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Thief (1981)

ThiefMichael Mann is indeed one of my favorite filmmakers of all time.  Without him, I would not be the independent filmmaker that I am today dabbling in the neo noir world of crime thrillers.  For Mann, his theatrical career began here with this sleek and stylish picture headed up by an incredible performance from James Caan.  The cinematic visuals of Miami Vice were forged here, and the foundations of the thematic material that would be refined in Heat and Collateral were laid with Thief.  While Mann had directed and co-written the television movie The Jericho Mile before this, featuring some very familiar traits, Thief was the start of every signature quality that Mann is best known for, and it is a film that should be given its proper due respect and recognition.

James Caan plays Frank, a professional jewel thief who wants to marry Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and settle down into a normal life.  In order to achieve his dream of a family, Frank–who is used to working solo–has to align himself with a crime boss named Leo (Robert Prosky), who will help him gain the money he needs to begin his domestic life.  Frank plans to retire after the heist, yet he finds himself indebted to Leo and he struggles to break free.

I was captivated all over again by Thief just from the beginning as it enveloped me in the sheen of its rain soaked Chicago nighttime world, and the sleek, stylish score by Tangerine Dream.  This was the first film of Mann’s I ever saw, and I was blown away by it well over a decade ago.  One of the most lasting impressions is indeed Mann’s neo noir cinematic style.  Everything he does here really defined so much of the 80’s with the synthesizer score and the masterful visual storytelling.  When you see the sleek and rock solid camera work in Thief, it’s sad to see how horribly Mann has embraced the incessant handheld camera work as seen in Public Enemies.  The compositions here are dead-on-the-mark, and shots like pushing in through the drilled hole in the safe early on just show the enveloping visual brilliance of Mann.  He knew how to suck you into this world, and keep you hooked in for the long haul.  Thief was shot by first time cinematographer Donald Thorin who would go on to lens Purple Rain, The Golden Child, Midnight Run, and Scent of a Woman, to name a few.  There was clearly no one better for him to be under the direction of than Michael Mann, and Thorin did a stunning job shooting Thief.

This is undeniably James Caan’s movie through and through.  It is no mystery why this is Caan’s personal favorite performance of his.  He is simply excellent, intense, and touchingly dimensional here.  Frank is a man who’s had a lot of bad turns in his life spending a good chunk of it in prison, and is now struggling to reach a blissful goal of a happy home and family.  He is a definite tough guy able to be a threatening presence, and has the charismatic bravado to back it all up.  Frank’s not much of a subtle individual, but he’s a man who feels he has no time to dance around the subject.  Every word he speaks is carefully selected and clearly conveyed which makes him appear well-spoken even if he’s not the best educated man.  Caan injects the right amount of confidence into the role to mask Frank’s occasional naivety.  Caan’s favorite scene is the highway oasis diner scene where Frank details his life, hardships, and dreams to Jessie.  This scene shows the subtle emotional qualities of Frank to see the better man underneath all the bullheaded machismo, and this scene strips him down to bear his heart to her.  Frank shows that he is charming, sweet, and very human.  Despite the hardened criminal life he has had, all he wants is a simple, happy life, and that desire is much of what endears him to an audience.  However, in the end, he must return to his base, primal convict mindset to survive.

Tuesday Weld holds up very strongly opposite Caan with both an enduring spirit and a gentle tenderness.  Like Frank, Jessie is also a tough person who really now reveals in an ordinary life, and what begins as a very combative relationship soon warms up to very heartfelt levels.  There’s a solidly genuine chemistry between Weld and Caan that brings a lot of heart and depth into this very gritty, hard edged crime thriller.  Their final parting scene is powerful on so many heartbreaking levels, and shows, definitively, that Tuesday Weld was no lightweight acting talent.

There is a startling turn that Robert Prosky achieves as Leo that solidifies him as one of the best mob figures in cinema for me.  For so much of the film, he’s a fatherly figure giving Frank every means to achieve his goals, and being nothing but an agreeable, upbeat, friendly facilitator.  He gives Frank high line scores, an adopted child, a home, and much more.  The problem is that once Frank tries to sever ties with Leo, he’s given a very sobering reality check – everything Frank now has is essentially owned through Leo, and he can rip it all away.  This scene is where Prosky transforms into a cold, heartless, ruthless man who will have Frank’s friends killed, prostitute his wife on the street, and put Frank completely into indefinite servitude.  Prosky becomes flat out chilling in this scene as a man you utterly do not want to cross, but the price for having this comfortable life comes at too high a cost for Frank.  So, he has no choice but to retaliate by burning it all down.

Michael Mann did a very clever thing in casting the supporting cops and criminals, and thus, made it very authentic to Chicago.  All of the cops were cast with ex-convicts including John Santucci who was the basis for Frank, and all of the criminals were cast with actual Chicago police officers such as Dennis Farina in his first on-screen role.  This way, we got very open and honest portrayals of the not-so-straight-and-narrow Chicago police of the time.  This sort of close knit connection to the authenticity of these sides of the law carry over into the intricacies of the heists.  None of the heists here are sensationalized or simplified.  We see the complex and highly involved process that Frank and his crew have to go through to take a single score, and this is achieved with great skill.  The depth of detail that Mann shows us allows for the audience to appreciate the triumph of the score.  Furthermore, all of the equipment featured was accurate to how they were used in the film, and considering the film is based on a novel by a convicted thief, none of this should be too surprising.  However, it demonstrates the intense attention to detail that Michael Mann consistently put into every project he took on, and that has always impressed me and has really set Mann’s work apart from all others.  Lesser filmmakers would gloss over the details and sensationalize the story, but the grit is in the details.

There is also a good but small performance by Willie Nelson who portrays a mentor of Frank’s that is dying behind prison bars.  Caan and Nelson have only one real scene together, but it really brings a lot of the life and philosophy of these criminal characters to the forefront.  And Thief really is built so much on personal philosophies such as lie to no one, be the boss of your body, or live your life on your own terms.  This all feeds into how Frank navigates this film.  He divulges everything to Jessie because his previous marriage fell apart due to his lies.  He is hesitant with going into business with Leo because he enjoys answering to no one and calling his own shots, and is ultimately why he makes the radical decisions he makes at the end of the film’s second act.

Frank’s actions in the third act might seem like those of a young man of heated passion, as they are somewhat impulsive and absolute, but they fit Frank’s “the boss of my own body” attitude.  He will not allow the terms of his existence to be dictated by another, and if that is the cost of having all the things he desires, then he’d sooner see it all turned to ashes.  Frank returns to that prison attitude of “nothing means nothing,” and it frees him to destroy it all and go after Leo without any attachments.  This is clearly a precursor to the philosophy of Neil McCauley in Heat that, “Allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner.”  All of this makes for one awesome, amazing finale that just certifies James Caan as a bad ass.  How Frank’s stalking through Leo’s house unfolds, with almost dead silence, is perfectly executed.  The quiet tension just unnerves you, and builds up that tingling anticipation until all hell breaks loose.  From there, it’s all scored with this excellent track from Tangerine Dream that I love.  And overall, their score is innovative and captivating.  It all reflects Michael Mann’s signature vibe perfectly with sleekness and edge.

Thief is an intensely exciting movie with a very grounded feeling.  Seeing Mann’s visual style unfold here is amazing, and James Caan puts on an excellent, versatile performance that enhances every compelling element of the movie.  It’s stunning to see how quickly Mann evolved in his career where so many of the ideas and visual storytelling here would be refined and matured within three years for the launch of Miami Vice, and the major leap forward taken in 1986 with Manhunter.  Whether you are a Mann or Caan fan, this is a film you cannot afford to overlook.  No one makes crime thrillers quite like Mann did as he made sure every quality and acting talent was superb and pitch perfect while always delving into the humanity of the story.  With Mann it’s always about the characters, and you see the depth of that care put into this movie.  If you want an even further in-depth look at the films of Michael Mann, I immensely endorse the video essay Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann.  It is remarkably insightful that really inspires me.


Heat (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Prisoners (2013)

PrisonersEvery so often a movie comes around that just looks interesting, but you are not prepared for just how stunning it truly is.  It just seems like another good thriller that might be nicely satisfying, but this movie is far and beyond such meager expectations.  Prisoners attracted me because I really love Hugh Jackman.  He has such a genuine depth of humanity and intense screen presence in so much of what he does, but even then, I didn’t expect a performance and a film on this level of masterful brilliance.

How far would you go to protect your family?  Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is facing every parent’s worst nightmare.  His six-year-old daughter, Anna, is missing, together with her young friend, Joy, and as minutes turn to hours, panic sets in.  The only lead is a dilapidated RV that had earlier been parked on their street.  Heading the investigation, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrests its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but a lack of evidence forces his release.  As the police pursue multiple leads and pressure mounts, knowing his child’s life is at stake the frantic Dover decides he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands.  But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family?

Brought to us by director Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners is undoubtedly the best film I have seen all year.  A tight, taut, suspenseful and engrossing thriller that hits powerful emotional chords everywhere.  If you thought the trailers gave too much away, you are very mistaken.  There is so much more substance and plot nuances that a trailer could never accurately convey.  Surely, I will not spoil anything for you, but the mystery of this film is cunningly devised with intelligent turns and a remarkable progression.  There are many fine layers of character, emotion, and story here that interweave perfectly and beautifully.  We are treated to so many well fleshed out characters inhabiting a story of very intense emotions and radical, unsettling violent actions with nerve racking consequences.  You feel every ounce of emotion from these characters, and Villeneuve’s direction shines gloriously in every detail.  I also love that nothing in this film is a red herring.  Every lead, every piece of evidence, every detail adds to the puzzle which is brilliantly plotted out from a stunningly well written screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski.  Prisoners is meticulously mapped out every step of the way, and Villeneuve utilizes all of that emotion and strategic, deliberate pacing to absorb you into the movie.

