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Posts tagged “humor

Gunmen (1994)

GunmenThis is one of those movies I haven’t watched since the 1990’s, but I remember liking it a lot.  In watching it again, it’s amazing just how much of it I remember, which is a hell of a lot.  This might seem like an under the radar action movie, especially since it couldn’t even earn back half of its $8 million budget upon its theatrical release, but boasting a cast of Christopher Lambert, Mario Van Peebles, Denis Leary, and Patrick Stewart, it’s got respectable muscle.  That’s one thing that always struck me strongly about Gunmen in addition to Lambert and Van Peebles teaming up as buddies in this, and then, portraying enemies the following year in the third Highlander movie.  So, let’s see what Gunmen has to offer that I find so vastly entertaining.

A bounty hunter, Cole Parker (Mario Van Peebles), and a con man, Dani Servigo (Christopher Lambert), each have half the clues to the whereabouts of a $400 million treasure of stolen drug money.  Against their wills they are forced to team up to battle an elite squad of mafia assassins employed by the wheelchair bound Loomis (Patrick Stewart), and led by the ruthless Armor O’Malley (Denis Leary).  If Cole and Dani survive a relentless chase across a jungle and two continents, they will have to face each other because a half billion dollars is not enough to share.

Gunmen is a fun action film, but one with heart, character, and dramatic weight.  This all comes to us from Deran Sarafian, the director of Death Warrant, and screenwriter Stephen Sommers, who would go on to director Deep Rising, The Mummy, and various other fun big action movies.  This seems to be a really good pairing.  Sommers’ writing creates a fun concept with strong characters and his signature dashes of fun and humor.  Sarafian grounds the movie with a real grit which mixes serious consequence with a thrilling ride.  He makes it a harder edged action movie than Sommers typically would make, and that style perfectly works for this film.  Plus, I like that the film hits the ground running dropping us into events already in motion as everyone is already on the trail of Dani and the money.  That rhythm and tempo remains constant throughout the film propelling every event forward briskly.  There’s very little slowing down in Gunmen, and because of that, these filmmakers are able to tightly pack a lot of exciting content into the 90 minute runtime.

I also really like that this film is a bunch of criminals, mercenaries, thieves, and bounty hunters running amuck.  There’s not a law enforcement presence anywhere at all.  Lots of betrayals, distrust, and personal agendas twist the plot around making it fun and interesting.  This keeps every character on their toes, and allows for some spontaneous moments of drama and humor to occur that just add to the fun factor.  At its core, Gunmen is a buddy action film headed up by an incredibly perfectly pair of actors who give it vibrant life.

Frankly, any movie where Christopher Lambert is having a good time is a winner for me just on entertainment value alone.  His character of Dani Servigo is full of laughs all the way.  Where Mario Van Peebles is the straight arrow and dramatic anchor of the duo, Lambert is the comedy, but is not farcical.  These two have excellent chemistry together, and Van Peebles is able to get his fair share of humor into the mix.  Once they spark off that chemistry, the film becomes more and more fun.  The banter between them made me laugh so much.  It’s a real delight.  And Van Peebles really shows a lot of worth leading this film with a strong weight, charisma, and edge.  Cole Parker is a definite tough bounty hunter able to hold his own against anyone, and is portrayed as a very smart, sharp, and cunning professional.  Yet, while there’s a lot of fun, Gunmen still finds those quiet moments of character building and heart-to-heart scenes to maintain substance.  Cole and Dani solidly bond together, but they still have their fun adversarial moments such as Dani shooting Cole in the leg to keep him from running off with the money and Cole later returning the favor to sharp, clever comic effect.

I severely love Denis Leary.  He is a great comedian, but he has always impressed me with his dramatic work.  I especially love his turns in Judgment Night and Suicide Kings, and here, he plays vicious bastard immensely effectively.  Leary’s cynical humor is perfectly molded into an edgy, charismatic, sadistic, and bad ass villain.  Armor O’Malley is a perfect mercenary out for himself, and willing to double-cross anyone for his own betterment.  Leary’s sarcastic charisma fuels the performance and makes Armor an entertaining enemy all the way through.

Patrick Stewart’s role as Loomis is not expansive, but by no doubt, is solidly portrayed.  You see this feeble man in body and mind ordering around Armor and his hired guns, and you can perceive someone who once had a strength and authority to him.  However, age and circumstance have diminished him, and his sad double-cross departure in the film seems only inevitable.  With Stewart in this role, it certainly adds a special notoriety to the character which elevates Loomis’ importance in the plot.

Lambert, Van Peebles, and Leary, along with many of their supporting co-stars, prove to be very action capable actors.  As the title suggests, there is a very generous amount of intense gunplay and shootouts packed into the film, but there’s plenty of physicality and stunt work to behold.  There’s loads of excitement throughout especially when helicopters are involved.  That tight pace I mentioned before completely adds to the exciting momentum of the action.  It just keeps on coming allowing for very little time to slow down, but it does have it s well timed breaths between the blazing thrills.  The climax has everyone in a sort of cat-and-mouse game aboard a luxury motor boat, and it is very cleverly and sharply executed.  I love how this is all shot keeping this a little shadowy to give the sequence some visual edge.  Overall, the film is really damn well shot in the cinemascope anamorphic format from the director of photography of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  The quality of the cinematography really enhances every fun, thrilling moment of Gunmen.

I also really enjoyed the score by John Debney.  Since the film is set in South America, we get some Latin flavor in the music that blends in beautifully with Spanish guitars and percussion.  The action scenes have some very good and original driving beats which hold to that musical style.  It’s really a wonderful piece of work from the man who would later score Sudden Death, Sin City, Predators, and Iron Man 2.  This film also incorporates a lot of early-to-mid 90’s hip hop / rap music very well.  It’s surely not my genre of music, but they are all very good songs which aid the vibe the film is going for.  After all these years, the opening title track of “Bite The Bullet” by Kid Frost has stuck firmly in my mind, and I think that says quite a lot.

I honestly think I enjoyed Gunmen more now than I did years ago.  It really is a solid, fun, enjoyable action movie with a fully charismatic cast that doesn’t disappoint.  There’s near wall-to-wall action with a full helping of laughter between Lambert and Van Peebles’ superb chemistry.  There are only a few films that really exemplify my preferred style of 1990’s action films, and this is definitely one of them.  Really tight pacing with a grounded sensibility that still has its tone opened up for great fun.  The film doesn’t get cheesy or diminish the grit of its action by adding in those humorous elements.  It all works very cohesively for a well-rounded piece of entertainment.  This is just a movie of pure enjoyment right from the start and it only builds as it progresses.  While Gunmen got the shaft on DVD in the United States as a pan-and-scan edition, I was very pleased to find it on iTunes in its proper widescreen format for purchase or rental in standard or high definition.  If you’re looking for a really solidly made action film with intense excitement and a lot of laughs, you really cannot go wrong with Gunmen.  I give it a very strong recommendation.

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Die Hard (1988)

Die HardI’ve made some mentions of the Die Hard clone in recent months in reviews of Sudden Death, Olympus Has Fallen, and more.  Now, just because you’re the first do something, or the one who sets the trend doesn’t always mean you did it best.  However, in the case of John McTiernan’s blockbuster action film Die Hard, there is simply no equal.  While I don’t list it as my number one favorite of all time, I cannot deny that this is likely the best action movie ever made, and there are a lot of qualities that go into making it that exceptionally awesome.

NYPD Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) has come to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at her company’s holiday party.  However, as he waits for the festivities to end, the entire building is taken over by a heavily armed team perceived as terrorists, but their sinister leader, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), reveals that his interest is purely in greed.  As the hostages are rounded up, McClane slips away with only his service revolver and his cunning wits at his disposal.  What begins as a perfectly planned crime quickly ignites into McClane waging a one man war to save everyone before they are all blown sky high.

There are many things that set Die Hard apart from everything else, but I think the biggest key of it are the characters.  Beyond just the performances, this film takes its time to introduce them to you, and allow for their dynamics and personalities to play out before any of the action begins.  This is mainly the development between John and Holly McClane.  Their turbulent marriage is fleshed out in smart, subtle beats that never feel like exposition, just natural conversation.  These are real, relatable people in a grounded reality with normal problems that are soon thrust into an extraordinary situation, and because we get to know these characters through levity and emotional conflict, we care greatly about them once peril befalls them.  Even the villains are given their due time to feel fleshed out and dimensional such as how Hans Gruber discusses men’s suits, art, and culture with Takagi before threatening him with a gun for the password to his vault.  These moments make Gruber an interesting and engaging villain who has a fairly equal amount of depth to John McClane.  This way, it is also a battle of wits and personalities as much as it is a pure action conflict.  This is so much due to the time director John McTiernan and his screenwriters took to slip those important character building moments into the film, and that makes it a greatly more substantive action film that you would regularly get in any decade.

