Monthly Archives: May 2013
by Steve Habrat
In 1954, Japanese director Ishiro Honda unleashed the grim and brooding radiation nightmare Godzilla on the world. Godzilla would go on to introduce audiences everywhere to Toho Studios, a Japanese production company that would become well known among horror and science fiction enthusiasts for their “Kaiju” (strange beast) films. While Godzilla is certainly the top monster in the long line of monster movies produced by Toho Studios, the second in command would most certainly be the 1961 effort Mothra, a splashier and sillier effort from Mr. Honda. Lacking the hypnotic appeal and haunting linger of Godzilla, Mothra is clearly the more upbeat monster movie. It has all the trademark elements of these Japanese “Kaiju” films that genre fans have come to know and love, but at times it seems to be a bit too silly, fantastic, and, dare I say, cuddly for its own good. While Mothra may not possess the thought and depth of Godzilla, the film still dares to show a few post-WWII scars under all the colorful action and adventure. There is still a shiver anytime the bomb or atomic radiation is mentioned, but it almost seems like the film is chuckling at itself, which is a pity because this monster movie could have mustered a roar just as mighty as Godzilla’s.
Mothra begins in the waters off of Infant Island, with a Japanese ship getting caught and running aground in a nasty typhoon. The ship’s crew gets stranded on Infant Island, which is presumably an uninhabited site for Rolisican atomic tests. A few days later, a rescue party finds several members of the ship’s crew alive and well on Infant Island. The crew is immediately taken to the nearest hospital for radiation sickness, but doctors are stunned to learn that the crew did not get sick due to juice that was provided to them by natives living on the island. The bizarre story is broken to the public by rotund reported Zenichiro “Bulldog” Fukuda (played by Frankie Sakai) and photographer Michi Hanamura (played by Kyoko Kagawa), both who obtained the story through posing as doctors. The Rolisican government soon responds by putting together a joint expedition to the island. Among the expedition is greedy entrepreneur Clark Nelson (played by Jerry Itou) and kindly linguist Shin’ichi Chujo (played by Hiroshi Koizumi). While exploring the island, the group stumbles across the shy natives and a pair of young women (played by The Peanuts) who are only twelve inches tall. The two girls plead with the group to halt the atomic testing on their island and to leave the natives in peace. The group agrees and quickly leaves, keeping their findings a secret from the public. However, Nelson secretly travels back to the island and abducts the two girls and forces them to perform a singing act in Tokyo. The horrified natives call upon their god, Mothra, to rise up and bring the girls back to their island.
Honda quickly sets Mothra apart from his deadly serious Godzilla through pop-art action and exotic adventure. There is a trip to a beautiful yet sadly mutated island with natives peaking between giant leaves and over twisting flowers as scientists in ominous HAZMAT suits parade around with machine guns. It almost feels like something out of King Kong, only done up in the most effervescent colors imaginable. There is also plenty of slapstick humor and wisecracks, especially from the instantly likable Zenichiro, who nervously giggles when he is backed up against a wall and manages to get tiny mice caught in his suit. Despite how lavish it all looks and how funny the jokes are, there is never a hint of the impending doom that loomed over the opening half of Godzilla. However, once the action of the second half kicks in to high gear, there are traces of Godzilla everywhere. Tension builds as a massive caterpillar inches its way towards Tokyo in an attempt to find the abducted girls. Japanese fighter jets swoop over and drop canisters of napalm down on the best, but it does no good. When it finally reaches Tokyo, it bashes and smashes through miniature buildings that certainly crumble realistically enough. Things take a cheeky turn when the caterpillar morphs into the iconic Mothra, who can whip up a wind storm just by furiously flapping her wings. You’ll certainly chuckle as toy cars get tossed around like, well, toy cars and fake builds tremble like… fake buildings. The longer it all goes on, the less it impresses.
In addition to the rocky action, the performances are never as gripping as what we saw in Godzilla. Sakai is charismatic and fun as the humorous hero Zenichiro, a nice change of pace over the square-jawed heroes that were battling giant bugs in America. The oafish Sakai doesn’t seem to be taking the picture too seriously, which is a shame, but he will certainly get you to chuckle at least once. Kagawa acts as the pretty-faced sidekick that follows Sakai around from one site of destruction to the next. Koizumi is passable but largely forgettable as the camera shy linguist who is basically the more handsome hero to Sakai’s Zenchiro. Itou is vile enough as the exploitative entrepreneur who leers over the tiny girls like a madman. It is interesting to see just how cowardly he is when Mothra comes calling. Rounding out the main cast in the twin-sister singing act The Peanuts, who are here as the tiny “Shobijin.” The Peanuts are tragic enough, but this is mostly due to their situation rather than their acting. While much of their performance consists of them huddling together and smiling at the camera, you will still find yourself hoping and praying that Mothra will come save them from Nelson’s clutches.
What really separates Mothra from the other monster movies is the fact that Mothra herself is more of an avenging angel rather than a snarling stand in for the atomic bomb. Even if she does look like one of your daughter’s stuffed toys, she is actually sort of neat in that respect. She isn’t a mindless abomination of atomic radiation and destruction, which really gives the film itself a bit more individuality. While it may lack the deeper meanings and the sorrowful meditation of Godzilla, Mothra is still a fairly resilient plea for peace and harmony. It may have been falling of deaf ears and drive-in eyes simply looking for the next destruction sequence, but at least it was giving it a try. Overall, while it has its lasting moments, Mothra begins to fall victim to a shaky third act set in a cardboard stand-in for New York City (here it is New Kirk City). There is too much interest in comic book fantasy and retina-shattering color blasts, which cause the film to feel more like a drawn-out cartoon rather than a serious minded work of art. It’s fun in small doses but maybe it should have taken itself a bit more seriously.
Mothra is available on DVD.
