Monthly Archives: April 2012

Hulk (2003)

by Steve Habrat

One of the most polarizing films in the Marvel Studios line of films is Ang Lee’s 2003 splashy origin tale Hulk, which shows us the unfortunate accident that turns mild mannered Bruce Banner into the smashing and thrashing Hulk. The film has seemed to divide audiences and critics over the years—some standing by Lee’s psychological evaluation of the pain the Bruce bottles up inside and some practically retching at the mere mention of the film. I stand firm in the above average crowd. Personally, I’m a fan of the aesthetic that Lee applies to the jolly green giant’s first cinematic outing and I do enjoy some of the camp that he lays on oh so thick. Hulk does come with several flaws that do hold the film back, mostly the poorly executed action sequences and some of the brooding character development that takes place during the sagging middle of the film. Much of the grim stuff could have been left on the cutting room floor.  Yet when Hulk is firing on all cylinders, it is really, really good and it is hugely innovative.

Hulk tells the tale of genetics researcher Bruce Banner (Played by Eric Bana), who nurses a tragic past. Banner is working with nanomeds and gamma radiation to discover a cure for cancer and multiple other diseases. He works close to his main squeeze, the pretty Betty Ross (Played by Jennifer Connelly), who is the daughter of scheming General Ross (Played by Sam Elliot). When Bruce was young, General Ross and Bruce’s father David (Played by Nick Nolte) had a feud that caused David to be put in prison for many years. After an unfortunate accident, Bruce is exposed to gamma radiation but he miraculously survives. At first, Bruce feels better than ever but he quickly discovers that when he gets angry, he transforms into a destructive monster that lays waste to anything in its path. Fearing for the life of his daughter, General Ross demands that Bruce be taken into custody by the army before he can hurt anyone. To make matters worse, Bruce’s father returns to continue the work that he was torn away from all those years ago and undergoes a dangerous transformation of his own.

The best part of Lee’s Hulk is without question the comic book panel aesthetic that he uses to sculpt the film. It makes Hulk a constant visual treat—like we have cracked open the pages of a long lost Hulk comic book and the pages suddenly sprang to life.  Lee’s film could be considered one of the first superhero films that tried to mimic the pages of it’s source, opening the door for films like Sin City, 300, etc. Hulk is one big cartoon, drenched in vibrant colors and action that would seem more at home on the pages of a comic than on a movie screen. Yet it is this very action that causes Hulk to hit a wall. When Lee throws an action sequence at us, he can’t quite keep Hulk contained and on track. These scenes, which are mostly the Hulk versus Hulk-dogs showdown and the final confrontation between Hulk and David Banner swirls into incoherency that completely removes us from the fun.

While Hulk is a visual treat, the subject matter veers into heavy territory that the comic book genre wasn’t particularly used to at the time. Lee doesn’t hesitate to give us multiple glimpses into Banner’s heavy heart and he marries the bottle up demons within Banner with his transformation into the Hulk. His pain and anguish is literally explosive. Lee drags Hulk out to two hours and twenty minutes with breathlessly explaining every psychological aspect of Banner’s inner turmoil. Lee uses Betty as the Banner’s psychologist, someone who stands back and baits Banner into decoding hazy memories from his past. This would be all okay except that Lee begins to repeat himself and he never really attempts to break the film up. He does finally lighten the mood with an extended battle between the Hulk and endless waves off army tanks, helicopters, and waves of soldiers.

Hulk does feature some first-rate performances from its colorful cast, mainly from Nolte as the mysterious David Banner. Nolte, looking as scruffy as ever, is a tortured soul much like Bruce, one who buries secrets within and then explodes into a force of nature. It’s a shame that Lee forgets about his character half way through the film and then suddenly remembers that he has to work him in and give him something to do with his sinister new powers. Connelly is given the routine superhero’s girlfriend job of putting herself in harm’s way but her interactions with Bruce are at times touching. She does everything she can to rise above her clichéd role and often does. Bana does a bang up job of playing the brooding nerd and I have to say I really enjoyed him. He does really send a chill when his face begins to bubble and he sputters out with, “You’re making me angry!” Sam Elliot as General Ross is an egotistical man who torments Banner every chance he gets. He’s the true villain here even if he is planted behind computer screens and shouts orders to never-ending troops of soldiers.

With fairly memorable performances and lots of visual bells and whistles, Hulk musters up several nifty moments throughout its lengthy runtime to really make it a winner. I personally enjoy the cartoonish special effects here and I think they have held up quite well over the years. I enjoy the hell out of the Hulk’s showdown with the army near the end of the film and I personally think it is the highlight moment. Just wait until the Hulk bites the tip of a missile off and spits it at a helicopter. Yet I don’t think a character like the Hulk truly needs such an emotionally complex origin tale for a hero who is basically a green wrecking ball. Furthermore, I really don’t think that Lee needed to drag it out as long as he does, as more than once I checked the time while I was re-watching it. What I want out of a Hulk movie is lots of smashing, destruction, and mayhem with a tiny bit of romance thrown in. I commend Lee and Hulk for trying to add some depth to the superhero genre and for that, I say Hulk is pretty darn good. It’s a risky experiment of imagination and Lee, God bless him, almost pulls it off.

Grade: B

Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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The Punisher (2004)

by Steve Habrat

Marvel Comics, which is usually known for their family friendly heroes, finds a dark side in Frank Castle or The Punisher, a machine gun toting vigilante who gruesomely murders evildoers after the mob slays his entire family right before his eyes. Since 1989, Marvel has been puzzling over how to get The Punisher up on the big screen properly, with a dark film to match his even darker actions. Unfortunately, 2004’s The Punisher just isn’t a fit for this killing machine, as director Jonathan Hensleigh makes an artless and lukewarm telling of The Punisher’s bloody origin and then drives the film into the ground with unimpressive action sequences, zero character development, and poorly timed jokes which are unnecessary due to the subject matter of the film. While I was never an avid reader of The Punisher, I can tell you that I would have liked to see more growth in Castle and some confliction about his decision to become The Punisher. Hensleigh, who also penned the script along with Michael France, seems to want to make a film that is all brawn and bullets, with zero psychological exploration of our antihero.