Now, the 1980’s were filled with the larger than life, nigh indestructible action hero.  Then, comes along John McClane.  This guy who is as vulnerable as the rest of us that gets beaten up, his feet sliced up by glass, bleeds everywhere, feels fear, and gets progressively worse for wear as the film goes on.  All the while, under the intense stress of a violent life or death scenario, he’s cracking wise with everyone left and right just doing what he can to cope and survive.  Where a Rambo or John Matrix type would just burst in blazing a full arsenal to wipe out everyone, McClane has to be clever and cautious every step of the way against these extremely well-armed killers.  All he has is his wits, and Bruce Willis’ well established comedic talents blended perfectly into the quick witted quips of McClane.  I’m sure there was speculation abound leading up to this film’s release as to Willis’ ability to be an action hero because of doing so many comedies, but he was able to bring a completely unique identity to this role that is hard to match.  While it is the wisecracks that we remember so much, the purely human moments of drama really sell this character as one that stands apart from so many others.  Bruce Willis really shows that he could do the full spectrum of acting here as he leads this film with charisma, heart, and physical intensity.  He brings a fresh dimension and grounded realism to McClane that makes him the beloved, very human, bad ass icon that we so love.

Just how McClane is a distinct departure from the action heroes of the day, Hans Gruber distinguishes himself from many of the over the top, cheesy villains of the 80’s.  Alan Rickman is brilliant as Hans Gruber.  What truly makes this so is that he’s not obvious at all.  Gruber is a guy who is smart, charming, smooth, educated, and charismatic.  Yet, he’s a calculated, clever, ruthless villain.  You can see that Gruber had every single detail of this plan plotted out perfectly, and is able to outsmart and keep ahead of everyone except for the one wild card in his brilliant crime in John McClane.  As much of an sociopathic, murderous villain as Gruber is, you can be thoroughly entertained by the charisma and intelligence Alan Rickman injects into him, but you still rejoice when McClane finally does him in.

A little unexpected humor arises from the less than sharp minded LAPD and FBI.  Paul Gleason’s Chief Robinson is clearly in over his head exercising clear incompetence while thinking he’s got everything under control.  Then, FBI Agents Johnson and Johnson, a joke in and of itself, are too full of themselves with their gung ho testosterone to be perceptive enough to know when they’re being played.  Add in more competent, yet still funny characters like Argyle the limo driver and Theo, Hans’ charismatic safe cracker, you’ve got laughs for miles without damaging the serious integrity of the action and drama of the movie.  This is seriously one of the most quotable action movies ever.

Yet, amidst all the explosive thrills and well-timed humor, we get the tether of humanity with Sergeant Al Powell.  Reginald VelJohnson connects perfectly in this role bringing the tired, wounded, and alone McClane into contact with someone on the outside who can be a moral and emotional support.  An action film is great when the thrills are exciting and bombastic, but you get something exceptional when this thread of humanity is so strongly in place.  VelJohnson gives us the full spectrum from lovable and funny to heartfelt and compassionate to stern conviction.  Powell is ultimately given some depth and substance showing that this film wasn’t going to take a shortcut anywhere at all.  The very human moments between Powell and McClane are a special strength.

But indeed, the action is ultimately the driving force of this movie, and once that spark of excitement is lit, it runs on pure adrenalin with riveting intensity and masterful execution.  This is big action with a real sense of gravity and peril.  The scale makes it amazingly fun and exciting while the weight of the drama makes it suspenseful and electrifying.  I love the subplot with Karl’s vendetta against McClane for the murder of his brother, and when the two finally clash, it’s awesome.  After all of the heavy gunfire and explosions, the few minutes of visceral raw physicality are a breath of fresh air before the scale of the action escalates further with the roof exploding signaling the third act rocketing forward.  Die Hard does nothing but amaze you at every turn.  Every step of the way, we care about these characters in the thick of danger, and we gradually see it escalate as Gruber’s plan unfolds.  It’s also great seeing McClane figure things out a little at a time, such as wondering why Hans was on the roof, and then, realizing he plans to blow it sky high with all the hostages on it.

I tend to write these reviews while watching the movie so to pick up on all the nuances, but Die Hard is so consistently engaging, thrilling, and entertaining that I could hardly tear my attention away to type anything up.  Whether it is the absolutely wickedly awesome action, the touching character building moments, or the great laughs it elicits from an audience, Die Hard is the perfect example of executing an action film correctly.  There’s not a moment wasted, and the editing is dead-on sharp and perfect in its pacing and timing.  Moments are so excellently punctuated with the right cut, and even more so with Michael Kamen’s remarkably intense and spectacular score.  His is a masterwork of brilliant, sophisticated action film compositions.  Not to mention, this is an expertly shot movie using those beautiful anamorphic lenses and that cinemascope widescreen canvas to accentuate the scale of the action.  And where many action films today can barely keep the camera steady long enough to understand the geography of a single scene, McTiernan and cinematographer Jan de Bont do so many subtle things to layout the geography of this entire building.  Early on, they walk you through the entire central area of the Nokatomi Tower over the opening credits so you understand where the hallways, elevator, offices, and stairway are so we can navigate it as competently as the characters.  As the film goes on, we revisit the conference room, the elevator shafts, and the roof to maintain a familiar environment for the action.  As a film lover and a filmmaker myself, this movie just makes me gush from a technical standpoint as it is so perfectly executed in every moment.  This film is exquisitely made from a massively talented team of filmmakers, sonic geniuses, and brilliant visual artists.

This film was adapted from the Roderick Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever, and many of the mind blowing and clever moments in the film are taken directly from the novel.  McClane’s jump from the exploding roof with the fire hose wrapped around him, the C-4 bomb thrown down the elevator shaft, and more exist in Thorp’s novel.  Apparently, it was a novel written as a sequel to The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra, but he declined the role.  Years later, it was supposedly intended as a sequel to Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, before being re-fashioned into the action classic that we now know and love.  Indeed, everything has its right time to come to fruition, and Die Hard happened in the right way at the right time with the right talent.

Between this and Predator, John McTiernan established himself as one of the premiere action movie directors of the time, and of course, this launched Bruce Willis into blockbuster super stardom.  Despite how Willis now feels about doing action movies, saying he’s bored with them at this point, we will always have these pinnacles of the genre when Willis was in his prime and eager to do his absolute best.  Die Hard is probably the most perfect action movie I have ever seen as it hits all of the beats of excitement and character just right with a spot-on mix of drama and humor to make it an undeniably memorable experience.  For anyone who has only ever seen either the fourth or fifth film in this franchise, you are doing a horrible disservice to yourself in basing the quality of Die Hard on those films.  As I said from the start, there is simply no equal.


Hollow Point (1996)

Hollow PointSo, this is the last film in my Thomas Ian Griffith triple feature, and it’s odd that in each successive movie his hair gets shorter and shorter.  Also, each of these films have some very impressive names attached to the cast.  This time, we’ve got John Lithgow and Donald Sutherland, so, there’s certainly talent on screen worth watching.  Hollow Point sees Griffith going pretty crazy with a full charge of charisma in a film I wasn’t expecting to be what it was.  Let’s see what it is that it happened to be.

FBI Agent Diane Norwood (Tia Carrere) is ready to do almost anything, even to spoil her own wedding, in order to bring down Livingston (John Lithgow), a major money launderer.  In the course of her dogged investigation she runs into the audacious DEA Agent Max Parish (Thomas Ian Griffith) who also wants Livingston.  After the two of them reluctantly join forces, they track down Garret Lawton (Donald Sutherland), one of Livingston’s disgruntled hitmen, to help bring him down.

After the conspiracy cop thriller and the Die Hard clone from Griffith, we now get something that tonally veers off in a wild direction.  I went into this expecting a fairly serious action movie, but right in the first fifteen minutes, you’ve both Griffith and Sutherland being all kinds of off-the-wall crazy.  A Russian Mafioso is smuggled around town, after slipping back into the country, in a casket, and the Max Parish character hijacks his hearse in an effort to interrogate him.  In a chase down a stairwell after this, Sutherland’s assassin character Lawton practically cackles and prances around like a nutjob chased by Agent Norwood while Parish rides a window washer’s harness down spouting out jokes.  I was laughing my ass off.  This is all just plain nuts based solely on Griffith and Sutherland, and this is them just getting warmed up.  This is a movie that just knows how to have fun with itself, and I was happy to indulge in it.

Hollow Point ultimately is a buddy cop movie where, absolutely, neither Parish nor Norwood like each other in the least.  They are adversarial to the point of sabotaging one another until they reluctantly agree to work together, but even then, they continually butt heads for many reasons.  Parish is practically certifiably nuts doing nothing but unorthodox stunts every step of the way, and Norwood feels very dedicated and straight arrow, up to a point.  So, it is the classic personality clash dynamic which stirs up friction and entertainment value.  Hollow Point is, by very far, no Lethal Weapon, but it’s certainly a whole lot of fun.

As I already touched upon, Thomas Ian Griffith really cuts loose with all of his charisma.  Max Parish is ultimately a guy working outside the bounds of the law to his own ends, and so, he’s going for broke at every turn.  Thus, he’s greatly unpredictable and spontaneous which facilitates Griffith to throw everything into this performance to make it endlessly fun and exciting.  There’s very little opportunity for drama to seep into the Max Parish character as the film really drives for the fun and laughs, but there are a few light, fleeting moments of seriousness that he slips in and out of smoothly.