Fiend Without a Face (1958)
by Steve Habrat
As we look back on science fiction of the 1950s, most of the films that comprise the genre were filled with aliens attempting to make emotionless clones of human beings, extraterrestrials warning the United States to stop fiddling with the nuclear bomb, or giant mutated bugs attacking miniature cities and gobbling up terrified civilians. One thing you didn’t see much of was slithering and slimy invisible vampiric brains that suck out the brains and spinal cords of their victims. We can thank Britain for giving us the 1958 gem Fiend Without a Face, a moody, confining, eerie, and shockingly gory B-movie that certainly doesn’t shy away from reflecting the Cold War unease that was looming like storm clouds over much of the world. There is no doubt that Fiend Without a Face could have fallen back on its catchy title and awesomely creepy siege at the end, but the true terror lurks throughout the first half of the film, as a distrust of the U.S. government grips a small Canadian town. It is all nervous eyes and uneasy glances as satellites spin silently out in the woods and government planes roar suspiciously over the heads of simple small town folk looking to just be left alone. These images are far more chilling than invisible brains lurching through the foliage and curling around the necks of surprised victims. Well, those may be pretty creepy too.
Fiend Without a Face is set at an American airbase that has been recently set up in small town Manitoba, Canada. The airbase is far from popular with the local townsfolk, but fear really takes hold when one soldier is mysteriously attacked and killed by an unseen force in the woods that surround the base. An investigation is launched by Commander Major Jeff Cummings (played by Marshall Thompson) and base security officer Al Chester (played by Terry Kilburn), but neither man can find anything particularly suspicious about the soldier that was killed. Just as they are about to let local authorities handle the matter, the dead soldier’s sister, Barbara (played by Kim Parker), shows up and demands answers from Cummings and the local Mayor, Hawkins (played by James Dyrenforth). An autopsy is finally performed on the body and to the horror of the investigators; they discover that the man’s brains and spinal chord have been sucked clean out through two small holes on the back of his neck. As more and more townsfolk are attacked and turn up dead, the investigation leads to Professor Walgate (played by Kynaston Reeves), who is known for his interest in the paranormal. Cummings begins forcing answers out of Walgate, but much to the horror of the townsfolk, the unseen menace seems to be growing stronger and multiplying by the minute.
The highlight moment of Fiend Without a Face comes in the final fifteen minutes of the film, with a chilling siege that finds our group of desperate survivors boarding up the windows and doors of a secluded home. Outside, armies of gurgling brains are dangling from trees and leaping at the boards in attempts to rip the barriers away. It’s a special effects feast that is both tongue-in-cheek by today’s standards, oddly creepy, endearing, and abnormally brutal for a film released in 1958. The characters discover that a simple gunshot will stop the fiends dead in their path but once these creatures are struck, they ooze and spray a jelly-like blood that is pretty nasty. Yet director Arthur Crabtree doesn’t save all the good stuff until the very end. The first half of the film does a marvelous job at generating some seriously nerve-racking suspense. You’ll be at the edge of your seat while U.S. planes rip through the sky as suspicious citizens look up in unease and you can’t help but get a bit nervous as the soldiers experiment with a radar that is powered with atomic energy. The general aura of distrust that hums through the shadowy build-up is what really sticks with the viewer. This is all complimented with the hovering question of what is causing all the senseless murders.
Fiend Without a Face is also lucky enough to join the ranks of Cold War science fiction films that have some really awesome performances driving them. Thompson is levelheaded and likeable as the brave Major Cummings. You simultaneously root for him to get the girl and squash every withering brain that dares slither towards him. Parker is a strong and sharp heroine who, yes, needs to be saved quite often and shrieks in terror every time she sees one of the fiends, but her tie to the events taking place give her character some depth. Reeves is crack pot fun as the wild-haired scientist who may or may not be responsible for the carnage turning Manitoba upside down. Dyrenforth puts a bad taste in your mouth as the peeved Mayor Hawkins, who is quick to blame the air base for every single thing that goes wrong in and around the town. Robert MacKenzie also gets a chance to really freak audiences out as a local police officer, Howard Gibbons, who mysteriously disappears and then reappears in a very nightmarish way. He delivers a really great jump scene that will have you flicking on a nightlight or three.
As if the shadowy anxiety and gore-drenched action weren’t enough to catapult Fiend Without a Face near the top of the list of best Atomic Age science fiction films, wait until your ears are treated to the ungodly disgusting sound effects that will surely have you fidgeting. The victim’s screams could cut right through glass and the repulsive sucking sounds that the fiends make will have you battling to keep down your lunch. If you have a great home theater system, you are really in for a skin crawling treat when you hear some of the sound effects this film has to offer. Just make sure they are turned up loud for maxim effect. If there is anything to criticize within Fiend Without a Face, it would most certainly have to be the soundtrack, which sounds like stock music that was just stuck in to spice things up. Near the end, the music seems just a bit too cheery and upbeat for something that is supposed to have us leaking dread. Overall, it may not be as well-known as genre gems like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Tarantula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Forbidden Planet, or Them!, but Fiend Without a Face is a B-movie that is more than deserving to sit proudly next to those films. It’s a creepy crawly treat with spirited special effects, above average performances, and an ending that could very well have been an inspiration for George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Watch with the volume turned all the way up.
Fiend Without a Face is available on DVD.
The Hangover Part III (2013)
by Steve Habrat
After taking in the revolting antics of 2011s The Hangover Part II, the question of whether the world truly needed the second Hangover film hung thickly in the summer air. Was the follow-up to the inexplicable 2009 megahit really necessary? Apparently, Warner Bros. and director Todd Phillips thought the world needed a double dose of the Wolfpack. I don’t think there is any doubt that the world DEFINITELY didn’t need a third Hangover movie, but here we are with what is being called the final installment in the Hangover trilogy. Let’s hope so. Let me be clear when I say this—America, this is what you asked for. The Hangover Part III is about the laziest movie I’ve seen all year. It can be commended for breaking the formula of the first two movies and trying something new, but was everyone sleepwalking through the making of this thing? Devoid of any solid laughs and structured with a plot that seems like it was conceived by someone in a drunken stupor, The Hangover Part III is about as flat, arid, and jaded as cash grab sequels come. Even the target audience will have a hard time finding the humor in all of this, and more importantly, they’ll find it nearly impossible to root for the horribly detached heroes Phil, Stu, and Alan. You’ve been warned, folks.
