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Drive (2011)

I have a tendency to miss out on great films in the theatre due to an uncertainty about them.  I can get so used to how mainstream films are marketed that when I see something distinctly different, it’s hard to be sold on it.  Thankfully, better late than never, some trusted word of mouth finally got me to check out Drive.  To my sensibilities, this is an astonishing, flat out amazing film.  This feels like if Michael Mann made a movie between Thief and Manhunter, and was scored by Tangerine Dream.  This is fully evocative of a 1980s neo noir crime thriller with its sense of tone and atmosphere and using a magnificent soundtrack to envelop an audience into its emotion.  Beyond that, I feel Drive is also brilliant.

Ryan Gosling stars as a Hollywood stunt driver by day that moonlights as a wheelman for criminals by night.  He’s employed and aided by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a former stuntman who is propositioning the shady Bernard Rose (Albert Brooks) to invest in a race car venture with this “Driver” as their star.  Though a loner by nature, the Driver can’t help falling in love with his beautiful neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother dragged into a dangerous underworld by the return of her ex-convict husband.  After a heist goes wrong, Driver finds himself driving defense for the girl he loves, tailgated by a syndicate of deadly serious criminals including Rose himself and the bull-headed Nino (Ron Perlman).  Soon he realizes the gangsters are after more than the bag of cash, and is forced to shift gears into a brutal, unrelenting head-on collision.

I will grant that the film is not heavy on plot.  It’s fairly simple and straight forward keeping itself contained to a small collection of characters.  Some might find that a letdown.  However, the substance of this film is in the presentation.  Ryan Gosling’s character is very minimal on dialogue allowing his presence and the atmosphere of the film to carry the Driver’s weight.  The performance alone is very understated and low key, but not skimping on intensity or humanity.  His carefully chosen words hold purpose, and Gosling’s soft spoken delivery forces an audience to focus their attention closely.  Sometimes, a lack of dialogue can bring a mystique and an intriguing quality to a character, and Gosling sparks that magic.  His performance allows you to read more into the man instead of him telling you about who he is, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off.  The scenes where the Driver and Irene are together bring a subtle charm and heart to the surface.  You see the brightness in the soul of this character that contrasts, and later, compliments his grittier, darker side.  When he has to become that more intimidating, brutal person later on, Gosling has no problem being convincing.  You can feel his visceral intensity permeating the screen.  I was impacted hard by those razor sharp moments, and this all comes together in a rock solid piece of work by Ryan Gosling.  This is my first exposure to his talent, and I couldn’t be more blown away.  Also, wrapping him in that Scorpion jacket is just wickedly cool.

Carey Mulligan puts in a gracefully beautiful performance.  She and Gosling have a fine chemistry that gives the film its warmth and purpose.  Their performances reflect nicely off of one another with heart and subtlety.  She never has to say a word to reflect Irene’s emotional conflict over her feelings between her husband and the Driver.  Mulligan touchingly shows that in her eyes and expressions, and how she gravitates to this new charming, under spoken man in her life.  It’s an engaging and inviting piece of work.

Albert Brooks is a shocking powerhouse heavy here.  He’s intimidating as all hell while still having his light hearted, humorous moments.  Still, I never stopped getting that shady feeling from him that he was a mob boss that could slash your wrist or stab you in the eye with a fork without batting an eyelash.  There’s such a fine line the character treads that Brooks walks with ease.  Even when he’s being friendly, there’s still that sense of unease behind everything he says, and even before you know he’s a mob boss, you get the feeling that there’s something not entirely straight about Bernie Rose.  For me, he ranks amongst the best like Christopher Walken in True Romance or Robert Prosky in Thief.  He can turn from being your best friend to your absolute worst enemy in half a heartbeat without even seeing a shift in the character’s manner.  It’s all rather matter of fact with him, and Brooks carries the appropriate weight to achieve these character traits throughout the picture.  I love Albert Brooks’ performance supremely.

The supporting cast is also finely textured.  Bryan Cranston has a broken down heartfelt sympathy as Shannon, the mechanic and former stuntman that aids and endorses Gosling’s character.  He’s a good natured person who gets in too heavy with the wrong people, and you can’t help but feel for him when things turn worse.  Ron Perlman’s gangster character of Nino is interesting.  He’s a Jewish man trying to make himself out to be an Italian mobster.  It’s not an overt part of his performance, but it ties into Nino’s motivations for being a “belligerent asshole,” as Bernie Rose puts it.  Nino has plenty of bravado and ego, but not a lot of good sense.  Perlman nicely inhabits those qualities with plenty of enthusiasm.  Oscar Isaac does well as Irene’s husband Standard.  The character clearly stands out as a person stuck in a number of unwanted situations.  These criminals are violently pressuring him to do this job for him to pay back his debt, and it’s subtlety obvious that his wife does not want to be with him, anymore.  Isaac shows the character’s regret well, and comes off more of a sorry man than a sympathetic one.  He’s a guy that’s made a mess of things, and knows nothing will ever be okay ever again.  The damage is done, and he’s just trying to sweep it under the rug as neatly as possible.  However, he’s endangered the lives of his wife and son, and the Driver has no sympathy for the man.  He only helps him out for the benefit of Irene and Benicio.  These actors all add a strong array of emotion to the film which heightens the tone and atmosphere.

