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The Expendables (2010)

by Steve Habrat

I avoided seeing The Expendables like I was avoiding a plague when it was released back in August of 2010. I just couldn’t bring myself to care about a handful of has-been action stars (and two still respectable ones) stomping around on the movie screen while trying to relive their glory days. I finally forced myself to sit down and endure the Sylvester Stallone action vehicle and my worst fears were confirmed. This movie has got to be one of the most astonishing things I have ever laid eyes on. The Expendables is a completely delusional film, one that doesn’t settle on reminiscing about the good old days, but rather painstakingly tries to make the plea that there is still a place for these mindless and ultra-violent shoot-em-ups in the cinema world. I hate to break it to Stallone, but there just isn’t a place for this kind of crapola. The Expendables is so jacked up on testosterone, that the mere hint of vulnerability and emotion practically makes Stallone and his beefcake crew sick to their stomachs and calling anyone who shows some of vulnerability or emotion a sissy.

The Expendables follows a group of highly trained mercenaries lead by Barney Ross (Played by Stallone) who are enlisted by the mysterious Mr. Church (Played by Bruce Willis) to travel to a small island between the Gulf of Mexico and South America and bring down a brutal dictator (Played by David Zayas). Rounding up a team that includes blades specialist Lee Christmas (Played by Jason Statham), sniper Gunnar Jensen (Played by Dolph Lundgren), martial artist Yin Yang (Played by Jet Li), heavy weapons expert Hale Caesar (Played by Terry Crews), and demolitions expert Toll Road (Played by Randy Couture), The Expendables, as they like to call themselves, head to the island where they discover that the dictator is backed by nasty ex-CIA officer named James Munroe (Played by Eric Roberts) and his personal bodyguards Paine (Played by Steve Austin) and The Brit (Played by Gary Daniels). Ross also makes it a personal quest to see to it that he protects the beautiful Sandra (Played by Gisele Itié), the helpless daughter of the dictator who is being savagely tortured by Munroe and his men.

If you are looking for anything that resembles depth, character development, or a beefy plot, you better start looking somewhere else. The Expendables couldn’t be a more straightforward film. It is also incredibly empty-headed and stupid, filling out its runtime with extended shoot-outs, car chases, and bone snapping mano y manos. You’re probably saying to yourself, “Hey, that is why we are watching this!” The problem with the film is that it has absolutely no point whatsoever. It exists solely to blow things up, waste some fake blood, and allow Stallone to still think he has some form of relevance in our current world. What he completely misses is that audiences have embraced much more vulnerable heroes, ones who have some complexities and layers to them. There is a reason that action films of this sort have been largely left in the past and a good majority of these actors have been almost entirely forgotten by audiences.

The acting in The Expendables is basically what you would expect. It’s almost all one dimensional, blank, and consists of lots of flexing. The only two actors who check in any sort of noteworthy performance are Willis as the briefly seen Mr. Church, who grins through his dialogue and all but winks at the audience as he asks, “Gotta problem with that?” The very talented Mickey Rourke shows up as Tool, the groups mission coordinator who also runs a tattoo parlor the gang likes to hang out in. Rourke ends up being the only character that reveals some emotional scars, wounds caused by the grisly stuff he has seen in the past. His eyes leak in one scene, a sequence I’m surprised that Stallone even allowed into the film. Everything and everyone else ends up being a blank slate with a machine gun. To make matters worse, the dialogue that is provided by Stallone and David Callaham is all written to set up for cringe inducing one-liners for the group members to spout off to each other as they riddle soldier extras with bullets.

I suppose if you are in the target audience for The Expendables, you are absolutely going to love it regardless of what I say. If you are the type who enjoys spending your weekend watching 80’s action movies and wrestling, you have probably already seen this more times than you can count. There are two minor positives in The Expendables, mostly in the expertly photographed action sequences and the editing. To be honest, I never thought I would praise the editing in a film like this in a million years but I guess there is a first for everything. The climactic shoot out boasts incredibly well done editing, allowing all the action to be extremely coherent and clear. Alas, a turd is still a turd and The Expendables is most certainly a turd. If Stallone would have forced his rag tag crew to confront the traits of the new breed of action films, the ones where the heroes wear their emotions on their sleeves, The Expendables may have turned out to be an interesting fusion of old school action with new school sentiment. I guess I’ll be one of the sissy men here and say that I did not favor Stallone’s tasteless and irresponsible testosterone boost.

Grade: D

The Expendables is now available of Blu-ray and DVD.

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Escape From New York (1981)

by Steve Habrat

In the stretch of films that John Carpenter made from 1978 to 1982, Escape From New York may be my least favorite of the films that also included Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing. It is these four films that are perhaps the most prolific films of his career (I should also throw in Assault of Precinct 13 and Big Trouble in Little China) and all have their own respectable cult following. Escape From New York is probably his most eccentric film in this stretch, one that broke the horror mold that he was falling into. Escape From New York ventures into science fiction and action territory (Carpenter explored science fiction with his debut film Dark Star in 1974) and the result is a fairly mixed bag of masculine 80’s clichés, inconsistent action sequences, and sputtering suspense. Still, I am willing to forgive in most of these areas but the one that really hurts is the lack of a suspenseful atmosphere that I feel Carpenter did so well. He would return to form, thankfully, in with his 1982 science-fiction chiller The Thing. There would be some magic found in Escape From New York, this first pairing of Carpenter and Kurt Russell, a match made in badass heaven.

Escape From New York invites us into a dystopian world where, in 1988, crime rose 400%, causing the U.S. government to construct a giant wall surrounding New York City that turns the greatest city in the world into a sprawling maximum-security prison. The year is 1997 and Air Force One has crashed into the dangerous streets of the prison, streets that are crawling with psychos and criminals. The President (Played by Donald Pleasance) was on his way to a three-way summit meeting between the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union for a discussion on nuclear fusion, a meeting he is desperately needed at. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Played by Lee Van Cleef) enlists the help of scowling ex-soldier turned criminal Snake Plissken (Played by Kurt Russell), who is facing a life sentence behind the city walls. Hauk tells Plissken that if he retrieves the President in twenty-four hours, he will pardon Plissken of his sentence. Plissken reluctantly agrees and travels into the grungy wasteland where he finds himself facing a relentless army of bloodthirsty criminals who all want him dead. Along the way, he runs into some old acquaintances and faces off against the sinister Duke (Played by Isaac Hayes), who plans to use the President as his key to freedom.

