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Wild Werewolves: The Wolfman (2010)

The Wolfman 2010 #1

by Steve Habrat

Considering how popular the classic Universal Studios monsters have become over the years, it’s no big surprise that the studio keeps digging them out of their graves. With remakes of three of their biggest ghouls already on the market (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, and Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy), it makes sense for the studio to update one of their last big name monsters for modern audiences. In 2010, director Joe Johnston released The Wolfman, a CGI heavy update of George Waggner’s haunting 1941 classic that starred Lon Chaney Jr. With two Oscar winners in front of the camera and Rick Baker in charge of the werewolf make-up effects, The Wolfman should have been a smashing success, but there are several elements that caused the film to come out a major disappointment. While The Wolfman drips atmosphere and gothic set design that would make Tim Burton drool, this werewolf offering seems formulaic and misguided. At times it seems to want to be an action movie and the climax features a fight scene that looks like it would have been more at home in The Matrix rather than Universal monster movie. And then there is Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, two award winners who deliver some of the most lifeless performances of their careers.

The Wolfman reintroduces us to Lawrence Talbot (played by Benicio Del Toro), a renowned Shakespearean actor with a traumatic past. When he was just a young boy, he witnessed his mother’s gruesome demise, and in the wake of the discovery, his father, Sir John Talbot (played by Anthony Hopkins), shipped him off to an insane asylum. One evening, John receives news that his brother, Ben, has mysteriously disappeared. Lawrence returns home to Blackmoor where he is met with news that his brother’s body was found mutilated. As Lawrence comes to terms with his brother’s death, he attempts to reconnect with his father and he strikes up a relationship with his brother’s fiancé, Gwen Conliffe (played by Emily Blunt). One night, Lawrence decides to visit a local gypsy that his brother was said to have associated with. While visiting the gypsies, the camp is attacked by what appears to be a giant wolf. During the attack, Lawrence suffers a bite that leaves him bedridden and suffering from horrific nightmares. With the town in hysterics over the violent attacks, Inspector Aberline (played by Hugo Weaving) arrives from London to launch an investigation before more bodies turn up. After being unconscious for many days, Lawrence wakes up and he initially believes he is okay, but when the moon is full, Lawrence undergoes a horrible transformation that turns him into a snarling monster. To make things worse, horrific family secrets come back to haunt Lawrence and new details about his mother’s death slowly start to emerge.

With Johnston kicking things off with the shimmering retro Universal Studios logo, you’d think that The Wolfman would remain a grounded tribute to what Waggner terrified audiences with back in 1941, but you quickly realize that is far from the truth. The opening werewolf attack is appropriately dark and gloomy, but it’s fairly obvious that this film is going to be drenched in rubbery CGI that instantly takes us out of the moment. And that is just the start of it. When blurry werewolves aren’t speeding across the screen, Johnston and Baker are having an extremely difficult time meshing the practical make-up effects glued to Del Toro’s face with the CGI extensions that are there to add some extra menace. We know Baker can do practical, especially after what he delivered with 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, but it seems that Universal urged the filmmakers to cut corners with the practical effects, something that is perplexing when we consider what exactly Universal is remaking. Part of the appeal of the classic Universal monsters is their practicality—the idea that we could almost reach out and touch them. They are unnervingly real, even if we can see some of the lines in their make-up. When the Wolfman starts leaping, slashing, and killing here, it feels more like its playing out in the pages of an old EC Comic. It’s almost an insult to the original film rather than a loving tribute.

The Wolfman 2010 #2

While the copious amounts of CGI hold it back, The Wolfman does excel in the set design and costume department. The shots of 18th century London are absolutely exquisite. There is a grittiness to the city shots but there is also plenty of glamour to be found, especially when Johnston delivers a shot of the Wolfman crouched on a gothic gargoyle while howling at the full moon. It’s spectacular and it certainly holds up on a high-definition television. When we get to explore the Talbot manor, Johnston presents a shadowy mansion that you could very well see Dracula prowling around. There are cobwebs dangling from the staircase railing and there are dead leaves scattered about the marble floors. There are closed off rooms with ghosts of traumatic years past and characters peek through the darkness with candelabras in their clutches. The outdoor gardens are tangled vines that died many years ago and the local villages are as muddy and cruddy as they can get. Then there is the insane asylum, which features patients crouched in their cells wrapped in straight jackets. There is an observation room that is a stand in for a massive coffin, a maze that traps in a slew of doctors as they wait to see if Lawrence will really transform into a chopping werewolf. If there is any reason to see The Wolfman, it’s because of the extravagant sets that obviously cost a pretty penny. However, it was disappointing to see Universal remake The Wolfman and not give us a few scenes in a foggy forest. Here, we do get an eerie forest, but it never features the rolling sheets of fog that crept by Chaney’s hairy feet.

What is perhaps the most frustrating part of The Wolfman is just how miscast Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins truly are. Del Toro certainly resembles Lon Chaney Jr., but there is also something faintly hard about the man that prevents us from viewing him as a tragic character doomed to a hellish fate. There are scenes where he seems be settling into the character, but some of the more dramatic moments seem put on. There is never any of the nervous shifting and antsy unease that kept Chaney pacing in his room waiting for the inevitable. Meanwhile, Hopkins is asked to fill the enormous shoes of Claude Rains, who portrayed Sir John as a compassionate but rational man who grapples with the wild story his son tells of a werewolf taking a chunk out of his chest. It’s best not to say too much about his role, but Hopkins seems all to eager to give away the big reveal. Blunt seems to enjoy playing the misty-eyed damsel in distress and mourning love interest. She isn’t given much to do beyond holding Lawrence’s head and skip stones at a local pond, but there is something about her character that you just can’t resist. Hugo Weaving rounds out the cast as Inspector Aberline, the rather bland antagonist out to get to the bottom of the brutal slaying happening around Blackmoor. He dashes around with importance and the unblinking determination carved into his face does do the trick, but we never come to truly like or loathe him.

As far as the scares are concerned, with so much CGI artificiality contaminating the screen, The Wolfman is never permitted to become very scary. Hell, not even the howls send a chill! However, if you’re in the market for some serious blood and guts, then you’ve come to the right gothic castle. Bodies are slashed and bitten into hamburger meat, with guts splattered on the autumn ground. Head’s go flying across the screen, werewolf nails shoot through open mouths, and limbs are sent flying through the air with a thin trail of—you guessed it—CGI blood. The gore is extremely entertaining and it is sort of fun to see Universal embracing such savagery, especially when the Wolfman goes berserk in the streets of London. All the savagery does spiral out of control by the end, as Johnston ends The Wolfman with goofy werewolf brawl that finds hairy beats flying all over Talbot manor. You honestly wouldn’t mind so much if they weren’t doing wiry flips and leaps that would have been more at home in The Matrix. Come to think of it, maybe that is why Hugo Weaving is on hand here. Overall, while Universal showered the project in money, The Wolfman 2010 never dares explore the monsters that can lurk in even the mot mild mannered individuals. It falls victim to what almost every other horror film falls victim to: CGI excess. It’s all to eager to top the original rather than acting as a respectful tribute to a classic.

