In-Depth Movie Reviews & High Quality Trailers

Posts tagged “romance

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.


Purple Rain (1984)

Purple RainThe year of 1984 was the true galvanization of the decade.  It defined exactly what we remember the decade to be.  It was the year where the pop culture identity of the 1980’s exploded with stuff like Michael Jackson’s Thriller breaking album record sales, television series like Miami Vice premiering, and films like Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid, Ghostbusters, and The Terminator debuting.  Then, there was the solidification of Prince becoming a monster success as both an electrifying musician, but also, at the box office with a film that, at one time, I watched once a week, every week for months.  Purple Rain can be a surprising film if all you are expecting is just an entertaining rock music motion picture.  There is a compelling, emotionally striking story within that was likely taken from Prince’s own life and embellished on screen.

Prince make his movie debut as The Kid, a Minneapolis club musician as alienated as he is talented.  He struggles with a tumultuous home life with a failed musician father and The Kid’s own smoldering anger while taking refuge in his music and his steamy love for sexy Apollonia Kotero.  He is opposed by rival band The Time, lead by the smooth talking and charismatic Morris Day who attempts to force The Kid out of the limelight and steal Apollonia away from him.  The Kid’s life goes into a down spiral as everything falls apart even within his own band, the Revolution, forcing him down a turbulent road of survival and triumph.

Surely, this is one of the best movie soundtracks ever created.  Beyond just all being contenders for smash hit singles, and having won Grammys and Academy Awards, these songs strongly serve the plot.  Whether it’s lyrically or emotionally, they reflect the progression of these characters through this narrative.  The film opens up on a high energy number of “Let’s Go Crazy” that would be perfect for jump starting a concert, of course.  The music in the first act is very upbeat and lively as things are on an upswing for The Kid.  He’s rocking the stage and falling in love with Apollonia, but the second act features more aggressive or introspective tracks such as the classic hit “When Doves Cry.”  The final act gives us the emotional swelling of pain and resolution into a rousing celebration.  This is one of those films where it’s stellar soundtrack will always ignite your desire to watch the film again, but there’s so much more to Purple Rain than just its incredible music.

The love story is wonderfully handled and progressed.  There’s plenty of light-hearted wit and charm early on especially with the “purifying yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka” bit.  Then, when The Kid is up on stage belting out “The Beautiful Ones,” staring directly at Apollonia with her eyes welling up, that’s an intense proclamation of passion which is beautifully executed.  The romance then moves forward into more intimate, seductive territory before it all falls apart due to The Kid’s ego and him repeating his father’s self-destructive behavior, but it proves to not be the end of them.  Prince and Kotero really have an endearing and charming chemistry that lights up the screen.  It’s really the core narrative element of the film.  Everything really centers around and reflects off of that.

The reversal is the volatile relationship between The Kid’s parents.  What Clarence Williams III does in this film is on a whole other plane of riveting, powerful drama.  He’s heartbreaking and tragic as Francis L., this man who has seen all of his dreams die because no one understood his music, and is just trying to keep his fractured self and marriage together.  Yet, he grips on so tightly that he’s falling apart on every emotional level.  The culmination of this is powerful and world shattering.  Williams’ performance is mind blowing creating a sobering gravity and weight that no one expected going into this movie.  There is nothing but pain magnified and compounded within every fiber of his performance.  He is shockingly incredible to the point that I feel he deserved major awards for this performance, but he got no such recognition for it.  Whenever I see him in anything now, he has my undivided attention because of this one performance.

Purple Rain is also a great encapsulation of the problems a band faces, internally.  Clashing egos, mismatched personalities, and creative differences cause turbulence in even the best, most successful bands.  We see Wendy and Lisa trying to make their own music, but The Kid just won’t take his own ego out of it to allow it.  Apparently, this friction wasn’t far off from the reality in the band, and so, part of the effectiveness of these performances was likely due to that.  Regardless, it adds further baggage to The Kid as he struggles with all of these passionate forces in his life, and something is bound to break.

On the lighter side of the film’s tone, you’ve gotta love the humorous antics of Morris Day and Jerome Benton.  Their “who’s on first” style conversation about having a “password” for when Apollonia shows up is priceless and hilarious.  Morris and Jerome lighten up the movie at key times without going over the top with it.  Before I even knew Day was a musician, I saw him in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and found him sharp and funny there as well.  I even first saw Morris Day & The Time in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, clearly motivating my interest in Purple Rain.  Both Day and Benton have charisma to spare, and make for good foils for The Kid to contend with.  Still, it’s great that they’re not relegated to being only comedy relief.  Benton gets a serious moment that further digs at The Kid’s screwed up situation.  We get some dimension to Morris with a few honest moments, and we see he has a genuine human factor.  My favorite moment of Day’s is his moment of regret after saying a truly horrible thing about The Kid’s family after Francis has attempted suicide.  In a single moment, he goes from being a cruel, cold hearted jerk to being a real human being with a conscience.

Under the direction of Albert Magnoli, Prince proves to be a very solid actor.  Of course, his amazing work on stage comes naturally to him, but even then, there’s the added emotional context of his character interwoven with that.  He incorporates the character’s mindset into the intensity of his on-stage performance.  The most evident examples are the “Darling Nikki” and “Purple Rain” performances showing the different kinds of pain The Kid is feeling at those times.  The first being of scorn, and the second being heartbreaking despair and sorrow.  Off stage, Prince is damn good handling all of the heavy emotional weight of this story stunningly.  This character is shown to be one with serious faults that he has to confront and overcome by the end, and it is all executed an honest realism.  If Prince wasn’t that good of an actor, the film would not have worked, and would have been viewed as a lop-sided vanity project where the music was full of spectacle but the story and acting faltered.  He was clearly fully committed to the quality and integrity of this picture, and put forth his all in every aspect to make it this great.

Yet, it is Albert Magnoli who put everything on track to be so great overall.  The film does have style to spare in its stage performance visuals, and some of the sharp MTV style editing at times.  However, Magnoli balances the sleek style and energy with a grounded, dramatic gravity.  The characters are all well fleshed out, and have their passionate and conflicted qualities.  The attempted suicide scene crashes down like a ton of bricks, and erupts the raw emotional intensity of this film.  It is handled, along with the entire final act, with such weight and sincerity that it is what makes Purple Rain more than just a fun rock and roll movie experience.  It gives a meaning to the story and the characters, giving this film a real touching, tender artistry that I cannot admire and praise enough.  It really reflects the integrity and poignant detail that Prince puts into his music.  He hardly ever does anything in his music without a full fledged commitment to quality.

The final musical performances are beautifully executed.  “Purple Rain” is the culmination of everything The Kid has gone through, and he pours out every ounce of pain and sorrow in one epic, soaring song.  The aftermath of the performance can still choke me up a little, especially when The Kid and Apollonia lock eyes in that hallway.  Magnoli also does such the right thing with the editing in that performance because, aside from a few perfectly timed and well chosen shots of the audience, he keeps the focus on The Kid.  It’s not until the song crescendos with the guitar solo that the shots open up and allow for everything to flourish on screen.  “I Would Die 4 U” then comes as a breath of fresh air, and the correlating clips of The Kid visiting his sleeping parents in the hospital, organizing his father’s music sheets, and reconnecting with Apollonia earlier that day, bring a heart warming quality to the track.  All of the music in this movie is excellent on its own, but when adding it into the emotional context of this film, these songs transcend into another level of touching impact.

I certainly do have to take Purple Rain in a sensationalized way.  I have been close friends with a number of independent, small time local bands for the last decade, and these are people who aren’t making it rich on their music.  So, if this film was entirely realistic, none of these bands would be wearing all of these flashy designer outfits that likely cost thousands of dollars.  They would still put a great show, but what we see is an accurate representation of these acts as they were, on stage, in real life.  I wholly understand stylistic choice that I’m sure no one really gave much thought to.  Even then, despite owning a custom designed motorcycle and all of these flashy outfits, The Kid lives in his parents’ basement.  Most wouldn’t pick up on those oddities, but with the perspective I have, yeah, it pops into my head.  Yet, I don’t hold any of this against the film whatsoever because I understand where all of it is coming from, and clearly, Prince wasn’t concerned about blurring the lines between his reality and the film’s fiction.  It all ultimately works towards the film’s stylish benefit.

To me, Purple Rain is a magnificent film.  If you love the 1980’s in all its fashion, style, music, and movies, this is a movie that will excite and probably surprise you.  Surely, Prince’s music isn’t for everyone, but this is undoubtedly a collection of some of his finest mainstream work.  It is definitely one of the best soundtrack albums ever conceived and released.  Even songs by The Time, Apollonia 6, and Dez Dickerson are solid pieces that give a little different flavor here and there.  Yet, beyond all of that pop music excellence, you will find a film filled with love, heartache, tragic quality, dramatic weight, and artistic merit that is all perfectly blended together.  It had been a long time since I watched Purple Rain before this review, and seeing it again reminded me why I so love this movie.  It also reminded me why, nine years ago, I made this an imperative weekly watch for so long.  Prince’s subsequent feature film outings would, reportedly, not be so good as he chose to direct and star in both Under The Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge, the sequel to Purple Rain.  You need not pay attention to those films because Purple Rain is fully entertaining and satisfying in so many abundant ways.  This is an exciting, rock fueled picture with an admirable depth of substance and emotion.  This film was 1984 through and through, but still holds up perfectly nearly three decades later.  It is one of my favorite films of all time.


Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Batman Mask of the PhantasmI am so glad that I did see this animated feature in theatres twenty years ago.  Being a major fan of the animated series, there was no way I couldn’t be excited for it, and it has become a very respected high mark in the DC Animated Universe.  Batman: Mask of the Phantasm does tend to get lost in the mix when discussing the best Batman or even best superhero movies because it was an animated feature.  The film didn’t perform well in theatres, likely do to a less than aggressive marketing campaign.  Even professional film critics Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert did not see it in its theatrical run, but when they did eventually watch it, they indeed loved it.  So, with this preface, I think it’s easy to deduce that this is a definite favorite of mine.

When Gotham City’s most feared gangsters are systematically eliminated, the Cape Crusader is blamed, but prowling the night is a shadowy new villain, the Phantasm, a sinister figure with a vengeful agenda.  Meanwhile, Andrea Beaumont, the one time love of Bruce Wayne’s life, returns to Gotham City stirring up memories including those of how he almost didn’t become Batman.  As all of this unfolds, and the Phantasm becomes a more imminent, lethal threat, the Joker is brought into the fold as a major wild card.  Now, can the Dark Knight elude the police, capture the Phantasm and clear his name?

If you’re unfamiliar with the 1990’s animated series, you need not worry.  This film works entirely as a standalone feature, but for those who were serious fans, there’s a great sense of expansion and increased depth that this film offers.  This is a great story interweaving all threads into an excellent Batman origin, romance, and superhero action movie.  The heart of it is the romantic and heartbreaking story between Bruce and Andrea.  It starts with so much hope and passion, but as with many of Bruce’s loves, it ends in despair and some tragedy.  It’s a beautifully crafted tale that does touch an audience’s heart, and truly shows the emotional depth and humanity of Bruce before and after he becomes Batman.

This film shows us the events leading directly up to Bruce Wayne actually becoming Batman.  I love seeing his first outing as a crime-fighter.  It’s just him in black street attire and a ski mask.  He has the skills, but not the persona, yet.  Batman hasn’t been born, and thus, the key essentially elements of intimidation and mystique aren’t in play.  He’s not the haunting creature of the night that will frighten the criminal element, and afterwards, Bruce realizes that is what he’s missing.  It’s a thrilling action scene as Bruce takes down a group of thieves, and then, hangs off the back of an open van during a police chase.  Yet, the very moment where Bruce Wayne dons the cowl and becomes Batman for the first time is a quintessential moment in my Batman fandom.  No other film has ever matched this moment for me.  Done wholly in shadows, it is a purely simple scene, but perfectly effective and iconic in my eyes.  When he turns to reveal himself to Alfred, the reaction from Bruce’s loyal and lifelong butler is pure shock and fear.  That still sends chills all over my body.