It’s almost impossible not to read Escape From New York as a faint satire of the crime that ran rampant in New York City in the 1970’s into the 1980’s. The 1980’s and early 1990’s saw some of the worst of the crime. Escape From New York saw itself released in 1981, right in the midst of the flurry of crime and right at the start of the Regan Presidency. Escape From New York has a heavy military and police presence within the film, masked soldiers prowling the tops of the prison and helicopters swooping in to shoot and kill any prisoner that looks like they are attempting an escape. When the film is mirroring the uncontrollable crime of New York City and Regan’s focus on military expansion, Escape From New York is witty, cynical and, yes, tense in some respects. You do feel uneasy because you don’t really know the terrors that lie beyond those walls and there is the paranoia of war right around the corner. Even the early scenes, where Carpenter keeps many of the psychos in the shadows are a bit unsettling, but then he turns the lights on and allows the sun to come up to chase all those demons out of the shadows and into the sewers.

Escape From New York does do a good job at creating a dystopian world that is admirable in the attention to detail. While watching it, I could completely see this grungy vision of New York City being completely plausible for the time in which it was released. Plissken is warned not to venture into the subways or into certain parts of the city by its wary prisoners, the one’s with hints of good within them. Shadowy silhouettes scamper through the streets, evocative of homeless street dwellers calling the grime caked darkness home. The effects are also quite impressive, especially when you keep in mind that the film was made for a whopping six million, which by today’s standards wouldn’t get you far at all. At times, it is a bit obvious that Carpenter is filming miniatures and a sequence involving a glider tumbling down the side of the World Trade Center looks a bit dated, but outside of that, the film has aged very well.

Escape From New York would not be the classic that it is considered if it didn’t have Kurt Russell in the lead as Snake Plissken. Plissken is almost always as cool as a cucumber, his voice just above a whisper as he tiptoes around the littered streets with an intimidating machine gun. Plissken practically becomes the definition of the strong silent type, even when he is thrown in a wrestling ring with a gigantic brawler who is looking to pull Plissken’s head from his body. It was this film that revealed the peanut butter and jelly pairing of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, Carpenter dreaming up perfect one-liners for Russell to mumble before he aims a gun or throws a punch. The writing would really take shape in The Thing, the film that contains one of Russell’s greatest one-liners, but Russell sure gets to have some pokerfaced fun here (Hauk: “Plissken? Plissken, what are you doing?” Snake: “Playing with myself! I’m going in!”). Escape From New York also features a few other Carpenter alums, Pleasance as the half-hearted President and Adrienne Barbeau as the curvy and dangerous Maggie. Harry Dean Stanton, who would go on to appear in Carpenter’s 1983 film Christine, has some fun as the shifty Brain, who betrayed Plissken in the past.

Escape From New York leaves the viewer wanting more and not particularly in a good way. I wanted more development of Isaac Hayes’ Duke, a villain we mostly only hear about and when we see him, he never really strikes fear into our hearts. Lee Van Cleef’s Hauk just jogs around from behind computer screens to a helicopter and back again. Stanton and Barbeau both seem to be having some fun in Carpenter’s wasteland, Barbeau overjoyed to be reunited wit her The Fog director, but their characters aren’t really elaborated on, only there to keep Plissken on his toes. Escape From New York belongs to Russell and he is the one who will lure you back behind the walls of the New York City maximum-security prison for repeat viewers. The film is also notable for its satire and political commentary, touches that elevate the film above a mindless science fiction/action throwaway. I would have liked the story to develop a little more, for Plissken to explore a little more of New York City and bump in to a few more baddies. Yet there is enough bloody action to keep us occupied in our visit to this nightmare world and, for those who have never seen it, it is worth seeking the film out to be introduced to the man that is Snake Plissken. I guess that is enough for me to recommend the Escape From New York. If only it had that signature tense Carpenter atmosphere but I guess a guy can dream, right?

Grade: B-

Escape From New York is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith (2005)

by Steve Habrat

After the numbing Attack of the Clones, it was anyone’s guess where the Star Wars saga would go next. Would Lucas improve it and finally catch the rollicking spirit that made the original three films great or would he continue to bog every frame and actor down with relentless CGI garbage? The answer is that he would do both with Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith. The third entry in Lucas’s modern trilogy would be the closest to the original films, both visually and spiritually, but the film would also suffer from his refusal to ease up on the CGI that practically splits every frame of this overly busy and rocky final installment. In the time between The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith, one would think that Lucas would try to improve his communication with his actors, fine tuning how to instruct them to be somewhat believable, especially with the misguided Hayden Christensen, who acts more like a rebellious teenager rather than troubled man consumed by demons, both internally and externally. Instead, Lucas seemed to be more interested in making Darth Vader unintentionally funny and dreaming up CGI aliens.

Revenge of the Sith opens with the Republic and the Separatists still waging the Clone War. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Played by Hayden Christensen) have been sent to rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Played by Ian McDiarmid) from the clutches of the dreaded half alien and half robot General Grievous. After a narrow escape, Anakin returns to his wife Padmé (Played by Natalie Portman), who reveals to him that she is pregnant. Anakin has recently found himself suffering from visions of Padmé dying during childbirth. Soon, Chancellor Palpatine reveals to Anakin that he is the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, the man controlling the conflict between the Republic and the Separatists. Darth Sidious begins convincing Anakin to become his Sith apprentice in the absence of Obi-Wan, who has gone after General Grievous. As Anakin slowly falls under the spell of the wicked Darth Sidious, Obi-Wan returns to try to save Anakin before he is consumed by the dark side of the force. Anakin, however, believes that Darth Sidious is the only one who can save Padmé’s life.

Lucas includes a few more of the original characters in Revenge of the Sith. We get a brief cameo by the Wookies and a quick glimpse of Chewbacca, one of the greatest characters from the original trilogy. Yoda begins to seem weaker and appear much more feeble than in the previous two installments. R2D2 and C-3P0 have heavier roles here and seem more at home in Revenge of the Sith over The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Even Emperor Palpatine pulling the dark hood over his head will send an electric jolt of excitement through you. It also doesn’t hurt to finally have Anakin in the iconic costume of Darth Vader by the finale. Yet Lucas poorly paces much of the action in Revenge of the Sith, making it incredibly difficult to get excited about the events setting the stage for the classic trilogy. A battle between General Grievous and Obi-Wan is way too short and unsatisfying. A brief showdown between Anakin Skywalker and Count Dooku (Played by Christopher Lee) seems thrown in just to let us know that Dooku is still in the picture. Even the climatic showdown between Anakin and Obi-Wan is lumpy and inconsistent, a bit too cartoonish and by the end is just the two men glaring at each other as computerized lava splashes around them.