Yet, as crazy as Griffith is here, Donald Sutherland is full blown whacky.  There is not a scene where he isn’t grinning like he’s gotten a snout full of Nitrous Oxide, and just being the nuttiest hitman you’ve ever seen.  Sutherland was clearly having an incredibly fun time playing this role with all the eccentricities and flare possible.  The flipside of that is John Lithgow doing a fairy straight villain performance, but it’s rather middle of the road.  He has lightly humorous moments along with grounded serious ones.  After seeing him in both Cliffhanger and Ricochet, I know he can do bad ass bad guy wickedly, but this outing here is nothing special, yet I was glad to have him there.  He made the character more interesting and entertaining just by him being in it, and goes the extra mile in the climax.

As you might expect, Tia Carrere is not the most convincing tough federal agent.  She certainly plays the role to the best of her ability, and is competent in all the action scenes.  However, despite her best efforts, I couldn’t be fully sold on the casting choice.  The Diane Norwood role was better suited for someone with more inherent toughness, charisma, and savvy.  Sandwiched in between Griffith and Sutherland chewing up scenery with full-tilt vibrancy, Carrere doesn’t really standout at all.  She has some decent moments that gain her some credibility, though.  Plus, she and Griffith have pretty good chemistry, and she handles the humorous moments sufficiently.  I just think there was a stronger casting choice available somewhere for this character, but Carrere’s sex appeal is mildly on display, answering some of the questions of why she was chosen.

The story here is almost unimportant as most of the screentime is really devoted to the buddy cop style antics of Parish, Norwood, and Lawton.  Lots of banter, silly moments, and mild scheming to plot against Livingston is all that’s really at play here.  Some people want his money for their own gain, and someone else just wants to see him locked up in a jail cell.  The movie does not intend to engage you with its story, and rightfully so.  Hollow Point is all about its crazy personalities, fun action, and humorous tone.

Even the editing of this movie, with all of its cheesy wipes, goes for the comedy aesthetic, and ultimately, that’s the way you need to take this movie.  It doesn’t really push for dramatic storytelling or really intense thrills.  It is designed to just have fun with it, and that’s not a surprise from the director of The Taking of Beverly Hills, another B-movie Die Hard clone.  However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t good action and plenty of explosions.  Griffith doesn’t get more than two brief moments of martial arts action as it’s all gunplay and car chases, but the action has some very good production values.  The climax really gives you a solid bang for your buck with a lot of fun scenarios, action-packed sequences, and a slightly quirky four-persona standoff.  Of the Thomas Ian Griffith movies I’ve now reviewed here with Excessive Force and Crackerjack, this one is the most lively fun, but also, the stupidest of the lot in all the best ways.

Hollow Point just ends up being purely dumb fun that you might enjoy on cable some night.  It’s good to have some laughs with and just enjoy the light-hearted action.  By no means would this have been a box office success, but it’s perfect direct-to-video entertainment.  Since this tightly focused look at Thomas Ian Griffith’s has been about assessing his action star potential, I think the only thing that kept him below the radar and mostly in the direct-to-video world was the quality of the scripts.  It would seem like, even with the screenplay he did for Excessive Force, there wasn’t anything strong enough to jump out and grab attention.  He also didn’t work with especially talented directors.  Van Damme worked with Peter Hyams and John Woo, Steven Seagal worked with Andrew Davis and Dwight Little, Bruce Willis had John McTiernan, Renny Harlin, and Tony Scott, and the list goes on.  Griffith got the director of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and Iron Eagle I, II, & IV.  He undoubtedly had every talent needed to be that breakout action movie star with the great martial arts skills, the acting ability to do straight, dimensional drama, charismatic wit, and really light-hearted humor.  He had it all, but no one ever paired him up with the right filmmakers to encapsulate all of his potential in one explosive hit.  As for Hollow Point, it’s certainly not a good movie, but it entertained me greatly with plenty of laughs.  However, I’m eager to get back to reviewing some theatrically released action films.


Sneakers (1992)

SneakersEnsemble casts are a sweet pleasure.  When you bring a wonderfully talented group of actors together that spark a unique chemistry, you’ve got cinematic gold piled to the ceiling.  Sneakers is one of those great films that blends and balances comedy, drama, and action successfully.  Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell, River Phoenix, Sidney Poitier, and David Strathairn populate this highly entertaining film that is truly charming.

Computer expert Martin Bishop (Redford) heads a team of renegade hackers – including a former CIA employee (Sidney Poitier), a gadgets wizard (Dan Aykroyd), a young genius (River Phoenix) and a blind soundman (David Strathairn) – who are routinely hired to test security systems.  But Bishop’s past comes back to haunt him when government agents blackmail the “sneakers” into carrying out a covert operation: tracking down an elusive black box.  Along with his former girlfriend (Mary McDonnell), Bishop’s team retrieves the box and makes a stunning discovery – the device can break into any computer system in the world.  With factions from all sides willing to kill for the powerful box, Bishop and his team embark on their most dangerous assignment ever which will lead him to confronting a contentious specter from his past.

Sneakers truly is rich with talent, and is a hell of a lot of fun!  The comedy is handled with such sharp wit and smart savvy.  There’s a lot of charm and heart put into this film that maintains a nice light chemistry and upbeat pace.  Everyone surely seems like they had a fantastically enjoyable time making this movie.  Our heroes are like boys in a clubhouse.  They are a playful and slightly immature bunch with their childish disagreements, especially between Aykroyd’s conspiracy theorist character and Poitier’s ex-CIA Agent Crease.  Martin holds them together with his smart, level head, but it’s fun seeing them kind of stumble here and there through unexpected situations.  They have to think on their feet, and the results are usually hilarious.  These guys are clever and quick witted enough to slip on through some tight scenarios.  They’re not some Mission: Impossible style crack team, but they have the mismatched skills to really pull off some impressive, unorthodox feats.

No one amongst the cast embodies the delicate balance of light-hearted wit and solid drama better than Robert Redford, and that should come as no surprise.  It really all comes down to the natural heart and grounded sensibility he brings to a role.  It’s great seeing that he might be a man in his fifties here, but he’s able to bring that youthful, teenage energy at the right times.  This can be seen greatly between him and Mary McDonnell early on, who are beautifully sweet and genuine together.  Redford makes Martin a very endearing person with a touching depth.  There are a lot of subtle qualities he adds in that allow for the humor and drama to mesh seamlessly.  It’s surely not an easy thing to pull off, but he makes it appear effortless, which is a testament to his natural charisma and talent.

And Mary McDonnell really demonstrates confidence, grace, and smarts as Liz.  She’s really a vibrant, mature cog in this rather playful ensemble.  It’s nice to see that dynamic, which does rub off in places.  There is a real, genuine spark between her and Redford that builds as the film goes on, but never overtakes the tone or focus of the film.  Yet, she gets to partake in some of the fun, too, and it’s really enjoyable.  The best thing to see in an ensemble cast is when no one gets short changed.  In this film, everyone gets their fair share of screentime to shine brilliantly, and Mary McDonnell is only one of many getting that chance here.

The rock solid core of the group is indeed Sidney Poitier’s Donald Crease.  The moment he knows they’re all in danger, Crease exercises his CIA instincts, and shows he’s a tactically sound professional.  Poitier definitely shows he can be a solid bad ass in this role, but still delivers on the fun and humor.  Of course, for the role of Mother, there was no more perfect choice than Dan Aykroyd.  The rapid fire conspiracy theory dialogue, and the sharp wit completely fit his talent.  David Strathairn is wonderfully exuberant really doing a remarkably fun job as Whistler.  Watching this blind sound expert be the wheelman for their escape in the climax, driving the team’s van full speed through a parking lot, is just a brilliant, joyful moment.  And the late River Phoenix shows the charming innocence of Carl adding the authentic youthful naivety to this team.

Cosmo is really smartly handled by Ben Kingsley.  It’s an especially great idea having the film’s antagonist being an old friend of Martin’s, and to see how these two have diverged down different paths.  Cosmo became swallowed up by the criminal underworld, and held onto his youthful beliefs of radically altering the world through crooked computer activities.  Wiping out world economies and collapsing the system started out as youthful idealism, and grew into a rather disillusioned ruthless criminal.  However, Kingsley so wisely plays things down and subtly serious.  He has a lot of the same wide eyed wonder as the rest of the cast, but it’s tempered by this man who has felt abandoned and betrayed by his best friend.  By the end, there’s something sad about this character as Martin pretty much pities him.  Ultimately, the film is about Martin and Cosmo resolving their pasts, but it’s Martin who has been able to move beyond it into a brighter future.

The score by James Horner is really delightful.  The light melodies he sprinkles into the film to maintain the sense of fun and adventure are the true highlight.  However, the more dramatic scenes, especially when the film gets perilous or tightly suspenseful, are intensely excellent.  Horner’s execution of the score is directly in line with Phil Alden Robinson’s superb and intelligent direction.  He enhances what Robinson does on screen with great inspiration in all musical aspects of his work.

