by Steve Habrat
In the wake of director Roland Emmerich’s reviled 1998 Godzilla remake, the giant monster movie kept a very low profile for many years. The holiday season of 2005 saw the release of director Peter Jackson’s divisive King Kong remake—a three-hour epic that either thrilled fans of classic monster movies or sent them into a deep slumber. It would be another three years before anyone even remotely thought about another giant monster movie. That all changed in early 2008 with Cloverfield, a ferociously intense “found footage” thriller that preyed upon our post-9/11 paranoia. Directed by Matt Reeves and produced by J.J. Abrams, Cloverfield re-ignited a bit of interest in creature features—specifically Toho Co.’s “Kaiju” films from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s—and dared to give the subgenre a bit of its bite back. While certainly not perfect, Reeves and Abrams are able to orchestrate quite a bit of urban destruction on a tiny budget of only $25 million. The special effects are absolutely fantastic, and when briefly glimpsed in the glow of gun and cannon fire, the giant extraterrestrial wrecking havoc in the Big Apple will undoubtedly nab a shiver or two. However, the downfall of Cloverfield are the unlikeable characters we are forced to brave this warzone with, and a painfully slow opening sequence made all the more unbearable through some shaky attempts by the actors to seem natural.
Cloverfield begins with a surprise going-away party for Rob (played by Michael Stahl-David), who is preparing to move to Japan to start a new job. The party—which has been organized by Rob’s brother, Jason (played by Mike Vogel), Jason’s girlfriend, Lily (played by Jessica Lucas), and Rob’s best friend, Hud (played by T.J. Miller), who is tasked with filming testimonials from party guests—gets off to a pleasant start, but things take a turn when Rob’s friend Beth (played by Odette Yustman), who he recently slept with, brings another date to the party. The drama between Rob and Beth is interrupted when a large tremor shakes New York City and plunges the city into a blackout. The party guests dash to the roof, where they witness a large explosion that sends debris raining down upon their heads. The party spills out onto the streets, where the terrified citizens quickly learn that an unidentified creature is terrorizing the city. The military quickly begins trying to evacuate the confused citizens, but Rob refuses to leave without Beth, who is trapped in her apartment building in Time Warner Center. Desperate to reach the one he loves, Rob, Hud, Lily, and Hud’s crush, Marlena (played by Lizzy Caplan), attempt a rescue mission, but their journey grows even more dangerous as they encounter parasitic creatures shed by the massive monster, and they learn of the military’s shocking plot to destroy the creature.
Despite a brief runtime of only eighty-five minutes, Cloverfield gets off to a relatively slow start. Reeves, Abrams, and screenwriter Drew Goddard force the audience to spend the first twenty minutes of the film with a handful of characters that we never truly grow to like. They are one-dimensional and, frankly, kind of annoying as they bob around their hip soirée and force themselves to act natural. Lucky for us, just when we’ve about had our fill of their high school squabbling, the filmmakers shake the earth, blow up some buildings, and kick the action into high gear. It begins with shaky shots of New York citizens congregating in the street as buildings collapse in the distance and the Statue of Liberty’s head goes crashing down the street. From there, Reeves and Abrams lay waste to familiar sights all around the Big Apple, each one more terrifying than the next. Woven between the scenes of destruction are evocative little moments that call to mind the horrors of September 11th, 2001—a catastrophic event that was still fresh in the mind of many audience members and documented in a similar manner. We get scenes of characters diving into small little shops as rolling clouds of dust creep by the storefront windows, dusty and dazed citizens emerge from twisted piles of wreckage, and people dash away from collapsing skyscrapers, all of which are captured on a tiny little handheld camera.
While the destruction retains a disquieting tone, Reeves and Abrams don’t entirely forget they are making a monster movie. With the “found footage” technique, the filmmakers are able to mask the tight budget, and more importantly, conceal the creature flailing around between the crumbling buildings. For a good portion of the film, the monster is only briefly glimpsed in blurred shots as our protagonists sprint between advancing military men. These moments are wildly intimidating, as deafening gunfire rages from one side and the snapping jaws of the towering beast snarling on the other. Credit should go to the sound department, who crank the noise up so loud that you would swear you left your seat and joined the combat on screen. The creature action gets even creepier when our protagonists flee the war-torn streets and retreat to the abandoned subways underneath the city. It’s here that Reeves and Abrams allow us an up-close glimpse of the parasitic beasts that the main monster has shedding. Through a night-vision filter, the spider-like critters spring around the darkness and chomp at our blind heroes until they are a bloody mess. It’s probably the scariest moment of the entire film, and it sets up a gruesome plot twist that smartly lacks much exposition. Reeves and Abram understand the power behind the less you know and the more you see, but they botch it in the end by providing audiences a clear glimpse of the monster that wipes away any fear you had previously. It’s a grave mistake that leaves Cloverfield falling flat on its face.
Perhaps the worst aspect of Cloverfield is the acting, which is painfully forced and amateurish. Stahl-David is flat-out horrid as Rob, a big baby who is constantly complaining or whining about trying to find Beth. Miller’s oafish cameraman Hud makes clumsy swipes at dimwitted humor and consistently acts like a brain-dead idiot. It’s downright impossible to believe that Rob would consider him a best friend. Yustman’s Beth just whimpers and clings to Rob, while Lucas’s Lily essentially begs Rob to reconsider his hysteric rescue mission. The only actress who really registers is Caplan, who frowns her way through Marlena, a snobby hipster who rolls her eyes as Hud tries desperately to flirt with her. Together, none of them really have any chemistry, and all you can do is roll your eyes as they try to sell the audience tired drunken dramatics. Overall, the characters may get on your last nerve and the finale may spoil a monster that was better left in the shadows, but Cloverfield turns out to be a surprisingly tolerable “found footage” thriller with more than a few flashes of creature-feature brilliance. Much like the classic monster movies that acted as the inspiration, it reflects upon current paranoia, and it does it while respectfully tipping its hat.
