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District 9 (2009)

District 9

by Steve Habrat

Before August of 2009, the summer movie season had largely been an uneventful one. About the only films worth talking about were the spiffed up reboot of the sagging Star Trek franchise and Pixar’s Up, which was a heartfelt tribute to the spirit of adventure in all of us. Then August 14th arrived and the summer movie season received the electric shock that it severely needed. Enter Neill Blomkamp, a little known South African director who had been developing a Halo movie with producer Peter Jackson. With their Halo project abandoned, Blomkamp and Jackson opted to make District 9, a gritty, Johannesburg-set science-fiction allegory for apartheid that was based on Blomkamp’s 2005 short film Alive in Joburg. Celebrated as one of the most original sci-fi films of recent memory, District 9 boasts creativity as far as the eye can see, featuring a breathless pace, gruesome action that isn’t for the faint of heart, imaginative extraterrestrials, alien weaponry guaranteed to make geeks everywhere giddy, and a classic performance from first time actor Sharlto Copley. As if a strong late summer opening and critical acclaim weren’t enough for District 9, the film went on to earn a surprising four Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Not too shabby for a $30 million sci-fi actioner that could have easily been overlooked by the stuffy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

District 9 begins by explaining that in 1982, a UFO came to a stop over Johannesburg, South Africa. After hovering motionless for several days, an investigation team entered the ship and discovered thousands of malnourished aliens fighting for their lives. With the world watching, the South African government rounded up the aliens and moved them to a government camp called District 9, which is located just outside of the city. After several nasty run-ins between the locals and the aliens (the locals refer to them as “Prawns”), the government created Multinational United, a company that is tasked with moving the aliens to District 10, a new camp further outside Johannesburg. The man in charge of this project is Wikus van de Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley), a lowly MNU employee who receives a promotion from company executive Piet Smith (played by Louis Minnar), who also happens to be Wikus’ father-in-law. Wikus and a heavily armed task force arrive in District 9 to serve eviction notices, but while investigating, Wikus stumbles upon a laboratory set-up in the home of Christopher Johnson (played by Jason Cope), a clever alien capable of piloting the massive UFO back to alien’s home planet. While snooping around the lab, Wikus finds a small canister that contains a thick black fluid. After accidentally spraying himself in the face with the liquid, Wikus begins mutating into an alien and finds himself being hunted by the corporation that once employed him.  With MNU closing in, Wikus takes shelter in District 9 and seeks the help of Christopher, who agrees to fix Wikus if he agrees to help Christopher get to the alien mothership.

Opting for a “found footage” style over a conventional approach, District 9 is instantly given a much more intimate feel through a series of downtrodden interviews, cinema vértité-esque exchanges and encounters in the field, and stock footage news reports that aid in the exposition. This approach instantly separates District 9 from the rest of the sci-fi bunch (well, except maybe from Cloverfield, which applied the “found footage” style to prey upon our post 9/11 paranoia). The middle section of the film finds Blomkamp largely abandoning this approach only to re-embracing it in the action packed climax. Yet we don’t even notice that Blomkamp has dropped this style because we have completely lost ourselves in this alternate reality. When the whirlwind of action blows through the climax, the breaking news reports and the surveillance footage adds a brutal edge to the violence. People are ripped apart by alien weaponry, spaceships crash into dilapidated huts, alien droids send bullets rocketing back at the MNU forces, and that motionless spaceship begins to move. Through all of this chaos, we hold our breath for Wikus, who is the sole cause of all of this bloodshed.

District 9 #2

On its own, District 9 would have had enough creative juice in the tank to allow it to cross the finish line, but Blomkamp made the wise decision to cast his real-life buddy Sharlto Copley as Wikus. Copley, who had never acted before this, throws himself into the role as if he may never get the chance to star in a summer movie again. Believe me when I say that he takes a really good movie and makes it great. The off-the-cuff scenes of Wikus fumbling with his microphone add a bit of humor to a film that is gravely serious and a scene in which Wikus gushes over his wife for the cameras is truly a touching moment. Even though he may be a giant loveable dweeb in the slower scenes, Copley shows he can run with the big dogs when the action explodes. Copley also shares plenty of tender moments with Cope’s Christopher Johnson, a resourceful alien who will do whatever it takes to protect his precocious young son. David James is particularly vicious as Colonel Koobus Venter, the brutal muscle of the MNU tasked with hunting the terrified Wikus down. Eugene Khumbanyiwa gives a grotesque turn as Obesandjo, the paralyzed leader of the Nigerian arms dealers who has a stomach-churning taste for alien flesh. Together, James and Khumbanyiwa form a particularly nasty thorn in Wikus’ side and make for two seriously memorable movie villains. Vanessa Haywood balances out the evil as Tania, Wikus’ heartbroken wife who wonders if she will ever see her husband again.