Grade: C

The Wolfman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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Ghoulish Guests: Eva Halloween’s Five Favorite Movie Monsters

As any lover of horror will tell you, picking a short list of favorite monsters is no easy feat. The most classic movie monsters are those with an element of tragedy; the ones who evoke empathy as well as horror.  While I love the classics and admire the craft required to create a sympathetic monster, I don’t know that I can call them my favorites. To be my favorite, a monster must be truly frightening, something that makes you want to hide under the bed, if only you could be sure that there wasn’t something much, much worse lurking, just out of sight, down there. To help narrow the field to these most terrifically terrifying fiends, I’ve drawn from five fears of children and childhood to give you my favorite monsters of horror.

1. Creepy Kids

By subverting the notion of children as harmless innocents, creepy kids make for extraordinary effective monsters. Whether made evil by external intervention, as in The Exorcist or Pet Cemetery, or simply born bad like little Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, these children of horror are more perceptive than you, more devious, and without a single moral objection to your violent demise. Playing upon mankind’s perceived biological imperative to protect children, these monsters ruthlessly twist any act of mercy and care into a lethal mistake. The best of these (and my first favorite) is Samara from 2002’s The Ring. Rachel, our protagonist, sees poor Samara as a tragic figure, murdered by her own mother simply for being too different. Except no. She’s actually a sea monster rape-baby who gleefully wants to burn awful images into your mind until you die. She doesn’t “just want to be heard,” Rachel. She just wants to kill you.

Aidan: What happened to the girl?

Rachel: Samara?

Aidan: Is she still in the dark place?

Rachel: No. We set her free.

Aidan: You helped her?

Rachel: Yeah.

Aidan: Why did you do that?

Rachel: What’s wrong, honey?

Aidan: You weren’t supposed to help her. Don’t you understand, Rachel? She never sleeps.

2. Scary Dolls

Psychologists recognize automatonophobia as the fear of anything falsely representing a sentient being, including robots, dolls, and ventriloquist dummies. Perhaps, like creepy kids and evil clowns, dolls make for terrifying monsters by representing the juxtaposition of the joyous things of childhood with the looming inevitability of death and decay. Scary dolls are like creepy kids, but littler, creepier, and therefore more likely to be tucked into hidden spaces, watching you.  Watching and waiting…

Although horror offers plenty of scary dolls to chose from, including the disturbing Dolly from Dolly Dearest and sinister Hugo from Dead of Night, the eponymous dolls from 1987’s Dolls win in a multi-way tie for my favorite scary doll monster on sheer horrifying volume alone. Killed and imprisoned in toys to pay for their crimes, these dolls might be sympathetic if they weren’t so completely full of malevolent, unrepentant mischief, fully committed to killing you, even if it takes their tiny doll hands all night to do it.

3. The Monster in the Closet

That thing that’s lurking under the bed. Or possibly in the closet, or in the dark at the bottom of the basement stairs, where the light doesn’t quite reach. These monsters, easily dismissible in the light of day, gain a terrifying immediacy and presence in the dark, when you feel the sudden, irrational imperative to gauge the leap between the light switch and the relative safety of your bed.

“Daily Doodle by David Michael Chandler”

Well represented by Lovecraft’s Night-Gaunts and The Whisperer in the Darkness, my favorite Monster in the Closet can be found in Stephen King’s short story The Boogeyman, which asked, “Did you look in the closet?” and left me unable to sleep alone for an entire summer. Since the latest short film version of the story hasn’t been released yet (and we don’t acknowledge the 1982 full length atrocity of an adaptation), I’ll use Drew Daywalt’s 2010 short There’s No Such Thing  to illustrate my choice. Sleep tight, kittens.

4. Evil Clowns

Clowns were once considered gentle buffoons, the perfect choice to entertain crowds of children. Now we know better. As a society, we have recast clowns as monsters, lurid freaks and crazed killers, their painted-on smiles intense grins of maniacal joy. In The History and Psychology of Scary Clowns, Smithsonian Magazine notes that no less an authority than Andrew McConnell, English professor and coulrophobia historian, credits Charles Dickens with introducing the idea of the clown as a secret, sinister monster, “an off-duty clown…whose inebriation and ghastly, wasted body contrasted with his white face paint and clown costume.”

Whatever the reasons clowns make for fabulously frightening movie monsters, there are no shortage of candidates for a favorite. However, when it comes to childhood fears, the 1982 classic Poltergeist hits the nightmare trifecta of monster in the closet, something under the bed, and a scary clown that really, really, wanted to see you dead.

5. The Monster that Doesn’t Need an Explanation

As children, we fear many things that do not have a name. Some, horrifying abominations that defy definition, become no less repugnant as we age. These monsters push at the boundaries between dimensions, shrugging off all normal rules of physiology and rationality. The very alienness, the wrongness, of these creatures is exactly what makes them so completely terrifying. My favorite monster in this category needs little introduction and bears no explanation – the thing from John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing. Sure, it was based on a novella and there was an attempt at an extraterrestrial back story, but there’s really no amount of explaining that can rationalize a whip-mouthed spider dog monster that wants to be inside you. Monstrous, abhorrent, and viciously single-minded, this monster simply is. Best start running now.

To check out more from Eva Halloween, click here to visit her spooky website, The Year of Halloween.

Attack of the Remakes! A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

by Steve Habrat

It may be blasphemous as a die-hard fan of horror to say this but I’ve never particularly cared for Freddy Kruger. I know, I know, how can I dislike one of the most iconic slashers every projected on the big screen? I guess I saw Wes Craven’sA Nightmare on Elm Street at an older age and Freddy Kruger just came off as a clown in a Christmas sweater. I was so used to seeing campy versions of him that I was never really able to get swept up in the love of the character. Considering Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees had all undergone the remake treatment, Freddy Kruger was expected to be next monster off the horror remake assembly line. Infinitely better than the Friday the 13th remake but still an artificial bore, A Nightmare on Elm Street does find Freddy Kruger shedding his comedic aura and retreating to the ominous shadows that spit him out and I couldn’t be happier about that. It was great to see someone other than Robert Englund step in as the iconic burn victim and put a fresh spin on the character, something that was greatly needed. Handed over to music video director Samuel Bayer, he works hard to earn the respect of Craven and the fans of the original but the problem is that Michael Bay is on board as a producer and it is incredibly obvious considering the lack of mood and abundance of rubbery special effects.