by Steve Habrat
In 1966, Roger Corman’s American Internation Pictures (AIP) released The Wild Angels, an outlaw biker gang movie that gave birth to a brand new exploitation subgenre. With The Wild Angels a hit and biker culture breaking through into the media, AIP quickly started churning out more of these rough-and-tough biker films that featured up-and-coming stars like Peter Fonda, John Cassavete, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, and Larry Bishop. While Bishop never quite achieved the A-list status as some of the other actors that made appearances in these films, he remained a cult icon that obviously caught the eye of exploitation mega-fan Quentin Tarantino. In 2008, Tarantino encouraged Bishop to write, star, and direct a throwback to the outlaw biker films of the 60s and 70s, even offering to executive producer the picture if Bishop would agree to make it. The result of this collaboration is Hell Ride, a jumbled and awkward nod to the exploitation genre that gave Bishop his start. The only thing that keeps Hell Ride from being tossed into the junkyard is the presence of fellow genre stars Michael Madsen, David Carradine, and Dennis Hopper, who try their damndest to make sense of the script and add some extra slicked-back masculinity to all the blood, sex, and violence. It also slightly helps that the film boasts a fairly authentic late 60s/early 70s visual style and a gritty Ennio Morricone-esque score.
Hell Ride introduces us to Pistolero (played by Larry Bishop), the grizzled president of the motorcycle gang called the Victors. We learn that in 1976, Pistolero’s beautiful girlfriend, Cherokee Kisum (played by Julia Jones), was brutally murdered by the Deuce (played by David Carradine) and Billy Wings (played by Vinnie Jones), two high-ranking members of a rival motorcycle gang called the Six-Six-Six’ers. Many years pass and the Six-Six-Six’ers gang falls apart, but Pistolero still craves revenge. After a veteran member of the Victors is murdered in the same manner as Cherokee Kisum, Pistolero begins to suspect that the Six-Six-Six’ers are reforming and attempting to make a comeback. Seeing his chance to exact his revenge on the Six-Six-Six’ers, Pistolero rounds up the Gent (played by Michael Madsen) and Commanche (played by Eric Balfour), two fellow members of the Victors and close friends of the heartbroken president, to help him wipe the rival gang out once and for all. With several members of the Victors either switching sides or turning up dead, Pistolero races to track down the Decue and Bill Wings before they can reach him. In the process, Pistolero learns that Cherokee Kisum had some secrets of her own, and that one of his new gang members may have a connection to the slain woman.
If you’ve seen the trailer or glanced at the poster for Hell Ride, you’ve noticed that Tarantino’s name shows up in big bold text on both, making it seem like he played a major part in the film’s production. About five minutes into the actual film, you’ll realize that is far from the truth. Where Tarantino is capable of delivering a casual cool that seems effortless, Bishop’s tough-guy style just seems forced and uninspired—amazing considering that this guy’s career began in these types of macho outings. Visually, Bishop understands how to make the film feel like a forgotten exploitation film from the 70s. It switches from gritty black and white shots of leather-clad bad-asses rocketing down dusty highways to vibrant LSD trips out in the rocky deserts. Strewn throughout the retro visual style is a plethora of sex, drugs, roaring steel, and violence, all set to a Morricone-esque score that gives the film a slight spaghetti western feel. The orgies, beheadings, ambushes, and motorcycle porn all seem appropriate, especially since Bishop is trying to pay tribute to a hardened exploitation subgenre. But where he really looses his grip on the project is with the characters, convoluted plot, and the cringe-worthy dialogue. It’s especially painful because these guys are veterans of the B-movie circuit.
In addition to writing and directing Hell Ride, Bishop also leads a legendary cast deep into the sizzling desert. A good majority of Bishop’s performance finds him mumbling his dialogue, staring down his opponents over his slouching sunglasses, or squeezing girl’s butts in a lame attempt to show he’s a real lady-killer. Madsen brings his Elvis-like cool to the role of the Gent, but he struggles with flimsy dialogue and a lack of anything substantial to do aside from standing around. Balfour does a surprisingly decent job at trying to hang with these grizzled beefcakes, as his character is the only one with anything resembling depth. The legendary David Carradine’s is reduced to being strapped to a chair and carefully growling bland dialogue at Bishop. Dennis Hopper seems to be having a grand old time back on his hog, but weirdly, Bishop seems like he is constantly restraining him when he should be letting him go full crazy. Rounding out the cast is Vinnie Jones as the wildly profane Billy Wings, a ruthless villain that is largely absent until the final stretch. Overall, for all the talent involved with Hell Ride, the entire project comes off as cheap and amateurish, which is perplexing because it should have been a rock-solid, testosterone-fueled thrill ride. To make it worse, the plot is like a tangled ball of yarn that Bishop can’t even sort out. This rusty clunker would have been better suited as a brief three-minute faux trailer in Grindhouse. It would have been a hell of a lot more fun.
Hell Ride is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you thought that 2004’s The Punisher was a pretty lousy movie, wait until you see Lexi Alexander’s 2008 redo Punisher: War Zone, an abomination that manages to make the first one look like an Academy Award contender. Trimming off all the emotional weight from the first film (there wasn’t much to begin with but at least there was some), Punisher: War Zone ends up resembling a Saw movie crossed with a forgotten 80’s shoot-‘em-up. While The Punisher isn’t exactly a family friendly hero, there is still no excuse for the relentless bloodshed and depravity that we have in War Zone. Furthermore, there is no excuse why there isn’t more depth to the character of Frank Castle, the vigilante in the black bulletproof vest with a big, white skull plastered across it. The only reason to even consider watching War Zone is to check out Doug Hutchison’s performance as Loony Bin Jim, a deranged lunatic who maims first and then asks questions later. You certainly don’t consider this film based of Ray Stevenson’s utterly blah performance as Castle, the most robotic vigilante ever to blast his way across the screen.