The Hangover Part III focuses much of its attention on bearded oddball Alan Garner (played by Zach Galifianakis), whose bizarre behavior is slowly spiraling more and more out of control He has quit taking his medication and in a seriously foolish move, he purchases a giraffe that is killed while he tows it down the highway. Appalled by his son’s anti-social behavior, Alan’s father, Sid (played by Jeffrey Tambor), drops dead of a heart attack. It doesn’t take long for the grieving family to round up Alan’s best buddies and stage an intervention for the distraught man-child. Among the friends that step in are schoolteacher Phil Wenneck (played by Bradley Cooper), dentist Stu Price (played by Ed Helms), and Alan’s brother-in-law Doug (played by Justin Bartha). The group convinces Alan to go to rehab, but he is only willing to go if the Wolfpack will go with him. While on their way, the guys are rammed off the road and confronted by the pudgy gangster Marshall (played by John Goodman), who demands to know the whereabouts of flamboyant Chinese gangster Leslie Chow (played by Ken Jeong). It turns out that Chow, who has recently broken out of a Bangkok prison, has stolen $21 million dollars in gold bars and that Alan is the only one who has had communication with him since the escape. Marshall takes Doug as collateral and threatens that if the Wolfpack doesn’t track Chow down in three days, he will kill Doug.
The biggest crime of The Hangover Part II was that it recycled the plot of the first film, switched locations, and then padded it with a thick layer of lurid shocks. It was the ultimate endurance test and I’d say Phillips was the true victor. With The Hangover Part III, Phillips wisely moves away from the gross out approach that he used in Part II. You’d think that a toned down feel and a fresh plot that was minus a night of heavy drinking would refresh the franchise and energize the main players, but it’s actually the complete opposite. There is barely a laugh to be found throughout the hour and forty minute runtime, just ask the packed showing that I attended. There was an excited buzz in the air before the opening credits rolled and as the film drug on, you could feel that excitement slowly fading as joke after joke failed to get much of a reaction. To make things worse, Phillips then placed the two most popular characters, Alan and Chow, at the forefront of the entire project. You probably already know I’m not a big fan of either character and I think that a little bit of each one goes a very long way. You can just sense that the studio and the filmmakers are crossing their fingers that Galifianakis and Jeong will carry the film across the finish line. It should be said that they don’t. They stumble and fall the minute they get moving.
The sense of laziness carries over into the performances from Helms and Cooper, both who act like they’d like to just step away from the project altogether. Cooper, who is hot off an Oscar nomination for his surprising performance in Silver Linings Playbook, seems to be preoccupied with his new success and bored with the story. The script doesn’t even bother to elaborate or deepen his character in any way, shape, or form. He’s just going through the motions for a paycheck and its painfully obvious. As far as Helms goes, he was the one doing most of the work in the first two films, but here he seems edged out by Phillips and Galifinakis. He was usually the one who had the best one-liners but he’s nearly invisible this time around. Galifianakis is off his game (and his rocker) the second we catch up with him as he speeds down the freeway with a CGI giraffe being tugged behind him. Every single joke he cracked made me want to bury my face in my hands and shake my head (mind you, that is not a compliment). As far as Jeong’s Chow goes, there is just entirely too much of him. Even the die-hards will have a hard time defending his drastically increased screen time. Goodman puts forth quite a bit of effort as Marshal and he certainly owns the screen when he is squeezed into it, but there is little in the way of substance there. Fans of the first film will rejoice when they catch a glimpse of Mike Epps as “Black” Doug, Heather Graham as Jade, and, yes, even Baby Carlos, but the thrill will instantly fade when you realize they are given absolutely nothing to do besides reminding the audience that they still exist.
While I will agree that The Hangover Part III is a step up from the pitiful second installment, it is still the furthest thing from a great film. There are certainly a few cruel jokes (the worst being the decapitation of the giraffe) but most of them are unbelievably tame, limp, or simply non-existent. There are times when the film seems to be attempting to jump from the comedy mold entirely and into something resembling an action movie/crime caper, but it is far from smooth about this transition and it is just plain awkward. The project doesn’t even perk up when the Wolfpack finally arrives back in their Las Vegas, their blinking and flashing Hell on earth. By that point, it seems like cast and crew have upped and abandoned this turd altogether. Overall, the reshaped plot is a smart move, but the lack of even one memorable joke and the drastic shift in tone seem to have crushed the Wolfpack’s party spirit. They are ready to move on to bigger and better projects, ones that are more deserving of their comedic talents. And you, America, are ready to laugh at something far funnier than these obnoxious and poorly drawn characters. This is the worst film of 2013 so far.
Guys Film Quest Interview and The William Castle Blogathon Intermission
A few days ago, I was interviewed by Rob Belote over at Guys Film Quest. He has begun running features on fellow film bloggers and I am very honored that he asked me to be a part of it. If you wish to check out the interview, click here. I also want to send a big THANK YOU over to Rob for having me as a guest to his wonderful site!
I also wanted to let all of you know that Anti-Film School will be taking part in The William Castle Blogathon, which is being hosted by the gals of The Last Drive In and Goregirl’s Dungeon. I was thrilled when I was invited to take place in this awesome little series running from July 29th up to August 2. I will be contributing a review of Castle’s 1961 film Mr. Sardonicus. Get ready to have the pants scared off of you!