The bane of the first half of the Star Wars saga has been the acting, an issue that I still can’t believe that Lucas overlooked. It’s been about the visual effects with Episodes I-III and sadly, the same problem plagues Revenge of the Sith. Here we have epic shots of planets that largely failed to capture our imaginations that feature characters we are only slightly acquainted with getting killed.  Lucas is convinced that if the score mourns for these characters, so will we. He gives us several shots of the Jedi being wiped out, Jedi that we only see from time to time, but not ones we know. He fairs better with the departure of Yoda and the death of Mace Windu (Played by Samuel L. Jackson). Christensen fairs no better in Revenge of the Sith, his acting actually being worse here than in Attack of the Clones. Here Lucas slaps some red contacts in Christensen’s eyes (Actually, he probably just digitally made his eyes red. Lucas wouldn’t dare do anything authentic. Who am I kidding!?) and expects us to quiver in our seats. He didn’t frighten me in the least, but when the Vader suit emerges, you will quiver. That quiver will quickly fade into laughter when he delivers the worst line of dialogue ever written (“NOOOOOOOO!”). It’s the furthest thing from a Vader response and ruins a tense emotional moment. Way to go, Lucas!

Portman and McGregor are the true veterans who deserve a round of applause. They do a fine job with the hodgepodge that Lucas hands them. By the end of this film, I had grown to care about Kenobi. McGregor injected a soul into his character and made him more than just a sloppy outline. Portman isn’t the strong female force this time around, which was slightly depressing, but understandable due to her character’s pregnancy. Lucas did not execute the shift from strong to heartbroken gracefully but Portman handles it like a professional. You catch brief glimpses of regret for putting her heart on the line and devastation that the man she loves is filled with brimming such cruelty. Jackson’s composed and astute Mace Windu is also a standout here, another character that worms his way into your heart. It was truly difficult to watch his final moments unfold on screen. This credit should go to Jackson, though, because I’m sure Lucas was more concerned with how many spaceships he could think up and cram into the background.

Another problem that has plagued Episodes I-III is the fact that Lucas hasn’t truly given us multifaceted villains to fear. They have become iconic strictly in physical appearance. Personality wise, they have been stiffs who are only present to cackle menacingly and serve as the other end in a lightsaber battle. Revenge of the Sith shakes this curse in the final moments when Vader stands next to Emperor Palpatine as they watch the construction of the dreaded Death Star. Familiarity was key for Revenge of the Sith, which is what ultimately allowed the film to be slightly better than Attack of the Clones. It still lacked a truly adventurous side–the one that I believe saved The Phantom Menace from truly sucking. Yet in a strange way, familiarity is what also gave The Phantom Menace another leg to stand on. I felt like I was watching a Star Wars film the first time I saw it and I still do when I see The Phantom Menace, a plus that allows me to overlook Jar Jar Binks. I can’t say the same for Attack of the Clones, a film that felt like a knock off of Star Wars film rather than actually seeming like one of the installments in the series. In Revenge of the Sith, I sometimes felt like I was watching one, and half is better than none, in my opinion. Revenge of the Sith is painfully middling, but it is worth sitting through the monotonous to get to that familiar and proficiently composed fifteen-minute finale.

Grade: C+

Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith is now available on Blu-ray.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

by Steve Habrat

When it comes to exploitation flicks and cult classics, I believe that none are more definitive than skin flick director Russ Meyer’s 1965 Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. A shameless ode to drag racing, violence, sex, cleavage, ass-kicking, and, yep, you guessed it, go-go boots, this rip-roaring thriller is still just as hip and swingin’ as it was when it was released. When we consider the film now, the influence of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is everywhere and you may not even know it. Anyone who has ever seen Meyer’s romp can’t help but be reminded of it every time you see a dangerous female protagonist laying waste to some male tormentors. In many ways, maybe female action heroes should be worshiping at the altar of Faster, Pussycat! and have the iconic image of voluptuous Tura Satana’s Varla snapping a man’s arm tacked up in their bedroom. While it is hard to defend every single action of the women in Faster, Pussycat!, no one can deny that this isn’t a shriek of female liberation that came right on the brink of widespread female empowerment. These chicks shimmy to their own tune and man, if it isn’t a wicked and groovy ride.

A trio of curvy and snarling go-go dancers by the names of Varla (Played by Satana), Rosie (Played by Haji), and Billie (Played by Lori Williams) are roughing it out in the desert and hanging at a drag race track. While there, the innocent Linda (Played by Sue Bernard) rolls up with her speed hungry boyfriend (Played by Ray Barlow) and he makes the stupid mistake of challenging Varla to a race. “I never try anything! I just do it!”, she growls. After a close call on the tracks, Varla gets into an argument with speed demon and brawl suddenly erupts. During the fight, Varla ends up killing Linda’s boyfriend. The dancers decide to kidnap and drug Linda and flee the scene before anyone finds out. While on the run, they bump into a crippled old man (Played by Stuart Lancaster) and his muscular Vegetable son (Played by Dennis Busch). They soon discover that the old man is wealthy from a past accident and soon, the girls start plotting a way to make off with the Old Man’s money but as it turns out, the Old Man has disturbing plans of his own for the girls.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! begins with a quick cut sequence of Varla, Rosie, and Billie scantily clad and thrusting away to music while a horde of cantankerous, animal-like males hoot, holler, and chant away. Meyer’s rapid fire editing within this sequence mirrors a boiling point before the title blasts across the screen and we see the girls speeding their hot rods down open road. Have they hit a breaking point? Has the male lust run its course? We have no way of knowing if the girls violent tendencies have erupted before, but judging by Varla’s hold on the group and her skills with a blade, she hasn’t hesitated to pull a knife on a poor chum before. Welcome to the off-kilter world of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, where we have images thrown at us that look like they belong in a banned pulp comic book. It’s a world where the law is only mentioned and never seen, girls strut freely in low cut shirts that left me fearful that if one made a quick move, there would be a lot more exposed than what already is. For those who watch the movie for that, you will be sorely disappointed. Meyer has commentary on his mind and not simply putting nudie cuties on display.

The performances that compose Faster, Pussycat! achieve a cult status of their own to match the film’s. You don’t forget your trip through Hell with Varla, Rosie, and Billie. Whether you are hanging on their use of slang or their sudden bursts of bloody beat downs, the girls never loose their underlying cool. They have everything under control even if everything appears to be fishtailing. Varla looks like she stepped out of a pin-up photo and decided to don a threatening black outfit that mirrors her rebel personality. She barks her dialogue in the faces of men who believe that women shouldn’t be running with the male pack. Billie, the blonde bombshell of the group, isn’t so much violent as she is bursting with sexuality that just simply can’t be contained. While she is manipulating, I never feared that she would stick a put a razor to my throat. Then there is Rosie, who appears to be Varla’s lover and sidekick, one who would put the finishing blow to what Varla started. She seems reluctant to get blood on her hands, yet she goes along with everything Varla orders her to do. Together the girls work together to manipulate and dominate, especially strong when their solidarity is firmly in tact.