A Nightmare on Elm Street begins in the Springwood Diner where Kris (Played by Katie Cassidy) meets up with her sleep-deprived boyfriend Dean (Played by Kellan Lutz), waitress Nancy (Played by Rooney Mara), mutual friend Quentin (Played by Kyle Gallner), and Kris’s ex-boyfriend Jesse (Played by Thomas Dekker). It turns out that Dean is afraid to go to sleep because when he does, he dreams of a horrifically burned psychopath who launches gruesome attacks against him. After Dean appears to cut his own throat, the teenagers begin to investigate the ramblings of their deceases friend. As their search continues, they discover that they all may have known each other longer than they thought. They also uncover information about a deceased gardener named Freddy Kruger (Played by Jackie Earle Haley), who was believed to be a pedophile. As this information comes to light, Kris, Nancy, Jesse, and Quentin begin to suffer from the same bizarre dreams that Dean complained about. These dreams are particularly horrific for Nancy, who was always Freddy’s favorite. While more and more teens die of unusual circumstances, Nancy and Quentin race to figure out a way to pull Freddy from the dream world and into the real one so that they can destroy him.

While director Bayer and Bay do very little to rework Craven’c classic story, they do tinker with Freddy’s back-story, which has him a full-on pedophile rather than a child killer with a knife-glove. This swap does make your skin crawl when he creeps out of his hissing boiler room toward one of his victims. Funny enough, Freddy’s favored boiler room was something that could have undergone a bit of a change. It worked okay in the original film but it would have been cool to see Freddy’s lair undergo a bit of a change to match the character’s back-story and appearance. As far as looks go, Freddy certainly looks horrific even if he is largely kept in the shadows for much of the movie. I have to give the filmmakers credit for keeping the monster largely in the dark because that does ratchet up the spooks but when Haley is reveled in the hellish glow of his boiler room, the effects applied to his face look sort of obvious and, dare I say, cheap. The rest of the dream world that takes hold when the characters doze off look familiar, like music video sets reused with buckets of fake blood thrown around. Bayer tries to make them creepier by throwing in little girls who jump rope, play hopscotch, and chant, “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you!” Frankly, I found these scenes to feel more staged than surreal.

Surprisingly, the performances are much better than in the previous Platinum Dunes offering. I certainly think that the casting of Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Kruger was inspired and he does attack the role with his fangs bared. He ditches the countless one-liners and instead growls loudly over the soundtrack. The flashback sequence that finds him without all the prosthetics and CGI is effectively creepy, mostly because anything dealing with pedophilia is creepy. Then there is Rooney Mara as Nancy, a promising up-and-comer that seems well aware that she is better than the movie she is in. The filmmakers twist Nancy into an angsty teenager who hides away in her room with headphones crammed into her ears and huddles over her paintings she enjoys doing. It seems like Bayer had a hard time trying to work her in front and center in the film, as she almost seems secondary to Kris in the opening sequence. About a half hour in, Mara is the star of this bloodbath, which in turn perks the film up. Cassidy and Dekker are forgettable as disposable teens there simply to die by Freddy’s favored glove. Gallner puts in 110% as Quentin, an equally angsty teenager who has feelings for the arty Nancy.

Considering A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is largely drawing from the original film’s storyline, the film lacks any real surprises, which is immensely disappointing. While Bayner certainly has plenty of gore to go around, I found some of the violence to be watered down a bit, a shocker because I figured that the filmmakers would fall back on it. There still is no question that the concept is bright but failure to take it in a new direction stalls the film almost instantly. Let’s be honest here, Bay is certainly not the most creative in the story department. Predictability hangs low over our heads as characters we figure are going to get the knife do and twists we figure are coming fail to get the gasp they are hoping for. Then there is the ending, which I was less than impressed with. It consists of Freddy tossing Nancy around a room while he utters repulsive lines of dialogue her way. Having a monster lick the face of the freaked out heroine can only make us squirm so many times before it seems recycled. Much like Friday the 13th, Bayner tacks on a GOTCHA! moment before fleeing off into the end credits, but it feels like a cheap shot jolt. Overall, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is a lousy film because it never gets off the ground. It feels like it was shot on Hollywood sets with tasteless CGI painted over it to make it more interesting. It never scares us although it does repulse us with its subject matter in a few places. It only grabs a recommendation for Haley’s commanding performance.

Grade: D+

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Halloween Guest Feature: Five Films That Scare… Craig Thomas

A BRIEF NOTE FROM STEVE:

Hey boys and ghouls,

It’s that hellish time I warned you about! Welcome to Anti-Film School’s Halloween Guest Week, where seven demented film writers are going to unleash terror beyond your wildest imagination. They are discussing five films that scare them and I told each of them to put their own creative spin on the topic, which means anything can happen. First up is a familiar name you’ve seen at Anti-Film School before. It is none other than our UK contributor Craig Thomas tackling the topic in a very unique way. So, lock your doors, say your prayers, and board your windows. They are coming for you!

-Theater Management (Steve)

PS: Body bags are available at the box office.

Without further ado, here’s Craig…

by Craig Thomas

Firstly, a confession. Films do not scare me. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good (or bad) horror film as much as the next person but they are not scary. They can be disturbing, or very jumpy or incredibly gross. But not scary.

So I was a bit unsure about what to do when writing about five films that scare me.

I decided the best thing to do would be to trawl through my memory for films that either represented my worst fears or had a profound impact on my mental state, or both. I considered re-watching all of them to give a detailed re-appraisal but decided it would be better to write about them from memory, to focus on those scenes/themes that are indelibly etched into my mind. Therefore this may not be the most accurate guide to these films, but it will more accurately represent what scared (or should that be scarred?) me at the time.

Firstly, I’m going to go with a classic, namely, The Terminator. Yes, the second one is bigger, badder, louder and had the definitive robotic killing machine in the T-1000, and it did scare the pants off me when I was younger, but it is the original that makes the list. It is more visceral (it had an 18 certificate whilst T-2 had was certified 15) and as a child I remember being distinctly freaked out watching Arnie cutting his own eye out. But that isn’t what scared me. That would be the nature of The Terminator. That unstoppable killing machine. Completely relentless and pretty much indestructible.

I think the idea of such a monster is a historic constant, with every generation having its own version. Only this generation’s version could actually happen. Some might even go so far as to say it is inevitable. I am much more optimistic and think the human race will be destroyed by a nuclear war long before we are able to build our own destroyers.

Still, for years the idea of the unstoppable evil haunted my dreams and made going to sleep a potentially terrifying experience. Therefore, it makes the list.