-Theater Management (Steve)
The Hangover (2009)
by Steve Habrat
In June of 2009, America inexplicably fell in love with an overhyped and lopsided comedy about four unlikable idiots that wake up from a wild night in Vegas with absolutely no memory of their boorish behavior. Oh, and just to make things more interesting, one of them is missing in action and has to be found. You should know that I didn’t go into The Hangover with a negative attitude towards the film. No, in fact, I actually went in with a smile on my face. There was nothing but positive buzz surrounding the film and expectations were sky high. How could I not be excited? I walked out of The Hangover a bit perplexed, a little irritated, and infinitely disappointed. What was I missing that every other American was seeing? The ugly truth is that I really don’t see why people find The Hangover to be one of the funniest movies ever made. It looses steam after about twenty minutes in, has only one mildly likable character in the entire film, and the jokes consistently miss their mark or just deflate right before our eyes. For my money, Todd Phillips, who is responsible for this huge misfire, has directed funnier movies. Yes, I actually thought that his teen comedy Road Trip, which starred Tom Green, and his back-to-school romp Old School were much better than this dud.
The Hangover begins by introducing us to mild-mannered Doug Billings (played by Justin Bartha), who is set to marry the beautiful and wealthy Tracy Garner (played by Sasha Barrese). A few days before the wedding, Doug travels to Las Vegas with his best buddies Phil Wenneck (played by Bradley Cooper), Stu Price (played by Ed Helms), and Tracy’s brother Alan (played by Zach Galifianakis) for a raging bachelor party. The next morning, Phil, Stu, and Alan wake up with absolutely no memory of the previous night and a trashed hotel suite. As they guys stumble around their suite, they discover that Stu is missing a tooth, there is a baby in the closet, and there is a tiger in the bathroom. To make matters worse, Doug is nowhere to be found. As the guys try to piece the events of the previous night together and track down their friend, they are taken on a wild journey that has them crossing paths with a ruthless Chinese gangster named Leslie Chow (played by Ken Jeong), a kind-hearted stripper named Jade (played by Heather Graham), and the one and only Mike Tyson.
For the first twenty minutes, it is smooth sailing for The Hangover. The characters are certainly quirky, especially the anti-social oddball Alan, but they all appear to have some form of positive promise behind them. The jokes also seem to have a bit of sting, even if they don’t necessarily have you doubled over in laughter. And then there is the anticipation of something crazy looming on the horizon, especially in the opening sequence, which finds a dusty and defeated Phil calling up the testy bride-to-be and admitting that the group has really screwed the pooch on this one. You just can’t help but wonder what happened to these guys, as they look like they have been through Hell and back. After the guys wake up in a daze in their suite, the film begins slipping and it is never able to recover. Here and there, Alan and Stu will deliver a good one liner, but as the guys piece everything together, the laughs seem to dwindle. The events become more and more freakish to the point where it just seems designed to shock rather than amuse, and let me tell you, folks, it barely shocks. The guys bash a baby in the face with a car door, a naked man leaps out of a trunk, a used condom is tossed around the inside of a Mercedes, and a pair of deranged cops demonstrate the effects of a taser on dimwitted trio. All through it, you never once find yourself rooting for these guys to have a stroke of luck and find a lead on their pal, which is frustrating because you want to root for them.
The most popular part of The Hangover seems to be its characters, which many viewers have deemed absolutely hilarious and lovable when I see them as dark, troubled, and unlikable. Cooper’s Phil is built up to be the levelheaded one of the group but he really just comes off as a smirking ass that could use a good punch to the face. He is a schoolteacher who steals field trip money from his students and treats his wife and son as if they barely exist. I suppose Phil’s family is there to stand-in as character development but you get the impression that he sees them as more of an annoyance than a gift. Galifianakis is the one who everyone seems to rally around but I find him to be extremely stupid, random, and off-putting. Now, you’re probably saying, “that’s the point, Steve!” Yes, but there has to be some sort of redeeming quality to his character and there is absolutely nothing beyond the blank stupidity. He is just weird for the sake of being weird. Bartha’s Doug is bland and forgettable, which is ironic because the film’s plot revolves around his buddies tracking him down and getting him to the altar as quickly as possible. The only one who stands out is Helms as the whipped nerd Stu, who is constantly beating himself up for his drunken behavior. You can’t help but feel for him as his domineering girlfriend rips him up one side and down the other. As far as the supporting players go, Heather Graham turns in a sweet but too small performance as Jade, a stripper with a heart of gold, and Ken Jeong single-handedly rips the film’s climax to shreds as the shrill and flamboyant gangster Leslie Chow. I really can’t think of a movie character I have disliked more than Leslie Chow.
While the middle section of The Hangover sags, the film really crumbles when it arrives at its underwhelming and winded climax in the middle of the Nevada desert. By this point, Phillips and his cast seem to have given up entirely and just set the entire project on cruise control. It just sort of withers and dies in the excruciating heat while the characters stand around and scratch their heads. To make things worse, the big reveal with Doug’s character is hoping to be met with a giddy sigh of relief and a slap to the forehead but I met it with more of a yawn and a “that’s it?” response. Overall, The Hangover certainly arrives at the party to have a good time, but all the good stuff comes way too early and we are left with a bunch of stale shocks that hope to root the viewer’s jaw on the floor. I won’t argue that it has its wild and crass moments, but I can think of more than a few comedies that would make this hangover feel like it could be cured with a glass of water and an Advil.
The Hangover is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
by Steve Habrat
It has been four long years since JJ Abrams ventured into the Star Trek universe and left both die hard Trekkies and casual moviegoers hungry for more deep space adventures from the brash Captain James T. Kirk and the brilliant Mr. Spock. For some, that lengthy wait felt almost like a lifetime. In between 2009s Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams buddied up with director Steven Spielberg on the set of their 2011 alien-in-suburbia throwback Super 8, and it seems that this friendship has really inspired Abrams and his approach to science-fiction blockbusters. Almost every single frame of rollicking action in Star Trek Into Darkness is alive and bursting with Spielberg’s spirit for adventure, something that will absolutely delight anyone who is a fan of Spielberg’s breezy approach to summer diversions. Yet you don’t necessarily have to be big on Spielberg to adore the second installment in this rebooted franchise. We may only be three weeks into the summer movie season, but after taking this bad boy in, I think we may have an early contender for best blockbuster of the year. Featuring two times the action, two times the thrills, two times the emotion, two times the fun, and two times the laughs, Star Trek Into Darkness finds Abrams burning with sugary creativity and bubbly enthusiasm to deepen the relationships between his wonderfully reinvented characters.