Then we have the men of Faster, Pussycat!, who are not presented in the best light. The Old Man has a dictatorial grip on his meat-head Vegetable son. The Vegetable does the bidding that the shotgun wielding Old Man cannot, a bidding that is mostly capture and then rape.  The Old Man is appalled when he sees the girl’s outfits and vents his old fashioned conservative viewpoint when he says, “Women! They let ‘em vote, smoke, and drive—even put ‘em in pants! And what happens? A Democrat for president!” The Old Man represents what women ultimately lashed out and begged to be liberated from. The Old Man is purely the voice of oppression but the Vegetable represents the brute force holding the girls down. He is an empty headed police force for the Old Man, one that only begins to come around when coaxed or encouraged, but never willingly open minded. The Old Man also has another son, Kirk (Played by Paul Trinka), an intellectual who seems to level with all parties when they clash. He is the calm middle between the two towering, roaring forces.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! does have its weak spots. Even at eighty-three minutes, the middle beings killing time by doing doughnuts and just kicking up a bunch of dust. Writer Jack Moran and Meyer work double time to keep things nice and spicy with the animated dialogue and the cartoonish characters. It’s the cartoonish touch that makes Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! the classic that it manages to be today. One look at Varla, with her embellished curves, and you can’t help but think she looks like the work of a comic book artist with a fetish for big breasts. Yet the pulp charm also masks the satire on display, an artistic choice that may put serious viewers off. In the end, if you can’t hang with these chicks, you may as well get out of the hot rod that is Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! before the ride hits white knuckle speeds. For audience members who like their films fast, sexy, and death defying, strap yourself in for one hell of an influential ride.

Grade: A

Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace (1999)

by Steve Habrat

If you are looking for a review of the 3D converted re-release of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace, you won’t find it here. I don’t feel the need to shell out thirteen dollars for a film that wasn’t filmed in 3D but rather converted to milk more money out of fans. The re-release and my recent purchase of the Blu-ray set has pushed me to revisit the saga in crystal clear HD and I must say, it does look remarkable, but a pretty picture does not make a great film, folks. Lucas, a master showman when it comes to special effects, lost the magic that his original three films had and instead, his new trilogy consisted of countless CGI backgrounds, aliens of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and relentless rubbery action scenes. What made the original three Star Wars films such a success was that they heavily relied on the tale that was told. The characters didn’t seem to have coached interaction, but rather sincere emotions. With The Phantom Menace, Lucas showed us that he had lost control and had instead focused more on creating and selling toys than creating and selling a timeless tale that would extend across generations. But, I will also admit that I found The Phantom Menace to actually be the best of the new Star Wars films. Believe it or not.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… The evil Trade Federation led by Nute Gunray has set their sights on the peaceful planet of Naboo, which they aim to invade. When two Jedi Knights, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jin (Played by Liam Neeson) are sent to negotiate the blockade issued by the Trade Federation. Upon their arrival, the evil Darth Sidious (Played by Ian McDiarmid) orders that the droid army kill the Jedi. They nearly escape and find themselves on the planet of Naboo, where they befriend an irritating Gungan creature named Jar Jar Binks (Played by Ahmed Best). Jar Jar Binks takes them to the capital Theed, where they rescue Queen Amidala (Played by Natalie Portman) before the Federation can take her. They narrowly escape (again) and then find themselves on the planet Tatooine, where they befriend a salve boy known as Anakin Skywalker (Played by Jake Lloyd). As their friendship grows with Anakin, the Jedi begin to sense that the Force is strong with the boy and that he should be trained as a Jedi. Soon, they find themselves being tracked by a gruesome horned Sith known Darth Maul (Played by Ray Park), who aims to kill the Jedi. The Jedi must also convince the underwater Gungan city Otoh Gunga to help the people of Naboo and aid them in retaking their planet.

The Phantom Menace does achieve the task of opening a door to another galaxy, one that leaves us asking, ‘what will Lucas think of next?’ It really is incredible taking all the creativity in and waiting for little cameos from classic characters. Yoda shows up, R2D2 is in the mix, and, heck, so is Jabba the Hutt for a brief period. The new characters that are introduced are largely wooden in their performance, which is surprising due to the cast of players Lucas has at his disposal. Liam Neeson does the best job with the clunky script that Lucas provides. He is compassionate, kind, and when need be, totally kick-ass. He is a wise father figure for both Obi-Wan and the probing Anakin. McGregor also plays his character the best he can, resisting the constricting grip of Lucas every chance he gets. He’s the true gung-ho hero who is up for an adventure, which is, after all, why we are visiting this far away galaxy.

Natalie Portman also does a stand out job as Queen Amidala, the monotone and ornate ruler who surges with life once Lucas takes us to Tatoonie. Lucas had the good sense to not make her a complete damsel in distress. When she is handed a laser pistol, she fires back at the frail droid army who are persistent in their attacks. The true annoyance comes in the form of young Anakin. Lucas clearly had absolutely no idea how to make a connection with Lloyd and furthermore, how to guide him in a convincing performance. Every single line he utters seems like Lucas is telling it to him through a megaphone just off camera. The young Lloyd also suffers due to there being basically being nothing for him to actually interact with.

The true reason we watch a Star Wars film is to escape for two hours and loose ourselves in the inspired characters of his space opera. Lucas does provide some seriously cool creatures to bug out at. One of his neatest is Darth Maul, a relatively quiet Sith with black and red tattoos covering his face and a collection of horns atop his head. Lucas always has dreamed up interesting foes for our heroes to confront and Maul nears the top as one of the best. He is mysterious, acrobatic, and murmurs only a few lines of dialogue. I also took a liking to Darth Sidious, the throaty and flaccid evil emperor who would appear in flickering transmissions. But the show belongs to the one-man killing machine Maul, who faces off against Qui-Gon Gin and Obi Wan set to John Williams’ epic score. The battle between the two Jedi and the Sith is without question one of the best lightsaber battles the saga has.

The Phantom Menace does have its fair share of negatives. The film tries to appeal more to a younger audience rather than the diehard fans, which leads to Lucas adding heavy doses of comic relief and little in the way of true sinister moments. There is a scene where one character is cut in half but it is far from graphic. Lucas gives stale one-liners to Anakin, who has zero comedic timing. Once again, I honestly feel that this is a reflection of the dry personality of Lucas. The other dreadful addition is Jar Jar Binks, who is more infuriating than funny. His character relies on slapstick to cut the tension, but what Lucas forgot to add was the tension. His droid army is supposed to strike fear in our hearts but the Jedi cut through them like paper thrown at them by a baby. The droids almost come close to cute, something a villain should never be. You’ll also find yourself cringing at some of the most poorly written dialogue of all time.

