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A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Nightmare on Elm Street 2010When I see the name Platinum Dunes attached to a horror remake, I hang my head in a wholly disheartened state.  While I did enjoy their remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on its own merits, everything after that has been stuck in the mud sinking further and further into uninspired junk.  I’ve given them fair chances, but they have failed in such colossal ways.  The final nail in the coffin was this remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street.  A cluttered, drab, plodding mess is what this film turned out to be, and even not comparing it to Wes Craven’s original classic, it’s still a poorly executed film.

Five teenage friends living on one street all dream of a sinister man with a disfigured face, a frightening voice and a gardener’s glove with knives for fingers.  One by one, he terrorizes them within their dreams – where the rules are his and the only way out is to wake up.  But when one among them dies, they soon realize that what happens in their dreams happens for real and the only way to stay alive is to stay awake.  Buried in their past is a secret that has just begun to be revealed.  To save themselves, they must plunge into the mind of the most twisted nightmare of all: Freddy Krueger

Okay, remaking A Nightmare On Elm Street is not an outright terrible idea.  There are certainly ways to expand upon the original idea, enhance the effects, and execute it with a new, yet still effective style.  Surely, a sequel could just as easily do the same, but for whatever reason, despite the massive success that was Freddy vs. Jason and the fact that Robert Englund could easily reprise his iconic role, New Line Cinema chose to just remake the original.  However, no one involved in this film did anything to make this a film worth making.  I think it’s easier for a franchise to recover from a bad sequel than a bad remake.  With a bad sequel, you still have better moments in continuity and filmmaking efforts to build upon, and if the sequel is bad enough, like Highlander II bad, you can disassociate it from continuity.  A bad remake stops progress dead in its tracks because the beginning of this new continuity is not well received, fans don’t like the direction the property was rebooted into, and the general fan base doesn’t want to see more of it.  There’s next to nowhere to go, and that’s why you rarely see sequels to remakes.

Jackie Earle Haley is an excellent actor, and I have very much enjoyed him in a couple of roles.  There was a potential for him to deliver something impressive and unique here.  There are a few things he does that were new and original in terms of mannerisms.  However, by no fault of his own, neither the script nor director gave him anything worthwhile to sink his talent into.  Krueger is poorly developed as the filmmakers try to take him in a different direction, but the entire premise backfires in such a sloppy, brain dead way.  Trying to suggest that Krueger was wrongfully accused and unjustly murdered could work under more talented screenwriters and filmmakers, but it’s just handled stupidly and with no forethought.  However, the biggest issue, for me, was that Haley was too recognizable even under that very good make-up job.  When I saw this theatrically, I had just seen Haley regularly on the Fox television series Human Target, and so, his face was very familiar to me.  Even the voice he uses is essentially that of Rorschach from Watchmen with a slur.  It feels like a half thought out package, at best, which is an accurate blanket statement for this entire movie.

A problem arises with the performances by its young leads.  This film does quite a good job accurately portraying sleep deprivation with people being frayed, exhausted, drowsy, and essentially very drained of energy.  Unfortunately, that also creates a set of performances that are drab, lifeless, and generally disinteresting.  The thing is, in none of the previous Elm Street movies did I ever have a problem with the actors actually putting energy into their performances when they were meant to be sleep deprived.  For one, the make-up department did their jobs in weathering the young actors to look the part, much the same is done here, but secondly, energy and conviction are exactly what are needed to make these performances not just good but engaging.

Honestly, I don’t even think the lackluster acting is the fault of the cast.  There are some very strong talents here such as Rooney Mara as the film’s lead Nancy Holbrook and Thomas Dekker, who I know well from the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series.  I think the blame is entirely in the hands of director Samuel Bayer.  My point of proof here is Clancy Brown.  Let’s put The Kurgan aside.  Go watch Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel, and you will see a charismatic, lively, and excellent performance by Brown in a very grounded role.  The main difference is that’s Kathryn Bigelow, an Academy Award winning director who has done increasingly incredible work over the years.  Samuel Bayer is making his feature film directorial debut here after almost two decades of directing nothing but music videos.  This movie does look fantastic, but beyond the great visuals, there is nothing here that impresses at all.  That’s what I keep seeing from all of these Platinum Dunes directors – movies that have excellent visuals and polished cinematography, but are very hollow, uninspired, and unimaginative.  Music video directors know how to make a good looking product, but have next to no experience working with actors to craft anything more than superficial performances.  Surely, sometimes you get a Russell Mulcahy or David Fincher, but there are far more directors like Samuel Bayer and Jonathan Liebesman that come around who just have little to no talent working with actors and drawing out a strong performance from them.  They are good visual storytellers, to a degree, but lack the multi-facetted skills required to be a full-fledged filmmaker.

I think the biggest shortfall of this film is the lack of genuine suspense and tension.  I was only afraid of another jump scare coming out of nowhere, and frankly, it kept me too on guard.  I kept bracing myself for another cheap scare.  This film just throws jump scare after jump scare after jump scare at you.  It takes no talent or skill to have someone jump out of the shadows with a loud musical stinger behind it.  It’s cheap and worthless.  And some of the gags are so blatantly setup that I called them before they even happened.  The result of all this is the fact that Freddy doesn’t feel built up enough.   He’s not a looming figure screwing around with you making you squirm.   He’s the boogeyman jumping out at the shadows every chance he gets like a kid on Halloween, and that’s simply a hollow, go-nowhere idea that shows the difference between a blunt, shallow filmmaker and someone like Wes Craven or James Wan who knows how to build up atmosphere, tension, suspense, and manipulate the nuanced aspects of a film to truly scare you.

Aside from the respectable, moody cinematography, I will give credit to the film in that the tone is kept serious.  There is no camp humor or jokey qualities to it.  The filmmakers try to keep it very solid, focused, and dramatic.  Sadly, the skill of the filmmakers is too thin to hold the weight that the film should have.  The entire film does feel like a product designed to grab dollars and be forgotten.  There is no artistic passion behind any of it, and the quality of the story suffers for it.

As I said in a previous Elm Street movie review, I do applaud that the various filmmakers always tried to introduce new, fresh ideas into the franchise, and never just laid back on carbon copy sequels.  The downside is that the new ideas haven’t always worked, and the entire plot of misdirection regarding Krueger’s possible wrongfully accused back story is poorly handled.  The way Krueger acts throughout the picture doesn’t lend credence to a man who was dealt a grave injustice, but an evil, sadistic man who enjoys torturing and slaughtering people.  All the while, our lead characters are running around trying to unravel a mystery that ends up being a red herring, and thus, it was all just a giant waste of the audience’s time and attention.  The idea is not executed well to misdirect an audience, and there is ultimately no pay-off for it, regardless.  Not to mention, it’s an extreme plot contrivance that every single one of these kids blocked out the memory of Fred Krueger and their time at that school.  So, it was a potentially interesting idea, but with how short-sighted every idea is in this film, it had no hope of actually developing into anything close to its potential.  That is another easy, blanket statement to apply to everything in this film.

The visual effects of this remake are really not very good.  For one, there’s no excuse whatsoever for CGI blood in an A Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  NONE!  It looks cheap and unconvincing.  There are a number of effects here that are passable, but the bad stuff really just jumps out at you.  Also, this movie proves that a simple practical effect and some artistic vision trumps digital effects.  The scene of Krueger pushing through the wall, which was achieved in the original with Robert Englund literally pushing himself against a latex wall above Heather Langenkamp, looks like flat, uninspired garbage in this film as a digital effect that seems like a leftover from The Frighteners.  And on a similar level is Platinum Dunes’ regular composer Steve Jablonski’s score.  Where Charles Bernstein’s score for the original was fresh and inspired with a perfect nursery rhyme style theme, Jablonski’s score is forgettable and entirely typical.  The original Elm Street theme appears only once, and that is when the film’s title card slams onto the screen.  It’s never heard again, and once again shows how little reverence these filmmakers had for the property they were dealing with.

And while the supporting cast is decently well acted, no one stands out.  No one really takes the stage and defines themselves apart from anyone else.  I do think it was a poor decision to not have a John Saxon style character here.  A mature adult character with compassion and a level head who could carry substantial weight with him.  Yes, there are actors here with that capability, but the writing and directing take no advantage of the talents that it does have to make these characters anything but mediocre, drab, and shallow.  The whole film does feel like it’s playing it a little too safe, including the acting.  If they pushed the boundaries further, maybe it would be more engaging and potentially scary.  Craven’s original film did things that were original, new, and innovative.  This remake just comes off as a tired, passionless piece of merchandise.

Quite frankly, there was no one trying on this film.  They followed the script like a blueprint and just created a film as flat as the paper that script was printed on.  One of Platinum Dunes’ big problems is that they keep getting music video directors who have no experience with a script, actors, or crafting scenes, only in creating a three minute long marketable image for a band.  They really need to get a real director who knows how to create an engaging ninety minute story with dimensional characters and coherent plotting.  Not to mention, a filmmaker who can actually make a suspenseful, scary horror film.


Black Christmas (1974)

Black ChristmasMany attribute the birth of the slasher genre to John Carpenter’s Halloween.  However, a small Canadian film from 1974 laid the groundwork for the genre and especially Carpenter’s seminal classic.  Black Christmas is likely known to younger horror fans by way of the remake that I never saw.  You do yourself a serious disservice if you have never seen the original because it is still a greatly effective piece of horror filmmaking with a collection of surprisingly notable talents involved.  Who would have ever thought that the director of the beloved family film classic A Christmas Story would have once done a Christmas-themed slasher movie?

The college town of Bedford is receiving an unwelcome guest this Christmas.  As the residents of sorority house Pi Kappa Sig prepare for the festive season, a demonic stranger begins to stalk the house.  A series of grisly obscene phone calls start to plague the residents of the sorority and soon they will each meet their fate at the hands of the psychotic intruder.  As the Police try to trace the phone calls, they discover that nothing is as it seems.

Watching this film you will see right from the start its influence.  The killer, Billy, as he refers to himself, is hidden almost entirely throughout the film through the use of a point of view camera.  Clearly, this trick would be re-used in both Halloween and Friday The 13th, but neither achieves it quite as well as Black Christmas.  That’s because of what more is added to it in terms of the killer’s psychotic behavior.  Director Bob Clark creates an amazing sense of unease with the point of view camera work.  The wide angle lens coupled with the slightly unsteady camera movement reflects the psychosis of this killer.  The completely deranged phone calls are still frighteningly disturbing.  They got right under my skin from the start, and continue to escalate as the film progresses.  The radically unhinged psyche of this deranged killer is manically on display throughout the film, and Clark wastes no time establishing the nerve-racking suspense and horror.  The fact that we know there is a crazed killer hiding out in the attic, unknown to everyone in the film, immediately injects suspense and terror into nearly every scene in that house.  I will admit, it’s been a very long time since I’ve watched this film, and damn is it still insanely creepy and effective.

Black Christmas was an especially low budget film, and so, it has a rough, grainy quality.  However, it is photographed very solidly showing the talent involved, and even then, the rugged quality of the film stock adds to the dark, unsettling tone.  The pacing might feel slow to a certain audience, but this is not a film that drags along.  Every methodically paced moment is used to great suspenseful effect, and Bob Clark knows so immensely well how to elicit these spine tingling feelings.  Each scene builds story, character, or towards the terror of the picture.  Yet, the film still features a few fine moments of levity to give it a needed contrast on a rare occasion.  It also has a collection of stunningly solid talents in front of the camera.

Olivia Hussey is a wonderful lead portraying Jess with a lot of compassion and vulnerability.  Hussey has a sophistication and warmth to hear in addition to maturity and intelligence.  This builds Jess into a relatable character to worry about on multiple levels, and she plays terrified exquisitely well.  She also does feel like a woman coming into her own as Jess deals with her boyfriend Peter.  He wants to have a baby with her, but she’s against the idea creating a troubling friction between them.  You might think this is a frivolous subplot, but it directly ties into the mystery and paranoia about the film’s killer moving forward.  Keir Dullea, most well known from 2001: A Space Odyssey, is quite superb in this very conflicted and emotionally aggressive and unstable role.  He’s very intriguing to watch as the relationship between Peter and Jess is torn apart, and begins to become a perceived menacing threat.  Dullea and Hussey work exceptionally well with one another laying out the drama between them smartly and poignantly.

And yes, this film has John Saxon.  That automatically increases its coolness factor.  I just love the authority and weight he brings with him in anything I see from him.  As Lieutenant Fuller, he’s everything you’d expect – confident, level headed, and concise.  He really echoes this performance in A Nightmare On Elm Street, but surely builds upon that.  As Fuller, he’s rock solid, just the way I want my John Saxon, but still has a moment of two of levity that is very much welcomed.

Margot Kidder puts in a surprising performance.  Sorority sister Barb is meant to be rather crass and heartless, and Kidder hits that right on the mark.  Add in the constant smoking and drinking, and you’ve got a character that is not endearing.  Yet, she makes a definite impression.  The rest of the cast is not particularly notable, but everyone does a very solid job with their distinct characters.  They make this a horror film with likable characters who you can easily fear for as lethal danger stalks them from the shadows.

Black Christmas definitely feels like a 1970’s horror film.  Beyond the aforementioned dark, grainy look and the obvious fashion and hairstyles, this film has almost a similar style as The Exorcist.  There’s very little score except in exceptionally key moments as Bob Clark uses the silent unease of the house to great effect.  The phone calls are jarring enough without overcompensating with a score.  The use of the Christmas music sets the tone wonderfully using the serene sound in an unexpectedly haunting way.  Scenes like when our killer is stalking through the house while Christmas carolers sing outside is simply brilliant.  Juxtaposing these angelic voices with a moment of suspense and violence is truly inspired, and is filmed gorgeously.

There are terribly creepy moments all throughout such as seeing just a shadow creeping into the background while Jess is on the phone with the police, or simply anytime the POV shot has our killer spying on these young ladies from upstairs.  And the shot of the eye through the door jam has become iconic and chilling as it sets off the film’s final act.  And the climax is brilliantly crafted with a great use of shadow, misdirection, and taut tension.  Just when you believe all is laid to rest, this ending gives you one final ominous moment of terror.  Wrapping it all up together, you see the brilliant touches that Clark and screenwriter Roy Moore put into this film.  In later years, it likely would’ve been a film of high body count, gratuitous sex, and little character.  However, in the same year that brought us The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you get a film that is very well written that connects you with these characters, gives you something to care about with them, and then, set them against a very deranged and unseen killer.  It is a film of great suspense and ratcheted up tension that will leave prone audiences choked up in their seats, and wanting to turn all the lights on in the house while checking every room and locking every door when its all over.

From Black Christmas, you can definitely see evocative elements for Halloween and When A Stranger Calls.  This is absolutely one of the most influential slasher films without many people knowing it.  Maybe the influence was a time or two removed, but this was the genesis of that genre in a clearly defined form.  This is a classic that doesn’t get the recognition it so very much deserves.  This was director Bob Clark’s final foray into the horror genre, and it’s odd to see his career veer into comedy in the 1980’s, then very silly and wretchedly received kid’s films in the final years of his life.  Regardless, we will always have this amazingly effective horror and suspense film to scare us on a dark, quiet evening.  As this film’s tagline says, “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl… It’s on too tight!”


Marked For Death (1990)

Marked For DeathThe late 1980’s was the debut of a new action star – Steven Seagal.  By the dawn of the 90’s, he had already done Above the Law and Hard to Kill, but he was still finding his footing.  However, Marked For Death finds him successfully planting his feet and launching forward with a gritty, hard edged action blockbuster.  Helmed by Dwight H. Little, who I’ve found to be a very solid director starting with Halloween 4, this delivers qualities that I find severely lacking in modern action cinema.  Here, Dwight Little demonstrates his merit alongside Seagal in excellent fashion.  This is my best friend’s favorite Steven Seagal film.  So, I hope I do it justice for him.

Burned-out after losing his partner on the job, Drug Enforcement Agent John Hatcher (Steven Seagal) hopes to find some calm and serenity by returning to his hometown.  But things at home have changed and not for the better.  Jamaican drug lords, led by a black-magic high priest named Screwface (Basil Wallace), have completely infiltrated the small town.  But this gang soon learns that they’ve met their match in John Hatcher, and all the mystical voodoo in the world won’t be enough to stop Hatcher’s wrath!

I think this would be a great double feature with Predator 2 due to the Jamaican drug gangs in both.  The spooky ritualistic and mystical atmosphere around them is very compelling.  Screwface, a hell of a weird name if I’ve ever heard one, is a scary, psychotic bad guy.  He’s right off the deep end, and like something from your darkest, twisted nightmare.  His piercing eyes are haunting, and the fact that he almost never blinks when that fiery intensity is burning inside him enhances that quality.  He masterfully builds this aura of mystique around him with a very effective and authentic Jamaican accent.  This is a wickedly awesome villain that adds so much horrific danger to this film.

I will admit that Seagal has never been a very dynamic actor, but he carries the dramatic weight and emotional drive of this film well.  Along with Dwight Little’s direction, you see the subtle emotion surface when he sits at the hospital bedside of Hatcher’s niece portrayed by Danielle Harris.  Seagal can bring some charm and light charisma to the screen in the right moments.  Then, when he gets into the heat of the action you see that ass kicking wisecracking bad ass that made Seagal the action star that he was.  He’s entirely confident and sharp in this outing showing that this is his signature style, and it couldn’t have been showcased in a better, smarter action picture.

Teaming him up with Keith David just makes everything more bad ass.  He brings a wealth of charisma and weight to Max, Hatcher’s old army friend.  He’s a tough guy who is ready to take back his community because he cares for the children he teaches every day.  So, there’s the light-hearted friend, but also, the skilled soldier ready to unleash a maelstrom on these gangs that are decaying his neighborhood.  David’s wide range of talent from the tough bad ass to the heartfelt humanity makes Max a strong complement to Seagal’s more cool, calm, reserved, yet dead-set, bone breaking violent style.

If you want to see Seagal in his most violent, hard edged prime, this is it.  These Jamaicans are ruthlessly and graphically violent, and so, John Hatcher has to be a man who is equally as severe.  The action highlights are many, but I really enjoy the shootout and fight in the high end department store.  It starts as a car chase that crashes into an awesome assault with guns and martial arts violence.  And this film keeps upping the action, peril, and explosive caliber.  As Screwface becomes more dangerous, so does Hatcher.  This is sharp, sleek action with tons of punch that will leave thoroughly satisfied and then some.  It’s all evenly paced allowing the story’s momentum to build up tightly while delivering something fresh, dynamic, and exciting at a regular interval.  It’s really damn good stuff.

I also find it admirable that this film makes a point to show that they’re not making a stereotype out of Jamaicans.  There’s a Jamaican police assistant who is an honest guy that aids Hatcher later on.  The film even takes us into Jamaica where we see the people in their vibrancy and hardships.  While it was not necessary for the filmmakers to do this, I find it the mark of a well developed and fairly balanced crafting of ideas.  If they are going to delve so much into the culture for these abhorrent criminals and killers, it adds more depth and richness to show it in context to the reality of the Jamaican people.  The score by the incredible James Newton Howard blends those Jamaican sounds and beat into the film appropriately.  His music highlights and drives a fair amount of the action, and brings the flavor of the narrative to just as much life as the visuals.

It’s oddly appropriate that the director of photography on Marked For Death also shot the last film I reviewed, Cobra.  Here, Ric Waite gets the chance to work with the wider scope format, and he does a remarkable, rock solid job.  He crafts a great atmosphere when Screwface is in his element through smoke, candles, and just excellent moody lighting.  The action is perfectly framed with some occasionally intriguing angles, and all around, it’s a greatly lit and photographed film.

