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Posts tagged “michael rosenbaum

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.


Justice League: Doom (2012)

In recent months, I started buying comics again, and of course, one of the first I grabbed was Justice League.  With DC revamping their full line of books with 52 all new #1 issues, it was a perfect entry point.  I was a serious fan of the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series, and while this is not of the same continuity, all of the main voice actors were brought back for this outing.  So, that made this animated movie quite special for me.  What we have in Justice League: Doom is a very stellar story crafted by some amazing talents as DC Comics’ premiere superhero team battles with more than just villains, but a breach of trust within their own ranks.

Soon after thwarting an attempted robbery by the Royal Flush Gang, the Justice League of America comes under the attack of Vandal Savage’s Legion of Doom.  The immortal conqueror has assembled a team of villains to defeat Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter.  Concerned of the consequences should his fellow crime fighters ever turn their backs on humanity, Batman created a set of methods for which to immobilize Earth’s most powerful superheroes in the event of an emergency.  However, Vandal Savage breaches the Batcave’s security and obtains these files allowing for his team of villains to use them for lethal intent.  Now, joined by the young hero Cyborg, the JLA must overcome deep feelings of betrayal to defeat the diabolical Legion of Doom before Savage launches a missile that will destroy half the planet allowing for himself to be situated as ruler of all mankind.

While there is a lot of subject matter I will delve into, first and foremost, I want to say that this is a thoroughly enjoyable, fun, and exciting motion picture.  It is full of great action, excellent characterizations, and plenty of epic, heroic moments that will inevitable please any adventure-loving viewer.  There is plenty of levity throughout to counterweight to more dramatic storyline, and the balance between them is beautifully handled.  There is much to examine and highlight with this animated feature.

This was adapted from a 1990s story arc in the JLA comic book titled Tower of Babel, and a few changes were made.  The line-up of the team is different which originally included Aquaman and Plastic Man.  The roles of Green Lantern and the Flash were originally the relatively newer heroes of Kyle Rayner and Wally West, but are now the more classic Hal Jordan and Barry Allen.  Also, Cyborg is only a recent addition to the Justice League of the comics, but he is nicely integrated into this story.  His role shows a young hero earning his keep by stepping up in a chaotic situation, and using his unique skills to help resolve it.  The main villain was also changed from the endlessly fascinating Ras’ Al Ghul to the less dimensional Vandal Savage.  Using Ras’ made more logical sense since he is a Batman villain who has infiltrated the Bat-cave numerous times, and it is established that he knows Bruce Wayne is Batman.  Plus, his motives are usually more ideological in nature whereas Vandal Savage is usually just about conquering the world.  Still, they are both megalomaniacal in their own ways.  However, despite these peculiar changes, the story still works excellently adapting new motives and dynamics to these different characters.

Every superhero is handled with substantial depth and respect.  The story allows for an audience to see most of the JLA outside of their superhero personas.  You see Barry Allen attending to a crime scene as a police forensic investigator, Clark Kent at a press conference as a reporter, Martian Manhunter in his human guise as a police detective, and Bruce Wayne in his interactions with Alfred.  They are brief moments, but enough to show an audience that these people do live lives outside of their costumes.  In their lives, there are people who they personally care about, and those that care deeply for them.  I did especially like how Alfred was written being the rational voice to Batman’s more obsessive, workaholic mentality.  It shows that Alfred is still his keeper, and can exercise authority over him due to a long standing respect.  Batman wants to keep working, pushing through the pain and fatigue to resolve this new mystery, but Alfred reminds him that he is human and needs rest and mending.  Bruce could override Alfred’s mandate, but he would never disrespect Alfred’s better judgment.  The interactions of these characters display a history amongst them.  Little quips about how Ace “sucker punched” Superman before, or Hal and Batman talking about who is ahead in saving whose life really creates a long standing trust and camaraderie here.  This makes the impact of Batman’s secretive contingency plans a stronger blow because we can see how much they are friends on top of being teammates.  What is really great is what Batman reveals as his contingency plan for himself at the end, and it hit me as very telling of Batman’s true nature of trust.