Frank Castle (Played by Ray Stevenson) has been prowling the New York City streets for almost five years as The Punisher. Heavily armed and extremely dangerous, this ex-military man hunts down and dispatches criminals in the most brutal ways imaginable. One evening, Frank storms the home of mob boss Gaitano Cesare and manages to massacre every gangster inside except for Billy Russoti (Played by Dominic West), a testy enforcer obsessed with his looks. Castle sets out after the escaped gangster at his recycling plant hideout. Castle blasts his way through the plant and in the process, he ends up killing an undercover FBI agent and horribly disfiguring Billy. After discovering his mistake, Castle decides that he is quitting his life as a vigilante. Meanwhile, Billy has reconstructive surgery on his face, leaving him a mug that resembles a jigsaw puzzle. Billy takes the name “Jigsaw” and sets out to free his insane brother Loony Bin Jim (Played by Doug Hutchison) from a mental institution so the duo can track down The Punisher together and destroy him once and for all.
A good bulk of War Zone is devoted to nonstop brutality and carnage. Screenwriters Nick Santora, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway try to wave off the mindless violence by forcing the abrasive characters to wink at the audience and act like cartoons. I thought this was supposed to be a raw and gritty interpretation? Then we have The Punisher himself, a real snoozer of a hero. Stevenson tries to play Castle/The Punisher as the strong silent type who communicates through a distant gaze at the person in front of him. He visits the graves of his deceased family where he scrubs mold and dirt off the headstones while seething with anger. In fight scenes, he is a scowling bad ass who chops, hacks, slashes, and shoots his way through a seemingly never-ending army of gangsters who all bleed buckets when The Punisher shoots a hole through them. We never really get a glimpse inside Frank, the only emotion coming from his anger over the accidental death of the undercover FBI agent. Frank attempts to reach out to the fallen agent’s family, who is being hunted by the deranged Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim. We are just supposed to accept that the death of his family shook Castle from warm family man into cold-blooded monster. Don’t think about it too much.
War Zone doesn’t really fair any better in the supporting good guys or villains department. Colin Salmon shows up as a tough-as-concrete cop Paul Budiansky, the man looking to bring The Punisher to justice. Somehow, Paul is able to hold himself in a bone crunching battle with Frank, something that was just utterly absurd. Dash Mihok is aboard as Paul’s partner Martin Soap, who is along for the ride as comic relief that is never very funny. Wayne Knight enters the mix as Frank’s completely underused partner Micro, the man who supplies Frank with all of his guns and ammo. Julie Benz is also underused as Angela, the fallen FBI agent’s widow who always manages to be a hysterical damsel in distress, even when she isn’t in distress. Then there is Dominic West as Billy/Jigsaw, the vicious enforcer who speaks in the worst Italian accent ever. An ugly son of a gun, Jigsaw speaks like he has a mouth full of mush as he demands that local street gangs fight back against The Punisher. There is a side plot that involves a biological weapon that you think will come into play but it never does, which is downright baffling to me. The only one really who shows up to have a good time is Hutchinson’s Loony Bin Jim, who gets all the best moments of War Zone. The highlight of the film is when he gets to beat up on our hero. As he delivers each blow to The Punisher, he explains the severity of the injury. It is the only sequence that boasts strong writing, creativity, and depraved fun.
As War Zone barrels towards the finish line, the film starts to resemble a stomach churning car wreck that you just can’t stop staring at even though you so desperately want to turn away and vomit. You will also be reaching for the Advil to relive the throbbing migraine that the film surely will cause. War Zone ends up turning into an unyielding, tasteless blur of heavy metal, terrible lighting, and reckless direction. The plotline becomes such a mess that you can’t even begin to figure out how the people behind the camera are going to tie it all up. The only relief that we find is Hutchison, who really brings the crazy to this horrorshow. Even worse, Alexander can’t decide if she wants this film to be a horror movie or an exercise in exploitation. Somewhere out there in Hollywoodland, someone has a good story for The Punisher but it seems that the suits out there just haven’t found that person yet. I hope they find that person quick because this character is barely clinging to life in the cinema realm. And let’s hope they don’t invite back the lifeless Stevenson.
Punisher: War Zone is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
With 2004’s Hellboy turning out to be a modest success, Guillermo del Toro was allowed to let a myriad of head spinning monsters out of his imagination in 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, a bigger, wilder, and groovier monster movie romp than his predecessor. Loaded with tons more ghouls to roam around, The Golden Army is shoulder to shoulder with some of the most exhaustive make-up effects put on film in the past several years. It helps that del Toro shifts from Revolution Studios to Universal Studios, home of the original monster movie, to really make the ultimate tribute to the classic Universal monsters of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. The Golden Army also finds more enthusiastic devotion from Ron Pearlman, who seems like he was chomping at the bit to get covered in red make-up and have two filed down horns slapped on his forehead. Tapping into the reckless ennui that he so wonderfully applied in Hellboy, The Golden Army finds our big red hero dealing with relationship problems, pent up longing to interact with the outside world, fatherhood (!) and that nagging problem of having to save the world. Again. It’s all in a day’s work for Hellboy, the beer sipping, cat loving man-child.
The Golden Army begins with Hellboy’s (Played by Pearlman) relationship with pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Played by Selma Blair) on the rocks. She exclaims that she can no longer stand living in Hellboy’s pigsty and that she needs some space. Hellboy confides in his best buddy Abe Sapien (Played by Doug Jones), the geeky psychic amphibious humanoid who always acts as the voice of reason for Red. To make things worse, Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense Agent Tom Manning (Played by Jeffrey Tambor) is steaming mad at Hellboy for continuing to reveal himself to the public, despite the fact that the B.P.R.D is supposed to be kept a secret. After being called to investigate strange events at an auction house, Hellboy finds the perfect opportunity to reveal himself to the world and make it look like an accident. Hellboy isn’t welcomed into the world with open arms, many people taunting him for his striking appearance but that is the least of Hellboy’s problems. Agent Manning brings in a new authority figure by the name of Johann Krauss (Played by James Dodd and voice by Seth MacFarlane), a figure that wears a containment suit shaped like a human but that holds in pure ectoplasmic energy. Hellboy, Liz, and Abe begin rebelling against Johann but it is soon discovered that a mythical realm has declared war on the humans and that they plan to unleash the Golden Army, an invincible force that would destroy the human race.