Now, I absolutely love how the stories of Bruce and Andrea intertwine.  The flashbacks to their hot and fast romance are beautiful and classy.  You can see that Bruce is ready to give up the vigilante nightlife to be happy with Andrea forever, but the shady elements of her father, Carl Beaumont’s business dealings forge an inevitable wedge between Bruce and Andrea.  Smartly, these elements are the core of the present day story between Batman and the Phantasm.  It’s also a great turn that the Phantasm’s murders are framed on Batman simply by misidentification.  This forces the Gotham Police to begin a manhunt against Batman, but strongly true to his character, Commissioner Gordon refuses to be apart of it.  He knows that Batman doesn’t kill, and that little moment shows the bond of trust between Gordon and the Dark Knight.  It’s only a shame that that is Gordon’s only scene in the film.  Every aspect of this story flows organically and tightly.  With a 76 minute runtime, it could move at no other or better pace.

By no doubt, Kevin Conroy has been the definitive voice of Batman for over two decades now for legions of fans.  Whenever I read a Batman comic book, it is his voice that I hear as Bruce Wayne and Batman.  Conroy reflects all the best qualities of the character from the upbeat playboy, the serious businessman, the dark, brooding man in the shadows, and the powerfully imposing Dark Knight.  The most important thing is he brings life, depth, and intelligence to Batman.  Producer Bruce Timm and co-writer Paul Dini perfectly understood the character, and throughout this DCAU from Batman: The Animated Series to Batman Beyond to Justice League Unlimited, they stayed true to the core of Batman.  The ideals of justice, humanity, and undying determination have always thrived in this animated interpretation.  Beyond anything else, we see the world’s greatest detective at work, which is something none of the live action films have ever fully embraced.  Batman unravels the mystery of the Phantasm and these crime bosses with cunning and perceptive intelligence.  Conroy embodies all of these subtle, inspiring, and engaging qualities of Batman with a lot of heart and care.  It might only be voice work, but this still stands as the best adaptation of the character to date.

And I couldn’t discount Mark Hamill’s Joker.  Much like with Conroy, he has been a definitive voice for the character to many fans for so long, but has had real competition from great actors in this role.  I am a fan of all versions from Ceasar Romero to Jack Nicholson and beyond.  With the Joker, there’s almost no wrong way to go with him because he is such a radically unpredictable character that he could be very Romero one day and very Ledger the next.  What Hamill does is make the Joker this insane clown who will do whatever hits the biggest punchline in his own twisted mind.  He will still likely kill you, but he’s going to laugh his ass off doing it.  Hamill brings the jovial zaniness meshed with a lethal intimidation that forges a colorful maniac that is endlessly fun and entertaining while still being a major threat.

Beyond the fact that I do really adore Dana Delany, I believe she was a perfect choice to voice Andrea.  She brings a touching beauty of heart and soul to the character.  As the younger Andrea, she’s very optimistic and vibrant.  She’s a young woman with everything to love and embrace in life.  In the present day, she’s a little more heartbroken and tender.  There’s a great emotional complexity to her by the end which is very sad and sympathetic.  Delaney is a wonderful, charming actress, and she does a remarkable job voicing Andrea Beaumont.

The animation style of this feature film is definitely a solid step upwards from the series with more dramatic shading, and a bit more dynamic action sequences.  The opening title sequence even features a beautiful CGI fly through of the Gotham City skyline.  The entire series was heavily inspired by the classic Max Fleisher Superman cartoons, and that is very evident, especially with the great art deco designs.  Adapting this style to Batman pushed everything into a great film noir realm that works stunningly for him.

The main theme from Danny Elfman for Tim Burton’s Batman movies lived on in this DC Animated Universe.  They were reworked by the great, and now late, Shirley Walker.  For this feature, she makes it even more gothic and haunting with a beautiful chorus.  Yet, that’s only just the start of her stunning work.  It’s a fantastic score that rouses an audience, and nails all over the wonderful emotional beats.

And there is plenty of thrilling action throughout this movie.  The Phantasm’s stalking of mob bosses are dark, shadowy, and even a little scary.  They have a looming, ominous presence.  The film unfolds some rousing and even explosive moments at a regular interval, but they entirely flow from the progression of the plot.  Nothing’s extraneous, and it really wastes no time crashing you headlong into the action and story.  The climax with Batman and the Joker at the abandoned World’s Fair is pretty fun.  It shows the Joker’s dangerous playfulness, and creates an escalating sense of peril as he has rigged the whole place to explode.  Yet, the movie ends on the appropriate emotional beats remembering that the story is paramount, and it treats its character with due respect.

Unlike many live action movies, this animated feature was given a lot of creative freedom to its production team, and they were able to deliver a very well fleshed out, wonderfully balanced story.  This is entirely reflective of the quality that was consistently on display with the animated series and its spin-offs and follow-ups.  If you’ve never seen Batman: The Animated Series, this is a great introduction to it, and if you’ve watched and loved it, this is a gem that will satisfy your fandom.  Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a delightful and amazing animated Batman adventure that is well worth your time.


Superman II – The Richard Donner Cut (2006)

Superman II RDCThe preface to this review and this version of Superman II in general is that this is more of a rough draft reconstruction of Richard Donner’s original vision of the film.  As much of Donner’s footage was culled together and assembled for this edition, but there’s even a screen test used for one scene and a lot of special effects that are not comparable to what would have been done in 1980.  This version also follows the intended original ending for Superman: The Movie where it would’ve ended on a cliffhanger of Luthor’s missiles being hurled into space and its explosion freeing Zod and his cohorts from the Phantom Zone.  So, even then, this is not the film we would’ve gotten had Donner finished filming this sequel.  So, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get deep into this special and unique version of Superman II.

Freed from the Phantom Zone by an exploding missile in space, General Zod (Terence Stamp) leads his fellow Kryptonian criminals on the path to super-powered tyranny over the planet Earth.  Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from his own prison, and journeys to discover Superman’s secrets at the arctic Fortress of Solitude in hopes to harness that knowledge as a weapon.  As this all happens, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) forces a series of events for Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) to reveal himself as Superman.  This leads to a romance between Lois and Clark, but the sacrifices the Man of Steel will make for the woman he loves may leave the entire planet in dire circumstances under the tyranny of General Zod.

The highlights of this version are the inclusion of Marlon Brando’s scenes as Jor-El.  We get a truncated version of Zod’s trial from the first film, conducted by Jor-El, with a few different angles thrown in.  This better establishes Zod’s personal contempt for Jor-El.  However, the best Brando content is in the Fortress of Solitude.  Clark’s interactions with Jor-El as he professes his love for Lois is strongly substantive and nearly heartbreaking.  Jor-El pleading with his son to think about his actions and re-consider his choices is a powerful scene, and is further enhanced when Clark learns of Zod’s tyranny on Earth and seeks to regain his powers.  This is the single biggest and best improvement from the Lester to the Donner cut.  We see how he gets his powers back, and while Reeves’ acting is deeper and more powerful in the Lester version, the overall scene has more impact and meaning with this interaction.  Brando’s presence simply enhances the emotional and consequential scope of the story.  This is due to Jor-El’s overall importance, and the quality of Brando’s legendary talent.

This version also excises nearly all of the silly humor that Richard Lester put into the film.  This makes for a leaner, more serious movie, and that’s exactly what Superman II required.  It has plenty of substance and thematic weight that shines through more clearly with that consistency of tone.  However, there are some structural problems that arise from this.  While I find this to be a faster paced version of the film, I don’t especially see it as a more streamlined or as well plotted of a version.

This version does have good ideas and intentions, but I think the editing is too aggressive to excise more and more Lester footage.  Beyond just having this match Donner’s version, a certain percentage of his directed footage has to be present for him to take credit as the film’s director by DGA rules.  This, along with the new timeline of events, affects the pacing and structure of the film in some negative ways.  For instance, Zod and company are freed from the Phantom Zone, and then, don’t reappear for another twenty minutes.  Then, after the moon scene, they don’t appear on Earth for another fifteen minutes.  Then, once there, the film jumps ahead so abruptly that within a one minute cutaway scene to Lois and Superman having dinner in the Fortress, it goes from their abbreviated encounter with the two cops on the outskirts of the town to them reaching international television coverage on their reign of terror.  Scenes are strung together in choppy ways to excise Lester’s comedy and to remove entire sequences that might be a little funny but also establish informative plot progression and gradual build-up.  The structure has some good intentions by tightening up the pace in a more modern way, and getting straight to the point, but ultimately, it doesn’t feel well balanced or evenly paced.

And it might be a nit-picky thing, but if these events happen within a day or two after the first film, how in the world is Lex able to build both a holographic projector and his alpha waves detector within that time?  I was realizing how much more sense some of Luthor’s dialogue with Otis was with these events happening immediately after those of the first movie, and then, that idea sprung to mind.  Some stuff works in that context, but other stuff, not so much.

Some of what I don’t feel works as well in that compressed timeframe is Lois’ suspicions about Clark being Superman.  First off, I think it’s rather abrupt as she begins suspecting right from the film’s start.  It’s not something built up in the first movie, and is introduced here at full throttle.  Lois also does some insanely radical things to prove it such as jumping out the window of the Daily Planet.  Furthermore, Lois and Clark have only known each other now for a few weeks, and Clark’s now willing to give up everything for her.  The dialogue between him and Jor-El alludes to him serving mankind for a long time.  He says things like, “After all I’ve done for them….will there ever be a time where I’ve served enough?”  In this version of the film, he’s only been Superman, again, for a few weeks, at most.  It simply doesn’t fit.  In Lester’s cut, you get the feeling that he has been around for quite a while, possibly a few years, but here, that is not the case at all.  This film picks up almost immediately after the conclusion of the first movie allowing for no such leeway.

The screen test scene is where Lois forces Clark to reveal himself as Superman.  Of course, this scene is jarring as Christopher Reeve looks quite different, even from shot to shot, as his hairstyle and glasses are different from the rest of the movie, and two screen tests were combined for one scene.  He’s also particularly thinner.  However, I especially don’t approve of Lois’ drastic measures, yet again.  Even though she loads the gun with blanks, the connotation is abhorrent.  Blanks or no, Superman or not, it’s not something you do to someone you love.  Not to mention, I’m sure even Clark could tell that no bullet impacted his man of steel body.  However, the real downside of this scene is that it’s not remotely effective or has nearly as much build up as the scene in the Lester version.  There’s more subtlety and underlining character and emotion in the Lester version where Clark feigns burning his hand in the honeymoon suite fireplace.  It’s also better acted as, again, Donner’s version is probably the first time Reeve and Kidder ever worked with one another.  Even if it were a properly produced scene, I just don’t like Lois pulling a gun on Clark.

The new digital effects for this version are divided in quality.  The one exceptional area is in the Fortress of Solitude with Jor-El’s projections.  You can sometimes tell they are digital composites, but overall, they are the best CGI this film has to offer.  They have a near dead-on look and feel to what we saw in the first movie.  Sadly, there are some really atrocious digital effects and composites on display here, especially the ones in space.  Those outer space background plates look like terribly cartoonish and laughable.  You would NEVER release a film with these cheap looking digital effects into a movie theatre.  Even for a low budget direct-to-video feature they are horrible.  Some of the effects in the Earth based scenes are more easily blended, but still leave a lot of room for improvement.  It is sad that you see other films of that era like Blade Runner or Star Trek: The Motion Picture that have been given similar director’s cuts and digital touch-up jobs with immensely superior results.  The former being a cult classic that did poorly upon release, and the latter still being one of the more maligned entries in the franchise.  Superman II has always been a widely revered film since release, and fans had demanded a Donner version for years.  It’s a terrible shame that Warner Brothers didn’t allocate a larger effects budget to this project because it severely needed it.  History shows you cannot do good visual effects on the cheap, whether in the optical or digital eras.

Another arguable issue is that Richard Donner chose to downgrade the use of Ken Thorne’s original score for Lester’s version in favor of cutting and pasting various pieces of John Williams’ score from the first movie.  This reportedly includes some previously unreleased tracks.  For certain sequences, especially with Zod, Ursa, and Non on the moon, the original Thorne score is more effective highlighting more subtle flourishes and moments.  One can never deny the value of a John Williams score, but his tracks are compositions created for certain other scenes from another movie.  They aren’t going to flow or fit as well as Thorne’s music.  Not to mention, there are times where you can hear obvious chopped up cues that are simply manufacturing moments to fit the scene.  Again, this sort of stems from a low budget for this project.  If this project had enough money, they could have gotten it scored the way it was supposed to be instead of pasting random cues together.

On the upside, there are a number of other improved scenes.  I like the extended assault on the White House.  There’s a peculiar moment where Zod, bored at the lack of a challenge, picks up an assault rifle and starts just shooting the soldiers with it.  All the while he’s got this smirk of amusement on his face like a man playing with a child’s toy.  To him, that’s exactly what it is.  While the scene of Zod being bored after having ceased control of the world is present in both versions, I’d just like to comment on this exemplifying a thought of mine.  What exactly does an all powerful villain and tyrant do once they’ve conquered the world?  For Zod, he sits around being bored out of his skull all day long.  I find that rather funny.