Now, speaking of atmosphere, the score constantly hit me as something very akin to Tangerine Dream’s score for Risky Business.  It has that very light, dreamy quality to it most times, but does delve into very dark, heavy territories.  There are foreboding, tense moments in this score that are just mesmerizing.  Cliff Martinez crafts a deeply enveloping auditory experience which soaks into nearly every fiber of the film, but the filmmakers pick key moments where silence holds more weight than a soundtrack.  The collection of songs in this film retain that 1980s ambient synth-pop quality, but have a modern quality that is beyond my ability to articulate.  From my own independent filmmaking experiences, I know how insanely difficult it is to find modern original music that sounds like it came from the 1980s.  So, the fact that music supervisors Eric Craig and Brian McNeils discovered and assembled music of this amazing style and quality impresses me to no end.  I purchased the CD soundtrack, and it now ranks as one of my absolute favorites of all time.

The chase scenes of Drive are masterful.  The first one is exceptionally smart being tactical in evading the police instead of going for outright action.  That aspect come later after the botched robbery.  It’s short and to the point being very slam bang intense, and not over indulging in itself.  The opening sequence is exceptionally refreshing by being intelligent.  On top of being realistic and smart, it is an excellent introduction to our main character showing his precision as a getaway driver.  These scenes are expertly shot accentuating the distinct tones and tensions of both sequences.

When this film gets brutal, it holds nothing back, and hardly goes in predictable directions.  The Driver never relies on a gun, and instead, goes with blunt force trauma to inflict violence upon people.  The scene where he goes into the strip club wouldn’t be nearly as effective if he just brandished a gun the guy’s face.  When you see the Driver pull out a hammer, you know this is going to be dead serious business, and it’s not going to be pretty.  It’s a startling, powerful sequence which further propels the character’s threat level.  He’s not just some cool headed amazing driver, he’s a dangerous man not worth crossing.  The violence overall is graphic and gory, and shockingly unsettling.  Emotion just pours through these scenes.

I am further floored by the cinematography talents of Newton Thomas Sigel.  I’ve previously reviewed his work on The Usual Suspects and Fallen – both gorgeous films with their own identities.  Drive is no different.  No shot is ever wasted, and every composition is chosen with purpose.  How the film is shot reflects the artistic vision realized with the music, acting, and editing.  The film has inspired moments of absolute cinematic beauty due to Sigel’s artistic brilliance.  The elevator scene late in the film is a magnificent example of this.  The lighting and color tones used throughout create rich visuals which enhance the film’s atmosphere further.

This is a film where every element is cohesively used to create a powerfully enveloping experience.  The conservative editing style of Matthew Newman allows Sigel’s shots to hold their weight, and establish a somber or rich tone that draws an audience into every moment.  The music enhances those moments to create a wonderfully vibrant sonic quality for even the most still or fluid sequences.  I haven’t seen a film like this since Manhunter.  The music plays such a prominent role in creating a rich atmosphere that is as in the forefront of the picture as the actors.  Each aspect is integral towards what is a wonderfully engrossing motion picture.

Drive is something which shows what independent film can do.  It takes chances.  It goes for a filmmaking style that has not really been around in more than twenty years.  It takes an immensely effective way of crafting and presenting a film that a major studio would likely not embrace.  It’s an intelligent, fresh, and creative film that feeds the senses.  It gives you white knuckle action, a heartfelt romantic storyline, strong character drama, graphic brutality, gorgeous cinematic moments, intelligent writing, amazing performances, and a beautiful, exciting soundtrack.  It’s hard to imagine all of these phenomenal visual and auditory elements coming across in a screenplay, but Hossein Amini clearly wrote something truly inspiring on those script pages to inspire the amazing film we ultimately got.  I know nothing of the James Sallis novel this was based on, but clearly, the written word captured the vibrant imagination of these filmmakers.  I will admit that Drive is not a mass audience movie as it requires an appreciation for a certain filmmaking style, but for those that love a slick 1980s style crime thriller that utilizes strong atmosphere and a prominent synth-pop soundtrack to wrap you up in its story and characters, this is absolutely for you.  In my view, Drive is a meticulously crafted masterpiece of cinema born out of a bold vision from director Nicolas Winding Refn.  I love this film thoroughly, and I cannot give it a higher recommendation than that.


Outlander (2008)

Sometimes, you see a trailer for a movie, and you just have to take a chance with it.  Make a real commitment to what you perceive as an awesome piece of cinematic work, and sometimes, it truly pays off beyond your expectations.  Of course, my luck being what it is, it was not easy tracking down a DVD of this movie in-store.  I ultimately found it in a re-sale store about twenty miles away.  Yes, I could have done an iTunes rental, but I felt so strong about how great this film would be that I felt a purchase was inevitable.  Beyond just the trailer, I have enjoyed some strong works from Jim Caviezel dating back to The Count of Monte Cristo and Frequency to the current hit CBS crime thriller television series Person of Interest.  Caviezel always brings a rich depth to his roles that is highly investing and entertaining.  So, that further fueled my interest as well as the fusion of science fiction and fantasy elements.