Much like Hellboy, The Golden Army runs smoother when del Toro aims his camera at the sheltered trio of crime fighters who long for human interaction. It finds Hellboy staring down fatherhood, but it is hard to see the guy as a papa when he downs six packs of Tecate and stumbles around with Abe as they gripe about girls. The best moment of The Golden Army comes when Abe drunkenly spills his feelings about a girl that the trio is supposed by protecting. You’ll crack up when the duo begins slurring through love songs played at full blast. It is a delight to see the group bring their problems to work, all of them complaining on the job to each other but banding together when the bad monsters come out to play. The Golden Army also deals with the trio trying to fit in with the average citizens of New York City. They are teased on the street about their freakish appearances, something that really irks the testy Hellboy who responds with, “I know I’m ugly!” You’ll feel for the big red ape, especially when Hellboy saves a baby from a giant monstrosity and the mother rips the baby away from Hellboy in horror, something that really pierces the big guy’s heart.
The Golden Army would be nothing without Pearlman, Blair, and Jones, all who get their moment to really push their characters along. Pearlman is an absolute delight as Hellboy and I can honestly say I’d watch twenty Hellboy movies if he were in every one. Watching him try to mature and cater to Liz is hysterical, especially when he finds her toothbrush in a tin of cat food. Pearlman’s enjoyment with the roll is incredibly contagious and we find ourselves having just as much fun as he is. Blair perks up a bit here as Liz, but she is still the goth girl hero in combat boots that we came to adore the first time around. It is good to see her sulking about a troubled relationship and a secret she is desperately trying to hide from Red. Then there is Jones as Abe, who gets a tongue-tying crush of his own—one that he begins to realize will not end happily ever after. Then there is James Dodd and Seth MacFarlane’s Johann, a prickly voice of authority that successfully stands up to the boorish Hellboy. As far as the villains go, Hellboy finds himself battling against the fed up Prince Nuada (Played by Luke Goss) and his timid twin sister Princess Nuala (Played by Anna Walton). The elfish Nuada never really becomes an intimidating force to reckon with, the only catch being that if you harm Nuada, you can also harm Nuala. This puts the group at odds, especially when Abe develops feeling for the gentle Nuala. This is where The Golden Army flat lines, the lack of a truly compelling villain to really curl your toes. Luckily, that is why all those spine-tingling monsters are here!
Being a superhero movie, The Golden Army is filled out with plenty of action and adventure. A showdown in the streets between Hellboy and a giant forest god is beautiful and adrenaline pumping. Another battle between Hellboy and Nuada’s grotesque bodyguard Mr. Wink is also a standout. Del Toro ends his film in a grand, epic fashion by pitting the group against the marching Golden Army, the best fight scene of the entire film. While the film’s plotline may begin to creak and crack under the style that it is trying so desperately to hold up, the style practically superglues and staples your eyes to the screen. It makes you long for more movies from del Toro, ones where he can have all the artistic freedom he wants. Also, if Universal plans on remaking anymore of their classic monster movies, I think it would be wise to hand the project over to this guy. Still, I wish del Toro would have developed the underlying message of nature and man living in harmony a bit more than he does but this is a summer blockbuster and I’m sure there was a push for more eye candy and action. It just so happens that del Toro excels at eye candy as Hellboy II: The Golden Army has some of the tastiest eye candy around. Here’s to more monster movies in del Toro’s future!
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After seeing 2005’s Batman Begins, I was convinced that director Christopher Nolan would be unable to top what he did in the arresting stage setter. The impossible was proved very possible when Nolan unleashed his darkest vision yet in 2008. The Dark Knight was a white-hot comic book thriller that blazed across the movie screen with such power, it was almost sublime. With The Dark Knight, Nolan not only raised the bar for any comic book film to come in its wake, but he also unleashed the late Heath Ledger’s Joker, a brilliant and demented demon of a villain that was the truest portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime yet. The film was labeled a must-see for Ledger’s performance alone, many forgetting to even concentrate on the blistering story that left audience members traumatized by the end of the film. Nolan weaves a spellbinding crime epic that steamrolls the viewer with its constant twists and turns throughout its epic runtime of two and a half hours. And the real beauty of all of this? The film is a massively bleak superhero movie that doesn’t find our hero triumphing over the evil thrown his way. It was such a bold move on Nolan’s part and handled with such subtlety that many may have missed the fact that Batman didn’t walk away the victor.
For the three people out there who haven’t seen The Dark Knight, here is brief rundown of the overall plot. Set shortly after the events of Batman Begins, Batman (Played by Christian Bale) and Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Played by Gary Oldman) have the scum of Gotham City shaking in their boots. There also happens to be a new D.A. in town by the name of Harvey Dent (Played by Aaron Eckhart), who is anxious to join Batman and Gordon’s war on crime. Running out of options, the mob finds themselves approached by The Joker (Played by Heath Ledger), a sadistic killer in clown make-up who guarantees the jumpy thugs that he can flush Batman out of the shadows and kill him. The mob reluctantly agrees to accept his offer but they soon learn the error of their ways when the Joker is let loose on the streets of Gotham. As the body count rises, the Joker demands that Batman take off his mask and show the world who he really is. Refusing to give in to the demands of the unhinged terrorist, Bruce Wayne approaches Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Played by Morgan Freeman) to provide him a slew of new gadgets that will help him battle the Joker. With the Joker refusing to give in and growing more powerful with each passing second, Batman realizes that the only way to stop this scarred madman is to break his one rule and kill the Joker.
When it was announced that Heath Ledger would be playing the Joker, the news was met with mixed opinions. Many were intrigued, but they didn’t feel the actor would be able to topple the work that Jack Nicholson did in 1989. Others were downright horrified that this pretty boy actor would be tackling one of the most iconic villains of all time. I definitely fell into the first group until I saw a few leaked photos of the late actor with his face smeared with some of the most ghoulish make-up imaginable. It looked absolutely perfect to the point that I didn’t even care if his skin wasn’t permawhite. That was the LAST thing on my mind. Then I saw the first trailer and I was instantly sold. Ledger gives such a detailed performance that it almost takes a few viewings to really catch all the small details. His performance takes hold in his eyes, which appear to be black with evil. He smoothes back his greasy locks of grown out green hair while he consistently sucks at the bubbly scars that contort his mouth into a horrific smile. When he speaks, every word he snarls sounds like he is mocking the person he is speaking to and he always has a come back. He is an unpredictable force that really grabs you by the shorthairs.