The battle through Metropolis is extended with a few more fun and exciting moments, but the Lester version does feel a little tighter in places.  Yet, Donner’s cut removes so much of the humor that previously undercut the drama of the scene, which is very welcomed.  I also wholeheartedly feel that the climax in the Fortress of Solitude is vastly superior here.  It’s simply better written dialogue and interactions.  Zod and Superman have a more confrontational exchange of words that build upon elements from the Metropolis battle and Zod’s history with Jor-El.  It’s better staged and shot in a more interesting way.  It just has a better, more cumulative feel to it, and is not hampered by a battle of bizarre powers.  It’s very character based, and Donner knows how to pay-off characters amazingly well.

There is a problem with the ending of this version.  While the time reversal usage in the first film, which was transplanted from this film, was strange but nothing really objectionable, how it’s used here negates the events of the entire movie.  Superman reverses time back to the beginning of this movie so that none of it actually happened.  All of the maturing and development of his character is washed away because he no longer has to face the consequences of his actions.  Him destroying the Fortress of Solitude showing that he is now moving beyond that and standing on his own is negated because turning back time restores it.  I also don’t know how reversing time actually prevents the missile from not exploding and releasing Zod, Ursa, and Non from the Phantom Zone all over again.  That’s not addressed in the least.  Plus, Superman did nothing to prevent Luthor from escaping prison, and then, traveling to the Fortress to learn all his secrets all over again.  It’s an extremely sloppy ending, and far too much of a copout power for Superman to utilize.  Any mistake he ever makes can be immediately undone by reversing time.  This applies to the ending of the first film, too, but at least, it was used in a rage of emotion for an isolated incident.  This might as well have had Superman suddenly waking up at the end revealing that it was all a dream.  Furthermore, the jerk at the diner that beat up Clark when he didn’t have his powers, he’s still given a beat down by Clark in this version AFTER he’s already turned back time.  So, Clark is now beating up a guy for something he actually now hasn’t even done.  It’s just sloppy, incoherent structure.  Donner seemed to want everything poured into this without really rationalizing out what made sense to belong or not.

I think somewhere between the Richard Lester and Richard Donner cuts lies the ultimate version of Superman II.  Something that features the best quality performances, including Brando as Jor-El, with a main focus on serious drama, but with a more even pacing that does not favor one director’s footage over another’s.  Warner Brothers should put the right money into it to enhance the new effects, clean up the original optical effects, and get a composer to create a full score with a solid mix.  Not to mention, a semblance of a truly satisfying and smart ending that doesn’t rely on either a memory wiping kiss or a time reversal concept, if possible.  Again, I like the intention and creative direction of Donner’s version, but because it is only a rough draft approximation of the film he would have made, it doesn’t feel like a complete film.  If Donner had been able to shoot his complete film the way he intended to, I truly believe this cut would be so supremely better.  Instead, his ideas have to cut around and chop up footage he didn’t shoot and doesn’t care for.  It’s like trying to fix someone else’s mistake on a sculpture by chipping your way around the undesirable parts.  It’s going to look awkward and clunky.  I more or less believe Donner did the best he could with the footage he had in approximating his vision while adhering to the rules of the DGA to receive a director’s credit on this.  I really hate to speak so negatively about this version because it should be the better version of the two on principal, but on a structural level, it doesn’t really work the way it’s supposed to.  If this was a script, I would say it would need rewrites.  I really enjoy Donner’s extended cut of the first film, and I only own his director’s cuts of the first three Lethal Weapon movies.  So, he does make some great choices in the editing room, but this is too peculiar of a situation for him to forge the best, unbiased edition of Superman II.  This feels more like a workprint than a final product, and I would hope that a better revision on this film could someday exist in an official capacity.


Superman II (1980)

Superman IIThis is one of those rare sequels which does measure up to the original.  Superman II does have some peculiar history, though.  In short, the producers didn’t care to continue working with director Richard Donner very much, and sought to replace him after he had shot part of this film.  Thus, Richard Lester was hired to complete the film, and to gain proper directing credit, he had to re-shoot several sequences himself.  What was released to theatres was Lester’s version, and that is what I am reviewing here.  I do intend on doing a review of the 2006 Richard Donner cut of the film, but one thing at a time.  Let’s delve into what many consider the best film of this franchise, so far.

When a group of terrorists threaten to eradicate Paris with a nuclear bomb, Superman (Christopher Reeve) races to the rescue.  However, after he hurls the bomb into space, the explosion unexpectedly and unknowingly releases the Kryptonian criminals – led by General Zod (Terence Stamp) – from the Phantom Zone who begin to forge a path of destruction towards Earth.  Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from his own prison, and journeys to discover Superman’s secrets at the arctic Fortress of Solitude in hopes to harness that knowledge as a weapon.  As this all happens, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) begins to piece together Superman’s secret identity which leads to a romance between Lois and Clark Kent, but the sacrifices the Man of Steel will make for the woman he loves may leave the entire planet in dire circumstances under the tyranny of General Zod.

The film has a nice montage recap of the first film over the opening credits.  Back when this was released there was no home video market for people to re-watch these films whenever they liked, and so, adding this at the start helped audiences get the first Superman adventure freshly back into their minds.  Even for me as a child it was rather important since we had Superman II recorded on VHS well before the first film.  However, one obvious omission is the absence of Jor-El during the trial of Zod, Ursa, and Non.  This was because the producers did not want to pay Marlon Brando his salary again for using his footage in a second film.  So, the scene was reworked and re-cut to eliminate Jor-El completely, and much was the same with the Fortress of Solitude scenes later on.  Moving past that, I really like the opening to this film with the Paris terrorist action sequence.  It gives the film its action packed jump start, and shows that Superman as established himself as a global superhero.  Overall, it’s an excellently well done sequence that launches the narrative forward.

This sequel gives us more depth into Superman as he has to deal with a number of emotional choices.  He clearly loves Lois, but having to maintain the disguise of the bumbling Clark Kent becomes increasingly difficult.  When the truth is undeniably revealed, the romantic fire is fully lit between them, and it creates some wonderful moments that bring warmth and heart into the movie.  This is excellently juxtaposed with Zod’s reign of terror that gradually begins to loom over all of humanity starting from the moon to a rural town to Washington, D.C.  As Clark’s world is getting brighter with dramatic changes being made, the world is facing a terrible threat that only he can combat, yet is entirely aware of.  This is an excellent piece of storytelling dynamics.  When the two stories finally cross paths, it creates a crushing reality check for Clark that I think is one of the best scenes of the film that shows us the character at his most vulnerable state.

Christopher Reeve puts in an amazing performance here giving us great depth in this far more vulnerable and emotional story.  The romance with Lois is touchingly played out with charm, heart, and genuine tenderness with both Reeve and Kidder.  They have a heartwarming chemistry that resonates through the screen.  What Clark is willing to give up to be with Lois is powerful, but it’s the little bit that happens afterwards that I love.  Unlike many super-powered heroes, Superman is one who doesn’t just give up when he’s lost his powers.  When he sees that the world direly needs him, he will go to any length, brave any danger, and face even the slimmest odds to set things right once again.  This film perfectly portrays that inspiring strength, and Reeve does a magnificent job reflecting the emotional turmoil over Clark’s decisions.  Yet, when Clark becomes Superman once again, he stands tall ready to live up to his responsibilities to the world in grand fashion.

Terence Stamp, of course, has become iconic as General Zod.  His Zod can be cool, calm, and confident when things are going his way.  He knows that his destructive powers make all the emphatic statements necessary for him, and so, when confronting the army or even the President, Stamp allows for Zod’s ominous presence to settle in and take over.  However, when circumstances turn against him, when the control begins to slip away, he becomes heated and commanding.  He speaks in a louder, more authoritative voice such as when Superman confronts him, and he yells the classic line of, “Kneel before ZOD!”  Overall, Zod is intelligent and cunning, but it’s his ego that works against him in those excitable situations.  Stamp is a stellar, powerhouse actor who knows when intensity is needed, but is able to excel in the quieter moments of villainy where Zod’s confidence shows through.

Sarah Douglas puts in a graceful performance as Ursa that maintains her as feminine, but also, sadistic and venomous.  It’s perfectly femme fatale without showing a sliver of weakness.  She has a great presence that really complements Terence Stamp as Zod.  She’s also sexy without having to flaunt anything.  It’s all about Ursa’s attitude and how she carries herself that makes her alluring.  One can easily see why Zod would want her at his side as she enjoys destruction and violence as well as being a beautiful, dangerous woman.

I also love how Gene Hackman’s Luthor is used in this film.  They expand his character and show more of his intellectual savvy.  Sure, he can still come off as comical here and there as he boasts his ego, but he’s just a bit smarter than anyone else around him.  How he discovers the Fortress of Solitude and learns about the history of Superman is great stuff.  Hackman has great chemistry with everyone, and I’m glad Otis and Miss Teschmacher are ultimately left behind after the first act.  This allows Lex to be unhindered by their foolishness when he confronts the Kryptonian villains.  Zod becomes so desperate for a challenge he’s ready to charge headlong into it.  However, Luthor uses his cunning and leverage to manipulate them so that he can benefit from their conquests.  I really like Hackman’s work here, and working opposite Terence Stamp’s more militaristic presence allows him to shine more.  It’s a nice balance of a serious, powerful threat and an intellectual one with a sense of levity to him.

Now, the major detriment that Richard Lester brought to this film is its sense of silly humor.  We see this mostly in Non who is given many quirky high pitched grunts, and moments where he seems like an overgrown child.  This was entirely unnecessary as Non being a dumb brute would be far more intimidating and remain consistent with the tone of these villains.  Still, there are moments peppered throughout the movie where little gags appear that were simply not needed, and they work against the dramatic integrity of the movie.  Those comedic grunts from Non were entirely done in post.  Jack O’Holloran has an imposing, sort of scary presence as Non, and in general, what he does in his performance is very effective, aside from the overgrown child ideas which were obviously not of his creation.  At the time, I imagine much of the camp humor was fine with audiences, and for years, it wasn’t a bother to me.  However, time allows you to crave a more consistently dramatic tone.  That’s the film’s strength, but Richard Lester apparently wanted more laughs for whatever reason.

Now, what has most come to bother me about the reign of terror from Zod and company is that they tear apart some remote rural town.  I would have preferred seeing them tear apart a major city.  Something that makes a grander sized statement to the world, and lays waste on a larger scale.  The small rural town, to me, just feels like something that would be done a cheap budget.  I get the feeling that those scenes were directed by Richard Lester as much of the comedic qualities seen within them were excised in the Richard Donner version.  While the Kryptonian villains eventually battle Superman throughout Metropolis, I feel setting their initial assault on humanity in a place of larger importance would have been more effective.  In the least, the rural town has no scope and is shot rather blandly.  It would have been great to see a return to the sweeping cinematic visuals in Smallville of the first film to amp-up this section of the movie.

The score by Ken Thorne, a regular collaborator of Richard Lester, does reuse John Williams’ themes and cues, but in the film itself, the score sounds kind of thin.  However, there was apparently a remastered soundtrack release done in recent years that reflected a much richer and more lush mixing job.  Thorne doesn’t do a bad job, but it is really all built on the strength of Williams’ compositions, which have always been exceptional.  It really comes down to a weaker sound mix this time out, but regardless, the score does add a lot of life to the emotional qualities of the film.

The other strange quality of the movie is all the additional new powers that are given to Superman, Zod, and the rest.  This is most prominently on display in the climax at the Fortress of Solitude with the energy beams shot out from their fingers, and all the teleportation and illusionary powers shown.  Yet, earlier on, Zod and company demonstrate telekinetic type powers.  These are also detriments to the film that are more apparent in Lester’s cut, and possibly sprung from his involvement.  It shows an unfamiliarity with the source material.  There was indeed a time where Superman gained all kinds of crazy powers in the comics, but his core, classic set of powers have long been easily defined in many forms of media.  Anyone with a decent knowledge of the character would know that none of these powers are Superman’s.