The cinematographer for this film was Roger Deakins, who also shot Skyfall which was immaculate work, and he does not falter here at all.  I was constantly struck by the quality of the compositions as they all hold so much weight.  Villeneuve has this shot and edited in a very conservative manner so that the substance of every frame soaks into the viewer so deeply.  Early on, I love how fairly brief scenes are played out in wide masters to give you a dramatic and stoic impact on the story.  The inspired cinematography constantly envelopes the screen translating the dramatic power of Villeneuve’s cinematic narrative in such exquisite detail and poignancy.  The quality of the visuals, how the film is shot, and the style of editing constantly made me feel like this was a very 1970’s thriller with a modern polish.  Even the Earth toned color palette reflects that, and the autumn / winter setting adds to the grim, somber atmosphere.  Every technical quality of this movie is used to suck you into the depth of what transpires.  Even the score is immensely effective, yet subtle.  Everything just works with such precision to excellent effect.

I honestly believe that Hugh Jackman could possibly earn himself some accolades come awards season time.  My faith in his talent has been paid off time and again, and I love seeing him in these gritty, hard hitting dramatic films.  Keller Dover is a man who believes in preparing for the worst while praying for the best, and so, he is used to doing everything possible to protect his family from all dangers.  When he feels he must take matters into his own hands, the emotional intensity of the film escalates drastically.  Jackman is intensely powerful in this role pushing himself to that extra level that separates great from extraordinary.  Pure, raw emotion pours out of him as Keller Dover struggles with doing the right thing for his daughter even though it is the worst, most unimaginable thing he’s ever done.  The absolute conviction of what he believes he must do penetrates right through the screen right into your soul.  This film constantly pushes this character into further emotionally and morally strained situations that challenge Jackman to deliver on higher and higher levels which he exceeds over and over again.  This is why I love Hugh Jackman and why I was drawn to seeing this movie.  He’s an incredibly relatable and engaging acting talent who pulls you in based on his depth of humanity, and that is gorgeously on display here in a masterfully crafted film.

Now, I haven’t seen Jake Gyllenhaal in anything since Donnie Darko, and it’s great seeing him in a mature, hard edge role.  He is really solid as this vehemently dedicated cop who maintains a level head while remaining fully committed to this case.  I love seeing how Detective Loki handles the strained, heated emotions of the Dovers and Birches, and how he manages everything with meticulous perceptiveness and a dogged mentality.  It’s a wonderfully written character that empathizes with these hurting people and conveys his confidence with sincerity.  Gyllenhaal is intensely compelling and intriguing to watch as the film progresses.  From the moment he’s introduced, eating alone at a Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving, he is complex and unique.  I like the nuances added into his character such as the various small tattoos on his hands and neck.  They give him a darker, grittier edge along with Gyllenhaal’s sort of dark aura.  Yet, he is not a dark character, but is a riveting one that adds his own intensity to the narrative.  This is also a marvelous performance that only becomes more fascinating and gripping at the film progresses.

The rest of the cast is equally as powerful.  Mario Bello’s character of Grace Dover deals with this frightening tragedy of her abducted daughter by falling apart, relying on medication, and just becoming a mess.  It’s a pure visceral deterioration of a person torn apart by fear and pain for a loved one.  Terrence Howard is another actor I just love, and he delivers such vulnerability.  The struggle Franklin Birch faces when Keller pulls him into the abduction and torture of Alex Jones is a perfectly human conflict.  He wants his daughter back so badly, but almost can’t reconcile the morality of what he and Keller are doing to this man with the IQ of a ten year old.  The dynamics between all of these characters and their passionate, pained emotions is magnificent to behold.  Even Paul Dano makes you empathize so deeply for Alex.  You are never certain whether he is responsible for anything at all, or that Keller is torturing a completely innocent man.  The story twists around so beautifully wrapping everyone up in this complex tapestry that any truth is possible.  Even more so, nothing is all that clean cut for any suspect, and no one is completely innocent.  Everyone has something shameful, shady, or tragic which shows that these are real, textured, flawed people.  Every character is written and performed with such substance and rawness that you can never take anything for granted or predict where this story will lead you.

I was constantly pleased with the sophistication of storytelling here.  There were times I was a tad apprehensive that the pay-off of the mystery, or that the identity of the abductor would be spoiled too soon.  Instead, it was another element of the puzzle being laid out carefully with surprising, unexpected, yet entirely purposeful turns.  As I said, nothing is a swerve.  You’re not lead down a frivolous path to a false lead.  Everything introduced in this story is there for a substantial reason.  The ultimate reveal is great allowing for everything to really fall into place, and put certain characters into further, tenser jeopardy.  I loved how the final act unfolds.  There’s real danger at hand, and nothing proceeds remotely like a cliché.  This is a fresh, smart thriller that will captivate your attention for its entire 146 minute runtime.  One would think that a deliberately paced thriller with that kind of runtime would lag somewhere or feel drawn out, but Prisoners makes amazingly solid use of every minute of screentime to progress every element of story and character to its ultimate, immensely satisfying and brilliant conclusion.

Denis Villeneuve has just come out of nowhere for me, and now, he has my undivided attention.  Prisoners is absolutely perfect.  There is not a single aspect of it for me to criticize, only praise.  This is an incredible cast delivering amazingly powerful and raw performances in a rattling and haunting thriller.  I have never stated in a review of a newly released movie that it is the best one I have seen all year because you never know what else could surprise you in the remainder of that year.  However, I cannot imagine what else is possibly going to steal away that title from Prisoners because it is that stunningly impressive without a flaw in sight.  Do yourself a great favor and see this movie and support it.  I hope you are as enthralled with it as I was.


Die Hard (1988)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hollow Point (1996)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Crackerjack (1994)

CrackerjackYep, I could make a whole month out of reviewing Die Hard clones before even getting around to reviewing Die Hard.  Seagal, Van Damme, Snipes, Ford, and every other action star under the sun got their turn to grapple with this formula.  So, Thomas Ian Griffith got his chance as Detective Jack Wild in this film that spawned two sequels, neither of which starred Griffith, but let’s see how Crackerjack stacks up to the competition.

Chicago cop Jack Wild (Thomas Ian Griffith) reluctantly aggress to join his brother’s family for a vacation at the exclusive Panorama Springs Hotel, high in the glacier-capped Rocky Mountains.  But when a team of mercenaries determined to hijack over $50 million in diamonds descend on the resort, Jack strikes back.  Now, together with beautiful hotel guide K.C. (Nastassja Kinski), Jack must race against the clock to stop their calculating leader Ivan Getz (Christopher Plummer) from getting away and exploding the glacier above the hotel to cover his tracks.

The burnt out cop is a very familiar trope in action movies, but if you get an actor who can really flesh out the character, it all works nicely.  Thomas Ian Griffith again proves his quality as an actor showing Detective Wild to be relatable and interesting.  Being a bit unhinged, he charges headlong into danger as if he does have nothing to lose, and that’s how he feels after his wife and kids were killed.  When he’s dragged up to the ski resort, he’s restless and still potentially volatile, but after making a connection with Katia, you see him soften and begin to turn a corner.  Griffith and Nastassja Kinski have some good, touching chemistry that translates really well on screen.  The charisma he naturally brings into the film really enhances the clichéd material in the script, and makes Wild a dimensional and enjoyable character to follow.

The film really does a lot to build up the emotional investment in Jack Wild’s fractured situation.  The flashbacks to the last moments of his family’s life are touching, and director Michael Mazo really takes the time for those emotions to sink in.  The reveal of who actually killed his family is a rather unneeded additional motivation for Wild, but I’m hardly going to hold that against the movie.  It’s not striving for fresh, original ideas as there is much lifted directly from Die Hard from the basic premise to very similar bits of dialogue, Getz’ right hand mercenary looking like a carbon copy of Karl, Getz threatening to kill an innocent man to motivate Wild to return the diamonds, and him planning to wipe out all the witnesses with a cataclysmic explosion.  However, the filmmakers still manage to make this a very fun and entertaining ride despite how by-the-numbers and uninspired this script is.  Much of this is due to some impressive action scenes, and the villain that we are given here.

I love Christopher Plummer.  He’s an absolutely tremendous actor in so many compelling roles, but you know what?  I think every serious, respectable actor deserves to take on a nicely cheesy villain role at least once.  As Ivan Getz, I think he just eats up the fun quality of the role, and does make for an intimidating adversary even if so much is clearly lifted from Alan Richman’s Hans Gruber.  The rather stereotypical German accent is the most obvious evidence, but it adds to the film’s B-movie charm.  Getz separates himself from Gruber, though, by being a bit of a megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur akin to the Third Reich.  It allows Plummer to have some intriguing monologues that kind of gives you flashbacks to him as General Chang in Star Trek VI, and that’s generally not a bad thing.  Plummer and Griffith have some solid exchanges that build up the personal adversarial connection, mostly done over a two-way radio, and it’s enough fuel to keep the movie going at its consistent, good pace.

Crackerjack is indeed action packed, but features far more gunplay than Griffith’s martial arts skills, much like Van Damme in Sudden Death.  However, this is still plenty exciting with big, explosive moments and fun thrills up and down this high altitude adventure.  Despite being a direct-to-video feature, the action set pieces are quite impressive, especially when the helicopters blow up, and the finale has some really good miniature effects.  For its time, this was a quite admirable action picture, but I would expect modern audiences to be left wanting more spectacle.

