when moving to feature films.  However, Lawrence’s background was clearly a benefit as he injects a very powerful and epic visual style into this film.  Director of Photography Philippe Rousselot realizes that immersive vision brilliantly.  His composition is rock solid creating very engaging visuals that pull an audience into the story and characters.  There is depth to spare in his frames, and plenty of grace and integrity in how he shoots everything.  There’s never any handheld camera work.  It’s all fluid movement that contributes to the overall enveloping otherworldly tone of the picture.  The use of color temperatures is very key to the atmosphere as it accentuates the dramatic tones throughout with a vibrant palette.  This is a gracefully shot film with great attention to creating a unique atmosphere and tone in its visuals.

The overall quality of the visual effects are stunning.  They are exceptionally consistent and of an amazing high quality.  From subtle effects like the fiery glint in the eyes of demons to the enveloping landscape of the Hell version of Los Angeles, they create a complete, rich, textured, and full world for John Constantine to exist within that is truly convincing.  The fearsome demonic creatures seen throughout are designed with consistency and originality.  This feels like a world with its own weathered history, and attention is paid to every detail to present it as such.  The entire “into the light” effect in the climax is awesome as the shadows are literally pulled away to force the evil presence into view.  There is never just one effect used over and over again as a crutch.  The film is full of vibrant effects that give the film its fantastical flare.  Overall, every effect is just executed and presented with amazing artistry complementing Francis Lawrence’s vision beautifully.

I also very highly enjoy the score to Constantine.  It has a great atmospheric, haunting electronic style that further fleshes out the otherworldly quality of the film, but still incorporates plenty of traditional score elements that punctuate the rousing, dramatic sequences as well as the softer, more intimate emotions of the film.  Composers Klaus Badelt & Brian Tyler put together one hell of a unique musical accomplishment with this.  I’ve never heard a score quite like this before, and it works so amazingly well.  There is a great use of melody all throughout which enhances the emotional depth that this film is truly rich with.  This is definitely a film that takes a different approach to things to give an audience a very distinctive identity for an all encompassing experience.  The addition of the song “Passive” from A Perfect Circle is wicked cool in my opinion.  It truly set a great tone entering into Papa Midnite’s club.

These enveloping elements wrap together to create a very rich story with a tone full of integrity and gravity.  It can be a very haunting and scary film that uses horror elements at times, but is best categorized as a supernatural dark fantasy action film.  The action in the film are not big set pieces with spectacular stunts.  John’s not some bad ass action hero who can slug it out with a demon.  Instead, he uses his occult and demonic knowledge as well as his skills as a con artist to help him win battles.  He fights smart using the tools he has acquired which exploit the weaknesses of his enemies such as holy water, Moses’ shroud, a pair of Holy Cross brass knuckles, dragon’s breath, and various eclectic items provided to him by his allies.

This story is partially inspired by the Dangerous Habits comics storyline, which I have read.  There’s little directly adapted from that story, and is more just taking the premise of Constantine being diagnosed with lung cancer and having to cope with that.  How he deals with it and the resolutions of the comic and the film are very different, but both greatly show off John’s cunning skill as a con artist to varying degrees.

Constantine himself is very fascinating, and I think this version of him is well portrayed by Keanu Reeves.  I am quite a big fan of his work ranking Point Break as one of my absolute favorite films ever.  I find his work quite enjoyable, and he has some highly impressive acting ability.  I think his approach tends to be more subtle, and with Constantine, he really drives home a very diverse character.  Reeves showcases Constantine’s jaded personality with depth and purpose.  He brings out that worn down, weathered texture that makes the character so intriguing and surprising.  He can be an outright asshole because he’s been both plagued by the knowledge he has about the world around him, and that he’s destined to spend eternity in Hell, regardless of what he does.  He’s tired and frustrated by these rules that these so-called “higher beings” have imposed upon humanity for their own sport, and he knows there’s little he can do to combat that.  Keanu gives the character enough edge while still maintaining an underlying sense of humanity which evolves through the film.  As the story goes along, he becomes more and more invested in Angela as a person instead of just her being a cog in a larger plot.  You gradually see the bond form between the characters, and how that starts to drive John’s actions.  There’s a pivotal shift in there where he stops sulking in his own pain and starts seeing Angela’s.  He sees her regret and how far she’s willing to go to mend it.  John can still be an asshole, but ultimately, it’s just to those that deserve it.  Reeves portrays these subtle and strong emotional beats powerfully showing that there’s more to Constantine beyond that spiteful, embittered exterior.

Another subtle part of John that’s retained from the comics is how his friends constantly pay the price for his battles.  In the comics, John is haunted by the ghosts of his dead friends, and the screenwriters slipped a brief line in here about John not needing another ghost following him around.  So, it’s no wonder that he’s as cynical and jaded as he is, but it’s also these circumstances which drive him to fight.  He challenges everyone on their egotistical or hypocritical behavior, and allows no one to slide.