The adventure spirit is alive and well in The Phantom Menace, which narrowly saves it from being downright appalling. For those who follow the saga closely, there will be much to complain about but Lucas will certainly do some right by you. That right comes in the form of classic characters, an expansion on the iconic John Williams score, and an incredibly awesome climatic lightsaber duel. But it is the countless fakery that ruined the new trilogy of Star Wars films. There was such a heavy focus on the merchandise that could be pushed onto kids that it becomes maddening. Many film professors, intellectuals, and brainwashed film students criticize Star Wars for lacking depth. We know what to expect when watching one of these films and that is creativity and thrills. I certainly don’t go in expecting to see a political satire. I go in for the eye candy and The Phantom Menace delivers on that. It just a shame Lucas went overboard with the sugary visuals. Overall, the Force was strong here but sadly, it wasn’t strong enough to make something great.

Grade: B

Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace is now available on Blu-ray and is currently playing at your local theater in 3D.

Chronicle (2012)

by Steve Habrat

How refreshing it is to finally see a mockumentary blockbuster that doesn’t feel the need to be a horror film! Behold Chronicle, a mysterious, mean, and sometimes flawed mockumentary that chooses the route of superpowers rather than supernatural. The thanks should go to director Josh Trank and writer Mike Landis for thinking outside the box, attempting something different, and breaking some new ground within the genre. Similar to Cloverfield but without the big budget and monsters, Chronicle makes a whole lot out of very little and, boy, did it thrill the hell out of me. It also refuses to dumb itself down which causes it to be fairly thought provoking, psychological, and extremely driven to earn our respectable. Much of the success also falls on the shoulders of the unknown actors in front of the camera who pull off a naturalism that many of these films lack. It all comes together to shape a shocking final act that turns downtown Seattle into a battlefield.

Chronicle is told from the perspective of loner Adam (Played by Dane DeHaan), who sulks into the camera with circles under his eyes. He cares for his sick mother, who seems to adore every moment she gets to spend with him, and he avoids his alcoholic father’s rants and beatings. He begins documenting his day-to-day routine, taking his camera to school with him and capturing the hell he endures. He is the target of bullies, ignored by girls and most other kids, and many call him “creepy” when they see his camera. His only true friend is Matt (Played by Alex Russell), his cousin who consistently encourages him to come out of his shell and reluctantly looks over him. When Adam and Matt attend a secluded party, they go exploring in the woods with the popular kid at school Steve (Played by Michael B. Jordan) and they end up finding a strange cave-like hole in a clearing. They decide to explore the hole and make a mysterious alien-like discovery, which rubs off on them and as a result, they end up with telekinetic powers that they at first use for teenage pranks. Soon Adam begins sharpening the powers and he beings abusing his gift, which leads to a destructive and bloody showdown in the streets of Seattle between Matt and Adam.

Chronicle scores brownie points for putting us on the side of the villain, giving us insight into Adam’s evolution from loner with good intentions to a murderous antagonist. His descent into villainy is piteous and we do feel for him. Every victory he has is ruined for him and his father’s physical and mental abuse sends him over the edge. He begins to suspect that Steve isn’t truly his friend and rejects his friendly concerns. The result is multiple deaths and the creation of a monster that deems himself an apex predator. In the beginning we can smell whiffs of anger in Adam, a ticking time bomb, but when his fury is unleashed, it sucks all the air out of our lungs.

The early bonding scenes are a treat to watch and when Adam, Matt, and Steve play pranks with their new found powers, they are often times hilarious, typical antics of puckish teenagers. The standout is when the three boys discover they can fly and they pass around a football above the clouds. There is also a wonderful talent show sequence where Steve and Matt reveal their powers to their fellow high school students. The scene belongs to Adam and I got the feeling that Steve was trying to give Adam his moment in the sun, which makes their sudden falling out all the more dramatic and crushing. Yet it is these scenes that also bring out the true humanity of these teenagers, who come off like real everyday teens you’d pass on the street. They discuss girls, popularity, sex, parties, and their dreams, all while never missing the opportunity to give each other a hard time. These teens also quote Carl Jung, which is a bit left of center but brave nonetheless.

Chronicle packs epic battle sequences that will shake the walls of your theater. They also end up being the most flawed aspects of the film, sometimes being a bit incomprehensible and distant. There are shots that are too far away to really tell who is winning in the climatic showdown and I was left wishing that Trank had focused his camera in a little bit closer. I understand the approach he is taking but he has to understand that he is yanking us out of the moment when he pulls away. Yet he makes a mountain out of a measly pile of dirt. Chronicle reeks of having a shoestring budget yet we get explosions, cars crushing like soda cans, helicopters smashing into the panic-stricken streets, and destruction of the famed Seattle Space Needle. We get scenes of the kids leaping through the air, dodging airplanes, making heroic catches of both each other and innocent bystanders. Trank makes the action unfeigned, bloody, and yes, the kids get hurt. Bad. It’s far from the standard superhero films where the blows don’t really faze either individual. Our dueling characters are barely standing halfway through their confrontation.

In the end, Chronicle features well-written dialogue, multidimensional characters, booming action sequences, and an unforgettable climax. The most glaring issue with the film is the lack of an explanation over what the kids find in the cave and all we really get is some shaky neon shots of what looks like a giant neon crystal spider (trust me, it’s actually pretty cool looking) that emits rumbling electronic booms. The film never backtracks to explain further which I found to be frustrating. The true hero of Chronicle ends up being the villain, DeHaan, who is a little too convincing at times in his rage. For a February release, Chronicle manages to be a step above the other warmed over releases by Hollywood. It’s a step above because it captures how kids in this situation would act and react. And you can’t help but reflect on what you would do if you suddenly gained superpowers. Would you play pranks? Use it for destructive purposes? Use them to protect your family at any cost? Or use them to make a teddy bear levitate to scare a young girl? But kids will be kids I suppose and the shenanigans are expected. There is no question or doubt that Chronicle is one of the coolest movies of 2012 so far.

Grade: B+

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

by Steve Habrat

When is the last time you saw an honest to goodness awesome action film that got your heart pounding and your palms sweating? Can’t truly recall one that actually did its job? For me, it was Inception, but director Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is the most recent to really get me chewing my nails down. Truth be told, most action films rely too heavily on CGI deception, layering giant battling robots duking it out in a familiar American metropolis, rubbery superheroes darting around skylines saving tumbling airplanes, cramming as much busy aerial action into a wide shot as humanly possible, or something to that overblown extent. Sure it’s thrilling to look at and we admire how pretty the picture looks, how real the effects are getting, etcetera, but we never actually sweat bullets over the conflict because we know our CGI superhero will save the day no matter what. They are larger than life, so our answer is eradicating the life and you have an unstoppable man made creation. Don’t get me wrong, I adore superhero films and I love to see what the computer wizards in Hollywood will digitally dream up next, but they are never as invigorating as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Most action films, sadly, are not.