Secondly, I’m going to go with one of my more recent fears. As I get older I find myself more and more concerned about my own mortality (whether or not this had anything to do with my discovering the works of Woody Allen is open to debate). But regardless of its origin, the scenario in this film is horrific and is essentially my second worst ever fear. The film is Buried.

A man wakes up in a coffin with a mobile phone. He has been buried in the Iraqi desert and has to raise an unrealistic amount of money or else he will be left there to die. Pretty grim, right?

Now, what makes this film so scary is not just the idea of being buried alive (which is second only to the fear of being cremated alive) but the way in which it is filmed. The entire movie is set in the coffin. It is shot from a million different angles, but it never leaves the box. It is so claustrophobic that you just want to switch it off and walk through open fields to get a sense of freedom. To get through it I had to consciously remind myself that I wasn’t actually in a coffin and that I didn’t need to conserve my air supply by holding my breath.

The third film is the only traditional horror film in the list. As with 95% of horror films these days, it uses the found footage gimmick. “Oh no” I hear you proclaim, “not another found footage horror film!” Yes, another one. Only this time there is a difference. This one is actually good. The film is called [Rec].

As with every moderately successful horror movie nowadays it has spawned a series of sequels ([Rec] 3 came out this year and [Rec] 4 is scheduled for 2013) to predictably diminishing returns. And because it is in a language other than English, it has had the compulsory remake (renamed Quarantine), of which I will speak later. But none of this should be allowed to take the shine off a great horror film.

As with a lot of these, the beginning is somewhat mundane, but once the action starts the pressure continues to build until the horrifically tense climax. This is one of the main reasons it made the list. There are no lulls in the action, no boring bits while you wait for the next jumpy thing. The stress levels never relent. To show how impressive this actually is, it is worth watching [Rec] and then watching Quarantine because the latter, despite being a shot-for-shot remake, lacks pretty much all of what makes the original so good.

Another reason for its inclusion is that it mixes a bunch of my favourite horror conventions and comes up with something fresh. It’s about a group of people trapped in an apartment building trying to avoid flesh-eating zombies and the flesh-eating zombie disease whilst the government lurks mysteriously (and brutally) in the background. What more could you ask for?

Watch it alone in the dark. You will be scared of what is lurking in the shadows.

Number four on the list (and the second non-English-language movie) is I Saw The Devil. Directed by Jee-woon Kim, it is the film that made me aware of the brilliant work that has come out of South Korea in the past few years.

This is easily the most difficult film to watch on the list. Indeed, after the first ten relentlessly brutal minutes I didn’t think I would be able to watch it all. But I persevered and it was well worth it. It is a brilliant film, but not for those with a weak stomach. At times it walks the line between horror and torture porn, with explicit violence being splashed across the screen and whilst it can sometimes be somewhat a bit much (and therefore a bit of a distraction), it is nonetheless a great film.

It tells the tale of a vicious serial killer who kills the pregnant girlfriend of a cop who then plays an increasingly violent game of cat and mouse with the killer, where he captures him, tortures him and lets him go only to hunt him down again.

It makes the list, not only for its unrelenting bleakness, but because it’s a tale about the thin divide between good and evil and how easily it possible to slip from one to the other and become the thing you hate the most.

It was difficult to decide on a fifth choice. I considered writing about a number of films, which I think deserve an honourable mention.

The Cube is a tense, sci-fi horror about people who wake up trapped in a series of booby-trapped cubes and is a great film.

Julia’s Eyes is worth a mention for touching on my fear of blindness, whilst she investigates the mysterious death of her twin sister.

Despite not being a fan of David Lynch, I nearly included Eraserhead, which whilst it bored me to tears, left a lasting imprint in my memory with its desolate scenes and horror-like depictions of married bourgeois life.

I’m also going to include Death Wish 3, which I saw at far too young an age. Death, drugs and extreme violence which really stayed with me, particularly the super-violent booby traps. A proper scar from youth.

But the film which makes the list is in fact, not a horror film and to be honest it doesn’t really scare me. But at the time I did find it deeply disturbing and to this day think that one particular moment was a bit much for the rating, which was Universal. Yes, the final film is for children.

It is The Neverending Story.

No, seriously.

I’ve never been a fan of fantasy and always found the genre as a whole somewhat unsettling, but there is one particular scene that really scarred my psyche, probably more than any of the violent films that were a staple of my formative years. I remember little of the plot, though it involves a young boy going on some kind of adventure through a magical world for some reason, with his best friend who happens to be a horse.

The particular scene which added this film to the list is one where the horse get trapped in the Swamp of Sadness and just stands there, sinking deeper into the swamp waiting to die as the young boy watches on helplessly as his best friend essentially commits suicide in front of his eyes. I state again, this is a children’s film.

This is why it is properly disturbing and that is why it makes the list. Perhaps if I re-watched it, it wouldn’t seem so bad and it was just my youth and hazy memory that makes it seem so terrible, but I have no intention of checking that out, so it will always be a disturbing childhood memory and one of the ways cinema has scarred me for life.

And on that happy note, I leave you to watch the ultimate film for Halloween (or any other occasion, for that matter), Ghostbusters!

Happy Halloween!

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

by Steve Habrat

Ever since I first laid eyes on the trailer for Panos Cosmatos’ science fiction head-trip Beyond the Black Rainbow, I was just dying to see it. Well, my friends, that day finally arrived and I have to tell you, if you consider yourself a fan of cult cinema and midnight movies, this is a film you have to see. It will be a dream come true. Heavily indebted to early David Cronenberg films, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch’s surreal horror, and blippy John Carpenter scores, Beyond of the Black Rainbow is a film that takes control of your senses and refuses to let them go. While you can’t even begin to pretend to know what the film is about, Beyond the Black Rainbow is something else to look at, a film that fills you with terror one minute and then guides you into ethereal tranquility the next, all in the matter of five minutes. Composed of haunted performances that look like holograms from Mars, a nerve frying analogue synth score, and quasi-futuristic visuals drenched in a neon glow, Cosmatos spews out a maddening and frightening nightmare that Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey may have if he dared to dream at all. I just warn those who are willing to approach the film, do so with an open mind and remember that none of this will truly add up in the end.

Set in an alternate 1983, there exists the Arboria Institute, a psychiatric complex that promises to fill its clients with pure happiness. This futuristic complex is run by Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Played by Scott Hylands), a guru-esque figure that appears in a promotional video at the start of the film. It is here at the Arboria Institute that the orphaned Elena (Played by Eva Allan) has been imprisoned and heavily sedated by the perverted Dr. Barry Niles (Played by Michael Rogers), who seems to get sick enjoyment out of tormenting the young girl. As Barry begins to loose his grip on his sanity, Elena, who seems to posses certain mental powers, decides to try to escape the confines of her neon prison. As she wanders the seemingly deserted hallways of Arboria, she stumbles across a bizarre, bloodthirsty mutant and wandering alien-like Sentionauts. Soon, the deranged Barry learns of Elena’s escape and he sets out after his prized patient, willing to do anything to get her back.