Beyond anything else, Sneakers is especially clever.  The sequence where the guys discover what the black box is, and Martin decodes “Setec Astronomy” with the help of a Scrabble board game is just so smart and a little whimsical.  And when Martin goes to the Russian delegate for answers, there’s a brilliant moment where he steps out of the light and into the shadows to say, “Trust me.”  It’s artistic flourishes like that which show Robinson just knew how to weave the dramatic weight of an espionage thriller into this light-hearted adventure.  This really is some of the smartest direction I have seen because both the lighter and heavier aspects of the film are executed with equally brilliant skill.

It’s quite striking that the ideas of the world being controlled by information presented here are even more relevant now than they were twenty years ago.  It’s surprising how much of what’s discussed and brought up in Sneakers rings true to what we hear in the news every day.  Now, more than ever, does information and knowledge equal power, and people wield information like a sword.  Cosmo believes in that with absolute certainty, and wants to be the one who can shut it all down with a keystroke.  Yet, you will absolutely walk away from Sneakers with a plentiful feeling of enjoyment because it is such a charming experience.

Still, I find it so difficult to accurately categorize this film in a predominant genre because all of the humor is wonderfully delightful, the drama is perfectly nailed, and the action is purely thrilling.  Most importantly, Sneakers just has a lot of heart in it through and through.  There’s plenty of fun to be had with it while still getting a substantive story, a touch of heartfelt emotion, and a set of great performances out of it.  The cast is a joyful delight with chemistry and charisma to spare.  There’s really so much to love and adore about this film.  If you enjoy Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven or even this year’s Now You See Me, I think you will fall totally in love with Sneakers.  It is so amazingly well executed that I wish Phil Alden Robinson, the director also behind Field of Dreams, would direct even more films of this superb quality.  There will always be a place in cinema for something that can deliver on the dramatic excellence while providing us a great breadth of clever humor.  If any one word does sum up Sneakers for me, it is “delightful.”


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bad Boys (1995)

Bad BoysPeople like to rag on Michael Bay a lot, but most forget he has a few gems amongst the over bloated messes in his filmography.  Quite frankly, I believe his first movie was his best, and that is indeed Bad Boys.  Burdened with a really bad script written for a Dana Carvey / Jon Lovitz comedy vehicle, Bay relied heavily on the comedic smarts and chemistry of Martin Lawrence and Will Smith to salvage it with extensive improvisation.  What he got was an exceptionally well made, tightly paced, and sharply stylized charismatic action hit.

One hundred million dollars worth of confiscated heroin has just been jacked from police custody.  Once the career bust of Detectives Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence), the missing drugs now threaten to shut down the narcotics division of the Miami Police Department.  The thieves turn deadly when they murder one of their own, a once crooked cop, and Maxine, a beautiful call girl who was a close friend of Mike’s.  Now, the only witness to this double murder and the link to recovering the dope is Maxine’s friend Julie (Téa Leoni), who must come under the protective custody of Lowery and Burnett before these criminals eliminate her permanently.

What really grabs me about Bad Boys is how sharp and funny Lawrence and Smith are.  These two have excellent chemistry that would be hard to constrain, but I think Bay had himself in sync with these two.  He directed their banter down the right line which wholly fits their characters, and never allows it to go on a wild tangent.  I like the quick scenes early on that just have them trading comedic blows, but it serves a purpose to build the characters and establish their relationship.  The opening scene is a big favorite of mine.  This is Michael Bay focused and driven to deliver something impressive.  He had something to prove in his directorial debut, and the script he had was so horrible even he called it a “piece of shit.”  I only wish he still had those standards today.  So, it was a lot of pressure making Bad Boys, but he surrounded himself in extremely talented individuals like Smith and Lawrence along with two blockbuster producers to make this a success.

This has all the hallmarks of a Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer production.  It’s slick, stylish, fresh, and exciting.  I miss the time where producers like them or even Joel Silver alone influenced the quality and style of the movies.  They were as big of a mark of quality as the right director.  Bay’s style is also evident here with a lot of dynamic camera angles, beautiful dramatic lighting, and some gorgeous sweeping camera movements.  Bay creates a very visually stunning work that energizes the movie, raising it up to a very high quality cinematic level.  It absolutely has that 1990’s music video visual scope and beauty which was essentially originated and refined by Bay.  There’s some elegant and artistic production designs throughout that just give it an extra flare of style that does feel very Miami.  The film also has very tight editing keeping the story moving forward at a great clip.  Unlike many later Michael Bay films, it doesn’t languish on indulgences in comedy and frivolousness.  Yes, there are almost straight comedy bits in there, but they just add to the fun of the movie.

The dramatic aspects of the film are handled as amazingly as the comedy.  There are several moments in the film where the impact of Maxine’s death reverberates and resonates.  Bay gives it epic weight to propel the motivations forward for Julie and Mike.  In many of Bay’s later films, those qualities are often drowned out by too much bad comedy or just poor characterizations.  Here, he shows he knew how to do it right.

I know there are many who find Martin Lawrence irritating, to say the least.  I can see that, but I just feel he does his best in this movie, especially when he has someone like Will Smith to work off of.  Marcus Burnett is a guy with a lot of stresses on him from not getting his “quality time” at home, and the constant danger everyone keeps getting him into.  The biggest being having to impersonate Mike for the sake of securing Julie, who trusts Lowery solely, and being forced to lie to his own wife about the arrangement.  So, the wiseass quips and abrasive attitude are dead-on-the-mark.  It also creates the classic buddy cop dynamic of conflicting personalities.  Mike is smooth and competent while Marcus is more excitable and apprehensive.

Of course, Will Smith is charming and charismatic, but injects a lot of toughness and conviction into Mike Lowery.  He’s not just a smooth player.  He’s a dedicated, determined, wicked good cop that works situations with savvy and sharp aggression.  Mike might be a rich kid with a comfortable lifestyle, but as he says he “pushes it to the max every day.”  It’s a great dynamic between Burnett and Lowery, and this performance showed Will Smith to be a vastly marketable leading man and action capable actor.  Proving that statement is the fact that his very next film was Independence Day.

Téa Leoni is really great.  The panicked, emotionally unsettled part of her performance has a lot of weight and depth.  Yet, she makes the transition to the lighter tone smoothly with really good chemistry with Lawrence.  She becomes even more enjoyable when Julie figures out that Marcus is really Marcus, and not Mike.  She plays around with him, and that just adds a little more intelligence to her.  Most of all, Leoni creates a very sympathetic and likeable character.

While Joe Pantoliano portrays almost the stereotypical angry police Captain, he’s great at it.  As always, he’s smart and funny.  Captain Howard barks orders with the best of them, but you understand the stress he’s under.  The biggest bust his department’s ever achieved is lost, and all of their jobs are on the line under a very tight timetable.  He has to motivate his detectives to work fast and smart before all their time and luck has run out.  So, Pantoliano has that relatable quality where his yelling never overshadows the consummate cop underneath.

Tchéky Karyo gives us a fairly good villain.  If there’s any weak area of the film it’s not his performance, but Fouchet is not well developed.  It’s rather generic, but Karyo elevates it to a higher level through his very good presence and subtle touches he puts into it.  He can evoke a calm tension when he speaks softly, but can really punctuate greatly when the aggression is unleashed.  If Fouchet was a stronger villain on the page, I think the film would feel like it has a beefier pay-off.

I absolutely adore Mark Mancina’s score.  The main theme is beautiful and perfect with its slight Latin flavor, hip hop rhythm, rock electric guitar, and epic scale strings.  It’s an inspired meshing of musical styles that feel just perfect.  His overall work on this movie was big, heart pounding, and dramatic flowing perfectly with Michael Bay’s directorial style.  The entire soundtrack just hits the right 90’s intensity and style all the way through.

If there’s one thing that I’ve never seen disputed about Michael Bay is that he knows how to do action sequences amazingly well.  He really is a master of epic action using score and weighty slow motion shots to intensify every dangerous scenario.  The entire climax is excellently done with plenty of explosive moments and greatly satisfying action.  The final car chase is insanely intense with its great use of tight close-ups, tense, pounding music, and extremely tight editing.  The violent, dramatic quality of it all is just masterful.  This really does follow in the tradition of Tony Scott, but pushed to the next level.  That is probably much due to the Simpson / Bruckheimer backing.

While the story is rather simple and straight forward, it is populated with a lot of fun.  Bay keeps the mix of dramatic momentum and comedic wit appropriately balanced.  The comedy might be in abundance here, but it never dilutes or dwarfs the dramatic urgency of the storyline.  Both the comedy and action stick strongly in your mind after the film’s over.  It all just blends together smoothly and smartly for a wildly entertaining and fun ride.