While District 9 has plenty of action and gee-whiz wonder at its core, the film does have quite a bit of depth to it. It is no secret that District 9 is an allegory for the apartheid era that gripped South Africa during the 1960s and there certainly is an exploration of racism, which allows the film to retain a lasting relevance. The heady ideas are a nice touch and they are smartly balanced out in between the mesmerizing performances, gut-punch action, and the breathtaking pacing. And I can’t forget to mention the impressive special effects executed on a shoestring budget. The aliens are cool and that spaceship that looms over ever shot consistently fills us with sublime wonder. As far as flaws go, there are very few to be found within District 9, although there are a couple of plot points that could have been elaborated on but that would just be nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking. Overall, upon your first viewing of District 9, there is absolutely no way you can walk away untouched by it. It is fueled by pure vision and adrenaline, and this strange brew is spiced up with a performance from Sharlto Copley that genre fans will be talking about for years to come. No matter how many times you see District 9, it is always like watching it for the first time. It deserves to join the ranks of the greatest science fiction films ever made.

Grade: A+

District 9 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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The Hangover (2009)

The Hangover #1

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 Hangover #2

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.

Grade: D+

The Hangover is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek #1

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.

Star Trek #2

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.

Grade: A

Star Trek is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Attack of the Remakes! Friday the 13th (2009)

by Steve Habrat

It has always been extremely difficult for me to get into Jason Voorhees and the Friday the 13th series. I never found the hockey mask killer to be all that frightening and I found his films to be redundant exercises in sex, violence, and stupidity. The only film in the Friday the 13th series that I sort of liked was the original 1980 film, the one where Jason’s mother was the psycho chopping up hornball camp counselors. With Hollywood remaking every horror film under the gravestone, it came as no big surprise that Friday the 13th would be getting the unholy treatment. While I figured the film would be lousy, I sort of thought that maybe Hollywood would shake the series up a bit. When they handed the film over to Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes and director Marcus Nispel (the guy who gave us the semi-entertaining Texas Chain Saw reboot), it was obvious that this was going to be a major train wreck. Well folks, my worst fears were confirmed. The 2009 remake of Friday the 13th is absolutely awful in every way, shape, and form. Only once or twice is the film actually clever and show a brief glimpse of what could be if Bay wasn’t behind the film. I really don’t expect much out of these throwaway post-Halloween slashers but my God, at least put in some effort. I expect a little more than glossy guts, bare breasts, and steamy sex.

Friday the 13th 2009 picks on June 13th, 1980, with a terrified camp counselor beheading the crazed mother of Jason Voorhees, who went on a killing spree after her handicapped son drowned at Camp Crystal Lake. The film then jumps to present day with a handful of backpacking teenagers searching the woods just outside of Camp Crystal Lake for some marijuana that was planted weeks earlier. After they set up camp for the night, they are soon stalked and killed by a hooded maniac with a machete. One of the girls in the group, Whitney (Played by Amanda Righetti), is not slaughtered but captured by the hooded killer and taken prisoner. Six weeks pass and authorities are still unable to come up with an explanation for the strange disappearances of the teens. Meanwhile, another group of teenagers, Trent (Played by Travis Van Winkle), his girlfriend Jenna (Played by Danielle Panabaker), Chelsea (Played by Willa Ford), Bree (Played by Julianna Guill), Chewie (Played by Aaron Yoo), Lawrence (Played by Arlen Escarpeta), and Nolan (Played by Ryan Hansen), arrive in town for a weekend at Trent’s summer cabin just outside of Camp Crystal Lake. The group bumps into Clay (Played by Jared Padalecki), who is frantically searching for his sister Whitney. As they explore Camp Crystal Lake, the group stumbles across the same hooded figure, who now wears a hockey mask. As they dig into the events that happened at Camp Crystal Lake, they make the horrific discover that this strange man may be the legendary Jason Voorhees (Played by Derek Mears).