The Punisher begins with an arms deal between Bobby Saint (Played by James Carpinello), the son of powerful money launderer Howard Saint (Played by John Travolta) and the mysterious “Otto Krieg”. The FBI suddenly breaks up the deal and FBI agents end up killing Bobby Saint in all the action. It turns out that “Krieg” is in fact undercover FBI agent and former U.S. Army Delta Force operator Frank Castle (Played by Thomas Jane). Castle retires from the FBI and returns home to his wife and son, who then jet off to a family reunion in Puerto Rico. After Howard Saint discovers that the arms deal was just a set up and his men uncover that Krieg was Castle undercover, he orders his men to track down Castle’s family and lay waste to all of them including Frank. Frank survives the horrific attack, heals, and then begins collecting a large assortment of weapons that will help him bring down Saint and those around him.

The Punisher does nothing in the way to explore Frank’s trauma or his psychological state. Director Heinsleigh thinks he can convey Frank’s misery by showing him sipping from a bottle of Wild Turkey and closing himself off in his dingy apartment. His transformation is even more head scratching, the film implying that once we suffer a traumatic event like Frank does, we automatically become a one man killing machine (Riiiight…). Like many action films from the 1980’s, The Punisher really cringes if it begins flirting with some depth in the character of Frank. It’s more comfortable when it is showing us Frank stomping around in all black and killing a seemingly unending army of henchmen while alternative rock blares over the soundtrack. Its even more confounding because the film runs just slightly over two hours and after it ends, you’ll be wondering how on earth the filmmakers managed to avoid putting anything remotely substantial at all into it.

If the lack of development in Frank is a problem, wait until you get a load of Travolta’s Howard Saint. Travolta just isn’t the proper fit for a villainous role, as he is never menacing or a true threat to Castle. The filmmakers think that if they make his slicked back hair fall into his face, spray him with a bit of water to make him look sweaty, and he trembles a little bit, he is automatically scary when he actually looks like a gangster knockoff. Thomas Jane as Frank Castle/The Punisher does a passable job but not much is really required of him. He speaks in a monotone voice to his concerned neighbor Joan (Played by Rebecca Rominjn-Stamos), who appears to have feelings for the closed off Frank, but the film quickly severs the love connection between them. Jane does have some hints of fun, but it is mostly found in chuckle worthy one-liners which most of the time are wildly out of place. His best comes after a brutal fight with a towering Russian hitman. After the fight, he looks up at his horrified neighbors and chokes out, “I’m okay” and then proceeds to fall over.

The Punisher’s major problem is that the film itself has absolutely no personality to speak of. It’s a lot like Jane’s Frank Castle, it’s mostly apathetic, extremely empty, and, inexplicably desensitized. There is no adrenaline pumping action to be found and when the film does finally muster a good fist fight, it ruins it by weaving unneeded jokes throughout the sequence. The film is also poorly paced, dragging its feet in some spots and then blasting through the final confrontation that we have been eagerly waiting for. Even worse, moments of the film make absolutely no sense whatsoever. In one scene, Saint complains that they are having a difficult time finding Castle’s whereabouts and then orders two hitmen to go find him. These two hitmen find Castle effortlessly and one even conveniently knows where he lives (Riiiight…).  The film tries to keep things edgy by remembering its R-rating and throwing in a little blood here, a topless woman there, and a couple F-bombs to assure you that the film is hardcore. Had The Punisher not been so terrified of its own pain and emotions and been willing to confront them, this may have been a much more fulfilling film for both fanboys and nonfans alike. Unfortunately, the title of this film says it all–it truly is a real punisher of a movie.

Grade: D+

The Punisher is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Anti-Film School’s Marvel/Avengers Week

Hey readers,

All next week, Anti-Film School is being taken over by Marvel Studios movie reviews! I am doing this in honor of The Avengers, which hits theaters Friday and is destined to be a huge hit. As a massive comic book fan and collector, I am extremely excited to be posting reviews of The Punisher (2004), Hulk (2003), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man (2008), and Iron Man 2 (2010), all leading up to Friday’s review of The Avengers. It is time to get excited for the summer movie season and it certainly looks like it is starting with a bang on May 4th. So, comic fans, drop in tomorrow as The Punisher will be kicking things off!

-Theater Management (Steve)

The Raven (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Throughout James McTeigue’s overcast thriller The Raven, I kept wondering what the film would have been like if it would have been approached in a much more serious manner rather than as a graphic novel that has come to life. The film, which cleverly uses Edgar Allen Poe as the hard-boiled detective to solve murders based around his own work, does have a pulpy storyline, one that you could very easily see illustrated out in comic book form but I felt like the film could have been much better if the filmmakers would have made it a little bit grittier and meaner. Instead, McTeigue instructs his actors to lightly flit around what look like leftover sets from Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd while holding up lanterns to see through the CGI fog that is supposed to create a portentous atmosphere. The film also tries to lighten the already forced mood by having the superb John Cusack, who plays the boozy Poe, spew chuckle worthy one liners like he is a cleaned up Jack Sparrow on vacation from his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Despite these major flubs, The Raven does have a handful of moments that are moderately fun but they quickly fly off like a startled raven.

The Raven begins with the witty Detective Emmett Fields (Played by Luke Evans) showing up to a grisly double murder and quickly observing that the crime scene resembles a story written by the booze sipping Edgar Allen Poe (Played by John Cusack). After being taken into police custody, Poe is convinced by Evans to begin helping the police to catch the murderer before he strikes again. Poe also happens to be in love with the blonde and beautiful Emily Hamilton (Played by Alice Eve), who at a costume ball, is kidnapped by the murderer, sending Poe and Emily’s protective father Colonel Hamilton (Played by Brendan Gleason) into a frenzy to try to find her. As more murders stack up, Poe has to get inside the killers mind by using clues that he leaves at the crime scenes to find Emily before the deranged fan slices and dices her. But as the chase furthers, Poe begins to suspect that he may not live make it out of the investigation alive.