Now, if there’s one thing that makes Crackerjack feel distinctly direct-to-video it’s the synthesizer score.  Absolutely, a completely synth based score can be excellent.  I’m a Jan Hammer Miami Vice fan after all, but there’s a difference when you have a score that is primarily composed for an orchestral arrangement but is performed on a keyboard.  After a while, it got to be almost distracting because I kept feeling like I was watching something from Full Moon Features like Subspecies.  The score just sounds cheap in this context, and really detracts from the otherwise high production values here.  If this score had been given an orchestral treatment, it would have been perfectly fine.  There are times when the score works very well, but the obvious limitations do regularly show through.

You could maybe say the same for the cinematography as it is fairly point and shoot with very little in the way of special cinematic visuals.  There’s nothing along the lines of crane shots, intriguing angles, or steadicam work, but compared to a lot of shaky cam action films today, I can find that more minimalist approach to be enjoyable.  The action scenes are very competently shot, and you’re never confused as to what’s happening.  The editing is conservative allowing the action to drive the cuts, and not forcing kinetic excitement by cutting to another shot every split second.  Fast tempo editing definitely has its gold standards, but I do enjoy seeing a time when filmmakers did take their time to just allow the action to play out with more comfortable framing and stable camera work.

Crackerjack certainly doesn’t have the budgetary muscle to compete on the scale of its theatrical brethren, but I would say it’s good action B-movie indulgence.  Griffith does a very good job in this role making him both an emotionally damaged man, but also a sleek, sharp, and savvy action hero.  He brings his natural charisma into the mix to make Jack Wild a really enjoyable protagonist to follow through this perilous adventure.  Again, if I’m examining this small window into his career, I can’t say that this could’ve been a breakout film even if it did have a theatrical release budget.  The script is very derivative of possibly the best action movie ever made, aiming entirely for the low budget fare, and doesn’t inject anything fresh into the formula.  You can definitely get entertainment value out of the film’s fairly well used clichés and the fun performances.  If you need any further convincing, you can check out the very funny video that introduced me to this movie courtesy of TheCinemaSnob.com.


Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)

Someone to Watch Over MeMost of the films in Ridley Scott’s filmography are fairly well known, but there are a few that are glossed over for whatever reason.  For this film, the fact that it didn’t even make its money back at the box office is the likely reason, but it still garnered very positive reviews from critics.  This is indeed a film of special, exceptional quality.  Someone to Watch Over Me is not your typical Ridley Scott film, in most part.  It’s story is definitely a cop thriller with a great urban atmosphere, but primarily, this is a romantic film done with great, beautiful artistic flare.

A stunning New York socialite and a down-to-earth city cop are caught in a deadly web of illicit passion and heart-stopping suspense.  Newly-appointed detective Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) finds his life turned upside down when he’s assigned to protect Claire Gregory (Mimi Rogers), the beautiful eyewitness to a brutal murder.  Lured into danger and the dizzying heights of Gregory’s glamorous lifestyle, Keegan struggles to walk the line between protection and obsession – while trying to stay one step ahead of the psychotic killer Joey Venza (Andreas Katsulas), and not allow his happy marriage to fall apart over his affair with Claire.

I really like the vibe of this movie.  It does have a very romanticized artistry to it, but with the moody subtlety that Scott is a master at.  Oddly, while watching this, I got a very similar feeling as I got watching the John Badham romanticized version of Dracula, starring Frank Langella.  It’s that foggy, subtle romantic visual quality with its greens and ambers which really struck me that same way.  Someone to Watch Over Me is a finely crafted and gradually paced work of art that smartly blends the seductive beauty with the dangerous crime elements.  By the trailer, you’d likely expect something a little more thrilling and exciting, but even then, this film easily roped me in.  This is surely due to the great casting and excellent acting.

Michael Keegan is not the usual kind of movie cop.  He’s surely streetwise, but he feels a little green and out of his element.  Having just been promoted to Detective, he doesn’t have the consummate manner of those around him, and coming from Queens, he’s not accustomed to the high life sophistication of Claire’s world.  So, he’s a bit of a blue collar style easy going guy, and Tom Berenger does a stellar job in this role.  He’s extremely likable and fun loving early on, and progresses into a more serious, emotionally complex character as events unfold.  You can see that Mike is very happy with his family, but as he gets deeper involved with Claire, everything begins to be torn apart within him.  Berenger has great and distinctly different chemistries with Mimi Rogers and Lorraine Bracco, who portrays Michael’s wife Ellie Keegan.  Both relationships have their own touching qualities, and work equally as beautifully.  Ellie perfectly reflects the man he is, but Claire gives him something fresh and seductive.  It’s an odd dynamic that you can feel so much for Mike and Claire, knowing they have something unique together, but also, view Mike as the bad guy opposite Ellie.  That’s really a testament to Berenger’s talent.  He makes Mike a very down to Earth guy with flaws, but never comes off as a reprehensible adulterer, just a man of sympathetic conflicts of the heart.

I was very pleased with what Mimi Rogers accomplishes in this role.  The few moments where Claire is confronted by Venza are intensely fearful, and Rogers is greatly convincing.  However, the majority of the film is focused on Mike and Claire becoming closer and more intimate.  She proves to be a gorgeously romantic woman who is not a seductress.  There’s nothing lurid about these two becoming involved.  There is a genuine endearing attraction there that is quite touching, and the building of a chemistry and attraction with Claire is done quite subtly.  She is charming, elegant, and vulnerable, but still exerts confidence.  There’s a fine line between where she feels safe and self-assured and feeling very frightened that Rogers handles with delicate balance.

Through all this, you honestly feel for Ellie a great deal because she’s done nothing wrong to deserve this betrayal of her love.  Lorraine Bracco is wonderful showing the agonizing pain of Ellie.  She loves Mike so dearly, and that pours out so richly once she is scorned.  This is really an exceptional performance as we see a full spectrum of emotion from Bracco from the loving and down to Earth woman to the deeply hurt wife and even beyond that in the film’s climax to utterly frightened to death.  While the film is heavy on the Mike-Claire relationship, Bracco does such a strong job to keep Ellie’s end of the film relevant and emotionally impactful.  By the end, that is the crux of the film’s resolution.

And I really adore Andreas Katsulas.  He was taken from us far too soon.  Many would know him as the one-armed man in The Fugitive, but my heart with him lies with the science fiction series Babylon 5.  Here, his role is full-on in intimidating heavy mode.  His screentime is fairly restrained, but his presence is almost always felt.  That presence is very effective right from his first few minutes of screentime all the way through to the taut, thrilling climax.  Katsulas takes that great talent of his and compounds it into a lethally threatening performance.  Like with everything else here, the key word is definitely “subtlety.”  Ridley Scott has such a great handle on tone with his visuals and actors that it is no surprise that everything is just pitch perfect throughout this cast.  Of course, I couldn’t forget to mention the late and charming Jerry Orbach as the solid Lieutenant Garber.  Orbach is always a bright pleasure to see in anything he ever appeared in.

It also put a smile on my face when Michael Kamen’s credit came on screen as the composer.  I really, dearly love his work.  There was always a real elegance and sophistication he brought to his scores, and Someone to Watch Over Me definitely gave him the opportunity to flesh out some lush, romantic cues.  There’s the obligatory saxophone parts, but it’s done so very beautifully.  It really is a lovely tapestry of romanticism that he weaves throughout this film while never remotely approaching over the top melodrama.  He’s aided a little by a smooth jazz style arrangement of the title song by Sting, and some fine music tracks from Steve Winwood and Fine Young Cannibals early on.  The work Kamen does with the tenser, more thrilling scenes is very effective and taut.  This is the perfect score for this movie accentuating every subtlety with careful craftsmanship.

Also, it seems that no matter what cinematographer Ridley Scott works with, his visual style always comes through brilliantly.  You could turn this movie on, not knowing anything about it, and know it is a Ridley Scott movie just by the rich atmospheric noir look of it.  Someone to Watch Over Me is absolutely gorgeous re-crafting the looks of Alien or Blade Runner into a romantically effective package.  The scenes early on in the night club and art gallery are brilliant, perfect examples of Scott’s signature style.  Later on, inside Claire’s upscale apartment, the overall look is very seductive with soft, dim amber lighting.  As usual, Scott uses very deep blacks and smoky, shadowy visuals to create a mysterious atmosphere, and even on the streets of New York, that works so stunningly well.  If for nothing else, Scott is one of my favorite directors based on his gorgeous visual neo noir style.

Beyond all of the stunning aesthetics, the story played out in both the seductive romanticism and the dangerous crime thriller are perfectly interwoven.  I found the balance just right for the film’s intended emotional direction.  I would definitely imagine a film like this today being forced to be packed with a lot more action and excitement instead of developing the romance and subtle suspense.  Thankfully, this was made in a time when someone like Ridley Scott, whose last couple of films had not done well at the box office, was able to make the movie he wanted to make.  He does a fantastic job with Howard Franklin’s screenplay just enveloping it entirely in his articulate, detail oriented sensibilities and wonderfully inspired visual style.  Yet, the visual awe is not used to mask any lack of substance, but to enhance the strengths of it all.