While many may be turned off by the agonizingly slow pace of Beyond the Black Rainbow, those who have found enjoyment in Canadian body horror auteur David Cronenberg’s early work (Rabid, The Brood, Videodrome, and even Scanners) will be hooked right from the beginning. There are hints of Kubrick everywhere, from the visual symmetry of the futuristic architecture of Arboria to the unnerving score that could be a mash up of John Carpenter’s score from The Fog and the famous jingle from A Clockwork Orange. Cosmatos transitions from scene to scene in slow fade-outs and fade-ins, at times seeming almost abstractly poetic and lyrical but always smacking us with splashes of bright red, orange, and white. There were moments where I felt the film was intentionally trying to alienate itself from me, which in turn drew me even more to it, almost like a moth to blinding light. At times I would be hit with a wave of severe boredom to be suddenly steamrolled by a wave of traumatic terror and panic, yet I always felt paranoid right from the beginning. I felt like I was being forced to sit patiently until something really awful happened and soon enough, it does. Trust me, you won’t be ready for it but yet the awful events that play out do nothing to give us closure, meaning, or simple elucidation. Before the film slips into slasher mode at the end, Cosmatos confirms my paranoid shakes at the beginning with the face of Ronald Reagan taking to the television to warn of looming nuclear attacks from the Soviet Union, adding a backdrop of apocalyptic doom to the throbbing digital chill.

While the visuals take center stage in Beyond the Black Rainbow, there has been quite a bit made over the performances from the leads. The performances are incredibly contemplative and muted, especially Eva Allan as Elena. While Elena is mostly seen and only heard once, she gives a remarkable performance that marinates in emotion right before our eyes. When she wanders the landscape outside the Arboria Institute, Elena is so fragile and lost, she almost resembles a fallen angel that is trying to find her way in an alien world. She is the soothing calm of Beyond the Black Rainbow while Rogers, who looks a bit like Christian Bale, is the creeping wickedness in a bad wig. He is absolutely terrifying as Barry, a character that I just wanted to be away from with at least a hundred miles between us. The end of the film has him wandering about in a trance-like state with a hellish dagger that looks like a fang snatched from the Devil himself. While we know he has a screw loose when we first see him, the screw completely falls out when he suffers a trippy flashback to 1966 and hangs with his mentor, Dr. Arboria. Hylands is marvelous as the doped up guru who is rotting away in front of a giant television screen that is filled with serene images. There is also Marilyn Norry as Rosemary Nyle, Barry’s wife who always seems to be trying to shake herself out of a prescription med coma and Rondel Reynoldson as Margo, an Arboria Institute employee who seems to be completely oblivious to what is going on in the halls of Arboria.

While the film never made a lick of sense, I still can’t seem to shake Beyond the Black Rainbow from my mind. The film feels so much like a dream that you almost question whether you have actually seen it or if it was something you imaged. Funny enough, Cosmatos has said that the film stemmed from his childhood, when he would wander a local video store and study the covers of horror films. He was never allowed to see these horror films but he would imagine what they were like when he would go home. I could only imagine the warped film he would make if he had seen them. I can promise you that Beyond the Black Rainbow will terrify you, especially if you watch it in the dead of night with the volume cranked up to the max. For me, Beyond the Black Rainbow just missed unhinged genius by the abrupt ending that seems almost like a sick joke (maybe it was meant to be a sick joke). I will honestly say that the ten minute black and white flashback sequence scared the living hell out of me and I watched this sucker in broad daylight. Another touch I really liked where the scratches that can be found on the Blu-ray picture. They may have not been intentional but they definitely add to the abstract retro terror, making the film seem like an undiscovered relic from 1983. While it may not be everyone’s mind trip, Beyond the Black Rainbow certain makes an impression on those who choose to experience it. If you find yourself in the target audience, I highly recommend it. Just be warned, you are in for one hell of a freak-out that you won’t soon forget.

Grade: A-

Beyond the Black Rainbow is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Video Review: Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)

 

Jonah Hex (2010)

by Steve Habrat

I have seen quite a few comic book movie bombs in my day but I can honestly say that director Jimmy Hayward’s 2010 monstrosity Jonah Hex has got to be one of the worst I have sat through. Based on the DC Comics gunslinger created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga, Jonah Hex is rank with studio interference, cropped down to a blink-and-you’ll-practically-miss-it runtime of just barely over eighty minutes. It really is a shame that this film has been butchered as bad as it has because the talented Josh Brolin pours everything he has into the growling bounty hunter who can speak to the dead. I bet Brolin even gagged when he added this to his resume. Severely incoherent, massively brainless, and loud to the point of making your ears bleed, Jonah Hex is such a mess that I have to say I can’t believe the studio even bothered tossing it into cinemas in the first place. I honestly have to say I hope someone lost their job over this because I would have locked this film away, crossing my fingers that no one would ever stumbled upon it and unleash it on the world. It is THAT bad.

Jonah Hex begins by flashing back to the Civil War, with our hero (Played by Brolin) serving on the Confederate side of the conflict. Hex is ordered by his commanding officer, Quentin Turnbull (Played by John Malkovich), to burn down a Union hospital. Hex refuses to carry the order out and retaliates by gunning down his friend and Turnbull’s son Jeb (Played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Turnbull tracks down Hex just after the war ends and proceeds to burn Hex’s family alive and make him watch. He then horribly disfigures Hex’s face and leaves him for dead. After several days, a group of American Indians stumble upon Hex and nurse him back to health. As Hex regains his strength, he realizes that he possesses the power to reanimate and speak to the dead by touching them. Hex is anxious to get back on his feet and find Turnbull but he learns that Turnbull died in a fire shortly after he massacred Hex’s family. To deal with his pain, Hex turns to bounty hunting but is soon approached by Lieutenant Grass (Played by Will Arnett) with news that Turnbull is alive and well. It appears that he has robbed a Union train of a weapon component for a doomsday device that can wipe entire towns off the map. Grass recruits Hex to set out and stop Turnbull before he can locate all the pieces of the weapon that he needs.