However, the arc for the character takes him from being a self-serving person who fights evil for his own sake to someone that does the right thing for the sake of others.  It takes nothing away from the hardened core of the character, it just makes him an actual hero by the end.  That is helped immensely by Rachel Weisz’s emotionally impactful performance.  Reeves and Weisz had previously worked together on the 1996 film Chain Reaction as love interests, and perhaps that added a stronger chemistry between them.  In this film, their chemistry is exceptionally solid and tight.  They have great back-and-forth dialogue with sharp timing and rich character dynamics.  Angela is also easily able to stand up to John’s abrasive attitude which is a welcomed quality.  Weisz strongly portrays the more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable counter-balance of the story.  This allows an audience to have a relatable conduit into the character of John Constantine and his supernatural world.  Rachel Weisz is an incredible actress showcasing a wide range of abilities here.  She is remarkably powerful bringing out the emotional pain that Angela has deep within.  However, while Angela is vulnerable, she is a police detective, and thus, Weisz never makes her appear helpless or incapable of defending herself.  She has a definite strong will and confidence about her mixed in with a grounded, engaging charm.  It’s simply that the character been impacted by tragic events, and is thrust into a potentially frightening scenario which brings out those fearful or unstable elements in her.  Weisz handles it all with dramatic weight and grace.

It is also immensely impressive how strong the supporting cast is in Constantine.  Djimon Hounsou has such an awesome presence as the witch doctor turned night club owner Papa Midnite.  His deep voice and subtle charisma give weight and gravity to his performance.  He can be greatly imposing and intimidating without even standing up in his initial scene.  Hounsou and Reeves spark a fascinating chemistry.  They play the characters with a sense of shared history which has its turbulent areas which causes friction and some antagonism between them.  The screenwriters had a good philosophy of the best way to convey exposition about a character is to show them working.  You get to know more about Midnite and Constantine through what they do and how they go about doing it than can really be conveyed through straight dialogue interactions.  This is showcased beautifully in the sequence with “The Chair” which allows John to see the path the Spear of Destiny has taken recently, and to find out where Angela has been taken.  It’s a manner of operating alluding to information that is necessary for them to know to do what they need to do, but is not necessary to be spelled out for the audience.  This further reflects the sense that this a world with a long, textured history between characters, and it is presented in a very smart way that never bogs down the film with extraneous exposition.  Midnite himself has a very pleasing arc in the story that ultimately shows Hounsou’s range and charm.  He makes the character very fascinating, imposing, but ultimately, highly pleasing.

Tilda Swinton is immaculately graceful and elegant as the half-breed angel Gabriel.  The filmmakers chose to go with an androgynous quality for the character, and absolutely wanted Swinton for the role.  They chose incredibly well.  Her performance has a gentle compassion that eventually turns into a subtle megalomaniacal mindset.  She also has an ethereal aura and presence about her that is pitch perfect.  It’s a nice dynamic when Constantine goes to see her with him ranting and calling out the hypocrisy at hand, but she offers up a very warm, motherly tone with him.  They are both trying to make each other see things from their perspective, and neither is entirely in the right.  There is a very aristocratic, snobbish mentality from Gabriel that John can’t stomach, and it works so exceptionally well for this character.  It’s such a remarkable performance that the words to describe it in depth escape me.

Now, this film was before Shia LeBouf started grating on peoples’ nerves, but here, there’s enough heart and charm with him as Chas to make his performance a pleasure.  Chas is spirited and driven to be given the chance to be of real assistance to Constantine instead of just his personal cab driver, but John just knows the danger of allowing him to do so.  Yet, Chas is eventually given the chance to show his worth.  As with everyone else, the chemistry is dead on the mark perfect.  Gavin Rossdale’s turn as the demon Balthazar is oozing with charisma.  He relishes being engulfed in evil, and that delicious smarmy arrogance just pours out over the screen.  The tension and spite between him and John is thick as can be.  You can’t help but love and hate him all at the same time.  All of the actors throughout the film really inhabited their characters with exceptional commitment and nuance, and came together as a cohesive whole to deliver something diverse and marvelous.

Of course, there is Peter Stormare’s magnificent performance as Lucifer himself.  There have been so many portrayals of the Devil over the years in cinema from some massively talented actors, and each portrayal has been unique.  Stormare takes unique to a whole new level here.  The physicality alone is unsettling as if he’s trying to uncomfortably fit back into a human form like it’s an old out of shape body suit, and it results in some peculiar and tense nervous energy.  The look is striking enough without devolving into shock.  The shaved eyebrows and shorn haircut along with the tattoos really present a standout visual that separates Lucifer from everyone else in the film.  Stormare takes all of this to forge a weirdly eccentric Devil that doesn’t need to flaunt an ego or boast of his power.  His creepy, chilling presence sells everything.  The addition of the pure white suit and bare feet was a nice touch, and it really fits the visual aesthetics of the film.

While I have nothing against a well done origin, it is very commendable that this is not an origin story spending a large percentage of the film showing how Constantine became the man he is today.  His back story is not even revealed until well into the second act as we get to know it alongside Angela, and allusions to other shared histories are sprinkled throughout.  The film treats its audience as intelligent by not having to explain every little thing.  It presents a world, gradually lays out the general parameters of how it works, and then, allows it to envelop the audience.  I like this approach for the character because there is a lot of John Constantine history that is very relevant to the character, but it would be nigh impossible to hit all the poignant marks to develop him fully in a two hour film.  Starting a film series here is very interesting because it takes John from the jaded, weathered depths to someone more purposeful and formidable.  It is a greatly executed arc wrapped up in a strong plotline backed by some excellent talents in front of and behind the camera.