And this film has an amazing twist at the end with Screwface’s perceived magic.  Not at all would I spoil this for anyone because it’s stunning moment of awe when it happens.  Just when you think Hatcher has all things vanquished, it turns around on everyone, and results in another fantastically executed action sequence.  I mean, who doesn’t love a good swordfight?  It’s one bad ass ending the trumps even what came ten minutes before, and solidifies the hard hitting, take-no-prisoners action intensity of this picture.

Pack all of this in tightly to a 90 minute runtime, and you’ve got an action film that strikes out with killer excitement.  This is undoubtedly one of Seagal’s absolute best films, if not the best.  He pulls no punches, takes no prisoners, and delivers a performance that adds some sly wit in between the emotional fire underneath and the up front bone-cracking bad assery.  Adding further to that bad ass quota, the opening sequence features a small role by Machete himself Danny Trejo.  Backed by a director who I’ve always thought deserved a more high profile career because he is that damn good, Marked For Death delivers it all.  Today, you got a lot of ridiculously over-the-top action films that devolve into cheesy and even campy indulgences.  In this film, you get a lean, hard hitting movie that never softens the blow with those silly distractions.  They can have their place in the genre, but we do not get action films like this anymore.  Not this well made, and not going straight on for the throat leaving no blood un-spilled.  Just go watch it, now!


Cobra (1986)

CobraIf you love Stallone’s bonafide action films, then Cobra is absolutely one of his signature outings.  It also has an interesting origin.  It originally started out when Stallone was cast as the lead in Beverly Hills Cop, but instead of the action comedy we got with Eddie Murphy, Sly did rewrites to essentially change Axel Foley to Marion Cobretti.  When he and Paramount couldn’t agree on this, they parted ways, and Cobra was born.  This is also an adaptation of the novel Fair Game by Paula Gosling, which was the basis for a William Baldwin film in 1995 of the same name.  I’ve never seen that film, but this one, it is a really damn good one.

Lt. Marion Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone) is a one-man assault force whose laser-mount submachine gun and pearl handled Colt 9mm spit pure crime-stopping venom.  Cobretti finds himself pitted against a merciless serial killer called the Night Slasher (Brian Thompson).  The trail leads to not one murderer but to an army of psychos bent on slashing their way to a “New Order”- and killing the inadvertent witness Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) to their latest blood spree.  Fortunately, Cobra is her protector intent on bringing down these brutal maniacs.

Very notably, Cobra was helmed by director George P. Cosmatos who also did Rambo: First Blood, Part II and the absolutely amazing Tombstone.  Under his skills, this is an excellent action movie!  Primarily, the quality of the cinematography and editing is amazingly superb.  I see a lot of good quality films of this sort on the filmographies of the editors and cinematographer that prove to me that this was not a one-off shining moment.  This film does have a gritty style with a strong sense of mood and atmosphere for the urban environment.  I took special note of just how well visualized this film was, which would have turned out very generic in much lesser hands.  With Cosmatos, Cobra has real bite and punch.  He also executes the high tension and suspense sequences with remarkable ability.  The parking garage scene where the Night Slasher is stalking Ingrid is a gorgeous example of this.

The Cobretti character is surprisingly understated in most cases.  Sure, when he’s in the heat of action, he’s bad ass and intense, but outside of that, Stallone plays it cool.  He’s calm and collected handling urgent scenarios with confidence and sharp action.  Stallone also brings his usual heart and charm, adding a little charisma and levity to Cobra, but overall, he’s a hard edged cop that’s ready to kick ass at a moment’s notice.  The entire look of Cobra with the five o’clock shadow, black overcoat, mirror aviator glasses, and the wicked cool 9mm just certifies the character as awesome.  Its not a character that jumps off the screen, but with that great look and a couple of cool one-liners, Marion Cobretti drives forward an entertaining film.

Brigitte Nielsen might be regarded very poorly today, but early in her career, she was particularly good.  Her performance as Ingrid is soft and gentle in the most part, but she also handles the terrified moments in the film exceptionally well.  Not surprisingly, she and Stallone have real good chemistry.  They would later marry and divorce within a few years.  Here, you can see their real life affectionate for one another shine through on the screen making for a heartfelt connection that adds more depth to both characters.

The use of Brian Thompson as the Night Slasher, our main villain, is just right.  I honestly have never felt he was a particularly good actor outside of his powerful physical presence.  However, the script and Cosmatos wisely utilize his imposing figure and psychotic killer look instead.  He has extremely little dialogue until the climax where he monologs his creed about his New Order, and he does an exceptional job with this dialogue letting his deep voice carry its weight.

And I love Andrew Robinson in everything I’ve seen him in.  He beautifully plays the smarmy Detective Monte who likes to throw his weight around, and dig his ego into Cobretti like a thorn in your side.  You can’t wait to see this guy get what’s coming to him by the end.

By no doubt, there is a lot of excellent action here.  Stallone gets plenty of chances to get physical with some hard edged fight scenes.  Then, there’s an adrenalin pumping car chase with some great car stunts and rapid gunfire.  Add in some tense, scary moments of Ingrid fighting for her life from the Night Slasher, and you’ve got a very intense, exciting action movie from a director who just knew how to film it with masterful vision.  The editing on these action sequences is so perfectly tight.  This is especially exemplified in the amazingly dynamic shootout and chase sequences that kick start the climax.  The rhythm, pacing, and impressive choice of angles are just excellence on display.  Cosmatos was a brilliant action sequence visionary, and everything in that climax is bad ass and awesome.  It starts out hard and fast, and then, gets tough and brutal inside the industrial factory.  The final confrontation between Cobra and the Night Slasher is really damn good.  This is a great, tense, climactic moment that Stallone and Thompson play dead-on-the-mark in this fiery, industrial setting aided by the excellent cinematography and Cosmatos’ razor sharp direction.  It’s wicked cool.

Further showcasing that this is an 80’s movie is the rock soundtrack.  It starts with a sweet montage sequence fueled by “Angel of the City” by Robert Tepper, who also contributed “No Easy Way Out” for Rocky IV.  We then get a couple of other tracks that are catchy, upbeat, and energizing to the vibe of the movie.  This helps keep the film lively and little more memorable.  The actual score by Sylvester Levay here serves its purpose right fine, but doesn’t standout as anything exceptional.

Cobra is a fun, entertaining, exciting film packed with action.  It has a moody, serious tone with the door comfortably open for levity, but it never gets especially cheesy.  This is a really good action movie that will satisfy even today.  The standard fare script by Stallone is entirely elevated by George Cosmatos’ stylish directing talents.  Cobretti himself is not all that fascinating as it’s the attitude and look that sets him apart including the cobra emblem Colt 9mm and the custom 1950 Mercury.  It’s not a character that puts a challenge on Stallone, but he likely enjoyed the experience.  I certainly would have enjoyed seeing a sequel, but this was also a time where Sylvester Stallone’s ego started swelling a lot.  So, I can imagine there could have been some behind the scenes conflicts.  Regardless, check out Cobra!  It’s a solid piece of action cinema!


Nighthawks (1981)

NighthawksThis is one of those Sylvester Stallone gems that both seems like it’s gained a respected following, but has never become a high profile hit.  It doesn’t fall into the light hearted fare like Tango & Cash or Demolition Man or the substantive drama of Rocky or First Blood.  Instead, this is a very good gritty cop thriller with a definite 1970’s aesthetic boasting a great performance by Rutger Hauer that foreshadows his acclaimed work in Blade Runner and The HitcherNighthawks has its definite merits, but surely demonstrates why it’s a lesser noted film for Stallone.

When Europe’s most feared terrorist known as Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) explosively announces his presence in Manhattan, two elite undercover NYPD cops (Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams) are assigned to stop him before he strikes again.  However, the ruthless terrorist has other plans for the city – and the detectives – as he begins to hold its citizens in the grip of fear.

In the wake of big blockbuster successes like the Rocky and Rambo movies, and films with more flash and crowd pleasing excitement, you can understand how Nighthawks kind of flies under the radar.  It’s very grounded and much more low key.  It is also a slow building film with a focus on the psychological aspects of its main adversaries, and capturing that gritty, urban New York street cop vibe.  Still, within that context, you’ve got a very admirable crime thriller here lead by some strong casting choices across the board.

I really believe Stallone leads this film quite well.  Detective Sergeant Deke DaSilva is a solid cop who doesn’t back down easily.  He takes on crime with intensity and fierce dedication, even if it costs him his marriage or his well being.  Stallone makes DaSilva a tough cop, but one with a morality and heart.  Despite the fallout with his wife, Deke still desires that loving connection, and he won’t become the cold blooded assassin that the British counter-terrorism specialist wants him to become.  Stallone does a solid job keeping DaSilva true to who he is sticking to his principals as a seasoned cop, doing his duty, but doing it his own way.  We see him as a perceptive, smart cop that is dogged in his pursuit of Wulfgar.

As DaSilva’s partner, Detective Sergeant Matthew Fox, Billy Dee Williams entirely carries his own.  Fox can be more even tempered and flexible than DaSilva, allowing for him to keep his more passionate partner grounded and focused.  Billy Dee also has some playful moments adding a few minor moments of levity as, again, a counterbalance to Stallone’s harder edge intensity.  Still, when the situation gets serious, Fox is as solid of a cop as anyone.

Rutger Hauer has shown his talent for brilliance, and Wulfgar is no exception.  He brings a cold, calculating sophistication that forges his gravitas.  When Hauer is on in a film, he captivates your attention with a electrifying presence, and he does that here.  As Wulfgar, he can be frightening because as dedicated as DaSilva is, Wulfgar is equally so to his cause.  You know he’s a sociopathic killer who is a vehement believer in these radical causes.  He’s more than just a hired gun, and that makes him immensely more dangerous.  It’s not about money for him.  He inflicts this death and terror for a political purpose that he believes in, and he is not going to stop.  As the British counter-terrorism specialist says, “He’s only beginning.”

I also have to give some praise to Joe Spinell who portrays Lieutenant Munafo.  While his role is minimal, he’s damn good carrying a commanding weight and authority.  He mainly works opposite Stallone, and keeps the somewhat hot headed DaSilva in line very convincingly.  Of course, Persis Khambatta complements Hauer extremely well as the dangerous, cold-hearted Shakka.  It’s a polar opposite turn from her role in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and that is largely welcomed along with her rich, beautiful black hair.

Like I said, this feels entirely like a 1970’s cop film with the gritty style, Earth toned fashions, Stallone’s beard, and sort of a streetwise funky vibe of the score.  It might be an early 80’s film, but you can find plenty of bleed over from the previous decade through to about 1983.  Considering this started out as a second sequel to The French Connection, it’s easy to see why this works so well in that context.  The pacing is methodical lending more towards the dramatic development than excitement.  The film could probably use a little more excitement to ramp up the danger and stakes in the second act, but especially for its time, this was quite good.

Now, Nighthawks surely has a few action set pieces including a great foot chase through the New York streets and into the subway.  However, it is very much a thriller built on suspense and tension.  Stallone and Hauer create this electrifying connection which drives the entire film.  The sequence on the Roosevelt Island tram is a great example of those personalities at conflict enhancing the peril of Wulfgar’s game.  His terrorism is no longer just about a cause, but a game of wits between both men.  Wulfgar toys with DaSilva, bringing him in so close, forcing the Sergeant to look him in the eye time and again, but denying him at choice to fight back.  This results in a nicely solid and taut piece of work.  The ending is superb focusing on a great deal of suspense and imminent peril, but I would think a modern audience might feel it’s not as climactic as it could be.  This ending has become the most memorable aspect of Nighthawks, and it is executed with great care and a few inspired visuals.

As I said, this is a film build as a slow boil thriller than an exciting action ride, and I feel it succeeds at that.  Surely, more could have been done to intensify the narrative and build more momentum going into its climax.  Regardless, I’ve always appreciated and enjoyed Nighthawks.  Stallone does a really solid job complemented well by Billy Dee’s supporting role, and greatly counterbalanced by Rutger Hauer’s chilling brilliance.  If you enjoy the work of either Stallone or Hauer, I definitely believe this is one you should not overlook.  Bruce Malmuth did a fine directing job here, but in a fourteen year career, he never had a breakout hit.  His only other high point was the decently effective Steven Seagal action vehicle Hard to Kill.  With Nighthawks, it’s a nicely solid film that likely won’t blow you away, but may indeed intrigue you through the high quality performances it offers.


Jack Reacher (2012)

Jack ReacherI did see this movie in theatres, but it was a week after release and I didn’t have much ambition to write up a review.  Now that it’s out on home video, I can put my thoughts together on this very well made thriller that, yet, still lacks a certain memorable quality.  Jack Reacher is based on One Shot by Lee Child, and while the movie does some significant departures from the 6’5″ towering blonde character with the casting of Tom Cruise, on its own merits, there is an enjoyable film to be had here from a very capable director with a fresh style.

In an innocent heartland city, five are shot dead by an expert sniper.  The police quickly identify and arrest the culprit, former U.S. Army officer James Barr (Joseph Sikora), and build a dead bang guilty case.  Regardless, Barr claims he’s innocent and delivers only one message to the police, “Get Jack Reacher.”  A former Army Criminal Investigator, Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) sees the news report and turns up in the city, but comes only to condemn Barr based on past history.  However, Barr’s attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), pulls Reacher into her investigation in order to get to the truth, but he will only do so if she looks into the lives of victims so to gain an objective, moral view of Barr’s alleged crime.  Reacher sets out to confirm for himself the absolute certainty of the man’s guilt, but comes up with more than he bargained for as he uncovers a seedy conspiracy of corruption.

This film is directed by Christopher McQuarrie who also wrote the screenplay.  He is most well known as the screenwriter of The Usual Suspects, but this is a distinctly different style and tone of film that I do feel he handles competently and sharply.  The film starts with a strong weight of drama as we see the cold, calculating, and brutal sniper killings resulting in a traumatic, jarring impact.  How Reacher is pulled into the story reflects perfectly on the character himself – smart, sly, quick-witted, and unpredictable.  McQuarrie is able to firmly ground the drama of this story while still offering sharp dialogue with dashes of levity and personality.  We do get these clever moments of humor that are somewhat unexpected, but for whatever reason, they are very entertaining and just work surprisingly well.  The balance between the serious and humorous are in the right balance.  He uses the humor to add levity and entertainment value to the movie while the drama creates the narrative’s momentum.  McQuarrie also knows how to solidly plot out a mystery, as The Usual Suspects demonstrated.  He lays out all the facts, perceptions, and details in very intelligent ways.  It never feels like a dry procedural, but a compelling web that Reacher is intricately and confidently pulling apart one strand at a time.

And it is the Jack Reacher character that makes the investigation so intriguing.  How he approaches the evidence, what nags at his mind, how he perceives motive and reasoning create a fascinating deconstruction of this mystery.  Tom Cruise embodies these qualities exceptionally well.  I also love how he slyly bulldozes his way through a situation.   He’s not a guy who suffers anyone, and is determined to get to the truth no matter who’s standing in the way.  Yet, he’s not a battering ram.  He uses smarts, wit, and bravado more than force which makes him intriguing to watch.  Cruise harnesses a hard edged confidence and presence that creates an intense electricity in his performance.  Despite his average size and build, Cruise feels formidable from how he carries himself.  While the Reacher of the books is meant to be this physically large man sort in the vein of a Dolph Lundgren, I feel that Cruise’s smaller stature works to excellent effect.  He’s more unassuming, more average looking.  You don’t expect a brutal ass kicking from him, but that’s just what you get.  In Cruise’s hands, Reacher is a skilled and intelligent man with a sort of dry yet sharp sense of humor who can assault any enemy with tactical efficiency.  This has long been within Cruise’s physical capabilities between his work on Collateral and the Mission: Impossible films, and he has always been an immensely dedicated physical actor.  Altogether, I feel Tom Cruise is a stellar, wicked cool fit for this role as written here, and he puts in a solid performance.

Another great performance comes from Rosamund Pike.  The script gives Helen Rodin a smart set of conflicts that are both internal and external.  Reacher has her get personal with the victims of this sniper attack, and it forces her to realize the impossible nature of her position as the defense attorney.  It gets pushed further as the truth is unraveled by Reacher, and it becomes more and more difficult for her to trudge forward with any course of action, yet she still does.  Externally, she has her own father as the District Attorney opposing her from continuing on with this case, and there are conflicts with Reacher as they battle back and forth on their ideals and viewpoints on the case.  Pike gives us a character that does question herself, and struggles with these moral quandaries that Reacher puts her into.  Yet, she is her own person, making her own choices, and showing her strength while still being a vulnerable, compassionate person.  Rosamund Pike is purely excellent in this role giving us emotional dimension and assertive strength, and it surely doesn’t hurt that she is exceptionally beautiful to my eyes.

The film’s villain comes from a surprising source – German filmmaker Werner Herzog.  He portrays The Zec, a former prisoner of a Russian gulag, now the leader of this gang perpetrating corruption in this city.  He’s both a chilling, threatening presence and a darkly enjoyable villain.  He’s got this pretty extreme back story of having gnawed his own fingers off to survive his incarceration, and tries to force this average street thug into doing the same to prove his worth to him.  It’s a crazy moment in The Zec’s introductory scene that really sets the tone for how tough and ruthless this villain is, and I really liked it.  It surely feels a little over the top, but the dead serious weight given to it sells it in entertaining fashion.  Herzog certainly has done acting in the past, but it’s certainly a surprise turn in this film that succeeds in spades.  And even Jai Courtney is thoroughly impressive as the more action centric villain Charlie who causes trouble for Reacher throughout the movie, and battles with him at the end.  He’s got a solid presence that sells a lot of his character without him having to say much.  He showcases charisma with just a sly smirk, and just feels like a sharp talent with a lot of potential in him.

And lastly, we get a fun, quirky performance from Robert Duvall as this ex-Marine that runs a gun range and ultimately aids Reacher during the climax.  His chemistry with Cruise creates some great levity during the very dark and heavy final act.

On all technical levels, this is a rock solid feature.  It is excellently shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.  The fantastic use of smart angles and purposeful compositions really enhance the intrigue and calculating aspects of the story and characters.  In conjunction with the great, conservative editing by Kevin Stitt, we get a very effective thriller with solid scenes of suspense and poignant character moments.  With McQuarrie’s very competent and solid talent at the helm, it really forged something that highly impresses in both technical skill and storytelling ability.

While the film has an intricately woven mystery at hand, it never overshadows the worth of the characters because without them the story doesn’t mean as much.  I do love that the film does take the time to flesh out who those victims were, what their lives were like, and allows us to connect with them on a brief but strong emotional level.  Christopher McQuarrie does the same thing with us that Reacher does with Rodin in this instance – have us connect with those people on a personal level.  These are not just faceless victims.  These were people with lives and loved ones, and they are not trivialized in this film, which is immensely commendable and really a breath of fresh air.  It emotionally motivates both Reacher and Rodin to move forward in their efforts to unravel this plot and expose the truth, and it has purpose in unraveling the mystery.