I really did enjoy Someone to Watch Over Me.  If you enjoy a classic thriller with a twist of romance, which the film’s tagline boasts, you will certainly find some satisfaction here.  Ridley Scott directs this film with class and a focus on the smooth moody atmosphere and gradual development of its characters.  The cast is absolutely top notch featuring substantive and respectable work from everyone involved.  This film is actually a very clear precursor to Scott’s next film, Black Rain, which was an excellent full-on thriller, but still with a lot of that romanticized atmosphere of danger.  If you’re looking for the exciting flipside to this seductive film, Black Rain is absolutely that film.  Just forego watching the trailer.  It’s a little on the spoilery side.  Anyway, Someone to Watch Over Me is a very beautifully crafted and executed film that I really do highly endorse.


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!”


Predator 2 (1990)

Predator 2There seems to be an idea out there somewhere, I don’t know where it came from, that Predator 2 is a markedly inferior sequel.  This is wholly unjustified.  Surely, everyone has their own opinions on how this measures up to the original classic, but to me, this is a great follow-up which expands on the ideas and premise in exciting new ways.  Predator 2 contains numerous admirable qualities, and is helmed by a director with a great eye for sleek visuals.  Anything it doesn’t recreate from the original it replaces with a higher energy and larger scale action.

In the urban jungles of Los Angeles, Detective Lieutenant Mike Harrigan’s (Danny Glover) police force is at war with drug lords and gangs. But just as Harrigan admits he’s losing the fight, one by one, gang lords are killed by a mysterious, fierce adversary with almost supernatural powers – the Predator.  Before long, the vicious creature begins to hunt the hunters – Harrigan’s men.  Now, Harrigan doesn’t just want to bring the creature in – he wants to bring it down.  However, he is hindered along the way by government Special Agent Peter Keyes (Gary Busey) who has a shady motive to his secretive investigation who knows more about this ultimate hunter than Harrigan even suspects.

Surely, you would think going from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Danny Glover would be a strange swerve.  I always imagined that if this was made a few years later that it would be Wesley Snipes as Mike Harrigan, but I’ll be damned if Glover doesn’t deliver here.  The character is designed as a seasoned cop who’s been fighting this unrelenting war on the Los Angeles streets for a long time.  He’s dogged, inventive, and is a cop who plays by his own rules, taking a backseat to no one.  Glover portrays this with the rugged determination of a consummate street cop.  He doesn’t like the politics that get rammed down his throat, and he slickly, yet passionately sticks it back in their faces.  However, he is wholly loyal to his team, and treats them with respect as comrades in arms because they are fighting a war.  Glover also demonstrates the emotional depth of Harrigan when his closest friend, Danny Archuleta portrayed by Rubén Blades, is gruesomely killed by the Predator.  The flashes of enraged vengeance, and the heartfelt moment at the gravesite show Glover had the talent and skill for this role, which also demanded a lot from him physically.  He greatly delivers on that end, too.  I think making him a distinctly different protagonist than Dutch was the right way to go.

Many will indeed enjoy Bill Paxton’s performance as the jokey Jerry Lambert.  He’s the newest member of Harrigan’s team known as “The Lone Ranger.”  He’s a guy that’s gotten a lot of ego stroking and glory, but he quickly becomes an enthusiastic team player.  This is Paxton at his full charismatic and comedic richness.  He adds the levity to break up the grisly heaviness of the film.  The rest of the supporting cast is filled out by Rubén Blades and Maria Conchita Alonso as the seasoned members of Harrigan’s team.  Both bring their top level enthusiasm and talent adding to the cast’s vibrancy.  Then, we get the late, great original king of trash television Morton Downey, Jr. as the appropriately cast tabloid sleaze-miester Tony Pope.  He’s puts in a fantastically entertaining performance.

Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger was approached to return for this film, but he turned it down to do Terminator 2.  Thus, his role was rewritten as Peter Keyes and re-cast with Gary Busey.  I think this was an equally beneficial turn of events.  The story works supremely better not knowing what Keyes’ agenda is, and allowing for him to be an adversary and foil for Harrigan.  Busey does an excellent job bringing forth his signature energy and leaning Keyes towards the smarmy, shady side.  He’s smart and cunning, but still a self-serving government agent who cares more about his findings for the military than Harrigan’s war on violent gang crime.

Also, I love the Jamaican gang here.  They are totally savage and chilling with King Willie being fantastically awesome.  He brings the mysticism into the fold with a wickedly cool scene opposite Harrigan, but also, a greatly visualized confrontation with the Predator.  Calvin Lockhart is so awesome in this role.  The theatricality, mystique, and powerful presence he brings entirely does justice to his Royal Shakespeare Company roots.  He delivers my favorite performance of the movie.  Knowing that director Stephen Hopkins was born in Jamaica, it doesn’t surprise me how rich and memorable these characters are here.

The visual effects are distinctly improved from the first movie.  The Predator vision is the most obvious example as the infrared and other modes have more distinct color separation and possibly are of a higher resolution.  The optical effects of the Predator’s cloak are used more dynamically and are integrated into more complex environments.  We see it in more motion and detail.  My favorite effects shots in the whole movie are when the Predator squares off with King Willie.  First off, the tracking shot of the cloaked feet walking through the water is brilliant work, and then, the reveal of the Predator in the rippling puddle is awesome.  Seeing how these are done in the featurettes on the Special Edition DVD are astounding and what I’ve always loved about movie magic.  These striking, innovative images are largely due to do director Stephen Hopkins’ great visual style.

Teamed with regular director of photography Peter Levy, Hopkins gives Predator 2 its own unique visual sleekness.  It has a great use of dynamic, intriguing angles.  The action is captured remarkably well, and we even get a few scenes of atmospheric, moody lighting.  Two of the best shot scenes are, first, inside the slaughterhouse bathed in blue light where the Predators assaults Keyes’ team, and then, the entire climax inside the Predator spacecraft.  Counterbalancing that blue with a largely orange color scheme there is another sign of Hopkins’ great visual sensibilities.  Beyond just the color schemes, these sequences have great use of sweeping cranes and steadicams shots enhancing the production and artistic value of the film.

This new Predator is recognizable, but has a bit different look and feel to him.  He feels more brazen.  He’s taking bigger chances, and taking on greater numbers.  Hunting in a major metropolitan area means he’s attracting more attention to his work.  So, he’s not as calculated, in general, but when he finds a prey he really likes, such as Harrigan, he takes his time to study him.  He also taunts Harrigan as if he’s issuing an honorable challenge.  I very much like that the filmmakers did this to show, even subtly, that this is another unique individual with his own personality, but with the same objective.  It’s also great seeing the arsenal expand with the telescoping spear, the projectile net, and the flying disc.  It gives the impression of a larger safari at hand where he’s equipped for bigger game.  Kevin Peter Hall, yet again, does an awesome, exceptional job overall.  He defined this role so perfectly, and it is a terrible shame that his life ended only a few years later.  However, what he did laid the template for others to succeed him in this franchise.

The strengths of Predator 2 is that it is much more energetic and diversely entertaining than the original.  The pace is faster as there is more going on here between the gang wars, Peter Keyes’ shady dealings, and Harrigan’s own dogged investigation.  The action sequences are bigger and more dynamic allowing for a higher body count, but not as much gore.  The film originally gained an NC-17 rating, but likely, Fox panicked and did more aggressive editing to secure an R rating.  There is still blood abound and plenty of violence, but far less cadavers begin ripped apart.  What we do see in that regard is obscured or done in heavy shadow.  So, it ups the energy and action, but reduces the graphic content a little.

I would agree that these characters are not quite as captivating as those in the original.  Neither film delves deeply into their characters, but it’s just the nature of battle hardened soldiers in a ominous jungle versus tough, seasoned cops on the streets of Los Angeles.  One if inherently more intriguing than the other.  There’s a little more levity in this film akin to a wisecracking John McClane in areas as Harrigan’s fear manifests in a few humorous quips.  Since the film focuses more on an energetic pace with a more divided focus, there’s little mystique about the Predator himself.  Again, he’s much more blunt and brazen, but you do lose that intensely dramatic build up to the third act.  The Peter Keyes subplot sort of veers the emotional drive of Harrigan off-track, and the climax just becomes about having to stop this alien one way or another.  There’s no more survival aspect, just hero versus villain.  There is some peril throughout the third act, but none of it rivals the dire lethality and immediacy of the first film.

Still, the little teases we get at the end with both the Alien skull in the trophy room, the reveal of the half dozen other Predators onboard the spacecraft, and the flintlock pistol with the engraving of the year 1715 on it lay big seeds for a follow-up.  However one might have felt about this movie, it surely left you intrigued to see how the next film could expand on these concepts further, but a proper third movie would not see fruition for another twenty years.

Predator 2 may not hit all the great qualities of the film first, but has entertaining trade-offs making it a more lively, faster paced action film.  It again has a solid cast filling their roles with vibrancy.  The violence and intense action are enhanced by stylish, sleek visuals and excellent editing.  The optical visual effects are stunningly impressive pushing the ambition further, and with more time to plan, Stan Winston Studios developed the Predator further with great new weaponry and a fresh look.  Alan Silvestri also returns adding some new flavors to his original themes, and adapting some of the feel to this film’s style and content.   I would like to pay tribute to Kevin Peter Hall, Calvin Lockhart, and Stan Winston who have all passed on since this film’s release.  All three did stunning work here that deserves notable credit and praise.  This franchise, outside of the AVP films, has maintained a fairly steady stream of quality.  The screenwriters of the first movie returned to expand on their own concepts, and it was executed very well by a competent and capable director.  Predator 2 s definitely worth your while.  It’s not as slam bang amazing as the first, but it’s a largely worthy sequel.


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.