Regardless, the vast majority of the effects here are great.  As with the first movie, there are a few lesser grade moments of visual effects work, but on the whole, we are treated to some exciting and visually satisfying stuff.  The entire battle in Metropolis is quite ambitious with a number of large set pieces involved.  The transition from location shooting in New York to soundstages is quite good.  The lighting is consistent with some very good backdrops, and some rear screen projection work done in the more dynamic flying moments.  Surely, it’s not as impressive by today’s standards, but for 1980, the year I was born, this was some exciting action and movie magic.  It gave us Superman actually battling a super-powered adversary, and three of them nonetheless.  Yet, what I really like is that Superman ultimately puts the safety of the civilians foremost, and chooses to end this confrontation with smarts and cunning back at the Fortress of Solitude.  While some might see it as anti-climactic after such an action packed throw down, I think this sequence has some great pay-offs.

The film ends on some good notes, but also some odd ones.  The memory wiping kiss that Clark uses on Lois is another bizarre inclusion by Richard Lester.  Of course, having grown up with it, this is one of those things you take for granted until someone else starts criticizing it, as I have heard.  However, this is a beautifully heartbreaking scene as Lois sheds tears over her crushing emotional conflicts.  She understands that Superman can’t belong to one person, he has to belong to the whole world, but she loves him so dearly that she can’t just detach herself from her feelings.  Clark can’t bare to see her in such pain, and so, he relieves her of that knowledge.  This segues into the very good moment where Superman comes to the White House, and promises the President that he’ll never let him down again.  It shows that he’s gone through an arc, and now fully understands his role in the world.  He’s committed himself to the protection of humanity, and he has to be selfless in order to live up to his promise to the world.  Superman does face problems on a larger scale than we can relate to, but we understand his story and what being Superman requires from him.  Superman is a hero who will never shy away from his responsibilities to the world because of the burden that comes with being the greatest superhero of all time.

Superman II does have many great qualities of depth, drama, and action.  It is very worthy of its reputation of being a fantastic sequel.  It builds upon the characters and ideas in the first film, and breaks it open in a film with thematic material and purposeful arcs that have good pay-offs.  It also far and beyond surpasses the first film in terms of action, and the effects work is a little more improved.  Christopher Reeve has more room to breathe and expand, and he really shows a powerful depth and range.  We get some great villains that have become iconic which transcended through pop culture.  Still, the film could have done without the slapstick humor, the child-like qualities of Non, the out-of-nowhere new powers everyone has, and the visual gags that Lester slipped in here and there.  The change from Marlon Brando’s Jor-El to the mother Lara in the Fortress advising Kal-El is not horrible, but those scenes don’t resonate as deeply as they could have with Brando.  Regardless, this film delivers a wonderfully enjoyable, entertaining, and nicely dramatic experience with plenty of romantic warmth and emotional depth.  It is unfortunate that the following two sequels sharply declined in quality, but the pleasure is in enjoying what it is you have to cherish.  Superman II is definitely a fine piece of superhero cinema that deserves to be treasured despite any shortcomings it might have.


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.


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.


Highlander: The Final Dimension (1994)

Coming three years after the disaster that was Highlander 2: The Quickening, this sequel absolutely plays it safe.  It also demonstrates a lack of ambition or originality in how much it directly borrows from the first movie without even disguising it.  The highly successful television series starring Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod was already on the air, but the producers of the franchise decided to give Connor MacLeod another theatrical outing.  It surely doesn’t measure up to the first film, as it is a formulaic sequel, but it is an enjoyable film that did have some good potential.

In 16th century Japan, immortal Scotsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is mentored by the sorcerer and master of illusion Nakano (Mako).  However, when an evil, ravaging immortal named Kane (Mario Van Peebles) raids a nearby village, and comes looking for the sorcerer, the ensuing quickening from Nakano’s death seals Kane and his minions in the mountain cave for the next four centuries.  In present day, an excavation is underway to determine the truth of the legend of Nakano, headed up by archaeologist Alexandra Johnson (Deborah Unger).  However, this excavation aids Kane in his escape from the cave, and immediately begins his search for MacLeod.  Since his defeat of the Kurgan, Connor has adopted a son, but also, lost his wife Brenda to a car accident which he survived without a scratch.  He’s known he was not the last immortal, and now, he knows that it is Kane who still lives.  Both Connor MacLeod and Kane travel to New York, the site of the Gathering, to do battle and claim The Prize once and for all.

This story is fairly good, but would even be rather average for the television series.  It’s nothing exceptional or stunning.  It’s not trying to do anything original or break new ground for the franchise, and it knows it.  It’s more playing around in the world of Highlander, having a little bit of fun, but not trying to build upon anything.  As with the previous sequel, gone is the sense of magic and mystery.  Connor MacLeod is still portrayed well by Christopher Lambert, still injecting some charm and confidence into the role.  However, it really is that sense of world weariness that made him captivating to begin with.  You could feel the weight and aura of centuries lived in Lambert’s performance.  It gave the character depth and texture.  Here, all that is absent, and instead, we get a much more standard protagonist who is enjoyable, yet lacks gravitas to really draw in an audience.  The thing is with this movie is that it feels like a second rate version of Highlander, but in the least, it never takes itself too seriously for too long.  This is mainly by way of the character of Kane.

Mario Van Peebles is an excellent talent in front of and behind the camera, and I know this is not representative of his highest acting qualities.  There are both positives and negatives to say about his performance as Kane.  How you take his performance is based on how you want to perceive the movie.  In general, he’s basically a carbon copy of the Kurgan only not written as well, and portrayed with an especially over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek mentality.  Van Peebles even puts on a very gravely Kurgan-esque voice as Kane, which bares next to no resemblance to his natural voice.  As Kane, he certainly has formidable moments where we see how lethal and vile Kane truly is, solidifying his weight and threat as a villain.  However, Van Peebles is entirely indulging himself in this role, and if you choose to view the film as a fun, lightweight flick, you can certainly find enjoyment from this performance.  Mario Van Peebles is clearly enjoying living in the skin of this villain with his performance bordering on campy.  He’s certainly a long way off from chewing as much scenery as Bruce Payne did in Highlander: Endgame, though.  Still, Kane is written with some rather unrealistic dialogue.  For a guy that’s been buried in a cave for the last four hundred years, he certainly has picked up late twentieth century slang quite swiftly in addition to learning how to drive a car.  Throughout the film, even in the sixteenth century scenes, he entirely comes off like a modern villain instead of one displaced in time and culture.

Also, while the design of Kane is pretty awesome with the long hair, goatee, and tattoos, I think the nipple rings are just a tad too much.  They are on both his armor and himself, and just make Kane more modern looking than he should be.  Thankfully, we’re not exposed to them long as Kane adopts some very good looking Asian style threads.  It again comes off as an attempt to emulate the style of the Kurgan, but with a 90s flavor.  I really do believe Kane could’ve been taken in a much more credible direction, and made for a slightly more original and straightly serious villain.  Instead, the filmmakers chose the route of levity.  Still, there are other issues which hold the film down from being as good as it could have been.

Regardless, whether you call this The Final Dimension or The Sorcerer, this does feel more like the kind of sequel one would expect.  It follows up on the police investigation threads from the first movie, and uses footage and dialogue from the original to further the story and character points forward.  It might seem a little frivolous at times, but I don’t have much of a gripe with it.  I like how this was done in Endgame as well.  However, there is flashing back to the first movie for context, and then, there’s badly copying scenes from that same movie.

Such is the case when Kane goes on a psychotic joy ride with Connor’s adopted son.  It’s a real poor excuse considering none of the danger is actually real, just an illusion generated by Kane.  It’s a pathetic and blatant attempt to recapture something awesome from the first film while doing it with only a fraction of the talent. Even if done nearly as well, it would still be lame because it’s a retread instead of trying to do something original.  Even kidnapping a loved one of Connor’s to force a final confrontation also emulates what the Kurgan did in the first movie.  It is stuff like this which make this movie a pale imitation of the original Highlander.

I will give credit to the aspect of the police investigation.  Lieutenant John Stenn remembers the original string of beheadings, and who the sole suspect was at the time.  With MacLeod back in town with a new beheading, he immediately puts it all back together.  It is a part of this story that makes the film feel like a continuation of the first, and I do feel it was well done.  Stenn has an understandable contempt for MacLeod, and is quite dogged about his investigation.  It is a pretty good performance by actor Martin Neufeld.

Deborah Unger is very good in her dual roles.  However, I do find the entire aspect of Alex bearing a dead-on resemblance to a centuries past lost love of Connor’s to be unnecessary and a little forced.  The romantic relationship between Alex and Connor could’ve easily worked without that odd connection, and possibly could’ve had more time to develop without those flashbacks.  I think this idea was only there so that the filmmakers could have occasional flashback sequences to better resemble the style of the original movie.  It’s not badly handled, but it does feel like a diversion from the actual relevant aspects of the plot.

Regardless, Unger does a very fine job as the film’s female lead.  Her performance is very grounded showing a fine range of levity, passion, and dramatic weight.  She carries herself very solidly, and works very well opposite Lambert.  Also, Deborah Unger is probably the sexiest, most sultry looking woman of the Highlander films.  She even insisted on not using a body double for the fully nude and steamy sex scene late in the film.  While the romantic storyline between Connor and Alex doesn’t develop as strongly as other Highlander loves have, it is serviceable, and nicely played by both actors.

I will also hand it to this film’s cinematographer.  This is a very well shot and well lit movie.  The bowels of the hospital where Connor encounters Kane’s henchman has some gorgeous blues and oranges creating a beautiful atmosphere.  Overall, we get some very cinematic camera angles and movement with stellar work when it comes to the action sequences and sword fights.  While the film lacks the epic grandeur and sweeping visual quality that was a given with Russell Mulcahy, I will give it credit for looking quite a bit better than your usual 1990s fare from Dimension Films.  This can possibly be credited to director Andy Morahan being primarily a music video director, same as where Mulcahy started out.  He knows how to capture great visuals, and that is in no dispute here.  Although, it seems Morahan never broke out from music videos.  This was his first feature film, and he’s not done much of anything else outside of music videos ever since.  He directs this film pretty well, handling the action, drama, and levity of it very evenly.  It certainly isn’t an example of a breakout directorial debut, but there have been far worse action filmmakers out there who have had bigger careers making lower quality films.  So, I will say that this is a decent first outing for Morahan.

As far as action goes, I actually think the film’s best sword fight is not the climax, but when Connor and Kane fight inside the former Buddhist temple.  It’s a very dynamic fight with some great physical and dialogue exchanges.  With the duel being on Holy Ground, it ends in a very startling way as the blades of Connor and Kane’s swords shatter.  It shows one ominous way such betrayals of the rules are dealt with.  The final climactic duel is a well executed sequence with great cinematography and good effects.  It is very physically intense.  However, it has one stinging point I will get to momentarily.

The orchestral score by J. Peter Robinson is very good.  I particularly enjoyed the Japanese and Middle Eastern flourishes at the appropriate moments creating a unique musical atmosphere.  The score is very thrilling and vibrant with a plenty of character.  What I have a problem with is the clunky use of second rate hard rock songs in this film.  With the original movie, Queen naturally brought an epic and emotionally rich depth to the film with their songs alongside Michael Kamen’s gorgeous score.  Highlander 2 essentially focused only on Stewart Copeland’s grand, operatic score.  With this film, these rock songs are just bad and obnoxious, and don’t complement Robinson’s score at all.  The worst part comes in the climactic battle between Kane and MacLeod.  Someone recorded a blatant knock-off of Mötley Crüe’s “Dr. Feelgood,” and it terribly degrades the entire climax.  I’m sure Robinson could’ve composed something beautifully dramatic and triumphant instead of that schlock.  Where the filmmakers get it right with the licensed music is with Loreena McKennitt’s version of “Bonny Portmore.”  This is a gorgeous and deeply emotional song which would become a staple of the franchise from here on out.  I really adore its beauty.

On the up side, the visual effects are very good.  During the 90s, movie goers were treated to a lot of primitive CGI, but this movie really gives us some good quality effects.  The illusions of Nakano and Kane are given a great, magical look that flow very smoothly with the on-screen action.  There’s nary a bad effect anywhere in the film, save for the quickening flashing across the Moroccan desert sky.  Otherwise, this really is some beautiful work.

Although, I think the filmmakers kind of took a wide liberty with the term “illusion.”  An illusion shouldn’t allow Kane to transform into a bird and fly away.  Even the ability to create solid objects from either Kane or Nakano is arguable as an illusion.  They should’ve just came out and said it was straight up magic.  Although, I know even that gets into a muddled area in that, if it is full-on magic, why would it be that either man can do only so little with the power.  Nether of them is exactly Merlin casting spells and unleashing epic, fantastical wizardry.  So, it’s a real strange line to walk, and is probably best not to scrutinize it.  Still, this is a review, and that’s what I’m meant to do.

