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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

X-Men-Days of Future Past

by Steve Habrat

Since its debut in 2000, the X-Men series has been a bit of a rocky superhero franchise. 2000’s X-Men was a likeable enough effort that emerged just a year before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man ignited superhero fever at the box office. Three years later, X2: X-Men United would be hailed by both comic book fanboys and critics as one of the best superhero films ever made, but that praise would fizzle when they laid eyes on 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which was a hollowed out finale that sent a wave of disappointment through X-Men nation. Things didn’t improve in 2009 with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a tacky solo outing for the franchise’s most popular character. Just when everyone thought all hope was lost, along came X-Men: First Class, a Cold War epic that thrilled moviegoers with a fresh cast and a clever script. Last year, the momentum created by X-Men: First Class slowed a bit with The Wolverine, a second solo outing that was marginally better than the Origins. So as you can see, X-Men fans always have a reason to be concerned whenever a new installment in the franchise is announced. As it turns out, X-Men: Days of Future Past is just as thrilling and exciting as X2: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class. With Bryan Singer (X-Men and X2: X-Men United) back in the director’s chair, this time-travelling adventure creates fireworks by smashing together the young talent of X-Men: First Class with the veteran cast of the original films.

X-Men: Days of Future Past picks up in post-apocalyptic 2023, with humans and mutants hunted and exterminated by hulking robots called Sentinels, which were originally designed to exclusively hunt and exterminate mutants. A small band of mutants including Professor X (played by Patrick Stewart), Magneto (played by Ian McKellen), Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), and Storm (played by Halle Berry) hatch a plan to use the time traveling abilities of young mutant Kitty Pryde (played by Ellen Page) to attempt to travel back to 1973 and prevent the creation of the Sentinels. The volunteer for this dangerous mission is Wolverine, who is tasked with stopping the shape-shifting Mystique (played by Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating pint-sized scientist Bolivar Trask (played by Peter Dinklage), the creator behind the Sentinels. As the Sentinels bear down on the mutants in the future, Wolverine must mend the friendship between a young Professor X (played by James McAvoy) and a young Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) so that they can join forces and stop Trask together. This proves extremely difficult as Magneto once again attempts to break off from the group and embark on his own villainous path.

What ultimately made X-Men: First Class such a standout was the way that director Matthew Vaughn cleverly inserted familiar X-Men characters into the nuclear drama of the Cold War. It was the creative breath of fresh air that the franchise was in dire need of. Returning director Singer took note of this and catapults audiences back to the early ‘70s, during the last days of the Vietnam War. While the gunmetal action is certainly smooth and zippy in the future (the opening battle is one for the ages), what makes X-Men; Days of Future Past such a delectable treat is the way Singer mirrors Vaughn and seamlessly weaves these characters into American history. Throughout the course of the film, we hop over to Vietnam to meet a few grotesque mutants that have been fighting in the jungles of Saigon, and take a trip to the center of the Pentagon where Magneto is being held for the death of JFK. We also get to meet a pre-Watergate Richard Nixon, who hunches over his desk in the Oval Office and gruffly agrees that Trask’s Sentinel program is essential after witnessing mutants savagely show off their powers in Paris during a negotiation between the Americans and Vietnamese. It’s true that the ‘70s material overshadows the futuristic stuff every step of the way (even the Sentinels look much cooler in the past), but the gloomy apocalyptic destruction that Singer shows off does leave viewers curious about this perpetually dark dystopian future. Maybe he will dive in further down the line?

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By now you are well aware of what makes this X-Men film particularly special for comic books fans. Singer has recruited nearly every single actor or actress that has appeared in previous X-Men films, and boy, do they seem tickled to be back. While you could fill a book with the cast list, it would be criminal not mention some of the performances here. McAvoy once again reminds us that he is a silent talent in Hollywood, as it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes of his shaggy-haired hippie take on Professor X. Coming off his vile turn in 12 Years a Salve, Fassbender remains in villain mode as Magneto, a shaky ally in the quest to track down Mystique and stop her assassination attempt. Hugh Jackman’s enthusiasm for Wolverine remains in tact, seeming as cool and calm as ever while chomping on those cigars and waving around pre-metal claws. Jennifer Lawrence is all sexy confidence as Mystique, the deadly shape shifter who tirelessly fights for her fallen mutant brothers and sisters. Nicholas Hoult’s nebbish Beast still snarls and chomps with blue fury, and Evan Peters steals the entire movie as the speed demon Quicksilver. Every fan that made such a stink over the look of his character is going to instantly eat their complaints after they watch him dart playfully around the inside of the Pentagon. It’s the film’s best moment.

As far as veterans Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart go, both seem to be floating on cloud nine to be back in their respective roles. Stewart’s Professor X continues to give the series the emotional charge that he brought to the original three films, and McKellen remains as unpredictable as the master of metal, Magneto. The small-but-mighty Peter Dinklage proves to be a formidable foe for the X-Men, always using his commanding voice to give him an intimidating authority. With eyes that scream exasperation, he warns Congress of the mutant threat, and he watches grainy newsreel footage of Mystique with cold intrigue, desperate to get his hands on her blood, brain tissue, and spinal cord fluid to convert his devastating Sentinels into killing machines that can adapt to any threat. The ever-welcome Ellen Page returns to big budget blockbusters as Kitty Pryde, the girl who possesses the power to make this entire mission possible. Though she is given limited screen time, she makes the most of what she has. This limited screen time carries over to multiple other mutants, including Halle Berry’s Storm, who is basically handed an extended cameo to conjure up a wicked lightning storm. Berry is just one of the many familiar faces that pop in to say hello. I won’t spoil any of cameos here, but believe me when I say fans will walk out beaming with delight.