Bad Boys (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


The Exterminator (1980)

The ExterminatorIn 1980, writer / director James Glickenhaus brought us a gritty exploitation vigilante film known as The Exterminator.  I have some mixed statements to make about this film.  It has some great elements, but also some qualities that felt less than great.  A bad film it is not, but it has a few lackluster areas where some more refined filmmaking techniques would have sold me stronger on it.

Vietnam vet John Eastland (Ginty) launches a bloody vendetta against the New York underworld when his best friend Michael Jefferson (Steve James) is brutally beaten and paralyzed by a vicious street gang. Eastland becomes a vigilante hero to the public, but to police The Exterminator is a psychopath capable of dangerously undermining an entire government administration.

What’s of the most special note here is that Robert Ginty is a surprisingly solid fit for this role.  He looks like an average guy, clean cut, regular slender build.  He doesn’t look like the muscle bound bad ass the poster infers the Exterminator to be.  If made in the latter half of this decade with studio backing, you would’ve seen a Stallone or Schwarzenegger type actor mandated by a studio.  Ginty is unassuming, but delivers on the grim mentalities of the role.  He has his moments of compassion, showing that humanity is his motivating factor, but when he shifts into that vigilante mode, he’s a merciless, graphically violent force to contend with.  Overall, Ginty does a very, very good job in this role.  His performance compelled my interest in the movie.

The action and vigilante violence sequences are all excellently executed.  This is the film’s energy and weight.  Whenever Eastland goes out into that night to exact his own brand of justice on the criminal element, the film becomes alive and riveting.  These are expertly done sequences portraying the violence in a very gritty, realistic fashion, and having the visceral reaction desired.  The violence he inflicts includes a lot of bullets, burning a guy alive, and dropping someone into a meat grinder.  It’s all done in a very cold, decisive fashion.  Eastland is calculating and intelligent.  He’s not being controlled by passions.  He remains focused and level headed all the way through the film, and it creates a solid, intimidating screen presence that I really liked.  This is clearly an exploitation film showcasing the violence in unrelenting fashion, but with enough restraint to not try to shock you at every turn.  You get enough to sell the violence and gruesome victimization at hand, but it never drowns you in graphic visuals.  When I talk about gory horror films, I say it takes no skill to splatter gore all over the camera lens, but to know how to use the violence effectively against the audience does show skill.

The rest of the cast is okay, but with no standouts.  Christopher George is quite good as Detective James Dalton, and especially early on he seemed like a perfect fit for a tough cop.  His performance never goes down in quality, but the character is softened through the Dr. Megan Stewart romantic storyline to where he loses some weight and edge that was demonstrated from the outset.  He handles all the aspects of the role well, but he never really jumped out and gripped my attention.  I was more intrigued by Ginty’s screentime, frankly.

In the least, everyone in the film feels authentic to the time of that late 70’s New York grit.  There are the seedy, sleazy characters that are entirely credible, and are presented quite matter-of-factly.  Their sadistic, salacious acts are unsettling to a viewer, but it’s presented as being an honest look into the darker side of this urban criminal underworld.  This is reality in this era, and this film is not going to make any apologies for it.  This is the despicable activity going on in the shadows of this city, and Eastland is not going to allow it to continue.  I really like that idea, but I do think the film could have done a stronger job building up the character and his emotional motivations.

The Exterminator does feel very indicative of the time it was made.  Beyond just the violent, dark, cynical film that the late 1970’s would produce, the style of filmmaking is not uncommon for something of this ilk.  I would hold Walter Hill’s The Warriors to be the finest example of a 1970’s style hard edged, urban action movie.  The Exterminator is a much more methodically paced film, and tries to focus on mood more than a fast-paced intensity.  Still, there are aspects of pacing, structure, and atmosphere that I feel could’ve been improved to enhance that intention.  These are relatively minor things, but elements that make a marked difference.

For instance, the film feels like it cuts out a huge chunk of character building scenes early on.  Scenes of emotional motivation and a build up of dramatic momentum between where Jefferson gets attacked by the gang and Eastland goes after those responsible.  There’s not even a scene of Eastland reacting to the news of Jefferson’s paralyzing attack.  The attacks happens, and the next scene has him telling the news to someone else.  Then, he’s interrogating a street thug with a flame thrower.  Then, he exacts his revenge.  The character building scenes do occur after this, but they would have added more weight and dramatic drive to the film if they instead bridged the gap between the attack itself and Eastland becoming the Exterminator.  Those sorts of scenes would help delve more into John Eastland, and more sharply focus the narrative on him.  Up to this point, Jefferson seems like the protagonist of the film because he’s the one saving Eastland from danger and we see him with his family.  Little time is spent with Eastland to know much about who he is.  It’s a matter of dramatic structure, and while all the elements are there in the 104 minute director’s cut runtime, I don’t think they were arranged in the most effective way.

Something else that I thought was not done consistently well were scene transitions.  This is not wide spread, but there are a few instances where Glickenhaus just didn’t film any sort of artistic or dramatic segue from one scene to another.  So, instead, it just fades out from one random shot and fades into another.  This creates a bit of a disjointed flow in the narrative, and also, robs us of certain impactful moments.  Certain scenes could’ve ended half a minute earlier on a stronger note than allowing them to linger on monotonous activities.  Some scenes just don’t end with enough dramatic punctuation for the intent of the scene to resonate into the next.  For instance, Eastland kidnaps an Italian mobster, goes to his house to steal money, and gets mauled by the attack dog.  The scene ends with the attack dog, and leaves the issue of stealing the money unresolved.  Not every plot element really connects or is followed through on.   Even the romantic subplot between Detective Dalton and Dr. Stewart seems like a diversion from the vigilante plot, and honestly, has little to do with anything else in the story except to allow Dalton and Eastland to cross paths in the hospital.  It’s a nicely done subplot, but it just didn’t do anything for me.  Even Dalton’s own hunt for the Exterminator is not exactly dogged.  He’s enthusiastic about the investigation, but it never feels like an urgent manhunt or a personal determination on his part.  I would’ve preferred spending more time delving into Eastland, and creating more of an overall storyline for him besides just killing criminals at random.

The film is generally competently shot.  The cinematography is nothing to get excited about, but it’s also nothing to speak negatively on.  Although, the scene where Eastland interrogates the street thug with the flame thrower has horribly inconsistent lighting.  As the scene cuts from one angle to the next, the light source flips around 180 degrees.  First, it’s behind Eastland, then it’s behind the thug, then it goes back behind Eastland.  It was horribly distracting and blatantly obvious to me.  It’s just a bad piece of work, in only one scene, from whoever shot and lit this scene.  The rest of the film has no such problems.

However, on the editing front, I think the movie could have benefitted from some tightening up.  It unnecessarily takes its sweet time in too many instances where some smart editing and the right shots could’ve given the pacing and rhythm much more punch.  There’s extraneous footage all over this movie.  One great example is that there’s a scene where Eastland is drilling holes into bullets and filling them with mercury, then sealing them back up again.  I’m sure someone with firearms knowledge understands the idea behind this, but it is never given context or explanation to the audience what the purpose of that methodical scene was.  Doing some quick research, apparently, filling a bullet with just regular mercury, in actuality, would soften the lead of the bullet to the point where it would likely fly apart when fired.  In movie myth, it creates a grenade-like exploding bullet, but in truth, that is only potentially possible if using mercury fulminate.  This is strongly NOT recommended as you would probably die or be horribly maimed attempting to fire such a bullet.  Regardless, this idea felt like extraneous content that was part of a scene that ran on longer than it needed to.  Basically, it’s an arming up scene for Eastland that goes on for five solid minutes with the mercury bullet segment taking up three of those minutes.  If you’re not going to explain its supposed importance, or show us what doing that to the bullet is meant to accomplish, don’t bother wasting the audience’s time with it.

My biggest point of contention with this film is its ending.  The climax itself is quite good.  There’s a nice amount of suspense and tension as Dalton traverses through this docked ship at night searching for Eastland.  There’s some good action beats and explosive moments at the end.  It’s very well plotted.  The problem is, the film has no resolution to its plot, its characters, or anything else.  It sacrifices anything like that to appease some extremely unnecessary political subplot where some political figures think the Exterminator is some kind of plot by their enemies to ruin their re-election campaigns.  None of which is true, and the film could’ve existed entirely without that subplot.  It’s not too far off from my reaction to 2006’s Miami Vice.  There’s action and some nice dramatic beats in the final few minutes, but ultimately, it leaves me empty and wondering what the point of the movie was.

Ultimately, I feel The Exterminator had the good building blocks for a solid vigilante exploitation film, but it didn’t have the tight cohesion or driving narrative to really feel like it had all its stuff together.  Robert Ginty is really good in this, and makes this unexpected turn as a cold, calculating vigilante who still has his humanity intact.  He’s a good man that wants to take out the trash in this city, and has the training and means to do so.  The main problem here is that this film doesn’t have a narrative direction.  In most revenge films, the protagonist spends the majority of the movie tracking down and killing off those that have incited his needed for vengeance.  Instead, we have this self-proclaimed Exterminator dealing with that right away, and spending the rest of the movie mostly just exacting justice for others without a story of his own to follow.  Thus, it’s not surprising the ending has no resolution because there’s very little plot to resolve.  This is one of those films where I say, if you like what you read here, go ahead and give it a chance.  I don’t say avoid it, but I don’t feel it’s worth going out of your way to see it.  The film is available in a remastered director’s cut DVD / Blu-Ray combo pack release, if you’re interested.