709AD, a space craft streaks across the night’s sky and crash lands in Norway with the only survivors being the warrior Kainan (Jim Caviezel) and a deadly alien stowaway.  Before he can track down this enemy, Kainan is captured by viking warrior Wulfric (Jack Huston), and held prisoner in the local village led by King Hrothgar (John Hurt).  He is questioned about his presence, and says he was hunting dragons, but in truth, it is a fiery bio-luminescent beast called a Moorwen from a planet his people attempted to wipe out and colonize.  Grudgingly accepted into the clan after saving the King’s life, Kainan confides in Hrothgar’s fiercely beautiful daughter, Freya (Sophia Myles), about his past.  As the Moorwen wreaks terror and destruction on neighboring villages, the threat of conflict between the clans escalates and Kainan is called upon to kill the creature.  They forge a strategy and weapons to defeat it, but victory will come at a cost and Kainan will find a new future for himself.

Getting right to the point, what satisfied me the most about this movie is how perfect the storytelling and character arcs are.  Every story or character element is introduced, evolved, and paid off with great emotional weight and impact.  As the bond between Kainan and the Vikings strengthens and expands, I felt the need for where this story should end, hoping for the characters to take the paths I anticipated for them.  Nothing is ever lightly given in this movie, nor is any plot development handled weakly.  Every emotion and character evolution is earned by the dedication of the actors and the filmmakers’ to this powerful adventure.

The visual effects are surprisingly awesome and consistent.  There were only two extremely quick moments where the CGI looked a little undercooked, but they are “blink and you’ll miss them” moments.  Every other instance is exceptionally good, and listening to the audio commentary you’ll learn how extensive and seamless these digital effects are.  The Moorwen is wonderfully realized with a brilliant bio-luminescent design making it appear as if it’s made of fire.  It burns throught the darkness of night attracting the attention of its prey. so that it can attack swiftly.  It comes off almost like a creature of legend, like a dragon, but it does have a little more science fiction edge to it.  In its few revealing moments, personality and intelligence come through in its face and actions as well as a fearsome demeanor.  This is a welcome choice as I wholly support the idea of the creature having personality like the Predator or Alien.  It makes them more memorable and effective.  The scenes on the alien planet are especially well done with a striking sense of scope and interesting, unique design.  Lots of creative thought was put into it to give it its own identity to offer up an epic sensibility for the film.  The amber color scheme of the planet is a nice contrast to the greenish-blue daytime scenes on Earth.

Cinematography is gorgeous.  A great deal of care and integrity were put into the photography of this picture giving it scope and weight.  Apparently, production was originally intended to take place in New Zealand with WETA Workshop doing effects on a larger budget, but to my eyes, I see no budget starved areas.  Ultimately being shot in Nova Scotia, Canada, the landscape is beautifully captured with some excellent aerial photography, and various shots which show the breadth and depth of the land which all sell a certain majesty of the film’s setting.  Gorgeous really does encompass it all.  The soft, warm lighting in the Viking Hall is like a master artist’s brushstrokes come to life.  The shadowy and fiery moments at night hunting the Moorwen establish a tense, fearful atmosphere that drives the emotional intensity of the story.  There’s plenty of subtle atmosphere to give the land life.  Outlander was shot with exceptional skill and scope by Pierre Gill, and I applaud his marvelous work here.

Jim Caviezel is an amazingly effective and powerful actor who brings a lot of relatable aspects to Kainan.  First off, there’s the courageous warrior who embodies a great hero’s journey.  He feels a need for redemption for what his people did to the Moorwens, and gradually, he seems to find that salvation with these people.  They come to trust in him and accept him as one of their own through a series of trials, both friendly and dangerous.  Caviezel offers up a growing humanity, an opening of Kainan’s emotions that allow an audience and the other characters to strongly connect with him.  Jim Caviezel also has a natural ethereal, soulful aura around him that serves the otherworldly aspect of the character well.  The strength of Kainan is constantly balanced with his own internal pain and doubts through the competence and thorough devotion of Caviezel to the role.  I simply love how much he digs into the character to bring out elements evocative of the heroes of Highlander and Predator.  Characters with a strong sense of honor, courage, and heart that come off as legendary heroes.  I would certainly say that Outlander could be categorized as a meshing of those sorts of films.  Caviezel himself said the film was “a light mix of Braveheart and Highlander.”  Many have mentioned comparisons to Beowulf.  By the film’s end, I viewed Kainan as a warrior of legend full of depth that was greatly worth investing myself in for 115 minutes.