If you can believe it, director Nispel and Bay are not content with giving us just one group of teenagers to hate. They feel the need to give us two groups of annoying clichés that are begging to be killed by the machete-wielding psycho Jason. They do all the typical things that teens in these movies love to do. They wander off by themselves in a drunken stupor or marijuana haze, they hook up with each other in graphic sex scenes that reportedly made Mr. Bay very upset, and they talk to each other about the dumbest shit imaginable. I am well aware that these stupid teenagers are part of the appeal of these types of films but it would have been so refreshing to see them using common sense for once rather than aimlessly wandering around a dimly lit tool shed packed with more weapons than Jason could dream of. The film also has the same faux-gritty look that Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had, sleek and screaming a big price tag. The big budget look would be okay if the film had some sort of ominous atmosphere but it sort of comes off like a nu-metal music video with strategically place fog machines stuck in moss. I guess the one positive you can find here is that at least the filmmakers don’t resort to a shot-for-shot rehash and instead decide to make something that stands apart from what came before it. Yet even this is flawed because Jason only appeared briefly in the original Friday the 13th. This is more of a combination of Friday the 13th Part 2 and Part 3, with actors and actresses that look like they would be more comfortable modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch.

While none of the acting is worth mentioning, the film does take an interesting approach to Jason. More territorial maniac than supernatural specter, Jason dashes after these morons with such ferocity that Nispel and Bay were almost able to convince me that Jason is a neat character. He lumbers out of the dark suddenly and he sets traps for the kids to walk blindly into, which was a nice touch for Mr. Voorhees. Nispel and Bay also cram in a new explanation on how Jason found that legendary hockey mask, a sequence that is both painfully stupid and cheesy fun at the same time. It was one of the only scenes that I actually sort of enjoyed. The other was a fleeting glimpse of Jason showing some sort of emotion as Whitney, his sobbing prisoner, pleads with him and says his name. He stops for a moment and studies her, almost backs off for just a brief second, only to stomp away and hunt more teens. I was actually intrigued by the moment because it made me think that maybe all Jason wants is someone to be kind to him rather than wave him off and ignore him like he was all those years ago. Just as quickly as we saw the potential to give a bit of depth to the character, it was gone.

The main draw to Friday the 13th is going to be the elaborate kill sequences but this poor excuse of a film can’t even get that aspect right. Every death scene is a massive let down because there is very little creativity behind the camera. Only one kill made me sit up and take notice but then the scene switches and the intrigue fades. Nispel makes sure he throws in that famous “ch-ch-ch-ch… ka-ka-ka-ka” whispered in the score but it is only here or there and it never sends chills like it wants to. The acting is awful and predictable, with terrible dialogue handed to only marginally talented young thespians. It has been reported that Bay walked out of the premier of the film due to the unflinching sex scenes that Nispel includes but I wonder if he just wasn’t embarrassed by how awful the movie is. That really says something when Michael Bay walks out of the movie. Overall, it doesn’t build upon the dying slasher genre like it could have and it does very little for the gasping Friday the 13th series. My advice is stick to the original trilogy because at least they were sort of fun and atmospheric. And they didn’t have involvement from Michael Bay.

Grade: F

Friday the 13th is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Attack of the Remakes! Halloween II (2009)

by Steve Habrat

While Rob Zombie tried his damndest to put his own fresh spin on the Halloween series while also staying true to the original story in his 2007 remake, you could tell that Zombie was on a short leash. It felt like he was holding something back, whatever that something was. Initially, Zombie swore he would not make a sequel to his remake but after the studio threatened to make a sequel without him, he agreed to slip back into the director’s chair to prevent someone else from desecrating his vision. Personally, I felt his vision was complete and that it really didn’t need a sequel but you know how Hollywood is. Apparently, they wanted to ignore the period he placed on the end of his film. In 2009, Zombie unleashed the deranged funhouse Halloween II, a meaner, bloodier, and busier follow-up that has to rank as one of the most unusual slasher horror films I have ever seen. Even more hit or miss than his 2007 reboot, Zombie attempts to mix exploitation gore, surreal black and white horror, and Michael Myers together and the results are… interesting. Halloween II finds Zombie off his leash and fully embracing that something that he was holding back. That something, it turns out, is full on brutality and countless nods to the classic horror that inspires him.