Midnight Heat (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Punisher: War Zone (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Deception (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fire in the Sky (1993)

Fire in the SkyIt’s unusual to review a movie of this sort.  Fire in the Sky is based on a true story of alien abduction.  I know there are skeptics out there about this sort of thing, understandably so, and my stance is that I’m willing to believe, same as with the paranormal.  I can’t apply the same approach to a film of this sort, talking about characters like they’re fictional creations, or how clever the story is conceived and executed.  This is about how well the reality of these peoples’ lives are conveyed on screen, and the quality in which these events are portrayed.  What we have here is a great, solid movie that I really should have watched a lot more over the years.  I first saw it as a VHS rental back in the late 1990s.  I owned the DVDs for probably five or six years before I actually watched it.  So, I can accurately say that for this review, I watched Fire in the Sky for the third time, ever.

Six men saw it.  One man became a prisoner inside it.  But who would believe them?  In 1975, logger Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) and his co-workers discovered a hovering UFO.  Walton’s pals fled, but Walton was not so fortunate.  Whisked aboard the strange craft, he was subjected to a painful, unearthly medical study.  This is the amazing tale of that ordeal, and of the contempt and ridicule endured by his co-workers as they try to explain Walton’s mysterious disappearance.  Skilled investigator Frank Watters (James Garner) suspects their story may be a murder cover-up, but these men, led by Travis’ best friend Mike Rogers (Robert Patrick), stand by the extraordinary events they recount.  When Walton is returned in a severe traumatic state, questions become even more fantastical with the answers being more disturbing than they could imagine.

This film is smartly structured starting out with the aftermath of the abduction, and then, having Rogers and the other loggers fill in the story with their own words.  Everything that is shown about Travis pre-abduction is done in lengthy flashback, and I feel that was the perfect way to start out the movie and present Travis – show him through the eyes of his best friend.  This also presents the idea of witness accounts showing us the story from a subjective point of view, and sets up the real life oppositions these men had to face from their fellow townsfolk.  Next to no one would believe such a wildly fantastical story, and the police would surely look for criminal motives for Travis’ disappearance.  They have to fight for every ounce of credibility they can get, and the film takes us on that journey while focusing very deeply on their emotional turmoil.

D.B. Sweeney does a wonderful job in these flashback scenes showcasing a very lively, fun, and enthusiastic young man full of aspirations.  He’s clearly the brightest personality amongst these men with the biggest heart.  Showing the audience these substantive glimpses into Travis makes the impact of his traumatic abduction all the more terrifying and disturbing.  The abduction scene itself is frightening, and still gave me choked up chills.  This is a credit to the realistic, grounded, and textured nature of the film.  Director Robert Lieberman makes the danger feel paralyzingly real, and gives the film honest, emotional weight.

The last time I watched Fire in the Sky I made a note reminding me of just how great of an actor Robert Patrick is.  He really is the lead for most of the movie holding the weight of emotion on his shoulders, and doing so in masterful fashion.  The absolute depth of pain and fear is soaked into every fiber of his performance with his eyes selling so much.  Patrick is both very sympathetic as well as full of conviction and fire.  As Mike Rogers, he is both a confident, passionate leader and a man dealing with his own internal fears and grief.  There is so much humanity and strength in what he does here that this should stand as one of Patrick’s best performances.  He genuinely made me feel every emotion that he poured out of his soul, and it was a very wide and complex range of humanity offered by him.  It is only a shame that the only accolades he was offered for this film was a Saturn Award nomination.  He clearly deserves a lot more notoriety for having this level of talent.

This film is also packed with a strong supporting cast.  James Garner puts in a very solid performance as the consummate investigator Frank Watters.  You can sense the fair and just manner of Watters from everything Garner does on-screen.  He never jumps to conclusions or to condemn these men.  Even at the end, he’s not convinced of what they all say is the truth as the evidence is simply not there for him to make a conclusion.  He’s simply willing to wait and see.  Peter Berg and Henry Thomas greatly portray two of Travis’ friends, David Whitlock and Greg Hayes, both with their shaken qualities.  Yet, both actors showcase strength where needed to show that these men were standing by their statements.  Craig Sheffer has a surprisingly excellent turn as Allan Dallis, one of the loggers who has a bad attitude and doesn’t get along with anyone.  I’ve only seen Sheffer in some really poor Dimension Films direct-to-video sequels, and has never impressed me before now.  I think he did a very solid job making Dallis a very strong element in this story as a sort of wild card in the mix.  Dallis almost went out of his way to make it known he didn’t like Travis, and Sheffer’s performance really brings that friction and tension to the forefront.  Lastly, Noble Willingham fits very comfortably into the role of the local Sheriff Blake Davis bringing a trusted, honest, firm quality.  Overall, every performance feels very authentic with both obvious and subtle depth throughout.

In the latter third of the film, when Travis Walton does return, he’s in a terribly traumatized state with Sweeney putting in a great performance.  The lively young man that he once was has been entirely eviscerated leaving only a shell of a man behind.  This abduction experience forges a hard, deep wedge between Travis and Mike.  Travis is so traumatized that he resents Mike for running away from the scene of the abduction instead of helping him when he had the chance.  Unfortunately, this aspect is not given much screentime as the film shifts its focus deeply towards Travis’ struggles.  I certainly would’ve liked to have seen that strained friendship drama play out more to see how hard it truly hit Mike, and the process of how it damaged his life.  Fortunately, the film doesn’t forget about this as it is given its proper due by the end remembering that it is the people and their lives that mean the most here.

When we are finally shown what Travis Walton experienced during those five days, it is the most visceral and terrifying alien abduction sequence ever committed to film.  The production design is stunning like something out of your most dreadful nightmare with its surreal qualities and purely absorbing, grim reality.  It is something that would leave you scared out of your mind, and leave you never being the same person you once were, if you experienced it in reality.  This is a very elaborate and long sequence that will freak you out down to your very core.  This is possibly the most paralyzing sequence I’ve ever seen in a film.  Even after it ended, it took me a minute or so to ease myself out of it.  To even consider that this might have actually happened to another human being is unfathomable.  Industrial Light & Magic did an unspeakably remarkable job on this entire sequence.  The aliens themselves are so finely detailed and textured that you’d swear they were real, and this adds further to how visceral this all is on film.  It is stunning work down to the smallest nuanc.  So much so that this deserved special awards recognition at the time as well, but sadly, received none.  Of course, it’s very little in terms of visual effects as it is an overall collective work of production design, cinematography, physical effects, animatronics, sound design, and music that made this sequence so chillingly effective.

And of course, the cinematography is damn good all the way through.  Bill Pope and director Robert Lieberman clearly worked very hard to create a look for Fire in the Sky that was firmly grounded in reality.  There is such texture and weight to every shot to maintain that solid grip on the fact that this is based on a true story, and directly avoid injecting even the smallest sense of fantasy into this.  I know that sounds a little peculiar due to the alien abduction nature of the story, but even that feels shockingly real down to the grittiest of details.  This film is shot exceptionally well with wonderful angles and compositions which complement the dramatic scope of the story, both internal and external.  In all technical qualities, this is a superbly executed film made by a very solid crew of creative forces.

Now, the thing that tends to make films based off of true events different than fictional films is that there’s rarely a traditional conclusion to them.  The lives of these people continue on, and not everyone gains closure from what is documented in the movie.  So, there’s only so much of a complete story the film can offer.  Thus, Fire in the Sky is more focused on the people involved instead of a traditional three-act structured plot.  I’m sure there were a few tweaks to reality, such as the filmmakers reducing the number of loggers from seven to six for ease of storytelling, but I’m sure the human emotion of what happened remained very much intact and accurate.  Also, unlike many true stories, this one still requires the audience to believe in something they may not be inclined to believe in terms of extraterrestrial life.  However, even if you are not a believer, there is still a very strong, human story to experience in Fire in the Sky.

This is an amazingly effective and masterfully executed movie that brings more impactful reality to an alien abduction story than I’ve ever witnessed on film.  A viewing is highly worth it for two things  – Robert Patrick’s deeply emotional performance and the entire terrifying sequence aboard the alien spacecraft.  Even the film’s trailer is scary featuring only brief glimpses of that sequence along with a very foreboding voice over.  Ultimately, this is a hell of a great movie that is definitely worth your time, if this genre is your thing.  Again, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Mike Rogers in the aftermath of Travis’ traumatic return to give their reconciliation more pay-off, and to follow through on how this entire experience affected Mike, in detail.  Still, what we are given is solid, fascinating, and disturbing.  Fire in the Sky is a unique film that surely deserves more credit than time has seen fit to grant it, and I hope my words of praise here will help a little in that regard.


Sleepy Hollow (1999)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


From Hell (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Seven (1995)

Back in my favorite year in film, 1995, David Fincher brought us a terribly disturbing and gripping crime film in Seven that changed the genre dramatically, and set Fincher forth on a very successful, high profile directorial career.  His previous film was Alien 3, and that was plagued with production difficulties and creative clashes.  It was not a success, but Seven showed what an unencumbered David Fincher was capable of.  Supported by a powerful cast and a brilliant screenplay, this didn’t just spark his career, it ignited it.

Lieutenant Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a seasoned investigator who is on his final days before retirement.  Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) is a young, impulsive cop looking to make a difference, and maybe even a name for himself, here on the grimy, ugly side of this nameless city.  They are put together on a series of murders that Somerset soon determines is the work of a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world’s ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Each crime is more ghastly than the last as this sociopath “John Doe” uses them as a garish method of preaching.  While Mills is quickly convinced that this killer is a certified whack job, Somerset sees the calculating, educated rationale behind these crimes.  Both men slowly descend into this frightening and disturbing world that culminates in an unforgettable climax that tests the resolve of both men.