While Ledger steals the show, Bale once again really delivers something special. He slips back into Bruce Wayne with ease while Nolan encourages him to really expand his character. Here we really see Bruce’s mixed emotions about the Batsuit and the toll it is taking both physically and mentally. His physical body looks shredded, bruised, battered, and bloody. He sleeps through meetings at Wayne Enterprises and groans while putting a dress shirt on as he explains to Alfred that Batman has no limits. When the Joker emerges on the scene, things really get brutal for Bruce, especially when the Joker begins claiming lives of those who are close with Bruce. The control that Ra’s Al Ghul taught him in the previous film begins to slide wildly off the rails. Just wait until the Batman interrogates the Joker in one of The Dark Knight’s most intense sequences. The only thing keeping Bruce on the right track is Alfred (Played by Michael Caine), who once again acts as the fatherly voice of reason. He continues to push Bruce, even when things go from bad to absolutely awful. It is the small moments between Alfred and Bruce that cut the deepest.
Then we have Eckhart’s Harvey Dent, who is always unfairly overlooked when anyone talks about The Dark Knight. The emotional decay that consumed Harvey over the course of The Dark Knight is absolutely hypnotic. He starts out as such a stand-up guy and it is easy to like him. He keeps his square jaw held high in the air, even as one mobster after another takes shots at him. His slip into evil is perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of this entire film. Maggie Gyllenhaal steps in for Katie Holmes as the love of Bruce and Harvey’s life, Rachel Dawes. Gyllenhaal is a much stronger actress and Nolan continues to ease her around the clichéd damsel in distress. She gets a terrifying stare down with the Joker that finds him strutting up to her, sticking a knife against her cheek, and whispering, “Wanna know how I got these scars?” Oldman does more outstanding work as Gordon, the last good cop in Gotham City who is forced to turn on his ally over the course of The Dark Knight. This time around, he is filled with even more desperation and grit to try to turn the city around. Rounding out the all-star cast is Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, who is forced to join Batman’s unending battle with the Joker. He is another character who begins to question his relationship with Bruce/Batman, but he is also faced with the same task as Alfred—keeping Bruce in the fight.
The Dark Knight is loaded with enough earth shaking action that will blow your mind. There is a somersaulting semi here and stomach churning mass evacuation of Gotham there. The set pieces are bigger, all due to the stunning use of IMAX cameras that filmed multiple action scenes. The stage is set with an edge-of-your-seat bank robbery that still manages to floor the viewer, even if they have seen it multiple times. The Dark Knight also manages to be smarter than its predecessor, really going heavy with the cracked reflection of our post 9/11 world. It asks moral questions about fighting terrorism, touching on surveillance and torture. What lengths should we go to dealing with terrorism? The Joker also becomes a purple-suited reflection of Osama bin Laden, a horrifying force that suddenly pops up to wreck havoc, leaving twisted wreckage in his wake as he giggles over other’s pain. This reflection really becomes obvious when the Joker begins making threats to keep Gotham City gripped in chaos. Nolan is also interested in ideas of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. “You and I are destined to do this forever,” says the Joker to Batman. He means it too. The Dark Knight manages to be the defining film of the Bush era and a shaky snapshot of our paranoid times. Smarter, darker, and downright unforgettable, this is Nolan’s masterpiece, a film with an art house approach and a blockbuster scale. The Dark Knight proves that superhero films can be high art and can have profound things to say about society. This is, was, and ever shall be a game changer of a movie.
The Dark Knight is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Of all the Pixar movies that I have seen, my favorite one is without question director Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E, the film that I believe has the most heart and soul out of all the Pixar films. I absolutely love that this is a silent film for half the runtime, allowing us to get sucked in to actions rather than the words. It is very hard to not fall for the peculiar little robot that loves Hello, Dolly, has a cockroach for a pet, and is puzzled over a bra. You won’t be able to get enough of the moments where Wall-E discovers that he is in love with fellow robot EVE, mystified by her sudden presence in his lonely little world. I felt for him in his desperation for a friend, someone he could share all of his interests and chat with in his hysterical little robot blips and squeals. When Wall-E isn’t overtaking you emotionally, you will be shocked to see how intelligent this film truly is. With Wall-E, Stanton points out that big corporations control almost every aspect of our lives and have made us the overweight slobs that we are. They control fads, what we eat, drink, what we should fear, what we should see, etcetera. Tell me that is not thought provoking for a children’s film! And yet Wall-E still fills me with childlike wonder as it shows us how beautiful love can truly be.
Wall-E begins in the distant future, with earth having been abandoned by her polluting children and left to be cleaned up by a garbage-collecting robot named Wall-E. Wall-E has been by himself for quite a long time without anyone to connect with except for his pet cockroach. He spends his days working at a task that seems like it will never be finished and he spends his evenings watching Hello, Dolly and staring up at the stars, hoping for a savior to come and take him away from the mundane. One day, Wall-E sees an enormous spaceship land and send out a sleek robot named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), who is on the hunt for plant life. Wall-E immediately falls for EVE but she is so consumed with her mission on earth that she barely even notices the sweet Wall-E following her around. The two eventually connect but when Wall-E shows her a small plant he has found, EVE scoops up the plant and heads back out to space to the Axiom, an enormous spaceship that contains what is left of the human race. Wall-E chases after her but once he boards the Axiom, the lovable duo discovers a plot that would prevent the humans aboard the Axiom from ever returning to earth.
While Wall-E remains consistent its entire runtime, the first half of the film is such a breath of fresh air, it remains one of the crowning moments for the Pixar team. When you aren’t wrapped up in little Wall-E’s daily routine of compacting and rummaging through trash, you will be pulling for the little guy to find that spark with EVE. I absolutely love watching Wall-E discover a Rubik’s cube, car keys, and a fire extinguisher. He has grown bored with the monotony of his day to day, desperate to find something that will entertain him enough to forget about the tedious task of shuffling garbage. We also get to meet his pet, a cuddly little cockroach (Did you EVER think a cockroach could be cuddly?) that crawls around Wall-E’s insides, making him giggle and fidget. Watching the two get out of bed was a chuckler, Wall-E so groggy that he bumps into things as he tries to get himself ready for the day. When EVE shows up, Wall-E really perks up as he zooms after EVE, hiding out of bashfulness as he attempts to work up the courage to approach her. The two share a moment in Wall-E’s little house that is movie magic at its absolute finest.