The Raven is the same old hack and slash whodunit that is dressed in all in black and sips brandy from a flask. The most inspired aspect of the film is the way the killer dispatches his victims by using the work of Poe. By far the most grisly is the death that is inspired by “The Pit and the Pendulum”, a scene that overflows with CGI blood that is flung directly at the audience. I’m stunned the filmmakers weren’t compelled to convert the film to 3D just to milk the effect even more. This is the exact problem with The Raven. It’s just gets too cartoonish for its own good and is overly concerned with its own outer appearance rather than making something that will really stick with us and, dare I say, disturb us to our core. Instead, it’s sleek when it should embrace a little dirt under its fingernails. I suspect that McTeigue, who directed the awesome 2006 comic book film V for Vendetta, never really snapped out of comic mode. McTeigue and screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare are all about images that look cool and speeding the story along to the next gruesome discovery, with everyone but Poe choking out simple dialogue that would seem more at home in big white speech bubbles protruding from their mouths.

Of all the players in The Raven, Cusack hits it out of the park with his motor-mouthed Poe, who bursts with intelligent jabs at those who try to insult him and continuously spars with Colonel Hamilton, who despises the drunken Poe. Cusack is committed to Poe to the very end and really does his best to give him a little bit of depth and glassy-eyed emotion. He steals every scene he’s in and he makes The Raven a bit easier to sit through without your mind wandering away from the story. Cusack is a magnetic actor and I admit that I really do enjoy his work. My one compliant with his performance is that I wish it were smudged with a little bit more intensity at times but the screenwriters would like him to be a jester. Brendan Gleason sneaks by as Colonel Hamilton, although he isn’t given much more to do than to grumble on about his dislike for Poe and to yell “EMILY!” when he finds out she is missing. It’s a shame that Gleason’s talent was severely underused. Luke Evans plays the real hard-boiled detective in the film, but he just resorts to saying everything with in a gruff whisper. The screenwriters are disinterested in really fleshing him out and he is relegated to just making speeches to groups of gung-ho police officers. Alice Eve is another minor standout and she does have a spark with Cusack, but we only see that spark in brief flashes before she is separated from Cusack for a good majority of the film.

The Raven is devoid of any tension, fear, or shock, all three things that are desperately needed within the film. It briefly thrills here or has us scoot to the edge of our seat there but sadly, McTeigue seems to think that if the whodunit thriller ain’t broke, don’t you dare do anything to fix it or even put a creative spin on it. Another disappointment of The Raven is the big reveal at the end, when we finally get to see the face of the killer, who ends up being a character that we’ve barely seen throughout the film. Maybe it would have been a little bit more of a bombshell if it was someone closer to Poe instead a distant background player we don’t give a lick about. The Raven couldn’t be any more by the books or worse, predictable even when it thinks you have no idea what is coming next. Maybe if The Raven had been a little more game to get its hands dirty rather than cover them up in all the CGI body fluids and atmospherics, things would have played out differently. Ultimately, McTeigue and The Raven are a little too soft and play a bit too nicely, which is a shame because Cusack came to have some devilish fun.

Grade C

The Godfather Part III (1990)

by Steve Habrat

The Godfather Part III is widely regarded as the weakest installment in The Godfather trilogy. Many aim their blame at the performance from Sofia Coppola, director Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, the fact that the film doesn’t operate as a stand-alone piece, or at the simple fact that the film doesn’t provide a satisfying wrap up to the gangster epic that began in 1972. Many of the major themes are still in tact (The American Dream, family loyalty, corruption, etc.) but I think the film just simply doesn’t tell a story that is as engaging as 1972’s The Godfather or 1974’s The Godfather Part II. In my humble opinion, I think things were properly wrapped up in The Godfather Part II, the film ending with Michael’s vicious hold on the family deteriorating into tragedy. While I don’t think The Godfather Part III holds up to the greatness of the first two films, I still believe that the film is good on its own terms, which I know is odd because the final installment leans so heavily on the events of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Coppola and returning screenwriter Mario Puzo make a film that thinks even bigger than the first two films, stretching the events out and getting a little bit too implausible for its own good.

The Godfather Part III picks up in 1979, where a graying Michael Corleone (Played by Al Pacino) is being named a Commander of the Order of St. Sebastian at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City. At a celebration after the event, Michael is reunited with his ex-wife Kay (Played by Diane Keaton), who informs Michael that his son Anthony (Played by Franc D’Ambrosio) wants to drop out of law school and pursue a career as an opera singer. Michael is upset by the decision and wishes that he would either remain in law school or join the family business. Michael, who is still desperately trying to make the family business legitimate, is still haunted by the death of his brother Fredo. Michael also finds himself confronted by his late brother Sonny’s illegitimate son Vincent Mancini (Played by Andy Garcia), who wants in on the family business and wants Michael to settle a spat between him and Joey Zasa (Played by Joe Mantegna), who now handles the Corleone family’s criminal interests. Michael has been busying himself by buying up enough stock in International Immobiliare, which is an international real estate holding company. Michael becomes the biggest single shareholder and then looks to buy the Vatican’s 25% interest in the company. As the deal continues, the spat between Joey Zasa and Vincent becomes more and more deadly, pulling Michael back into the criminal underworld. After a brutal assassination attempt, Michael thinks that there may be trouble to be found in the Immobiliare deal.

The Godfather Part III has perhaps the most convoluted plotline of all the three films, which makes some stretches of the film slightly boring. This is disappointing because there wasn’t a slow moment to be found in the previous two entries. It is interesting to see how some of the remaining characters have progressed, mostly Michael’s sister Connie (Played by Talia Shire) and Kay, who has mixed emotions about Michael’s behavior and his ruthless control on the family. The biggest change can be found in Michael, who appears to have lost some of his coldness and embraced a warmer, generous heart. There are still brief flashes of the Michael in The Godfather Part II, but he is nowhere near as menacing as he once was. Coppola also removes some of the ominous feel, this film a bit brighter than the other installments. What has remained in tact is the epic reach of the film, jetting all over from New York City to Sicily and everywhere in between. The film also establishes a creepy love story between Vincent and Michael’s daughter Mary (Played by Sofia Coppola), who are first cousins but apparently are not bothered by this at all. The love story is my least favorite aspect of The Godfather Part III, at once completely unnecessary and incredibly out of place for this series.