While there had been serial killer films before this, Seven really applied an original concept and environment to the subgenre.  Having the killer, John Doe, be motivated by the seven deadly sins opened up the film to social commentary, and that is handled exceptionally well.  Somerset is someone who you would like to know what kind of person he was before he was damaged by the apathy and amorality of the world.  He’s someone that appears to have once strongly believed in certain admirable principals, but has since lost his zeal for them.  He’s perhaps looked far too deep for too long into the grimy darkness of humanity, and Mills is someone who, likely, hasn’t looked deep enough.  He judges everything on surface appearances, and doesn’t entertain the possibilities of a deeper psychological analysis of their adversary.  Somerset slowly tries to educate Mills to be a more insightful and knowledgeable investigator, and while it brings them more into alignment with one another, it can’t wholly change who Mills is at his core.  The scenes of both Detectives discussing philosophies on Doe’s motives and how they reflect upon society are amazingly well written and perfectly acted by Freeman and Pitt.

With the film never stating what city this takes place in, it creates an enveloping environment in which one can never get quite comfortable, and you’re not supposed to.  The world of Seven is dangerous, seedy, disturbing, and filthy.  This feels like a city where decency of any kind is in the extreme minority.  The production design creates a world that is probably even more weathered than Somerset is.  There is deep texture put into every aspect of every setting to give it a worn down history.  There’s nothing new and shiny here.  It’s all old and deteriorated by time.  The grime seeps through in every frame of film, and the color timing adds to that further with a slightly de-saturated quality.  The near constant rain just adds to the miserable conditions that these characters have trudge through every day.  It was an excellent choice to have the entire climax take place outside of the bleak urban environment and put it into a sun-baked desolate open field.  The visuals in that sequence depict a dead landscape.

The cinematography of Darius Khondji enhances the production design further with a modern noir quality to it.  This is much different than a Michael Mann type of neo noir where things are glossy and colorful, but still offering a depth of darkness.  This is a style of noir that emphasizes the dreadful and macabre aspects of this world.  It’s meant to show off a gritty, unsettling realism that will horrify.  Khondji composes shots with a lot of dramatic weight, and makes use of dolly tracks very well in specific moments.  I love the tracking shot after the duel interrogation scene after the “lust” killing.  It’s just Somerset and Mills sitting in separate interrogation rooms quiet and still.  They are taking a long moment to recover from everything they’ve just witnessed and experienced.  The shot smoothly tracks from the one-way window of Somerset’s room to Mills’ room.  It’s a quiet downbeat moment for both the characters and the audience to soak it all in.  The main action sequence of the Detectives chasing after John Doe is exceptionally well shot maintaining a solid sense of geography with each character, and letting each shot count as the sequence moves from one location to another.  The scene constantly evolves adding in new obstacles and dangers along the way.  Every aspect of its execution is excellent.  Overall, the cinematography of Seven is superb and masterful.  It is definitely a result of a cohesive artistic vision.

Rob Bottin was a special make-up effects master starting with his amazing achievements in John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982.  In Seven, his signature grotesque and stunningly detailed work is highly evident.  He knows how to bring out the garish realistic horror in his creations.  It fits Fincher’s visual style dead-on presenting the smallest details with great clarity to make you believe that everything your seeing is frighteningly real.  Bottin worked with great filmmakers like Joe Danté and Paul Verhoeven before joining with Fincher, and I could praise Bottin’s body of work to endless extent.  It has always had a particularly off-beat and strange approach which reflects Bottin’s personality very well.  While Seven went grossly under-appreciated at the Academy Awards with only a well deserved nomination for Best Editing, Rob Bottin won a Saturn Award for his work here, and it was also very well deserved.

It is a very taut and suspenseful story that Andrew Kevin Walker wrote and Fincher executed.  No time is really wasted getting our characters into the plot.  We learn about them along the way through the investigation instead of introducing them in a standard first act structure of seeing them go through their daily lives before something adverse occurs.  How they each approach the case tells us all we need to know about Mills and Somerset, as I stated earlier.  The case and plot unfold with a strong sense of mystery and intrigue as both Detectives uncover the chilling theme behind these murders.  Each homicide becomes increasingly more graphic and horrific, thus, heightening the twisted psychological state of the killer.  Meanwhile, there is Somerset getting to know David and his wife Tracy, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, who tries to adjust to their new home, which she is not very fond of.  She confides in her husband’s new partner after getting to know his sensible and compassionate manner.  These scenes and character beats are nicely interwoven to continue developing these characters and their relationships.  This maintains an audience’s invested interest in how they deal with everything that’s going on, and the repercussions of what they encounter.

The film presents a definitely interesting psychological state of its killer.  How he gets into police custody is quite unexpected, and sets up a very compelling final act where John Doe is in control.  He might be in handcuffs, but he’s the one leading the Detectives towards a chilling conclusion.  A friend of mine believes that Brad Pitt over acts drastically in this climax.  I’ve never had a problem with it.  In that moment, David Mills is severely torn in an agonizing emotional state where he wants to lash out, but repeatedly tries to restrain the urge.  He’s already established as an impulsive and brash person, and attempting to not lash out in anger would be extremely difficult for a man like David Mills to do.  He’s fighting raw, instinctual emotion, and that would likely result in the reaction Pitt presents here.

Brad Pitt’s performance all around is rich with depth and emotion.  Mills is a guy who cares about what he does, and wants to make a difference.  He could easily become an ignorant jerk of a character with his brash attitude and closed mindedness, but Pitt gives him enough heart and humanity to make him likeable.  He takes the hard headedness, the intensity, the loving husband, the optimistic outlook on humanity, and the naivety and mixes them into a cohesive whole.  As do all the characters in this film, David Mills has his complexities, and Pitt makes it all work and make sense.  Pitt also visually inhabits the role well giving Mills a dirtier, more gritty look than Pitt had ever adopted before, and truly makes the character seamless with the world he inhabits.

The synergy between Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman is solid.  They counterbalance one another beautifully with their characters existing with polar opposite mentalities.  They hardly ever agree on anything, but are both motivated to see this investigation through to the end.  When they occasionally do get on the same page, it’s a great spark that quickly motivates the story forward.

Freeman, as always, is exceptional.  He embodies the dour philosophical mindset of William Somerset wholly.  Again, he’s a man worn out from the moral decay of society, and only reluctantly gets pulled towards this case.  At first, he wants to avoid it, but Somerset’s intuitive and educated mind drives him towards it.  Freeman greatly captures that reluctant attraction, and conveys the character’s psychological investigative approach with a great deal of skill and weight.  Somerset is very meticulous, never jumping to conclusions, and Freeman has the right seasoned quality and grasp on tone to sell those qualities well.  So much of the film’s tone is sold through him.  Prior to the appearance of John Doe, all of the religious ideology and deconstruction of motive is carried by Morgan Freeman, and I don’t think anyone else could’ve done it as well as he did.  While the screenplay explains it all very well, if handed over to the wrong actor, it might not sell remotely as well or as coherently.  Again, it’s all in the tone, which is pitch perfect through Morgan Freeman’s deeply talented abilities.

In the same year that Kevin Spacey gave us his exceptional performance in The Usual Suspects, he also gave us this fascinating surprise performance as John Doe.  It’s a greatly subdued and conservative piece of work that makes Doe so much more unsettling.  Throughout his screentime, there’s that knowledge that Doe is not done, yet.  There is something more chilling and frightening still to come, and Spacey’s performance is very foreboding in the most subtle way possible.  He’s in control, and he is reveling in the impending completion of his masterpiece.  It’s all amazingly compelling.  Spacey won an Academy Award for his turn as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, and this role is equally deserving of that accolade.

The supporting cast is very solid.  R. Lee Ermy is the tough Police Captain, but never falls into that Full Metal Jacket stereotype people like to shoehorn him into.  While he doesn’t have a great amount of screentime, his character is given enough character beats to make him feel fleshed out and genuine.  Gwyneth Paltrow is perfectly cast as Mills’ wife Tracy.  She’s a very compassionate and loving woman who is not pleased with their current situation moving into the city, but has no desire to cause David any stress or turbulence by voicing her worries.  She is an exceptionally decent young woman that definitely is out of place in this decaying urban setting, and Paltrow plays these emotional beats with depth and heart.  Everyone else filling out the cast holds their own strongly, and help to create a very full and dimensional world for this film.

Lastly, Howard Shore composed a strong score by bringing weight to the grim, horrifying atmosphere.  It truly emphasizes the drama, urgency, and intensity of the film.  It’s not a score that jumps out at you, and nor should it be.  It maintains and enhances dramatic tone throughout.  Shore has proven to be a widely diverse film composer, and he is able to complement David Fincher’s darker cinematic style so very well here.

Andrew Kevin Walker put together a deeply impressive and stunning screenplay here, and Fincher was the absolute perfect choice to realize it.  Much of what I write in these reviews is more than just saying if the film is good or bad.  In a case such as this, it’s about spotlighting the brilliant achievements in filmmaking, and analyzing what made it such an instant, powerful classic.  Seven is a landmark film for the genre, and especially for New Line Cinema.  It was really their first A-list type of film attracting high profile movie stars like Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey, and securing an amazing director with incredible vision in David Fincher.  It’s entirely shot as a major studio film, and strongly moved New Line Cinema into contention as a serious, big budget studio.  Only six years later would they release The Lord of the Rings trilogy to massive commercial and critical success.  This was a pivotal film for both the studio and David Fincher.  It is an all around shocking and amazing piece of work that delivers an intelligent story with thematic and dimensional elements along with startling images of graphic horror.