I also enjoyed that the entire League is not unanimously opposed to Batman’s contingency plans.  They are all stunned by it, but subtle actions by some of them suggest a more open minded, fair viewpoint.  I can entirely see Hal Jordan being for it as, at least in the comics, he went completely insane and killed the Green Lantern Corps when infected by the fear entity Parallax.  He’s also seen someone like Sinestro, who was a Green Lantern, betray the Corps and become an enemy as well.  So, having counter-measures in place to neutralize a rogue member would be a wise precaution in his eyes.  However, most of the League would view this as a betrayal of trust, and no one is entirely wrong.  When Tower of Babel was written Batman was being made into an increasingly more paranoid character, and so, while his ideas might have been wise, his secrecy might be arguable.   However, Batman never takes time to brood about this, or feel regret over it.  He remains strong in his belief that what he did was a necessary precaution, and it’s only Savage’s twisting of their intent that made them potentially objectionable, in his eyes.  Being the sole non-super powered member of the team, he has a unique perspective to see how destructive their powers could be if mind control or a psychological break were to turn them to the side of evil.

Of course, the voice cast is excellent!  Having the same actors back who I loved in the old DC Animated Universe just added an extra special quality to the film.  Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly have been voicing Batman and Superman, respectively, for a long time, and have earned a respectable standing in the annals of these characters.  Conroy is the voice of Batman to me, forever and always.  He captures every psychological and emotional nuance of the character perfectly, and clearly enjoys voicing the Dark Knight.  Daly embodies the moral sensibilities and epic quality of Superman wonderfully.  Michael Rosenbaum is clearly a great actor, and he is able to adapt his voice acting nicely from Wally West to Barry Allen.  There’s still a playful aspect to his performance, but it’s more restrained, a little more mature now.  He clearly made a conscious effort to differentiate the two performances.  The only change-up here is the amazing Nathan Fillion as Hal Jordan reprising his role from the Green Lantern animated movies.  His performance truly transcends expectations meshing greatly with the animation direction to create strong emotional moments.  Fillion offers up great jovial quips, but also, deep emotional resonance for Hal.  He creates an interesting and fun character that holds a lot of weight.  Lastly, Phil Morris, who portrayed the Martian Manhunter on Smallville, takes on Vandal Savage, and does a thoroughly effective job at it.  He gives Savage a nice touch of majesty and culture wrapped in an imposing megalomaniacal package.  The remainder of the cast inhabit their characters superbly keeping things strong, vibrant, and powerful throughout, but it doesn’t end with just the voice acting.

I have really enjoyed the animation style of these animated movies.  I have seen Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, and Batman: Under The Red Hood (which I previously reviewed).  All of these have had some slightly different character models, but they have all raised the animation standards for this medium.  They are nicely detailed giving each character their own unique look, angles, and energy.  All of the heroes here seem a little younger than usual, but that’s exactly what DC Comics has done with their new continuity.  So, it did not throw me off at all.  The motion of the animation is very fluid making for some dynamic and exciting action sequences.  Those sequences are also smartly handled by never making them frivolous.  The heroes have to work hard for their victories, and each action scene furthers the story along.  The Royal Flush Gang tends to be a token, generic band of villains to battle, but here, they are made more formidable.  They have cunning, skill, power, and some cohesion.  As dialogue suggests, they have eluded the JLA before, and so, everyone steps up their game so to not repeat that loss.  The Justice League uses teamwork and smarts to ultimately triumph over them.

Scenes play out with a solid cinematic style aided by an excellent color scheme to bring out vibrancy and mood.  These enhance the subversive elements in the story creating a mysterious, foreboding atmosphere.  The creative design of locations is very cool.  I really loved the waterfall interior setting of the Bat-cave.  It offers up a different aesthetic than I’ve seen applied before.  I felt it was a little inspired by the one in Batman Begins due to the waterfall entrance in Christopher Nolan’s film.  Also, the Hall of Doom was a nice update from the old SuperFriends cartoon.  It still has all the classic design elements, but it reflects Vandal Savage’s personality with various pieces of elegant art that depict him only.