The second half of the film is just as entertaining but it marches to a different beat. We get to meet tons of robots that prowl the Axiom while the humans all lounge around on hovering recliners. The humans are all obese slaves to a corporation called Buy N’ Large that announces over loud speakers what the current trend is in fashion (Keep an ear out for a voice cameo from Sigourney Weaver and an eye out for an appearance by Fred Willard). Buy N’ Large provides the humans with endless amounts of soda as they video chat into screens that obstruct their vision. Wall-E accidentally knocks out one human’s screen, a man named John (Voiced by John Ratzenberger), who discovers a world around him that he has been completely oblivious to. Wall-E and EVE also manage to short out another screen that belongs to a woman named Mary (Voiced by Kathy Najimy). John and Mary meet up and they quickly fall for each other, laughing over the quirky, love drunk robots that brought them together. Aboard the Axiom, Wall-E gets a bit preachy, a call to shake ourselves out of current fads and trends that are controlled by others and explore the world around us. We also get to meet the ships captain (Voiced by Jeff Garlin), who is clueless to what Earth is until he begins to research it. Wall-E comes equipped with a green message, wagging its finger at us for polluting the earth in addition to our brains and bodies.
Wall-E takes its good old time developing the love story between Wall-E and EVE, forcing us to emotionally invest in these little joys and I’ll be damned if the payoff isn’t overwhelmingly satisfying. Not one aspect of the film seems rushed, despite the fact that the film only runs an hour and a half. The standout sequence of Wall-E has got to be when Wall-E and EVE dance around in space, their love deepening with each spin through the air. The film does get a bit intense in the final moments as our lovable little hero gets badly wounded and barely clings to life. It falls on EVE and the captain to save the little guy AND the humans aboard the Axiom. Wall-E is such a pleasant film because it allows us to really get to know this little guy inside and out. His binocular eyes practically overflow with intrigue, curiosity, and wonder at the world around him. It is astonishing that Wall-E’s eyes are more alive than the eyes of the “human” characters found in most other animated offerings. In the multiple times I have seen Wall-E since it was released on Blu-ray, I haven’t been able to find a single thing wrong with the film, a rarity considering most newer films are far from perfect. Wall-E turns out to be a great cinematic love story and a masterpiece of animated filmmaking. Don’t be afraid to fall for this one!
Wall-E is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After the fatigued but fun Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, Indy took a long, much needed break from saving the world. For years, audiences begged for another installment in the Indiana Jones franchise, loosing their minds over the smallest hints dropped about a possible new film. In 2008, fans finally got their wish with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a CGI heavy blockbuster that had an aged Indy battling Russians in the atomic age. Opting for science fiction shenanigans over biblical trinkets, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brings back Harrison Ford as the fedora-wearing hero, has him joining forces with fan favorite Marion Ravenwood, and facing some of his most outlandish action scenes yet. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is littered with the fingerprints of George “Overkill” Lucas, who I’m fairly certain is responsible for some of the low points of this half-good installment. Returning director Steve Spielberg does his best to hold the project together and he does direct the film care, but it is so painfully obvious where Lucas took over as his input sends Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull into a violent nosedive that Spielberg has to quickly right.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull picks up in 1957, with a much older Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Ford) and his partner George “Mac” McHale (Played by Ray Winstone) kidnapped by Soviet Colonel Dr. Irina Spalko (Played by Cate Blanchett). She brings Indy and Mac to Area 51, demanding Indy locates a mysterious box that contains the alien remains from Roswell. Reluctantly, Indy begins helping her and then makes a daring get away. Indy narrowly survives a nuclear bomb test and is picked up by the FBI, who accuses him of working with the Soviets. Indy is forced to take an indefinite leave of absence from the University he teaches at but soon finds himself approached by a greaser named Mutt Williams (Played by Shia LaBeouf) who tells Indy that his old colleague, Harold Oxley (Played by John Hurt), has mysteriously disappeared after he discovered a crystal skull in Peru. Mutt also reveals that his mother has been kidnapped and that he needs Indy’s help to find her. Indy agrees to help Mutt find his mother and Oxley but as their search continues, they discover that Colonel Dr. Spalko is also after the crystal skull, which if obtained could allow the Russians to wage psychic warfare on America.
The rumor behind The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that there was another script that Spielberg wanted to make but Lucas insisted on this one. While there are some awesome moments in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the good is overshadowed by the extremely awful. In this film, we see Indy survive an nuclear bomb blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator, narrowly escape a sea of giant killer ants, Mutt swinging through the jungle with monkeys, and a climax featuring a huge UFO rising up out of the ground. It is these moments that make The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feel more like a Star Wars film rather than an installment of Indiana Jones. The film does marvelously weave perhaps one of the most interesting eras into the franchise, using the Cold War as the backdrop for all the action. Yet this all feels even more like child’s play, more than The Last Crusade did. The scene with Mutt swing through the jungle on vines with a slew of cute monkeys will make the kids giddy. There is also the weird prairie dogs that are constantly shown in the opening moments of the film, a touch that I still to this day do not quite understand other than to add a cutesy family touch.
The major positive here is the presence of the fervent Ford, who gladly dusts off the famous fedora and wears it proudly while searching for the crystal skull. Spielberg and Lucas enjoy playing up the joke that he has aged and not at his heroic best, having Indy make mistakes and urging Mutt to call him “Gramps” every chance he gets. Yet when Ford is asked to be tough and throw a couple of right hooks, he is more than willing to give it a try. Ford still has it as an action hero and he ultimately carries this overly polished moneymaker across the finish line. Giving him Karen Allen to work with also puts some spring in his step, reigniting the feisty flame the two had in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. They once again argue about Indy’s fear of commitment and by now, you know that Mutt turns out to be Indy’s son, which causes Indy to really erupt. This dysfunctional family ends up being a real winner even if it is an attempt to sell a family movie. I especially like watching Indy and Marion once again discover their feelings for each other, which allowed The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to win points for familiarity.