Though X-Men: Days of Future Past arrives in theaters with a budget of $200 million, the film remains surprisingly modest for a good majority of the runtime. The scenes set in 2023 are breathtaking and the fight scenes are buffed up with the expected CGI. The action set in the ‘70s seems plausible and practical, only really getting flashy during the final battle outside the White House. Much like the confrontation at the end of X-Men: First Class, the confrontation between good and evil has a slow burn approach. There is quite a bit of dramatic conversations and pleas, which proves to be just as thrilling as the fistfights and explosions. Just to add an extra layer of excitement, Fassbender’s Magneto shakes RFK stadium from its foundation and drops it over the White House, enclosing all the characters inside for colossal showdown. Another moment you’ll be talking about on the way home is Quicksilver’s giddy Pentagon infiltration, which wields a wicked sense of humor as he dodges bullets and dares to dip his finger in a pot of soup. Overall, X-Men: Days of Future Past is teeming with delights—it’s got the dramatic pull that the fans demand, it’s got the rollicking action that gets your gets your heart racing, and it’s fueled by stunning A-list cast that plays off of each other beautifully. While other challengers lay in waiting, X-Men: Days of Future Past is positioned to be the best superhero film of the summer.

Grade: A-

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America-The Winter Soldier #1

by Steve Habrat

Last summer, Marvel Studios kicked off Phase 2 of their cinematic universe with Iron Man 3, a film that featured a marketing campaign that hinted that this new set of superhero films would embrace a darker tone. Unfortunately, many were left disappointed, as Iron Man 3 quickly succumbed to the creeping sarcasm and carefree antics that Tony Stark had become known for. The hope for some darker action carried over to November’s Thor: The Dark World, which suggested that things might be getting grittier for the Norse god, but once again the audience got more of Marvel’s winking escapism. To make things worse, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World implied that Marvel might be producing these films a little too quickly, as they were far from the superhero factory’s best efforts. Somebody should tell Stan Lee that even superheroes need some time off. Now, right on the cusp of the summer movie season, audiences are given the chance to catch up with super soldier Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Solider, which easily ranks as the best solo-Avengers outing yet. Under the direction of Joe and Anthony Russo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds Marvel getting in touch with their dark side, and opting for a much more plot-driven approach that caters more to adults than to the pint-sized viewer. The result is a heart-pounding political thriller that gives Joss Whedon’s The Avengers a run for its money as the best superhero film from Marvel Studios.

Two years after the battle for New York City, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (played by Chris Evans) has been living in Washington D.C., where he has been attempting to adjust to modern day life and taking on various missions for intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. One day, Rogers is approached by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) about leading a rescue mission to help save a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship from a band of vicious Algerian pirates. The rescue mission seems to go as planned, but Rogers is enraged to learn that fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) nearly compromised the rescue attempt by stopping to collect classified data from the ship’s computer for Fury. Upon returning to Washington D.C., Fury briefs Rogers on Project Insight, which involves three massive gunships that are able to neutralize dangerous threats before they even happen. Rogers is less the pleased to learn about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new defensive program, but things get worse after Fury is attacked and nearly killed by a mysterious assassin known only as The Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan). With orders from Fury to not trust anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D., including their senior leader, Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford), Rogers enlists the help of Romanoff and newly befriended war hero Sam Wilson aka Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) to help him uncover S.H.I.E.L.D.’s dirty secrets—secrets that could threaten the lives of millions of innocent American citizens.

Unlike usual Marvel fare, Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t focus all of its energy on the CGI battles, explosions, fistfights, showdowns, and whatever else gets the audience’s adrenaline pumping. Sure, there is no shortage of action to be found in The Winter Solider—that I can assure you—but what we have here is something that gets more mileage out of the complex plot and meaty character development. Credit this welcome shift to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who provide a screenplay that reaches back to Cap’s pulpy WWII origins while never forgetting to develop the modern characters that, up until now, have gotten by on name recognition alone from diehard Marvel Universe fanboys. Sure, we knew a bit about Johansson’s The Black Widow thanks to Whendon’s work in The Avengers, but she still acted as more of a pretty face and a fit body filling out a skin-tight jumpsuit than a properly developed member of the eccentric fighting force. She was simply riding a wave of voluptuous sex appeal before this entry came along. And then there is Jackson’s Nick Fury, another member that has acted as the one-dimensional link between Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America. Here, we finally get a bit of backstory on the trench coat-clad S.H.I.E.L.D. director, and we are even given a chance to peak behind the famous eye patch.

Captain America-The Winter Solider 2

As far as the character of Steve Rogers aka Captain America goes, he’s still a good deal of fun as he tries to bring himself up to our modern times. In between working his way through his list of music to listen to, movies to see, and various other fun facts to brush up on, he wrestles with the post-9/11 world in which we now live. No longer do our enemies wear uniforms or clearly identify themselves. Instead, they lurk in plain sight, acting as an ally before dealing a cataclysmic and calculated blow. Even more perplexing to the Cap is the way S.H.I.E.L.D. now plans on dealing with these emerging threats—neutralizing them before they even occur. “I thought the punishment came after the crime?,” he asks. If only things were that easy! It’s a mature thrill to watch Cap pull back the layers of filth and corruption around him, and it’s an even bigger thrill to hear him remind us that sometimes you need a bit of old fashioned to combat these new threats. And then there is Mackie’s Wilson aka Falcon, a courageous war hero who is willing to stand proudly next to the Cap, no matter how dangerous the situation may be. He may not have the abilities that Rogers has, but when he straps on that wicked jet pack and flies into battle with barely any armor to protect him from the bullets and bombs exploding around him, you want to stand up and cheer.

The most surprising presence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is none other than Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, the tough-talking head of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s best not to reveal too terribly much about his character, but his inclusion here makes the ‘70’s political thriller echoes ring just a little bit louder than they already do. It’s a welcome surprise to see Redford jumping into the realm of escapism, and he seems to be thoroughly enjoying every single second of his role. Probably the most hit-or-miss character here is none other than The Winter Solider, the mysterious bad guy with a buzzing metal arm and dark hair hanging in his face. For those who are only familiar with Captain America through his rollicking cinematic adventures, I won’t ruin the big reveal about his character, but what I will tell you is that his character’s full potential is never fully reached. He’s certainly a formidable villain as he jumps, kicks, and shoots at the Cap and his sidekicks, but we just don’t get enough of the powerful assassin. His relegation to a secondary foe is a bit of a letdown, but rest assured that there is plenty of emotional weight behind his fiery final showdown with Rogers.