The supporting cast really begins with Jack Huston.  He’s a great actor here that Caviezel works off of very well.  As Wulfric, Huston brings a youthful brashness to the story.  He’s a warrior with much ambition as the heir to his father’s throne, but he lacks the wisdom and experience to be ready to accept that role.  However, his impulsiveness and character is gradually tempered through this adventure.  Kainan and Wulfric learn much from one another, and they prove to be far better off for it.  They forge a kinship that fuels them into battle and further strengthens the foundation of the story.  Huston is charismatic and finely enjoyable.

I found Sophia Myles pleasantly surprising and powerful.  I really only know her from her role of the self-serving vampire Erika in Underworld.  Here, I absolutely love her!  Her introduction as Freya is strong and aggressive.  She handles the physical demands of Freya in stride in various fight scenes wielding a sword with expert competence.  She’s a woman who can defend herself and her people, if need be, and while she does have a softer, more heartfelt side, that is not how she wishes to be defined.  Sophia is a beautiful woman, especially with that red hair, who brings so much dimension to Freya.  She adds a fine texture and weight to this role which does have its tender areas of compassion and love opposite the pride and strength.  There is warmth and passion in her eyes, selling so much of how she relates and bonds with the male characters around her.  She holds her ground firmly with impressive depth and confidence while forging an amazing emotional core.

King Hrothgar is excellently portrayed by the engaging and insightful John Hurt.  Wisdom and honor mixed with conviction and compassion are what define his performance.  Ron Perlman has a smaller role as Hrothgar’s rival Gunnar which he infuses with gruff brutality and heartbreaking ire.  In general, the whole supporting cast maintains the depth and dimension that the leads established creating a very full and diverse world that feels realistic.

The production design has great detail and vibrancy applied to it.  Everything of the Vikings has a texture that speak of a culture with realistic history.  From the costumes to the sets to their props, they are all cohesive.  They create a complete world for these characters to inhabit.  Again, nothing feels budget starved.  There are large sets built to give scenes visual depth and wonderful lighting setups that bring it all to life.  The advanced technology of Kainan’s world is very well designed with a very consistent aesthetic.  For some viewers, it might take a little getting used to switching between the Viking world and the science fiction tech, but ultimately, everything meshes as well as anyone could expect.

The story here is amazingly well written and interwoven around its amazing characters.  Howard McCain and Dirk Blackman put together an inspired screenplay that turned into a fantastic, thoroughly pleasing feature film for me.  It is great that Kainan enters into a world of characters who have an established history, who have stories already in motion for themselves.  They are already on a certain path, and the arrival of Kainan and the Moorwen merely jump start those stories forward.  All of the character threads tie into each other and the main plot to create great arcs that culminate in something that legends are made of.

Director / co-writer Howard McCain crafted a film full of adventure, action, tension, suspense, excitement, drama, and character depth that thrives on the screen.  Outlander has beautiful and brilliant visual flare that give the film so much vibrant life.  There are so many deeply talented people involved in this film that make it so amazing.  The score by Geoff Zanelli supports the epic scale of this adventure, and enhances the emotion throughout.  This was a movie that easily fell below the radar due to a limited theatrical release by the Weinstein Company.  That is why I am writing this review so that it can gain some more exposure.  I could reiterate many points I made here to push this further upon you, but the best way to promote this is to say I loved it.  This is a thrilling action adventure with plenty of character drama to satisfy a wide spread audience.  The science fiction and Nordic elements come together through the emotional elements which bond the characters together tightly.  This is one film you surely need to personally experience to fully understand its strength, but in more simple terms, Outlander entirely kicks ass!


Alien: Resurrection (1997)

With Alien: Resurrection, it became painfully obvious that Twentieth Century Fox was now less interested in making credible sequels and more so in just bleeding this franchise dry.  Let’s try to put this into perspective.  Joss Whedon, as many know, is the creator of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Angel, & Firefly.  He’s a proven great screenwriter and director.  He is the screenwriter for this film as well, but by his own admission, the filmmakers executed every aspect of his script wrong.  Everything imaginable was done wrong from Joss’ written vision.  Various other aspects were introduced by the film’s shitty French director Jean-Pierre Juenet.  This, mainly, includes all the bad, stupid humor.  The worst part of it is the fact that he’s very proud of all the stupid comedic bits, thinking it makes the film more entertaining and fantastic.  This is the sort of thing that flushes the film down the toilet.  Watching the DVD Special Edition cut, other things become obvious.  His originally intended main title sequence is stupid, irrelevant, and directly setups a terrible tone for the film.  It comes off as total, stupid B-movie cheese, and the cheap CGI effects drag it down to even lower levels.  The theatrical cut sets a much better tone, but it hardly sets you up for how abhorrent this film really is.  So, by that train of thought, the Special Edition introduction fits the quality of this motion picture much better.

After killing herself to prevent the government from taking the monstrous Alien to Earth, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) awakens 200 years later to find she has been cloned in order for scientists to withdraw the Alien DNA living inside her.  As the world around her begins to fall apart and the terror begins again, Ripley realises that the scientists who cloned her may not have fully removed the Alien from her, at the same time that she is, once again, perhaps the only one who can stop the horrific infestation from reaching Earth.