Like the first two films, Coppola and Puzo pile on tons of characters that we need to pay attention to. The film introduces us to the vile Joey Zasa, who has turned Little Italy into a drug filled slum. We also meet Don Altobello (Played by Eli Wallach), a seemingly reasonable old man who has a dark side, Michael’s bodyguard Al Neri (Played by Richard Bright), Corleone family friend Don Tommasino (Played by Vittorio Duse), Archbishop Gilday (Played by Donal Donnelly), and powerful Italian political figure Don Licio Lucchesi (Played by Enzo Robutti), to name a few of the new characters. It times, it is almost impossible to keep track of all of them, but you will barely manage. We are really supposed to care about hotheaded Vincent, who is quickly rising to power within the Corleone family. While Garcia plays him with confident determination, at times, I really didn’t care much for his character and would have rather just stuck with Michael, who is facing deteriorating health and wishes to overcome his inner demons, which consistently plague him.

The Godfather Part III explores even further family loyalty, corruption, and the American Dream. With this installment, we learn that Michael has all the power and wealth he could ever dream of, but he still finds himself alienated from a good majority of his family. Apparently, Connie has come around and stands firmly beside her brother, at times even more vicious than he is. His son, Anthony, wishes to keep Michael and the family business as far away from him so he can and seek out an honest living. Yet The Godfather Part III firmly states that corruption is found in big business and yes, even the Vatican. This criminal underworld is like a parasite that has infected even the places that should never have been infected. Michael still voices that he wishes to make the family business legitimate and wash his hands of the mafia but this is easier said than done. Vincent also rejects trying to make an honest man of himself, firmly rejecting the idea all together and instead gleefully descending into the criminal underworld. The downside to the subtext of The Godfather Part III is that it gets a bit ludicrous and looses its subtlety. It is disappointing because this is territory that Puzo and Coppola have covered before and much more effectively at that.

The Godfather Part III is a well-made film and no one can really say otherwise. There are still solid performances to be found, but no one really rises above good and strives for greatness. No one here really challenges what Brando did in the first film and not even Pacino can match the unbearable intensity that he conveyed in Part II. Much has been made of Sofia Coppola’s polarizing performance as Mary but I personally didn’t find her all that bad. I think she is a victim of the subplot that she is thrown into, which is just there to add another layer of tragedy to a story that is already tragic enough. The cinematography is just as beautiful and Coppola can’t resist returning to Sicily to exploit that beautiful countryside and baroque architecture. The film plants here for almost half the runtime but I certainly was not complaining about this aspect. In the end, there is the feeling that all the events that are playing out are vaguely forced and empty, almost like they didn’t need to play out at all. I really liked the scenes with Kay and Michael and their attempts to patch up their relationship but I liked the way things were left in Part II. With the second installment, we knew that Michael was doomed by the suggestions of the final frame and there was really no need for Coppola and Puzo to drag things out further and then put it in bold print and italicize it.

Grade: B+

The Godfather Part III is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Innkeepers (2011)

by Steve Habrat

After 2009’s The House of the Devil, I was curious to see what director Ti West would do next. Turns out, he returned to the horror genre and made a film that was even better than his awesome if a bit flawed 2009 retro offering. The Innkeepers improves upon what West did in The House of the Devil, still brandishing the slow burn intensity but here, West doesn’t begin to fall apart in the final stretch like he did in The House of the Devil. The Innkeepers is old school horror, one that pokes fun at the jump scare approach in the opening moments and then quickly assures us, by the distant thumping and ghostly whispers, that this isn’t that kind of a horror film. Sure, West does slip in the obligatory fake out scare once or twice but it’s his images, ones that are incredibly spooky and borderline traumatizing, that really make this a film that you will hesitate to watch when the sun goes down.

The Innkeepers invites us into the Yankee Pedlar Inn, an old hotel that has been in operation for over one hundred years. We are introduced to the two slacker employees, Claire (Played by Sara Paxton) and Luke (Played by Pat Healy), who moonlight as amateur paranormal investigators, determined to find out if the Yankee Pedlar Inn lives up to its haunted reputation. The hotel is in its last days of operation and Claire and Luke are determined to find hard evidence of Madeline O’Malley, the woman they believe is their resident ghost. After a handful of old guests return to the Yankee Pedlar Inn, strange noises are heard and Claire has one hell of a close encounter, sparking the two amateur paranormal investigators to double their efforts. The more they begin to uncover about the hotel’s undead inhabitant, the more they put their lives in danger.

Director West knows how to expertly pace the events within his film, leaving us hanging on what will come in the next frame. He teases us here and there, a whisper is heard, a piano key suddenly plays, and then he backs off and dares us to ask for more. Like fools, we do and that is when he REALLY delivers the goods. The Innkeepers has a ghostly encounter that almost that turned me into an icicle. This scene let me know that West means business and in every tense scene after, my knuckles were white. To some, The Innkeepers may be boring or too slow, but the patient pace adds to the old school feel to the film. Throughout the run time, I was reminded of such otherworldly creepouts like The Innocents, The Haunting, The Changeling, and The Shining, all films that would be incredibly proud of West’s effort here and compliment The Innkeepers on a double feature night. West also pulls off the impossible and gives us a climax that doesn’t completely underwhelm or fly wildly off the tracks. The film remains consistent, something that most horror films of today fail to do, and boldly resists giving in to overkill, which was a trap that West himself tumbled into with The House of the Devil.