And indeed, this film features one of the best car chases in recent memory.  It has a very tense stare down between Reacher and David Oyelowo’s Detective Emerson after Reacher has just been framed for a murder.  That stare down then explodes into this visceral 1970’s throwback car chase.  It’s fantastically shot never tightening the frame too much, or shaking it all around with incompetence.  We have beautiful compositions all around with an intense visceral quality fueled by the mere rumbling sounds of a muscle car engine, and solidly paced editing.  That’s a page taken right out of Bullitt, and I think this chase does follow strongly in that tradition.  It was a great happenstance that the Chevy Chevelle actually wouldn’t start during filming creating this great, real moment of it stalling out in the middle of the chase.  This is an awesomely hard edged chase that does not overstay its welcome.  It’s right to the point delivering a dose of adrenalin in the middle of the film, and the sly, clever ending to that car chase is so right for this character.  The film does have very good action scenes, but it’s not proper to call this an action movie.  It’s definitely a mystery thriller with solid shots of action.  There are some entertaining fight scenes, and a very hard edged, very violent climax.

McQuarrie does choose an interesting tone and approach to the action scenes in that there’s hardly any score that plays through any of them.  I saw this approach taken during the anti-climactic shootout in 2006’s Miami Vice, and I didn’t feel it was especially successful.  Here, while I was undecided about it after my theatrical viewing, I do now feel it is rather effective for Jack Reacher.  The tactical shootout in the quarry starts out with just the sounds of gunfire and some stellar cinematography and editing to make it work.  However, when it moves further along, we get some suspenseful music cues, but the action itself remains raw and visceral without any music accompaniment.  When Reacher and Charlie finally throw down, it’s just the harsh sounds of bones cracking and rain pouring to sell the hardened violence.  The conclusion to this is very telling of the character in regards to his code of justice.  It’s not really what you’d expect from an procedural crime thriller, but it is fitting overall.  Now, I do feel like the ending lacked maybe a definitive sense of closure or consequence.  There aren’t any actual hanging plot threads that I picked up on, but a more solid, stronger ending might have given it that extra added punch to please audiences.  Reacher simply departs after all the action is done leaving others to clean up his mess which creates a feeling of an unresolved something.  The ending has some poignancy and sly qualities in two separate scenes, and this ending is far from being poor in any aspect.  I just think it could’ve used a stronger punctuation for the story and characters.

Ultimately, Jack Reacher is a very well directed, well acted, and overall very solidly made movie.  The screenplay is very smart with a unique balance of dramatic weight and humorous levity that oddly works very well.  The Reacher character is a very interesting one well embodied by Tom Cruise.  He’s not explored in a lot of depth, but we get insights into who he is, what he values, and what his convictions are.  How he operates, how he thinks, and what actions he takes tell us all we need to know in this story about Jack Reacher.  It’s great seeing that despite Reacher having a predisposition towards Barr’s guilt, he’s able to maintain an objective point of view in his investigation.  His own personal feelings against Barr never cloud his judgment.  He wants the truth, no matter what that might be.  These are sure signs of a very smartly written film and well developed character that is thoroughly understood by both McQuarrie and Cruise, thanks to the novels of Lee Child.  Yet, despite of all this, I do feel the film lacks that extra spark that would catch on with audiences.  It probably stems from the fact that this is not especially an action film, despite the marketing, and more of an intelligent thriller that doesn’t lend to a rousing, exciting experience.  For everything that these filmmakers were striving to achieve, they did so with great success, but I don’t feel there’s a great demand for a franchise based on this outing alone.  If the filmmakers can put together a film with more action and excitement, I think it could take off fairly well, but as it is, this film didn’t set audiences on fire with anticipation for another installment.  While it’s not impossible, Cruise surely has plenty of other projects he’s quickly developing, including a fifth Mission: Impossible film, that he’s not in a major need to launch another franchise.


Shakedown (1988)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dead Man Down (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Terminator (1984)

The TerminatorI have had a rather unusual view on The Terminator for the longest time.  I do consider it James Cameron’s best movie, and the best of this franchise.  These are for reasons of pacing and innovative filmmaking.  Yet, what I mainly consider this film as is not so much a science fiction movie, but essentially a techno-slasher film.  You’ve got a hulking, invincible juggernaut of a killer stalking and hunting down an innocent young woman.  That’s a bare bones plot description for both The Terminator and a Friday The 13th sequel.  The vibe of the movie is very relentless and evokes a very techno-horror hybrid ideology.  Beyond that quirk of perception, I do have many things to praise this film for that I feel James Cameron severely abandoned afterwards.

In the post-apocalyptic future of 2029, SkyNet, a super computer defense system wages a losing war against a human resistance which it is intent on exterminating.  In their desperation, the machines send an indestructible cyborg known as The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman whose unborn son will become mankind’s only hope.  In hopes of preserving humanity’s future, the human resistance sends soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time as well to protect Sarah.  But does he even stand a chance against the most unstoppable killing machine ever created?

Obviously, The Terminator has been widely praised since its release, and so, there’s not much I have to tell you that hasn’t already been said.  Regardless, most of these reviews are about what these films mean to me and the nature of cinema, in general.  James Cameron previously worked in the special effects world working on numerous lower budgeted pictures, but after a great deal of hard work and determination he scored his first major directorial job with this film.  The budget was tight, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s growing star power from the Conan films, there was a lot of credibility and weight put behind this.  Still, it wasn’t an easy task getting it made.  The restrictions of budget and resources really did work towards the film’s benefit.  It forced Cameron to be innovative and a bit of a guerilla filmmaker.  It’s a perfect example of better creativity through adversity.  As I mentioned in my Aliens review, I think once Cameron got a big budget and a lot of freedom as a filmmaker, he lost that edge and began to indulge in overly long films with far laxer pacing and storytelling techniques.  He was still innovative in the technical realm, but not so much in the creative one where tight storytelling was concerned.

What I find to be so intelligent and original with what Cameron did with The Terminator is how he maintained tension and a tight cohesion of the plot.  The main exposition in the film is dealt with in the midst of a car chase.  The excitement and danger are high, keeping the audience intently invested in every second, and Cameron uses that time for Kyle Reese to impart a great deal of exposition about himself, the T-800, and the future war.  In the vast majority of films, the exposition scene is a slow paced, quiet scene that is regularly the most derided scene in the film from the director’s perspective.  Cameron changes that all up, and makes it one of the most captivating scenes by melding it with an intense chase sequence.  From there, even the slower, character building scenes maintain some degree of urgency or dramatic electricity to never allow the film to lose your interest or attention.  If not in the hands of James Cameron’s innovative and visionary filmmaking talent, I could surely see this movie slipping down into a B-grade sci-fi film that you’d see premiere on late night Cinemax.  Believe me, those films do exist, and were heavily inspired by this far superior film.  Having the right director at the helm can make a severe difference in whether a movie is brilliance or cheap exploitation fare.

This film is expertly shot with strong, sharp focus on every detail and bit of action.  The night scenes are definitely gritty creating a dangerous edge and energy that wholly serves the tone and vibe of the picture.  It brilliantly reflects the “tech noir” theme of the movie, showing us the dark side of technology.  Cameron and his director of photography Adam Greenberg do a marvelous job all around.  All of the action is shot with skill, dramatic weight, and great storytelling ability.  Just in the way it is shot, The Terminator looks and feels like a 1984 film, and in all the best ways.  It might have its rough edges here and there, but they work so excellently towards the energy of the picture.  Overall, you can see the great, deliberate insert and close-up shots that establish and enhance the mood and tension of the film.  The slow motion sequences are beautifully and masterfully done creating so much tension and dramatic anticipation.  The editing of Mark Goldblatt is some of the tightest, most dead-on-the-mark work I’ve ever seen.  There’s not an extraneous frame anywhere in the runtime of this movie.  Every shot has purpose and cohesion to the kinetic and emotional beats of the story.  Action directors of today should go back and watch this movie to see how you competently direct, shoot, and edit an action sequence.   The car chases are great, but the entire police station massacre is insanely tense and masterfully shot and edited.  It’s a major action set piece of the film, and it could not have been executed any better than it was.  Yet, the climax is able to top that with a long series of action sequences from a car chase to the explosions to the final industrial plant confrontations.  It continues to hammer home the seemingly indestructible nature of the Terminator as it continues to come back from one fiery explosion after another.  It’s a frightening action climax where the monster simply will not die while our heroes continue to suffer more and more injuries hindering their ability to continue running away.

Michael Biehn is absolutely amazing as Kyle Reese.  What strikes me first is the weathered, war torn quality of his performance.  Reese does seem like a guy who has been through the darkest parts of hell on earth with both the psychological and physical scars to show for it.  Biehn also has great physical intensity such as during the initial car chase where Reese is imparting the exposition to Sarah.  There’s a depth of urgency, fear, and heart with every word he delivers.  It creates someone that’s not just an action centric soldier, but a man with a solid core of humanity.  The pain of Kyle Reese is deep seeded, and the trauma and pain that he has endured comes through in the texture of Biehn’s performance.  This is a guy who does initially seem like an intimidating threat, almost serial killer like, but that intensity and frayed exterior are molded into a fascinating, sympathetic character that an audience deeply cares for before too long.  Biehn’s romantic chemistry with Linda Hamilton is wonderful, and the tenderness that forms between them makes this so much more than just a testosterone fueled action picture.  It has a lot of depth that has always been a strength of James Cameron’s films.  He always seems to create very dimensional lead characters which enhance the nature of the films they populate.  Why Michael Biehn’s acting career didn’t soar to greater heights after this movie is a mystery to me.  It certainly did for Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.

It goes without saying that this was one of Arnold’s defining roles.  While Conan the Barbarian was a big success, this propelled him into a whole new level of stardom.  What he does at The Terminator was instantly iconic with only eighteen lines of dialogue.  The deliberate movement and restrained mannerisms he devised for this Terminator create a cold, threatening, dominating screen presence.  I have seen other lower grade actors attempt to approximate this sort of robotic performance, but Arnold just had something special.  It’s the whole package from his size and build to the choice of punk or leather attire to the calculating way he surveys a scene.  You can view a methodical yet relentless intelligence behind everything the Terminator does, and Schwarzenegger just hit it perfectly on the mark.  There’s not a moment where you don’t take him as a serious, menacing threat, and after that is all solidly established by him, it carries over seamlessly when the flesh is burnt off and it’s just Stan Winston’s animatronic endoskeleton.  While almost everyone seems to love when Arnold does the cheesy action films, I feel his best work is in the more serious roles because it creates a challenge for him.  He has to dedicate himself to a far stronger character, and create something that stands out in a dramatic fashion.  There are a lot of cheesy action heroes out there, but not many who can pull off the really serious, iconic roles such as Conan, the Terminator, or Dutch in Predator.  Arnold can do both equally well, and that’s much of why he’s the action movie legend that he is today.

This film was especially pivotal to Linda Hamilton’s career, and the reasons why are vibrantly evident.  While, as Sarah Connor, we see a great deal of panic and fear, it is all mixed in with a genuine sense of humanity.  Sarah’s an average woman thrust into an extraordinarily intense and dangerous scenario, but ultimately, we see her inner strength shine through.  When you first see her as a lowly waitress, you could never imagine she could come to survive and fight through this frightening, lethal experience with as much resilience as she ultimately displays.  Hamilton gives us the full spectrum of emotion in an impressive dimensional performance that also adds in a layer of romanticism.  The build up to the love scene between Sarah and Kyle is beautifully touching, and would be able to squeeze tears out of the more emotional audience members.  That tenderness and depth of love and passion triggers the greater strength of the film that I mentioned before.  It is a love scene that is not there for the sake of skin and titillation, but for the sake of love itself.  At the film’s end, you can see the subtle seeds of what we will see Sarah become in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  In this film, Linda Hamilton is absolutely excellent giving us a sympathetic and strong character that stands the test of time.

And I have to mention the excellent performances of Lance Henriksen and the late Paul Winfield.  Henriksen has some great humorous dialogue that is just enough off-kilter to be memorable.  We’re so used to seeing Henriksen playing rather dark, disturbed characters, and so, it is a wonderful treat seeing him enjoy this upbeat, charismatic character.  Winfield was always a stellar, sophisticated acting talent, and while Lieutenant Traxler has his streetwise qualities, he is a compassionate and intelligent commanding officer.  He strikes the perfect balance between entertaining, charming character and capable, seasoned cop.  Many films like this would paint all the cops as unlikeable fools, somewhat like Dr. Silberman is (appropriately enough), but instead, Cameron maintains his sense of humanity in these characters along with casting superb actors to realistically embody those qualities.

While the animatronics, stop motion, and optical effects work largely appears dated next to today’s sleeker digital effects, especially with the work done in the sequels, I think that gritty, rough edged effects work here benefits the overall style and feel of this movie.  The stop motion animation in the climax evokes more of that techno-horror feeling taking the scary skeleton of the haunted house and meshing it with a dark science fiction menace.  Stan Winston did an amazing job with all the physical effects further cementing his stature as an effects wizard and master of creature designs.  Having clocked in stunning work with the Terminator, Predator, and Alien franchises, his quickly earned legendary status is no surprise.  The visual effects were handled by Fantasy II, and for a mid-80s low budget science fiction picture, they did an excellent job.  Combined with Cameron’s vibrant vision, they achieved something that really grabbed audiences’ attention at that time, and truly captivated their imagination.  The brief future war sequences are stellar.  The only thing I ever mark as a negative is the use of rear screen projection, which Cameron would use again in Aliens.  It just never looks convincing, especially when compared to good quality blue screen composites.  Regardless of that, these were very eye-opening effects in 1984, and they entirely serve the film’s dark, gritty tone.

The synthesizer based score done by Brad Fiedel encapsulates that tense, dark atmosphere of The Terminator.  The compositions alone are excellent, and the main theme has become iconic.  The use of the metallic percussion reflects the cold, mechanical heart of the Terminator, and gives us a rather chilling, ominous feeling whenever it appears.  So many other cues are done with great feel for the intensity of their respective sequences maintaining the weight of the drama and action.  Many instances again evoke a high tension horror atmosphere such as whenever the Terminator is seconds away from killing Sarah.  The synthesizer sound perfectly fits for a 1984 tech-noir action film as it simply enhances that oppressive technological theme, and is an obvious sign of the times.  However, it can get elegant and beautiful during the aforementioned love scene.  Fiedel takes that heavy, almost claustrophobic type main theme, and rearranges it into a piano love theme that is sad, touching, and wonderfully gorgeous.  While Fiedel would blow it out of the water with his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, what he does here is a solid, excellent fit for the kinetic energy and tense danger that is so tightly wrapped in this film while highlighting the depth that the film has to offer.

The Terminator is really amazingly well written.  As I said, Cameron is able to raise the concept above the standard action movie fare by injecting dimension and emotional depth into his story and characters.  They live and breathe as realistic people that an audience can attach themselves to, and that makes the rather fantastical story gritty, believable, and gripping.  The dialogue is honest and real showcasing distinct personalities that leave a lasting impression, and with the stellar casting, it couldn’t be any more pitch perfect.  It’s not just those iconic one-liners from Schwarzenegger or Biehn that make it great.  It’s every nuanced quality of the characters and depth of the story being told that have made The Terminator a classic.  Arnold Schwarzenegger has done movies with far more quotable dialogue, but they do not match the filmmaking quality and intelligence of this one.  That is all due to the innovative creativity and artistic talent of James Cameron.

James Cameron had a vibrant vision for this movie, and was intensely driven to realize it on film.  While he hasn’t lost vision, I do think he’s lost a number of exciting qualities that made The Terminator so exceptional.  He used to be able to tell amazing and captivating stories in innovative and exciting ways.  Even if the storytelling rhythm and cohesion became more lax in his subsequent films, we were still treated to things we hadn’t seen before, and were given stories that ignited our imaginations while still touching us deep in our hearts.  The Terminator is an excellent example of what made Cameron a fascinating and awesome filmmaker for many years.  However, as his budgets got bigger and his ego became overinflated, I just think he stopped caring about the story and characters, and was just more enamored with the evolution of visual effects and filmmaking technology.  I would really wonder if someone gave James Cameron a $6.4 million budget today, could he still make a film as well made as this one.

This if my favorite film of the entire Terminator franchise, and I consider it the best film James Cameron has made.  This is for the reasons of the tightness of the storytelling where not a scene, moment, or frame is wasted.  While even Terminator 2 took the time it needed to tell the story it had to tell, I just love the relentless momentum of this movie.  It has its character building scenes wrapped up nicely between and within the action sequences.  No part of the film ever drags on.  Coupled with all the amazing talents from the actors to the special effects mastery to the cinematography and editing, The Terminator is a lightning strike of stardom and awesomeness.  I take nothing away from its 1991 blockbuster sequel, but there is just something so riveting about the lean and smart storytelling in this film that sets it apart for me.  It’s that guerilla filmmaker mentality of better creative through adversity and budgetary restraints that sparks my love for The Terminator.  Cameron showed the talent he had despite the restrictions of the production, and made a big impact when this hit theatres.  Everyone who worked on the film believed strongly in it and Cameron’s ability to make it happen.  It’s that ambition and hard working dedication which can set the exceptional filmmakers apart from all the others.  This is a film that should be on every action and science fiction film fan’s must-see list.  And while it’s not my favorite Schwarzenegger movie, it is one of his best.


Urban Legend (1998)

Urban LegendUrban legends in general are quite fascinating to me.  I’ve spent many late night hours reading through whole websites dedicated to these modern day myths, and they are a fertile ground for an imaginative horror movie.  Of course, this movie came out in the wake of Scream and does a lot to follow in that style.  Unfortunately, it was an extreme rarity that any of those types of trend cash-ins were any good.  I clearly remember seeing this on opening weekend and regarding it as not scary at all.  In no way do I expect that sentiment to change after fifteen years.  I’m reviewing this because it was high time I got back to some very critical reviewing, and nothing’s better than a disappointing post-modern slasher film for that task!

When New England college student Natalie (Alicia Witt) finds herself at the center of a series of sadistic murders seemingly inspired by urban legends.  Natalie and her friends are all involved in the Folklore class being taught by Professor Wexler (Robert Englund).  Wexler regales his class with urban legends, which include Pendleton’s own urban legend about a Psych professor who murdered six students at Stanley Hall 25 years ago.  As the fraternities prepare to celebrate the macabre anniversary, and Natalie’s friends fall victim to this axe wielding murderer, she discovers that she is the focus of the crazed killer’s intentions in the ultimate urban legend – the story of her own horrific murder.

This is not a badly made movie.  It has respectable, polished production values and top notch gore effects.  Cinematography is wholly competent with solid compositions and smart camera moves punctuating the dramatic moments.  The editing is mostly great, side from the gimmicky flash cuts.  So, I think the problem with the effectiveness of this movie is that these urban legends are so terribly familiar to us that the movie becomes damn predictable.  There’s little tension or suspense when you know how the kills are supposed to be plotted out.  While playing them out verbatim perfectly fits in with the killer’s ultimate motives, creatively, it would have been more effective to put a fresh twist on them.  Have them play out not exactly as you would expect them to, but still be evocative of the classic tales.  Of course, the various false jump scares don’t help matters either.

The red herrings we get as to the identity of the killer are also quite underwhelming.  They are dashed about as quickly as they are brought up.  This sort of thing worked better in Scream where no one was ever entirely absolved of potential guilt in the eyes of the audience.  Everyone was an equally viable suspect, but here, the suspects are not very credible nor are they main characters.  They show up for two or three scenes total.  The main characters are not implicated as the potential killer, and that evaporates a lot of heightened tension and paranoia that could have existed in the movie.  As it is, there’s not much focus put on who the killer is, but more the methods that this killer uses.