Bad Boys really set the tone for late 90’s action.  Very polished and stylized cinematography, largely dramatic slow motion action, and just an epic feel all around.  It launched the careers of Bay and Smith into the stratosphere as two the biggest blockbuster names around, and for good reason.  While Bad Boys isn’t as big of an action movie as either of them or Simpson / Bruckheimer were involved with, it’s greatly fun, exciting, and spectacularly made.  Sharp, smart, and beautifully shot, this vibrantly showed that there was talent here to harness.  These days, I think Michael Bay could use some restraints and more focused vision like he had here.  Even Bad Boys II came off a bit over bloated and self-indulgent by taking what was great in this first movie and amplifying it beyond what it needed to be.  Still, if a third movie ever does eventually get made, I’m sure I’ll be game to give it a fair chance as you should definitely do for this movie, if you haven’t already.


Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

First off, I do not hate this movie.  There are things I like about it, I find some parts funny, but there are obviously bad aspects to it.  However, I’ve always found something enjoyable about it even if it is a mess of a movie.  As anyone who has regularly read my reviews knows very well about the summer of 1989, where movies were concerned.  It was massively huge with numerous blockbuster contenders hitting almost every week, but Star Trek V, despite being projected to do very well, really took a nose dive at the box office.  It was one of the bigger disappointments of that summer in relation to its projected success.  The main reason for its failure?  The ego of William Shatner, who was the film’s star, writer, and director, who took on a project he didn’t have the skill to deliver based on the studio’s restrictions and his own misconceived vision.  Even Gene Roddenberry went on record calling the film “apocryphal,” and most simply regard it as if it never happened.  There are undeniable reasons for that, but I seem to be one of the very few that gains some entertainment value from this movie.

On Nimbus III, the Planet of Galactic Peace, a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) has taken three ambassadors hostage with a radical plan.  Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the newly christened U.S.S. Enterprise-A, which has ship-wide malfunctions, are recalled from shore leave for a rescue mission to the planet, but the distress call attracts the attention of a Klingon Captain intent on making a name for himself by engaging a Starfleet vessel in combat.  The rescue mission goes awry when it is revealed that Sybok has used a unique telepathic ability to draw the hostages under his sway.  Matters are further complicated when Spock (Leonard Nimoy) reveals that Sybok is his half-brother, also a son of Sarek.  Sybok and his followers thus seize control of the Enterprise to fulfill his lifelong search for the fabled planet of Sha-Ka-Ree where he believes all life began, and that God himself waits for them.  Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy struggle to regain command of the Enterprise from this apparent madman before they reach the supposedly impenetrable Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy.  However, what awaits them on the other side is not what any of them expected.

This definitely had a peculiar behind the scenes scenario for such a problematic film.  Star Trek V had the second largest budget of the franchise up to that point, and so, it wasn’t a matter of a lack of money for director William Shatner to achieve his vision.  Instead, it seems to come down to both a mishandling of the budget as well as terrible timing all around.  Industrial Light & Magic was responsible for the visual effects work on the films since The Wrath of Khan, but when this film went into production, ILM was hard at work on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Constraints of time and money meant the filmmakers of Star Trek V couldn’t wait for them to be available, nor could they contend with what Spielberg and Lucasfilm were paying ILM to secure their expert services.  It’s also slightly ironic since both films were distributed by Paramount Pictures, and released within about two weeks of one another.  So, Shatner and Paramount had to go with a lesser effects company, and the lower grade results are obvious.  They simply do not measure up to the dynamic and gloriously cinematic quality of ILM, and this further impacts the overall level of quality of the movie.  Shatner had wild ideas for this film that were axed either in scripting by the studio, or simply because they could not be achieved with the resources he had.  Apparently, none of these ideas were anything better than what did make it into the film, and in most cases, were far, far worse.  The biggest of which was instead of encountering an evil entity claiming to be God, they would literally meet God himself, and do battle with the real Devil.  As bad as you thought it was, it was intended to be terribly worse.

This film is indeed bad with foolish concepts that shouldn’t exist in a Star Trek story, and has some terrible comedy.  It also portrays much of the regular cast in a very uncharacteristic fashion.  With the loyalty they’ve shown, especially in The Search For Spock, it is difficult to accept that they would so easily turn against Kirk in favor of Sybok’s telepathic therapy.  So, why do I enjoy this film at all?  Camp value.  I do find some of the comedy funny in a very ridiculous and cheap way.  Yes, it is badly written low brow, broad comedy, and it is surely not the context I would want the crew ever depicted in again.  Yet, when I take the film as a lower grade feature, I can just indulge in the camp value of it all.  I find myself quoting lines from this probably more than any other Trek film.  Where the humor of The Voyage Home was very situational stemming from the “fish out of water” context of the film, here, it is just out of place, awkward, and silly.  While I do enjoy it, I can still look at it objectively and critically.  Simply put, William Shatner did not demonstrate good screenwriting abilities on this film.  I will grant that it is very incompatible to have comedy of this sort in a film about finding God.  Shatner tries to balance broad comedy and serious drama, but that is just not a combination that mixes.

However, while the film is wrought with out of place humor and silliness, there are some excellent dramatic and character moments found throughout.  I like Kirk, Bones, and Spock sitting around the campfire talking about how Kirk knows that as long as he has his friends around, he knows he won’t die.  They have saved each other’s lives so many times that this does resonate for me, and is quite a good moment of depth and insight into James Kirk.  He says he’ll die alone, and that was something that always stuck with me.  Thus, making his ultimate demise in Star Trek: Generations even more of an insult.  The scenes between Spock and Sybok have some fine dramatic substance as their shared history is played out.  And undeniably, the scene where Sybok has McCoy relive the death of his father is the most powerful scene of the film, and possibly DeForest Kelley’s most profound acting in all his tenure as Leonard McCoy.  In these moments, Shatner, as director, does get the dramatic side of the film down nicely, and is definitely helped by very strong acting talents.  Still, they are not enough to raise the film up to respectable standards since there is so much low grade junk weighing it down.  They are mere glimpses of a stronger and more tonally consistent film that could have been, if handled by better talented filmmakers.  I may enjoy the film, but certainly, I will never deny that it is filled with a lot of crap.

Case in point is that what thin semblance of a plot there is doesn’t make much sense.  It’s hard to fathom why Sybok would choose such a worthless rock of a planet like Nimbus III, a failed public relations stunt of peace, to launch his quest from.  Obviously, he had a starship transport him to the planet in the first place, and so, he had the means to secure interplanetary travel at some point.  There was no express need for him to travel to Nimbus III just to hijack a ship.  I mean, there are far easier ways of obtaining a starship than taking ambassadorial hostages on a desolate planet no one gives a crap about.  Thus, all Sybok really needs from this planet are followers to bear witness to his quest, and he chooses the dregs of the galaxy.  This doesn’t seem like the most efficient or credible plan to me.  Beyond that, the most that is going on is Kirk, Spock, and McCoy trying to take back control of the ship, but by the time they have the chance, Sybok’s already arrived at his destination.  From there, it’s just a matter of exploration and survival.  The entire subplot of the Klingon Bird of Prey hunting the Enterprise is more of a minor action plot device, and doesn’t feed into anything substantive.  The themes of religion and finding God also aren’t really explored by any of the characters, except for Sybok, and he does tend to come off like a fanatic or cult leader.  That is entirely intentional, but it also diffuses the poignancy of the topic.  No one takes the issue seriously because he is viewed as a delusional person who is risking lives for his own fanatical validation.  More time is spent on discussing who Sybok is, and the power that he possesses than his belief in finding God at the center of the galaxy.

I also have to criticize the idea that the Great Barrier has been perceived as impenetrable.  The key idea is perception.  I can’t wrap my head around how everyone is dead-on certain that no ship can survive entering the Barrier when no ship has ever tried, nor have they acquired any data on it to support such a claim.  All they know is that no probe has ever returned, which hasn’t stopped starship captains from entering into the unknown before or since.  Everyone considers it dangerous, tantamount to madness and suicide to try, yet the Enterprise and the Klingon Bird of Prey traverse it without even the slightest problem.  Even taking the film by its own warped logic, if passage through the Barrier is merely a matter of belief that it is an illusion, that still doesn’t explain how the Bird of Prey was able to make it through.  If the ships had to survive some danger to pass through that ominous barrier, then I could say that these fears were justified.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  The idea simply doesn’t hold any credibility.

Furthermore, the physics of space travel are completely screwed over as it would take decades for the Enterprise to reach the center of the galaxy even at top warp speeds.  Of course, the most lauded criticism of the film is why would Starfleet send Captain Kirk out on an important hostage rescue mission in a ship that is falling apart.  Starfleet does say there are other ships in range of Nimbus III, but no experienced commanders.  So, it wouldn’t be difficult to put Kirk and his crew on one of those vessels for a temporary assignment.  It also doesn’t make sense that the fleet would build a brand new Constitution class starship when two films ago, which in the chronology of Star Trek was maybe a couple months ago, the original Enterprise was essentially called old and obsolete with no plans to refit it for continued service.  The original intention was that the Enterprise-A was rechristened as such from the U.S.S. Yorktown, but this film screws that idea over completely.  The idea of the Enterprise-A being a shambles is simply to remove the convenience of using the transporter to rescue the hostages, or allow for an easy escape for our heroes when the evil entity turns on them.  Still, you can have the transporters be inoperable without the entire ship being a disaster.  Of course, it’s also there for more moments of humor when turbolift doors won’t open, or the Captain’s electronic log book, which is independent of the ship’s systems, goes kaput.  The U.S.S. Enterprise presented here is as much of a mess as the film itself.