Alien had Ridley Scott, Aliens had James Cameron, and Alien 3 had David Fincher – filmmakers who have all gone onto very high profile, blockbuster, and critically acclaimed careers.  Jean-Pierre Juenet is about third class next to them.  Where the previous three films gave the franchise a real weight and emotional depth, this film becomes a badly done and clichéd comic book adventure.  It shows nothing of subtlety or intelligent originality.  It’s all BIG camera moves, BIG action, BIG (yet shallow) characters.  It also features over-the-top and cheesy performances by all but two cast members.

Ron Perlman and Michael Wincott are exceptional actors who are always reliable for bringing the goods.  Wincott tends to bring a mysterious and engaging quality to his performances.  Top Dollar in The Crow is probably his most high profile role.  Here, it’s more low key, but that just makes him more intriguing.  I think he could shine well in a classic film noir feature.  Unfortunately, he has very few scenes, and gets killed relatively early.  Ron is a bad ass, plain and simple.  There’s a definite reason why he got such a role in Blade II, and more importantly, as Hellboy.  He’s good at ass-kicking, gung-ho roles.  This outing is no exception.  Although, most casting choices are uninspired.  One might be used to Dan Hedaya in more comedic roles, but he has fit into a dramatic feature well, such as The Usual Suspects.  Here, you might think that his character would be made to hold more dramatic weight, but it’s 99% bad humor.  General Perez does not come off, remotely, as a serious military officer.  He comes off as a mentally stunted fool.  Compared with Apone or Hicks from Aliens, he’s a buffoon.  I’d sooner be led by Bill Paxton’s Hudson.  If Perez is representative of humanity’s military, then it’s a sad state of affairs for the human race.  Winona Ryder is no Carrie Henn, in terms of a vulnerable female role, and is no Lance Henriksen or Ian Holm, in terms of a peculiar android (or ‘artificial person’).  Simply said, she fails to provide Annalee Call with any true depth or fascinating quality.  There’s no reason for her to be here, let alone anything for her to do in this role.  Brad Dourif provides nothing but over-the-top goofiness.  You can’t take him seriously for a second.  Good over-the-top Dourif is The Exorcist III, this is Dourif on the opposite end of the quality spectrum.  Doing it with all the weight of a feather, and being god awful in a role you want to forget in short order.  So many of these roles are cliché, paper thin characters meant to fit a cardboard cutout archetype to service the poor plot.  You need the evil military guys, the mad scientists, the gruff mercenaries – all check.  So, there is a need to scrutinize Joss Whedon’s script.  I know he’s capable of far more diverse, complex, and interesting characters than this.  I just don’t understand how he was responsible for such a lightweight, flat, and uninspired script.  I can understand the filmmakers botching up the execution of the script, but I can’t believe they drained depth and character from it to where Joss would still accept a screen credit.  Much of it would have to be Mr. Whedon’s fault, unfortunately.

Now, you have to ask where does Sigourney Weaver fit into all of this?  She’s not playing Ellen Ripley.  Not the Ripley we came to know and evolve with through the first three films.  This is a hollow shell of a character with the memories of Ripley, and slight emotional traces thereof.  But she’s not the weary, battle hardened, desperate character that Alien 3 left her as.  Nor is she the strong, assertive, and haunted woman of Jim Cameron’s film.  Sigourney does give us a rather creepy character, but it’s nothing recognizable to the franchise’s fans.  Her character is truly alien.  The emotional state of this Ripley Clone is sporadic and erratic.  It’s all over the map, not allowing an audience to connect with the franchise’s heart and soul.  It also plants Weaver, firmly, in the mud.  She has no place to expand or grow with this dead role.  Ellen Ripley’s character arc concluded with Alien 3.  Closure was had, even if it was bleak.  She went through all kinds of hell, saw so many die, and the pain and loss was absorbed into every fiber of her being.  She was as human as any character you will find, and her end came with pathos and poetry.  You might not have liked it, but within the context of that story, her death was appropriate and purposeful.  It should not have ended any other way.  Then, they go ahead and piss all over that with this cold, hollow “resurrection.”  It is D.O.A.  Sigourney Weaver’s role is one you cannot emotionally invest yourself in because she has very little emotion to offer.  It’s about the stark opposite of the real Ellen Ripley we saw in the first three films.  Suffice it to say, this film easily could’ve been scripted and shot without Sigourney Weaver or anything including Ripley since this really isn’t Ripley, not in spirit.  She’s a stranger amongst strangers, and a stranger to her fans.