With all of these juicy characters and the riveting plot taking center stage in The Winter Soldier, we almost forget to stop and admire all the gritty action that explodes with hair-raising strength. This time around, we get a nifty, Captain Phillips-esque hostage situation that lashes out with brutal fury as the Cap and his team execute strategic moves to diffuse the situation. There is also my personal favorite, the highway gun battle centerpiece, a sequence that roars with danger and destruction as cars explode, Gatling guns spin to life, and the Cap has his first up-close-and-personal encounter with The Winter Soldier. And then there is the colossal aerial finale that boasts tumbling gunships, even more gunfights, breathtaking fistfights, and a heaping pile of destruction. Trust me, folks, it’s an absolute doozy that leaves you gasping for air. Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier marks a new high for Marvel Studios. It’s a brainy superhero adventure that doesn’t even dream of skimping on expert storytelling, captivating character development, or high-stakes action. It’s downright impossible to walk away without wanting more of Captain America.

Grade: A

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Thor-the-Dark-World #1

by Steve Habrat

Just six short months after dominating the summer with Iron Man 3 and three short months after announcing details for their Avengers follow-up, Marvel is back with a sequel to Kenneth Branagh’s intergalactic epic Thor. Branagh’s iridescent 2011 effort really took me by surprise, mostly because I was convinced that the Norse god wouldn’t translate well to film. It didn’t help that the trailer failed to really sell the swords and hammer mayhem. Despite my apprehension, Thor turned out to be one hell of a thrill ride even though it was distractingly acting as a partial tease for The Avengers. With the first Avengers film out of their system, Marvel can now focus on giving their Avengers cast movies that are free of that crossover blockbuster’s chains. Here we have Thor: The Dark World, a sequel that doesn’t feel like it’s rushing to develop this character just so we know who the heck the beefcake with the hammer is in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. With Thor: The Dark World, we are given more time on Thor’s home planet, Asgard, and we are treated to more strange creatures looking to rip the universe to shreds. While the second half is undeniably entertaining with its billowing high-stakes showdowns, the opening stretch seems like a lazy reworking of what we saw in the previous Thor film. To make things worse, star Natalie Portman seems like she was forced at gunpoint to reprise her role as Jane Foster. Is this the same woman who won on Oscar for Black Swan?

Thor: The Dark World begins by explaining that many years ago, Thor’s grandfather had a battle with the Dark Elf leader Malekith (played by Christopher Eccleston), who was planning on using a matter called Aether to destroy the Nine Realms. The Asgardians won the battle and managed to secure the Aether from Malekith, but the Asgardians were unable to destroy the weapon, so they buried where no one would find it. Angry over his defeat, Malekity fled into space with a group of followers to regroup. In present day, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) and his Asgardian followers attempt to bring order to worn torn planets across the universe while Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) faces his sentencing for what he did to New York City. On Earth, astrophysicist Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman) has been waiting two years for Thor to return to her. Just as she is attempting to move on with her life, intern Darcy Lewis (played by Kat Dennings) tracks her down to show her an abandoned building that appears to have multiple portals into other worlds. After Jane stumbles through one of these portals, she discovers the hidden Aether, which latches itself onto her and begins flowing through her veins. The disrupting of the Aether awakens Malekith, who has been drifting in space with his soldiers waiting for the smallest sign of the Aether’s whereabouts. Fearing for Jane’s life, Thor returns to Earth to take her back to Asgard where he can protect her, but Malekith is isn’t far behind and he is hellbent on bringing darkness to the galaxy.

Director Alan Taylor opens Thor: The Dark World with a pair of rousing space battles that allow the viewer a glimpse into the expansive Marvel universe beyond the stars. There are all sorts of grotesque creatures that will make your eyes pop, but it’s the story foundation that is built under this action that seems all too familiar. In place of the glowing blue Tesseract is the Aether, a flowing red matter that swims through the air and resembles Kool-Aid. Rather than an unlimited energy source, the Aether plunges everything into darkness and it is naturally sought after by the baddies so that they can destroy the whole universe. Then there is Darcy, Jane, and Stellan Skarsgard’s Dr. Erik Selvig, who all dart around with flickering devices that detect portals and other alien anomalies while everyone else thinks they’ve got screws loose. The only thing missing are the SHEILD agents prowling around! This middling commencement is spruced up with some geeky humor and a cutesy cameo from Bridesmaids star Chris O’Dowd. Thankfully, when war comes to Asgard, the battle gets a bit more personal for Thor and Loki, both who loose someone very close to them. This is precisely where the glimmers of familiarity start to get buried beneath some sprawling clashes that are capable of bringing down the theater walls. They’re also fairly impressive in 3D, a format that Marvel has been shockingly lazy about considering all the money they are dumping into each one of these films.

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As far as the action scenes are concerned, they single handedly make up for the film’s shortcomings. It never gets old watching Thor leap into the air with his hammer raised, bringing it down on the ground to knock about ten bad guys charging him off their feet. There is a hilarious confrontation between Thor and a snarling rock monster that gets tamed with one swing of Thor’s mighty mallet. The opening battle between masked Dark Elves and Viking-like Asgardians is a buzzy cocktail of Star Wars-esque laser battles and Lord of the Rings swordplay. The standout action set piece is easily the battle on Asgard, in which Malekith’s forces rocket at the gold city in sleek jets that cut right into the gold heart of the towering palace that Thor and his family call home. It helps that these scenes have dropped Branagh’s spit-polished approach, allowing them to feel rough around the edges and, dare I say, legitimately dangerous. Then there is the big finish, which features Thor and Malekith duking it out as they tumble through multiple portals that send them careening through the universe. The constantly shifting backdrops are a blast and Taylor weaves the action through them seamlessly, but what grows frustrating is the fact that Jane and her buddies can dart through all the destruction unscathed. They are several of Malekith’s soldiers hot on their heels, but they just never seem to be able to catch up or hit them with a laser blast. Oh, come on!