The Innkeepers features some incredibly convincing performances from its young leads. Sarah Paxton is a real treasure, possessing a cute girl-next-door pep while also sighing through disgust and exasperation over her dead-end job. She is incredibly charismatic and will charm your pants off. She works great with Pat Healy’s Luke, who slumps over the check-in desk and sips Schlitz beer while tinkering with his paranormal website. Luke seems like the American twin brother to Simon Pegg’s Shaun in Shaun of the Dead, as I kept getting the strangest feeling that they would have a ball together chattering on about video games, zombie flicks, and pot, all while Healy informs Pegg that he has red on him. Their performances coast on the waves of West’s solid dialogue that rolls off the tongue like real conversation. Their highlight moment comes when they decide that they are going to investigate the ominous basement, Claire calling out questions to Madeline O’Malley as West’s camera vacillates back and forth between Luke’s face, the recorder, and Claire’s face. West doesn’t give us multiple fancy camera angles or any flowing movement around the room. West jumps back and forth until finally he freezes on Claire’s wide-eyed stare at something behind Luke, just off screen for our imaginations to be sent into overdrive. Luke asks if she is here and Claire informs Luke that she’s right behind him. Talk about a new classic moment for the horror genre! The Innkeepers also welcomes in Witness’s Kelly McGillis as a former star with a drinking problem and who may have more of an understanding about what is going on in the hotel than the two kids do.

Throughout The Innkeepers, West paints terrifying images that will lock themselves into your brain until it is time for you to shut the lights off to go to sleep. His ghost has got to be one of the creepiest apparitions to haunt the screen in recent memory (and I was fairly convinced that the spook in The Woman in Black was pretty darn creepy). This thing is the stuff that nightmares are made of and West keeps her just hidden enough in the shadows, only showing her briefly so we can never truly process her. At one point in the film, Luke describes a paranormal experience that he once had and he says that it is hard to remember exact details of what he saw. West applies Luke’s description in the final frames when the guests who never left the Yankee Pedlar Inn come out to play with Luke and Claire. West either douses them in shadows or only briefly illuminates them with Claire’s trembling flashlight as they reach out for her to come join them.

Unlike The House of the Devil, I really didn’t find any aspect I was disappointed in while watching The Innkeepers. Usually, newer horror films let me down in some way, shape, or form, but The Innkeepers is an exception. With all the hype that surrounded this film, I was afraid that it would fall short of my expectations but I was steadily impressed every step of the way. The Innkeepers joins the ranks of some of the best recent horror films that I have seen and West is a new hero of the genre. I hope that he continues to operate just outside the major studio system, making smaller and tighter pictures than CGI laced garbage for the preteens to see on a Friday night. It’s safe to say that West knows how to really scare us, to leave out firm explanations that other horror films of today are so fond of. With The Innkeepers, West has earned my full respect and in the process, he has made a film that down the line will become a celebrated horror classic. Trust me.

Grade: A-

The Innkeepers is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Crazies (1973)

by Steve Habrat

After George Romero left his mark on American cinema with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, he made a handful of films that were largely overlooked until he returned to the zombie genre in 1978 with Dawn of the Dead. These films, made from 1971 to 1976 included There’s Always Vanilla, Hungry Wives, The Crazies, and Martin. Perhaps the best two in this string are 1976’s Martin and his 1973 film The Crazies, which like Night of the Living Dead, held up a cracked mirror up to the Vietnam War. In The Crazies, Romero didn’t go to great lengths to mask the fact that he was blatantly criticizing the unpopular war, even including characters that openly discuss fighting in the Vietnam War. While The Crazies certainly boasts Romero’s trademark brainy subtext, the film becomes one of his shoddier pieces, one that, like much of his other work, is extremely low budget and feels like gorilla style filmmaking. It’s the ideas and images that keep The Crazies in the horror game and the trademark gore is what has recruited its cult following.

The Crazies takes us to Evans City, Pennsylvania; where a mysterious biological weapon named Trixie has accidentally made its way into the town’s drinking water and is turning the good citizens of the peaceful town into wild-eyed “crazies.” After a series of shocking murders, U.S. troops descend upon the town and begin executing a quarantine of Evans City. As the citizens are rounded up without explanation, violence erupts and many of the citizens end up dead or irreversibly insane. Firefighter David (Played by W.G. McMillan), his pregnant nurse girlfriend Judy (Played by Lane Caroll), and David’s best friend and firefighter Russell Clank (Played by Harold Wayne Jones) begin trying to find a way out of the plague-ridden town. Along the way, they hook up with a terrified father Artie (Played by Richard Liberty) and his teenage daughter Kathie (Played by Lynn Lowry), but as their journey continues, certain members of the group begin to think they may be infected with Trixie and putting the rest of the group in danger.

The Crazies is ripe with images that could have been pulled from stock footage of the Vietnam War. In addition to our two heroes who served in the war (David was supposedly Green Beret and Clank was an infantryman), the opening moments of the film are frenzied flashes of an invasion, soldiers bursting into homes, rounding up civilians, encountering resistance from terrified citizens who only wish to know why they are being forced from their homes. In the opening moments, The Crazies gets by on the gossip spilling from the mouths of the actors in front of the screen, trading stories on mysterious truckloads of soldiers spilling into the town while Romero’s shaky camera hovers in all the confusion. His rapid fire editing is certainly in tact in these opening moments, giving The Crazies an almost documentary-like feel to it, like someone quickly spliced together these apocalyptic images for the evening news. The lack of a big budget also allows The Crazies to feel more authentic, much like the limited green that kept Night of the Living Dead grounded in reality. This imagery really comes to a head when a priest bursts from a church that has been overrun by the soldiers, none of them listening to his pleas for peace. He rushes into the streets with a can of gasoline, splashes it all over his body and then sets himself ablaze while horrified onlookers shriek and soldiers rush to put him out of his misery. It is scenes like this that elevate The Crazies from simple B-movie carnage to grave reflection, leaving it lingering in your head the next day.