It seems hard to judge where this movie stands in terms of general consensus.  It’s not one of those comic book movies everyone talks about, or includes on the list of the best or worst adaptations.  I seem to perceive this as a film that had good commercial success, but tends to get overlooked for no apparent reason.  Professional critics were divided on it, but the thing with critics is that they get paid to go see movies they are not always pre-disposed to enjoy.  This was a movie that appealed to my tastes via its marketing, and it did blow me away.  Again, the hardcore fans of Hellblazer likely had their passionate gripes with all the changes made to the established elements of the property, but it’s not a bad film at all.  It’s exceptionally well made from a filmmaker with great vision and artistry, and features an amazing cast that put their all into it.  From an objective point of view, it’s a greatly entertaining and satisfying film.  It has plenty of interesting action, an excellently crafted world, fantastic, stunning visual effects, a unique and fascinating score, and is just generally well written all the way around.  I really love this film, and I love what I’ve read in the Hellblazer trade paperbacks.  Both offer me something different but equally satisfying to my tastes for supernatural horror and dark fantasy.  If you’re unfamiliar with the property, this film can ease you into the heavier subject matter and grittier feel of the comics, but they are two unmistakably different presentations on the characters and the world they inhabit.  Taking the film on its own merits, it’s a highly imaginative, excellent piece of work that is worth investing your time and interest in.


Warlock: The Armageddon (1993)

I truly like and enjoy the original Warlock from director Steve Miner.  While the low budget restricted its overall production quality, the good script and high caliber acting talents of Julian Sands and Richard E. Grant really made it something worthwhile.  It’s one of those films which showed a lot of potential, and that with a larger budget and stronger production values, it really could’ve been amazing.  The rights for the film eventually ended up at Trimark Pictures which came to specialize in some decent genre and B-movie successes, mostly direct-to-video releases, but were ultimately absorbed by Artisan Entertainment and subsequently Lionsgate Films.  With the rights to the first film, Trimark decided to make a sequel with those better production values.  Warlock: The Armageddon brings the Warlock back from oblivion, but this sequel would’ve been better off staying in oblivion.  The golden-maned Julian Sands portrays the Warlock far more devilishly in this one with a darker charm, but has no worthy or even respectable adversary this time around.  Sands essentially carries the entire movie, and any scene without him is rather uninteresting.  His charisma and charm on screen is so electric that you simply crave more of it when he leaves the screen.  The plot doesn’t offer anything all that engaging or particularly special.

The Warlock is brought back to recover a collection of gems that, together, can destroy all of creation (yes, again) by bringing his father, Satan, into our world.  Meanwhile, in some rural town two teenagers are chosen by some most unimpressive Druids to be trained and fight the Warlock.  Chris Young and Paula Marshall, respectively, portray these two youths, Kenny and Samantha, who aren’t too fond of their parents having to kill them first before being imbued with these new special powers.  As the Warlock dispatches of several non-formidable obstacles to obtain these gems, these two teenagers in love try to come to grips with what they have been tasked with, and fear for the evil that is coming for them.

I can’t wrap my head around how we go from the amazing character of Redferne, portrayed by the exceptional Richard E. Grant, to a couple of teenagers who frankly care more about what they’re gonna do on Saturday night than being the saviors of all creation.  These two amateurs are expected to go up against the unholy spawn of Satan and prevail?  I can only suspend my disbelief so much before a premise becomes laughable.  Truly, I was more involved in the Warlock and his quest to destroy humanity than caring about this rural pair of teens in love being forced into a situation they want nothing to do with.  There is hardly anything endearing or engaging about their half of the movie.  Honestly, I wanted this film to have nothing to do with them.  It’s rather sad when you come to actually wanting the villain to destroy all of existence.  At least we would have been spared more sequels.  Of course, Sands was not brought back for Warlock III: The End of Innocence, which was a non-sequel casting Bruce Payne in the title role.

This sequel is much gorier than the original, but the story and characters are far weaker.  It’s not a question of bad acting, it’s a question of a bad script.  Whereas the original film was written by the exceptionally talented David Twohy, the screenwriters of this sequel, Kevin Rock & Sam Bernard, have nothing of special note in either of their filmographies, and nothing at all written since the late 1990s.  Director Anthony Hickox had just finished Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, and I feel this film is worse than that uneven sequel.  Hickox directed some decent horror films like Waxwork & Waxwork II, but after Warlock: The Armageddon, he never directed, wrote, acted in, or produced another recognizable film.  At best, he’s proven to be a B-grade director not capable of producing anything without a hefty helping of cheese and over the top sensibilities.  Ultimately, looking over the credits of this film, the only notable talent involved is Julian Sands.  From the screenwriters to the director of photography to the music composer, there’s nobody of note here.  Charles Hallahan (The Thing) and Zach Galligan (Gremlins, Waxwork) do have roles here, but they’re essentially nothing more than inconsequential supporting roles.