Now, there is foolishness and stupidity abound in this film that really cannot be taken seriously because it hardly takes itself seriously.  I’ve barely gotten started on the criticisms this film deserves.  I could go on and on about the inanities and stuff that doesn’t make sense, and normally, I would keep going for quite a while to really scrutinize it all.  However, this has already been detailed by SFDebris in his Opinionated Trek Movie Guide videos.  I almost didn’t go forward with this review for fear that most of what I would say would just be a retread of his review.  He essentially covered it all in excellent fashion.  However, what pushed me forward with this was sharing what I do enjoy about the film, despite its flaws.  I can enjoy the badly conceived and poorly executed aspects of the film while still finding genuine merit in a few areas.  What originally motivated me towards doing a review at all was giving credit to one aspect of the movie that I have never heard anyone offer before.  That is the performance of Laurence Luckinbill as Sybok.

The filmmakers originally wanted Sean Connery for this role, but again, due to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, they had to look elsewhere.  However, unlike the visual effects, they did not end up with a low grade result.  Luckinbill instills great passion and theatrical zeal into the role.  He is very charismatic, making Sybok a personality to contend with.  He’s not out to destroy or seek vengeance upon anyone.  Instead, his threat is based in his radical ideology, and that required someone not intimidating but vibrant and intelligent.  He didn’t need to be cunning and lethal like Khan, but a man who views himself as enlightened but is perceived as a con man, similar to the televangelists that inspired the character.  Yet, Luckinbill makes the character interesting and compelling as well as sympathetic by the end.  When Sybok realizes the error of his ways, he takes responsibility for his arrogance and ego, which creates a great character arc.  I think Sybok has a good ending which redeems his character, but unfortunately, its poignancy is overshadowed by the remainder of the climax with Kirk seeking to escape the evil entity.  Luckinbill created a fascinating character through his performance that I actually would’ve loved to have seen more of.  I think exploring Sybok in more depth would be a great thing in this actor’s talented hands.  If placed in a better film, I think both Laurence Luckinbill’s performance and Sybok himself would have gained more praise, but far too often, a marvelous performance is overlooked due to the quality of the film it appears in.  Luckinbill carried a lot of weight on his shoulders with this movie, and I think he carried it with more ease, grace, and integrity than anyone else in the film.  While the script written around Sybok is certainly not the smartest or most logical, the character himself is given a credible life by this actor, and I think he deserves a lot of overdue praise for what he did.

The other performances are especially mixed.  Even with much of the humorous content, I do feel that Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly do a very solid job, maintaining far more integrity than the script would suggest they could.  Much of why the humor amongst them and Shatner works any bit as good as it does is because of their long standing chemistry.  They’ve always worked beautifully together, and that goes a long way in this turbulent film.  James Doohan is certainly entertaining handling the cheap humor pretty decently, and just being his charming Montgomery Scott self.  I do genuinely laugh at his comedy moments.  However, the rest of the main cast doesn’t have as much to work with, either good or bad, and thus, doesn’t offer much for me to comment on.  Cynthia Gouw, however, puts in an entirely disingenuine performance as the Romulan Ambassador.  Her line deliveries lack any substance, and she comes off like a hollow shell of a person with her light airy voice and naïve smile.  There is no acting ability in what she does.  She just smiles and looks pretty for the camera, which makes it no wonder that she was a model before attempting to be an actress.  The usually great David Warner is criminally wasted in the role of St. John Talbot, the Federation Ambassador on Nimbus III.  There is nothing in the role for him that is worthwhile.  The only fortunate result from this is that this introduction into Star Trek allowed for him to take on two far more impressive roles in Star Trek VI and an excellent and powerful two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Beyond this point in this cast, it just becomes far too one dimensional to even bother mentioning.  Captain Klaa fits solidly into a Klingon stereotype, but he is nothing more than that.  He’s just on a shallow quest for glory.

Now, yes, I must address William Shatner as an actor here.  There is an obvious ego trip going on in front of and behind the camera.  This doesn’t necessarily lead to a bad performance from him, but you can definitely see how the film is designed to raise James T. Kirk up while pushing everyone else down.  Shatner is entirely capable of delivering great performances, but it does take the right director to know how to wear Shatner down to get it out of him.  Nicholas Meyer, director the second and sixth Star Trek movies, says on one of his commentary tracks that he had to run many takes with Shatner to get the right one.  This was, as he said, because Shatner would start out trying to act like a big star in the spotlight, but as the takes went on, he’d get more worn down by the process and then give the more natural and real performance.  That’s where Meyer would find the gold, and I imagine Leonard Nimoy had a similar process on the previous two Trek movies.  When Shatner is directing himself, it’s inevitable that more of that big star ego will show through, but there are several moments of solid dramatic acting from him.  It’s not a terrible performance at all, but it could’ve used more wrangling in, more molding to shape it properly.  Regardless of the acting, there is just no denying how overly focused this film is on Kirk.  Shatner takes every opportunity that he was allowed to separate Kirk in any way from the rest of his crew.  Either by them betraying him, or simply being at odds with Spock or McCoy, Shatner wanted Kirk to fight this all on his own, but that simply is uncharacteristic of especially those two to abandon Kirk at all.  Whatever logic he had to break, or characterizations he had to betray, Shatner was going to focus that spotlight on himself as much as possible.  Thus, that is the film’s crucial failing.

Now, I never realized this myself, but a friend of mine pointed out that Star Trek V is actually the film that’s actually the most like the television series.  The lower grade effects, the slight corniness, and the use of the rocky California desert as some generic alien planet are purely straight from the original television series.  The storyline has the feel of something from the original series as well, in concept, anyway.  Encountering strange larger than life entities like in The Squire of Gothos or The Doomsday Machine, passing through cosmic barriers like Where No Man Has Gone Before, and the Kirk action sequence along a rocky landscape like in Arena all tie the movie strongly to the roots of the television series.  Granted, the writing of this film is a long way off from the best standards of the series.

The last thing to really give note of is composer Jerry Goldsmith’s return to the franchise here, and he brings all his original themes back with him.  The great opening fanfare, which had become the theme for The Next Generation by now, and the excellent Klingon theme return in great fashion.  It’s a very good score that is quite to my general liking, but Goldsmith just had terrible luck by being saddled with the two most critically bashed films of the series so far (the other being Star Trek: The Motion Picture).  He wouldn’t return to Trek again until First Contact due to the critical and commercial failure of this movie.

Despite my own personal enjoyment of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I cannot defend it as a whole.  There are admirable parts to it, but they are grossly overwhelmed by all the negative qualities present.  I happen to enjoy this on a campy, bad movie level, but there is hardly anyway I forge a set of conditions under which I could generally recommend it.  You’re either going to like the movie for the low grade work that it is, or you’re going to hate it, passionately.  There were plenty of problems surrounding the development and execution of this film, but they do not excuse much at all of the end result.  William Shatner believed he could make this movie work with his objectionable story, and the studio mandates of making another “fun” movie like The Voyage Home.  He failed miserably, and this nearly killed the film franchise entirely.  A better director never would’ve touched this film with Shatner’s script, and a better screenwriter would’ve scoffed at the film’s concept.  I can certainly see why people revile this movie so much, but for me, there are far worse Star Trek films in existence than this one.  However, others have thoroughly scrutinized those movies in far more depth than I can get to, and I have nothing new to say about any of them.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have some critical statements to make about one of the more highly regarded films in the franchise, though.


The Lost Boys (1987)

The Lost Boys is an excellent vampire film that perfectly reflects the time it was made in.  The witty humor, the fearsome horror, and the amazing pop soundtrack create a purely 1980s vampire film with a lot of style.  Director Joel Schumacher and executive producer Richard Donner hit it big with this film.  It had everything going for it including a solid cast of amazing young talent, and has been a classic of the genre for a quarter of a century.  Sleep all day.  Party all night.  Never grow old.  Never die.  It’s fun to be a vampire.

After a divorce, Lucy Emerson (Dianne Wiest) moves her two sons, Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim), from Arizona to Santa Carla, California.  They move into Grandpa’s place (Barnard Hughes), which is somewhat removed from the lively beachside town.  The small family is trying to fit in with their new surroundings, but they’re a little put off considering that Santa Carla is dubbed “the murder capital of the world”.  Lucy gets a job at the boardwalk video rental store owned by the kindly Max (Edward Herrmann), Sam meets Edgar (Corey Feldman) & Allen (Jamison Newlander), the Frog Brothers, at the comic book store, and Michael runs into a dangerous pack while chasing after the beautiful Star (Jami Gertz).  The pack is led by David (Kiefer Sutherland) who takes Michael on a wild ride into a weird world.  What both brothers will gradually come to realized that this boardwalk town is, to quote the Frog Brothers, “a haven for the undead.”  Fangs, blood, and creatures of the night come out of the woodwork, and Michael and Sam are directly caught up in it.