Moving on, and as I said, the film is filled with BIG everything.  Every shot in the film is something complex and highly involved.  There’s always movement, and extremely little, if any, subtlety in its cinematography.  This forces the film to be less grounded and more overly dramatic.  Dutched angles are seen throughout.  Some scenes have one after another after another after another, for no effective reason.  Juenet and cinematographer Darius Khondji were painting with broad strokes to show off their budget and gimmickry.  Just them trying to make the film look artistic and interesting while achieving neither.  Furthermore, every action sequence is over shot.  Push-ins, sweeping crane shots, steadicam madness, low angles, high angles, dolly tracks.  Khondji just throws all the tricks into every sequence, turning them into a massively over worked mish-mash, and not trying to differentiate one from another.  Once the action begins, it’s shifted into hyperactive mode.  It’s like Michael Bay on steroids – everything done to maximum capacity and minimum reality.  At least with Michael Bay, he does it to give his films an epic feeling, this all falls flat for me.  Also, the film is saturated with this sickly green tinge that is simply too much, and makes the film exceptionally unattractive to watch.  When it’s not green, it’s this deep brown which is equally unattractive.  Just adds to the excessively stylized comic book visuals that only further flushes the film down the crapper.  There’s no beauty or inspired photography in the look of this film, ever.

Like I stated before, there are stupid concepts in this film, some minor, some major.  A minor one also shows the lack of thought put into the futuristic setting.  In several hundred years, why would we still be using paper currency?  Even today, in the early 21st century, we’re mostly relying on debit and credit cards.  Most people don’t handle tangible currency, it’s mostly computer based funds.  Bills are paid online, plastic cards are swiped to make purchases.  Three or four hundred years from now, paper currency will be an ancient concept.  Also, a pinhole crack in a space ship’s hull (or window) would not cause the effect seen in the film’s climax.  It is simply against the laws of physics and intelligence.  But it fits in with the complete stupidity of the film.

Far larger dumbass ideas culminate in the abomination called ‘The Newborn.’  I won’t even bother commenting on its design as I think ‘abomination’ says enough.  It’s just pathetic that one of the most merciless, relentless, and fearsome creatures in the history  of science fiction cinema is dwindled down to this lame ass, mutated, embarrassing mess.  Twisting the knife further, it actually says, “Mommy.”  A further slap in the face is how helpless the Alien Queen is depicted as, and the fact that this regurgitated beast bitch slaps her to death.  James Cameron and Stan Winston have been insulted.  As bad as all that is, the French hack makes it even worse – Ripley makes love to the damn Alien!  You may vomit now.  It’s nothing graphic in detail, but the implication alone is enough to make you sick.  And the complete hack director of Catwoman, Pitof, is the film’s special effects supervisor.  Seems French hack director socialize with other French hack directors, both destined for bankrupt American filmmaking careers.

The film’s effects are a divided issue.  The CGI is obvious and substandard.  I keep wondering how, in 1993, at the dawn of digital filmmaking, we got realistic, flawless, seamless computer generated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but over fifteen years later, we continue to get cheap, crappy CGI effects in countless films (even for high profile, big budget films).  This film was all of five years later, and the computer generated Aliens and effects are hardly seamless.  There is no effort involved in picking them out from their live action surroundings.  The physical effects, on the other hand, are definitely up to standards.  This is due to Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated – mainly Allec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr.  They worked with Stan Winston on Aliens, and took over with their own company, ADI, on Alien 3.  I’m not keen on the brown, veiny Aliens, but the quality of the physical and practical effects, across the board, are of a high standard.

You can talk about the film’s score, but it’s nothing exceptional.  Standard fare, forgettable horror-action cues.  Which rather sums up the film.  The entire problem with this film is that it takes a fairly serious franchise constructed by three serious filmmakers who injected it with strong layers of suspense, terror, and character depth, and then, deteriorates it into one-dimensional, one note characters and over worked action sequences.  Suspense and terror barely fit into the mix.  It’s all replaced by poorly conceived ideas, and a badly interpreted and executed script.  It is one bad turn after another that beats the credibility of a once great franchise further into the dirt until it’s six feet under, and then, spits on the grave for good measure.  If this was some terribly troubled production with all kinds of creative differences (i.e. Alien 3), some of this might be forgivable, or at least, understandable.  But it absolutely was not.  Director Jean-Pierre Juenet loves this film with all his heart, and thinks everything he did was wonderful and fantastic.  Perhaps, even brilliant.  The reality is that he made an abomination of a film that drove the final, hot, sharp nails into the coffin of the franchise.  It could’ve ended with Alien 3 without much argument, at least, in light of Alien: Resurrection, but alas, the Hollywood money machine kept on milking it.  Paul W.S. Anderson went on to beat the dead horse further with AVP, and unfortunately, put a bullet through the heart of the Predator franchise as well (which hardly had been run into the ground).  AVP-R, in my opinion, helped to turn the tide a bit, but it all remains to be seen.