On a technical level, the movie is well made with competent cinematography giving everything a fine polish and sheen.  It looks a little more cinematic than the first movie, but it certainly has its limitations.  Some sets are clearly more restrictive in size and style than what their real world counterparts would be such as the fashion show venue.  Also, one action scene takes place in a small American southwest town which looks like the back lot for some low budget western, aside from the parking meters.  The Warlock literally has a showdown with a couple of guys with shotguns dressed in bad western attire.  It’s another unsatisfying thing attributed to both the screenplay and the low budget.  They can’t afford to place the climax of the film in an interesting setting, so, it all happens in a forest-like environment where there are no production values to show off.  While earlier sequences were mainly on sets that did the best with the budget they had, the climax just makes it look cheaper with uninventive ideas of setting or action.  Of course, Anthony Hickox had the climax of Hellraiser III take place on the late night streets of Los Angeles, and showed a lot of explosions and action, but it ultimately amounted to pointless drivel that dumbed down that franchise to an achingly low level, despite the production values.  I can’t say that more money would’ve fixed the creative or artistic problems with the film.  It was a rather bland story to begin with, and the climax gets to the point where I’d rather prefer seeing the Warlock triumph.

I can say that the visual and makeup effects are entirely superior to the previous film, and that’s bizarre since this film’s budget was $4 million less than the first film.  Perhaps, it’s simply a benefit of the evolution of digital effects replacing optical composites in the four year gap between films that gives this sequel a higher quality in that area.  The powers of the Warlock are exponentially more extensive and destructive here than in the first movie, but it doesn’t matter much when the story loses the heart and the charm that the first had with Redferne.  You can read my earlier review of that film for a more in-depth insight into what really gave Steve Miner’s film so much promise.

Again, Warlock: The Armageddon is really cheesy and pathetically weak in nearly every facet with Sands being the only exception.  This sequel is okay if you want to see more of Julian Sands’ purely evil, sadistic, and wonderfully devilish performance, but that is all that is worth seeing in this film.  The original Warlock wasn’t any major blockbuster success, and so, Trimark probably didn’t feel as if all that much effort needed to be put forth for a sequel.  Again, Trimark was never known for very high quality films, but there are a few that I still heavily enjoy.  However, this is not one of them.  If the first movie was filmed as well as this one, and had this much gore – it would’ve kicked some real ass.  Unfortunately, what really is the most important aspect with both is good story and character.  This film lacks both whereas the original Warlock really had it in good amounts.  It was well written with some character depth and a consistently enjoyable premise.  This sequel was dumb on arrival with only Julian Sands bringing anything truly entertaining to the project. See it if you want, but you’re not missing much otherwise.  At best, it’s cheesy early 90s horror schlock.  I would better recommend watching the original Warlock, or if you really want some bad ass demonic vanquishing, try Constantine.  This was a franchise that hardly ever got going anywhere, and with this sequel, it’s easy to see why it was not a success.


Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

I grew up on Star Wars.  Being born a matter of months before the theatrical release of The Empire Strikes Back made that inevitable.  The first of the films I saw theatrically was Return of the Jedi, and I have vague recollections of the experience with loud noises and the unsettling image of the unmasked Darth Vader (for a three year old, it was like A Nightmare on Elm Street to me).  These films have been part of who I am for as long as I can remember, and I feel it’s about time I share my thorough thoughts on the entire saga.  With the 3D theatrical re-releases on the horizon, it seems timely.  I don’t plan on seeing them in 3D, and I do not own the Blu Rays at this point.  When reviewing the prequels, it will be their original DVD versions.  When reviewing the original trilogy, it will be the original theatrical versions.  I have many editions of the original trilogy on VHS & DVD, but this is about what I grew up on.

For The Phantom Menace, I was part of the madness in 1999.  I stood in line with a lawn chair, a brand new CD Walkman, and a sunburn to get advance tickets for opening night.  I ended up sitting next to a guy dressed as Darth Maul that first night, and I did see the film multiple times in theatres.  However, with time comes perspective and maturity.  I know everything that needs to be said about this film has been said, but this is a forum to share my thoughts.  It also an opportunity to express what these films mean to me.  So, this is not me trying to add to a worn out battle cry against this film.  I’m just here to offer my point of view.  All eight pages worth.

Two ambassadors from the Jedi Order, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Nesson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent to the planet of Naboo to resolve a trade taxation dispute.  The politically powerful Trade Federation has setup a blockade of battleships around the planet to force their position, but they are actually working with someone of ulterior motives named Darth Sidious.  Viceroy Nute Gunray works on his behalf to manipulate the young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) to give into their treaty, but the Jedi soon learn of the Federation’s invasion army.  After surviving a battle droid attack, Qui-Gon & Obi-Wan escape to the planet’s surface where they are joined by the bumbling Gungan outcast Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), and rescue the Queen and her contingent to escape the planet.  With their ship damaged, they land on the outer rim desert planet of Tatoonie where they try to barter for replacement parts, but they are soon hunted by Sidious’ apprentice Darth Maul.  On this planet, Qui-Gon discovers Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young slave of the junk dealer Watto who has unusually strong Force abilities.  Qui-Gon believes Anakin could be the one prophesized to “bring balance to the Force,” and later champions him to be trained as a Jedi.  However, the Jedi Council is apprehensive about the boy’s future sensing danger and fear in him.  Meanwhile, Naboo Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) tries to coach the young Queen in the political matters of the Senate, and manipulates her into forcing Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) from the head of the Galactic Senate.  Eventually, all things converge back on Naboo where Queen Padmé Amidala attempts an assault to end the invasion and captivity of her people, and for the Jedi to learn the truth of whether or not the Dark Lords of the Sith have returned from a millennia of extinction.