Timecop (1994)

Time travel is the biggest pain in the backside to comprehend.  It can become circular logical trying to make sense of the contradictions, continuity resolutions, and potential paradoxes.  Timecop certainly has these problems due to half thought-out ideas, but where these issues would normally sour the entire film to me, Timecop has just enough entertainment value to dwarf those concerns.  Peter Hyams, who shot and directed this film, clearly deserves much credit for bringing the right talents and elements together to achieve a result that is satisfying on all other levels.

In 1994, time travel is made possible, and upon learning of this, the U.S. government forms a confidential agency called the Time Enforcement Commission (TEC) to police time itself, and prevent changes in the past.  Washington, D.C. police officer Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) accepts an assignment to this new agency, but on this very day, he and his wife Melissa (Mia Sara) are attacked.  This results in Melissa’s death and the destruction of their home.  Ten years later, Max Walker grieves still, but has become a respected TEC Agent.  Max ends up having to take in Atwood, his own ex-partner, for tampering with the past with the stock market.  When coxed about who hired him to do this, the name Senator Aaron McComb (Ron Silver) is named, but Atwood refuses to testify to this fearing for the lives of his family.  McComb is a presidential candidate who has been stealing from the past to fund his campaign so that he can essentially buy the presidency.  McComb quickly learns of Walker’s knowledge, and continually seeks to eliminate him and shut down the TEC entirely.  Max becomes determined to expose the Senator’s criminal actions, which come to include multiple murders, but his TEC superior, Matuzak (Bruce McGill) keeps Max from going too far without evidence to support his claims.  However, all things become interwoven as McCombs’ manipulative plans take Walker back to 1994 where his past and future come into peril.  Can Max change history before it repeats itself?

There is just something about the old action heroes that is missing today.  While Jean-Claude Van Damme has amazing physical ability with remarkable martial arts talent, he also has plenty of charisma and heart to really make his roles empathetic.  He gives them enough dimension and charm to be someone an audience can thoroughly enjoy watching.  The young Max Walker is a warm, light-hearted man with a lot of passion and love.  The older Max Walker is more rough around the edges.  He’s a lonelier man that is very dedicated to his job, and takes his commitment to it very seriously.  He has a strong ethical and moral center that doesn’t allow him to back down from McComb.  Still, he retains the charm and wit of his younger self, but with a tinge of conviction.  Van Damme plays both versions nicely, and keeps an emotional connective tissue between them.  He carries the film with plenty of heart, humor, and dramatic weight.  He also has excellent chemistry with his co-stars.

Primarily among them is the late Ron Silver who made for an excellent cold blooded villain as McComb.  His charisma is very sharp as he commands the screen with intelligence and conviction.  He is very imposing and intimidating.  McComb is a man driven by the need for power, and everyone in his path towards it is expendable.  With the advantage of time travel, he can essentially prevent anyone from ever existing, but in some cases, he hardly sees a need to be so severe.  He also doesn’t mind doing his own dirty work.  He just can’t do it all himself.  The younger Senator McComb has ambition and vision, but is not hardened, yet.  His elder presidential candidate self is very cutthroat.  Silver brings immense weight to the picture that fuels the dogged motivation in Van Damme’s performance.  The two have very good chemistry playing off one another many times in the film.  They have a very effective counterbalance that keeps the movie compelling and entertaining.  They exchange several sharp, humorous remarks that entirely fit their characters, and maintain a tension between Walker and McComb that injects urgency into the plot.

I am continually impressed by Bruce McGill’s talent.  I was first introduced to him on MacGyver as the humorous con man Jack Dalton, but since then, I have seen the vast range and depth he is capable of.  From roles in The Insider, Collateral, The Last Boy Scout, Quantum Leap, and a very memorable episode of Miami Vice, I can seriously say that he is one of the best character actors around.  As Matuzak, he holds his ground very easily as Walker’s boss with the weight of authority and a quick witted levity.  He cares a good deal about Max, but he always keeps his priorities and responsibilities in check.  He never lets his friendship compromise his position, at least, not until circumstances become desperate and Matuzak has to stretch his trust in Walker.  McGill and Van Damme also have thoroughly entertaining chemistry that livens up the film, smartly.  Walker and Matuzak are good, tusted friends with a lot of history behind them which adds to the depth of the story.  Van Damme and McGill reflect that nicely giving the film some funny interactions that only a couple of good, long time friends could offer up.

Mia Sara is beautiful beyond just the physical.  As Melissa, you have zero trouble believing in Max’s deep love for her.  She’s compassionate, seductive, and lovely.  The love for Max is always in her eyes, and definitely connects through to an audience.  Mia Sara projects every emotion with heart-gripping depth.  Her interactions with Jean-Claude are wonderful, as are all the relationships in the film.  The whole cast really does a superb job playing off one another, hitting the right dramatic and tonal marks.  The performances are very consistent and complementary.  It’s almost surprising, but pleasantly so.

The visual effects are kind of mixed.  The optical composites putting two Van Dammes or two Ron Silvers into the same frame at the same time are generally pretty good, and the time travel “ripple” effect is well done.  There is also a wicked cool moment where Walker kicks the young McComb in the face, and then, the scar from it morphs onto the face of the older McComb.  These little flourishes are exceptionally nice, and add some originality to the film.  However, the more complex digital effects are rather primitive.  I can only imagine this was due to budgetary constraints.  CGI was likely still highly expensive in 1994 as only Steven Spielberg and James Cameron blockbusters got to make elaborate use of them.  This wasn’t Industrial Light & Magic at work here.  While there are only two such moments in the movie, one of which is a very critical moment that I cannot say how it will affect your enjoyment if you’re just watching Timecop now for the first time.  I’ve known what to expect since Timecop originally hit VHS in the mid-1990s, and so, it doesn’t bother me at all.  For a modern audience, it might be a sour note.

Finally discovering and getting my hands on the first ever widescreen release of this film on DVD, I can properly enjoy the wonderful cinematography by Peter Hyams (who also directed the feature).  I can definitely tell it was shot by him due to the use of contrast through heavy light and shadow.  The movie has plenty of visual atmosphere, but it never goes too far.  There’s a certain noir aspect to much of Hyams’ lighting and cinematography in addition to my beloved 2.35:1 aspect ratio that give Timecop some solid production values.  It also gives the film some distinctive identity and edgy dramatic weight.  Hyams captures and directs the action very, very well.  He has his pacing and composition crafted beautifully creating a very coherent string of action sequences that are thoroughly satisfying.  Hyams puts Van Damme’s talent nicely on display.  Jean-Claude has many awesome moments flexing his agility and ability.  The shot of JCVD jumping and doing the splits on the countertop to avoid the stun gun was a memorable moment from the trailer, and remains as such within the film.  His martial arts skills make for a unique and hard hitting style that really gives the film a lot of kick.  The choreography is plotted out greatly to make the scenes develop logically and organically.  The knife fight alone is a nice change of pace, adding to the creativity of the action.

Now, if it wasn’t for all this good talent elevating the quality of this film, it would not be a winner.  Again, there are so many confusing issues that arise from the underdeveloped time travel concepts and plot turns in this, that you cannot hold the screenplay as a gold standard of the genre.  The general story works very well supported by the acting talents involved, but analyzed at all and its mechanics fall apart.  It’s too complicated to dissect here, but simply said, the space-time continuum should’ve imploded by the end of this movie.  Paradoxes are abound with people being killed, partially erased from the timeline, resetting timelines, and people retaining knowledge of multiple timelines despite the continuity changing constantly with new incursions into the past.  There’s never any constant in what makes for a good time travel story as there’s always some inherent technical complications.  Even those that have a well stated theory of time travel can often fall apart, often with their sequels taking too many liberties with the plot.  There’s no Doc Brown or Sam Beckett type characters present to really speak to the screenwriter’s theories of time travel.  So, the film generally avoids getting too deep into it, and thus, it’s best to avoid rationalizing the logic of it all.  In any case, for a little more insight into this matter you can visit an old favorite website of mine which takes a few moments to breakdown the basic flaws: Temporal Anomalies in Popular Time Travel Movies.

The production design is very good with some large sets that offer up some additional scope.  The entire TEC facility has a slight futuristic quality, but retains a utilitarian mentality which grounds it.  The control room, offices, and launch bay retain a purely functional design idea that would be akin to a secret government facility.  It also allows Peter Hyams to create the aforementioned shadowy, noir inspired lighting schemes.  The only area where the “futuristic” time of 2004 crashes and burns is the design of these butt ugly automobiles.  I’ve never seen a concept car that took the armored, blocky design approach, and indeed, I’m glad that these filmmakers did not accurately foretell the future in this aspect.  Aside from that, the art direction is very good, and maybe a little reflective of 1990s visual aesthetics (something that I have no problems with).

The good fortune of this film is that the filmmakers and cast worked hard to make it entertaining and enjoyable.  The screenwriter abandoned any serious logic in the temporal mechanics so that the plot could work how he wanted it to.  That’s never a good thing, but there’s enough quality put on screen to mostly cloud that shortcoming.  Van Damme is great handling all the demands of the role smoothly from dramatic to humorous to emotional to the physical.  The supporting cast is just as strong keeping the film consistently entertaining.  The characters are well written, and even better realized with solid casting choices.  Peter Hyams deserves a lot of credit for creating a film that features high production values with appealing performances and action sequences built on a script that didn’t make much sense, but was satisfying nonetheless.