Here’s the mission, if you choose to except: Acrobatic IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Played, for a fourth time, by Tom Cruise) and his brainy band of sidekick agents find themselves being blamed for an explosion at the Kremlin. In the explosion, a terrorist named Hendricks (Played by Michael Nyqvist) makes off with launch codes for nuclear missiles. The slippery Hendricks is hellbent on igniting nuclear war throughout the world. Russia blames the United States for the explosion and in response, the president issues “Ghost Protocol”, wiping out the IMF and leaving Hunt and his team to take the heat. Hunt turns to the newly appointed field agent Benji (Played by a superbly hilarious Simion Pegg), the curvy and vengeance seeking Jane (Played by Paula Patton), and the mysterious Brandt (Played by Jeremy Renner) to help him track down Hendricks, prevent a nuclear holocaust, and clear their names. Hunt also finds himself the target of a persistent Russian security force agent named Sidirov (Played by Vladimir Mashkov). To reject taking on this mission would be an absolute mistake.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol does have its fair share of eye candy effects moments. A massive sandstorm bears down on Hunt as he scales the massive Burj Khalifa in Dubi with nothing but high tech gloves that produce an adhesive, allowing him to stick to the side of the building. Wait until one of the gloves begins shorting out. That’s only the start of what is sure to be a classic sequence. Cars go somersaulting at Ethan, a massive explosion levels part of the Kremlin, and more. What turns up the adrenaline in this film is the fact that Cruise, who is one of the biggest and most recognizable stars on the planet, puts himself right in the center of the action. He takes more than a few tumbles in this film and at times, Bird’s camera seems to catch accurate spot-on reactions. At one point, I even turned to my friend that accompanied me and said, “Man, did you see his face? THAT looked pretty real and THAT was a look of pain on his face!” Cruise is the heart and soul of this franchise and, more importantly, keeping this film from veering off onto throwaway blockbuster territory. And yes, the film projects an epic scope but the action is tight and controlled, never appearing showy.

Credit should certainly go to director Brad Bird, who makes his first live action feature film. We knew he could make some heartwarming family friendly films (He is the man responsible for The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille), but the man works well with flesh and blood actors too. His cast has impeccable chemistry, gracefully playing off each other, delivering a whole slew of memorable one-liners, and actually working hand-in-hand in every situation they find themselves in. His camera floats along with Cruise as he inches along the Burj Khalifa, tossing his camera down the side of the building, giving us a sense of how high up Cruise actually is. He stages an intimate confession up close and personal and he lands jokes deviously, sometimes taking a second to for the laugh to squeak out of the viewers mouth. Wait until you see Benji and Hunt creeping around the Kremlin. There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joke that is adroitly landed. Bird holds tense moments extra long, making we the viewers feel the pressure that Hunt and his team are under. Bird certainly has a future in action.

Everything in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is top notch. Everything from the action, the chases, the acting, the CGI, the editing, the staging, the pacing, the feel, and the final showdown just connect and work together until the very last frame. The MVP here is without question Cruise, showing vast dedication to the project and risking life and limb for his art. The film packs the fireworks we all want from the Mission Impossible franchise but they never feel like they are there is a diversion from meager storytelling. The threat is truly there is this one is down to the wire. It’s a shame it wasn’t released during the summer movie season because it would have clobbered the competition, body slamming duds like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Green Lantern, and Cowboys and Aliens. Once you’ve had action this real and fun, you’ll never want to go back to the kind simulated on a computer.

Grade: A-

War Horse (2011)

by Steve Habrat

After a string of producing gigs this past summer, Steven Spielberg jumps behind the camera and gives us War Horse, one half of his directorial efforts this past holiday season (The other is The Adventures of Tintin). War Horse, based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, is a finely polished Oscar vehicle that lures out the tears while also bringing families together and making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Spielberg, you sly dog, you! Put your notion that War Horse is just a big budget Hallmark movie that should have been straight to video on the back burner and embrace this sweeping, innocent tale that makes you, the viewer, feel like it is being told to you by your expert storytelling uncle next to a flickering fire on a snowy night. Like any good story, it does take a little while for War Horse to really hit its stride, but when World War I breaks out, the film really draws us in and gets intimate with our easy emotions. War Horse is unabashedly old fashioned, but that actually adds to the event and sent my enjoyment of the film through the roof.

War Horse begins with the birth of a beautiful thoroughbred horse and grows up being admired by Albert Narracott (Played by Jeremy Irvine). A few years pass and Albert’s father Ted Narracott (Played by Peter Mullan) ends up at a horse auction where he is looking for a horse to plow his fields. He finds himself hypnotized by the horse’s beauty and ends up biding all of his money for the horse and brings it home to his horrified wife Rose (Played by Emily Watson) and the delighted Albert. Albert convinces his mother to allow him to keep the horse and train it. He ends up naming the horse Joey and the two bond instantly. Soon, Ted’s landlord Lyons (Played by David Thewlis) comes knocking for rent, but due to the high price Ted paid for Joey, he is unable to come up with the money. Albert agrees to train Joey to plow the fields so that his father can come up with the money owed to Lyons. Shortly after their agreement, World War I breaks out and Ted sells Joey to the army for the amount he owes Lyons. Distraught and furious, Albert volunteers for the army to find Joey and be reunited with him. This takes both Joey and Albert on an adventure they will never forget across lush countryside and bombed out no-mans-lands.

Relentlessly sentimental with emotional cues from John Williams’ majestic score, War Horse is pure Oscar gold that will effortlessly nab a Best Picture nomination by the Academy. Trust me, I’m not complaining about that as I absolutely bought every cheap emotional tug this film sold me. The message is as simple as they get, Spielberg once again praying for peace and begging us to all get along. This time, he uses a regal beast in the form of Joey to send this message. Many may also quickly label the film nothing but child’s play, but that only lasts for the first forty minutes of the movie. Once World War I breaks out, War Horse shifts from wispy children’s tale to muddy and weary war film. Spielberg makes these transitions fluently and he more than makes up for the slow opening by molding a crowd pleasing ending that will add fuel to the fire for those who dislike the blockbuster director and satisfy those who enjoy his work (People like me). One sequence at the end is absolutely stunning and spellbinding, forcing enemies to work together. I will reveal no more than that.