What really strikes me about this story, beyond plot holes born out of illogical actions, is that there is no central main character.  With the original Star Wars, it was crystal clear that Luke Skywalker was our hero that would guide us on this journey through a galaxy far, far away.  It was his arc that was mainly at play as he goes through emotional trials that would forge him into a heroic figure.  I have never seen any character arcs in The Phantom Menace.  No one ends up any differently from when the film began to when it ended.  They don’t evolve and grow into something more than they were before.  The film has no prominent focus on any one character.  Looking at the saga as a whole, perhaps it should have been Obi-Wan Kenobi’s arc.  The film would show an eager, young Padawan who matures from student to mentor, truly earning his stature as a Jedi by the end by facing the breadth of this adventure alone.  Unfortunately, he’s left out of the meat of the story and action so much that he ultimately has little to say for himself.  Ewan McGregor is an exceptional actor with a wide range of talent who could’ve carried this film quite well, as he demonstrated in the following two films.  He does have flourishes of endearing charm that create some bright moments, but his potential is sadly suppressed to a minor supporting character.  Earlier drafts had it where Obi-Wan actually was the one mainly involved in the story on Tatoonie, and he forms a bond with Anakin championing his path to becoming trained.  That would actually follow what was stated in Return of the Jedi¸ but for whatever reason, George Lucas decided to overhaul continuity in the prequels.  It is clear that the way Lucas potentially envisioned the prequels in the early 1980s was very different from how he saw them in the late 1990s.

Anakin is an even less likely main character since he doesn’t enter the story until forty minutes in, and once they’ve left Tatoonie, he becomes mostly a background character.  Jake Lloyd certainly didn’t have the spark of great talent that Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg is usually able to find in his child actors.  Lloyd makes Anakin almost a nuisance in the film.  He can become quite annoying acting like some kid on a rollercoaster ride instead of someone of mythic potential.  I would’ve anticipated a slightly more matured Anakin, despite his youth.  Someone that showed not just strength with the Force, but someone with the character traits to be the “great Jedi” Obi-Wan speaks of in the original trilogy.  Ultimately, Anakin never stops being the whiny annoyance he started out as until he is voiced by James Earl Jones as Darth Vader.  Here, not having Obi-Wan or Anakin as a main character works to the detriment of the prequels since their relationship is the linchpin of the saga.

This leads us over to Qui-Gon Jinn.  I really have a generous amount of respect for Liam Neeson.  He always does admirable work, and I have enjoyed his wave of action thriller successes in recent years.  With Qui-Gon, it’s hard to say much about him.  He’s stoic and little else.  There are brief, light touches of heart, but they lack substantial depth to be impactful.  Knowing Lucas’ direction style, I would definitely have to say that Neeson wasn’t given the proper direction to breathe appropriate life into the character.  Given the right context and perspective on Qui-Gon, I believe Neeson could have brought more depth to him.  Qui-Gon is the mentor, and I suppose he is meant to act as some form of main protagonist, but there’s not enough bold dimension in the characterization for him to standout amongst the blandness of the film.

Another amazing actor that occasionally comes off like a dull wooden board is Natalie Portman.  Anyone who has seen Léon (aka The Professional) knows that Natalie has had a wealth of stunning acting ability from an early age, and that talent has continued to flourish to this day.  She is one of the finest actresses around, and has been so for a long time.  She could’ve done so many impressive things with Amidala had she just been given something of substance to work with.  Instead, it’s all dry political ramblings that never give Portman an opportunity to break out and show some character depth.  There’s a little of that in her scenes with Anakin where the humanity of the character surfaces, but that’s not in the forefront of the picture.  It’s definitely there to lay the groundwork for the following two films where Anakin and Padmé develop a relationship, but outside of that, she seems almost robotic.  As the Queen, her line deliveries are entirely monotone, reflecting no humanity, concern, worry, or urgency.  I believe some of her dialogue was overdubbed by another actress due to Lucas’ intention to maintain the ruse of the bodyguard decoy scenario.  As Padmé, Portman does have more natural warmth, but I know she’s capable of much more than what I saw here.

George Lucas is not an actor’s director, and that tends to be his biggest failing.  I think he’s a great producer.  He manages all aspects of production with confidence, decisiveness, and skill, but he just doesn’t know how to bring greatness out his actors.  An actor brings their own talent to the table, but it is the director’s job to focus and filter that talent into a unique performance.  Without that, an actor has no guidance to know what to put into their character.  George’s writing also leaves something to be desired.  Sometimes, you get a Harrison Ford who just gets it right from the start because the character practically wrote itself, but for potentially more complex roles, it needs more on the page.  You can’t expect every actor to simply see more than what’s written.  It requires the director’s input to make it more than that, but Lucas simply doesn’t know how to approach those interactions.

However, the one actor who really shows something of substance and nuance is Ian McDiarmid.  While the story follows no reason or logic with the schemes of Palpatine / Sidious, McDiarmid captures a subtle subversive quality that makes him intriguing.  While the film never blatantly states it, the two are one in the same, and McDiarmid clearly integrates that into how he plays Palpatine.  He’s a man with sinister motives playing out in the back of his mind while keeping up the friendly personae of Senator, observing and manipulating people and events to achieve his goals.  McDiarmid brings Palpatine’s ominous perspective into his performance adding the right touches of restraint and foreboding malevolence to draw in an audience’s attention.  You can see in McDiarmid’s subtle expressions the moments where Palpatine’s plan is coming together, and he relishes it with silent restraint.  Conversely, as Darth Sidious, McDiarmid captures a straight up villainous and intelligent performance that is quite unsettling.  As the prequels went on, Ian surely delved wholly into the character playing up the feigned sincerity nicely, and having a broader canvas to work with than others were given latitude to do.