I think what this film lacks the most is depth.  Emotions don’t run very deep, and we don’t really get much under the skin of these characters.  Again, Connor doesn’t feel like the same textured and fascinating character we had from the first Highlander.  I hate to continually make comparisons back to the first movie, but this film begs so much comparison that it is impossible to avoid it.  Nakano is a decent character, but has really no depth of any kind to offer.  The late Mako was very beloved in certain fandoms, but I don’t find his performance here very inspiring.  Whether or not you compared him to Sean Connery’s Ramirez, he is quite forgettable.  The film does have its moments of touching beauty and decent depth, but it does entirely feel like the filmmakers playing it safe.  They are not trying to dig into the soul of their characters, and that’s really a major mistake.  Case in point would be the French Revolution flashbacks would have worked so much better if there was more substance to grasp onto.  We get only glimpses of Connor and Sarah being in love.  It’s very weakly presented, and since it bares no relevance or impact upon the main plot with Connor and Kane, the filmmakers don’t spend great amounts of time on it.  I’m certainly not saying this is a terrible script, just a mediocre one that could’ve had better potential in more talented and motivated hands.  It worked for a fun action adventure film, but against the brilliant standards set with the original movie, it’s undoubtedly mediocre.

I had intended to offer some comparison between the director’s cut and the European cut of the film, but any differences are very minor.  The director’s cut adds in some more effects shots to enhance Kane’s sorcery, most notably with his arrival in New York being via a portal instead of just walking out on the docks as if he traveled by ship.  At the end, the European version excises the reuse of effects shots from Connor winning The Prize in the first Highlander that were present in both the theatrical and director’s cuts.  Sadly, the only change in the soundtrack comes at the end credits where the director’s cut has another bad hard rock track while the European cut features “Bonny Portmore” once again.  Both cuts are available on Region 1 DVD.  The original 1998 DVD has the true director’s cut, but the 2005 and 2011 DVDs, which claim to also be the “Special Director’s Cut,” are actually the European version only with the opening title card changed from Highlander III: The Sorcerer to Highlander: The Final Dimension.  I would lean towards buying the newer DVD since the film is given the anamorphic widescreen treatment resulting in vastly superior picture quality.  The image is clearer and colors are much more vibrant.  So, I am glad to have purchased it, regardless of there being no dramatic differences in the content of the film.

Ultimately, Highlander III is that sequel in the franchise that doesn’t get much attention.  The others have very notable issues that are hotly contested amongst fans, but this one keeps a low profile despite also having its fair share of mild problems.  While it surely doesn’t re-ignite the magic that the original movie captured, it’s a fun, disposable film that has its merits, but ultimately, can be forgotten about without a problem.  As is the difficulty in making a sequel to the original, where it ended definitively, the filmmakers had to indulge in a cheap end-runaround to make a sequel where there are still immortals out there.  Again, if you’re looking just for a fun movie that’s not going to take itself too seriously, then you can enjoy this movie.  I do find it entertaining but lacking in substance.  In my opinion, it’s a step in a better direction than Highlander 2: The Quickening, but not as good as what was being done on the television series at the time.


Wolf (1994)

Good werewolf movies are very hard to come by.  That was until I came across Wolf a few years ago.  Fronted by two amazingly electric actors in Jack Nicholson and James Spader along with a very tantalizing Michelle Pfeiffer, I couldn’t love this film more.  It’s a different approach that is far more modern and character driven with these supernatural aspect slowly weaved into the plot.

Worn down and out of luck, aging publisher Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is at the end of his rope when his co-worker and protégé, Stewart Swinton (James Spader), snatches both his job and wife out from under his nose.  However, after being bit by a wolf on a snowy road, Will suddenly finds himself energized, more competitive than ever, and possessed with amazingly heightened senses.  Meanwhile, Laura Alden (Michelle Pfeiffer), the beautiful daughter of his shrewd boss, begins to fall for him – without realizing that the man she’s begun to love is gradually turning into the creature by which he was bit.

As should go without saying, Jack Nicholson is excellent in this movie.  He gives us a performance that is mostly low key with modest manner and sense of heart.  He’s a man living a less than stellar life, and that downtrodden feeling seeps into the cracks of the performance.  There’s also the increasing worry about his wolf bite that truly begins to affect Will adversely.  However, of course, Nicholson is able to turn on his mojo and even delve into a feral side that is fierce and primal.

It’s slightly humorous how the enhanced senses manifest in Will Randall.  There’s a few funny moments, like being able to smell the tequila on a co-worker early in the morning, or how he doesn’t even realize that he can read perfectly without his reading glasses.  However, it takes a more unsettling turn when he can start hearing far away voices throughout his office complex.  Still, the film is able to maintain an occasional sense of levity mostly from the charisma of Nicholson and Spader.  I love how the wolf instincts make Will more aggressive, able to take stand against his co-workers and boss.  He becomes a man of bravado and cutthroat actions instead of a weaker willed pushover that he was.  So, at first, this is all a good change in his character, but gradually, the wolf bite effects begin to take a more ferocious and bloodletting turn.

James Spader is wonderfully sleazy, as appears to be his regular strength, as Will’s apprentice / rival.  Stewart is conniving and deceitful with no ethical or moral compass.  He’s a real snake in the grass that will smile to your face while stabbing you in the back, and Spader makes it a richly enjoyable performance.  He really excels in these kinds of roles, portraying them pitch perfect to make the character detestable while still being wholly entertaining.  Awesomely, he gets the chance to just go full boar with it by the end with a very fearsome performance.  This really is all the vile, juicy Spader you could ever want.

It’s surprising how good the chemistry is between Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer.  There’s a nineteen year age difference between them, but that seems to work better for these characters.  Will Randall is a more worn out, tired career man while Laura Alden is young, vibrant, and intriguing.  Pfeiffer certainly has a seductive aura about her that creates a dangerous air to the relationship.  There’s plenty of sexual charisma to spare with both her and Nicholson.  Overall, she does a tremendous job with this character who does have a harder, jaded exterior with a more approachable, comforting core.

The supporting cast of Wolf is also stellar.  Most notably is Christopher Plummer’s gracefully egotistical, but also authoritative Raymond Alden, the owner of the publishing house.  He carries a substantial weight as this slightly ruthless boss who insincerely sugar coats things.  He has a great presence and a subtle way of acting that results in a lot of dimension coming out on screen.

The mystical ideas of the demon wolf are beautifully conveyed.  There’s a grounded sensibility from Dr. Alezais when he tells Will of the lore.  It’s not the ravings of some wild witch doctor, but of a man of science and research.  He believes in the possibility that this mystical lore is true, and he sells the dreaded reality of it very convincingly.  It comes at the right point in the film where both Will and the audience have experienced enough to believe that something supernatural is taking a hold of him.  So, we are all ripe to fully believe what he has to say.

I love the make-up effects from Rick Baker, a go-to master for werewolves from his work on The Howling and An American Werewolf in London.  While it is just some added facial hair, fangs, and yellow contact lenses, the visual of Nicholson in this make-up is frightening.  He looks like a wild animal that would stop your heart at the real life sight of.  Yet, he’s not the only one.  Although, I do not wish to spoil anything, but the make-up is extremely creepy upon the face of another actor.

Director Mike Nichols had this film shot in a way that was rather uncommon for the time it was made.  In many cases, it feels like a classic monster movie in its cinematography.  Preferring some dramatic camera zoom-ins over dolly shot push-ins, using rear screen projection during the driving scenes, and employing conservative editing resulting in some beautifully long takes, it partially feels like something from the black and white era.  Yet, it is such a brilliantly shot, composed, and executed film that it undeniably has a modern edge and beauty to it.  There’s a great sense of artistic horror and suspense to appeal to modern audiences.  There’s not much gore here, but there is a wealth of ferocious veracity that will satiate your desire for intense, horrific, primal violence.

The climax is absolutely wild.  Everything really converges in an animalistic confrontation that delivers in a hugely dramatic and savage high point.  How it all ultimately ends is tragically heartbreaking and powerful.  Yet, it still has a nice quirky and mesmerizing punch right at the end, too.  Mike Nichols’ ability to pull off these complex tones which mesh unsettling tension with a dash of quirky humor is really marvelous.  How this film progresses from a light drama about Will Randall’s inter-office politics and his developing romantic relationship with Laura to a full-on werewolf horror film is amazing.  That’s actually why this film works.  It builds these characters up into a realistic setting with convincing relationships and conflicts.  They are charismatic and entertaining characters that really invest your interest.  Then, the film gradually builds up the supernatural wolf element as it begins to affect Will’s behavior from a re-invigorated, confident man to a frightening metamorphosis that he deathly fears.  It’s a wonderful twisting arc that never loses credibility or its grounded sensibilities.  The conflicts it establishes, and the relationships it grows remain an integral part of the story all the way through.  It really is a stellar work of screenwriting by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick, and a brilliant directing job by Mike Nichols.

Add in an excellent score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, and you’ve got one hell of a great film that I dearly love.  It’s a real gem I only discovered a few Octobers ago, and have really wanted to share my admiration for it for a long time.  Wolf was actually delayed into release by several months to completely re-shoot the entire third act of the movie. Whatever they did is entirely seamless.  I cannot see any deviation in quality or story to hint at what was changed.  There was no novelization, and no script available online to find out what the original third act was.  I’m certainly intrigued, but the film that was released is entirely amazing and I wouldn’t change a thing.  As I said, good werewolf movies are hard to come by, and I think Wolf is a surprising pleasure.  There was no shortage of remarkable talent behind this film, and that talent shines through in every moment.  I think it’s a great and original horror films with a lot of entertainment value to offer any audience.


Dracula (1979)

Dracula.  The name is legendary in the world of horror.  There have been countless portrayals of the infamous Count throughout the decades.  In the late 1970s, a stage play was produced with a unique take on the original novel focusing more on a seductive Dracula than the gory, fearsome one.  In both the stage production and this film adaptation, the iconic role was portrayed by the excellent Frank Langella.  Directed by John Badham, this is a very interesting presentation of this story that I feel is very successful, even if the horror factor does not rival its brethren.

When a ship is wrecked off Whitby, the only survivor, Count Dracula (Frank Langella), is discovered lying on the beach by the sickly young Mina (Jan Francis), who is visiting her dear friend Lucy Seward (Kate Nelligan).  Lucy, her fiancé Johnathan Harker (Trevor Eve), and her father Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasance), who runs the local asylum, try to make the Count feel welcome to England.  The Count quickly takes the life of Mina, and proceeds to romance Lucy, with the intention of making her his greatest bride.  Soon after the death of Mina, the Sewards call her father, Dr. Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) to come to their home.  As Lucy falls deeper under the spell of the Count, Dr. Van Helsing almost immediately comes to understand that his daughter fell prey to a vampire and discovers the culprit to be none other than the Count himself.  Dr. Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, and Johnathan Harker work together to foil the Count’s plans to take Lucy away to his native Transylvania.

I feel this really is more of a performance-driven film as the plot doesn’t captivate very much.  It’s quite standard for a adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel.  Thankfully, the cast is especially exceptional.  Frank Langella is undoubtedly the most seductive and sensual Count Dracula ever committed to film.  With every glance of his eyes, every graceful movement, every soothing, hypnotic word he speaks, it fully enraptures an audience into the Count’s spell.  Langella has been told by many fans how their wives were so greatly turned on by his performance, and the husband’s benefitted nicely from it.  The wardrobe was meticulously assembled to give him the right flowing and iconic quality, and Langella envelopes that ideal beautifully.  He has such a striking presence from his first entrance to the end.  He truly commands a scene bringing a shadowy majesty to all he does.  The performance is captivating reflecting the centuries old wisdom and power Dracula has gained, making him a dangerous and fearsome evil to combat.  The character himself is depicted as a more lonely individual who feels a sadness being isolated from the world.  Words spoken with great zeal by Bela Lugosi about the creatures of the night are turned around with a sorrowful tone by Langella.  It makes Dracula a more sympathetic figure who yearns for an eternal love to end his pain of loneliness.  He doesn’t wish to damn Lucy, he wants to be with her for all time, to love her in the darkness.