If the film somehow doesn’t nab a Best Picture and Best Director nomination, the actors surely will. Emily Watson’s Rose conveys infinite amounts of hope, support, and affection with a stare. Her eyes really sell her character and she gets some of the films sappiest lines, ones that will really tickle the fans of the Best Adapted Screenplay department. Tom Hiddleston shows up as the gracious Captain Nicholls. His commiseration for Albert’s heartbreak really makes his character memorable. I’ve always found Hiddleston to be able to really morph into his characters he takes on and Captain Nicholls is no different. Niels Arestrup shows up as a French grandfather who radiates with warmth. Mullan’s Ted is a haunted soul; one who has been exposed to the horrors life has to offer. But War Horse really benefits from the performance by Jeremy Irvine as Albert. His love for Joey is unbearably authentic and his dedication for his family can’t be matched. He is old fashioned and cheesy at times, but it fits for a project like this.

Spielberg crafts war sequences that rival what he produced in Saving Private Ryan and they truly are rousing. A tracking shot in the trenches shows us petrified yet proud young men laying down their lives for their country. His cinematography is crisp, spotless, and his scope is extensive and detailed. His battle scenes are bloodless, appropriate for young viewers and a bit easier to swallow compared to his gruesome battles in Saving Private Ryan. A scene involving barbed wire wrapped around a galloping Joey may frighten some young viewers and make adults cringe at the sight. War Horse does effectively show us how pointless war can really be. Are we really any different than our enemies? They have normal lives, professions, and names. Just like us. Condemn him for taking the easy route but Spielberg has found an effective route nonetheless.

War Horse is a must see for craftsmanship alone, a piece for viewers to marvel at the big budget ingenuity, classic storytelling, and proficient performances. The relatively unknown actors give the film a hearty does of vigor. They become real to the viewer versus the alienation of seeing a well-known star. Its message will undoubtedly get lost in the crowd of countless films preaching the same message of hope and unity, but in a way, I feel like some of the blame rests on the shoulders of Michael Morpurgo’s story. Despite some of its clichés, War Horse is a magnificent film and pure Spielberg. Much like the ambiance of War Horse, Spielberg may be starting to become a little traditionalist himself but a little old fashioned conservatism every now and again never hurt anyone. War Horse really finds its stride in the traditional vein of filmmaking.

Grade: A-

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Did you miss him? Robert Downey Jr.’s motor-mouthed brawler/detective Sherlock Holmes blasts his way back into theaters and the people are flocking to his latest case. While I found myself smitten with Downey Jr.’s magnetic performance during the first case, I found the events swirling around him too tortuous. I understand what British director Guy Ritchie is trying to achieve, which is to put us in Holmes’ rutty boots and work along side him in racing the clock and solving the diabolical plot. Yet Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows gets tangled up in its own reveals, twists, turns, and fake-outs. I found myself backtracking to pinpoint which character Holmes and Jude Law’s Dr. Watson were chattering on about. Do not interpret this as me saying the film was over my head, but I just wish these movies would slow down for a minute and let me catch up before it dashes off again. The film leaves you mentally exhausted. I suppose that the modish action sequences are there to let us rest our brains, but Ritchie goes above and beyond the normal slam-bang intensity that is rampaging through action films of late. He stages some of the most rousing action sequences of the year, with precise slow-motion halts to give us a clear glimpse of the bone snapping action. It’s exhilarating and you can’t peel your eyes from it. So much for a second to catch my breath.

After a string of seemingly unrelated crimes throughout Europe, the peculiar detective Holmes (Played by Downey Jr.) suspects that there is more to these strange events than meets the eye. He begins applying his usual unorthodox detective work and enlists the help of the less-than-patient Dr. John Watson (Played by Law) to aid him in discovering the truth. The trail leads them to Professor James Moriarty (Played by Jared Harris), a genius that can match Holmes every step of the way. As Holmes tries to piece together what all these crimes are leading up to, he crosses paths with a dagger-throwing gypsy named Sim (Played by Noomi Rapace), who is the next target of Moriarty. Sim proves to be useful in aiding Holmes and Dr. Watson in figuring out what Moriarty’s plot is, which turns out to be more destructive than Holmes could have ever imagined.

I don’t really want to dive into many more details about the plot of the second entry to the Sherlock Holmes franchise; the slow reveals of this one prove to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the first installment. A Game of Shadows benefits from a much better villain, one who can go toe-to-toe with Holmes both in a fight and in brains too. The film does have some incredibly exhaustive art direction, featuring some lavish costumes, realistic CGI, and some sets that are to die for. It maintains the steam-punk industrial aesthetic that Ritchie established with the first film. Yet my qualm about Holmes stems from its overly busy inner workings, mostly in the plot department. Everyone speaks in a thick British accent and rambles on about characters that are hard to remember. Trust me, there are a TON of characters so I would advise you bring a notebook to scribble them all down in. The film also moves at a breakneck speed that left me wishing I could just have a brief intermission and review everything that had just happened before piling on more plot points. This one will leave you exhausted but I commend its unremitting energy.

The one aspect that I love about Sherlock Holmes is the driven, fanatical performance from Downey Jr. I think he may be a bit sharper with Holmes than he is with Tony Stark, a role many love a bit more than Holmes. Credit should be given to his spot-on and rich British accent that pours effortlessly through his mumbling mouth. He sometimes comes off as a ranting lunatic that would seem more at home in a straightjacket rather than an overcoat and bowler cap. He’s unpredictable (He shows up on a train dressed as a woman), brash, and poised in every move he makes. When at one point he admits he made a mistake and lives are lost, we feel his distress in himself. It’s only one of two times we see a crack in his self-assured manner. Law’s Dr. Watson acts as the voice of reason when Holmes goes on a brain-frying rampage. Law also has perfect comedic timing to Downey Jr.’s deadpan delivery. Truth is, their relationship is given room to grow and evolve here. We get to see their affection for one another. They are an odd couple but, hey, opposites attract right?

Moriarty is a memorable villain, one who spits his words out with vitriol to spare. He truly does have a diabolical plot and I love his final moments with Holmes. Harris look like he had a good time playing evil. Rachel McAdams returns for a brief cameo as Adler, one that seems a little bit pointless, as she wasn’t in the original all that much. Rapace, for all the celebration around her performance in the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to just be a pretty face stuck between Law and Downey Jr.’s stubbly faces. I would have liked to see more range from her, as all Ritchie has her doing is running from bullets, hitmen, and cannonballs. Stephen Fry turns up as Mycroft, Sherlock’s posh brother who is just as deadpan and batty as the good detective.