And one last negative critique would be that the look of the killer is not all that intimidating.  A relatively small statured person in a hooded parka leaves a lot to be desired in the realm of chilling imagery.  All the great, iconic slashers have not only a instantly recognizable, unmistakable look to them, but they also have a distinct personality in how they move and act.  This slasher, which doesn’t even have a name to its credit, comes off entirely generic with no distinct personality in its movements.  This takes away a lot of the menace this killer could have had, and thus, further adds to the lack of effective horror in this movie.  While Ghostface was a different person in each Scream movie, the image of Ghostface was iconic and carried a strong weight of horror with him.  The Urban Legend slasher is just terribly forgettable.  If this killer wasn’t wielding an axe, you wouldn’t feel any serious imposing threat from him/her at all.  I think my critiques hold weight with the makers of the sequel Urban Legends: Final Cut since they entirely revamped the look of their killer.

Still, the film has a few exciting sequences such as when the killer is chasing Tara Reid’s Sasha.  It’s fairly intense and suspenseful as Sasha tries to evade this axe wielding maniac.  Shortly thereafter, the climactic chase sequence in the storming rain is pretty good with some good tension and strenuous physicality for Alicia Witt.  Proving my point, this is when the killer turns away from urban legend themed kills, and just starts going after people full boar.  These are the scenes that work because they’re not so predictable.  They keep an audience more on edge in the midst of random peril.  They’re surely not wholly original inventions in the slasher genre, but they are staples of it because they are effective.  So, it is that final 20-30 minutes which actually become intense and suspenseful, but for a 100 minute horror movie, that’s not very adequate.

On the acting end of things, Alicia Witt delivers a solid leading performance making Natalie sweet, vulnerable, smart, and tough.  I like when she punches Joshua Jackson’s Damon Brooks right in the face after a bad come-on in a parked car showing there’s some assertiveness in her.  Witt is a strong actress with a lot of talent to her credit.  Plus, she’s a beautiful redhead, and I absolutely adore redheads.  Jared Leto has a decent performance here as college newspaper reporter Paul Gardner, but his character just doesn’t have much personality on the page to speak of.  Paul’s constantly trying to pry information out of everyone for his news story, but he doesn’t come off as the least bit imposing or ethically objectionable as that statement would suggest.  Rebecca Gayheart is a fine talent working well as Natalie’s best friend Brenda, but offering little more, initially, than the qualities of the supportive friend.  The latter end of the film gives her a lot more juicy material to work with that she really sinks her teeth into, and does an excellent job with.

Now. Michael Rosenbaum is plain awesome.  After seeing him for so many years as Lex Luthor on Smallville it’s great seeing his comedic charisma in full swing here as the fun loving Parker.  He’s charged up with energy and personality to spare, but Rosenbaum has enough charm to shy it away from becoming obnoxious.  Tara Reid has a great promiscuous role as the saucy, sexually charged radio talk show host Sasha.  Halloween franchise alumnus Danielle Harris clocks in as Natalie’s Goth roommate Tosh.  It’s a good minor performance, and she looks quite hot in all that black garb.

Urban Legend features some notable horror legends in Robert Englund and Brad Dourif.  Both of which put in solid performances.  Dourif portrays a stuttering gas station attendant at the film’s start, and he’s sufficiently creepy.  Englund gives Professor Wexler plenty of dignity and a little bit of theatrical edge for a strong, respectable performance.  Both actors put a good measure of enthusiasm and quality into their roles here, and are small highlights that gave this film particular notoriety upon release.

The film’s score is provided by Christopher Young, who also did the music for the first two Hellraiser movies and last year’s highly effective horror film Sinister.  Here, he does a far more understated but still admirable job.  It has plenty of strong, tense cues throughout, and is probably a notch above the standard slasher film fare.

Now, I do really like the dark, shameful secret that Natalie has in her past, and how it ties into the motivation of the killer.  It is all smartly and realistically put together.  It makes for a nice twist in the climax that does get setup from Natalie’s story earlier on.  The climax itself is pretty decent and typical for a slasher movie, but it’s surely far from terrible.  It delivers some satisfaction, but it’s nothing that will stick with you like the endings of Halloween or Friday The 13th.  The somewhat quirky coda fits for the movie, but also, doesn’t make a lot of sense.  It could’ve used a better resolution that was more pertinent to the actual characters and story.  It kind of goes with the half-baked feeling of the movie.  It had good ideas, but just didn’t do anything worthwhile with them.

Ultimately, this is a real disappointment of a slasher film that just isn’t scary at all.  They had a very talented cast to work with, and a premise that could’ve worked very well if it injected some original thinking into it.  Instead, it just comes off as generic and predictable.  The killer is entirely forgettable, and offers no menace or threatening presence.  Director Jamie Blanks does a respectable job with Urban Legend, but the script is just devoid of ambition.  He handles his cast exceptionally well, knows how to shoot a film very cinematically, and shows some talent for suspense.  Yet, the film fails because the script uses a gimmick purely at face value without trying to add anything fresh or innovative to it.  A killer offing people using urban legends is a clever idea, but screenwriter Silvio Horta progressed it no further than that.  I know Jamie Blanks can make a good slasher movie because he did it with his next film Valentine, which I think is quite underappreciated.  Given a stronger script, he can certainly deliver a much more effective product.  It certainly won’t hurt you to watch Urban Legend, but it’s nothing special you’re missing out on.  It did spawn two sequels that really were rather horrible that I would strongly advise avoiding.  I saw them each once, and that was more than enough for me.  This film is decent enough if you just need a mild way to kill 100 minutes.  It likely won’t make you cringe, depending on your slasher film tastes, but it likely won’t excite you either.


Skyfall (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Identity (2003)

This film, directed by James Mangold, is one that I was very impressed with in its original theatrical release, and revisiting it now, it still holds up as an effective thriller.  Supported by a remarkable ensemble cast and a brilliant screenplay, Identity delivers a mind-bending story that cleverly weaves its way around a classic murder mystery premise.

Strangers from all different walks of life are all trapped by a torrential rain storm on a Nevada road one night.  They are forced to take shelter at an old roadside motel, run by the nervous manager Larry (John Hawkes).  There is Ed Dakota, a limo driver, escorting fading television star Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca De Mornay), the turbulent married couple of George & Alice York (John C. McGinley & Leila Kinzel) with their young son Timothy (Bret Loehr), Rhodes, a Department of Corrections officer transporting the dangerous convict Robert Maine (Jake Busey), a beautiful call girl (Amanda Peet), and a couple of young newlyweds (William Lee Scott & Clea DuVall).  None of them are at ease amongst these strangers, but circumstances become dire when someone begins murdering them one-by-one.  Accusations begin to fly as paranoia and fear escalate, but they will all begin to discover very strange truths about their supposed chance encounter here.  Meanwhile in an undisclosed location, in an eleventh hour court hearing, psychiatrist Dr. Mallick (Alfred Molina) tries to prove the innocence and sanity of his patient, Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who has been convicted of murder, and is scheduled to face execution in twenty-four hours.  How both of these stories connect is a mystery of identity.

This film will keep you guessing from one moment to the next as to many things.  Many twists unfold in plot and perception, and when you think this film has twisted your thoughts into many knots, it throws one final one at you.  Now, these twists won’t leave you lost, there’s plenty of breathing room and enough exposition to allow you to understand all that is happening.  It is very cleverly paced and structured to keep an audience ensnared through the entire mystery.  This film is tense, suspenseful, creepy, and haunting.  It is an excellent psychological thriller that has far more to it than just a group of people getting killed off in a very Agatha Christie fashion.  In fact, no other film I have seen has utilized this genre quite so well.  There is just as much psychological terror for the characters as there is for the audience.

Director James Mangold brilliantly builds suspense and paranoia with a troubling sense of unease.  A group of strangers stranded in a run down desert motel definitely lends to that feeling.  Considering one of them is a known violent criminal heightens that even more.  Subtle things are revealed to the audience that add to our apprehension knowing certain people are not who they claim or appear to be.  This creates plenty of clever misdirection.  Add in some volatile and emotionally distressed characters, and the tension is wrapped so a tight, unnerving level.  When that tension finally breaks, it’s heart pounding.  The film hardly never allows an audience to relax fully.  There’s regularly some form of urgency or excitement that propels the characters forward towards danger.

The style of the film is very original such as with the immediate flashbacks.  You’ll see a lot of them at the start and a bit near the end.  They show how certain events brought everyone together in a unique non-linear fashion.  It nicely punctuates certain plot elements such as it was Paris’ high-heeled shoe that flew out of her opened suitcase that caused the York’s flat tire later that night.  It’s a nice, quick storytelling tool that helps move the story ahead quickly without leaving even small questions unanswered.  I enjoyed that element quite a bit, and the direction and editing of them was very handled well.  The addition of the rain storm throughout the film is classically atmospheric, and adds to the treacherous, mysterious qualities of the plot.  Danger and paranoia are abound as things get stranger and stranger, and the torrential rain and thunder claps simply unsettle the characters and the audience further.

The surreal aspects are also subtly handled.  They forge an underlying peculiarity for the strangers at the motel.  They attempt to explain them in various ways, but eventually, these occurrences go far beyond mere coincidence or rationale.  They can’t make sense of it, but it truly freaks them out.  It creates a bizarre, twisted web for them all.  These aspects build up so beautifully to an absolutely mind-blowing revelation.

Identity is masterfully shot and edited.  Shooting in all that nighttime rain never muddles the visuals.  We always have a clear picture of what’s happening without sacrificing the dramatic, moody cinematography.  The film evenly balances between various indoor and outdoor scenes giving an audience enough variety in the visuals to keep our eyes interested.  There is such great atmosphere crafted into how the film is shot, and the editing really supports the lingering suspense expertly.  When things begin deconstructing in the third act, the editing creates an amazing visual style which perfectly represents the psychological chaos.  It’s all a superbly executed thriller with many gripping twists and turns that have an excellent conclusion.

This ensemble cast is magnificent!  There strong performances all around with John Cusack being the obvious trusting protagonist.  He brings his usual heart and wit along with a solid dramatic weight.  Ed Dakota is a very relatable character with a great depth of pain and desire to do what is right.  He’s given a strong back story that Cusack really grasps the emotional weight and guilt Ed carries with him, making him someone we can invest our confidence in.

Ray Liotta has a nice turn showing both a hardened strength and a shadier side that surfaces later on.  He is very intense, confrontational, and adversarial while projecting a presence of authority with a more temperamental edge.  Jake Busey is convincingly intimidating and dangerous with a crazed look in his eye coupled with his reliable charisma.  John Hawkes is another stellar actor who can deliver a deep array of emotions.  Here, he runs the full gamut ranging from nervous and skittish to violent and unhinged.  And I really have to say that Rebecca De Mornay is hotter here than I have ever seen her before.  She’s beyond gorgeous in my view, as I have an affinity for red heads, and she does a wonderful job as the somewhat egotistical actress Caroline Suzanne.  She’s definitely a pleasure.  And of course, I always expect nothing less than excellence from John C. McGinley, as many do these days, and he doesn’t fail here.  His George York is a very nervous man with little self-confidence who doesn’t cope with these violent, tragic situations well.  McGinley brings a lot of compassion and simple innocence to this caring husband and step-father.

Alfred Molina is perfect as Dr. Mallick presenting a soft-spoken, intelligent psychiatrist with a sense of empathy.  Pruitt Taylor Vince has always impressed me taking on some substantive and sometimes peculiar roles, and doing an exceptionally unique and standout job in them.  For what little time he has on screen, he brings that same level of talent to Malcolm Rivers.  That jittery eye trick he does seems to land him these off-kilter roles, and it is distinctly effective.

I really have to hand it to the screenwriting talents of Michael Clooney, and especially the directorial abilities of James Mangold.  Both crafted together a very solid, smart, and effective thriller that has plenty of genuine scares and suspense to entertain an audience.  Because of this, it still has re-watch value.  The film is so strong that it would still work just as marvelously without the major twist at the end.  The mystery thriller aspect with people being killed off at the motel is just expertly executed in every way.  The addition of said twist just ups the psychological brilliance of the concept.  I definitely give Identity a wholehearted recommendation, just as I did when it was theatrically released.


The Expendables 2 (2012)

It has been not the best summer of movies for me.  Aside from two nice surprises, most of what I’ve seen has ranged from average popcorn fare to crap I want to avoid like the plague.  So, after the last few films I saw being well within that low end of the spectrum,  I am so glad that many of the world’s greatest action heroes have come along to salvage the end of my summer movie season!  While The Expendables 2 has some factors that keep it from matching the original, overall this is just a big, fun action flick that is what summer movies are supposed to be about.

After taking a seemingly simple job for Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), the Expendables find their plans going awry after encountering sadistic rival mercenary Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme).  The Expendables set out – with help from Maggie (Yu Nan) – to seek revenge in hostile territory, where the odds are stacked against them.  Hell-bent on payback, the crew cuts a swath of destruction through opposing forces, wreaking havoc in an attempt to shut down an unexpected threat – five tons of weapons-grade plutonium which is more than enough to change the balance of power in the world.  However, that’s nothing compared to the justice they intend to serve against the villainous adversary they seek revenge from.

Now, the only thing I felt held this film back was just it’s 102 minute run time.  If this had been a solid two hour film, I think it would’ve had the time to beef up a few aspects.  Jean-Claude Van Damme makes for one massively awesome villain.  He easily and deeply sinks his teeth into the role, and his vicious physicality sells so much of the character’s vile ferocity.  Van Damme plays the material with a lot of zeal and charisma.  You can clearly see there’s a lot of potential substance to Vilain, but the film doesn’t give the character much screentime or material to develop the richness Van Damme puts into the role.  We get just enough to sell his status as a villain, but not enough to really build up his threat level.  Partly because of this, the climax seems to come a little too quickly.  I had hoped for some more momentum to build up in the film before the full-on firestorm rained down.  In the first film, the villains were given ample screentime to develop fully, and they were tied deeper into the plot.  Both films have generally the same runtime, but the first film just seemed to make more of the time it had.

On the upswing, the entire cast seems like they were having a wonderful time shooting this movie.  Stallone has plenty of great chemistry with everyone, but I think the best material is between him and Statham.  Barney Ross and Lee Christmas just feel like such good, long time friends who can constantly take light-hearted jabs at one another, and are totally in sync when it’s time to throw down.  It’s a great, inspired pairing that brings so much levity to the film.  It really makes it a fun ride.  Action-wise, Jason Statham continues to shine with several knife fight scenes which are brilliantly executed and choreographed.  Nice touches are maintained with his character as they keep alive the relationship between Lee and Lacy, portrayed by the lively Charisma Carpenter.  Unfortunately, Jet Li departs the film after the opening action sequence, but he’s still given his moment to shine.  Chuck Norris’ role of Booker is full of fun humor that plays up the exaggerated internet humor of Norris’ superhuman feats.  It’s very well done.  The only negative mark with Norris is that he only ever fires a gun.  There is no martial arts action from his limited appearance in the film.  He doesn’t have anything more than an ancillary action role.  He shows up in two action sequences, and has a nice departure at the film’s end.  Sure, the script didn’t require his character to be there, but he does add to the fun of the movie.

While Stallone stepped down from the director’s seat, he remained as co-screenwriter, and you can still see his talent there.  The first film had its fine touches of emotional depth, and we are treated to some of the same here.  We get a fine amount of substance from Billy that Liam Hemsworth does a perfect job with, and really makes an impact upon the film.  He seemed like a very solid addition to the team, and proves his worth opposite some heavyweight talents here.  Barney Ross has more forefront time in this movie as he develops a solid relationship with Yu Nan’s Maggie Chen.  He has his soul bearing moments with Maggie that bring a lot of dramatic and emotional strength to this very testosterone pumping movie.  Yu Nan does an excellent, charming job showing both a compassionate, insightful side and being a more than capable fighter.  She has plenty of physicality to offer in the action sequences beyond just gunplay that is very impressive.  I think it was a very excellent idea introducing her character into the mix.  Surely, it offers up something a little more for the women in the audience to connect with, but in general, it’s good storytelling and screenwriting.  Barney is able to open up about certain things that can only be inquired of by an outsider, a character that is learning more about him along with us.  I liked Maggie right from the start.  She’s smart, cunning, humorous, and clearly doesn’t shy away from danger.  She’s exactly on the same level as the rest of the team, and more than proves her worth to them time and again.  I would love seeing more of her in The Expendables 3.

Lundgren, Crews, and Couture continue to be entertaining and ass kicking.  Dolph definitely has been given a great, amusing character that everyone plays well off of.  Bruce Willis is absolutely great as Mr. Church.  He’s another actor who could play one hell of a magnificent villain when given the chance, but he eventually fights side-by-side with the good guys giving him the opportunity for some funny quips.  Him and Schwarzenegger exchange their signature catch phrases late in the film, and it’s a total riot hearing them throw each other’s own lines back at one another.  Arnold has never had a problem embracing the self-referential humor of his iconic characters, as evident by Last Action Hero.  He’s having the time of his life here playing off of Bruce, Sly, and even Dolph.  It’s pure fun watching Arnold in this movie.  He kicks a lot of major ass, and gives us plenty of that classic charming Arnold humor we’ve all loved for decades now.  It really comes down to the fact that these are all guys who love action cinema, and are making these movies as a real, honest love letter to the genre’s fans.  The Expendables showed us exactly what we had been missing in the action genre for so long, and this sequel continues on that great, vibrant, explosive trend of entertainment!  Everybody gives it their all in these movies!

And OH YEAH!  You will get your fill of amazing action here!  Director Simon West shows he’s still got the chops he put on display back with Con Air.  However, this cranks up the volume and brutality further than he’s ever done before, and you’re damn right there’s blood!  This is a hard R rated action movie that doesn’t hold back.  Right from the start, we get slam bang, smart, innovative action that delivers on every level.  It’s fiery, loud, adrenalin fueled, and just flat out fun!  You see these guys at the start charging in to storm of the stronghold, and you know you’re in for a bad ass thrill ride!  They pull out the big guns, the large caliber ammunition here all the way through!  Stallone, Statham, Li, and Van Damme show off their physical abilities greatly in various action sequences.  However, nothing beats out the climax of Stallone and Van Damme throwing down.  You’ve got the brute force of Barney Ross combating the vicious martial arts expertise of Vilain, and they are true hardcore heavyweights.  Stuff that would take down the average person in an action movie doesn’t even take these guys off their feet.  Getting busted up with a chain, hurled across the room into a metal gate, and just plain visceral brutality is something both men are able to take and more.  This is one of hell of an awesome climax that is worth the price of admission alone.  The build up to it by Van Damme is wicked.  He thrives so much in this role in this scene that it punctuates wanting to have seen a lot more of Vilain throughout the movie.  Jean-Claude is clearly loving this character so much, and he puts every charismatic ounce of enthusiasm on display.  I think it’s a brilliant and amazing villainous performance.

The cinematography of Shelly Johnson is rock solid.  He also lensed Captain America: The First Avenger, and shows just as sharp of an eye for action here.  Every shot maintains a sense of action geography to know who is doing what, where they’re doing, and who they’re doing it to.  It fully puts the fiery, explosive, bloody action on excellent display for an audience to indulge in completely.  The editing of Todd E. Miller never embraces rapid fire cutting.  He lets the action play out competently and smartly.  There’s great action choreography to behold throughout the film, and both Miller and Johnson want you to see all of it.  These are some smart and highly capable filmmaking talents here that know the mechanics of a great action film.

The story is your straight forward revenge plot, but it is handled well.  Again, it would’ve been nice to have more develop between the heroes and villains.  Maybe have Vilain just slip through their fingers at some point, and thus, further fueling their hunger for revenge.  They get so close, but he gains the upper hand, almost laughing at them as he escapes.  I think something like that could’ve increased the film’s momentum towards the climax.  Between the time they first encounter Vilain and corner him at the airport for the film’s climax, they don’t come close to encountering one another, and that’s roughly an hour apart.  So, we never really get much of that adversarial conflict boiling up between Barney and Vilain, but Stallone and Van Damme surely hold none of that back when they do finally clash.  The film might indulge itself too much with its start studded cast at the expense of a meatier plot, but it never sacrifices entertainment value at any point whatsoever.