Sir Laurence Olivier is also a sympathetic figure as Abraham Van Helsing.  He inhabits the intellect of the Professor well, but since the story makes it that Mina is his daughter, there is an added depth of emotion here.  As anyone should expect from this magnificent actor, Olivier brings great theatricality and soulful breadth to this portrayal.  Despite his grief for Mina, Van Helsing has a solid strength and conviction which makes him a formidable adversary for the Count.  Olivier puts on a peculiar accent as Van Helsing which is further unique since all other actors in the role have just used their native English accent.  It’s just one more thing that helps him make this role his own.

Lucy Seward is wonderfully portrayed by Kate Nelligan.  She has an elegant, soft beauty about her that is perfect.  She brings forth a great depth of love and pain just in her eyes alone.  How Lucy is mesmerized and caught up in Dracula’s power is realized with a dynamic expression of soul and heartache.  You can feel the connection between Lucy and Dracula so deeply throughout the film, and is never anything but powerful and beautiful.

The rest of the cast is remarkably solid.  Donald Pleasance is great as Dr. Jack Seward smartly keeping up with Olivier, and never faltering in anything he does.  Trevor Eve is quite distinct as Jonathan Harker, but spends most of the film in contempt of Dracula to really breakout into showing his love for Lucy.  There are a few moments where he has the opportunity, but they don’t last long enough to be fleshed out.  While all other roles are rather small, the actors in those roles maintain the level of quality and commitment as the leads.

Now, there are moments of fearsome horror, but it’s more suspenseful than frightening.  There’s enough dramatic conflict and ghastly encounters to maintain this in the realm of horror.  When Van Helsing enters the underground cave, and is confronted by his now undead daughter, the make-up upon her is very ghoulish.  While its not played for startling scares, the suspense and emotion of the scene is strong.  It’s clear that John Badham wanted to make an elegant horror film instead of a shocking one, and I can respect that.  The atmosphere created around Dracula in certain scenes make him both enrapturing and chilling.  Ultimately, this is tragic vampire love story that has sophistication and grace in addition to its fair share of creepy imagery.  I think the ambiguous ending is rightly appropriate to the mysterious qualities of the Count.

The visual effects are very impressive, and handled by the legendary Albert Whitlock.  He’s done amazing work on numerous productions over his sixty year career, and this is no exception.  Dracula’s transformations into bats and wolves are done very artistically using some beautiful techniques which add to the elegance of the film.  It’s rarely anything noticeably elaborate, but these effects are no less impressive because of that.

The masterful John Williams did the score for Dracula, and it is grandiose and sweeping.  The main theme is both haunting and romantic, a perfect encapsulation for this story.  As always, Williams did a marvelous job creating something unique and operatic for a film that deserved a rich musical experience.

The film is brilliantly shot by veteran cinematographer Gilbert Taylor.  In his more than fifty year career, he most notably shot Dr. Strangelove, Frenzy, The Omen, and Star Wars.  Dracula is simply a gorgeous film through and through with mystifying atmosphere, alluring lighting, and artistic and competent compositions.  It masterfully showcases the amazing production designs in great breadth and detail.  Said production designs are exquisite with elaborate, theatrical scope to them, especially in Carfax Abbey.  While some are divided on the expressionistic love scene with the red laser light and all, it really didn’t elicit a generally strong emotion from me either way.  I surely advocate that it is outside of the style of the film, but one could make the case for Dracula and Lucy’s sexual encounter needing to be a heightened sensual experience.  Of course, there are other ways to do that which don’t date the film in the late 1970s.  The filmmakers actually borrowed the laser lights from the rock band The Who on a day off from their concert tour.  That aside, there’s really not a single technical that fails to impress in this film.  It truly is gorgeous.

However, I have to take issue with director John Badham’s alterations to the color timing of the film.  He originally wanted to make this as a black & white film, but Universal Pictures vetoed that idea.  Thus, when the film was given the widescreen laserdisc treatment in 1991, Badham de-saturated much of the color from the film leaving it with a flat color palette.  This mostly affects the darker or exterior scenes giving the picture a rather bleek, muggy look.  Knowing that he had done this, I did boost the color setting on my television to partially compensate, but much was still left to be desired.  It’s simply the fact that a film needs to be shot and lit as a black & white film for it to work in that sort of presentation.  Dracula was not shot in that way.  Regardless of this fact, the 2004 DVD does look quite good with good picture quality, if it is a tad dim, but I can see the potentially vibrant film that this once was.

Regardless of this, there is still an excellent motion picture to be had here.  Again, granted, there’s not much in the way of true horror that will affect a modern audience, but if you’re looking for a romantic vampire film done right, you would be hard pressed to find one better than this.  It is interesting to note that, as a stipulation, Frank Langella did not don any fangs at any point during the movie, and specifically did not want blood on his face.  He wanted to maintain a certain level of integrity, and avoid the clichés that other Draculas had indulged in.  I think it generally works for a film of this style and tone.  It helps maintain a level of humanity in Count Dracula which enhances the heart and soul of his tragic character.  This iteration of Dracula might not be for everyone, but I truly like the change of approach here.  I can watch a gory Dracula film at anytime in a dozen or more different versions, but this gave me something different with the talent and artistic quality to make it very successful.


Interview With The Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994)

There are countless interpretations of vampires out there.  Whether it is from Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, John Carpenter, or Joss Whedon – vampires will continue to be explored in literature, films, and television.  What Anne Rice has presented the world is a very classical, romantic, and aristocratic view of nosferatu.  It seems that many may have soured to this interpretation in recent years, at least in the filmed media.  With films like The Lost Boys, Fright Night, John Carpenter’s Vampires, and the television series of Angel and Buffy The Vampire Slayer integrating vampires into a modern setting with pop culture references and humor.  Still, Anne Rice’s view will likely remain the most traditional perception.

Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt) has chosen to grant an interview to a persistent reporter in Daniel Malloy (Christian Slater) in present day San Francisco, California.  Louis is, in fact, a vampire.  This easily takes Daniel by surprise, and is even more shocked to learn it is true.  Louis tells the tale of his life in darkness, as a vampire.  After the death of his wife and child in the year 1791, life lost its meaning for him, and he welcomed death at every turn.  Although, it would never come until he met Lestat (Tom Cruise), who offered him a new life where pain, death, and disease would no longer be a burden to him.  Still, he would have no idea the endless agony that would await him.  Louis spins the tale of two hundred years from Louisiana to Paris and beyond.  Encountering others of his kind, leaving a trail of blood, pain, sorrow, and death behind him.  It is a compelling and enthralling story which has many twists and some surprises.

There’s so much to praise about this film.  Director Neil Jordan gives us a beautiful sense of time and place.  With so much of this film being a period piece extending from the late eighteenth century to the present day, that is the most critical element in this film.  The landscapes are indeed gorgeous with a rich depth and a textured history.  The production designs and values are impressive and masterful.  This is award winning work.  I don’t think I really have the words to express how spectacular, epic, and grand it all is.  Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography compliments it all greatly and beautifully.  I have never seen anything else from Jordan, but I know that this film shows an immense breadth of artistry that I’m sure transcends into his other films.  Though, elegance is essentially the one word to describe this film.  Every second is filled with it from Elliot Goldenthal’s classical score to the performance of the actors.

Brad Pitt is sympathetic as a tortured man condemned to endure it all forever.  As a vampire, who knows for certain if he has a soul (again, depends on your chosen interpretation of them), but it becomes hard to dispute that Louis does.  He so tries to fight against his nature, to be a decent person, and thus, eventually finds nothing but agony from this eternity.  He does not seek death – he could easily step into the daylight and let himself fry – but some form of peace and solitude from eternal damnation.  Pitt portrays and emotes all of this to a tragic degree, but by the late twentieth century, he seems to have come to terms with most everything.

The flip side of this comes from Tom Cruise.  His Lestat finds nothing but pleasure and wonder in his reign as a vampire.  He is somewhat reminiscent of Julian Sands in Warlock – someone with a high sense of elegance and charm, but underneath this gentle facade is pure, delicious, sadistic evil.  Although, Lestat is far more naturally cultured and arrogant.  Up until this film, Tom Cruise had been the young heartthrob leading man with the million dollar smile.  He was the hero, the nice guy.  Here, he shows us his dark side, a striking performance that showed the world he had a talent no one imagined he had.  Cruise wouldn’t step into another dark, let alone villainous role for another nine years in Michael Mann’s Collateral as the sociopathic contract killer Vincent.  As Lestat, he shines with ease, and enjoys every magnificent moment of it.  Kirsten Dunst won several awards for her portrayal of the girl who would be eternally young by way of the blood of a vampire.  Those awards were well deserved, and easily launched her young career forward starring in dozens of films in the subsequent years.

The story eventually moves forward to Paris where new characters come into play.  Stephen Rea portrays Santiago as a very playful, mischievous, but still sadistic creature of the night.  It’s a fun performance, giving the film a different spark of life when it really needs it.  After the departure of Lestat from the story, these new personalities are quite welcomed.  Antonio Banderas, as always, is marvelous.  As Armand, he carries much weight about him, and has a powerful presence and allure.  He easily becomes the main antagonist at this point in the film.  He is more directly evil and seductive than Lestat.  Outside the view of the public, he makes no allusions to being anything but what he truly is.  Louis calls he and his minions monsters, and that is indeed true.  The final talent to mention is Christian Slater.  While his role is minimal, it is well played with an apprehension and fear.   The late River Phoenix was originally chosen to play this role, but when he met an untimely and tragic death, Slater stepped in to deliver a solid performance.

Louis’ story is filled with much emotional richness with so much tragedy, love, heartbreak, and pathos.  It surely has a different quality to something like Highlander where immortals are still human, can still do most things any other person can, but simply have to live for centuries on end enduring life on a larger canvas of time.  Here, Louis is tortured because he has become something ungodly and so against his nature.  He’s a man who comes to realize that he only traded one kind of pain for another, and now, must live with it for eternity.  It’s a journey that might be a little romanticized, but it is mostly sorrowful and somber.  His story is populated with rich, fascinating characters in a wide, sprawling, gorgeous world.

Overall, I must say that this is a remarkable film.  It is wonderfully constructed.  Everything blends and weaves together in an enrapturing narrative.  The editing remains wholly coherent and competent.  You never got lost in the timeline of events, or in the few flashes from the present to the past.  Anne Rice adapted her own novel for the film, and while I know nothing to the novel itself, I surely get the feeling that it is faithful from how much care clearly went into the film.  The film also definitely has its share of scares and frightening moments while gore is kept to a respectable minimum, but showcases some wonderful makeup work.  The movie concludes with a Guns N’ Roses cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil,” which I find very appropriate.  The lyrics of the song are very much akin to Lestat and those like him in the film.  Many never liked this cover deeming it tacky, but I truly enjoy it.  It was the last thing recorded with anything resembling the classic line-up of the band.  However, as far as the film goes, it was critically and commercially successful.  I have no qualms about it, and give it a perfect score!  While it might not be every horror fans’ taste, this is an extremely well made film showcasing an abundance of talent in every frame from everyone involved.  It gets my highest recommendation.


Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)

With Attack of the Clones there was some improvement in the prequels, but many of the stinging problems from The Phantom Menace still exist here.  The pace is generally improved with some more action sequences, some better characters, and more interesting locales to explore.  However, the supposed “love story” between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala couldn’t be more contrived or agonizingly acted.  Of course, there are frivolous character and story elements peppered throughout which have no bearing on anything at all.  So, let’s jump into it, and deconstruct Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.

Set ten years after the events of The Phantom Menace. Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is now the Senator of the planet Naboo, and is leading the opposition to creating an army of the Republic.  This is in response to a faction of political separatists, led by former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who want to breakaway from the Republic.  After an assassination attempt on the Senator’s life, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padawan learner Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are sent to protect her.  After the assassin strikes again with the Jedi thwarting the attempt, they capture the assassin, but she is killed by a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) before they can obtain any answers.  The Jedi Council then send Obi-Wan and Anakin on separate missions with Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) fearing for Senator Amidala’s safety.  Anakin is sent with Padmé to Naboo as a protector.  However, their feelings for one another slowly stir to the surface causing emotional conflicts for them.  Worse yet, nightmares of his mother trouble Anakin enough to return to Tatoonie in an attempt to save her from dire peril.  Meanwhile, Obi-Wan’s investigation ultimately leads him to the planet Kamino where he uncovers a deeper conspiracy involving this assassination plot, the Separatist movement, and a Clone Army which could lead to all-out galactic war.