Picking up just moments after the first film ended, Laurie Strode (Played by Scout Taylor-Compton) is found wandering the streets of Haddonfield with a gun in her hand. Badly injured and in severe shock, Laurie is taken to the emergency room where her wounds are cleaned and mended through ear splitting cries for her family and friends. A year passes and Laurie, now a punk rock rebel who suffers from horrific dreams, is under the care of Sheriff Lee Brackett (Played by Brad Dourif) and shacking up with fellow survivor Annie (Played by Danielle Harris). As Halloween approaches, Laurie’s dreams begin to hint that Michael Myers (Played by Tyler Mane) may not be dead at all. Fueling Laurie’s fears is the fact that the authorities never found a body. Meanwhile, Michael has been searching for his long, lost sister and finding encouragement from the apparition of his deceased mother (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie). To make matters worse, Dr. Samuel Loomis (Played by Malcolm McDowell), who is no longer the good doctor he once was, is capitalizing on the massacre that ripped the small town apart.

While Halloween II has been panned by critics and dismissed by fans as being one of the worst films in the Halloween series, I have to say that I actually found the film fairly entertaining even if it is gleefully repulsive and slightly unfocused. I will agree that the plotline of the film is a mess and that things don’t tie up like Zombie wants them to but the film has such a striking visual approach that it was easy for me to dismiss many of the flaws. I loved the gothic, dreamlike sequences that Zombie uses to cut up his grainy, foul-mouthed slasher exercise. I actually found them to be quite spooky and glaringly Zombie, something that was severely lacking in the 2007 remake. I also really liked the look of Michael in this film. Minus a pair of bloodstained coveralls and half a mask, Michael is filthy dirty and proud of it. Another new touch is Michael’s loud grunts as he brutally stabs to death countless more victims who bump into him. It certainly is a new take on the character and it does deviate from what we have become used to but that is why I like it. While I still prefer silent, coverall-clad Mikey, this one still makes my skin crawl in a good way.

As far as Scout Taylor-Compton goes, her Laurie has undergone a strange shift in character since we last saw her. No longer as buttoned up as she was in the remake, the dark side hinted at has been unleashed and boy, is she grungy. Her shift is unusual, there is no doubt about it, but I feel like Zombie could have found another way to convey that she has embraced more of a darker side after her encounter with Michael. She hangs out with a duo of punk rock chicks that work in a local record shop but these friends are left severely undeveloped and only there to meet the sharp end of Michael’s knife. If you think Laurie’s shift in character is out of left field, wait until you get a load of Loomis. Acting like an arrogant jerk, Loomis is a hot shot flirt who makes big money off of ugly tragedy and it is the complete opposite of what we saw in the first film. I hardly believe that Loomis would have such a drastic shift in his character after getting beaten up by Michael but I guess anything is possible. Dourif is still great as Sheriff Brackett and Danielle Harris works hard as the still-shaky fellow survivor Annie. Sheri Moon Zombie is also back as Michael’s ghostly mother, who encourages her son’s killing spree from the other side. It honestly feels like a way for Zombie to work his wife into the mix but her presence does give Halloween II the unique feel it possesses. Just like Halloween, Zombie throws in a number of B-horror fan favorites including Margot Kidder, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, and Richard Riehle.

Throughout Halloween II, Zombie also applies the psychological ‘White Horse’ theory, which he defines at the beginning of the film and then spends the next two hours cramming it down our throats. While I admire Zombie’s attempt to give the film a little psychological depth, he just goes overboard trying to convince us the film is smart. The film does have a seriously eerie opening sequence set in the quiet halls of a hospital while The Moody Blues moan in the background. It superbly pays tribute to the original Halloween II while also working double time to set itself apart from that film. The hospital sequence also features an awesome cameo from Octavia Spencer, who dies extra gruesomely. Steeped in bloody, tie-dyed visuals and unashamed to wear its inspiration on its sleeve, Halloween II comes out just ahead of its predecessor as far as I’m concerned. It feels more original and, dare I say, much more personal than the first film. I personally feel that this film solidifies Zombie’s place on the list of directors to pay close attention to. As he sharpens his skills as a filmmaker, I feel like he will really come up with something that is stunning visually and truly imaginative in the story department. All he needs to do is scale back on the repulsive dialogue and slow down. You can’t quite shake the feeling that Halloween II was rushed and that Zombie was under a lot of pressure to get this thing out. Overall, it certainly isn’t perfect but it is fun to see Zombie set himself apart from the formulaic pack.