Judging by all the star power in Jonah Hex, I have the sneaking suspicion that the original script had much more to it than what we actually see on the screen. There is no way any A-list actor like Brolin would agree to be in something this god-awful. Brolin really takes his role seriously, growling through gritted teeth as he rides around rotting western towns, laying waste to anyone who dares piss him off. It is a shame that his back-story is brushed over with an animated flashback that fails to really add anything to his character. We are just supposed to accept that he is mad and he won’t be getting glad until he stands over Turnbull’s corpse. Hex finds an ally in Lilah (Played by Megan Fox), a beautiful prostitute who practically drools all over her cleavage when Hex knocks on her door. Fox is only in Jonah Hex to serve as some obvious eye candy for the male audience that this is aimed at. Her character adds nothing to the poor excuse of a story that is strung throughout the film. Brolin seems to just be humoring her when she is in his eyesight—even he seems perplexed why she is in front of the camera.

Then we have Mr. Malkovich’s Turnbull, a vile baddie who has a really evil plan that lacks a motive (Those are the worst, aren’t they?). Lt. Grass and President Grant (Played by Aidan Quinn) fret and stew over Turnbull’s horrific doomsday cannon and where he will strike with this weapon of mass destruction. Turnbull spits that he will wipe the United States off the map but he never explains why. Why is he so gung-ho on leveling all of these cities? Don’t expect an answer to that question. Just tremble in your boots as he sips absinthe and makes threats at wealthy aristocrat Adleman Lusk (Played by Wes Bentley), another character that adds absolutely nothing to what is going on. Turnbull leaves the gruesome enforcement to his giggling Irish right-hand man Burke (Played by Michael Fassbender), who I suspect is sometimes chuckling at what he has been asked to do by the director. Fassbender’s character is sort of interesting but he is always shoved behind Turnbull, who looks like he raided the wardrobe closet of Pirates of the Caribbean. While you are trying to get over the fact that Fassbender even attended this party, you’ll also be reeling from the fact that funnyman Will Arnett has shown up and is trying to be taken seriously as Lt. Grass. Both Arnett and Fassbender are probably hoping that you forget they were ever in this picture.

The action of Jonah Hex is earsplitting, muddled, and forgettable as it is set to pounding heavy metal music from the band Mastodon. The film features poor special effects and every action sequence is clipped too short to really be fulfilling. The finale is an absurd fistfight in the clanking steam punk engine room of Turnbull’s floating warship. He unleashes cannonball like delay-action bombs on Washington D.C. but there is never the threat that he will detonate them. You know Hex will throw a tomahawk into his plot at just the last second. Refusing to let us get to know any of the characters in the film, Jonah Hex is a hollow summer blockbuster with no feeling or direction. It is a free-for-all of noise and missed opportunities, with little care put into the development of Hex’s character. Even worse, the film seems like it was made in a mad rush just to get it on the big screen as quickly as possible and so DC had something to release against Marvel’s Iron Man 2. Overall, if Jonah Hex rides again, let’s hope it is given to filmmakers who actually respect his character and have an interest in his origin. Avoid this film at all cost.

Grade: F

Jonah Hex is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Piranha (2010)

by Steve Habrat

I really don’t know why I didn’t go see Alexandre Aja’s 3D remake of Joe Dante’s Piranha back in the summer of 2010 but I do kick myself now for never taking the time to go check it out. What a hearty dose of gruesome fun in the sun this Piranha out to be! Aja, who is responsible for the wickedly clever 2003 French horror film High Tension and the hair-raising 2006 redo of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, doesn’t shy away from giving us exactly what we would want to see in a film called Piranha. Yes, we see one of the hungry terrors actually burp out a penis, a girl get her blonde locks tangled in a boat engine propeller, and tons more assorted carnage for any horror fan to go bonkers over. Piranha also happens to be a mighty fine tribute to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws, even giving us one hell of a cameo from Richard Dreyfuss, donning the same wardrobe that he did while battling that iconic great white shark. While Joe Dante’s original film was basically Roger Corman’s quick cash in on the popularity of Jaws, Piranha fully gets that and it plays with it quite a bit. It also seems like Aja has it out for obnoxious spring break college kids who say “bro” too much, enjoy showing off their tribal tattoos, and hate anyone wearing a Pixies t-shirt. Oh boy, does Aja get them good.

Piranha begins with fisherman Matt Boyd (Played by Dreyfuss) fishing and enjoying a couple cold brews out in the middle of Lake Victoria, Arizona, one sunny afternoon. After accidentally causing a small earthquake that cracks the lake floor, Boyd’s boat is pulled into a whirlpool that unleashes thousands of hungry piranhas that proceed to rip him to shreds. Meanwhile, Lake Victoria is crawling with scantily clad tourists who are ready for spring break shenanigans. Among them is local seventeen-year-old Jake Forester (Played by Steven R. McQueen), who is eager to join the party. Jake’s mother, Sheriff Julie Forester (Played by Elizabeth Shue), is consumed with keeping an eye on the drunken college kids and has barely any time for him or his two younger siblings. Jake ends up meeting porn filmmaker Derrick Jones (Played by Jerry O’Connell), who offers him some money to take him around to local hot spots so he can shoot some steamy footage. Jake agrees and takes off on a boat trip around Lake Victoria, bringing his crush Kelly (Played by Jessica Szohr) with him for the ride. As word gets to Julie about the disappearance of Matt Boyd, she teams up with her tough-as-nails Deputy, Fallon (Played by Ving Rhames), to find him. Soon, more bodies pile up and Julie is forced to investigate what is causing these deaths or close the lake. She ends up taking a group of seismologist divers to the crack in the lake floor where they make a terrifying discovery.

Once Piranha gets moving, the film really bares its teeth and chews you up, right down to the bone. Things get NASTY. The death scenes here are seriously grizzly with a heavy sprinkling of camp. The final half of the film is a never-ending bloodbath that features one memorable death scene after another. Drunken college kids are chewed in half by the scurrying school of death lurking just below their inner tubes. One naked girl after another is chewed up to the point where they are floating skeletons while one gets the top half of her chest chopped off. You can’t help but laugh when splat pack director Eli Roth shows up as the judge of a wet t-shirt judge who meets his maker by getting a speed boat to the face, spraying his gooey brains all over the tanned mug of a horrified hottie who is looking to show off her double D’s to thousands of chanting beefcakes. It practically leaves you exhausted even at its brief eighty-nine minute runtime. If you have ever found yourself annoyed to no extent by abrasive sex-starved teenage idiots, this is the movie for you. Aja apparently can’t stand them either and he makes you know it.