Ultimately, what you expect is exactly what you get with The Expendables 2.  There is no film this summer that has had action anywhere near as huge as what this film offers.  Plain and simple, this is pure bonafide FUN!  With a collection of some of the greatest action heroes alive today, you really cannot go wrong here.  With the names that are being thrown around for a third film, I’m very intrigued at what more these filmmakers are looking to pull off.  A return of Mickey Rourke would be awesome as well.  This franchise is all about rekindling the best aspects of the classic big summer action movie, and as long as Stallone is creatively involved I think we’ll continue to get our money’s worth.  I don’t think this film lost anything with Simon West in the director’s chair, and I would easily welcome him back if he’s invited.  If your summer movie experience has let you down at all, do yourself a real favor, and indulge in the action-packed fun of this movie.  While I don’t think it’s quite as good as the first film, it’s exponentially better than the vast majority of action films released today.


Friday The 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

By happenstance, it seems that I prefer the even numbered Paramount Pictures’ Friday The 13th films over the odd numbered ones, and this is no exception.  I won’t deny there are large flaws with this film, but it basically comes to whether or not I have an enjoyable time watching the film.  For Jason Takes Manhattan, I find a great deal of enjoyment from this, and tend to find myself watching this one most often when I just need a fun, easy slasher to watch.

The graduating class of Lakeview High is setting out on a cruise to New York, but after a late night diversion by two students out on Crystal Lake, Jason is electrified back to life for an unexpected journey.  Rennie Wickham (Jensen Daggett) is among the classmates with her uncle and biology teacher Charles McCullough (Peter Mark Richman), her caring literature teacher Colleen Van Deusen (Barbara Bingham), and boyfriend Sean Robertson (Scott Reeves).  Unfortunate for everyone on board is that Jason has hitched a ride on this ship which is sailing straight into a storm.  Jason stalks through the ominous, closed quarters of the S.S. Lazarus until the survivors are forced to abandon ship, but even the harbor of Manhattan, New York is not safe for them.  Jason Voorhees continues his muderous rampage through the streets of New York as Rennie continually gets chilling flashes of a young Jason which will lead to a personal revelation from her past.

The reason why I like this entry while so many trash it is because it’s quite fun.  There plenty of enjoyable characters portrayed by actors who do seem like they were having a fun time making this film.  I also truly like the idea of trying out some new ideas and breaking free of the old environments.  Unfortunately, there was vast potential wasted due to the film’s budgetary constraints.  Writer / director Rob Hedden explains in the film’s DVD commentary track that his original script had sequences taking place at numerous New York landmarks including Madison Square Garden and the Empire State Building, and the New York part of the story would dominate the film, leaving a much abridged section on board the S.S. Lazarus.  Regardless of what might’ve been, the film we are left with has definite problems which have to be addressed.

The lack of gore is obvious.  Too many off-screen kills make for a more bland slasher movie, but at the time, the MPAA were being very unrelenting with horror films.  Filmmakers had to hack n’ slash the gore from their films so badly, the entire genre suffered.  Granted, these slashers becoming more campy and less scary attributed to their lack of effectiveness, but the low gore levels didn’t help matters.  Still, this film has a few memorable kills with both the electric guitar and boxing decapitation kills.  It really is more in their inventiveness that make them memorable than any use of blood or gore.  Of course, the entire toxic waste flood taking out Jason with the intent of this being last Friday The 13th movie, ever, is very cringe inducing.  Some of the greatly more horrid footage from this scene was very thankfully discarded.  New Line Cinema does have to be thanked for not allowing this to be the ultimate cinematic demise of Jason Voorhees.

I will surely admit there is some bad acting in this film, but I feel it’s limited to a few minor roles.  Our main array of characters are very lively and amusing.  I highly enjoy spending time with someone like Julius who has some bravado and charisma, even if the performance can be a little over the top at times, but I don’t view that as a negative in this film.  Saffron Henderson’s J.J is a vibrant 1980s hot rocker who I felt departed the film far, far too early.  Wayne, the aspiring filmmaker, is also nicely geeky without becoming stupid or obnoxious.  These are characters that just add charm and a little bit of heart to the film.  Peter Richman’s stern, uptight McCullough is a great foil in the film that you can love to hate, and his veteran acting skills really benefit the role nicely.  Barbara Bingham brings some heartfelt motherly concern to Ms. Van Duesen as she tries to be an emotional counsel to Rennie.  Scott Reeves meshes decently well with the film’s female lead in Jensen Daggett.  Of the whole main cast, he’s probably the least noticable likely due to not having as much on the page to work with.

I do strongly feel that Jensen Daggett is among the best heroins of the series.  Rob Hedden gives her a very nice psychological storyline to deal with that ties into her own personal history, and links it up with Jason at the same time.  This gives her a sense of personal determination later on to defeat Jason.  Daggett gives Rennie a nice breadth of innocence and likability without losing her strength.  At the time of this film, she felt like a fresh faced young woman with a lot of potential and warmth.  There’s a fine range of emotions built into the character of Rennie, and Jensen Daggett proved to be a nicely talented choice to handle those demands.  I’ve always enjoyed what she had to offer in this role, and I feel she carries the forefront of the film very well.

Kane Hodder steps into the Jason role for the second time, and does what he does.  He surely looks more into the performance than in his later outing where he would over-accentuate certain character traits.  The only thing I think makes this return performance a little inferior to the debut one is just the trappings.  The violence is not as hard edged, the tone is not as heavy, and the appearance of Jason is scaled back a great deal.  So, it is a consistent Hodder performance, and a rather effective one, regardless.  I do have to say that the “teleporting Jason” style of editing does not strike me very well.  It simply succumbs to no logic.  The dance floor scene could be explained by an artistic license to reflect the disorientation of Kelly Hu’s character amongst the blaring music and flashing lights, but Jason consistently shows up in places ahead of other characters were he should be lagging far behind.  It does tend to bother me when watching the film, but only in those brief instances.

Regardless of such facts, I do feel Rob Hedden did an admirable job directing this film.  He had the imagination and initiative to try something new with transplanting Jason into new locations, and it feels refreshing.  Eight films in, and you need some new ideas to keep it interesting.  Of course, you can take it into really bad territory, such as with Jason X, but I digress.  I know Hedden could’ve made the film one thousand times better if he had the budget to realize his original script and ideas.  Not to mention, a chance to retain more of the blood and gore in the final cut.  Unfortunately, what’s done is done, and you’ve gotta live with it.  The suspense in the film is decent, but is compensated for by a nice array of exciting or startling sequences.  Instead of the usual third act chase through the woods, we get Jason stalking Rennie and Sean through the urban landscape of Manhattan on the streets, in the subway, and ultimately, through the sewers.  That money shot of Jason standing in the middle of Times Square is just priceless.  Even though most of the film was shot Vancouver, British Columbia, this moment in the film truly adds a sense of credibility and scope to the film.

Fred Mollin takes full reins as composer for this film, and like his work in The New Blood, I find it very good with a heavier, more haunting and relentless style than Manfredini’s work.  Both Mollin and Rob Hedden worked together on television’s Friday The 13th: The Series, and I think that helped their creativity to jibe well together.  The tone of the film is definitely enhanced by the score, offering one of the better works of the series.  Manfredini’s work has never really impressed me.  It tended to feel very one-dimensional, ringing the same bell over and over again.  There would be beautiful moments on rare occasion, but Mollin’s work seems to have a bit more depth, accentuating different styles of tension, suspense, and horror with more effectiveness.  Mollin also co-wrote the two songs that J.J. jams on early in the film, but it’s been revealed by his collaborator Stan Meissner that pretty much everything that was recorded for those tracks appear in the film.  That’s a bit of a shame since they are very stellar hard rocking tunes with a great 1980s pop sensibility.  They really have “hit song” written all over them, and I would buy them up in an instant if they were released as complete songs.  Mollin would reuse one of these tracks when he scored the pilot episode of Forever Knight a few years later.  The track “The Darkest Side of the Night” by Metropolis is one that I really love, and sets a good, yet different tone for the opening and closing of this film.  It is commercially available from their “Power of the Night” album, but not widely or easily so.

While there are instances of a lighter tone sort of playing up Jason’s iconic status, much of the film has a rather haunting and unsettling tone due to the psychological and hallucinatory aspects of the story.  Rennie’s visions of the young, deformed Jason are creepy, and give the film some dramatic weight.  Rennie herself doesn’t know what’s happening, and the audience has to learn the reasons why alongside her.  I just find the tone fresh and inviting along with much of the ideas Rob Hedden mixes into the old Friday The 13th formula.

All in all, the film really is entertaining and enjoyable.  It offers some good brutality, but lacks the proper gore level for a Friday The 13th film.  By today’s standards, these severely cut down slasher flicks are rather tame.  They could almost pass for a PG-13 rating these days, but there are enough creepy and unsettling moments to sway it otherwise.  In any case, despite the poorly conceived ending for Jason, I do find this to be a good, worthwhile way to spend a fun, laid back 90 minutes.  With the consistently shrinking box office takes for the franchise, Paramount Pictures decided that this would be the end of Jason for them.  I’m sure anyone anticipating a glorious swan song for the character would’ve been grossly disappointed even more than the failure to widely deliver on the film’s New York-based premise.

I fondly remember catching Jason Takes Manhattan late night on the USA Network in the early 90s, and it was always great when there would be a Joe Bob Briggs MonsterVision marathon of the films in the late 90s.  Despite all the ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses throughout the Friday The 13th films to this point, they are all classics of the genre, and sparked the whole 1980s slasher film trend that it rode out to the very end of the decade.  By 1989, it was hard to call any franchise the reigning king of the genre, but Friday The 13th surely was the juggernaut and iron man of the bunch.  While Jason Takes Manhattan is not the strongest film one could’ve hoped for, it’s a decent entry with a few flaws that I can generally overlook.  Kane Hodder maintained Jason as a force to be reckoned with, and unlike a character like Freddy Krueger, the integrity of the character can never be damaged by humorous or off-beat approaches.  Jason will always be as bad ass as he ever was no matter what type of film you put him in.  Of course, it’s still hard to get over Jason X, but thankfully, I have one more favorite in the franchise to spotlight before confronting that film, again.


Friday The 13th, Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

Now that the Tommy Jarvis storyline had concluded, it left the door wide open for anything to be attempted in Friday The 13th, Part VII.  Paramount had a great decision by hiring the awesome make-up effects master John Carl Buechler to direct the film, and then, there was the debut performance of Kane Hodder as Jason.  There were workable elements in this film to make it great, but whenever I watch it, I just feel this doesn’t hit the mark.  I don’t even think it’s a fault of MPAA censorship on the gore, of which there was an excessive amount.  It just sort of feels like a poorly executed concept with not enough talent behind the script or in front of the camera to make it what it could’ve been.

Tina Shepard (Lar Park-Lincoln) has the ability of telekinesis, but this ability has haunted her for years now as it caused the death of her father on the docks of Crystal Lake when she was a little girl.  As a young woman, she has returned to the lake with her caring mother Amanda (Susan Blu) and the deceitful and manipulative Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser), who wants to exploit Tina’s powers for his own fame.  However, the teenage residents of Crystal Lake have something more to fear than Tina’s emotionally charged powers as she accidentally frees Jason Voorhees from his watery grave.  He begins yet another killing spree, but is not prepared for the challenge Tina’s powers pose for the undead killer of Camp Blood.

I believe what I don’t like about this movie is the lack of worthwhile characters and fun.  There was always a sense of levity in these movies from even a few light hearted characters.  People that were just fun to spend some time with before the slaughter began.  The only characters in this film making any jokes are the insensitive jerks that are not worth spending time with.  Our female lead of Tina is far too troubled of a character to gain any levity or much relatability from.  There’s really nothing accessible about the character in how she’s presented.  I really don’t think Lar Park-Lincoln was a good casting choice in this instance.  She really does nothing interesting with the character, and spends most of the time with very dour or pouty expressions on her face.  The film starts out when Tina’s ten years old, but her behavior never matures beyond that of a child when we flash-forward.  While she is an active part of the story, it still falls back into that trap with Tommy Jarvis from A New Beginning in trying to make a hero out of a depressed, introverted character.  The potential of what this character could’ve been really required an actress of more textured emotional ability.  I don’t have an issue with the telekinesis idea as it’s something that really could’ve worked very well, but I don’t think it was well realized here.  It feels like a concept that was nothing more than something on the page.  It wasn’t developed with a sense of depth in concept or with the actress.  Like so much in this film, it’s flat and hollow.  The various effects are good for it, but it just needed a stronger character and performance behind it to really sell that this is someone worthy of combating the powerful undead Jason.

The rest of the cast is rather forgettable due to the uninspired writing.  These characters are once again shallow stereotypes played up for one note gags or bland character conflicts.  Not much effort is put into writing them.  I’ll grant that they are better realized stereotypes than most, maybe due to the decent acting talents here, but that doesn’t make them good.  I’ll certainly take this cast and its characters over the boring, disjointed group from Friday The 13th, Part 3, but I’d still rather spend my time with a more entertaining array of people.  On a side note, it’s an interesting retroactive quirk that Terry Kiser happens to be in this movie, and does get killed since he’s partly best known for playing a corpse in the two Weekend at Bernie’s movies.  Kiser is a solid actor with a fine range, but the role of Dr. Crews is such a badly written, one note, obvious bad guy that there was nothing substantive here for him to work with.

The music of the film is terribly uneven.  It features Manfredini cues recorded for Jason Lives and original pieces of score from composer Fred Mollin, and they don’t mesh at all.  They have very different tones and approaches.  Clearly, the Jason Lives music is a little lighter and more fun than the usual Friday The 13th scores mostly utilizing horns, and Mollin’s stuff is very heavy, dark, and menacing primarily using percussion and strings.  It suits the more grim, merciless, and dark edge of the film’s tone.  I have no idea why this mish mash of different scores were used, let alone why they used recycled recordings from the previous film.  This would be fine if they were comparable, but they clearly are not.  It would’ve been better to solely use Fred Mollin’s music throughout as I love everything he did in this film and in Jason Takes Manhattan.  Mollin also did some fine work as the composer on the unrelated television show Friday The 13th: The Series.  I think he took this film and the next into a far more dynamic and foreboding musical realm than Manfredini ever demonstrated.

The climax of this film, how Jason is defeated, is just a horrible idea that is terribly executed.  There’s just so much possibility that could have been taken advantage of with the film’s premise, but what the filmmakers do is just plainly bad.  I mean, you’re telling me that no one ever fished the body of Tina’s dad out of that lake to have a proper funeral?  They just left him to decay at the bottom of the lake forever, and he just happens to come back to life without a bit of decay on him?  In theory, it’s a nice reversal of the dream sequence ending from the first film, but I can’t buy Jason getting taken down in this ridiculous, piss poor manner.  The build up to this moment is excellent.  Great action beats with high production values really ramp up the danger and menace of Jason.  So much is thrown at him, and he just keeps coming back, more pissed off than before.  Kane Hodder even does a full body burn in a rather long take (slow motion or no).  Buechler really makes the whole third act impactful and visually impressive, but to have it end the way it does just feels like someone’s slap dash idea who got too tired to write a proper ending to the film.  It’s just a bad idea, through and through, which makes me want to forget I ever saw it.

I will credit the film for having a distinctly darker tone than the rest of the series.  Visually, it’s very dark and imposing.  It surrounds Jason in far more presence and aura than ever before.  This is also a credit to Hodder’s performance.  He created a very thorough body language and mentality for Jason, and it truly penetrated through the screen.  It truly made Jason frightening again, even if the film itself lacked suspense, a decent plot, or good lead acting.  I get that people are supposed to scream in horror movies, but Lar Park-Lincoln seems to inappropriately scream at the top of her lungs at almost everything in the third act.  It’s like she’s not there inhabiting the scene as an actor enveloping herself in the mood, but just screaming as if that’s the only reaction people are supposed to have in a horror movie.  There’s just no genuine fear or intensity in her performance, despite how purely menacing Kane Hodder is as Jason.  I think his debut performance was absolutely his best.  It’s just unfortunate that it wasn’t in a better movie.

Hodder is greatly aided by the stunning make-up design Buechler created for Jason Voorhees.  Seeing the bones stick out from underneath the decayed flesh, and making use of the partially shattered mask to show just a glimpse of Jason’s zombified face are brilliant touches.  This is a masterwork of special make-up effects artistry and craftsmanship, and is something that has not even been remotely challenged anywhere else in the franchise since.  What gore we do get after the MPAA’s severe slashing of this film is exceptionally good, but even still, you hardly see any of it.  This really was the most heavily edited down entry in the whole series of films, and I’m sure an uncut version would be filled with hardcore gore and graphic violence.  That surely feeds into the overall darker, more aggressive tone of the movie.  John Carl Buechler does give us a film that is nicely and consistently paced with a lot of creative kills that have become classics.  However, it all does just feel like a blunt instrument due to a lack of real suspense.  Anyone can show brutality and gore splattering across the camera lens.  It takes a skilled filmmaker to tightly craft suspense, and Buechler hardly makes an attempt to deliver that integral part of good horror.

It’s been said that Paramount Pictures and New Line Cinema considered the crossover idea of Freddy vs. Jason at this time, but the two studios simply could not come to an agreement.  Thus, what ideas Paramount had for the film were adapted for The New Blood – which is a horribly generic title for a slasher sequel.  It’s hard to picture it aside from a protagonist with a supernatural ability, but I doubt they had anything more than a vague thought of a plot for a 1988 Freddy vs. Jason movie.  Maybe just the thought of it got the screenwriters anxious to throw a more powerful adversary at Jason this time, and really push the supernatural angle further.  Of course, I think the script could’ve used more work overall to develop its premise and characters beyond just base concepts.

The New Blood had some potential, and did deliver on inventive kills and a hard edged approach.  It feels like a brutal horror movie, but without the graphic visuals to complement it, due to the MPAA required cuts.  However, it really comes down to a weak script, and some uninspired casting choices that just make this an unimpressive sequel for me.  This could’ve delivered it all, but ultimately, delivered very little of anything, in my view.  There’s not much entertainment value that I take from this sequel as the characters are often yawn inducing with the lead of Tina Shepard being the biggest offender.  Again, it is very difficult to give a damn about who lives or dies when the characters are badly written or poorly acted.  I know this film has its big fans, but I just need more than edited down, suspense deprived brutality and Hodder’s great debut performance as Jason to win me over.


Friday The 13th, Part V: A New Beginning (1985)

So, Jason Voorhees has been hacked to pieces, and Paramount decided to launch a new direction for the franchise.  Fortunately, it was short lived with this lower grade, poorly conceived sequel trying to position Tommy Jarvis as the new killer of the Friday The 13th films.  Quite frankly, this has a lot wrong with it right from the start, and it’s easy to see why Paramount quickly rebounded with the far superior Jason Lives.  I’ve just never really liked this entry much because of it’s very direct-to-video production quality, bland execution, and lack of decently written characters.  The director and screenwriters simply did not have the talent to make this a good movie, regardless of the MPAA cuts.