The Crazies also uses the idea of peaceful people suddenly erupting into violence to really give us a few sleepless nights. A father destroys the inside of his home while his two terrified children watch, one child finding their mother murdered in her bed while the father douses the downstairs in gasoline and then drops a lighter into the gas. Countless wild-eyed citizens arm themselves with double barrel shotguns, pitchforks, and knitting needles to kill them a few gas-masked soldiers who refuse to spill any updates on their situation, some soldiers not even fully understanding why they are taking over this seemingly harmless small town. There are very few images more harrowing than a grinning granny walking up to a soldier and stabbing him in the throat with a knitting needle. There are also the scarring images of children witnessing their parents murdered by the trigger-happy soldiers, who fail to find any alternative to calmly talking down the citizens trying to defend themselves. Romero expertly blurs the infected with those who are on the defensive, causing the viewer to be unsure who is really sick and who is protecting themselves, further adding to the unruly terror.

The Crazies does suffer from some shoddy craftsmanship at points but one can assume that is because of Romero’s limited budget. Yet having seen Romero with a big studio budget (Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, Survival of the Dead) and comparing it with his much more resourceful work, I have to say I prefer the contained Romero. There is plenty of gore in The Crazies, a trademark of Mr. Romero and there are plenty of disturbing moments to solidify The Crazies as a horror movie legend. The presence of a few familiar B-movie faces (Richard Liberty and Lynn Lowry, who together get one of the most unspeakable sequences of the film) also makes The Crazies worth your while. The rest of the cast does a fine job, especially Jones as Clank, who may or may not be sick with Trixie. The appearance of Richard France as the cure-seeking Dr. Watts is also a fun addition, playing almost the same role he would eventually play in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. The Crazies works on multiple levels of horror, from the documentary-esque footage on the streets of Evans City to the good citizens turning mad all the way to the scenes with several major government officials discussing dropping an atomic bomb on the town, all of which are classic Romero touches. Even though it is not as consistent as Romero’s other horror offerings, The Crazies ultimately settles like a brick in the bottom of your stomach, cynical and suggesting that our own unwillingness to work together will be our ultimate downfall.

Grade: B+

The Crazies is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

by Steve Habrat

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II could very well be one of the greatest sequels ever made. I hesitate to say the greatest because I still favor the 1972 original slightly more than I do the 1974 follow up. Yet Coppola doesn’t just make a sequel for the sake of making one and getting another paycheck. The Godfather Part II has purpose and it actually enriches the story that was told in the first film. By giving us more of the characters that we only briefly saw in The Godfather and whipping up an absorbing back-story for Vito Corleone, The Godfather Part II actually ends up being more epic in the way it dances from Corleone, Sicily to Lake Tahoe, Nevada all the way to Havana, Cuba. The Godfather Part II turns out to be much darker and moodier than the 1972 original, all the characters barely visible in all the shadows cast in this sordid world of crime. The film also continues to explore loyalty to family and the ugly side of the American Dream, cutting much deeper than they did the first time and turning The Godfather Part II into a sullen tragedy that would have wrapped thing up perfectly.

The Godfather Part II balances two storylines this time around and piles on even more characters that we are supposed to follow. The first storyline is the background of Vito Corleone (Played by Robert DeNiro), how he made it from Sicily to New York and his rise to power in the criminal underworld. The second plotline follows Michael Corleone (Played by Al Pacino), who has fully embraced his role as the uncompromising head of the family business. Michael is looking to move into the gambling industry and has started negotiating business deals with Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Played by Lee Strasberg). After two hit men try to assassinate Michael in his Lake Tahoe compound, Michael begins to suspect that there is a mole hiding within the family and he is determined to seek him out. Michael leaves his compound and leaves consigliere Tom Hagen (Played by Robert Duvall) to watch over his wife Kay (Played by Diane Keaton) and his two children. Michael then begins his business with Roth even though he is met with protests from Frankie Pentangeli (Played by Michael V. Gazzo), who took over the Corleone family territory in New York after comporegime Peter Clemenza’s death. As the business becomes more and more dangerous, Michael finds that his wife and children are slipping away from him and his family is falling apart.

The Godfather Part II digs deeper into the idea of prosperity and everything that comes along with the American Dream. Coppola and returning screenwriter Mario Puzo suggest that corruption and deceit are everywhere, making the viewer question if there is any honesty in America itself. A side character, Senator Pat Geary (Played by G.D. Spradlin), speaks of his dislike for the Corleone family right to Michael’s face at his son’s First Communion, which takes place near the beginning of the film. He attempts to stand up to Michael but later finds himself bullied into cooperation with the Corleone’s. Coppolla and Puzo portrayed Michael as the most honest member of the Corleone family in the original film but here, Michael has become even more monstrous than we could have ever imagined. His father’s office was shady and ominous, but there were still hints of warmth within it. Michael’s is even darker and downright intimidating, Michael himself barely visible as he sits in an arm chair and listens to his sister Connie (Played by Talia Shire) beg for more money. All the good that Michael possessed has crawled away. We also see Vito embrace a life of crime, fleeing from Sicily to escape the clutches of a ruthless gangster only to find himself back in it in America. At first, Vito starts out trying to make an honest living but that quickly evaporates when he is suddenly thrust into the criminal underworld. He doesn’t put up much of a fight to not get sucked all the way in.

The Godfather Part II does leave the viewer in a crumpled heap by the end of its three-hour plus runtime. The film is a tragedy, a family falling apart from lies, secrets, and neglect. Kay announces that she plans to leave Michael, who slumps in armchairs and stares into space. We question if Michael really even feels anything for Kay or if he only keeps her around to provide him with heirs for the family business. Michael also begins to see his older brother Fredo turn on him, bitter that he has been passed over in the family business and waved off as a fool. The Godfather Part II maintains its tragedy through the tainting of Vito and Michael, both who had promising futures but chose to throw it all away. Further tragic is the way that Michael alienates his family members, intimidating them and pushing them around. He’s a far throw from the soft-spoken war hero that we saw at the beginning of The Godfather.