While it lures you in with its excesses, Piranha has a surprisingly clever cast keeping this pleasure cruise on course. I just couldn’t stop laughing over the sweet cameo by Richard Dreyfuss, who seems to be having a grand old time at this B-movie soirée. Shue and Rhames as the heroes here are exactly what you would expect. They don’t really blow your mind but I never expected them to. Rhames does get a nifty sequences where he rips the engine off a dingy and uses it to hack up a school of charging piranha. McQueen and Szohr get the typical teen roles of looking good for the camera while Jerry O’Connell dances around them in a cocaine fury. O’Connell’s Derrick is just as unpleasant as he should be and you will be counting the seconds until he comes to face to fangs with the chomping menace.  Also on board is Parks and Recreation cast member Adam Scott as the hilarious Novak, the head of the team of seismologist divers. Scott happens to be a welcome presence in anything he is in and he adds some more welcome humor to an already hysterical experience. The other awesome cameo is Christopher Lloyd (Yes, THAT Christopher Lloyd) as a pet shop owner who identifies the piranha as an extremely violent species that went extinct two million years ago.

Using almost the same plotline as Jaws, Piranha 2010 is more of a loving tribute than sloppy rip-off. It affectionately winks at the Spielberg classic, which I think is why I liked it as much as I did. Judging by some of the shots found here, I can assume that this had some truly awesome 3D to hold the audience’s attention and would have been fun in a big theater. The guys get an extended sequence of two nude women swimming around like dancing mermaids while the girls will scream over a piranha belching out a chewed up penis right at them. In addition to those two moments, the engine wielded by Rhames looked like it would have been pretty neat in 3D as does the darting school of piranha, who leap at the screen like aquatic demons. The film luckily doesn’t go on for very long, making it even more likable than it already is. Aja doesn’t hesitate to show the audience that he is capable of really creating a suspenseful mood and really freaking us out. He really is a talented guy who should be given more horror projects. Piranha may not make you a better person and it may not challenge you intellectually, but you just won’t be able to resist its B-movie allure, even if that allure is dripping with blood, guts, and tons of nudity.

Grade: B

Piranha is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Kick-Ass (2010)

by Steve Habrat

Kick-Ass was one of the best films of 2010 and nobody even realized it. In a year that was loaded with middle of the road releases, Kick-Ass stood out because it dared to be a little different and refused to conform to what a normal superhero film should be. It was a blast watching the little monster Hit-Girl curse like a sailor and rack up an impressive body count. It was an unexpected surprise to see Nicholas Cage TRYING again and actually giving a performance that wasn’t flat out laughable. In the wake of its release, Kick-Ass was caught in a flurry of controversy over the language and the violence that all came from children, some of the outrage being a little overblown. This is a movie, folks! Boasting a well-written and highly intelligent script based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., Kick-Ass is a scrappy black comedy that tips its hat to comic book fans all over while also holding up a mirror to our YouTube/social media crazed society. The film also doesn’t hesitate putting you through the emotional ringer.

Kick-Ass introduces us to ordinary teenager Dave Lizewski (Played by Aaron Johnson), who is just another comic book fan that likes to hang out with his buddies in the local comic shop and discuss fanboy topics. He voices his frustration over the fact that ordinary citizens refuse to intervene when a crime is being committed. In his spare time, Dave begins putting together a vicious alter ego called Kick-Ass. Armed with a modified bodysuit and a fancy MySpace page, he takes to the streets of New York City to confront neighborhood bullies who prey on the weak. While his first day on the job ends with a brutal stabbing and a hit-and-run that puts him in the hospital with permanent nerve damage, he begins training himself to be better at confronting small time crooks. After intervening in a gang attack, stunned bystanders record Dave’s heroic actions and he becomes an overnight celebrity. Dave soon catches the attention of the heavily armed and heavily trained father/daughter duo Big Daddy (Played by Nicholas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Played by Chloe Grace Moretz), both who act as masked vigilantes and aim their attacks at local mob boss Frank D’Amico (Played by Mark Strong). As the trio launches attacks on D’Amico, they find themselves approached by D’Amico’s son Chris (Played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who has taken on his own alter ego Red Mist and aims to break the group up before they can take his father down.

Maybe Kick-Ass worked its way into my heart because I absolutely love the way the film tips its hat to countless superheroes yet at the same time isn’t content with just celebrating comic books. Director Matthew Vaughn pays tribute to spaghetti westerns, Quentin Tarantino, and teen comedies, all which mix quite well if you ask me. The movie has a twisted love story at its heart, forcing Dave to play gay after his initial embarrassing encounter with two neighborhood thugs. He has the hots for Katie Deauxma (Played by Lyndsy Fonseca), who is oblivious to Dave’s feelings for her and just sees him as a friend. The fact that Kick-Ass deals with some extremely raw emotion is what really makes it so great. On the surface, Vaughn cooks up a vivid cartoon filled with vibrant colors and lots of blood thrown in for fun. Yet he never shies away from giving the film lots and lots of heart. We really feel for the grieving Big Daddy and Hit-Girl and there is a longing to be just one of the guys in Chris D’Amico’s heart. We can really stand behind Dave’s noble quest to protect those who can’t protect themselves, even if he does get his ass handed to him every time he tries. The real heart wrenching moment comes near the end of the film, when our heroes begin to understand the loss that they will face in their quest to clean up the streets of New York.

While the film follows Johnson’s Dave, the real stars here are Cage and Moretz. They sneak in and steal the entire film away from Johnson. Cage is wonderful as a grieving father who has to put on a happy face for his daughter. When he is suited up as Big Daddy, who looks like Batman on a budget, he speaks and moves very robotically and it is downright hilarious. There are moments where he is asked to get real savage and he is most certainly game to do so. He gets a fight scene in the middle of the film that is both awesomely hardcore and horrifying at the same time. Moretz is a little hellion as profanity spewing Hit-Girl, a character that is almost a little too awesome for words. She rips through a room of bad guys with such ferocity that would make muscle man heroes blush. It helps that Moretz, who was very young when this film was released, has impeccable comedic timing and has such a way with stinging one-liners. Thankfully, the novelty that this is all coming from a little girl never once wears off. Some may call the performance irresponsible but I say it is absolutely brilliant and a breath of fresh air.

While much of Kick-Ass may belong to Cage and Moretz, Johnson and Mintz-Plasse do their absolute best not to be completely forgotten by the audience. Johnson does soft-spoken nerd very well and he is a pro at playing ordinary. He quickly realizes that he has gotten in over his head, especially when he begins mingling with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. I was thrilled to see the fumbling and bumbling Dave finally get his moment to be a hero by the final showdown. Mintz-Plasse shies away from playing lovable dweeb and instead plays an outsider just looking for a friend. It is sad to see him slip over into his father’s shadowy operations. I was glad that Vaughn never relied on him solely for laughs and gave him some room to show audiences he is capable of more than just smartass wisecracks. Mark Strong as Frank D’Amico is handed a fairly cliché gangster role but he leaps into the part with so much enthusiasm, he morphs the character into a snarling cartoon, making him an unforgettable villain.