While there are various negatives I wish to point out here, let me counter-balance the review of Episode I by starting out with some positive aspects of this film.  Mainly, the visual effects are far improved and much more consistent than what The Phantom Menace offered.  It’s hard to believe that CGI evolved so much in such a short span of time, but the industry required it.  Bigger films were being made now because filmmakers saw what could be accomplished, and the technology and artistry of these effects houses simply pushed hard to match up with the demand.  Everything is generally more detailed in Episode II, and the story allowed for a more vast and diverse set of locations, vehicles, props, and alien creatures.  So, there was more of a canvas to apply the improvements in digital filmmaking.  Still, the movie is starved for more practical locations.  Granted, many don’t exist in reality, but the constant filming against blue screens begins to wear thin.  It takes away from the potential depth of the frame, and the tangibility of the environments they inhabit.  So much of it just feels fake because it is fake.

On a better note, George’s decision to shoot in high definition digital video was something I was supportive of, same as with Robert Rodriguez.  That evolution in video camera technology has actually allowed for my independent filmmaker career to exist.  Unfortunately, I did not see Attack of the Clones in a digital projection theatre.  That experience would have to wait for Revenge of the Sith.

Another positive is that there is more life with a few characters.  Ewan McGregor steps into the mentor role of Obi-Wan Kenobi well injecting some nice dimension into his scenes.  He feels more fleshed out and comfortable this time around.  A little chuckle here, some urgency there go a long way to show the depth and personality of his matured Kenobi.  He truly feels like a good leader, a fine Jedi, and an interesting character to follow now.  His single scene opposite Kenobi’s alien friend Dex shows more intelligible and relatable character traits from him than most anything displayed in The Phantom Menace.  It shows both a jovial, friendly side, but also, the inquisitive mind of the character.  McGregor is surely an excellent actor with a wide range, and I am glad that his talent was allowed to be more in the forefront here.  Of everyone in the prequels,  his performances feel the most natural and dimensional.  I feel he sells Anakin’s downfall more that Hayden Christensen does.

The legendary Christopher Lee gives us a villain with some substance in Count Dooku.  I only find it unfortunate that he doesn’t show up until half way through the film.  This would be better if he was built up more to create mystery or anticipation around him, but he’s barely mentioned in that first half of the movie.  And where Darth Maul had nothing to say for himself, Dooku has plenty, and Lee works his scenes very well.  There’s enough ambiguity about Dooku to build suspicion and doubt over what he claims to be truth.  Lee’s performance rides the fence of a man who could either be a straight out villain or a controversial strong leader who has a valid point of view.  He’s just shady enough to keep it all uncertain.  His scene opposite the imprisoned Kenobi is quite rich with juicy character interactions.  It is a pleasure indeed.

Unfortunately, from there, the quality of the performances start to get more one dimensional and hollow.  Natalie Portman, again, is reflected as a far lesser grade acting talent than she truly is with poor characterization and awkward, ineffective emotions.  While she has a generally good show of emotions, they seem to lack depth or realism.  The romance, of sorts, between Padmé and Anakin never feels earned, only forced.  For the life of me, I cannot rationalize why a young woman dedicated to peaceful, intelligent solutions would ultimately marry a man who confessed to a rage filled slaughter.  Tusken Raiders or no, Padmé has always sought out the way of peace in all situations.  She never comes off as someone in favor of blind hatred or rage, and in all other instances, appears to have a distaste towards unwarranted violence.  She didn’t murder Nute Gunray at the end of the last film.  She retook her throne and put him into the custody of the authorities.  She believes in justice, and resolving conflicts with negotiation and rational thought.  However, she marries a man who is volatile, insubordinate, emotionally unstable, immature, and supports tyrannical political ideals.  There is no rational reason they would be attracted to one another side from the physical aspect.

Now, I really don’t know any of Hayden Christensen’s other work to offer a perspective on his talents.  Granted, the characterization of Anakin Skywalker is not his fault at all.  He played the character that was on the page.  There’s nothing different he could’ve done with what he was given to make Anakin a better character.  Still, there are many moments where he comes off as wooden.  Much of his intended “serious” or “mature” dialogue is delivered with a drab, downtrodden empty quality.  As with Portman, there’s no depth behind what is said.  Anakin Skywalker should have been a rich character with many sides from the brave and honorable to the conflicted and troubled.  Considering the entire saga is ultimately his story from innocent child to conflicted Jedi Knight to the evil Darth Vader to redemption through his son, Anakin Skywalker should have been the most fascinating character of all six films, but he ultimately comes off as one of the least interesting and most annoying in these prequels.  So, what Lucas gives us is a very immature and flat character who has little for an audience to emotionally invest themselves in.

There are other characters which I do have things to say about, mainly the Jedi Masters, but they are best left for my summation in the Revenge of the Sith review to avoid redundant criticisms.  However, to briefly touch upon those thoughts, I have to say that if Yoda has nothing intelligent or pertinent to say, he ought to keep his mouth shut.  So much of his dialogue ultimately makes him seem like a short-sighted fool.  He has plenty of opportunities to act upon the bad vibes coming off of Anakin, but he never takes any action in response to them.  And I do believe having Yoda engage in frivolous lightsaber battles is a terrible idea.  Instead of criticizing the cringe inducing visual of Yoda flying around like a video game character and acting like some dim-witted action hero parody, I want to point out the purpose of lightsaber battles in the Star Wars saga.  They are a plot device used to twist the storyline into a new direction, and that is not at all a negative thing.  However, that is not the case with Yoda’s duels.

For example:  the climactic saber duel in The Phantom Menace results in the death of Qui-Gon Jinn which gives way to Anakin being less-than-well trained by Obi-Wan.  The death of Darth Maul opens the way for Dooku to become the new Sith apprentice, and setup the circumstances for the Clone War.  In Attack of the Clones, Anakin charges into battle, gets his arm chopped off, and begins to lose more of his humanity from this loss.  This motivates him to kill Dooku in Revenge of the Sith, and his death makes way for the rise of Darth Vader.  Then, Obi-Wan destroys Grievous, and thus, motivates the end of the Clone War, the attempted arrest of Palpatine, and Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force.  Vader versus Obi-Wan in that same film results in the half-man, half-machine Sith Lord, destroying Anakin Skywalker further.  Ben Kenobi’s death in A New Hope allows him to become “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” by becoming one with The Force, and helping to guide Luke anywhere at anytime.  The duel in The Empire Strikes Back clearly sets up a whole host of character and plot twists to the point where in Return of the Jedi, the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader becomes the catalyst for Luke to put down his arms, and ultimately, instigate the event that turns Darth Vader back into Anakin Skywalker.  So, you see, lightsaber duels are never gratuitous action scenes.  They serve a very specific plot purpose.  That is except for all of Yoda’s lightsaber battles.

They do absolutely nothing to further the saga along.  Here, he fights Dooku, only to lose.  In the following film, he fights the Emperor, only to lose.  By showing that Yoda is unable to defeat a Sith Lord in battle makes it difficult to believe he’s the right one to train Luke in The Empire Strikes Back.  Not to mention, in that marvelous film, Yoda talks entirely about how the physical is inconsequential to one’s power with the Force, but in Attack of the Clones, he does nothing but resort to physical means of combat when a few minor Force tricks do nothing against Dooku.  And once he has lost, he is apparently so worn out from the battle that he has to strain his Force abilities to lift a piece of machinery from crashing down on Obi-Wan and Anakin.  In Empire, Yoda lifts the whole X-Wing fighter from the swamp and onto land with amazing grace and ease.  There, all that mattered was the will and confidence to achieve such a feat.  This is another obvious example of George Lucas’ change in philosophy that occurred between the creation of the two trilogies.  Yoda’s physical strength should not have an effect on his power with the Force.  If Yoda can only call on his Force powers in short bursts and it exhausts him to do so, that only shows that his power is very limited.  This is in direct contrast to Yoda’s teachings in Empire that, because the Force is his ally, he is powerful beyond physical strength.  By failing to defeat any Sith he opposes, and straining to do what should be easy for him with his purported Jedi mastery, it only proves that he’s no more capable than any other Jedi.  Yoda is supposed to be the most accomplished and powerful Jedi around, but if this is the extent of their power and wisdom, it is no wonder the Empire was able to wipe them out.

Another thing that is eradicated, again, is intelligence.  I mentioned in The Phantom Menace the absurdity of how the Senate was run in that one outspoken statement from any one representative immediately causes sweeping change in the Senate.  That returns here, and in cringe inducing fashion.  As Senator Amidala returns to Naboo to hide from her assassin she leaves Jar Jar Binks to act in her place with her Senatorial power.  Representative Binks is then manipulated into going before the Senate and propositioning the Senate to vote emergency powers to the Chancellor so he can authorize the creation of a Clone Army.  This one vote from one STAND-IN for a Senator immediately allows for it to happen.  Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the film, the Senate is entrenched in conflict over whether to create an army or not, and Amidala has been the leader of the opposition to this.  I find it highly improbable that the majority of the Senate and Amidala’s supporters would suddenly roll over because this dim-witted fool speaks up.  I mean, it’s not like they didn’t just have Padmé on a holonet transmission where she could speak on her own behalf in front of the Senate.  Not to mention, why is everyone talking about going to war the whole film when, until Obi-Wan uncovers the Separatist’s plans, no hostile action had been taken against the Republic?  As far as the Republic knows these people simply want to become a separate autonomous alliance of worlds.  Sure, the Republic being split in two would cause some controversy and unease, but immediately jumping to the prospect of war is a little rash when they have no evidence of violent intentions from the Separatists.

I also have issue with what was done to Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones.  I’m a general fan of the character, and I find him interesting and exciting.  However, Lucas does another frivolous, pointless change to a character.  Making Boba Fett a young clone of Jango Fett is inane as it serves no purpose towards the plot or the characters of Jango or Boba.  There is no reason Boba Fett couldn’t have been a regular offspring of Jango, and be given his own unique identity instead of being just another clone out of thousands or millions.  I also find it quite creepy that Jango is raising a clone of himself.  It almost sounds like the strange machinations of a mad scientist to being doing such a thing.  Speaking of pointless things, the assassin Zam Wessel had no purpose to being a shape shifter.  Again, it serves no purpose to the character or plot.  It actually could have been used intelligently with Zam changing form and escaping into the crowd, and creating an actual challenge for Obi-Wan and Anakin.  Instead, it’s just there to make her more “alien” and to show off another little visual effects gag.

Digging into Jango Fett a little more, I did enjoy what Temuera Morrison brought to this role.  He’s both a cunning, dangerous bounty hunter and a smooth gentleman.  Morrison has some restrained charisma in this role allowing Jango to come off as a smart and savvy villain that is confident without being arrogant.  He has a very nicely played scene opposite McGregor as Fett and Kenobi size each other up in a stand-offish exchange of words.  It’s a strong first true impression of Jango that really sparks an interest, and Morrison handles the overall demands of the role exceptionally well.

On the technical side of things, Ben Burtt should be ashamed of some of the editing in this film.  The one part that stands out is the saber duel between Anakin and Dooku.  The close-up shots of the two swinging their blades around actually have no continuity to them at all from one shot to another, and hardly look like they’re clashing blades.  It looks more like an interpretive dance than an aggressive battle.  It’s shoddy work.  There are other instances where editing should’ve been tightened up to maintain immediacy in character reactions, or maintain rhythm in certain action sequences.  However, the sound design in the film is excellent.  The sonic charges deployed by Jango Fett in the asteroid field create one of the most awesome speaker blasting sound effects I’ve ever heard.  The city sounds on Coruscant are excellently crafted to create a nicely enveloping world, and the end battle scenes are well balanced for fine clarity where the sound effects don’t simply become an indiscernible onslaught.

What I also do like about this film is the added atmosphere tying in with the mystery elements of the story.  The various night scenes create a neo noir visual aesthetic that really appeal to my tastes greatly.  The stormy environment of Kamino was an excellent choice that further heightened the mood of the film.  As Kenobi gets deeper into the mystery, the more treacherous his surroundings become, and it culminates in a stellar fight between Obi-Wan and Jango.  The slippery aspect of the landing platform added a different dynamic which keeps the sequence exciting and unpredictable.  Obi-Wan doesn’t get to rely on the lightsaber as much, and has to be more innovative and cunning to survive.  This is more akin to classic Star Wars were characters were made intelligent to figure their way out of tight situations.