Star Trek Into Darkness begins on the primitive planet of Nibiru, with the crew of the USS Enterprise on an undercover mission to monitor a volcano that is on the verge of erupting and wiping out the planet’s natives. The crew has been warned that they are not to reveal their presence natives, but after a dangerous attempt to stop the volcano from erupting, Captain James T. Kirk (played by Chris Pine) breaks orders to save Spock’s (played by Zachary Quinto) life. Back on earth, Kirk and Spock are reprimanded by Admiral Pike (played by Bruce Greenwood), who reassumes command of the Enterprise, relieves Kirk of his command, and reassigns Spock. Meanwhile, in London, a Starfleet archives is attacked and destroyed by a shadowy Starfleet agent named John Harrison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). Kirk and Spock are called in to attend an emergency meeting at Starfleet headquarters to discuss how to respond to the attack. The meeting is interrupted by another attack that kills several high-ranking members of Starfleet including Admiral Pike. With Pike dead, the USS Enterprise is given back to Kirk and Spock, who quickly hatch a plan to go after Harrison, who has fled to the hostile Klingon planet Qo’noS.
Much like Abrams’ first Star Trek film, the second installment is loaded with nifty little plot twists that should not be spoiled by a review. Just know that if you are a major Star Trek fan, there a more than a few surprises that will almost make your head explode. With all of the characters fleshed out in the first film, Abrams can strictly focus on the nonstop action that practically blasts the audience into the neighboring theater. The film begins with an Indiana Jones-style chase between the terrified Kirk and “Bones” McCoy (played by Karl Urban) and a yelping tribe from Nibiru, who launch spears out of the screen in glorious 3D. In case there wasn’t enough to marvel at in this particular set piece, Abrams flips to the glowing action that is taking place within the swirling volcano. From there on out, there is a city-shaking attack on Starfleet, a wicked shootout between Klingons and a handful of crewmembers of the Enterprise, a nerve-frying space jump through a spinning field of spaceship debris, and a breathtaking fistfight on the streets of San Francisco. If that isn’t enough to hold your attention, you’ll certain find yourself unable to stop scanning the inside of the seriously amazing USS Enterprise or grinning over the wild crew members that operate it. Surprisingly, the film was converted into 3D in postproduction, but it is totally worth spending the extra cash to check it out in immersive 3D.
While the action will certainly have you drooling, Star Trek Into Darkness really comes to life through Pine and Qunito. It really is a treat to see these guys hilariously bickering it out every step of the way. They argue in a disciplinary meeting, during the opening chase, and even while they are trying to infiltrate Qo’noS. Pine continues to be reckless and cocky all while he flirts with one girl after another. The early scenes between Pine and Greenwood’s fatherly Admiral Pike were especially touching and shattering when Pike meets a nasty laser blast. Quinto continues to bring the laughs as the rigid and emotionless Spock, a stickler for the rules if there ever was one. Here, Spock’s emotional detachment is put to the test and it truly does strike a chord. Yet the real magic happens when Pine and Quinto are together, with their egos clashing and banging around the iPod walls of the Enterprise. Their friendship is really put to the test when the confront Cumberbatch’s Harrison. While it is best not to reveal much about John Harrison, just know that Cumberbatch nearly steals the entire movie away from Pine and Quinto. He is one hell of a commanding villain.
If you were worried that the rest of the Enterprise crew had flew the coop, never fear, as they are all back where they belong. The sexy Zoe Saldana is back as Nyota Uhara, who has developed a relationship with Spock that goes far beyond the Enterprise. Karl Urban continues to bring the pessimism as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who is constantly getting under Kirk’s skin with some of the worst metaphors you can think of. Simon Pegg continues to delight as the hilarious engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, who hams it up through an exaggerated Scottish accent. John Cho brings a quiet intensity to the role of Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu and Anton Yelchin is cartoonishly frantic as Ensign Pavel Chekov. We don’t get nearly as much of them as we did in the first film, which is a bit disappointing but understandable considering everything that is going on within the story. And we can’t forget the outstanding newcomers Peter Weller and Alice Eve, who are here as the ruthless Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus and the beautiful weapons expert Dr. Carol Marcus.
As far as summer movies are concerned, Star Trek Into Darkness is about as strong as they come. While there is an abundance of action and explosions to keep those with a severe case of ADHD hooked, there is still plenty of humanity to this story. We genuinely care about these characters and after a while they almost start feeling like close friends. They are especially irresistible when Abrams shakes the Enterprise and lets all these drastically different walks of life mix. Overall, Star Trek Into Darkness is a massive step up for the sleek and sexy franchise and at just over two hours, Abrams still leaves you wanting more of absolutely everything. Just like the first outing, it simultaneously pleases Trekkies and those just looking to be dazzled on a Friday night. You know what? Just stop reading this review right now and go see it. Just don’t be surprised if you want to see it again the second its all over.