Both Coppola and Puzo water their characters and then watch them grow in The Godfather Part II. Michael is fully engulfed by the demons he so desperately wanted to bottle up, transforming into a vile piece of humanity every time he walks into frame. While this is Pacino’s show, DeNiro gives a discreetly powerful performance as the young Vito Corleone. What I absolutely love about DeNiro’s performance is that he becomes almost transparent when he studies the ways of the criminals around him. We can see him absorb the knowledge on how to manipulate and con his way to the top. I found it incredible the way that DeNiro allowed us to see the wheels turning. Strap yourself in because Vito has explosive violent rages, ones that come when you least expect them to. I also enjoyed John Cazale as Michael’s older brother Fredo, a hotshot wannabe who puts his foot in his mouth and who is unable to stand up for himself. Fredo is a pathetic soul who has a heart of gold underneath the flashy suits. Diane Keaton is also given more room here to prove herself as Kay. When her rage and disgust with Michael pours out and she reveals a secret that she has kept from Michael, you will simultaneously feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach and have goosebumps.

The Godfather Part II does run a bit long and the amount of ground that is covered is almost exhausting. The understandable absence of Marlon Brando is what knocks The Godfather Part II down just a peg for me. I still find the film absolutely flawless, from the technical aspects all the way down to the background performers, but I just miss his character so much. DeNiro does pad the blow of his absence and he gives one of the finest performances of his career. I do favor this installment’s darker tone over the originals and the original is a pretty gloomy film to begin with. Given the length, Coppola does divvy up the action expertly and never allows the film sag, making the film incredibly consistent. Much like The Godfather, The Godfather Part II is an undisputed classic in the cinema realm, earning just as much respect as the original, if not more. Many consider this to be even better than the original and I can understand why, with the plot thickening and its emotionally draining climax. Heavier than the original, with intensity and pessimism to spare, The Godfather Part II is a spectacular follow up, a true testament to epic filmmaking and storytelling.

Grade: A+

The Godfather Part II is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Crazies (2010)

by Steve Habrat

When it comes to horror remakes, I tend to be less forgiving than I usually am with my reviews of classic horror films or more recent original work within the genre. To me, the never-ending string of remakes and face lifts that have been given to horror classics in the past several years just reflect the sorry state of Hollywood and reveal their appalling lack of creativity. But since Hollywood continues to force them on us, I guess we have to separate the good from the very, very bad. In early 2010, we saw the Breck Eisner directed remake of George Romero’s 1973 cult horror film The Crazies. The Crazies ended up being one of the better remakes that I have seen, ranking next to 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes and 2004’s Dawn of the Dead as one of the best ones out there. The Crazies actually works because there is some minor involvement from Romero, who helped pen the screenplay and served as executive producer of the film. With Romero’s involvement, The Crazies plays with the idea of the people we know and love suddenly becoming homicidal maniacs and the savagery that lies in the ones who are supposed to be protecting us.

The Crazies takes us to the small farming town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, where a government engineered biological weapon code named Trixie is accidentally unleashed in the town’s drinking water. Soon, David (Played by Timothy Olyphant), the local Sheriff, and his wife Judy (Played by Radha Mitchell), the Ogden Marsh doctor, begin noticing strange behavior in the town residents. After an encounter at a high school baseball game and several other bizarre murders, David, Judy, and David’s dependable deputy Russell Clank (Played by Joe Anderson) find the town under quarantine and gas-masked soldiers separating the sick from the healthy. When Judy, who also happens to be pregnant, is separated from David, he breaks away from the soldiers and ventures back into town to find Judy and save her. With Russell at his side, they have to continuously avoid the trigger-happy soldiers patrolling the town and the roaming “crazies” who will tear anyone apart who get in their way.  As they look for a way out of the war-zone town, the government’s horrifying plans to contain Trixie are revealed.

Director Eisner approaches The Crazies in a surprisingly conservative manner. Sure, it has its fair share of stomach churning gore for the horror gurus who thrive on the red stuff but it is incredibly muted for a horror film and especially for material from Romero. Even though it is conservative in approach, the film is fairy intelligent behind all the apocalyptic hoopla. The material is very weary of the government and what they are willing to reveal to their own civilians. The army refuses to tell the terrified citizens of Ogden Marsh what exactly is happening to their friends and family and even worse, if the army detects any sign of infection while processing the civilians at a makeshift quarantine camp, they panic and rip the individual away from their confused family. The images are reminiscent of those we have seen from the Holocaust and they still haven’t lost their lingering power. The film also touches on the idea of those that we think we know suddenly becoming homicidal maniacs who will maim in the blink of an eye. A scene in which a husband locks his wife and young son in a closet and then lights the house on fire will send chills down your spine.

The Crazies has a talented lead in Timothy Olyphant’s David, who is determined to protect his pregnant wife any way he can. His role doesn’t demand too much of him, playing the cookie cutter Sheriff who is just searching for answers and trying to protect the town citizens but Olyphant does his best to add some emotional depth. I did like the way Eisner had his character react when he was forced to take the life of one of the roaming “crazies.” Instead of reacting with indifference, his initial response after the shot if fired from his gun is, “Oh, my God!” The first time he is forced to shoot one, he races to the crumpled body, stricken with shock and grief over taking the life of someone who was close to him and he thought he knew. Olyphant also has some great chemistry with Mitchell as his soft-spoken wife Judy, the pair getting a handful of great one-liners. Together, they provide us with some tender moments of affection and even some sly black humor. Joe Anderson also gets to have some fun as the deputy who may or may not be loosing his mind. He ends up getting the best line of the film, “Welcome to Ogden Marsh! The friendliest place on earth!”

The Crazies doesn’t attempt to break any new ground and instead retreats to familiar territory to scare us. It applies the same old jump scares and despite my dislike for this technique, a few actually end up working. The premise of a small town gone to Hell has been done countless times before and Eisner really does nothing to build upon it. There are a number of chilling scenes; the standout is the group trying to hide from an army helicopter that wishes to wipe them off the face of the earth. They hide in an abandoned car wash that just so happens to be the hiding place of a handful of snarling “crazies.” The scene ends in a shockingly sadistic death that will not settle well in the pit of your stomach. The Crazies doesn’t shy away from B-movie premise and it is aware that the idea is a bit outlandish. Eisner does manage to pepper in a little fun in all the solemnity (both a certain nursery scene and a run-in in the town morgue come to mind) and the fact that the film doesn’t go on longer than it needs to is a major plus. Eisner wastes absolutely no time getting to the action that we came here for and I applaud him for it. Also, for fans of the Romero original, keep an eye out for a seriously awesome cameo from original cast member Lynn Lowry. Scaled back for mainstream audiences (there is no father raping his daughter in this remake), The Crazies is a bare bones horror remake that thankfully doesn’t ask us to switch off our brains to have a spooky good time. You’ll be happy you gave this remake a chance.