A few years have past for Tommy Jarvis (John Shepard) since he saw Jason Voorhees killed, and after some time in a mental institution trying to recover from those horrific events, he’s been transferred to a halfway house far from Crystal Lake.  Unfortunately, soon after his arrival, a volatile young patient named Vic Faden suddenly murders the young, obnoxious, and obese Joey with an axe.  Shortly thereafter, it seems as though Jason has been resurrected from the grave to murder more people.  Meanwhile, Tommy suffers from hallucinations of Jason repeatedly, and they are slowly driving him mad.  As the bodies stack up, and Tommy seems to have disappeared, suspicions intentionally fall upon him.  However, it eventually becomes clear to the audience that this is not the work of Jason, but of a mysterious imposter using the Jason lore as a façade for his murder spree.  The aftermath of this violent experience hints at a new direction for the franchise that would quickly be discarded after backlash from the fans.

Firstly, John Shepard does a partially good job as the new Tommy Jarvis.  I think a lot of the hallucination scenes are excellently handled giving Tommy an obvious mental imbalance.  However, a lot of Shepard’s screentime is him standing or sitting around silent and introverted.  Shepard doesn’t put any effort into making Tommy seem like a troubled young man outside of those hallucinatory freak out scenes.  The screenplay doesn’t give him anything to do to showcase such behavior.  He also has almost no character interactions in this movie, and thus, it doesn’t give Shepard much to work with.  So, it’s a fine line to divide this issue which can also cut towards director Danny Steinmann’s way since he also co-wrote the script.  Instead of directing Shepard to demonstrate that internal turmoil, he just has him be a blank slate that shows nothing of what Tommy is going through.  Still, in the vast majority of his screentime, John Shepard just fills up the frame, and even in the big climax of the film, he still comes off as a waste of space.  Corey Feldman, who does cameo as Tommy in the opening dream sequence, did a stunningly impressive job with the diverse range the character of Tommy Jarvis offered in the previous film.  He hit everything dead-on-the-mark, and made a powerful impression throughout the movie.  There is nothing within John Shepard’s performance to remotely equal that exceptionally well-rounded and captivating performance from Feldman.  In the following film, Thom Mathews would serve as an excellent hero for this franchise, and do so much more than Shepard even tried to do in this sequel.

The mood and scares are decent enough.  I especially feel Violet’s stalk and slash death scene is exceptionally effective with the soundtrack of “His Eyes” by Pseudo Echo behind it.  Unfortunately, you definitely get very little gore due to the MPAA’s stringent standards of the time.  Still, the big problem of this film is the lack of decent characters to give a damn about.  There are a lot of random people added to the body count who only show up for one scene to get killed.  That’s one sense of why I feel it comes off like a bland and cheesy direct-to-video movie.  You can contrast the characters in this film to those in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.  The main characters in both are all in a mental health facility with their own quirks and personal issues.  In Dream Warriors, the roles are smartly written and greatly cast to create a very strong ensemble of young characters that add vibrancy and emotional relatability to the film.  In A New Beginning, the characters all seem very under-developed as if they are just there to just fill up the screenplay.  They are not given any depth or background, let alone particularly likable aspects  They either come off as too weird, too irritating, or just uninteresting.  They bring no life to the film for an audience to really get scared for them, and the casting is not all that memorable.  There are some decently entertaining bits here and there with one or two characters, but other characters are just blandly written or underwhelmingly acted.  Nobody stands out.  They all blend into the background creating a film with no real tension, energy, or charisma.  Considering The Final Chapter and Jason Lives have two of the best young casts of the series with nicely fleshed out characters that are memorable and enjoyable, this makes A New Beginning even more of a sore thumb in the franchise.  Horror and suspense work best when an audience cares about the characters in the story, and I really could not care less about these.

While, like I said, the mood is decent, I do feel this movie is lit a little too brightly.  It feels a little too slick and polished taking away the dark and gritty feeling the series had up to this point.  That takes away from the effective, harder edged horror atmosphere the previously films generally had.  Plus, without having some abundant, high end gruesome gore effects to elevate the graphicness of the film, it all just feels cheap.  The Final Chapter felt like a franchise high point as a standard bearer for what a slasher film should be.  This film is just the opposite.  It shows the bottom of the barrel quality of what the genre should avoid becoming.

The direction of Danny Steinmann is just not very good.  I know there are far worse, more ineptly made movies out there, but for a mainstream horror franchise, this is as bad as you’d ever fear it would get.  Again, everything is cheap – the characters, the gore, the cinematography, the story, and the screenplay itself.  Steinmann co-wrote this with Martin Kitrosser, one of the writers of Friday The 13th, Part 3, a film that shares many of the same problems as this one, only not to this degree.  The third writer, David Cohen, wrote two other films no one’s heard of and that was it.  Steinmann never made another film after this one, and it is severely evident why.  This is not a theatrical release quality film.  It does reek of direct-to-video quality with its abundant cheesiness, poor script, and bland direction.  The attempt to make Tommy seem like the killer in this is lazily handled.  The film tries to throw a number of red herrings into the mix, but really, it plays up no mystery aspect whatsoever.  It’s entire intent is to push Tommy to becoming the new killer of Friday The 13th, but puts nearly no effort at all into fooling you into believing he might be the killer at large.  Anything that is dropped in to allude to that seems like a weak afterthought.

I’m not singling Steinmann out for any personal reason.  His 1984 revenge exploitation film Savage Streets has a strong cult following, and while I have never seen it, I am generally intrigued to see it.  With that cult following, it does seem to say that Steinmann was capable of making a satisfactory film filled with violence, sexuality, and grit.  Maybe Friday The 13th, Part V: A New Beginning was just a wrong choice of film for him, or he worked with the wrong creative team.  Anything is possible, but the fact remains that he did not handled this movie well in any creative aspect.  Even if the gore was re-instated into the film, it would not make up for the poorly executed story, the flat characters, or the overall cheesiness of the film he made.

And it’s hard to even be fooled into thinking this is Jason Voorhees back from the dead.  Frankly, he looks and moves more like a poor Michael Myers imitation than a decent Jason Voorhees ones.  The blue coveralls, the slender build, the more mechanical movement, and the lackluster hockey mask just scream “bad imposter.”  Even the old VHS box cover couldn’t get the hockey mask right.  It looked like some cheap plastic mask you’d buy at the corner drug store.  Everything about this film just drives home the fact that this isn’t Jason, and we’re not even trying to fool you.  Conversely, the Jason seen in Tommy’s hallucinations looks very authentic in every detail.  Now, that clearly shows that the filmmakers could have given the imposter a more faithful design to heighten the second guessing of whether this really was Jason or not, but chose to just cheap out on that aspect.  They even still give this regular mortal man superhuman strength, just like Jason, but in every visual aspect, he clearly is not Jason Voorhees.  It’s simply bad conceptualization and poor execution.

The climax is easily one of the weakest of the franchise.  I really did not like having some wise-ass kid running around this film in Reggie, and him being part of the climactic action is just cringable for me.  He’s treated like a big hero in the whole thing, and there’s even a big music cue to support that intention.  I simply couldn’t get invested in these weak characters to really care who survived or if there was a true protagonist here.  Tommy is such an inactive part of the story that the film, in order to build suspicion that he’s the killer, is able to have him disappear for a good long while, and it doesn’t make a single bit of difference at all.  It’s very hard to sell Tommy as a potential hero when, at the same time, you are lazily trying to sell him as the potential villain.  It just comes off as very shoddy work.  This is a script that just meanders from one death scene to the next with no idea of what story it’s trying to tell.

All in all, this is really a sad sequel that delivered next to nothing worthwhile, and Paramount heard the cries of fans everywhere regarding it.  They ignored what this film attempted to setup for the Tommy Jarvis character, and took the following film into a far more satisfying and enjoyable direction.  I think it was a very fortunate turn of events that Corey Feldman was already working on The Goonies at this time, and could only do a single scene cameo.  It undoubtedly gave his career a massive boost to be working with great filmmakers like Richard Donner and Steven Spielberg on an eventual blockbuster instead with Danny Steinmann on a low grade slasher sequel.  Again, there are vastly worse films you could subject yourself to, but there are also so many better slasher films around than this sad entry in the Friday The 13th series.  However, there is one worse entry in this franchise, in my opinion, but it’s much, much further down the line in the New Line Cinema era.


Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

This is an unusual horror franchise in that it never really took off.  The original is a bonafide classic of extreme, gritty frantic madness.  From there, it went in all kinds of sporadic directions never really settling into a consistent style.  The first sequel ventured off into quirkiness, and the later sequel disregarded continuity entirely creating what is considered one of the worst films you could ever fear to endure.  This entry was a little more stable in line with slashers of the era as it came from New Line Cinema.  They honestly had a good approach that would make the franchise accessible to the general horror masses, but not laying back on the blood letting.  However, this was the age where the MPAA was striking back at gory horror, and hacking and slashing the films down to extremely tame levels.  The volume and style of violence in this film is comparable to any gory horror film of the last decade., but in 1989, this was threatened with an X rating (prior to the introduction of the NC-17 rating).  Goes to show just how inconsistent the MPAA has been over the decades.

It has been several years since Leatherface last terrorized the Texan backwoods with his Sawyer family, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t continued his cannibalistic ways.  In fact, Leatherface has been “adopted” into a brand new family of crazed Texan cannibals.  The film begins with an effective scene of Bubba “Leatherface” Sawyer (R.A. Mihailoff) sewing together a fresh mask of flesh while one of his victims attempts to escape, but gets gutted with a chain saw instead.  From then on, we follow the eventful journey of siblings Ryan & Michelle (William Butler & Kate Hodge) as they drive from California to Florida to deliver a car to their father, but they’ve just entered into the desolate Texas landscape.  As they drive into the night, Texas state authorities are cleaning up a hazardous mess of bodies which have decomposed into toxic material – remnants of past Sawyer family massacres.  The brother and sister pairing drive into the next day and a gas station where they encounter a hitchhiking cowboy named Tex (Viggo Mortensen,  The Prophecy, The Lord of the Rings) and the wild-eyed store owner Alfredo (Tom Everett).  Tex gets friendly with Michelle and Ryan, to a lesser degree, but the cordial moment is cut short when Alfredo pulls a shotgun on the threesome, and the siblings haul ass out of there, watching Fredo blast away at them and Tex.  The two siblings quickly take off down a deserted road, but soon find themselves stalked by Leatherface and his new cannibalistic and homicidal family.  Ultimately, their only hope for escape is in Benny (Ken Foree), a survivalist who not only has the firepower, but also the training to take down the entire psychotic family.

To start off, this was a very troubled production.  I can’t even begin to list the ways, but let’s just say that the film was so excessively violent that the repeated runs through the MPAA forced the release date to be delayed from early November, 1989 to January, 1990.  At one time, director Jeff Burr was fired on Friday and re-hired on Monday.  The shooting schedule was rushed, and the budget was tight.  Also, I would have to say that calling this a “massacre” is false advertising as only two people outside of Leatherface’s adoptive family are killed in this film.  There’s a lot of violence, but not a lot of death.  Although, despite all this, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is quite a good film.

The cast is solid, very solid.  There are no amateurs here like in many slasher films.  R.A. Mihailoff was an experienced stuntman at the time, and did a great job as a slightly more evolved Leatherface that is more focused in his mayhem than before, but still remains very youthful in mind and impulsive in action.  He was also one strong dude having to lug that HUGE 80 lbs chain saw around almost everyday.  William Butler had some previous experience in slasher flicks, but this was his most featured role and he does well in it.  As Ryan, he’s a bit pensive and uneasy trying to deal with heavy situations.  Of course, Viggo Mortensen delivers an entertaining and intriguing performance as the crazed Tex with a bit of an odd cross-dressing undertone.  He pulls off the insanity and the charm very well, and proves to be a solid and impressive actor more than a decade before The Lord of the Rings made him a household name.  Viggo was a great actor that existed under the radar for a long time before that big break, and even this early on, you can see his quality and versatility.  Tom Everett really fits perfectly as the wild-eyed, fidgety, and probably schizophrenic Alfredo.  Definitely a classic character for these films.  Dawn of the Dead alumnus Ken Foree brings a lot of energy and a decent amount of humor to the role of Benny.  He truly endears himself as the hero of the film whereas there are usually only perilous heroines.  Benny gets to kick some ass, and really give our psychotic villains someone to tangle with.  Also, with the character being an armed survivalist, we get some nice action scenes and fiery moments.  Definitely a worthwhile and enjoyable character.  Finally, there’s the female lead in Kate Hodge.  She really rates high as Michelle among the other female leads of the series who go through maddening events and experiences, but this time, she doesn’t breakdown into a traumatized pile of emotional goo – so to speak.  Michelle comes out as a far tougher character, and proves that she might not only survive, but also endure in the aftermath of this Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

KNB EFX have been an industry leader in special make-up effects for a long time, and this is another excellent example of why.  The MPAA would not have so much an issue with the gore level if Kurtzman, Nicotero, and Berger weren’t so amazingly good at their jobs.  Everything has such detail and texture to really drive home the squirming realism of the graphic violence and trauma that characters are put through.  While the film itself might not be very highly regarded, the effects work here should be given high praise and special notoriety.

Cinematographer James L. Carter gives the film a very strong look.  Personally, I see a resemblance in the visual tone of this film and Jason Goes To Hell, despite having different cinematographers.  Both films have a very dark, dense landscape at night with a tinge of blue that makes these two films look very similar.  It adds a more grounded, hardened look to the filmed imagery.  The filmmakers wanted this to have a real horror feel, and maintained a gritty look throughout that really enhances the horror aspects entirely.

I believe Jeff Burr did a fine quality job despite the turbulence of production. He crafted a film that probably shouldn’t have turned out nearly as good as it did.  The screenplay was well-written by David J. Schow in his first break.  While he had been writing material for a long while, this was the first script of his to get produced.  Although, he hasn’t had a wondrous career with a couple of Critters films, an episode of The Outer Limits, and two episodes of Ridley & Tony Scott produced anthology series The Hunger under his belt, but he did deliver us the screenplay to the cult classic The Crow.  So, he is highly capable of delivering brilliant work, but hasn’t had the rich opportunities to demonstrate that much.  All in all, he did a good job here with probably the only consistently worthwhile TCM sequel.

I’m not giving this a great endorsement because it is almost perfectly formulaic for a Texas Chain Saw Massacre film, but it’s the characters where this movie holds strong.  The story is mostly a direct template from the first film, but the characters are more original than the story.  There’s also more suspenseful and intense action than before or since.  Also, I like this design of Leatherface the best, and who can resist the massive chain saw given to him with the phrase “The Saw is Family” engraved on the side?  Mihailoff’s representation of old Bubba Sawyer has a lot more aggression and coordination than before.  Kate Hodge brings a much stronger and tougher heroine to the series, and I can’t help but enjoy every role I see Viggo Mortensen in.  Plus, there is an entertainment factor here beyond the terror, but it never overwhelms or damages the integrity of the horror elements.  So, I do recommend this film to anyone looking for a hardcore slasher film with a healthy dose of gore and action.  The DVD that’s been available for a long while has both the theatrical R-rated and full unrated cut of the movie.  It’s always been nice how New Line Cinema was generally comprehensive about those things, but any true horror fan would likely never mind the censored version, anyway.  Considering the sporadic quality of this franchise, I feel this entry is among the most accessible, sensical, and satisfying of them all.  As for the remake and prequel?  I do have reviews for them, but I’m saving them up for the September / October Halloween season.  A long way to go, but I’m definitely saving the meatiest horror reviews for that part of the year.


Friday The 13th (1980)

Sometimes, the first film in a franchise is the best and all sequels are just watered down retreads.  Other times, the first film is merely a rugged blueprint for future installments to build upon to create better films.  I believe the original Friday The 13th fits into the latter category.  That is not to say it doesn’t have admirable qualities, but the formula and execution is not as refined as some of the other films in the franchise later became.  There are numerous elements that downgrade this even in comparison to the first sequel, and the difference in who the killer is does not factor into my opinion here.

Camp Crystal Lake used to be an idyllic summer camp for kids, but for over twenty years, it has had a supposed death curse upon it.  Camp counselors found dead, the water gone bad, and various accidents of sorts have plagued it.  Even the local prophet of doom, Crazy Ralph, tries to warn all comers to the danger ahead.  However, Steve Christie is determined to re-open the camp and mend its reputation.  The teenage counselors feel safe and comfortable in the deep woods, but soon, on this Friday the 13th, an unseen killer stalks them all intent on seeing their bloody corpses litter the campgrounds.

First off, the positives.  You can never deny the high quality talents of Tom Savini.  He’s a master make-up effects artist, and he had honed his skills most notably on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead prior to this film.  Here, he created some of the best gore effects and special make-up of the series.  They are seamless, and that only enhances the surprise elements of the movie.  I believe the success of this Friday The 13th owes a lot to what Savini accomplished as it raised the bar for gore very high, and that gave it something different than the more atmosphere-driven Halloween.  This film really started the bloody slasher film craze, and it is due to the effectiveness of these physical effects.

The score by Harry Manfredini has always been a divided issue for me.  In some ways, it is suspenseful, but in others, it is just wild strings shrieking on the soundtrack with no sense of tension or rhythm at all.  However, it rarely feels like a Friday The 13th movie without his signature style, but there are exceptions.  For what Manfredini offers, his first foray with the franchise is a solid effort.  It creates a good atmosphere that services the film’s style of horror.

The acting from our two leads is very admirable in a subgenre known for a lot of cringable performances, to say the least.  Adrienne King is a fresh faced, likable talent here, and reflects a lot of vulnerability and sympathy.  Yet, she is able to demonstrate some strong will in the more intense fight-for-your-life sequences.  The other talent I mention is who portrays the killer, and that acting talent really elevates the film above its unrefined shortcomings.

What truly detracts from this movie are two things.  The first is the pace.  Even by my patient standards, the film drags along at a very slow pace.  By modern cinematic standards, it’s terribly sluggish.  This is mainly due to the fact that very little occurs in the story.  People slowly arrive in town, and it goes along like a slow, calming weekend until the killings really pick up the pace.  That doesn’t start happening until about halfway through the movie.  The characters don’t offer up much personality or charisma to maintain interest or momentum in the first half of the movie.  By the time the film really gets a good stride going, it’s almost over.

The second issue is that Sean Cunningham is not a very inventive or dynamic filmmaker.  There is nothing outright bad about what he does, but there’s also nothing exceptional or impressive about it either.  The incessant use of the killer’s point of view shots tend to take away from the tension and mystery since you always know where the killer is, and who the killer is stalking.  Some sequels would lay off of this idea, and create suspense and tension through more clever methods.  Here, it works for a little while, but ultimately, it overstays its welcome by wearing thin quickly.  It’s almost as if Cunningham saw the opening scene of Halloween, and wanted to recapture that idea and feeling for this entire film.  I don’t feel it works to that extent.  Hiding the killer’s identity was key to the story, but better filmmakers later demonstrated a more diverse approach to maintaining that idea.

If, by chance, you have not had the identity of the film’s killer revealed to you by now, I won’t be the spoiler.  Let’s just say, it is an unexpected twist in the story that is probably the most intelligent part of the screenwriting and casting.  This is before Jason Voorhees began his killing spree under a burlap sack or a hockey mask.  So, it has a different sort of ending as we get a killer with dialogue who can showcase their madness without a mask.  There is a further twist ending beyond this that captivated and terrified audiences in 1980, and gave the franchise a jumping off point to actually become a franchise.  It truly is nightmarish.