Now, the original trilogy were groundbreaking films in special effects that revolutionized the industry.  That’s a big reputation to live up to, and the success here is a little mixed.  This was 1999, the same year The Matrix was released, and while I’m no major fan of that film, it’s achievements in digital effects were more consistent and eye opening than The Phantom Menace.  It’s difficult to be entirely fair since the DVD transfer of Episode I is not the best.  The film comes off a little too grainy to grasp the clarity of the visual effects, and it has this odd pinkish hue.  Generally, the visual effects are quite good for 1999, but the leaps and bounds taken in CGI evolution would allow the following two prequels to be vastly superior in that area.  So, in comparison, The Phantom Menace looks a little undercooked in the visual effects realm.  It’s not a constant, but as I said, it is a mixed bag.  Most stuff is great, but some things just lack detail and depth.  Many of the hover tanks in the Gungan-Droid battle often look like an animatic or something from an old video game.  I would hope that these issues would be resolved with the Blu Ray and 3D releases, but Lucas doesn’t always fix what you think he will.  On the positive side, many of the computer generated characters are impressively detailed, creating very finely textured creations.  While Jar Jar is an insufferable character that grates on my nerves incessantly, visually, he is an amazing achievement.  If he had been as good of a character as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, maybe people could give more credit to the CGI work put into him.

Production design here is quite impressive.  Naboo is certainly a world with a lot of culture and sophistication, and that comes out in the architecture and their design of technology.  The capital city of Theed is exceptionally picturesque partly due to the location shooting in Caserta, Italy.  Coruscant entirely captures the intended scope and scale that Lucas always wanted for Star Wars.  There is an inevitable Blade Runner influence here, but instead of smog, rain, and industrialism bearing down upon the environment, Coruscant is a perfectly wondrous planet that stands as a beacon for the entire Republic.  However, I can’t say I care much for anything surrounding the Gungans.  Every element of them just seems to pander to the child audience.  It is sufficiently alien, but there’s just too much of a cartoonish element to all of it to accept it as anything but child oriented.  There is nothing about them that I can take seriously in their culture, characterizations, or dialogue.

Focusing more on the story itself, I find it quite dull and illogical.  I could probably write, at least, ten pages worth of criticism about the plot holes in this film, but let me dig into what’s most annoying to my intellect.  The actions that different characters take have no sense to them.  Darth Sidious orders his minions along a certain course of action that should lead to the opposite outcome for himself, but because all the characters apparently just read the script so that they can follow along an illogical course of action, it all works out right in the end.  Sidious wants the Trade Federation to force Queen Amidala to sign a treaty making their blockade legal to the point of invading the planet, but if they had succeeded in doing so, Palpatine could not have achieved placing himself as the head of the Galactic Senate.  Palpatine could not have foreseen all these plans going awry where the Jedi Ambassadors survive the Federation’s assassination attempt, escape to the planet, run into Jar Jar, make a deal with the Gungans for passage through the planet core to arrive in Theed just in time to rescue the Queen, and escape the planet through the blockade of battleships so that Amidala could reach Coruscant to ask for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum.  That is an impossible series of events to foresee or predict when your plan is clearly setup to kill the Jedi and keep Amidala locked up in a prison camp while keeping the Senate blind to what’s really happening on Naboo.  My only conclusion that allows this to make any sense is that Palpatine and Sidious are split personalities with conflicting motives intent on screwing each other over like a pair of warring siblings.  Obviously, that’s not the truth of the matter, but I can’t find a rational stream of consciousness to resolve this issue.  If Palpatine was playing both sides, pretending to help the Trade Federation as Sidious while actually focusing his success on Queen Amidala’s side so that he can ultimately seize control of the Senate, that would’ve worked brilliantly.  He would really use the Trade Federation as ignorant pawns who were always meant to fail for Palpatine’s further success.  He would get them to setup the blockade, but then, sabotage their plans from the inside out so that Amidala can easily escape to Coruscant and set the political stage for Palpatine to ascend to Supreme Chancellor.  Instead, every action Palpatine initiates is towards the ends of supporting the success of the blockade.  Sending Darth Maul to hunt down and attempt to kill the Jedi and drag the Queen back to Naboo to get the treaty signed is entirely counteractive to Palpatine’s endgame.  And this is the entire plot of the movie!

Other plot holes arise from the need of Lucas to make the characters dumb as a post so they make moronic decisions that move the so-called plot forward.  A single vote of no confidence from one representative of one planet out of thousands of governments, star systems, and planets immediately usurps Chancellor Valorum from office, and forces a new Supreme Chancellor to be voted into service.  I always say that the system works, it’s just the people within it that make it suck.  Here, the system sucks, and the people within it are stupid.  I can’t imagine how a government body like this could actually function if all it takes is for one person to voice their loss of confidence in its leadership.  You’d be voting in a new Chancellor every week.  Worse yet, this is not the last time this ridiculous plot device will rear its ugly head.