As someone who is always rallying for more intellectual blockbusters, I have to hand it to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. It refuses to dumb itself down too much, even if it is just escapist fluff. If there is another Sherlock Holmes, and I’m sure there will be, I would love to see the screenwriter shave things down a little bit and I’d love for Ritchie to ease up on the pace. Don’t be in such a rush to push Holmes through the case, as I enjoy watching him tick. I’ll definitely have thirds on the relationship between Holmes and Dr. Watson, as that acts as the heart and soul for this franchise. The action should also be noted, as it turns out to be much more epic the second time around. Just wait until you see the gunfight between Holmes, Sim, and Watson against a gang of German soldiers. All I will say is that it involves stellar slow-motion effects and a gun named Little Hansel. Funnier than the original, a bit more straight forward (Just slightly!), with style and energy to burn, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is the ideal thrill ride to distract you from all those Christmas presents you still have to buy.

Grade: B+

New Moon (2009)

by Steve Habrat

While watching and battling to stay awake through the trudging second chapter in the Twilight saga, I came to the realization that New Moon is responsible for all the laughable clichés that have burdened this franchise. Every other scene in this turkey of a film is filled with a shirtless male pouting and explaining to Bella that they can’t be together. I guess they had to have some sort of selling point for New Moon because it certainly wasn’t going to get far on its storyline, performances, or writing, all which fall substantially from the first film. If you’re looking for the culprit, look no further than this film right here. There is no action aside from a fairly entertaining chase sequence in the middle of the film, cheap special effects, and a plotline that can’t quite decide what it wants to be about. To think that there is an army of rabid fans out there for this film truly amazes me after sitting through it. My advice: Stay home and read the book again. What you can imagine in your mind while reading is infinitely more fun than what director Chris Weitz cooked up and severed.

New Moon picks up with lovebirds Bella (Played once again by the stiff Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Played once again by Robert Patinson) openly dating and fairly happy. The film picks up with Edward and his family throwing Bella an 18th birthday party. She is less than enthused, as she suffered a horrible nightmare about growing old a night earlier. At the downer of a party, Bella suffers a paper cut while opening one of her gifts, causing Edward’s brother Jasper (Played by Jackson Rathbone) to attempt to kill her. In response to this event, Edward decides that Bella is not fit for Edward’s world and he leaves Forks with the rest of his vampire clan. Bella slips in to a deep depression and after an empty threat to send her to live with her mother by her Sheriff father Charlie (Played by Billy Burke), Bella agrees to bounce back from the break-up. Bella soon discovers that if she thrill seeks, she will see the apparition of Edward warning her to be careful. She also strikes up a friendship with the perpetually shirtless Jacob Black (Played by Taylor Lautner) which blossoms into hinted romance. Jacob soon starts acting funny and Bella eventually figures out he is a werewolf who is aiming to protect her from a revenge-seeking vampire that aims to kill her.

New Moon has absolutely no focal point whatsoever. It can’t quite decide what it wants its plotline to be causing the film to bounce around with no discipline to speak of. This falls on the shoulders of screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, who botches yet another adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s already rocky novel. One second the film is about the blossoming relationship between Bella and Edward. The next second it’s about Bella and Jacob developing a relationship just so Jacob can pull the same bullshit that Edward did. Then Edward is brooding about something and then so is Jacob. Director Weitz puts no cap on the film at all, never once cutting something out and making a more straightforward film. It actually begins to be unclear on who is upset with whom and who has feelings and treaties with whom. It’s daft! It’s drama for the sake of drama and the furthest thing from art. This lack of narrative structure and flow, for that matter, causes New Moon to collapse on itself.

Further driving New Moon into the ground is the performances from the actors themselves, which actually end up being worse than the first time. Bella is even more pathetic and boy crazy. She’s superficial, feeble, and the furthest thing from a feminist hero. She falls to pieces over every guy she meets and constantly longs for a male crutch. The best bit from Stewart’s performance comes when Bella takes a tumble off of a crotch rocket that she builds with Jacob. She rolls into a giant rock, smashes her noggin, and nearly knocks herself out cold. Jacob rushes over, takes his shirt off (naturally), and wipes the gushing blood from her head. “Are you trying to kill yourself!?”, he asks. She just stares at him and says, “Sorry”. Oh, come on!! She just suffered a serious injury to her head! When Jacob points this out she says, “Oh”. Reconsider you day job, Miss. Rosenberg. Edward is largely absent from the entire project, only showing up in asinine hallucinations. Pattinson must have been instructed to leave his sense of humor in his trailer, as he just stands around and looks like he is in desperate need of a toilet. Lautner is supposed to be playing a real rough and tough killer but the only way Weitz and Rosenberg know how to convey that is by having him consistently taking off his shirt. Billy Burke’s Charlie Swan is a clueless moron, someone who is frustratingly ignorant to everything going on around him. How he hasn’t figured out that werewolves and vampires are running rampant in his town, I will never know. You’re best friends with a pack of them, you imbecile! Michael Sheen pops up at the end of the film as Aro, the leader of the vampire council called the Volturi. He appears amused by all of the nonsense around him and plays Aro with a flamboyant bounce to his step. Everyone else in the film is forgettable, yes, even Dakota Fanning, who is hidden behind red contact lenses.

Where Twilight had some fairly ordinary camerawork, at least it had the good sense to be somewhat eye grabbing. Director Weitz can’t even make the picture he has framed a joy to look at. He stages a nifty chase sequence through the woods set to Thom Yorke’s stuttering single Hearing Damage. This killer sequence boasts the best CGI of the movie, puts some of its characters in harm’s way, and it even kills off a character. How bold of you, New Moon! The rest of the action is a retread of the battle at the end of Twilight only set in Italy. The effects on the werewolves look like they belong in a made-for-T.V. movie on the SyFy channel. The film never visually pops off the screen and instead retreats in to an amber glow that engulfs everything Weitz points his camera at. Maybe he is trying to imply that this entry is much more “rustic”. Your guess is as good as mine.

The crime you will be quick to accuse New Moon of is monotony, but it is also guilty of inanity. It never once asks the viewer to think about anything, never hinting at deeper meanings or motives. The film throws around implied romance every chance it gets but it never gives us anything. There are, once again, a few pecks here and there, but nothing definitive ever comes to a head. This is just filler in between entries, simply introducing us to a new character for women to swoon over. It feels like there is a real story that is ready to be cracked, but it’s not in this film. This is just leftovers from the first entry and ones that have gone moldy. New Moon is also entirely too long and could have helped itself by scaling back. They just cram more and more crap into it, and by crap, I mean Bella, Jacob, and Edward just staring at each other. I guess all I can say is kudos to the author, screenwriter, and director who have made millions of dollars from blind teenagers. Open your eyes and see that New Moon is nothing more than a diversion from the fact that this film is about nothing. Except, well, Lautner’s abs.

Grade: D-

New Moon is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.