This could’ve easily become a cheesy 80s vampire film, but with the brightly shining talent involved, it became a fantastic, fun vampire-filled thrill ride.  Kiefer Sutherland’s name speaks for itself.  He makes for a charismatic, dangerous, and enthralling villain that easily lures Michael deeper into the darkness.  Jason Patric also demonstrates a great, gradual evolution for his character, and shows a very brotherly relationship with Corey Haim.  You can definitely see the potential Patric had for later in his career for more dramatically challenging roles with a wide depth of emotion.  He plays well off of everyone especially Kiefer and Jami Gertz.  She demonstrates a wonderful vulnerability as Star trapped between the vampire world and her love for Michael.  Gertz sells the threat of David very well through Star’s own fear, and has seductive chemistry with Jason Patric that is strong and passionate.

Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, and Jamison Newlander bring a sense of fun to the film that gives an extra dynamic to the film.  Without them, it’s more a straight vampire horror-love story film, but with them, you get a younger adventurous Goonies type dynamic that brings in a wider audience.  Each young actor puts a lot of heart and enthusiasm into their roles.  Haim is very light-hearted and easily likable.  Feldman and Newlander intentionally play up a gritty Clint Eastwood style archetype which, when put into a pair of young teens who run a comic book store and hunt vampires, it becomes delightfully humorous.  The Frog Brothers are a smart highlight in the film which only complement and never dominate this fine ensemble cast.

Dianne Wiest plays a perfect mother to two teenage boys, and an endearing daughter to old Grandpa – which Barnard Hughes plays with a lot of comedic enthusiasm.  Edward Herrmann also plays his part very well in an assuming fashion, and is very convincing at the film’s conclusion.  As far as the other vamps – they add a lot of life to Kiefer’s gang.  They all have the 1980s hair metal look going on which couldn’t be more dead-on perfect for 1987.  It’s also cool to see Alex Winter here prior to his Bill & Ted films.

Cinematographer Michael Chapman crafted some awesome imagery throughout the film, but my favorite sequence is definitely the motorcycle chase scene.  Beyond just the energizing action aspects of the sequence, it has amazing atmosphere through shadowy lighting and dynamic angles.  This makes me wish the sequence lasted longer as well as allowing Lou Gramm’s awesome “Lost in the Shadows” to play longer. Chapman has shot many great films from Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to The Fugitive.  He’s proven his talent for powerful imagery time and time again, and there’s no shortage of visual artistry in The Lost Boys.

The soundtrack is flat out amazing.  You have excellent tracks from INXS, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Who’s Roger Daltrey, Foreigner’s Lou Gramm, Tina Turner’s saxophonist Tim Cappello, and the haunting theme of “Cry Little Sister” from Gerard McMann.  While they are not all original tracks, they do all come together as a cohesive sound that reflects the best qualities of 1987’s popular music.  These songs nicely highlight and punctuate numerous scenes in the film greatly, and create a dense, awesome atmosphere for this film.  There are so many pop songs in the film that, frankly, they overshadow what fine and ominous work composer Thomas Newman did for The Lost Boys.  While there are sequences with full, gorgeous score, his music mainly fills in the blanks as more transitional music or an accompaniment to the lyrical tracks.  I definitely do not view that as a negative mark.  Mainly utilizing these songs over a score resulted in a great filmmaking style that only makes the film far more entertaining and colorful.

Joel Schumacher shows he has a great depth of talent here despite some of his later critical failures.  He balances out the characters and their stories very well as no single story dominates over another.  This also results in a very well balance tone between the lighter fare with Sam and the Frog Brothers, and the heavier toned horror and love aspects of Michael’s side of the film.  Schumacher really brought out some wonderful performances from a lot of young, eager talent, same he did in the brilliant St. Elmo’s Fire.  This is definitely a film one could grow up with from childhood into teenage years to adulthood, and constantly find something that appealed to them.  In my late teens, I probably loved the lighter toned material and the straight horror stuff best, but now, many years later, I definitely have a deep appreciation for the sexy and seductive aspects of the film.  They are beautifully executed from the acting to the cinematography and editing to the perfect choice of music.  It has such a wealth of depth and sensuality that I don’t get enough of in cinema.

Schumacher never allows the horror or dramatic aspects to fall behind the humorous adventure.  When all storylines converge, this becomes a very strong horror film with plenty of frights, action, and intense special effects.  The showdown between Michael and David is powerfully done in every aspect.  The ferocity of their clash is perfect, and is given a very dark and ominous lighting scheme.  While the visual effects were quite limited in allowing vampire flight, Schumacher wisely limits the screentime of those effects.  They are there only to service their moments in the film, and instead, the scene focuses in on Sutherland and Patric closely.  However, the special make-up effects are flat out amazing.  The striking and rather iconic vampire designs are realized with great detail and skill.  When David reveals that vampiric visage, it is frightening.  They look like fierce, vicious creatures that will feast with a smile on their fanged faces.  One could definitely see an inspiration here for the vampires of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel with the pronounced, thick foreheads, yellow eyes, and long fangs.  It truly is a masterful job that I think is one of the best, most fearsome vampire designs ever put to film.

The only aspect of the movie that maybe a little ill-taken is the very end.  The ultimate master vampire is dispatched with in a way that works for the quirky, humorous tone of the film, but many are likely to desire a more dramatic conclusion especially after the Michael and David throwdown being so climactic.  It’s a hair splitter.  Repeat viewings allow for a fan to enjoy it more, but a first time viewer might be left somewhat unsatisfied.  This ending does pay-off something established earlier in the film, but it’s a very subtle setup that one would likely not take lasting notice of if not for this ending.  Obviously, I have no desire to spoil anything for those who have not seen the film, and I don’t think this aspect of the film should at all deter you from experiencing an excellent, vibrant, and entertaining vampire flick!

While Joel Schumacher has made some severely maligned films in his career, he has also had a number of incredible films to his credit, and The Lost Boys is absolutely ranked among them.  For most anyone, if you say “1980s vampire film,” The Lost Boys is what jumps into their minds, and for exceptionally good reasons.  It’s perfectly stylish in all the right ways with excellent performances, a killer soundtrack, and a solid script that balances all its varies tones just right.  This film is designed to please on multiple levels, and does so immensely well.  This is definitely a classic of the vampire genre that will frighten and amuse you in a very satisfying film experience.


The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Real Steel (2011)

I really liked this movie!  It always seemed entertaining, but I was never sure if it was exactly for me.  Turns out, it absolutely was, and I wish I had seen it in theatres for that big rousing experience.  Real Steel is a heart warming story with a lot of exciting action, lovable humor, and strong emotional drama.  This is a crowd pleaser, and a wonderful family oriented film.

In the near future, boxing as we know it has changed from human athletes to robotic competitors.  This has left former boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) down on his luck shopping his worn out bot fighter Ambush around to small time fairs and events.  He’s broke with large debts hanging over his head to many people, and his con man bravado constantly gets him in over his head.  However, his life is about to change when the mother of his estranged eleven year old son passes away, and her sister, Debra (Hope Davis) wants to claim fully custody of Max Kenton (Dakota Goyo).  Charlie negotiates a deal with the clearly well-off Uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn) to take the kid for the summer with a $50,000 price tag up front while Debra and Marvin take off to Italy.  Charlie uses the cash to buy a new robot, but Max will not be dumped off with Charlie’s girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) who tries to keep her late father’s boxing gym open.  So, he joins Charlie out on the bot fighting circuit where they constantly come into odds with one another, but when their big time Japanese bot gets mutilated during a main event bout, they head to the junkyard to scrap together parts for a new fighter.  Here, Max discovers Atom, an old sparring bot, buried under the mud, and Max dedicates himself to fixing up and championing Atom as their new fighter.  Charlie doesn’t have faith that Atom is worthwhile, but eventually, their combined efforts and warming attitudes help lead them all to great success.  The two reach great heights with Atom and as a family.  Although, they hit many turbulent moments that tear them apart, but also, bring them closer together to forge a father-son bond that is stronger than steel.

I have to hand it to everyone involved in this movie.  I don’t think it could’ve been better.  Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) certainly had great input from producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis to create such a well balanced film.  There are many elements in Real Steel that are very akin to the films they made back in the 1980s.  It is very heartfelt and endearing with plenty of enjoyable, well developed characters.  Listening to Levy’s audio commentary, I can’t help but to love his passion and love for what he does.