Friday The 13th does deliver some good scares that remain effective to this day, and again, Savini’s work has been key to maintaining that effectiveness.  However, there’s little beyond that to hold the film together through its run time, and even then, the scares are not spread out enough to keep that heightened tension going for the majority of the film.  It was not a film written with compelling characters, and not vastly cast with charismatic acting talents.  So, it shouldn’t have been plotted out where the performances or characters needed to carry the movie for a hefty distance before the horror aspects took over.  Again, this works as a template for future installments to build upon to make more well balanced and tighter films.  The Friday The 13th franchise is my favorite slasher film series, and just because Jason is not the killer in this film does not affect my opinion of it.  At one time, I had hoped that a remake could take this film, and re-manufacture it into a more evenly paced and tighter movie.  Bring it up to the more intense and entertaining levels of the better sequels.  Sadly, the 2009 remake from Platinum Dunes was an utter failure, and like many horror remakes, put a death nail in the franchise.  I will give credit that this 1980 film was a horror milestone, and it launched the entire slasher subgenre that ran rampant through most of the decade.  However, it was not the best of the genre, and there are better films within the franchise than Sean Cunningham’s original.


Safe House (2012)

This is me writing this straight after getting home from the theatre.  I saw this a few weeks after release just because of not getting my time in order.  Regardless, what I have to say about Safe House is that it is amazing on many different levels.  There are some cinematography shortcomings, but where it counts, this is a movie that delivers on more than just action.  Safe House is one of the best thrillers I have seen in many, many long years, and this is a genre I am very passionate about.

Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a low level CIA agent who has been stuck as a “housekeeper” for their safe house in Capetown, South Africa for the past twelve months.  Believing he has the potential to become a full fledged case officer, Weston becomes frustrated by the complacency of his career.  Meanwhile, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), an ex-CIA agent turned international criminal, obtains a digital file from an MI6 contact which contains incriminating evidence of several worldwide intelligence agencies.  However, he is targeted by a team of mercenaries, and the MI6 agent is killed in the process.  Seeing no alternative, Frost evades them by walking into an American consulate and turns himself over to the authorities.  This lands Frost in Matt Weston’s safe house where a harsh interrogation by a special ops team begins, but is cut short when the mercenaries attack the safe house.  Weston is forced to escape, taking Frost captive to keep him safe until brought back into CIA hands.  However, Tobin Frost is a master manipulator, and he begins to get into the head of the young operative who finds his morality tested and idealism shaken.  Circumstances soon push Matt Weston into going against orders and to figure out who he can trust before he and the world’s most skillful assassin are both eliminated.

Simply said, this is a very powerful, effective film fronted by two incredible actors.  This film entirely backs up my statements from my Green Lantern review of the wide range and quality of Ryan Reynolds’ acting ability.  Playing opposite Denzel Washington inevitably requires an actor who can carry a lot of weight, and in my mind, Reynolds never slacks off.  Matt Weston starts off the film as a very frustrated, yet untested agent.  He has the ambition to move up in the ranks, but hasn’t the experience to temper his confidence.  The film forces him into a dangerous journey that forges him into a sharp minded, confident, and capable man.  All the while, Reynolds holds up his end of the film with amazing talent.  This is him upping his game and allowing himself to shine through next to Denzel.  That is not an easy feat to accomplish, and the screenplay throws a lot at the character to make it an achievement to be hard earned.  Reynolds’ performance crafts a great and compelling arc for Matt to work through.  The character has many highly relatable aspects, and is a very human character.  He has a loving girlfriend named Ana, portrayed by Nora Arnezeder, who he wants to devote so much of himself to, but he cannot due to the secretive necessity of his job.  And being stuck on this assignment will soon force him to be parted from her as she takes a job opportunity in Paris.  All of these lies and frustrations ultimately create a conflict for Matt as the story forces him into a more perilous position, but never does he let go of his emotional core.

Now, Washington and Reynolds work off each other fantastically creating an evolving character dynamic which is constantly compelling and intriguing.  Throughout the film, Frost is imparting his experience and cunning skill set upon Matt, and this is the basis for their relationship.  At times, it’s survival based, but ultimately, it’s about trust.  As if it needed to be said, Denzel is stunning as Tobin Frost.  He is one of the finest, most talented actors around.  While Denzel usually has roles that allow his natural charm and charisma to work to his advantage, here, he curtails it entirely.  Frost is a far more psychologically driven character who is dark, dangerous, and ruthless.  Morality doesn’t factor into anything, it’s about strategy and survival.  However, he connects with Weston because Frost sees what he once was and wants to help this young man not become the same thing he became.  He’s never straight forward in saying that.  Instead, he works as an observer of Weston’s life, and bestows his experiences upon him.  This ultimately affects Matt’s decisions and actions.  Again, it tempers him, and allows him to survive to make better choices than Frost made.  Denzel is also quite unsettling in how he inhabits the merciless nature of Frost’s violence.  He doesn’t need to shoot a prone man five times, but he does out of cold rage or a vindictive point.  He shows his enemies how more deliberately violent he is by doing such things.  For him, it is only shoot to kill.  Denzel conjures up a brilliant performance of an intelligent, analytical character who brings immense gravitas to the story.  The emotion he shows is subtle and veiled in Frost’s inquisitive and foreboding nature.

The strength of the film is maintained by a solid and impressive supporting cast.  Everyone nails the dramatic weight and tone of the film, and their characters feel fleshed out and realistic.  Brendan Gleeson is the most prominent as Weston’s direct superior, David Barlow.  He plays the subtle turns of the character very nice, and holds an audience’s attention quite well.  The film plays some misdirection here and there, but these moments only continue to fuel Weston’s growing weariness.  Sam Shepard also appears as CIA Director Harland Whitford creating an all around interesting performance that motivates many of the thematic elements through to the end.  An appearance by the always solid and enjoyable Ruben Blades as a document forger adds an extra dimension to Frost.  Even if he happens to be a criminal, it shows that Tobin does have people he trusts and can call a “friend.”

What few scenes we do get of Nora Arnezeder as Ana Moreau are great.  From tender and affectionate to quietly concerned to distraught and upset, she inhabits all emotional aspects of Matt’s beloved superbly.  While she is never in peril or is a direct motivation for Matt to do what he does, she is always in the back of his mind.  He has something worthwhile in his life that he does not want to lose, but there are bigger ramifications at hand which he cannot turn a blind eye to.  If for nothing else, he wants her kept safe, and makes some difficult choices because of that desire.

This truly is a thriller on the level of Michael Mann.  Even a few moments in the musical score felt evocative of Collateral here for me.  Composer Ramin Djawadi has done some work I am familiar with including Iron Man, the Hugh Jackman-Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and the current CBS crime thriller series Person of Interest – and so, I can truly see why he has tapped for this film.  The score is entirely awesome bringing out some stellar emotional resonance in key moments, and serving the intense action sequences excellently.  This is another powerhouse element that raises the film up to another level.

Now, I have good and bad things to say about the cinematography.  First off, STOP IT!!!  Stop with the blasted shaky cam!  Break out a tripod, a steadicam, or dolly track for one scene!  Safe House was shot by Oliver Wood, who also photographed the first three Jason Bourne films.  Now, while Paul Greengrass has nothing to do with this movie, you would think otherwise in how it was shot.  Still, it is a little better than Greengrass’ Bourne films as the framing can be wider at times, and the lighting is far superior.  You can actually maintain a sense of geography in most action sequences, especially the car chases because the action is given a wider composition.  Still, this trend has worn on me so much over the years, I can only plead filmmakers to stop at this point.  There is one scene between Matt and Ana where it’s supposed to be a quiet emotional scene, but the camera just keeps wobbling all over the place.  From experience, shooting a simple dialogue scene with a handheld camera usually only results in a subtle instability, but here, it is so deliberately shaky like the camera operator was about to stagger and fall over.  The good half of the cinematography is that it does add a necessary gritty, hardened reality to the film.  There is nothing glossy about it, and that’s how it should be.  The lighting reflects this with perfect execution using many color schemes to breathe some vibrancy into select scenes.  There is moodiness and atmosphere, but that gritty texture is always present to maintain a consistent visual style.

And despite the shaky cam crap, the action sequences are massively effective.  This truly has some hardcore action going for it by never pulling any punches.  It’s full-on, straight ahead realism maintaining intense momentum and adrenalin.  The hand-to-hand combat scenes are definitely impressive showing Denzel and Ryan handle themselves like dead-on professionals.  They both deliver hard edged physicality which further drove my respect for both actors, especially Reynolds.  It really is a pleasure seeing him in a role that showcases his wide range of abilities, and seeing him handle the physical demands of this film pleases me a great deal.  I also enjoy that the action sequences aren’t there for self-indulgence, they push the plot and character arcs forward.  Seeing Weston beat down on one of the gunman, interrogating him while Frost looks on from afar was an impactful scene.  It starts to beg the question of just what path is Matt Weston starting down.

The screenplay by David Guggenheim is a masterful piece of work.  Every character is written with such strength and depth that they must have jumped right off the page.  The story itself is wonderfully crafted establishing Tobin Frost quickly as a dangerous and cunning man through not just actions but words.  The tone of the scenes are built into how they are written through character interactions and situations.  While everyone else is panicking in the safe house when it is hit, Frost sits there, handcuffed and calm as can be.  He talks Matt through the situation, and tries to keep him calm and focused.  This is a man in control, a man who can see the next step forward.  He always sets up the situation where he has the leverage, where he dictates how it goes down.  This is established right from the beginning of the film, and continues on throughout.  The psychological aspects of the story are brilliant.  Whether or not Matt Weston trusts what Tobin Frost says, he cannot ignore his words when circumstances turnaround on him.  He becomes more and more aware of the truth closing in around him, and Matt must act in his own best interests as a direct result of what he learns from Frost.  The screenplay continually weaves a finely textured fabric of truth and deception around Weston with only Frost as the key to unravel it all.

This is all amazingly executed by director Daniel Espinosa.  You can be certain that his name is one I will take notice of from here on out.  Again, me comparing this to the best of Michael Mann’s work is a huge piece of praise as Mann is my favorite filmmaker (excluding Miami Vice & Public Enemies).  This truly has all the hallmarks of the finest this genre has to offer.  Every emotion, every conflict, every action sequence, and every character is handled with immense care, detail, and weight.  Nothing is cheated or unearned.  Great respect is given to all aspects of this story to craft it into a deeply satisfying and rich film.  I honestly can’t recall seeing another film as dramatically impactful an visceral as this one, theatrically, in a terribly long time.

For me, 2011 was not a great year at the theatre for me.  There were some enjoyable flicks, but nothing remotely as riveting as Safe House came into my view.   Whatever the rest of 2012 holds for me, I always enjoy starting out a new year of cinema with a strong film, and this is one of the most rock solid films around.  With an incredible cast of talent in front of the camera coupled with an intelligently written screenplay populated by powerful characters, Safe House was an absolute pleasure for me to experience.  I am glad I made the time to give it my attention.  I highly and deeply recommend this film for anyone who is excited by a psychologically rich dramatic thriller with visceral action sequences.


Fallen (1998)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Devil’s Rejects (2005)

I will start this review out saying that I am a fan of Rob Zombie, the musician.  I was interested in Rob Zombie as a filmmaker due to the immense controversy surrounding his first film House of 1000 Corpses, but once I got to see it, theatrically, I found it to be a rather unexciting, very unoriginal, and highly derivative movie.  It just seemed like one ninety minute long Rob Zombie music video.  The only thing that made me see it a second time was Sid Haig’s incredible charisma and dark, dark humor as Captain Spaulding.  It cracked me up like few things do, but other than that, the film held little interest for me.  Others felt differently, but I will get more into such things as I have many of the same gripes here as I did with Zombie’s first film.

Picking up six months after the events of House of 1000 Corpses, The Ruggsville County Sheriff’s Department, headed by John Quincy Wydell (William Forsythe), is storming the Firefly household, and some do not survive.  Mother Firefly is captured, but Otis & Baby escape to meet up with the foul-mouthed mad clown Captain Spaulding (who is also Baby’s father).  Along their twisted road trip, they encounter some strange folk, and leave them worse off than they found them….much, much worse.  Sheriff Wydell, in the meantime, is deadset on bringing the entire clan down because they killed his brother George (as seen in House of 1000 Corpses).  Sheriff John Wydell has nothing but vengeance on his mind, but in time, that will drive him to become exactly what he’s hunting.  The trio’s road trip takes many bizarre twists and turns, leaving unresolved plot points along the way, and ultimately leads the film to a strange and unsatisfying ending.

First and foremost, this is one grizzly, brutal, and unrestrained movie.  I rented the unrated director’s cut, and so, everything that was meant to be seen, was seen.  And while all the gory effects are excellent, and the performances are amazing, this film just doesn’t deliver anything more.  The story is far too simple to justify all the over bloated crap that flows through it, and the resolution is horrendously weak.  It feels like the work of an untalented novice filmmaker who just does things because he thinks they are cool instead of crafting a tight, coherent, and straight forward feature.  Possibly the film’s strongest, more poignant character is dispatched like a worthless camper in a Friday The 13th movie.  The death has no meaning, no importance when this character probably should not have died at all.  It simply goes to show that despite Rob Zombie’s ability to make an intense and disturbing film, he really has a long way to go in crafting solid storytelling skills.  He tries, but he fails for two films in a row.

I think it’s even worse in this one because some characters and plot points simply drop off the map with no reason, no explanation.  Plot points about the Groucho Marx’ aliases is dropped after two scenes, and was apparently only created for a weak comedic bit.  As for vanishing characters, Zombie apparently decides that once they’ve served their purpose, they should vanish entirely with no reason or resolution.  It is a shame because there is such a great cast to work with such as Michael Berryman, Danny Trejo, Ken Foree, and the absolutely awesome William Forsythe.  I was also rocked to see former WCW & WWE superstar “Diamond” Dallas Page featured as black-haired bounty hunter teamed with Trejo.  Page does a fine job too, and having cameos from The Warrior‘s Deborah Van Valkenburg and Halloween‘s P.J. Soles was a unique touch.  However, despite having such a rich cast, the story just does not offer up anything substantive for them to do anything with.  There’s no ambition to do anything original with this concept which has been well treaded over the decades.  We’ve seen movies with murder sprees before, and despite the extreme distance this one takes the violence and mayhem, such thrills are only momentary.  Once the mayhem and gore is off screen, there’s not much to excite an audience or the film.  The story is just three sick and twisted people on a killing spree running from the law and a vengeful lawman, period.  Most films of this sort have some social commentary to offer amongst its grisly brutality.  However, Zombie tries to throw all this frivolous, extraneous junk into it for his own amusement instead.

I can respect Rob Zombie for wanting to revitalize a forgotten genre of film, but by this time, it had already gotten back on its feet with numerous hardcore, edge-of-your-seat horror films that pushed the limits of disturbing imagery.  Zombie churning out all these homage’s to 1970s exploitation films forces his films to be unoriginal and thin on story.  It’s cool to give nods to your favorite films in your own feature, but only when done with the right skill and intellect.  Otherwise, your film becomes blatantly derivative, watering it down to very weak levels.  In fact, the entire premise is lifted directly from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, but Zombie doesn’t do enough to make The Devil’s Rejects seem original to even the smallest degree.  Plus, the main characters that carryover from House of 1000 Corpses only make themselves even more detestable and inhuman.  It’s obvious that Zombie is trying to make them into some twisted band of anti-heroes, but frankly, these characters are not relatable, let alone sympathetic creatures – they’re sick, twisted, homicidal psychopaths.  Why anyone would root for these demented maniacs is beyond me, let alone why Zombie believes anyone would want to.  They have zero endearing qualities.

Now, the style of this film isn’t as oversaturated or surreal as House of 1000 Corpses, but Rob Zombie clearly needed more competent help in the editing department.  The pacing and editing of certain sequences is all out of whack, and very inconsistent.  The final scene of the film drags on and on and on and on to the point where it loses all impact.  The use of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” makes it quite the quirky and over-the-top sequence, but ultimately, this is a flat end to a film that seemed to have potential from time-to-time.  Zombie’s attempt to make the murderous threesome go out in an amazing blaze of glory works against the entire film as these three deserve the harshest death possible for the horrific crimes they’ve committed.  Instead, Zombie seems to want us to feel sorry that they’ve met their collective ends.  The actual hero of the film gets a piss poor demise while the despicable villains get a grand, epic swan song.  That’s a perfect example of what’s wrong with this movie.

The moral compass of the film’s perspective is entirely flipped.  Otis, Spaulding, & Baby are given the breadth of screentime so that their characters can be developed in depth.  The hero in William Forsythe’s Sheriff John Quincey Wydell is a strong character that could carry the film entirely, but he’s not the one the movie wants us to be invested in.  By the fact of how the film treats their final moments, it is clear that the Firefly gang are meant to be the central focus of the entire story, and are the ones you should be emotionally connected with.  While audiences have been able to be entertained and intrigued by vile characters before like Hannibal Lecter, Khan Noonien Singh, and Freddy Krueger, you never want to see them ultimately defeat their adversaries, the heroes of the story.  They should get what’s coming to them for the violence they have wrought upon the innocent.  This film doesn’t share that moral viewpoint, and decides to side with the detestable, sadistic murderers.  That doesn’t roll for me.  If the film had some thematic element about society’s corrupted morality fueling the characters’ demented psychology, it would be justifiable, but as it is, it’s completely ass-backwards.

On a highly positive note, the make-up effects of The Devil’s Rejects give the film its grisly texture, and for some, might make it a difficult watch.  Zombie made a specific point to not make this film pretty – it is definitely grounded in that 70s ugliness.  Even the nudity is dirty and trashy.  Some CGI work is here, but only for certain gunshots and other minor details.  Nothing here looks fake, it all has a dense, gritty realism to it, and that is a refreshing plus.

Unfortunately, whatever score there is happens to be practically unnoticeable.  Zombie packs this film with classic rock songs from the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Walsh, and so forth.  It’s a much more era-appropriate soundtrack than the modern day heaviness of the previous film.  The Devil’s Rejects soundtrack is probably quite a cool listen.  Still, I would’ve preferred a stronger score to intensify the film further than using songs to remind people of the time period or using them to create quirky moments.  I understand Rob Zombie comes from a music video world where he uses music to tell a story, but in the medium of feature films, music is used to enhance the story.  It’s just one element of the overall structure of a movie.  It punctuates particular moments in the story instead of bludgeoning you with an oversaturated soundtrack.  Zombie really needs to adapt to the demands and standards of films instead of treating everything like a music video.  House of 1000 Corpses was more guilty of that mentality with how everything was shot, lit, paced, and presented, but even though everything is more stripped down here, that mentality is still apparent.

When taking this film in as a whole, it’s really not much better than Rob Zombie’s feature film directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses.  While that film was more a true horror film in the sense that it was meant to scare and horrify you, this film just tries to freak you out through disturbing violence and sickening moments.  It maybe darker and sicker, but it’s not really all that much better.  I would’ve expected more of an improvement from Zombie, but I suppose a great deal more time would be needed for him to evolve as a filmmaker.  However, for me, two strikes against him was enough for my interest to fully evaporate.  Once I heard he was remaking Halloween, a great film from one of my favorite filmmakers as well as the review of mine that motivated me to create Forever Cinematic, I just couldn’t care anymore.  Rob Zombie had great resources to work with in every aspect of filmmaking, but he couldn’t utilize it all to its highest potential.  Frankly, I don’t recommend seeing or not seeing The Devil’s Rejects, I’m just rather indifferent.  Just don’t expect anything all that original if you do plan to see it.  If you liked House of 1000 Corpses, you’ll probably enjoy this film.  If you hated House of 1000 Corpses, you probably won’t like this film either.