Grade: B+

Halloween II is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Watchmen (2009)

by Steve Habrat

One of the most controversial comic-to-movie-screen adaptations is without question Zack Snyder’s 2009 superhero epic Watchmen. To many comic book aficionados, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s stunning DC Comics graphic novel was considered un-filmable by many who have poured over the blood drenched pages. I have to admit that I fell into the camp that didn’t want to see Watchmen in movie theaters but I was left speechless when I saw the rhythmic trailer in the summer of 2008. Many film geeks consider Snyder a visual director who can’t properly handle a narrative, something that the graphic novel thrives on. So, did the un-filmable turn out to be filmable? For the most part, yes, Snyder took great care in bringing this incredible tale to the big screen, pining over the smallest details on every single page right down to the smallest brushstroke of color. It was gripping, philosophical, jarring, and gorgeous all in the same breath but what it truly lacked was accessibility. I attended the midnight showing of Watchmen with a group of my friends, several who had never read the graphic novel. I was so excited to have them see this movie but when we emerged after two hours and forty minutes, they were less than impressed. They didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I guess you have to read the comic to really get inside this one.

Without giving too much away about Watchmen, I’ll stick to the bare basics. Watchmen takes us to an alternate 1985, where the world is used to superheroes leaping across the rooftops of buildings and intervening with criminals of all sorts. Superheroes have been a part of daily life since 1938, when a small group of masked avengers known as the ‘Minutemen’ formed an alliance and started fighting crime. As the ‘Minutemen’ began to age, a new generation of crime fighters emerged called the ‘Watchmen’, a new fraternity that ultimately was outlawed by Richard Nixon. Nixon, however, used superheroes to win the war in Vietnam, which has led to multiple re-elections into the 80s. He primarily used the deadly Dr. Manhattan (Played by Billy Crudup), a real-life “Superman” who has gained incredible powers through an unfortunate accident and is now considered a living, breathing, and glowing government weapon. Watchmen begins with the aging hero The Comedian/Edward Blake (Played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) getting confronted in his apartment by an unknown assailant and being brutally murdered. The police wave the murder off as just a disgruntled old villain that came back to take revenge on The Comedian but masked vigilante Rorschach (Played by Jackie Earle Haley), who continues to prowl the streets even though superheroes are banned, suspects that there may be a bigger plot to wipe out former masks. Rorschach seeks out his old partner Nite Owl II/Daniel Dreiberg (Played by Patrick Wilson) and fills him in on his theory. Dan disregards Rorschach but begins warning other former heroes as a precaution. To make matters worse, the United States and Russia are on the brink of nuclear war.

There was no way for Snyder to bring Watchmen to the big screen without pissing off at least one or two fans. Along with his screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse, the crew makes a massive oops by tinkering with the grand finale that did send this fanboy into a tizzy. I was so disappointed that the ending was reworked, taking me a few days after seeing it to really get over my resentment. But then I got to thinking, “Well, if they would have kept the original ending, the film would have been infinitely longer than it already was”. Another aspect that outraged me about Watchmen was the fact that Snyder clipped out the comic-within-the-comic interludes that were found in the comic books. He did okay by releasing a companion DVD that told the story of the Tales of the Black Freighter but I desperately wanted this in the film itself. Once again, I understood that this would have added another half-hour or so to the runtime but I guess I would have sat through a five hour long interpretation of Watchmen if it was available. Don’t let these complaints fool you, I still loved this movie and it did live up to my expectations, which were huge, mind you. I thought there were several moments that were jaw-dropping, the coolest being the opening fight sequence that leads in to one of the most incredible opening credit sequences ever put on film. It has to be seen to be believed. If you have seen the film, even the most disgusted fanboy has to admit it was a spectacular and stirring moment for all.

While Watchmen does have some of Snyder’s trademark slow-motion-into-sped-up fight sequences, the film is interested more in the shattered American Dream and what it takes to bring about peace. Each hero in Watchmen has their own code for how the deal with crime, some believing that “dogs should be put down” while others think they should be turned over to the proper authorities. In the old days, the line between good and evil was as clear as day for the ‘Minutemen’, something the remaining members of that retired group look back on fondly. In the “present day” of Watchmen, things are not so black and white. While Watchmen is a superhero movie, it lacks an arch villain, at least one that really plagues each mask through the lengthy runtime. It is society itself that the group grapples with. Are the “good” citizens worth saving or should we just give in to a war that will ultimately consume us all? Watchmen takes a scary detour when Snyder pulls back the curtain on the Nixon administration, further hinting that we may not be able to trust our leaders in the face of annihilation. They may hand us over to a fiery death just to make peace, or at least fight back against the threat, or simply to save their skins. Each time I watch Watchmen, I still get chills when one of Nixon’s advisors tells him that if nuclear war occurs, the whole east coast will be wiped out and the winds will carry the radiation to New Mexico. Middle America will be okay, which is good news, all things considering. Tell me that is not powerful stuff.