Then we have our performers, who for the most part slip comfortably back into the skins of their characters—well, expect for Portman. Hemsworth is still lovable as the gruff God of Thunder, who relishes a good fight but sulks over Jane during the post-battle celebration. I especially enjoyed his increasingly complex relationship with Hiddleston’s Loki, who is as devious as ever. When the lightheartedness is dropped and the two confront each other over the events in New York, the drama cuts like a knife and leaves a sting that is difficult to shake. Eccleston’s Malekith booms with plenty of promises of death and destruction, and it helps that the look of his character just screams evil. Malekith has been downplayed in the trailers, which is nice because it shrouds his character in malevolent mystery. Then we have Portman, who acts as through the material here is beneath her. She fluffs off guys who wish to pursue a relationship with her and she pouts over Thor’s absence like a spoiled child. There is none of the starry-eyed swooning going on here, only huffy obligation and line delivery that seems like she is reading from a script buried in her lap. Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin, Thor’s one-eyed papa who promises to defeat Malekith and his advancing forces. Rene Russo proves to be one tough mama as Frigga, Thor’s mother who gets a chance to engage Malekith in a sword fight. There is also the always-welcome Idris Elba as Heimdall, the gatekeeper of the Bifrost who brings down one of Malekith’s ships with his bare hands. Talk about a major badass!

One of the biggest disappointments of Thor: The Dark World is the fact that the film never adopts the darker tone that was hinted at in the trailer. There are some heavier moments and a few death scenes that will hush the children pacing the aisles with excitement, but it almost always seems obligated to deliver a joke. Mind you, the humor works, but I think it would be nice to see Marvel allow these films to venture into some bleaker territory. This exact problem plagued Iron Man 3, which initially hinted that Phase 2 of the cinematic Marvel universe was going to opt for the shadowy path where our heroes were going to be dealt personal blows from the villians. On the flip side, it is understandable considering that Disney now has a presence and they are desperate to draw in young kids who may be turned off by the darker material. Overall, while the first act is a bit clunky, Thor: The Dark World is bursting with rollicking cosmic thrills in the second and third acts. It may not be Marvel’s finest achievement, but it makes for some solid entertainment that ends with a cliffhanger guaranteed to leave you wanting more. More importantly, it feels like a bonafide standalone story in the series, something that was plaguing the pre-Avengers efforts. As always, make sure to stick around through the credits for some more surprises.

Grade: B

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

by Steve Habrat

When discussing film trilogies, most of the classics feature a third entry that suffers from fatigue in some way, shape, or form. Whether it is from a strained story, waning creativity, or implausible action, by the time the third installment has been reached, it might be time to for the filmmakers and the studio to call it a day. We’ve seen it happen countless times, in classics like the Godfather trilogy, the original Star Wars trilogy, and the Indiana Jones trilogy, all of which include a third entry that is passable entertainment, but lacking when compared to the first two films. Another trilogy that could be added to that list is the Mad Max trilogy, which reached its peak in 1981 with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. In my humble opinion, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior surpasses the original Mad Max and has firmly secured a place among the greatest action movies ever made. In 1985, directors George Miller and George Ogilvie decided to bring their post-apocalyptic series to a close with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which finds the directing duo ditching the brutality that the first two Mad Max films dolled out and getting in touch with their softer side. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is deceiving, especially within the first half hour, but when the film reaches the second kid-friendly act, things start to come apart and fast. Plus, who invited Tina Turner to this party?

Set several years after the events of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome picks up with Max Rockatansky (played by Mel Gibson) wandering through the desert wasteland with his vehicle and a camel. Suddenly, Max is attacked by a plane piloted by Jedediah (played by Bruce Spence), who steals all of Max’s belongings with the help of his young son. Left with nothing, Max finally stumbles upon Bartertown, a colony riddled with the scum of the earth. Left with no other alternative, Max offers up his services to the Collector (played by Frank Thring), who believes the Aunty Entity (played by Tina Turner), the head of Bartertown, may have some use for Max’s skills with a weapon. Max meets with Aunty Entity, who puts Max through an audition to see how good of a fighter he really is. Max passes, and Aunty Entity hires him to infiltrate Bartertown’s Underworld and confront Master Blaster, the duo who oversees the pig feces refinery that powers Bartertown. Max’s job is to start a fight with Blaster (played by Paul Larsson), a mindless, hulking brute that protects the pint-sized Master (played by Angelo Rossitto), and kill him in a gladiatorial competition held in the Thunderdome. Upon learning that Blaster is mentally challenged, Max refuses to kill him in the battle, which leads Aunty Entity to banish him from Bartertown. Not long after he is sent out into the desert, Max is rescued by a group of children who believe he is their savior.

With such a cluttered story, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome almost feels like two movies. The first half, which takes place in Bartertown, seems to fit perfectly with the first two Mad Max movies. It has colorful characters and a steam punk attitude that wins you over almost instantly. The detail of Bartertown is amazingly grungy, overcrowded, and dangerous, the type of place you’d expect to see in a world as cutthroat as this. Miller and Ogilvie guide this promising set up to the Thunderdome, where they stage an impressive fight scene that finds Max and Blaster hoping around on cables and swinging clubs and chain saws at each other while the dusty spectators chant, “Two men enter! One man leaves!” Once the fight is over and Max is sent on his way out into his sandy tomb, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome hits a wall. With the introduction of the tribe of children, the film seems to come to a screeching halt as they babble on endlessly about “Captain Walker,” an airplane pilot who promised them that he would lead them to a new civilization. It is here that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome goes soft on us, only to slightly redeem itself in the final frames by recreating the chase sequence at the end of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.

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Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome does feature an interesting progression within its title character, and Gibson does a fantastic job despite the fact that he is asked to melt some of the ice that formed around his heart. Gone is the cynical man looking out for his best interests and in its place is a guy who seems to have bowed to the world in which he is living. He shrugs his shoulder when Jedediah and his son make off with his belongings and he warms to the tribe of children almost instantly. When in Bartertown, Max is hardened enough to fit right in and his former bad-ass self pokes through when he aims his sawed-off double-barrel shot gun at someone or he lunges at Blaster with a chain saw. Then there is Tina Turner, who does a fine enough job with her villainous role, but is way too distracting with her jazzed up soundtrack conflicting with the action. Bruce Spence is great in his returning role as Jedediah, the Gyro-Pilot from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. He basically only pops in here and there, but he gets a chance to be a real hero near the end of the film. Angelo Rossitto is scummy as Master, the brain behind the flourishing Bartertown, and Paul Larsson is flexing intimidation as the masked muscle Blaster.