Star Trek (2009)
by Steve Habrat
Before JJ Abrams’ sleek 2009 reboot, the Star Trek franchise was basically old hat and met with eye rolls or bored sighs from anyone who wasn’t a fanatic. Every so often, a new Trek movie would trickle quietly into theaters and it would basically only appeal to your Trekkie uncle or that weird kid up the street, but everyone else ignored it. It was a very closed-off franchise that seemed to be fading away as the years passed. Then something remarkable happened. In May of 2009, Lost creator JJ Abrams sparked the franchise back to life and introduced the crew of the USS Enterprise to a whole new generation of action-hungry moviegoers. Believe me when I say that you don’t have to be a Trekkie to absolutely adore Abrams’ Star Trek, a splashy, sexy, and clever re-envisioning of the classic television show. Right from the get-go, Abrams makes it clear that this is not your father’s Star Trek, and he catapults the viewer into a world of candy-colored action, shiny spaceships that look like they were designed by Steve Jobs, devilish humor, and fresh-faced youngsters looking to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. It would be just what the doctored ordered for a franchise on life support and it would go on to be one of the strongest films of the 2009 summer movie season.
Star Trek begins in 2233, with Federation starship USS Kelvin investigating a mysterious lightning storm in space. Out of the lightning storm emerges the Romulan ship Narada, which proceeds to attack the USS Kelvin. The Narada’s captain, Nero (played by Eric Bana), demands that the USS Kelvin captain board the Narada so that he can be questioned about the current stardate and about a man named Ambassador Spock. After Nero kills the captain for not answering his questions, he then orders his crew to destroy the USS Kelvin, which is now captained by first officer George Kirk (played by Chris Hemsworth). George orders that the ship’s crew, which includes his pregnant wife, Winona (played by Jennifer Morrison), quickly evacuate the ship before it is destroyed. During the evacuation, George’s wife gives birth to a boy they name James. Many years later, we are introduced to the brilliant young Vulcan Spock (played by Zachary Quinto) and reckless James T. Kirk (played by Chris Pine) as they both enlist in the Starfleet Academy and form a nasty rivalry. Kirk and Spock are forced to put their rivalry on hold and join forced after Spock’s home planet is attacked and destroyed by the mysterious Narada. As the young crew of the USS Enterprise races to understand this deadly enemy, they are forced to put their egos aside once they realize the Narada’s next target is Earth.
Abrams’ Star Trek is absolutely loaded with enough backstory to fuel half a dozen origin stories. There is plenty of character development, especially in Kirk and Spock, but there is also tons of talk of time travel, red matter, supernovas, and more. While the storyline is certainly absorbing and full of surprises which won’t be revealed here, what will truly hold you are the introductions to characters you have certainly heard about from your dad or through pop culture chatter. We are treated to smile-inducing introductions of the cynical doctor Leonard McCoy (played by Karl Urban), spiky Nyota Uhura (played by Zoe Saldana), fast-talking Scottish engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (played by Simon Pegg), senior helmsman Hikaru Sulu (played by John Cho), and Russian navigator Pavel Chekov (played by Anton Yelchin). Each one of these characters is given more than enough time to shine, especially Pegg’s motor mouthed Scotty, who nabs most of the film’s laughs. My personal favorite moment is Kirk’s first encounter with McCoy, who pokes Kirk with a number of syringes that contain various illnesses so that he can sneak him aboard the USS Enterprise. It’s a moment of absolutely brilliance.
Then we have Pine’s daredevil Kirk and Quinto’s relentlessly serious Spock, both who play a game of tug of war with the film. Pine excels as the slacker Kirk, who refuses to see his full potential. He stumbles around drunk in futuristic bars and nightclubs, chasing around the repulsed Uhura and getting into fistfights with a number of Starfleet students. He’s absolutely irresistible as he sneers through bloody lips and taunts through black eyes, but his performance really takes hold when he finally looks inside himself and realizes his true potential. Quinto is the polar opposite as Spock, a brainy but cold Vulcan who is constantly conflicted over the fact that he is half-human. When you aren’t marveling at Kirk’s transformation, you’ll be glued to Spock’s realization that he needs to simply relax and trust those around him. And we can’t forget the superb villain Nero, brilliantly tackled by a surprisingly intense Eric Bana. Nero may not be a household villain, but he certainly makes you remember him as he spits threats at the USS Enterprise and demands that his crew “FIRE EVERYTHING!” With so much happening in the story, Bana’s screen time is limited, but he certainly hits a home run when he can.
Considering that Star Trek is a summer movie, Abrams constructs numerous action sequences that will have you gasping. The USS Kelvin’s encounter with Nero is appropriately tense and the evacuation is big, busy, shaky, and emotional even though the movie has only been going for maybe ten minutes. A nail-biting space jump onto a massive drill is fierce, only to be followed up by a white-knuckle fistfight that will have you on the edge of your seat. Just when you don’t think it can’t get any cooler, Sulu whips out a sword and Abrams blows an entire planet to smithereens. And how can I forget Kirk’s marooning on snowy Delta Vega, where he flees the jaws of some seriously nasty creatures hungry for some human flesh and comes face to face with a man that even non-Trekkies will be able to identify? For all the adrenaline rushes that pepper the bulk of the film, the climax is both expectedly epic and surprisingly intimate. Don’t worry, folks, there is no shortage of shootouts, narrow rescues, and bone-crunching fistfights that will have you cheering right along.
What has really turned Abrams’ lens-flared vision of Star Trek into such a winner is the fact that he has found a way to evenly balance fan expectations with an accessibility that was lacking in previous Star Trek efforts. You really don’t have to be a fan to appreciate or enjoy the film. The shiny visuals will have teens ignoring their smartphones while the storyline will have the Trekk fans chatting for hours upon hours. It truly is a balanced and fizzy concoction from a director who understands how to reach a wide audience. Overall, Abrams manages to rescue the Star Trek franchise from the black hole that it was threatening to consume it, punch up the action and adventure, give fresh life to aging characters, polish the outside of the rusty USS Enterprise, and then leave the viewer wanting a whole lot more. There is no doubt in my mind that moviegoers will follow Abram and this new crew where no man has gone before.