There has been quite a bit of controversy over the character of Mutt Williams, who at times seems to be there to allow for future installments. He’s likable enough but I hope that Spielberg and Lucas have the good sense to not pass the whip and fedora to him. They do a clever little fake out at the end but I still fear the worst with his character. He ends up being a character that the kiddies can root for while Mom and Dad are cheering for the winded Indy and Marion. John Hurt gets to have a little fun playing off-his-rocker with Harold Oxley. He is another character that is there just to provide a few little chuckles. Winstone as Mac is a pretty useless character, there to be the typical side nuisance Indy has to constantly deal with. The star next to Allen and Ford is without question Blanchett, who enjoys playing the vampy Spalko a little too much. She is slightly sexy and cartoonishly menacing when swinging around a sword. She truly is a character that looks like she was ripped out of a long, lost comic book that has been stashed away in your grandpa’s basement. Next to Raiders’ Arnold Thot and Temple of Doom’s Mola Ram, she is one of the best villains of the Indian Jones series.
If Spielberg and Lucas would have cut back on some of the excess and maybe removed the silly CGI alien at the end, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would have been a much smoother roller coaster ride. Many have lambasted Spielberg for some of the mistakes here but I am firmly convinced that Lucas is the one to blame for the more asinine moments of the film. In a way, I sort of feel bad for giving this film an average grade because there is so much heart and dedication on display, especially from Ford and Spielberg, who seem to be right at home with this material. There were moments where I was totally engulfed by the rousing action, mostly the ones that weren’t cluttered with CGI trickery. If Indiana Jones does return for one more adventure, lets hope that Lucas steps away from the special effects and focuses more on giving fans a film that is worthy of their fedora-wearing hero rather than just being a greedy cash grab.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
There is no question that Jon Favreau’s 2008 Iron Man is one of the best Marvel Studios films out there. It’s a rollicking good time with an incredibly poised and charismatic hero carrying the whole project to dizzying heights that I never thought possible. Iron Man, which clocks in at a speedy hour and fifty-five minutes, remains light and breezy for much of its runtime, never wandering into any overly dark territory or dealing with subject matter that will whiz over the heads of younger viewers, which is who this is all clearly aimed at. Yet Favreau and his army of screenwriters ground Iron Man in the modern world where terrorism is very much alive and deadly, giving the film a level of relevance that makes things interesting for the older viewers. What makes Iron Man such a great film is that is manages to strike a perfect balance of hearty belly laughs, steamy love story, and heavy metal action that will please every man, woman, or child out there. To make things even better, Favreau populates his film with a remarkably strong supporting cast, all who make sure that Iron Man never has a monotonous moment. Iron Man also happens to be the comeback vehicle for Robert Downey, Jr., who cheerfully embraces clanking around in a red and yellow iron suit, zipping around destroying weapons of mass destruction and trading punches with the dreaded Obadiah Stane.
Iron Man introduces us to wealthy playboy and genius Tony Stark (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), head of Stark Industries, a weapons defense company that he inherited from his father. Stark loves a strong drink, a beautiful woman on his arm, and to vocalize how great he really is. Stark travels to Afghanistan to show off his menacing new weapon called the “Jericho” missile and while there, Stark and his military bodyguards are ambushed. Party boy Stark is kidnapped by a terrorist organization called the Ten Rings, who demand that Stark build them their own “Jericho” missile and in return that will free him. Instead, Stark builds a heavily armed iron suit that allows him to barely escape with his life. Upon returning the United States, Stark attempts to regain control of his company from Obadiah Stane (Played by Jeff Bridges), his father’s old business partner and company manager. Stark declares that Stark Industries will no longer produce weapons, which upsets Stane and sends the media into a frenzy. Stark also reunites with his pretty and uptight secretary assistant Pepper Pots (Played by Gwyneth Paltrow) and his close friend and military liaison Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Played by Terrence Howard). After Stark learns that weapons made by Stark Industries were provided to the Ten Rings, Stark begins building a modified suit of armor to set out and destroy the weapons that were provided to the terrorists. Soon, Stark realizes that there may be a traitor close to him who is upset with Stark’s decision to change the course of the company and is working on a deadly suit of armor of his own.
Iron Man never shies away from what it truly is, a sleek summer blockbuster meant to slap a big smile across your face. It succeeds in doing just that, even on repeat viewings. You’ll still chuckle during the first disastrous tests of the Iron Man suit or when Stark throws a witty one liner your way. My personal favorite is when Stark would interact with his robot helpers, who are all fond of blasting him with fire extinguishers. The action sequences are finely tuned with wondrous CGI and rock ‘em-sock ‘em force, leaving you clamoring to see the next action packed situation Iron Man finds himself in. Iron Man isn’t all razzle-dazzle, as the film does offer up a true original in the character of Tony Stark, who has to go form uncaring playboy to embracing what he was destined to become. The fact that Downey, Jr. makes Stark come alive is what makes Iron Man the titan that it is. You begin to feel like you actually know this guy, which makes it even easier to root for him. His transformation is rocky at first, but that is part of what makes Tony so human and win our hearts. He has trouble adjusting from nonstop party boy to a man heavy with responsibility.
While this is Downey Jr.’s show, the background players make sure that you walk away from Iron Man remembering their presence too. Paltrow is smoking as Stark’s assistant Pepper Potts, who at times I feel isn’t really given that much to do by Favreau and his screenwriters (Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway). She is basically asked to just chase Stark around and shake her head at his childish actions but she does it well. I enjoyed her awkward love story with Stark, another aspect that adds a little flesh and blood to Iron Man. Terrence Howard is his usually top notch self as Rhodes, who tries to be the voice of reason and authority to the free-spirited Stark. The die hard fans will also get a money moment when Rhodes checks out one of the prototype Iron Man suits and makes a comment that hints that War Machine may show up in latter installments. The most surprising turn here is Jeff Bridges as the baddie Obadiah Stane, who whips up an iron suit of his own and becomes Iron Monger. It was great to see Bridges, who shaved his head and grew a beard for the role, get to play antagonist for a change. At times his role seems a bit familiar (a sinister business man), but Bridges seems to be having a grand time in all the superhero chaos and he does such a memorable job, you’ll forgive if some aspects of his character slightly derivative.