Wearing its PG-13 rating proudly, a good majority of the graphic violence that the previous two installments displayed has vanished. Despite the lack of blood and gore, there are still a bunch of stunts that will hold the attention of action junkies. The final chase features plenty of fireballs, crashed dune buggies, and death-defying   stunts aboard a speeding locomotive. The action is undeniably handsome in all its debris-flying glory, but the sequence seems recycled from the second film. The scene in Thunderdome is also pretty epic, as Max and Blaster battle for their lives while hundreds of extras look on through the area’s bars. Just don’t be fooled by the presence of that chain saw. Overall, Miller and Ogilvie’s attempt to extend the scope of this rough and raw series is certainly commendable, and the set direction and costume design, especially in the opening sections, is first-rate. However, the introduction of the children and the sudden shift from merciless action thriller is distractingly spineless and tedious. It’s this kiddie-savior angle that causes Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome to clash with the rest of the series and rank as the worst installment in the Mad Max trilogy.

Grade: C+

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

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by Steve Habrat

In 1979, a small little Austrian action thriller called Mad Max was given a limited release in the United States. The film made a measly $8 million in the U.S., but worldwide, the film took in over $100 million, which caught the eye of Warner Bros. The studio convinced director George Miller to come up with a sequel to his uneven and ultra-violent revenge tale and the rest is history. In 1981, American audiences were re-introduced to Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, a leather-clad follow-up that easily roars past the original film and leaves it choking on its dust. Released under the title The Road Warrior due to lack of audience familiarity with the first Mad Max film, Miller’s follow-up is just as high-octane and colorful as his first film, but The Road Warrior possesses a consistency that the first film didn’t quite enjoy. There is no abrupt revenge climax and the best action sequence doesn’t come blasting at the viewer in the first fifteen minutes. The Road Warrior saves the blistering best for last, a heart-in-the-throat chase executed with real death defying stunts and gnarled steel. And then there is Gibson, turning his vengeful Max into a silent legend who is only looking out for himself.

The Road Warrior begins with a flashback that explains that oil supplies have nearly run dry, and an apocalyptic war has wiped out all remaining law and order. The roaming gangs and surviving humans are locked in a constant battle over the remaining tanks of oil. Among the survivors is Max (played by Mel Gibson), a scowling loner who is still licking the wounds of his family’s brutal demise at the hands of ruthless motorcycle gang leader Toecutter. After narrowly surviving an attack by another motorcycle gang, Max stumbles upon a wandering Gyro-Captain (played by Bruce Spence), who attempts to ambush Max while he tries to steal fuel from his autogyro. Max disarms the Gyro-Captain, who quickly tells Max about a local oil refinery that has been taken over by a band of survivors. Max forces the Gyro-Captain to take him to the oil refinery, where he discovers that the same gang that attempted to attack him on the highway are also attacking the refinery. After the attack, Max finds a wounded refinery survivor, who tells Max that if he gets him back to safety, he can have all the fuel he wants. Max takes the man back to the refinery gates, but the leader of the group, Pappagallo (played by Michael Preston), refuses to make good on the deal. The refinery survivors take Max prisoner, but the gang that has been terrorizing them soon returns to their gates looking to strike a deal. The gang’s leader, The Humungus (played by Kjell Nilsson), explains that if the survivors will hand over their oil, then they can have safe passage from the gang’s territory. The survivors are about to agree when Max steps in and explains that there could be a way for the survivors to protect their precious fuel and escape the gang’s clutches.

After a slightly disturbing, stock-footage heavy stage setter, The Road Warrior jumps right into another high-speed pursuit across the barren wasteland. Miller smashes up more cars and sends more leathery punks careening right at Max’s armored Interceptor, which roars triumphantly along the highway in intimidating black. Motorcycles and supped up rides smash through highway wreckage and bodies go tumbling like dummies through the air. Barely a word is spoken as the carnage blasts the picture to smithereens. Unlike the first Mad Max, this car chase isn’t the highlight of the entire film. Further down the line, we are treated to wide shots of the gang relentlessly attacking the oil refinery, jumping their motorcycles at the walls like the crazed maniacs that they are. With the lack of computer effects (it was 1981, folks), these attacks are so white-knuckle because they are being executed with real flesh and real machine. There is not a phony stunt to be found within the action. Miller is just teasing us, as he works up to a car chase finale that involves a rusted tanker, a slew of armored dune buggies, the autogyro, and more high-speed destruction than you can handle. And believe me when I say it looks and sounds absolutely fantastic, better than anything we see in the CGI-heavy blockbusters of today.

The Road Warrior #2

Standing out amongst the twisted metal are the flesh and blood characters, especially Gibson’s animalistic Max. Stripped of his family man warmth, Max has let himself be overcome with his vengeance. He no longer fights for others and even if he wanted to, the Main Force Police is long gone. He looks out for only himself, scavenging to make it from day to day while chowing down on some dog food that he shares with his four-legged pooch. Near the end, when Max sits behind the wheel of the tanker, we catch a glimpse of the man he once was, a man fighting for those who are unable to stand up for themselves. Preston’s Pappagallo is the figure the guides Max back onto the helping track. He pleas for Max to help them make their escape from the bloodthirsty gang that won’t let them go. Spence’s Gyro-Captain is more of a cartoonish sidekick to Max, but he turns out to be pretty useful with a Molotov cocktail. Nilsson’s homoerotic villain The Humungus conceals a mutated mug behind a futuristic hockey mask and enjoys keeping any gang member that displeases him on a leash as his personal pet for a day. Vernon Wells turns up as The Humungus’ crazed lieutenant, Wez, who leads the early highway attack on Max. Emil Minty is present in a small but significant role as the Feral Kid, a grunting little runt with a seriously deadly boomerang.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of The Road Warrior is how surprisingly violent the film actually is. While there were a few gruesome deaths and images in Mad Max, a good majority of the violence was kept off screen. The Road Warrior is a completely different story. People are thrown off motorcycles, strapped to the front of dune buggies and then tortured, rundown, or taking a boomerang right to the side of their head. This is a shocker considering that the original Mad Max was a foreign import made outside the studio system. In addition to the amped-up violence, there is a strong sexual and homoerotic feel to some of the characters, especially in The Humungus and Wez, but this touch is oddly fitting for the film. It also gives way to one of the film’s greatest sight gags, which involves two of The Humongous’ gang members having sex in a tent, only to find themselves out in the open after a car goes roaring past. Overall, with timeless effects, distinct characters, and skull-crushing action, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior has stood the test of time and become a highly influential action classic. It is a massive step up for the Mad Max series and it ranks near the top of the greatest action films ever made.