Watchmen has been criticized for some of the performances that make up this mound of ideas. The standout is by far Jackie Earle Hayley’s Rorschach, a fedora-wearing bad ass who growls through his oily mask as he dispatches criminals in the most gruesome of ways. We see a good majority of the story through his ink blotches as he asks us if pedophiles, rapists, and serial killers should really be put behind bars. His simple answer is no but wait until he spouts of the complicated one. He will turn you to ice. Then we have Crudup’s disconnected Dr. Manhattan, a glowing God who single handedly wins Vietnam in about a week. Much of his character is CGI but his distant voice is what truly resonates. Malin Akerman shows up as Laurie Juspeczky/Silk Specter II, a leggy avenger who longs for the affection of her boyfriend Dr. Manhattan. Wilson’s Nite Owl II is appropriately lost, a flabby has-been who hides behind cartoonish spectacles and searches for an excuse to put on his old armor. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a knock-out as the slimy Comedian, a man who has made some poor choices in his life, laughed at human suffering, and vomited at the American Dream, all while firing his shotgun randomly into a disgruntled crowd of protestors who howl over the very idea of superheroes doing the job of the police. Also on deck is Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, a wealthy former-mask who was known for his speed, strength, and smarts. He is considered the intelligent man on the planet and he is a fascinating character, but Snyder brushes over him, which is very disappointing when it comes to the last act twist.

There is almost too much to be said about Watchmen and it truly is a difficult film to review because there is so much going on within it. There are so many ideas swirling around inside it that we almost loose focus of what the film is actually trying to convey, which is a bit disappointing. The big question here is what it takes to gain peace, but that is just one slice of the pie. I will say that at almost three hours, the film never has a dull moment. There is plenty of action, gore, and sex to keep the younger males busy while Snyder slyly whispers bigger questions into the ear of those willing to look closer. Watchmen also forces conservatism and liberalism to jump into the ring to see who will ultimately triumph. I’ll leave it to you to figure out who trumps the other. While it is impossible for me to cover all the ground that Watchmen covers in this review, I will finish by saying that I think Watchmen is a beautifully ornate study of the superhero. It is well spoken and hypnotic but also a bit bloated, but it still holds your attention throughout the entire ride. I also advise that you read the graphic novel before approaching the film because some of the smaller touches will make more sense. Not perfect but certainly very good, in my opinion, Watchmen stands as one of the best superhero movies out there, with tons of layers to peel back and explore for years to come.

Grade: A-

Watchmen is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Up (2009)

by Steve Habrat

Did you ever think that animated feature films could move you as much as Pixar’s animated offerings do? One of the most emotional in their body of work has to be 2009’s crowd-pleaser Up, a film that refuses to gloss over real world obstacles that we will all have to face one day. It truly is hard to believe that these films are aimed at children when they are much more adult orientated in their themes. Up has to be one of Pixar’s heaviest films but it also has to be one of the most lively outside of the Toy Story series. Like staring into a neon rainbow, Up is a gorgeous film that doesn’t rely on its meticulous visuals to keep it aloft. No, Up boasts a splendid story that is carefully and delicately told. The script, penned by Peter Docter, Bob Peterson, and Thomas McCarthy, packs thrilling, high-rise action and jokes that fly at the audience at breakneck speeds. Yet the best part of Up is the unflinching look at the pain and heartbreak that life can throw at us and how we can still make our dreams come true, even if we think it is too late.