Director Favreau smartly gives Iron Man a human heart, which helps to win ours over. While it is obviously a set up for the future Avengers movie, this installment of Iron Man does seem to have a life of its own outside of being an overly expensive trailer for what is to come. Iron Man does come with a few scuffs in the armor, mostly the final battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger, which seems suspiciously short for all of the build up. I have to suspect that Marvel may have held back a bit and viewed Iron Man as sort of a test run to see how audiences would react. It turned out that they had a new Spider-Man on their hands and that they had something that we didn’t know we wanted to see. The main reason to see Iron Man is for Downey Jr.’s comeback. This is the role that placed him back on the A-list and put him in high demand for countless other projects. A superhero classic and one of the best that you will see, Iron Man is a feisty and playful escape that you won’t mind returning to time and time again.
Iron Man is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After Ang Lee’s weighty Hulk, Marvel Studios wanted to cut out some of lengthy character development and restart the Hulk franchise to fit with their upcoming superhero mash-up The Avengers. The result was 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, a faster paced and action packed thrill ride that covers the Hulk’s origin in the opening credits and then jumps right into earth shaking battle sequences that aim to give both Hulk fans and average audience members exactly what they are looking for in a summer blockbuster. The Incredible Hulk is a major improvement over Lee’s slower character study in the action department, climaxing in a car-lobbing final showdown in the streets of New York City, but the film is hollow, never asking us to really use our brains in any way. With Lee’s Hulk, Marvel gave us too much of the big green guy and with director Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, it feels like not enough. What gives Leterrier’s film the upper hand is the strong presence of a much more effective and present villain to torment the Hulk.
The Incredible Hulk begins with a green tinted opening credit sequence where we see Bruce Banner (Played by Edward Norton) get exposed to the dreaded gamma radiation that causes him to turn into the Hulk. Banner ends up injuring the love of his life Betty Ross (Played by Liv Tyler), who is present during the accident. Banner flees the lab after the accident and Betty’s father General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Played by William Hurt) sets out to arrest Banner for what he has done to Betty. The film then jets to Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, where Banner hides out while he searches for a way to cure himself. Banner also works on ways to control his anger through breathing techniques that keep him without incident. Banner keeps in contact with a mysterious scientist that he calls Mr. Blue and communicates with him via the Internet. Mr. Blue claims to have a way to cure Banner but he needs information that would require Banner to return to the United States and risk being taken into custody by General Ross. After an accident in the bottling factory where Banner works, General Ross discovers Banner’s location and sends the deadly British Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Played by Tim Roth) after Banner, who quickly flees and finds himself on a journey back home to meet the mysterious Mr. Blue. Blonsky, on the other hand, finds himself fascinated by Banner and his condition. General Ross agrees to “level the playing field” and inject Blonsky with a serum that can allow him to battle the Hulk but there are horrific side effects.
The Incredible Hulk tosses out Lee’s comic book panel aesthetic for a typical polished summer blockbuster look. We also don’t have to wait until about forty minutes in to catch a glimpse of the big green guy in action. Leterrier is just dying to unleash his new and improved Hulk on us and I must say he is impressive. Gone is the purple compression shorts wearing Hulk and present is a Hulk in tattered jeans with leathery looking skin. The action is also a bit grittier and in your face, just about everything in the Hulk’s way getting tossed, kicked, punched, or used as shields or, (awesomely) boxing gloves. The downside of all the teeth rattling action is that Leterrier focuses a little too much on it and not enough on developing a meaty story. I’ve heard talk that screenwriters Zak Penn and Edward Norton had a longer version with a bit more character development but Marvel rejected it in favor of a faster pace. It’s a shame because I would have liked to get to know a little bit more about Norton’s Banner.
In addition to beefed up action, The Incredible Hulk features a slightly stronger cast than Hulk did. Edward Norton doesn’t spend a good majority of the film moping over daddy issues from his past. Norton possesses a natural gangly and bird-like look to him than Bana’s Banner, which makes his transformation into the Hulk all the more shocking. Bana sort of looked like he could have held his own in a scuffle without transforming into a giant green muscle. Much like Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler isn’t given much to do as Betty Ross aside from run around from location to location with Banner. Tyler also happens to speak in a breathier tone than Connelly did. William Hurt as General Ross adds a bit more attitude than Sam Elliot did and when he unleashes his temper, you will want to run for cover. The real star here is Roth, who has a blast flashing a sinister grin as Blonsky, the deadly super soldier who becomes addicted to a serum that turns him into the slimy Abomination. Roth is clearly on top of the world in the role, his excitement level growing as he evolves into a truly formidable villain for the Hulk. With Abomination, Leterrier single handedly lays waste to Lee’s Hulk, just the mere presence of a clear-cut villain a huge bonus.
The Incredible Hulk is a shameless thrill ride that is more enamored with eye-popping CGI monsters and fiery destruction rather than the psychological study that its predecessor was so stuck on. It’s so obviously sugary summer fun but it does its job and you can’t fault it for it. If it boiled down to it, I would probably choose The Incredible Hulk for a Friday night movie if I ever had to make the decision. Norton is clearly the better choice for Bruce Banner and Roth is a devilish delight as the Abomination. You’ll thrill when they begin trading blows in the final stretch of the film. In a way, I wish that The Incredible Hulk had tacked on another fifteen minutes to develop this new Hulk universe and to allow me to warm up to these new interpretations of the characters that Lee introduced us to. The Incredible Hulk also gets a surprise visit from a certain Armored Avenger, which teases us for the epic upcoming mash-up and will drive Marvel fanatics wild. Even if moments of it are lopsided and a bulk of the story gets lost in all the rumble, The Incredible Hulk still manages to get your to be mindless, smashing fun for everyone.
The Incredible Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.