What is ultimately the best aspect of Kick-Ass is the fact that these characters, while operating in a cartoon world, are flesh-and-blood individuals that are capable of getting hurt and bad. One character gets hurt when jumping off of a dumpster while Kick-Ass himself hesitates from jumping from one building to another, his stomach dropping when he takes a gander over the ledge. The film really gets interesting when one of the major characters is killed off halfway through the movie and the characters are overwhelmed with grief. Kick-Ass reflects on the idea that in this day and age, anyone can make a difference as long as you are armed with a camera and a social media account. You can be as ordinary as could be but with a little bit of drive and motivation, you can do anything you want. It may not always be easy and we are going to fall down, but we have to be willing to get back up and try again. Sound juvenile and incredibly familiar? It is but in a time when trying just isn’t cool anymore, it is a message that needs to be repeated. Overall, Kick-Ass is an of-the-moment adrenaline rush that plays by its own rules, making it one unpredictable puppy.

Grade: A-

Kick-Ass is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Iron Man 2 (2010)

by Steve Habrat

With 2008’s Iron Man, director Jon Favreau set the bar extremely high for the Iron Man franchise. While it left us all starving for more of the cocky hero, there was the feeling that if there is a sequel, it will most likely be unable to live up to the stellar first installment in the series. My fears were slightly confirmed in summer 2010 when I rushed out on my birthday to see Iron Man 2, which ended up being one notch below the original Iron Man. Sadly, Iron Man 2 was an even more expensive trailer for the upcoming Avengers film and not even really bothering to act as it’s own film. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Iron Man 2. It was clear that Favreau and Marvel Studios rushed the sequel into production and they simply drew up a loose story just so audiences wouldn’t have to wait until 2012 to see Iron Man rocket across the screen again. It was also apparent that nobody wanted to tinker with a good thing. Iron Man 2 tries desperately to capture the same clinking and clanging action, the sweet romance, and the clever laughs that made the original such a must-see, but there is too much interference from Marvel which takes some of the flesh and blood out of all the studio steel.

Iron Man 2 picks up with the world at peace in the wake of the Tony Stark (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.) revealing the Iron Man armor to the world. The U.S. government is harassing Stark to hand over his Iron Man armor over to authorities but Stark maintains that it is his own property and all the other foreign competitors are miles away from emulating his powerful weapon. Stark is also finds himself harassed by rival defense contractor Justin Hammer (Played by Sam Rockwell) who desperately wants to create his own line of armor of his own. While racing in the Circuit de Monaco, Stark is attacked by a mysterious man named Ivan Vanko (Played by Mickey Rourke), who has designed a powerful suit of armor of his own with lethal whip-like contraptions hanging from his arms. It turns out that Vanko’s father was an old partner of Stark’s father Howard, who was deported after he tried to profit from technology that he worked on with Howard Stark. Hammer takes notice of what Vanko has done and he recruits him to create a line of deadly drones that he can unleash on Stark. Stark, meanwhile, finds himself slowly being poisoned by the palladium core in the arc reactor that keeps him alive.

Iron Man 2 introduces us to two new characters including S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Played by Samuel L. Jackson, who showed up in a brief cameo in Iron Man) and secret agent Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff (Played by Scarlett Johansson), who acts as Stark’s new personal assistant. Both Fury and Romanoff are present in Iron Man 2 to simply allow the film to set up Iron Man’s place in the Avengers film rather than actually enrich the whole experience. While it is a neat Easter egg for diehard Marvel Comics fans, at times Romanoff seems a bit irrelevant in all the action, as she posseses the bigger role in the film over Fury. This is the exact problem with Iron Man 2, it reeks of studio involvement and control. It is very clear that Marvel demanded Favreau work these characters in at any cost and it takes a minor amount of the enjoyment out of this film. I wish things had felt more natural, much like they did in the original Iron Man. The one character that is allowed to grow is Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Played this time by Don Cheadle), who gets his wish to don the Mark II suit with some pretty hefty modifications and transforms into the scene stealing War Machine. Cheadle outshines all the forced characters that have been worked into Iron Man 2 and I loved it when Favreau would explore the destructive friendship between him and Stark.

Robert Downey, Jr. also gets the chance to build upon his raucous playboy Tony Stark, taking him down the darker routes that the first film slyly avoided. In Iron Man 2, Stark realizes that he is near death from the palladium core in his chest. He desperately searches for a new design but he also has accepted his death and he is determined to live out his last days in boozy style. In the comic books, Stark was a big drinker and it was nice to see Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux work that aspect into the film. I know many fans were upset that this aspect of Tony Stark was glossed over in the original film. At times, Stark’s one-liners seem a bit forced and frankly not as sharp as they were in the original film. Further troubling, Downey, Jr. seems like he is pushing the funnies out rather than allowing them to flow naturally. Nonetheless, he is still having a great time as Stark and his enjoyment is incredibly infectious.

Iron Man 2 ends up getting a handful of juiced up bad guys to terrorize Tony Stark. Mickey Rourke shines as the vengeful Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, a frankly much neater villain than Iron Monger (I did enjoy Bridges!). The electrifying showdown between him and Stark at Circuit de Monaco steals the entire movie and had me on the edge of my seat when I first saw it. Equally cool is the snide Justin Hammer, who desperately wants to upstage Stark and humiliate him. Rockwell is basically filling the businessman villain role that was left open from the first film and he does it with just as much enthusiasm as Bridges did. Paltrow also returns in a stronger role than she had in Iron Man, finding herself promoted to CEO as Stark Industries and courted by the stumbling Stark. Favreau and Theroux still can’t help themselves and once again find it necessary to toss her in harm’s way, making her character flirt with the typical superhero girlfriend in distress.

Iron Man 2 attempts to be bigger than the original film, with bigger showdowns, more armored brawlers, extended action, and spiced up special effects. I wish that Iron Man 2 would have taken on a personality of its own and Marvel would have backed off the project. I feel that if Favreau wouldn’t have had Marvel breathing down his back, there may have been a different outcome. Yet there is still fun to be found in Iron Man 2, especially the final battle with Iron Man and War Machine battling a group of deadly drones created Hammer and Whiplash. Thankfully, Iron Man 2 did not feel the need to convert itself into 3D, which I think was a wise decision since 3D was all the rage (and still is) at the time. Overall, there is a bit of magic missing in Iron Man 2 and that is mostly because the film goes through the same song and dance that the first film did, just building slightly on its character which I suppose is a positive. It’s no Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight but Iron Man 2 is still a spirited follow-up to its predecessor.

Grade: B+

Iron Man 2 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.