Grade: A

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Mad Max (1979)

Mad Max #1

by Steve Habrat

In 1979, a violent little dystopian action thriller from Australia introduced a majority of the world to an unknown actor by the name of Mel Gibson. Made for only $400,000, director George Miller’s Mad Max barely made a ripple in the United States, and it wouldn’t be until the 1982 sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior that American audiences would be familiar with the gruff Gibson. Today, many genre fans consider Mad Max to be one of the greatest action films ever made, second only to it’s follow-up, but the original film actually fails to live up to some of the hype that surrounds it. There are spurts of exploitation violence, high-octane car chases, and fiery car wrecks that are sure to please anyone who considers themselves a fan of savage cinema from the 1970s, but the revenge aspect of Mad Max, which reveals itself in the last fifteen minutes of the film, seems crammed in and brushed over. Despite the flawed climax, Mad Max does have plenty of apocalyptic action and death-defying stunts to keep you pinned to your seat (Holy destroyed camper, Batman!) and there are colorful characters galore. The major draw here is Gibson and his performance as Max, an upstanding Main Force Patrol officer who is the king of the gang-infested highways.

Mad Max opens on the desolate highways of Australia, which is in ruin due to the dwindling supply of oil. The highways are infested with motorcycle gangs who crash into small towns, raid their supplies of oil, and terrorize the town citizens. The only ones fighting for law and order are the Main Force Patrol, a leather-clad police force who battles the gangs in their supped up Interceptors. One of the best officers working for the MFP is Max Rockatansky (played by Mel Gibson), who is extremely skilled when it comes to high-speed pursuits. After Max runs down escaped motorcycle gang member Nightrider (played by Vincent Gil), vicious gang leader and Nightrider’s friend Toecutter (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne) vows to track down the MFP officers responsible for Nightriders death. Max and his partner, Jim “Goose” Rains (played by Steve Bisley), respond to attacks by Toecutter’s gang in a local small town and when they arrive, they arrest Johnny “The Boy” Boyle (played by Tim Burns), Toecutter’s protégé. It doesn’t take long for Johnny to find a way out of jail and while he is being escorted out, he makes violent threats against Max and Goose. Johnny meets back up with Toecutter and the two start plotting revenge against Max and Goose. The gang soon makes good on their violent threats against the MFP officers, which forces Max to consider retirement from the force. However, when the gang attacks Max’s family, he takes to the highways to dish out a little revenge.

Early on, Miller sets the bar high with a breakneck car chase that features more destruction and more eye-popping stunts than any CGI offering of today. A family’s camper is turned to dust as a car goes ripping right through it, Interceptors spin and tumble wildly about the highway, and Max watches over all of it with calculation, waiting for the proper moment to strike. It’s like a futuristic chase through the Wild West as Miller pulls his camera back to reveal the parched and rocky Australian landscape. Miller follows the chase scene up with an intimidating raid on a rundown town, which acts as our brutal introduction to Toecutter. It drips in exploitation even if some of the nastier stuff if kept just off screen and it nicely builds up a slew of despicable villains that we sincerely dislike. As Mad Max speeds on, the film slowly starts to loose the momentum that it gathered in those opening moments. Each new attack or action sequence seems to pale in comparison to what we saw early on. Miller gets back on track briefly when Max’s family is horrifically attacked while they flee on foot down that dreaded highway, but then the film takes on a hurried tone, almost like Miller just wants to finish the revenge side of the film off. The climax is way too brief considering its importance and it fails to really let the viewer feel or savor any one moment. However, the final sequence that finds one character handcuffed to a wrecked vehicle is undeniably influential.

Mad Max #2

While the action and suspense of Mad Max may slowly slip, Miller makes sure that his cast is one of the most memorable in the action genre. Gibson is electrifying as Max, a skilled MFP officer and softie family man who fears the horrors of his job may push him over the edge. Some of the scenes between Max and his wife, Jessie (played by Joanne Samuel), are a bit too sweet for some of the harsher moments of the film, but these scenes make Max’s violent transformation all the more intense. When Gibson unleashes his gruff vengeance, you can tell that he was born to be action star. Bisley is enthusiastic as Goose, Max’s ruthless, motor-mouthed partner who meets a particularly grisly end. Tim Burns gives a dazed performance as Johnny, Toecutter’s depraved protégé who enjoys rapping and attacking anyone who dares cross him. Hugh Keays-Byrne gives a particularly disturbed performance as Toecutter, a shaggy biker who is calm one minute and then foaming at the mouth the next. His fury over the death of Nightrider is guaranteed to send a chill. Roger Ward has several great moments as Fifi, the hulking MFP captain with a strong man mustache and a bald dome. There is something exciting about the way he encourages his officers to track down this bloodthirsty gang by any means necessary and he reveals a softer side when he tries to convince Max to stay on the force.