The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

The Bourne Supremacy is one of the hardest hitting action films I have ever witnessed, and it has far more to offer than just action set pieces.  There is no fat here like most action films have.  All of its lean meat and muscle is reserved for its visceral action and dramatic emotional story.  Supremacy was loosely based on the novel by Robert Ludlum, and whenever you’re basing a motion picture off of an international best-selling novel, chances are, you’re gonna have the potential for a very meaty story.  This is definitely the truth here.  This movie is very tight, very taut, deeply dramatic, and firmly rooted in reality.  It takes everything that was built in The Bourne Identity and capitalizes on it.

It’s two years after the events of The Bourne Identity, and ex-CIA assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is still suffering from a broken mind.  His memories are fractured, and is awakened in the middle of the night more frequently than not.  Jason & Marie (Franka Potente) are now living in Goa, India, but meanwhile, Jason Bourne is about to be framed for two murders in Berlin, Germany.  A CIA team, headed by Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), is attempting to purchase classified Russian documents, but a Russian assassin named Kirill (Karl Urban) killed both men and stole the documents.  A planted fingerprint implicates Jason Bourne for all this.  Then, Kirill shows up in Goa, India to kill Bourne himself in order to erase any evidence to the contrary in framing Bourne.  Kirill believes he has completed his mission, but unknowingly, Bourne still lives.  However, Bourne believes that it is the CIA who sent a man to kill him, and this sends Jason on a dead set mission to find and take out those who he told to leave him alone.  The trail of planted evidence leads Pamela Landy to Operation: Treadstone, the elite team of assassins lead by the late Alex Conklin (Chris Cooper) of which Jason Bourne was the top operative.  Landy brings Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), Conklin’s boss, into the mix as she attempts to unravel the mystery of Jason Bourne, and why he has come out of hiding.  Now, Jason Bourne is coming down hard and fast on the CIA while the Agency is attempting to hunt down Bourne.

To their dismay, Bourne has been trained too damn good, and when Landy and the CIA believe they are completely on top of the situation, Bourne shows them that they are MILES behind him.  Bourne is like a mechanism – once you set it into motion, it cannot be stopped.  He lives up to his threat from the first film that there would be no measure to just how hard and how fast he would come down on these people if he even felt someone coming down on him.  Everything builds to explosive, intense levels to where the wrong move could get anybody killed.

All the action sequences top any of those in the first film.  Although, I have to say that director Paul Greengrass has far too much favoritism towards the notorious “shaky-cam” style of shooting.  I’ve never seen any of Greengrass’ previous work, and so, I can’t make any comparisons in that vein.  I don’t believe any blame is to be set on director of photography Oliver Wood as he handled the cinematography on The Bourne Identity in a very different fashion.  I’ve also seen numerous films he has shot including Die Hard 2, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Face/Off, and TV’s Miami Vice.  So, I have to say that it was mainly Greengrass’ creative direction to use so much of this style of shooting and editing.  In some action sequences, between the shaky-cam photography and the fast-paced editing, it can become very difficult to discern what is happening.  You can literally get confused what is happening to whom.  You don’t know if that was Jason Bourne who’s getting smashed into walls or the other ex-Treadstone assassin.  Bad lighting is also to blame as some sequence take place in backlit locales making the actors bleed together.  This is my only gripe with the film, and despite its abundance, this film is just too intense and powerful to knock it down because of that.

This film’s car chase sequence is, at least, twice the sequence of the first film’s.  Mainly because it is the climactic action sequence of the film as Jason Bourne & Kirill turn the streets of Moscow into a demolition derby the likes of which you have never seen!  The car crashes are violent and visceral, and anyone who has ever been in a car crash – like myself – will be able to seriously feel it.  This car chase is beyond any I have ever seen put to film.  What makes the action in the Bourne films so impactful is just how grounded in gritty reality they are unlike how extravagant and fantastical the James Bond franchise had once become.  These films are very adult in manner and context.

Jason Bourne still struggles with the remnants of his past life, and must deal with who he once was.  He must come to terms with the pain and death he has inflicted upon others in order to move on with his new life, and to absolve those he has pained of the lies that have damaged their lives.  It is powerful and dramatic.  It’s the bigger, needed step towards the further evolution of the character of Jason Bourne.  He can never live in peace with himself until he is able to come to terms with the blood he has shed.  There’s just so much to say about this film that it’s difficult to find the right words to do so.  When you see it and are able to absorb it all, you will surely understand.  It’s a dramatic and painful journey of discovery for Jason Bourne.  Whether redemption will ever come is unknown, but I believe Bourne certainly takes the hardest first step towards that end by the film’s conclusion.  However, the film ends on a sly, upbeat note, and that is a sign of very fine and consistent storytelling.  I also like the consistency and continuity here from the first film with the reuse of the same passports and identification photos of Jason Bourne to the reuse of Moby’s very catchy tune “Extreme Ways” for the end credits.

John Powell delivers another fantastic score here that tops everything he did in The Bourne Identity.  That’s just about the decree with everything here (except for the aforementioned shaky-cam / editing gripes).  Matt Damon really delivers like you’ve never seen.  Until you see Damon in the role of Jason Bourne, you might have grossly underestimated his worth, ability, and quality as an actor.  Until this point, I had only seen Damon in mostly comedic roles in films like Ocean’s Eleven and Dogma before watching The Bourne Identity shortly before the release of this sequel.  In this film, however, Damon demonstrates just how powerful of a dramatic actor he can be.  You can see emotion in his face, in his eyes, and in his body language.  Simply put, his performance is deeply human, and will hit you deep within.  As Bourne’s true nemesis, Karl Urban was very impressive.  After seeing him in the latter two Lord of the Rings films and The Chronicles of Riddick, it was refreshing to see him in a more gritty, grounded film instead of a setting of fantasy.  The character of Kirill does not have much dialogue, but Urban has a strong, intense presence that just leaves you hungering for more.  The native New Zealander does nearly all of his dialogue in Russian, and even through a foreign language and subtitles, you still get a grim tone from him that is very potent.  Both Bourne & Kirill are like ciphers when they’re in their element, but when the action gets intense, Bourne becomes more focused while Kirill becomes even more enraged.  Regardless, they are both determined to burn the other into the ground.

I also have to say that I cannot get enough of Brian Cox.  I have loved his wide range of roles in Manhunter, The Ring, Super Troopers, X-Men 2, The Bourne Identity, and now, The Bourne Supremacy.  He’s a great actor with an abundance of natural charisma and always, at least, a hint of humor.  Words just cannot explain how enthralled I am with him.  He is tough to keep up with, and if you’re going to be sharing a scene with him, you’d best be on the very top of your game.  Considering how great and engaging of an actor he is, I find it surprising that he’s said to not view any of his own work.  Whatever the case, Brian Cox is absolute pure gold in my honest opinion.

Playing opposite Cox is Joan Allen, and she is strong and stern here.  As Pamela Landy, she doesn’t allow Abbott (Brian Cox) to shovel any bull her way.  She cuts through all the crap, and gets to the truth and the core of the matter.  She takes firm control of this entire situation and handles it with confidence.  Where others in her situation have faltered and fell, she holds strong.  Even when things start to go awry, she still holds onto a degree of solidarity.  You can write a character that way, but it takes a strong female talent to bring that sort of role up to its utmost potential.  Joan Allen is that talent.  Everyone else, up and down the line, puts in everything they’ve got here, and I could not find even one moment of weak acting.  A very admirable job to everyone including those involved with the casting of the film.

The only dent in the chiseled armor of this film is the shaky-cam, fast editing style.  I believe the same level of kinetic energy could have been sustained in these action sequences using more stable photography.  If that’s how it had been shot, then I would have no problems with the editing, but when you can’t discern what’s happening in these shots, cutting quickly from one to another does not help you to comprehend the visual storytelling any better.  Of course, with just how slam-bang amazing this movie is, I just can’t allow that to be much of a hindrance to my critique of it.  Dramatically, on levels of storytelling and acting, I don’t see how anything can be topped here, but I highly encourage future filmmakers of the franchise to give it every effort.

If you loved or even just liked The Bourne Identity, I believe The Bourne Supremacy will easily exceed all of your expectations.  In the context of the currently existing three films – Identity, Supremacy, & Ultimatum – this entry is the best!  It entirely launches itself far above the potential of Doug Limon’s first film, which was an excellent film in its own right.  While The Bourne Ultimatum was not a real down slope, Supremacy was such a massive step forward that the third film couldn’t achieve the same.  Plus, Supremacy seemed more dogged and relentless in all its aspects to create a far more hard hitting film that never let up.  Also, the ending of The Bourne Supremacy with Bourne and Landy had a lot of its meaning and character building strength diluted when it was revisited in The Bourne Ultimatum.  To say it simply, this is one of the best action thrillers of the last decade, and it helped launch the genre into a grittier direction that was timely and very welcome.


Unknown (2011)

Unknown was a lot more drama than actual action, despite what the marketing campaign tried to sell us.  Obviously, the studio was attempting to capitalize on the success of Liam Neeson’s action thriller hit Taken by marketing this movie as such, but this is hardly in the same league.

Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris who was come to Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology summit.  However, attempting to return to the airport for a piece of luggage, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for multiple days.  When he awakens, his wife suddenly doesn’t recognize him and another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity.  Ignored by disbelieving authorities and hunted by mysterious assassins, he finds himself alone, tired and on the run. Aided by an unlikely ally in the taxicab driver who saved his life (Diane Kruger), Harris delves into a dangerous mystery forcing him to question his sanity, his identity and just how far he’s willing to go to uncover the truth.  Pieces gradually interlock to reveal more than Martin ever could’ve imagined about himself, and what is truly at work that he is now compelled to combat.

I’ve seen both positive and negative reviews praise the premise of the movie and its originality.  I do not know what movies these critics have been watching because my thoughts are to the contrary.  My main gripe is that the plot is a near carbon copy of The Bourne Identity with a few varying elements, but at its core, its the same basic plotline only not executed nearly as well.  Both Unknown and The Bourne Identity were based on novels, but the novel that Unknown was based on, Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert, was published twenty-four years after Robert Ludlum’s well known novel.  So, there’s nothing really new to see here, and no one even attempts to disguise it.  Many films have similar plots, but the really good, even great filmmakers find ways to make it appear fresh, exciting, and interesting.  Unknown did not achieve that for me.  It’s not terrible, not at all, but it just comes off as not trying hard enough.  There are very good actors in this, but none of them seem to really put their full heart into it.  The film comes off as passable, not exceptional.

Neeson turns in a fine performance that carries the film nicely, possibly making it better than anyone attempted to make it, and of course, the action requirements are not a difficulty for him.  Nothing here is a challenge for him, which may be a shortcoming of the movie, but he doesn’t slack off at all.  It just doesn’t give him anything new to wrap his talent around.  Of course, that’s not something I really have any issue with.  What did bother me was how underused Frank Langella was in this movie.  His appearance as a sort of an old government “spook” is painfully underplayed to the point that any actor could’ve filled the role and done it just as well.  That’s a terrible remark to couple with Langella because he is an immensely powerful, enveloping actor with a wide range of talents.  He has inhabited so many diverse roles throughout his career that it’s sad to see him take on a role that seems like a quick, phoned in paycheck.  I can’t imagine he’s hard pressed for quality acting roles.  However, this does work as an example of the movie.  Whatever talent is involved is not motivated to push for anything better than mediocre.  It’s all standard fare, average offerings.

The action is very good when it happens, but there’s hardly enough to sustain momentum or interest for the plot.  I didn’t remain intently invested in the characters, or was as convinced of their motivations as better films have been able to do.  Circumstances and plot twists just don’t impact deeply enough to create believable reasons for the characters to push forward with their intentions.  Again, this is due to no one giving an extra effort to engage an audience’s invested interest.

The cinematography was entirely standard fare for the genre these days.  More handheld, shaky cam, fast editing stuff.  I’m beyond tired of that, and I wish filmmakers would get more inventive and clever when filming action sequences.  There are so many untapped ideas in that realm, it’s aggravating how many films just do the exact same thing every single time.  There was a time when action film directors had more self-identity and originality in the look and style of their own movies.  That time seems almost entirely behind us, now.  Why that is, I do not know, but this method of action cinematography and editing wore out its welcome a very long time ago.  Director of photography Flavio Labiano and editor Timothy Alverson really have nothing notable on their filmographies, and if they keep up this unoriginal, uninspired work, they won’t get any.  The same goes for the screenwriters and the director Jaume Collet-Serra.  Seriously, the director of the House of Wax remake?  I think that explains enough.

As I said at the start, this doesn’t have enough action to be really classified as a action film.  It’s closer to a dramatic mystery thriller.  It’s a lot of Martin Harris running around Berlin trying to piece together information and struggle with his sanity and perceptions.  Action sequences are not all that frequent, and again, when they do occur, they are poorly presented.  The quiet dramatic moments are nicely handled, mostly due to Neeson’s talent.  However, films ultimately fail when they market themselves as something they are not, and that occurred with Unknown.

I’ve seen review quotes stating this film’s superiority over Neeson’s previous action thriller Taken.  Personally, Taken was a far better crafted, more tightly executed, more emotionally investing, and more exciting action thriller.  This doesn’t have the pace, energy, or momentum to rival that film, and the studio would’ve been wiser to avoid such comparisons.  However, if they hadn’t they might have lost some box office revenue.  Even on its own merits, this is still a mediocre movie.  I can’t really recommend it because there are so many superior films in the genre, and other films that have done this premise with more success.  It’s not outright bad, but it’s not particularly good, either.


Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

Halloween 4 is probably the one sequel which most closely matches the original.  I would attribute this to a few factors.  The most significant, maybe, is that it was before each new film tried to introduce some new twist to the story.  Some new element to either explain The Shape, or just utilize a gimmick to sell the film as something supposedly worth seeing.  It stays closer to the spirit of John Carpenter’s original film, focusing on a simple stalk-and-slash idea coupled with relatable characters.

The film picks up ten years after the events of the first and second film.  Despite developments in later, contradictory sequels, Jamie Lee Curtis’ character of Laurie Strode died in a car accident, leaving behind a daughter – Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris).  She is taken in by another family, and raised alongside their older daughter Rachel Caruthers (Ellie Cornell).  Meanwhile, Michael Myers (George P. Wilbur) has been in a comatose state, and Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) remains persistent in his belief that Myers is indeed evil incarnate.  As Halloween approaches, The Shape stays dormant no longer, and Loomis must take chase of him before he claims new victims.  It is clear to the obsessed doctor that Jamie is to be his ultimate target, but it will be a Halloween night caked in blood before the horror is over.

After the fallout from the unsuccessful Halloween III, Moustapha Akkad wanted to bring back Michael Myers to revitalize the franchise.  After all, it was essentially his only meal ticket.  Akkad only produced five other (unsuccessful) films outside of this franchise in his 75 year life.  Thankfully, this was a solid sequel.  Nothing that tried to shake up the idea of the franchise, just inject new life into it, and be as faithful to the style and vibe of the original.  Dwight H. Little directs, and does a fine job at it.  It’s very difficult to rival Carpenter’s film, but Halloween 4 doesn’t try to be superior.  It only tries to be a respectful continuation, and it does succeed.  Little focuses more on atmosphere and suspense than gore.  While there is a decent amount of it, it’s not obscene.  It’s enough to give the film the needed deadly horror aspect, but stays away from being a splatter fest.  There’s a constant tension through the main meat of the film with little tinges here and there to keep the momentum going.  This allows the film to flow at a decent pace; not allowing it to grind to a halt anywhere, or get wound up too soon.  Dwight Little’s name has regularly appeared as a director on television series like Bones, Castle, Prison Break, and Dollhouse.  I’m always glad to see that his talent has taken him far with a steady career.

Alan Howarth’s score also helps to keep a strong connection with the first film.  The themes are slightly rearranged, but are more similar to those of the first film than the overly-synthesizer themes of Halloween II.  For me, that is a welcomed return to form.

The cast and acting of The Return of Michael Myers is indeed solid.  Everyone holds their own weight, and convey a realistic array of emotions.  The young Danielle Harris really stands out.  Where a lot of young actors tend to come off as annoying or phony, she showcases such wonderful innocence and vulnerability.  An audience can’t help but truly feel for her all the way through.  Danielle has gained a long, successful, and seasoned career birthed from this performance.  She’s helped along quite a bit by Ellie Cornell who is very likeable as the loving big sister, but also proves to have a lot of strength.  As Rachel, she doesn’t take anything lying down when she discovers her supposed boyfriend messing around with another girl.  As the film progresses, she’s put right into the thick of the harrowing danger with Jamie.  She maintains better courage under fire than Laurie did in the first two films, and certainly wins over the heart of the audience being Jamie’s sisterly protector.

Donald Pleasance, as always, is excellent.  He continued to bring a real credibility and dramatic weight to the series.  Some actors, if delivering a lot of the dialogue he had to, might come off as inauthentic or laughable.  With Pleasance, he had the talent to make you believe every word.  He gave it all the urgency and consequence of the grave.  The emotion in his eyes, the fear and the pain, transcend through the screen, and hit you deep within.  Where in the first film it was a weary doctor uncertain what Myers was entirely capable of, Loomis is now a man afraid of reliving the nightmare.  He has seen the carnage before, and is intensely adamant about preventing it this time.  With this in mind, Pleasance delivers a much less reserved Loomis.  He hasn’t time for reason or diplomatic talk.  Evil incarnate is loose in Haddonfield, and he needs people to take immediate action.

Beau Starr takes up the mantle of Sheriff of Haddonfield as Ben Meeker, and has a much more assertive and take charge personality than Leigh Brackett did.  Starr makes Sheriff Meeker a fine counterbalance to Loomis’ almost unhinged psychology.  He shows authority and urgency while remaining focused and calm.  And while I stand firm in that Nick Castle was the best Myers, George Wilbur does an admirable job, but he doesn’t get much chance to show his movement.  He tends to more just appear out of nowhere, figuratively, than stalk people over long distances.  However, he does seem less stiff than Dick Warlock’s interpretation (which I’m not very fond of as I prefer a more fluid Shape).  The rest of the cast, as I said, hold their own very well.  They create a solid and realistic community of characters that you don’t second guess their authenticity.  This is also due to Alan McElroy’s solid screenplay – writing intelligent characters with depth who don’t fall into the slasher film formula.  They make the choices that any one of us would in those situations.  When you would run away, they run away.  They don’t make stupid decisions or take foolish courses of action.  They may act, sometimes, out of desperation making not the best choices, but there is a realistic motive behind them.  Amazingly, McElroy wrote this script in eleven days, just before the writer’s strike of 1987 began.  Take it from me, a screenwriter myself, that’s not easy to do.

Again, I feel this is a very worthwhile sequel.  It does more to honor John Carpenter’s original film than any other sequel (or remake) in the franchise.  It retains a similar look and cinematography, despite the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and really stays true to Carpenter’s story and form of suspense.  It cannot rival that 1978 masterpiece, but Halloween 4 respectably holds its own.  While John might not agree considering his feelings on the franchise, from a fan’s point of view, I feel it is respectful.  After this, the films began to become either more bizarre, watered down, or just plain cheesy.  Overall, I believe this entry in the series is about as appropriate and proper as you could get.  I’ve never cared for Halloween II, feeling it suffered from seemingly lower production values, a badly reworked score, thinner characters, and less-than-inspiring direction.  So, with that mindset, Halloween 4 comes off as the better sequel, and the one I would’ve bettered expected to follow the 1978 film.  It’s not as intensely haunting or fascinating as John Carpenter’s Halloween, and quite as brilliantly shot (a 2.35:1 aspect ratio for this movie may have changed that sentiment more), but I believe it was more of a step in the right direction than anything before or after it.