Star Trek is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Hot off the success of his iconic 1954 monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon and it’s middle-of-the-road sequel Revenge of the Creature, director Jack Arnold then turned to the wildly popular science fiction subgenre of giant creature features. It may surprise you that Arnold’s 1955 arachnid outing Tarantula is one of the best creature features that may ever have the pleasure of creep across your television. Boasting special effects that would stomp some CGI effects of today, unusually strong character development for a B-movie of this breed, a unexpectedly human plot, and some truly frightening images that will have anyone who suffers from arachnophobia hyperventilating, Tarantula is a smart and surprisingly consistent creature feature that is must-see viewing for anyone who claims to be a fan of 50s science fiction efforts. To make things more fascinating, Arnold and screenwriters Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley decide to turn their backs on the atom bomb willies of the Eisenhower era and instead focus on well-meaning science spinning wildly out of control. It is a nice change of pace and it allows Tarantula to stand out from the scores of giant bugs that were prowling the American countryside in the wake of the bomb. Get ready for your skin to crawl because it surely will while you take this puppy in.
Tarantula begins with the horribly deformed research scientist Eric Jacobs (played by Eddie Parker) wandering out into the Arizona desert and dropping dead. After local authorities find his body, a doctor by the name of Dr. Matt Hastings (played by John Agar) is called in to examine the disfigured corpse. Matt is baffled by the appearance of the corpse, but Matt believes that Jacobs may have been suffering from acromegaly. Matt also discovers that Jacobs was actually a colleague of Professor Gerald Deemer (played by Leo G. Carroll), a scientist that has locked himself away in a secluded mansion in the desert and has been working on creating a food nutrient that could feed the world’s rapidly growing population. It turns out that Deemer has been testing the nutrient on a variety of animals including a tarantula, which is ten times its normal size. While engulfed in his work, another colleague, Paul Lund (played also by Eddie Parker), who is suffering from the same disfigurement as Jacobs suddenly attacks Deemer. As the two men fight, they accidentally unleash the tarantula that wanders out into the desert. To make things worse, Lund injects Deemer with the nutrient, which rapidly begins to disfigure him too. As Deemer races to find a cure with his beautiful new assistant, Dr. Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (played by Mara Corday), Matt and Sheriff Jack Andrews (played by Nestor Paiva) are called to investigate bizarre skeletal remains that have been found at a local ranch. It doesn’t take long for Matt, Steve, and Sheriff Andrews to figure out that there is a giant tarantula prowling the desert.
Unlike most of the throwaway B-movies of this era, Tarantula takes its good old time crawling up to the action. For a while, you may even start to think that this movie isn’t even really about a giant tarantula attacking and destroying a small American town, but a scientist suffering from horrific mutations. Arnold spends quite a bit of time getting to know the characters, all of which are likeable enough even if they are a bunch of walking 50s clichés. When the giant abomination of science wanders out of the lab and starts creeping around the desert, Arnold generates some seriously effective suspense. He teases us with the beast’s massive legs appearing over jagged rock formations and he sends shivers as the spider’s silhouette slowly prowls the hills behind characters. There is even a wicked moment with the spider descending upon Professor Deemer’s mansion and then watching the oblivious Steve as she gets ready for bed. We only see the spider’s eyes through her window and then, in the blink of an eye, the mutant arachnid begins tearing the mansion to shreds. Arnold pulls back on the action to reveal an impressive outside shot of the spider’s silhouette reducing the mansion to splinters as Steve runs to Matt’s open arms. Tarantula’s suspense and action sequences really are top of the line for a low-budget 1955 effort.
Even though the characters are a bit clichéd and familiar for the 1950s, they are still played by the actors and actresses who are totally committed to their roles. Agar is the typical all-American hero who woos the girl and saves her from the clicking fangs of death. The poster hilariously advertised Agar holding a machine gun and firing it at the tarantula but there is never a moment like that in the film. Carroll’s Deemer is a tragic figure that is slowly succumbing to madness in his desperation to find a cure for himself. After a while, he starts to resemble the Hunchback of Notre Dame mixed with the Frankenstein monster, which is certainly a nightmarish combination. Corday is your typical damsel in distress, a pretty face who shrieks in terror when she comes face to face with the towering tarantula, however, her character is given a layer of intelligence, which is certainly a smart move on Arnold and the screenwriter’s part. Paiva is appropriately skeptical and spooked as Sherriff Andrews, who has to scramble his police force to fight back against the unstoppable monster. Film buffs should also keep their eyes peeled for a brief cameo by a very young Clint Eastwood, who shows up as a jet fighter pilot during the fiery climax of the film.
Perhaps the biggest flaw to be found in Tarantula is the rushed climax that features the tarantula barreling towards a small Arizona town. As the spider makes its way forward, jet fighters drop rockets and canisters of napalm down on the savage beast, all while the town’s citizens cheer on in support. It looks awesome but it seems cut short with “The End” plastered on the screen before we even have time to catch our breath. Mind you, there is plenty to marvel at during the final showdown, the neatest moment coming in a subtle tribute to Godzilla, which is up to you to find, but you are left wanting a bit more closure from the characters. Overall, even if it may not be dealing directly with radiation and nuclear weapons, Tarantula still cleverly captures a nation’s fears of science going horribly wrong. It may be B-movie material, but it is far from the construction paper and rubber mask approach that many of these films received. It is apparent that the filmmakers really took their time and created something they could be proud of. Tarantula is a true creature feature classic that will thrill and chill for many years to come.
Tarantula is available on DVD.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
by Steve Habrat
It has been nearly five long years since we heard from the flamboyant Australian director Baz Luhrmann, the man behind such eye-popping spectacles like the contemporary kids-with-guns retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romero + Juliet, the gonzo jukebox musical Moulin Rogue!, and the historical romance Australia. Well, folks, Mr. Luhrmann has returned to a theater near you in grand fashion with the 3D epic The Great Gatsby, a heavily anticipated big budget sugar rush that is based on the classic 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hype around The Great Gatsby has been building since last fall, when the shimmering and sparkling trailers crashed into theaters and promised a Christmas release for the Leonardo DiCaprio period piece. At the last second, Warner Bros. pulled the plug on the Christmas release date and pushed the film back to summer 2013 and honestly, the summer movie season is a much better fit for this slick and hip adaptation. With absolutely nothing held back, Luhrmann gives The Great Gatsby a hip-hop makeover, showers it in confetti, fires off a seemingly never-ending amount of fireworks behind it, hands it a Four Loko, and then tosses it to an audience of teenagers raised on MTV, Jay-Z, and smartphones. The result is a gyrating eye-candy romance that will absolutely appall your English teacher and have your girlfriend swooning. It is style over substance every single step of the way, allowing it to feel right at home in a sea of fizzy summer blockbusters.