Despite its abrupt climax, Mad Max does have an unusually fast paced feel about it. It comes, it entertains, and then it speeds off down the highway. The style that Miller applied to Mad Max has also clearly rubbed off on many action and science fiction directors over the years, especially the look of the cars, which all have an armored predatory aesthetic about them. It is also worth tracking down the film just to admire a film that applies real stunts over computer fakery. It truly is amazing to see what Miller was able to pull off with so little. It lacks polish but the action is unshakably raw and in your face. As far as the violence goes, there is a hearty dose of blood and gore, but most of the really nasty stuff is implied. I don’t think there is anyone out there who would want to see what Toecutter and his gang do to Max’s son. There is an extra graphic scene near the end that finds our hero stumbling down the highway with a smashed up hand and a bloody leg. Overall, for all the action junkies out there, Mad Max is certainly a must-see if you haven’t already experienced it. It isn’t the smartest film you are ever going to see, but its impact on action cinema does make it an essential film within the genre. However, the sins of the climax prevent it from truly becoming a classic.

Grade: B-

Mad Max is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Favorite Cornetto Trilogy Installment… GO!

Shaun of the Dead Cornetto

Hot Fuzz Cornetto

The World's End Cornetto

Hot Fuzz (2007)

Hot Fuzz #1

by Steve Habrat

In 2004, director Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost wowed genre audiences everywhere with their fantastic rom-zom-com debut Shaun of the Dead. In 2005, Wright and Pegg had brief cameos in George A. Romero’s 2005 comeback Land of the Dead and in the spring of 2007, Wright, Pegg, and Frost contributed the wonderfully spot-on fake trailer Don’t to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, the severely underrated double-feature ode to sleaze pictures of the 70s and 80s. Their hot streak continued just a few short weeks later with the release of the cop-slasher hybrid Hot Fuzz, a zippy, bloody, gory, and flat-out hilarious adrenaline rush that found the guys returning to the big screen in a colossal way. Riffing on Point Break, Bad Boys II, and almost every other action movie that Michael Bay has ever made, Wright and his double-trouble duo then drive this flashing police car straight into the whodunit slasher genre with guns blazing. Brimming with winks and nods to everything they love, Wright once again smartly tells a highly original story that turns Hot Fuzz into a modern day action masterpiece. It also has the world’s funniest swan and a gunfight to end all gunfights, so that is also a plus too.

Nicholas Angel (played by Simon Pegg) is the best police office in London. He is so good at his job that he is starting to make the other officers on the police force look bad. One day, Nicholas is called into a meeting with Chief Inspector Kenneth (played by Bill Nighy), who explains that Nicholas is going to be transferred to the rural town of Sanford, a picturesque community that is devoid of crime. Upon his arrival, Nicholas meets Inspector Frank Butterman (played by Jim Broadbent) and his simple-minded son Danny Butterman (played by Nick Forst). Frank partners up the overachieving Nicholas up with the lackadaisical Danny and sends the duo out to patrol the quiet streets. Everything seems to be going okay until a series of brutal accidents sends a shockwave through the town residents. Convinced that there is more to these accidents than meets the eye, Nicholas and Danny launch an investigation that brings them face to face with a hooded killer. With prominent members of the community dropping like flies, Nicholas and Danny race to put an end to the hooded figure’s killing spree, but the closer they get to catching the murderer, the more secrets that are revealed about the seemingly peaceful town of Sanford.

Bigger and badder than Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz has studied the action manual very hard and it knows what we have come to expect. The aesthetic is sleek and shiny, with even the smallest moments spiffed up to make our eyes pop. Early on, Nicholas arrests a handful of underage teens sipping suds in Sanford’s pub and as Nicholas books them at the station, Wright cuts quickly, pulling off several flashy camera tricks and even speeding up or slowing down the action for maximum effect. It’s absolutely hilarious and a very clever nod to Michael Bay and his insistence on stylizing every little detail. When the action goes boom, we get the typical slow motion shot of the heroes walking away from the fiery destruction in the background. The climax finds Wright including everything from police chases to gritty gun battles, all the way to a final mano-y-mano that ends in a sight gag that is simultaneously horrific and hilarious. Once again, Wright manages to carefully balance out the action side of the story with the whodunit/slasher aspect. The murder mystery is fun and it does make for a few good jump moments that will keep you on your toes. In a way, you are left crossing your fingers that the guys might reunite down the line for a straight up slasher movie. I have a feeling that it might be another home run from Wright.

Hot Fuzz #2

As if the flashy action and the slasher plotline weren’t enough for one motion picture, Wright pumps in a heartwarming buddy-cop subplot. A good majority of the fun comes from watching Pegg and Frost interact with each other, mostly because they are such polar opposites. In Shaun of the Dead, they were on the same dazed wavelength but in Hot Fuzz, they are like oil in water. Pegg excels at the supercop role, never missing a moment to turn his by-the-books Nicholas into a Buzz Killington. He drags the buzzed youth down to the station even though the local-yokels argue that allowing the boys to have a few brews in a local pub keeps them from causing trouble in the streets. When he reluctantly agrees to hang out with Danny outside of work, he refuses a beer and orders a simple cranberry juice. He bottles up his anger when he is sent to round up a runaway swan, one of the film’s funniest running jokes and he sighs through boredom as Danny invites him to his house to watch Bad Boys II and Point Break. On the other hand, Frost’s Danny is sweet and simple, a guy who really could care less about his day job and would much rather be at home getting lost in a fantasy world of exploding cars, gunfire, and mayhem. You practically cheer for him when he gets the chance to pick up some firepower and join Nicholas on the streets for a good old-fashion shootout and you’ll be doubled over laughing when he gets to act out his favorite scene from Point Break.

As far the supporting players go, Broadbent is a riot as the merry Sanford Police Inspector who pairs up Nicholas and Danny. Bill Nighy is perfectly dry as the Chief Inspector who ships Nicholas off to dead end and Timothy Dalton gives a suave performance as Simon Skinner, a supermarket manager who seems awfully suspicious. Interestingly enough, Cate Blanchett turns up as Janine, Nicholas’s girlfriend in a HAZMAT suit and director Peter Jackson stops by for an appearance as the Santa Claus that attacks Nicholas in the opening credits. If there were anything to nitpick in Hot Fuzz, it would probably have to be the length of the film. With so much happening within the plot, the film does run a bit too long and the climax starts to feel a bit like overkill even if Wright is desperately trying to cram in as many action movie staples as he can. Overall, it is clear that Wright, Pegg, Frost, and nearly every other actor or actress in Hot Fuzz is having a ball and their good time does rub off on the viewer. Wright and Pegg’s screenplay never misses a beat and the laughs blast at the viewer like bullets. You may never be able to look at a swan the same way again.