Up begins in the 1920’s with the young Carl Fredricksen, a quiet boy who hides behind giant eyeglasses and an old pilot’s cap, seeing a theater newsreel that features famous explorer Charles Muntz (Voiced by Christopher Plummer) setting out to find a rare species of bird. Carl dashes out into the sunlight, eager to mimic his hero and while exploring an old house, he stumbles across a chatty redheaded girl named Ellie. The two adventurers strike up a friendship and they soon fall in love with each other. They get married, move in to their dream home, and begin saving for a move to Paradise Falls in South America, the same place their hero Muntz explored and ultimately never returned from. As responsibility and heartbreak prevent them from their dream move, the two try to forget about their dreams and focus on their lives in America. Seventy years sneak by and Ellie passes on, leaving Carl (Voiced by Ed Asner) a bitter and cranky old man, fighting to stay out of a retirement home. He is also tangled in a nasty battle to keep his home from being taken by a construction company that wishes to demolish it to make room for a skyscraper. After a nasty confrontation that ends in Carl injuring one of construction workers, he ties millions of helium filled balloons to his roof and takes off into the sky, setting a course for Paradise Falls. Once aloft, Carl quickly discovers he has an unwanted guest tagging along.

Once Up lands in Paradise Falls and allows us to get to know the energetic and pudgy Boy Scout Russell (Voiced by Jordan Nagai), the film takes on a lighter tone that the kiddies will go gonzo over. We get to meet a rare squawking bird that Russell calls Kevin and a pack of talking dogs that are led by the dopey Dug (Voiced by Bob Peterson). I loved the scenes where Carl has to grit his teeth and tolerate the ball of energy that is Russell. I also enjoyed seeing Russell win Carl over with his constant pestering. It was great to see the bitter Carl finally emerge from his shell and allow another person to grow close to him in the wake of Ellie’s passing. Early on, we see that Ellie suffers a miscarriage, which severely wounds the hearts of the optimistic couple. It truly is heartwarming to see him watching over Russell in a fatherly like manner and admitting that he just wants Russell to be safe. It will also get you when Carl reluctantly begins protecting man’s best friend Dug and the rare bird Kevin, especially when Kevin gives Carl backtalk. You’ll be on the floor in laughter.

Up has to be one of the most bipolar films that I have ever seen. One second, it will have you gasping for air in between all the knee-slapping jokes and the next second, it will have you fighting back tears. The silent opening montage that shows us the progression of Carl and Ellie’s marriage is sweet, fuzzy, and piercing. There is more emotion in this opening ten minutes with computer-generated characters than there are in most live action films with flesh and blood actors. Take note, Hollywood. The last act of the film embraces rollicking thrills set in the clouds. Our motley crew of heroes is pitted against the now evil Charles Muntz and his army of talking dogs. The one flaw that does sort of bother me in Up is the lack of development in Muntz, who is just suddenly evil. We are given a thin explanation that sheds light on his bitterness, but I wanted a bit more out of him. It doesn’t help that he enters the film late in the game. You will, however, get a kick out of the elderly showdown between Muntz and Carl, both who suffer loud cracks in their backs as one swings a sword he can barely lift and the other swings a walker.

At times resembling an old sketch that has come to high definition life, Up’s spellbinding visuals are complimented by Michael Giacchino‘s delicate sore, which adds an extra push to all the emotion. The best moments of the score come in the quieter moments, when it is just little twinkles of piano keys. Up’s ultimate message of encouragement and reassurance are what really made me fall for the film. I firmly stand behind its reassurance that our dreams can come true, no matter how old or how young we are. I also loved Carl and Russell discovering that they need each other to nurse their wounded hearts. Russell, it turns out, is largely ignored by his biological father and told by his stepmother that he annoys his father too much. Each time I watch Up, it never gets any easier to hear Russell mutter that confession and Carl’s reaction always gets me. Up has to rank up there as one of my favorite Pixar films, one that has stuck with me the longest and is always a treat to revisit. It may be a tearjerker reminder of how unpredictable life can be but it always helps when you have somebody by your side to share the smaller moments with. Up is a dream come true.

Grade: A-

Up is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Dictator (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Perhaps my expectations were too high going in to comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest shock comedy The Dictator, a political satire that doesn’t ever really go for the throat. I was hoping for a comedy on the level of 2006’s Borat and 2009’s Bruno, a film with jokes that really left a mark and left you saying “ouch.” With The Dictator, Cohen parodies such real life dictators as the late Kim Jong-il and Muammar Gaddafi, both who were constantly making news and creating a stir throughout the world. One would expect Cohen to have a ball riffing these two individuals and he clearly is having a good time parading around in a fake beard, but this offering seems to just go in circles for eighty minutes. I kept waiting for something to truly shock me and outside of a joke made about women attending college and a climatic rant that will have any liberal-minded audience member jumping up in applause, I was left unmoved by Cohen’s effort. There are still some chuckle worthy moments and some gross-outs that lean more toward gross rather than funny, all of which you’d expect from The Dictator but even still, it doesn’t wield as much power as it would like.