Further ridiculousness comes on Tatoonie as Qui-Gon goes to one dealer to find the parts they need, and then, since that dealer, Watto, won’t accept Republic currency, Qui-Gon simply gives up trying to locate the parts elsewhere.  Just because Watto says no one else would have these parts doesn’t make it true.  I wouldn’t trust Watto to be an honest businessman for a nanosecond, especially when he has a young boy and his mother as slaves with explosive devices implanted in them.  He’s clearly not moral or ethical.  So, why trust him to be an altruistic salesman?  Qui-Gon could’ve attempted to charter passage off Tatoonie like the elder Obi-Wan and Luke did in the original Star Wars, but again, the script requires the characters to be intellectually stunted so that the incoherent plotline can be furthered.  Because of this, all cunning and ingenuity that could’ve been injected into these characters to make them smart and innovative in tight situations is discarded.  These brain dead moments happen again and again and again in nearly every scene.  I have seen hundreds of films, and many bad, horrible piles of cinematic trash.  However, I can’t recall experiencing a film with such a shoddy script with dozens upon dozens of plot holes that mutilate all common sense from its pages.  It’s not like the plot is that interesting to really sacrifice intelligence for it.

I also have to say that Anakin Skywalker being the creator of C-3PO was ridiculous.  It adds nothing to anything in the saga, and is a pure fan service addition that, again, has no intelligent thought behind it.  A protocol droid is good for language translation and little else.  Shmi Skywalker has no practical use for such a droid, and I don’t know how anyone could believe otherwise.  And the fact that he builds the exact same droid that is mass produced throughout the galaxy seems stupid.  A real world allegory is that when people build their own custom personal computers, they don’t go constructing exact replicas of something they could’ve bought at Best Buy.  They customize it to their needs so it is a optimal tool for the work they need to do.  If Anakin had any ingenuity, he would’ve built something entirely original that could assist his mother with daily chores.  A protocol droid is not designed for manual labor.

Of course, I also have to address the sad attempt at humor in this film.  You see, in the original trilogy, the humor really arose from conflicting personalities and witty banter in heightened situations.  It could be a little immature, but Han Solo was a little immature at times and Luke was on a journey to maturity.  So, it fit the personalities of the characters.  Here, the supposed humor is so blatant and in your face, it’s not funny.  It’s like a bad stand-up comic trying too hard for a laugh through cheap physical comedy.  Jar Jar is here only for stupid comedic antics.  Yes, he is a conduit for certain plot developments, but this film already demonstrated that logic holds no substance here, so, I’m a little surprised he has any plot related function at all.  Everything he does is clumsy slapstick humor which couldn’t be more out of place for this saga.  Star Wars was originally created with the idea of bringing mythology into the modern era as adventurous films for the whole family.  I’m sure poop and fart jokes were not part of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a book of mythological archetypes that heavily inspired Lucas.  It really is sad how far George had degraded his standards for entertainment here.  He went from creating a fantastical world of colorful, iconic characters and thematic mythology-inspired stories to a world of flat, dull, lifeless characters that are devoid of intelligence and humanity in ass-backwards stories that follow no reason or logic.

Despite all this, people still thought there was something cool and awesome to be had in this movie in the form of Darth Maul.  I respect Ray Park’s athletic talents immensely, but it is only that mixed with a very stunning character design that makes Maul cool.  He has no character.  He’s a plot device to make a few action sequences dynamic.  He’s a henchmen with nothing to say for himself, and nothing of substance to add to the story.  Maul exists because Sidious needs a competent ally to go out into the field and do his dirty work him.  Yes, he makes himself intriguing through an air of mystique, but frankly, as soon as he departs the film, none of it matters.  He’s a disposable villain whose loss makes no impact on the story because he never added anything to it.  This is different from Boba Fett who had a cunning role in The Empire Strikes Back by outsmarting Captain Solo’s escape plan, and actually had something to say for himself that reflected a sense of character, personality, and attitude.

The action sequences are a little mixed, but mostly excellent.  All the lightsaber battles are amazing!  The choreography of these segments show what fully trained Jedi could do, and what a fully capable Dark Lord of the Sith could accomplish.  They are dynamic and exciting, but they can seem a little too choreographed at times.  I see many behind the scenes featurettes on action movies where they strive to maintain a spontaneity to their fight choreography.  While it is all well rehearsed, the choreographers, stunt performers, and actors focus on keeping it real in the moment.  They inject character and emotion into those moments so it never looks to be so ‘by the numbers.’  The lightsaber battles can tend to come off like a dance instead of a physically intense series of actions and counteractions where a single error could cause doom.  It lacks emotion and danger.  It also lacks a psychological aspect due to the absence of dialogue.  Before, there would be Darth Vader or later Dooku trying to play mind games through cunning dialogue and strategic intimidation.  They would try to put their Jedi opponents off-guard this way, and it made for a more multi-dimensional fight.

Meanwhile, the space battles are okay.  There are very few of them, and none of them really capture that urgent speed and suspense that most others in the saga have offered.  The climax ultimately gets sliced up too thin between four interconnected action sequences to really give enough coherent importance to more than one.  That being the Jedi versus Sith lightsaber duel, and it’s the least consequential fight of the film since there’s nothing at stake between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Maul.  Regardless, its speed and physical intensity give it the rousing action sensation that was needed in more abundance here.  The film starts so slowly and flatly laying out plot elements and briefly introducing a few characters while pouring out redundant dialogue that there’s not enough momentum to keep the film going.  It has a consistent pace, but that pace is a bit too sluggish here without anything of importance happening.  A methodical pace is workable when, like in The Empire Strikes Back, you are getting character development.  The Phantom Menace has no substantive character development.  Anything you learn of them is really surface stuff, very one dimensional insights.