This film, on its own, is pathetic and badly done.  When compared to its predecessors, it’s a terrible piece of cinema that never should’ve been.  A fourth Alien film, if it needed to be done (which it didn’t), could’ve been put into the hands of any number of far more credible, talented, and higher quality filmmakers.  How it landed in the hands of a Frenchman who had never made an American film before, let alone anything in the realm of straight horror, is beyond me.  It failed on every level.  There are very brief bits of goodness here, but they are crumbs that will not satisfy your hunger for another well-made Alien film.  This is a straight shoot ’em up splatter fest devoid of the suspense and character depth each previous entry had instilled in the franchise.  Nothing is improved upon in the Alien Quadrilogy DVD Special Edition cut.  It just prolongs the agony, and there’s not enough of a distinct difference to offer a separate review of it.  This one review covers enough, and you can feel free to send it down the refuse, again.  This could rival Highlander II, Freddy’s Dead, & Jason X as the worst genre sequel of all-time.  It really was and is a letdown in light of where the film series began and evolved to.  This sequel is a poor afterthought for a franchise that still had a decent measure of credibility remaining.  Thankfully, you can still watch the first three films as a complete trilogy, and easily ignore Alien: Resurrection in its entirety.


Blade II (2002)

Blade II is a distinctively different animal than the original Blade.  This is practically all due to the change in directors from Stephen Norrington to Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy).  He brings a much more colorful canvas to the film, and a bit bigger sense of fun.  Cinematographer Gabriel Beristain helps del Toro achieve this to the fullest extent.  Also, as is another trademark of Guillermo’s films, he brings in the wonderful Ron Perlman to the main cast as a token bad ass.  The film definitely takes a lot of new turns and fleshes out established ideas.  Though, it lacks the dramatic weight and emotion that Stephen Norrington’s film was quite rich with.

The film picks up five years after the events of the first film.  In that time, Blade (Wesley Snipes) learned that his old friend and mentor Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) eventually did turn into a ‘suckhead,’ but the vampire nation has kept him hidden.  Though, Blade soon rescues him, and returns to his new lair in Prague.  A cure of some sort to administered to Whistler, and only time will tell if it takes fully.

Meanwhile, it isn’t long before the vampire nation comes looking for Blade with a unique offer of a truce.  A new mutated species of vampires, called reapers, have become a serious threat to them and potentially all of humanity.  They are overall a more advanced species with abilities and strengths beyond any other vampire, and a hunger that is like a drug addiction – they have to feed constantly.  Anyone bitten is immediately infected.  Also, Nomack (Luke Goss) is the original reaper who holds secrets that could bring down the vampire nation.  Thus, vampire princess Nyssa (Leonor Varela) has come to enlist the aid of the Daywalker to lead this hunt for them.  Blade teams up with a death squad named the Blood Pack that have been trained to kill Blade himself, but are focused on eliminating the reapers for the time being.  At the head of this group is Reinhardt (Ron Perlman) who shows immediate distaste and opposition to Blade, but he’s soon put in his place the way only Blade can do.  There is also pure blood elder Damaskinos (Thomas Kretschmann) who is Nyssa’s father, but also holds secrets of his own that he refuses to take responsibility for.  These sorts of things come into play later in the film.

The hunt for the reapers and Nomack is only half the story here, and thus, only lasts through about half the film.  Members of the Blood Pack are lost in the hunt, but the main characters survive it.  Along the way, a bond is formed between Blade and Princess Nyssa while the relationship between Blade and Whistler seems to fade deep into the background.  It almost seems like Whistler needs protecting, like he can no longer hold his own.  Though, the hunt to destroy the reapers is really only half of the film, and barely scratches the surface of the overall plot which Blade hardly sees coming when he and Whistler are taken captive and a traitor is revealed along with buried truths with threaten everyone.

I would like to say that I actually feel this is NOT a sequel that surpasses the original, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.  I enjoyed the more dramatic, serious tone of the original Blade with its balance of action, vampire lore, and interesting, entertaining characters.  Blade II offers up a more fun, multi-colored visual style with jacked up action sequences, but lighter on character depth and lacking a coherent plot progression.  The first half of the film sets up a really strong threat in the Reapers, but all the setup and very detailed exposition is dashed when all but Nomack are wiped out halfway through the film.  After that, it’s all personal agendas and vendettas to sustain the film from there.  A far less sympathetic Frankenstein’s Monster tale of a creation turning against its creator ensues, and Blade is just there to clean up the mess.  The final fight between Blade and Nomack, while intense and entertaining, is mostly a CGI affair like something out of The Matrix Trilogy forcing it, by default, to lack a needed visceral element.  The fight mainly happens because the film needs a climax.  The only real justification for it is a last minute act of violence that fires up Blade to throw down – an act that has no real purpose to have happened.  There’s no build up of personal disdain between the two as there was between Blade and Deacon Frost in the 1997 film.  Ultimately, Nomack is not the real villain of the film, but is left as the only remaining threat by the film’s end.

I also think Guillermo del Toro imbued this film with a bit too much cheesiness and levity.  While Snipes, Perlman, and the other actors pull it off well, I feel we lose the weight of the story overall.  First and foremost, Blade just doesn’t come off as imposing or as threatening as before.  While Blade was quite the antisocial, brooding, edgy, blunt, and internal personality before, here (amongst enemies no less) opens up his thoughts and sense of humor significantly more.  Snipes still plays the role exceptionally well, it just seems to go against Blade’s established personality – especially since he retains that cold, stone-faced facade when he’s amongst his established allies.