Of course, pulling directly from the original trilogy is not entirely the most successful approach as the end duel between Anakin and Dooku demonstrates.  It tries to recreate some of the smoky light and shadow effect of the climactic duel in Empire, but it comes off as forgettable and mild.  It really comes down to a buildup of characters, emotions, and plot points.  In Empire, the visual of the carbon freezing chamber with its smoke and orange and blue lighting enhanced the tone of the story being told.  It is dark, mysterious, foreboding, and ominous.  Everything built up to this, and it sends a chill down the spine of many viewers.  Here, it’s just a nice visual.  There’s nothing inherently bad about it, but it’s just another hollow throwback to a better film.  The duel itself is not that impressive, either.  Conversely, I’ve never had an issue with the asteroid field battle in this film.  It’s entertaining and exciting.  While it is a throwback to Empire, it works for me as it is a logical progression of the plot, and showcases some of Obi-Wan’s cunning combat skills.

While the plot is more sensical than The Phantom Menace, there is both padding to make up for a lack of plot developments and hanging plot threads that never get tied up, ever.  Obi-Wan’s investigation into the poison dart should really end with the scene where he meets Dex who tells him its from Kamino.  Instead, it goes on for another two scenes where he investigates the planet in the library, and then, since he can’t find it there, he goes to Yoda for answers.  Yoda has none, but the little kids he’s training do.  This not only unnecessarily pads out the film, but also makes Obi-Wan Kenobi look stupid because he can’t figure out something a five year old who can’t act could.  It’s never explained who deleted Kamino from the Jedi Archives, or how they did it.  Also, everything about Jedi Master Sifo Dyas ordering the Clone Army despite having died around the same time is never cleared up or resolved.  I could speculate on the truth, but that is all that can be done.  Lucas lays no clues to come to a confident answer, and no one in the film tries to figure it out.  It’s entirely forgotten by the next action sequence.  It is also curious that the Sandpeople would hold Shmi Skywalker captive when they’ve always been murderous scavengers, and there is fan conjecture over this saying it was orchestrated by a third party.  However, there is hardly anything within the context of the films to perceive it as anything more than it appears to be.

Again, the romance storyline between Anakin and Padmé really doesn’t hold together.  The dialogue is stilted, the performances are wooden, and the entire interaction is more like a screenwriter’s naive perception of love.  The Han Solo and Princess Leia relationship worked because these were two well developed characters with strong personalities and honest, realistic emotions.  It felt like a natural, organic relationship that evolved and grew between them.  Plus, they didn’t fall in love and get married within the course of a few days.  Anakin and Padmé feel like an immature teenage high school couple who over dramatize their so-called romance because they have no genuine grasp on what real love truly is.  They think that what they have is love, but they would be wrong.  What they have, at best, is the illusion of love built upon teenage style angst and physical attraction.  And again, Padmé is subjected to Anakin whining about Obi-Wan, blaming him for everything that’s wrong in his life, being insubordinate to his superiors, bitching her out in front of the current Queen of Naboo, and confessing to the mass murder of not just the Tusken Raider men, but the women and children, too.  Quite frankly, in any other film, Anakin Skywalker would be the psychotic villain, and Padmé would be running away from him screaming in horror.  I can’t imagine that she is meant to be a moronic idiot, but that’s exactly how she continually comes off considering all of this nonsensical madness.  No woman in her right mind would be so eager to love and marry a man like this.  It also makes no sense to me why Padmé is so vehemently opposed to just being involved with a man.  She keeps saying she loves Anakin, but then, says she can’t love him because she’s a Senator.  That doesn’t compute in my brain.  No other reason is ever given.  She’s a Senator, and so, she can’t go out on a date.  That’s her entire reason.  No expansion on that at all.  It’s ridiculous.

Never minding all of that, Attack of the Clones has plenty of good action sequences.  While not all come off as rational, like Obi-Wan uncharacteristically jumping out the window to grab the assassin droid (couldn’t he have just used the Force to disable it and bring it to him?), the scenes are well structured and choreographed.  They are all different and maintain good momentum, to a point.  The previous movie had a serious lack of compelling action scenes, and traded them off with long, drab dialogue scenes.  Here, it seems like they have to milk the action scenes for as much as they’re worth because the plot lacks enough threads to weave throughout the 120+ minute run time.  While the droid factory sequence is decent, it is ultimately another piece of run time padding.  It could be a much tighter sequence, if you had to have it, but it needs to be long to stretch the story out.  This is the case with most of the action scenes especially the speeder chase through the nighttime of Coruscant.  It’s not a bad action sequence, but an action scene is best when it’s tightly paced and gets straight to the point.  If you’re going to have a chase scene, make it count with a solid pay-off.

Again, there are some cringable attempts at humor here, but this time, it falls on R2-D2 and C-3PO.  I won’t get into it.  It’s brain dead idiotic slapstick gags that would even be bad in some television program for kindergarteners.  This crap has nothing to do with anything in story, action, or character development.  It’s gratuitous garbage filled with horrible puns, and that’s all I’m going to waste my time mentioning it because this review is too long as it is already.

I really hoped to say more positive things about this movie, but the more I dug into it, the more flaws I saw.  It’s frustrating to me that I want to enjoy more about this movie, but it’s designed to backfire on me.  I’m not going into these films with the intent of tearing them down, and I hope the praise I have offered up reflects that mentality.  I don’t have any memories that stick out about my theatrical experiences with this movie, unlike the other two prequels, and so, I can’t recall my early feelings on it.  I did purchase the John Williams score CD the same day, and so, that says something.  Of course, regardless of the quality of the films, I do own all of the soundtrack CD sets.  Anyway, while Episode II makes some improvements from Episode I, some problems are exchanged for others, and some of the biggest ones are never fixed.  Again, I don’t want to hate on George Lucas, but the man is not helping me to avoid doing so.  I can forgive certain underdeveloped aspects of a film depending on various factors, but the rampant stupidity of some characters and the horribly contrived love story are too much to forgive.  Thankfully, I do have very fond memories of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and so, I have more sentimental leeway to offer it.  But that’s another review for another time.  As Attack of the Clones stands, it’s a long way from greatness, but at least, I can sit through it.  I can’t say the same for The Phantom Menace.


Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Where do I start in reviewing such a masterpiece?  Francis Ford Coppolla directed what is generally considered the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, and for most people’s money (including mine) Gary Oldman (JFK, Léon The Professional) delivers the most definitive and frightening incarnation of Count Dracula.  This all can easily be attributed to James V. Hart’s screenplay being so rich in character, dialogue, and respect to its source material.  Coppolla delivers quite the intriguing visual experience, and while many of the effects are dated by today’s standards, they fit in well with the style and tone of the film.

The tale of Dracula is one of love that endures through death.  Dracula (Gary Oldman) was once a soldier fighting the Turks in war, and was a man of faith.  Unfortunately, despite his victory over his foes, the Turks brought word of Dracula’s death at their hands, and his dearest love, Elizabeta (Winona Ryder) is stricken with such unbearable grief that she plunges to her death.  When Dracula returns to learn this, he is driven into a maddening rage.  He cannot understand how his God would allow this injustice to happen.  He renounces God, shuns him, and practically declares war against him.  Dracula vows that he will rise again from his own death to avenge the death of his beloved.

Flash forward to some centuries later, and Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent out to meet with a mysterious Count in Transylvania after one R.M. Reinfield has gone wholly mad.  The Count is set to move into a new estate in England, and Mr. Harker is there to deal with the final paperwork and such.  Jonathan must leave his beautiful wife-to-be Mina (Winona Ryder), but the Count becomes aware that his beloved has been reborn as Jonathan’s own.  Harker is very mystified and weary about the strange happenings at the castle all throughout this land of Transylvania, and soon, he falls prey to the Count’s evil.  Dracula soon begins his quest to reclaiming his eternal beloved, but as he moves in closer and closer, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Sir Anthony Hopkins) is brought into the mix.  Dr. Jack Seward (who has been overseeing a clearly certifiable R.M. Reinfield) calls him in, being an old student of the Professor.  Soon, Van Helsing deduces the supernatural happenings, and concludes it is the work of the undead, a nosferatu, a vampire.  Soon, the hurt begins, and there is much carnage left on the path to the ultimate confrontation between the living and the undead.  The story comes together in a very unique way, and very fitting for this strange tale of love that will never die.

The creature effects here are outstanding!  The creatures of the night are given a massive life of their own, and will frighten you to a great extent.  The makeup effects on Oldman are stellar as well, making him look to be a very elderly Count, or the wonderfully young Prince Vlad.  The transformations the character goes through are simply amazing, and just on these levels, it beats out all other cinematic presentations of Dracula (or most any other vampire).  From wolves, to giant man-bats, to god knows what other unholy abomination.  Coppolla and Columbia definitely spent their money well on the makeup effects.  As stated earlier, the visual effects are rather dated, but they fit well into the overall look and style of the film.  However, they were all created practically, in-camera without any optical or digital composites.  Coppolla details this well in the special edition DVD release.

I’m really eager to speak about the acting in this film, but not for the reason you may think – Keanu Reeves.  Okay, I happen to be a Keanu fan.  I’ve seen many of his films from Bill & Ted to Point Break to The Matrix to Constantine to Street Kings, but frankly, hearing Keanu trying to pull off a genuine English accent is bad cinema, really bad.  And him working off of Gary Oldman for most of the film only makes him appear worse than he’s being.  Keanu can deliver a fun and/or interesting performance in the right film, but this just doesn’t play to his style.  Reportedly, Coppolla cast Reeves just so he’d have a “hot young star to appeal to teenage girls.”  Why he felt that was required, I don’t know, and again, I have nothing but respect for Keanu, but this just wasn’t his kind of role.  Anyway, onto the strong performances.  Gary Oldman is where it all lies here.  A Dracula film hinges on the power of the actor in the title role, and you couldn’t get any better than Oldman.  The man has proven his diversity in countless films, and is absolutely one of the greatest actors of our time.  He plays the infamous undead Count with such insidious charisma and lust.  As the elderly Dracula, he is very creepy, eerie, and devious.  He plays it up so well that it’ll make your skin crawl.  As the young Dracula who attempts to illicit the love of Mina (Winona Ryder), he’s very mysterious, seductive, and still rather creepy.  All in all, it’s a masterful performance, and it baffles me why Oldman wasn’t nominated for an Oscar or a Golden Globe.  He did win Best Actor at the Saturn Awards, though.  Joining him on the darker side of things is Tom Waits as the delusional and especially crazed Reinfield – a wonderfully satisfying performance.  He certainly brings a special flavor to his few scenes acting as a prophet of doom (kind of like Crazy Ralph in Friday The 13th, only completely out of his mind).

On the protagonists’ side, we have the ever impressive Sir Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, The Mask of Zorro) as the venerable Professor Abraham Van Helsing.  Hopkins’ performance is quite lively and jovial, but overall powerful.  It’s a clever and endearing performance, and despite the character’s unorthodox, verbose style, he really makes himself a favorite.  He portrays a very interesting adversary for the immortal undead Count of Transylvania.  While Hopkins easily has the hero lead, you also have great talents such as Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Saw), Richard E. Grant (Warlock), and the female lead in Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands, A Scanner Darkly).  Winona does a fine job in this role which requires strength, fear, vulnerability, and simple beauty.  She’s the object of obsession for Count Dracula, and she is the woman he has renounced God for, and has forced himself into eternal damnation over.  All of these marvelous talents are well handled by the very seasoned Coppolla who is no stranger to star studded cast overflowing with sharp talent.

The score from Wojciech Kilar is absolutely awesome.  It’s practically operatic, and very dramatic stuff.  It’s grand, it’s powerful, and scary all at the same time.  It’s an absolute wonder to experience, and makes the film even better than it was.  This music is so haunting at times, and frankly, this is how a classic horror film should sound.  I can’t say anything negative about it because it makes the film so much larger than life.  It enhances everything on screen.

The costume design is as intricate and detailed as you would imagine.  It has depth and character to it as well as grace, and in other parts, a very strange appeal.  Oldman’s wardrobe is especially impressive and has become iconic.  Every character is aided and enhanced by their wardrobe, and it helps breath further life into the picture.  In addition to the fantastically exhaustive production design work, it gives the picture a sense of texture, personality, and history.

All in all, every part of this film makes it live and pulsate with power.  Aside from Keanu, all the performances are masterful, the makeup effects are absolutely amazing, and I challenge you to find a more intense classic horror film score than this one!  Overall, this is one solid, taut, and frightening film from a master filmmaker in Francis Ford Coppolla.  If you’re looking for a genuinely scary, haunting, and chilling horror film – you absolutely cannot go wrong here.  Frankly, I do not have the knowledge to compare this to every other Dracula film that’s come around, but general consensus has left this fine film with a strong reputation that has endured.  I am glad to contribute to that with a solid endorsement for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.