I’ll certainly get to Hugh Jackman, but I absolutely wanted to credit Dakota Goyo.  This young actor makes this film work beyond expectations.  It is so often that child actors grate on an audience’s nerves due to unnatural attitude or overt, sickening cuteness, but Dakota is nothing of the sort.  He comes off as a sharp, intelligent, mature, and charming kid.  He has vast potential, and so much of that is fleshed out here.  He carries his equal weight opposite Jackman, and their chemistry is amazingly fantastic!  They keep each other on their toes, demanding higher and higher standards from one another throughout the story.  Max brings out the best in Charlie and so many others through his confident, ambitious, yet still youthful spirit.  He does have attitude, but it works to show that Max isn’t going to back down from Charlie, who needs someone to kick some sense and maturity into him.  And how Max bonds with Atom is amazingly heartfelt, like a boy bonding with his dog.  Atom certainly is given that personality of a kid’s best, loyal friend, and the child-like innocence of that relationship is beautifully realized.  In the hands of any lesser of a talent, the film would’ve had a fatal weak point, but Goyo truly elevates the film.  He projects sympathy at key moments, and while he is a tough kid, he does have his vulnerability.  He can elicit a wide range of emotions from an invested audience.  I love the fact that Max is just looking for someone who will fight for him, to be needed and loved by someone so bad, and the moment he reveals that is heartbreaking and powerful.

Hugh Jackman gives Charlie Kenton an extra dimension that allows him to be likeable even when, by all rights, he shouldn’t be.  Again, with any less of an actor, Charlie would’ve been despicable and obnoxious.  Instead, Jackman brings a slightly sympathy to Charlie which allows him to be forgivable and redeemable.  This story truly is an evolution for Charlie from a guy at rock bottom that’s entirely self-serving without a genuine, honest relationship to a father who comes to care deeply for his estranged son who wants to do all things right by him.  Charlie starts out a little pathetic, but not entirely innocent of the problems that befall him.  He talks a good game, but his bravado gets the better of him.  He’s a man that had his taste at greatness, but the change in the fight game abruptly ended those dreams.  So, he feels broken, and wants to avoid showing his feelings by masking with an arrogant, if immature demeanor.  However, the more time he spends with Max, the more Charlie’s hardened swagger softens.  Jackman beautifully captures those moments of Charlie’s heart and compassion breaking through the surface such as a moment where Charlie saves Max from a mudslide fall right before they discover Atom.  Dakota’s performance pulls out these qualities in Jackman’s character forcing him to come to terms with his past and character flaws.  Charlie becomes a better person because of Max, and Jackman plays that subtle development brilliantly.  He only puts in what charm and swagger that are needed at any given moment.  He finds the perfect balance between the old Charlie and the new Charlie in every scene as he journeys from one end of that spectrum to the other.  Beyond all else, Hugh clearly had a fun time making this movie, and shared a lot of respect with Dakota.

The father-son relationship is the entire core of this film, and casting these two deeply talented, smart actors was the best, first step to achieving success.  They were fully committed to the story and characters here.  Both of their performances become painfully heartbreaking, but also immensely exciting.  There is so much nuance to their performances allowing them to work off of each other, and create that charming bond which drives the whole film.  I simply cannot say enough about them that you will have to experience them yourself.

Rounding out the core cast, Evangeline Lilly’s Bailey is excellent as well.  Bailey tries to keep from having to sell her father’s old boxing gym, but Charlie’s debts to her make that difficult.  However, Charlie has enough charm with her to slide by, but she never makes it too easy for him.  Evangeline has a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and passion to inject into the movie.  She plays off of Jackman exceptionally well as his love interest.  The relationship is playful, intimate, and honest.  Bailey is an easy going woman that you can entirely see the history and connection she shares with Charlie, and how her hope in him grows as the story builds.  She is very easy to connect with, and remains strongly tethered to the heart of the film.  Her visceral moments cheering on Atom during the fights are awesome, and that likely reflects the audience’s enthusiasm to see our heroes achieve glorious victory. There is just so much heart and emotion that pours out of this film, and these actors saturate it with incredible performances.

The supporting cast strongly hold the smaller areas of the film together.  Hope Davis as Max’s Aunt Debra is very caring and protective of her nephew.  His Uncle Marvin, played by the solid James Rebhorn, is not unappreciative of Max, but is also not ready to drop everything to be his father figure.  Kevin Durand portrays the Texan Ricky with a slick, ill-favored attitude, but he’s just enough of an intimidating yet foolish character to be amusing.  The smug, arrogant duo of Olga Fonda and Karl Yune as Zeus’ owner and creator, respectively, are great foils for Charlie & Max who are full of humanity and determination.  These nicely textured characters, backed by solid acting talents, add a strong foundation to build these great character dynamics upon that are the substance of this film.

Mauro Fiore’s cinematography is stunningly gorgeous and powerful.  The frame holds substantial weight and emotion with brilliant, beautiful lighting.  The subtle movement in the more tender emotional scenes brings class and sophistication to the film.  There are also many great shots that show off the scale, production quality, and depth of the film.  Levy and Fiore brought a great artistic detail to the visual quality, and production designer Tom Meyer also deserves credit for creating such a visually appealing world for them to capture.  The selection of locations and aesthetics of the slightly futuristic world is highly impressive and enveloping.  Each scene is given importance and artistic resonance.  The boxing scenes are greatly captured with coherent motion that respects the action it is capturing.  Again, the film shoots for higher standards by dismissing cheap shaky cam nonsense for solid camera movement and cinematic integrity.

The robots themselves are such a delight.  The personality and fun these filmmakers put into these designs are so pleasing.  They are not hard edged designs like Transformers, but more marketable, vibrant, engaging designs that would bring smiles to a wide audience.  This gives the film so much character and entertainment value.  Every robot boxer has their own distinct identity to give each fight a certain tone.  Midas is a very punked-out underground fighter bot that reflects the gritty, dirty environment he battles in.  Twin Cities, a two headed bot, is a very inventive design that Charlie & Max have to be innovative in order to defeat.  Zeus is effectively intimidating with his bulk, strength, and square jawed design.  Charlie’s first bot, Ambush, is like an old faded out car that once had its day, but is far from top of the line now.  Noisy Boy, the former big time bot Charlie buys on the black market, is sharply designed with a Samurai motif.  He’s very showy with sleek lines and bright LED colored lights, but Atom is the real marvel.  He feels like the underdog as he’s not big and bulky or particularly showy, but the strength of the design is how an audience can project whatever they feel into Atom’s face.  The big glowing turquoise eyes are very endearing, and the welding scars on its screened face work as a makeshift smile and nose.  He’s a little wounded, beat up, but he has an innocent, youthful quality to him.  This is also due to the sound design of Atom’s little murmurs and wails.  He’s a wonderful creation that embodies the heart and determination of the story, and with his shadow mode, he reflects upon the qualities of Charlie and Max repeatedly.

The effects of Real Steel took a very smart approach by building and using practical robots for many purposes, and interchanging them with digital effects.  This ultimately allowed for far more photo-realistic fighting robots that interact with their surroundings seamlessly.  They used motion capture on real boxers for all of these fights to give the robots realistic movement and unique personalities.  These performers were supervised by the great and legendary Sugar Ray Leonard.  Learning that Levy had all these great collaborators on this film, including Leonard, Spielberg, and Zemeckis, that makes it easy to see how Shawn Levy was able to create such a powerful and impressive film.  He had the right studio backing him up, and a wide array of fantastic, top line talents guiding the creative process along.  These visual effects are excellent standard bearers, and many filmmakers should look to the methods and skills used in Real Steel for future effects-filled features.

Now, I surely must have missed large chunks in the evolution of Danny Elfman’s film composer career.  While I know him best from films like Batman, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man, I never knew he was capable of something of this caliber.  Director Shawn Levy said that the list of composers who could do what Elfman did is extremely short.  He creates a wide range of depth to the score between the guitar strumming ambience to the rousing big fight action cues.  This entirely compliments the overall emotional landscape of the movie from the visuals to the acting and beyond.  How Levy orchestrates the timing of these cues is very original as he delays the punctuation of these moments.  I feel this allows the emotional beats to be more raw and tender which only enhances them further.  This is really the sign of a great filmmaker with a strong, clear vision of what he wanted to achieve, and he got it.

The story itself is not new, but as is the real skill, it’s how effective and fresh a filmmaker can make a well treaded story which makes it special.  I believe that was successfully achieved here.  Emotions are finely crafted around the character relationships and internal personalities.  And where a normal boxing movie is more violent and brutal, the robot boxing allows for the fights to be fun, exciting, and enjoyable.  There’s so much adrenalin pumping action that it is bound to please almost any audience.  The film always seems to find character building moments in its plot developments.  I also love how the film doesn’t start with a boat load of exposition.  It allows an audience to ease into the story and characters, and only later, after they have been comfortably established does the history of robot boxing and Charlie’s own boxing career get detailed.  It shows what the true focus is here – the characters, and that it is its greatest strength.

Overall, Real Steel is a real winner!  I was thoroughly entertained and surprised by this movie over and over again.  The climactic fight between Atom and Zeus is stellar, genius stuff!  While the film clearly had templates of other boxing and sports movies to follow, the advantage of the robots and technology allows for an unexpected turn during the final round that gives Charlie his moment to shine and gain redemption for his boxing career.  Everything is beautifully crafted wrapped with heart, humor, and humanity.  There really is so much I can say, but it’s not easy to articulate it.  Sometimes, you just have to experience it to comprehend the depth and excellence of a film.  To everyone involved in the making of Real Steel, you have my deepest respect and highest praise!  I loved it!