Speaking of which, Norman Reedus appears as Scud, a new ally of the Daywalker.  He essentially took over Whistler’s role in his absence, but now that he’s back, there is friction.  Though, where Whistler was allowed to be his own strong, solid character in the previous film, he becomes little more than an object of abuse by the Blood Pack here.  This is deeply unfortunate considering that Kristofferson is a spectacular actor, and Whistler had such a wealth of potential for serious exploration before.  Instead, he’s made into a weaker character overall that Blade has to protect whereas he could hold his own before.  I really liked his gruff cowboy style mentality from the first film, and to see it be depleted here throughout the film for no major reason is just sad.  You don’t get to see Whistler kick anyone’s ass, at all, ever in this whole film.  That’s a greatly negative mark against this film, in my eyes.

The special and visual effects are superior than those in the original film, but with a span of four years between films, it’s not surprising.  Guillermo does use a great deal more CGI than Norrington did, but it still works well for the film (even if it might be a slight bit obvious, at times).  While I believe del Toro makes very good films, and excels with the more fantastical material, I simply believe he veered certain aspects of this film into incorrect directions.  I like a good dash of humor in my films as much as anyone, but I don’t like it when the essence of an established character is lost within it.  That’s what I see happened here with Blade.  His character is too light, and loses some of his dark, mysterious edge.  Whistler is handled in a pretty pathetic fashion which doesn’t roll for me.  Anyone who casts Kris Kristofferson does so for his strength of character and natural presence of authority – that is totally wasted in this sequel.

Also, overall, I feel the vampire nation is presented in a very inconsequential light in this film.  Whereas in the first film, they seemed like a powerful underground global organization, here the vampire nation seems terribly smaller and less influential with the weak and cowardly Damaskinos heading everything.  He carries himself with no weight, and hardly seems like a threat to anyone.  The only thing that makes him powerful is his personal influence and armed guards.  When danger comes his way, he retreats like a little old lady – literally.  Nomack really is a greater threat (and proves it), but is terribly downplayed by the second half of the film.  This is all why del Toro’s film is marginally inferior to Norrington’s original film – mishandling of characters and plot.  This might be attributed to David Goyer’s writing (lord, I know what it’s like when there’s no around to fix it up), but it is the director’s job to balance these things out.  I simply feel like there was more consistent storytelling and character continuity with the original Blade.  I’ve seen Hellboy, and I feel it suffers from the exact same problems as Blade II.  It is a fine film, but could use some definite improvements as could this sequel.

And I just have to say the biggest mishandling of a talent in this film is in Donnie Yen.  I’ve only seen him in Highlander: Endgame, but DAMN, was I impressed by his talent and abilities.  The man is a premiere martial artist that rivals the likes of Jet Li and such.  He is simply an amazing athlete and martial artist.  The fact that he’s barely utilized in this film should be a crime.  Maybe the filmmakers were afraid he’d out-shine Wesley Snipes?  I don’t know, but it’s just wrong to have under-utilized him in this picture.  Honestly, if you cast a talent the caliber of Donnie Yen, it’s for a very specific reason, and that reason is blatantly obvious.  To not make use of his most prominent talents is simply stupid.  Of what I’ve seen of him, I’d definitely look forward to seeing more of his talents.

This film has new music composers in Marco Beltrami and Danny Saber, but the difference isn’t strikingly different.  In the least, the music fits well with del Toro’s tone and style.  The soundtrack still features some techno-style music, but also rap / hip-hop music is present with the likes of Cypress Hill.  Not at all my taste in music, but it’s good within the context of the film.  Simply put, I have no qualms about the musical score or soundtrack for the film.

The film does indeed look fantastic with a rich color scheme, and the stellar cinematography.  The camera moves and angles definitely lend a sense of scope and power to the images.  The production design is top-notch creating various distinct sets and locales with bring a European flavor to the film.  With all the more diverse settings in this film, it easily makes it look more elaborate than the American urban setting of the first film.  But whatever the case, it all looks amazing!

Overall, taking in all the good and not-so-good of the film, I would have to give Blade II a score slightly below that of the first film.  Guillermo del Toro is an awesome filmmaker, but with this film, I just don’t feel his style lent itself best to this film.  I would’ve preferred more dramatic and emotional weight overall, and a stronger consistency in the characters of Blade and Whistler.  They are the only franchise mainstays, and they’re the ones we follow from film-to-film.  I feel their characters were weakened, and their potential strength was drained by excessive levity in the film overall.  Also, the CGI is good, but during the action scenes, you know when it’s CGI, making it not all that great.  It certainly helped the filmmakers achieve things that they couldn’t do otherwise, but also took away from the effectiveness of the times it was used.  It becomes a toss up, but never the less, I count it as a mark against the film, to a small degree.  Simply put, I give Blade II an 8.5/10.  It’s a good film, but it could’ve been stronger and more coherent in its storytelling progression and character development.