The Gungan-Droid battle is uninteresting to me since I don’t care about the Gungans or the Droid Army.  It also comes off highly cartoonish and pathetically unfunny.  I wish like hell there was a way to excise this from the film, but Lucas himself realized that plot elements were too interwoven to do such a thing.  Another frivolous action sequence is the pod race.  It’s gratuitous in my eyes.  Theatrical or DVD cut, it’s far too long for such a minor element in the story.  This is not some sports movie where the entire film builds up to this critical sequence where everything is laid on the line, and all character, story, and emotional threads tie into it to make it pivotal and crucial.  Yes, it determines whether Anakin goes free or not, but Qui-Gon had already well demonstrated how much he was willing to cheat and manipulate events to get what he wanted.  I have no doubt that he would’ve done something unethical to free Anakin even if he had lost the race.  Simply said, the pod race overstays its welcome, and once it is done, it has no further relevance to the film.  Never has such a fast paced sequence slowed down a film so much.

On the brighter side, as is always a highlight that elevates the quality of any movie is John Williams’ score.  “Duel of the Fates” still is a brilliant, operatic piece that gives the climax a sweeping, epic majesty.  It was a perfect composition that has always marked what I call, “where the movie really begins.”  The only thing the score lacks is due to the lack of it in the picture is rousing adventure.  The action sequences are few and far between, and so, it requires the score to be more in the background instead of crashing into the surround sound with heart soaring excitement.  Regardless, I own two versions of the CD soundtrack including the two disc ultimate edition, and it is a fantastic listen.  So, I give it high marks all around.

The only other thing to address are the midichlorians.  You see, the Force used to be something entirely spiritual where it required great commitment and discipline to master.  It’s a power anyone can tap into it if they are willing to open their minds and trust in it fully.  Yoda spoke to this perfectly in The Empire Strikes Back in that the Force doesn’t rely on the physical.  It’s all about the character of the person which determines how great of a Jedi they could become.  Now, George Lucas tells us that everyone’s ability to use the Force is based on how many of these microscopic organisms are present in your bloodstream.  This means you are biologically limited to how potent of a Force user you can be, and you can never become anything greater than that.  No amount of spiritual strength or Jedi training you go through will make you as good as someone with more midichlorians in their body.  That entirely crushes the sensibility the Force was originally built upon, and that is another terrible idea injected into a film already ripe with terrible ideas.  Before, it was an inspiring idea and philosophy that added a fantastical quality to Star Wars that captured and enthralled peoples’ imaginations.  Now, it’s cold science.  Just like how I don’t need to know where immortals came from in Highlander, I don’t need to know the clinical origins of the Force.  Magic is magic, and that’s all I need to know.  And the fact that Lucas uses these midichlorians to say that Anakin Skywalker is the result of a virgin birth created by the midichlorians themselves is just a smack in the face to me.  There was never any need to inject such an idea into the saga, and it has extremely little relevance to anything.  It is only ever mentioned again in Revenge of the Sith by Palpatine, and it’s practically glossed over entirely by Anakin in that same scene.  I suppose it’s meant to give Anakin a more mythic or prophetic aura around him that neither Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christiansen ever remotely live up to.  While I’ve never had an overt issue with the whole “prophecy” aspect, it is another idea that Lucas developed exclusively for the prequels.  This revisionist mentality is no surprise to anyone now, but frankly, it gets to being a bit aggravating in the prequels as George keeps altering the original trilogy to accommodate it.

That’s really the perils of making prequels.  How do you introduce something new to the story that hasn’t already been said without betraying what has already been established?  It is not impossible, especially considering Ben Kenobi’s line about “a certain point of view.”  There are many things Lucas could’ve altered that could still be true if looked at from a different perspective, but nothing about prophecies, midichlorians, Qui-Gon (not Obi-Wan) discovering Anakin, or anything else can be taken in that way.

As I said, I could go on and on about the flaws and failures of this film that bother me, but this has already been an obscenely long review as it is.  Still, it feels like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of it all.  There are people who think we just don’t “get” the prequels as if we’re unable to accept them for what they are, and that’s why we rag on them.  The truth is that we are fans who just expect a product with a little thought, care, and integrity be put into it.  A plot that makes sense with smart, entertaining characters.  Frankly, that is not difficult to deliver, but somehow, George Lucas failed on all fronts.  Again, I enjoyed the film upon release in 1999 because I was just in awe of the spectacle, but as I have matured, I can see beyond that to focus on how poorly conceived this film was at its most base level.  I’ve said for a while now that if this was the original first Star Wars movie, it would not have sparked the same phenomena that we have enjoyed for the last 35 years.  It just doesn’t have the rousing adventure aspect or lively, iconic character qualities that made Star Wars so successful in the first place.  I don’t enjoy watching this movie, and I don’t believe seeing it in 3D would give it any more actual dimension or entertainment value.  My reviews on the entire saga will continue as the prequels do improve beyond this point, but flaws still exist.  In one case, my fondness for one prequel film will allow for some forgiveness.  In the least, I believe my following reviews will be no more than half as long as this one, thankfully.