The Dictator introduces us to Admiral General Aladeen (Played by Cohen), the dictator of the North African Republic of Waydia. The Supreme Leader, as Aladeen is often called, loves to oppress his people, pay Hollywood movie stars to sleep with him, order executions on those who get on his bad side, and develop nuclear weapons. Upon making an announcement that leads the world to believe he possesses advanced nuclear weapons, the United Nations Security Council declares that they will intervene militarily unless he shuts the program down. Aladeen and his uncle, Tamir (Played by Ben Kingsley), decide to travel to the UN Headquarters in New York City to address the council. Upon his arrival, Aladeen is kidnapped by a hired hitman, who shaves his iconic beard and then accidentally unleashes him on the streets of New York. Aladeen then finds himself replaced by a dimwitted double that will sign a document making Waydia a democracy. With the help of an activist named Zooey (Played by Anna Farris), Aladeen begins trying to stop the signing of the document and in the process, develops a soft spot for Zooey and democracy.

At a brief eighty-three minutes, The Dictator doesn’t linger long enough to become too outrageous. Throughout those eighty-three minutes, it seemed like the nervous studio was holding Cohen back from really finding a groove. I can remember seeing Bruno for the first time and just feeling the air getting sucked out of the packed theater while multiple disgusted audience members bolted for the door. It appears that Paramount was determined to not let something like that happen with The Dictator. I wish that they had let Cohen go and do his wild and crazy thing, which would have helped the film out immensely. It should be noted that The Dictator is also structured like a normal Hollywood movie rather than the hidden camera footage of Cohen messing with real American citizens. Even the subject matter itself, which plays with our fear of terrorism in this post 9/11 world, seems to be a bit dated and almost cheap, like Cohen could have come up with something better to hit us over the head with.

As far as Cohen’s performance is concerned, he is immersed in this character 110%. He ad-libs with the best and he does think up a few stinging zingers, mostly the one about women attending college that really pissed off one girl in my showing. Oh, and he does deliver a good one about Dick Cheney that had me in stitches. For the first time, Cohen seems a bit too eager to make us gag over making us think, something that was put first in both Borat and Bruno. I liked it when Cohen really put himself in danger to make us laugh (Remember the rodeo sequence in Borat?), but also to show us the ugly sides of America, the ones we hear about but rarely ever see. Here it is all about defecating off of a building, masturbating, and yes, putting a cell phone in a woman’s vagina (you read that correctly). He also goes for easy and juvenile jokes, ones that Adam Sandler would settle for on what he perceived as one of his good days. Yet Cohen is as magnetic as always and he does make us feel for this lonely, lonely dictator.

As far as the rest of the performers are concerned, Ben Kingsley has little to do besides stand next to Cohen and mutter lines to side characters and John C. Riley shows up briefly as the hitman hired to kill Aladeen. Riley delivers some of the best lines The Dictator has to offer and then he is gone in a flash. Cohen, on the other hand, works well with Anna Farris, who plays things straighter than I imagined she would. She usually can’t resist taking a violent turn into wackoville but with The Dictator, she keeps things nice and liberally normal. Jason Mantzoukas shows up as a nuclear weapons developer Nadal, who Aladeen had thought he had executed. It should be said that Cohen and Mantzoukas have little comedic chemistry and have a hard time playing off each other. Sadly, they only briefly click.

For a film that could have had so much bite, The Dictator rarely ever bears its fangs. Instead, it gets hung up on body fluids and jokes about terrorists, throwaway jokes that I never thought I’d see Cohen fall back on. Yet I did enjoy parts of The Dictator and thought certain moments of it were really clever. A pair of political analysts who pick apart public appearances by Aladeen and his advisors are an absolutely hysterical riff on the ones we see on television, the ones who find so much in so little. Overall, I can say that while I am disappointed in this paint-by-numbers studio comedy, it was still a good time for a crass laugh or three. Yet I was left wishing that Cohen had raised the bar, been more offensive, and pushed the envelope just a little bit further. When it comes to his trio of mainstream comedies, The Dictator is the runt compared to the rough and tough Borat and Bruno. Oh well, at least the runt is kind of sweet and cute despite all the urine and seaman.

Grade: B