Grade: B

The Crazies is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)

by Steve Habrat

When you first hear about Japanese auteur Takashi Miike’s samurai/spaghetti western mash-up Sukiyaki Western Django, you can’t help but be intrigued if you are a fan of either genre. Any unlikely genre mash-up is going to grab the interest of cinema fanatics and when you say the unpredictable Miike is behind the camera, it becomes a must-see film. But, like most genre mash-ups/hybrids, Sukiyaki Western Django is immensely disappointing. Way back in 1964, Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo and he loosely based his first spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars off of Kurosawa’s film and ended up reinventing the genre. The east was the inspiration for the new vision of the west that was emerging out of Italy. With Sukiyaki Western Django, Miike pays tribute to the two classics and fuses the spaghetti western to the samurai film then attempts to conceal the line where he connected them. The result is a surreal and often times cartoonish vision that also attempts to weave in some traces of Japanese history. Unfortunately, Sukiyaki Western Django, which is named after a popular Japanese one-pot beef dish and Italian filmmaker Sergio Corbucci’s legendary spaghetti western Django, has a flavor that is tasty on the first bite but quickly begins droning on the viewer until Miike dumps a whole bucket of salt and pepper on the feisty gunfight at the climax.

Sukiyaki Western Django picks up in the small town of Yuta, Nevata, where two warring gangs, the Heikes (reds) and the Genjis (whites), are waging a battle for control of the town. One day, an unnamed gunman (Played by Hideaki Ito) wanders into Yuta and offers up his service to whichever gang will pay more. After demonstrating his skills, both make generous offers to this mysterious gunman but he isn’t entirely interested in their offers. The gangs are after gold that is buried somewhere near the town and one gang is importing a weapon that can give them the upper hand in their battle. The gunman begins playing to two gangs against each other in an attempt to wipe both of them out  and make off with the gold for himself. As the war grows more and more violent and the body count racks up, the gunman finds an ally in a legendary gunslinger that has been hiding in plain sight of the gangs. Her name is the Bloody Benton (Played by Kaori Momoi) and she happens to be an independent one-woman killing machine.

Sukiyaki Western Django opens with a nifty sequence that involves a lone gunslinger named Piringo (Played by Quentin Tarantino) who finds himself confronted by three cowboys who wish to kill him. Miike doesn’t make any attempt to hide the fact that his actors are on a soundstage with a painted backdrop behind them and a very visible string holding up the giant sun. The sequence is suggestive of films like The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, and A Fistful of Dollars all in one breath. It is the most inspired sequence in Sukiyaki Western Django, Tarantino getting his dream role of emulating Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. If Miike had run with this technique throughout the entire runtime, Sukiyaki Western Django would have no doubt been a much better and cooler film. When the film travels to Yuta, he switches over to real landscapes, intense color pallets, and lots of special effects which all get worn out before they even get going. Miike finally gets things back on track during the final shoot out where he slips in references to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Django, and The Great Silence. This is a sequence that will have fans of the genre erupting in applause. It  is a sequence that also single handedly saves Sukiyaki Western Django from crumbling like one of the ramshackle buildings that dot the town of Yuta.

One choice that Miike makes that is very questionable is having his Japanese actors abandon their mother tongue and speak broken English. On one hand, it is understandable why he would make this choice, approaching the western genre that finds its roots in America, but it is clear that some of his actors are having a difficult time with the English language and that they would have been more comfortable speaking their own language. In my opinion, if he would have stuck to the Japanese language, Sukiyaki Western Django would have been a much more coherent film and much easier for the viewer to follow. At times, I found myself getting lost and finally switching on the subtitles so I could understand some of the actors and keep up with the plotline. Once I did this, Sukiyaki Western Django clicked together ever so slightly. Miike also makes the mistake of not fleshing his characters out enough, turning them into silly caricatures that look like they leapt off the pages of a comic book and left their back stories in the mind of their creator. You can’t particularly care about any of them and they all just fill the screen to become moving targets for shotgun blasts. The actors seem to be having fun with their characters but no one actually inhabits their character and brings them to life.

Sukiyaki Western Django exists simply to be an in-joke to the hip cinema crowd and I must admit that I enjoyed a few of those in-jokes. I found the references to Yojimbo and the spaghetti western classics to be comical but I wish that Miike’s film had created its own world rather than just cobbling together borrowed blood-dipped chunks of other director’s cinematic worlds. The film will also appeal to those who have a strong interest in world history, as the film makes a fistful of references to historical events including England’s Wars of the Roses and Japan’s Genpei War. To me, Sukiyaki Western Django turned out to be a middling film that left me dissatisfied because I thought it was capable of so much more but it wasn’t interested in aiming higher. I tend to enjoy Miike’s depraved work even though it makes me want to loose my lunch after it ends but this particular film never comes together when it needs to, especially when it is giving clunky, vague and longwinded explanations of its plotline that are ultimately forgettable. Miike does add a bit of kick with the awesome opening sequence, the very cool Bloody Benton character (the only one given an intriguing backstory), and the outrageous climatic showdown. If you find yourself to be the fanatic of Japanese cinema and history, a guru of westerns, spaghetti westerns, Yojimbo, Quentin Tarantino, Miike, and his entire body of work, you will eat up Sukiyaki Western Django. If you are only some of those things or none of those things, you’re going to find this film to be an incredibly uneven experience and a chore to endure.

Grade: C

Sukiyaki Western Django is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.