The Great Gatsby tells the story of Yale graduate Nick Carraway (played by Toby Maguire), an aspiring stockbroker and writer who rents a home in West Egg, Long Island, during the summer of 1922. After settling in to his new home, Nick reconnects with his wealthy and beautiful cousin Daisy (played by Carey Mulligan) and her cigar-chomping husband Tom (played by Joel Edgerton), who attended Yale with Nick. Daisy and Tom quickly begin trying to set Nick up with vampy party-girl golfer Jordan Baker (played by Elizabeth Debicki), who seems to only show minor interest in Nick. Life seems to be going great for the young and naïve Nick, but he finds himself strangely drawn to his wealthy next-door neighbor Jay Gatsby (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), an enigmatic recluse who throws massive parties for the New York City elite yet remains unseen by his drunken guests. One day, Nick receives a personal invitation to one of Gatsby’s wild blowouts, something that is highly unusual for Mr. Gatsby. While wandering through the party, Nick comes face to face with Gatsby and the two form a fast friendship. As the two men bond, Gatsby reveals to Nick that he is in love with Daisy, who he met five years earlier and shared a brief but intense romance. Nick agrees to aid Gatsby in reconnecting with Daisy but in the process, he begins to uncover all the mystery that surrounds Jay Gatsby.
For the first hour of The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann brings new meaning to the phrase “go big or go home.” He zooms between the East and West Egg like a ten-year-old boy who had way too many Snickers candy bars and Pepsi. When he gets bored doing this, he sends his camera flying into a rapidly growing New York City, dancing from skyscraper to skyscraper while Maguire looks up, down, and all around in astonishment. Then there are the party scenes, which are sure to get your heads bobbing and feet tapping. A non-stop stream of confetti is spit out at the audience while hundreds of extras shimmy, shake, and stumble to blaring hip-hop provided by Jay-Z and Kanye West. It is all shown to you in glorious 3D, which will have you fighting the urge to leap from your seat and join the fun. Somewhere in between the spraying champagne and fireworks, there are a few attempts to develop these characters that we are supposed to be invested in, but Luhrmann seems way too wrapped up in throwing the party of the year to pay much attention to them. When it finally winds down, he decides to get serious in extended montages of Gatsby, Nick, and Daisy loosing themselves in an endless summer of high price indulgence. It’s visually intoxicating and it certainly looks romantic, but it is also incredibly exhausting.
While the visuals will have you drooling, don’t forget to stop and admire the fine performances from the powerhouse cast. The style threatens to overshadow each and every one of them but they certainly hold their own when facing a mountain of CGI. DiCaprio owns the picture the second he emerges from the glittery shadows and early on, he hams it up in skinny pink suits that looks like they were provided by Gucci. His Gatsby is almost a caricature of the 1920s gentleman; grinning while referring to nearly every single person he meets as “old sport.” You could make a drinking game out of how many times he says “old sport,” although I doubt many people would be still standing by the end. As far as his burning passion is concerned, there certainly is fire in those eyes for Daisy. He attempts to impress her by dazzling her with wealth and promises of doing everything in the world together. When he needs to be tragic, he can certainly switch it on, especially in the last act of the movie. You never doubt that DiCaprio is thrilled to be reunited with his Romero + Juliet director and it is clear he is putting in 110%. A job well done, Mr. DiCaprio!
Then there is Mr. Maguire, who narrates through a raspy and fatigued tone that sounds like he was up all night chugging a bottle of whiskey with Gatsby (Someone grab him an Advil!). He is good with the role he is given but he never holds our attention like DiCaprio does. He simply sits on the sidelines, making observations about all the wild party animals around him. Mulligan is a breathy sunbeam as Daisy, who is caught between two warring millionaires pulling her in two separate directions. Mulligan is naturally talented, but her character never receives the development that it truly deserves which is an absolute waste. Edgerton gives DiCaprio a run for his money as the scowling Tom, who is constantly chomping down on a fat stogie and chasing every pretty girl he lays eyes on. He shares a war of words and wealth with DiCaprio in one of the film’s most intense sequences. Debicki is slinky and sexy as the gossiping golfer Jordan, who loves a big party because they are more intimate than a smaller gathering. Also keep an eye out for small but sharp appearances from Jason Clarke as gas station attendant George Wilson, who becomes a ball of fury in the last act of the film, and Ilsa Fisher as his unfaith sexpot wife, Myrtle, who jets off with Tom to seedy hotel rooms in New York City.
The real problem with Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is that it is all about panache. There is obsessive detail in the sets, the CGI is mindblowing, and the musical playlist will have audience members rushing home to purchase the soundtrack off iTunes, but this compromises substance. Sure, the idea of love lost and love found again is enticing but it just becomes a whiskey-fueled game of tug of war that conveniently ends with tragedy. To make it worse, it feels tacked on with a heavy sigh from the filmmakers, who clearly would rather be hanging out with scantily clad flappers lip-synching to Beyoncé. But, what else would you expect from someone like Luhrmann? Overall, it may be the nightmare of English teachers everywhere and it definitely rings hollow, but The Great Gatsby is a giddy parade of excess led by a cast and crew clearly having the time of their lives, all while Warner Bros. flits the bill. You’ll certainly get your money’s worth of visuals, but you won’t be moved in the slightest.