The story unfolds in a very tight fashion.  Pacing is consistent throughout.  As DC is keeping these hovering around the 75 minute mark, there’s hardly time to let the story lag anywhere, but it’s more a fact that there are no extraneous elements present.  It’s a very lean, meaty storytelling structure staying right on point with the plot elements and character dynamics.  Every plot element that is introduced has a purpose.  They all tie back into the story at some point, and grow organically from the conflicts or crises that develop.  They really took Tower of Babel as a template, an idea, and built a fresh story around it using a new set of character dynamics and relationships to create Justice League: Doom.  That is very smart screenwriting, and that was evidently the standard for the late Dwayne McDuffie.  Brilliant stories filled with well rounded, well realized characters and themes.  He surely hit every character squarely on the mark in this instance crafting their psychologies and histories around a very intelligent storyline.  When the Leaguers are taken down in the second act, there is such an epic and powerful weight given to it all.  It’s not handled like “just another villain victory.”  These are moments that could claim all of their lives, and it is no easy feat for them to bounce back from it.  Beyond just the physical toll, it becomes an emotional and personal injury that they need to overcome to move forward with stopping the Legion of Doom.  These moments are given their due time so that their epic weight can come crashing down upon the viewer.  It is an amazing sequence that gripped me tightly as it unfolded.

My only down comment is that, at the end, I would’ve preferred a more sound tactical approach in the villains and heroes pairing off.  When you have such equal opponents setup here, it would be more logical to change them up.  Have Flash take on Cheetah, Batman against Mirror Master, Superman against Bane, or Martian Manhunter battling Star Sapphire.  Throw the villains off guard by pitting an opponent against them they are not prepared for instead of each hero battling their common enemy.  I can understand the storytelling significance of having each hero take down the villain that defeated them earlier in the story, but this suggested approach also makes sound storytelling sense.  The Legion of Doom outsmarted them once.  Now, it should be the JLA’s turn to outsmart them instead of just throwing down like they’ve done countless times before with the same enemies.  This is especially so since there’s a missile ready to be launched that will destroy half the Earth.  No time for personal vendettas.  For me, it would’ve been more satisfying if they had taken a smarter approach by changing up the fight dynamics instead of trying to settle scores when the fate of half the world is at stake.  However, that is merely my own personal issue, but the climax of the film doesn’t end with a hero-villain fight.  The Justice League still has a crisis on their hands that requires each member to give it their all to avert disaster, and that only made for a far more intense and satisfying ending.

This is a very dramatic story that deals squarely with the characters on numerous levels.  It raises a very involved issue about trust amongst a group of people with secret identities and super powers.  Despite their own personal secrets, they have come to trust each other, but at some point, there must be an objective point of view questioning ‘what if.’  Beyond just the potential of mind control or magic manipulating them, anyone is capable of using their power to do something destructive through emotional or psychological turmoil.  When that day comes, someone has to be prepared to deal with it, and Batman surely felt it was his responsibility to prepare for that.  Batman, at his best, has always been about doing what’s needed, not what’s popular.  The film doesn’t address the complexities of the issue, but it does address how the characters deal with it.  That is what’s important, in the long run, and it would truly be intriguing to see a direct follow-up to this story to know how this team moves forward from here.

All of this simply results in an extremely well rounded animated movie.  The foundations of its success truly began with Dwayne McDuffie’s immense talent and brilliance as screenwriter.  I have not had a wide spread exposure to his work, but from what I have learned of it, Justice League: Doom exemplifies much of what he was admired for.  This is written with so much depth and knowledge of the characters that it works as an excellent entry point for anyone into the DC Universe.  The loss of all the stories McDuffie still could’ve given fans worldwide is hard to fathom, but it is clear that his talent will be forever missed.  However, he left behind a large catalog of work for us all to enjoy at our leisure.  So, I would say starting here would be a fine choice.  Justice League: Doom has thrilling action, great excitement, rock solid dramatic storytelling, wonderfully fun characters, and is an all around enjoyable watch.  It’s an attention grabber from beginning to end, and I know for me, it left me wanting more of this greatness.  As I know it does for the great guys at the Raging Bullets DC Comics fan podcast, whose own review helped me fuel mine, this movie makes me long for the return of a Justice League animated series.