Grade: A-

Hot Fuzz is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Kick Ass 2 #1

by Steve Habrat

Anytime someone asks me to list off a few of my favorite superhero movies, I always make sure to include director Matthew Vaughn’s full-throttle 2010 offering Kick-Ass among my top picks. I am a huge fan of the controversial original, loving it so much that I even included it in my top ten films of 2010 list. I found the film to be a hugely entertaining sugarcoated parody of the superhero genre and a work that had its fingers firmly on the pulse of the new teen generation. Plus, it features two must-see performances from Nicholas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz. It should come as no surprise that news of a Kick-Ass sequel grabbed my attention and had me very excited. After a little over three years, Kick Ass and his merry band of misfit teen superheroes and super villains return in Kick-Ass 2, a surprisingly rushed and flawed follow-up to the anarchic original. There’s no denying that Kick-Ass 2 is plagued by flat filmmaking, sloppy scenes, one very shaky performance, and way too many characters to flesh out, but the film still manages to be a madcap rush, all while smartly lampooning a generation brought up on the glow of an iPhone screen, social media, One Direction, and bath salts.

Picking up a few years after the events of the first film, comic book fanatic Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Taylor Johnson) has decided to retire his Kick Ass persona. He shuffles through school in a daze thinking back on his run as a high-profile superhero and considers hopping back in the saddle. After some contemplation, he decides to reconnect with former ally Mindy Macready AKA Hit-Girl (played by Chloe Grace Moretz), who is now in the care of her deceased father’s closest friend, Sergeant Marcus Williams (played by Morris Chestnut). Mindy agrees to help get Dave back on his feet but she is quickly forced to hang up her cape after Marcus discovers that she is still taking to the streets as the ferocious Hit-Girl. It doesn’t take Dave long to discover that his Kick-Ass persona has inspired a slew of costumed vigilantes that are eager to pick up where he left off. Fellow masked vigilante Dr. Gravity (played by Donald Faison) soon recruits Dave to join the vigilante group “Justice Forever,” an organization run by the mysterious Colonel Stars and Stripes (played by Jim Carrey). Meanwhile, Dave’s former superhero partner Chris D’Amico AKA Red Mist (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is busy plotting his revenge against Kick-Ass. Redubbing himself The Motherfucker, Chris begins recruiting a gang of psychopaths that will aid him on his quest of tracking down Kick-Ass and destroying New York City.

With Vaughn out of the director’s chair and serving only as producer, the Kick-Ass franchise has been handed over to Jeff Wadlow, the man responsible for such films as Cry Wolf and Never Back Down. Wadlow quickly proves that he has a handle on action-oriented sequences of Kick-Ass 2, as the same blood-drenched carnage that cut through the original film quickly comes roaring back with a vengeance. There are a number of stand out scenes including a back alley brawl that manages to capture some of the giddy shock that pulsed through our first encounter with Hit-Girl, back when she hacked through a living room of thugs as the inexperienced Kick-Ass looked on in absolute disbelief and horror. There is also a claustrophobic fistfight between “Justice Forever” and a room of seedy gangsters (capped off with a dog chewing off a gangsters unmentionables), a fiery suburban battle between the hulking Mother Russia (played with gusto by Olga Kurkulina) and a slew of cops (wait for a visual gag including a lawn mower), and a massive final showdown that looks like Wadlow took a bunch of neighborhood kids to see the climax of The Dark Knight Rises, told them to go home and make their own superhero or supervillian costumes, and then take to the streets to duke it out. It’s all very entertaining and guaranteed to put a smile on your face, that is, if you can stomach blood, spit, and chunks of flesh flying across the screen.

Kick Ass 2 #2

While the action is good and gory, Kick-Ass 2 really begins to clutter itself with numerous characters that all seem undercooked. The first time around, Aaron Taylor Johnson was the star of the show and everyone else was just a colorful supporting player, but with this film, he has to share the limelight with Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl. Johnson is still bursting with lovable geeky charm and its fun to see him with sharper fighting skills when he throws the green wet suit on, but when Chris D’Amico begins targeting his personal life, his character’s inner struggle with throwing on the mask seems snubbed. Meanwhile, the heavy focus on the fan favorite Mindy/Hit-Girl is certainly welcome, but it seems like it is treading on the toes of Dave’s story. Mind you, Mindy’s plotline is still clever, one that reflects upon her pursuit of a normal life and trying to fit in with the popular girls at school. Moretz is such a talented young actress and she brings real bite when she is forced to turn the tables on the cheerleading clique that dares wrong her. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Jim Carrey as the scene-stealer Colonel Stars and Stripes, a born again ex-mob enforcer with some foul chompers and a habit of taking a baseball bat to the REALLY bad guys. Carrey is really only in the film for about twenty minutes, which is a shame because you want to know more about him. Instead, his backstory is relegated to a handful of exchanges between other “Justice Forever” members that he has taken the time to mentor.

Perhaps the weakest player in the cast is Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Chris/The Motherfucker. There is no doubt in my mind that Plasse absolutely loves this role, but his over-the-top approach to the character begins to feel cheap after a while. His character is built simply to shock at every turn, making you long for something to really drive his evil scheme. It doesn’t help that his comedic timing seems to be on the fritz. As far as the supporting players go, Faison is on point but underused as the smiley Dr. Gravity, returning cast member Clark Duke has softened as Dave’s best buddy Marty/Battle Guy, Robert Emms is fidgety as the homosexual do-gooder Insect Man, and Lindy Booth is bubbly and sexy as the femme fatale Night-Bitch. Booth’s Night Bitch is established as a love interest for Kick-Ass, but by the end, its gone without a trace. As far as the bad guys go, Kurkulina is pure roid rage as the one-woman-army Mother Russia, Andy Nyman is pure sleaze as The Tumor, Daniel Kaluuya is wasted menace as Black Death, and Tom Wu is filler as Genghis Carnage. Basically, all most of them are asked to do is march behind Plasse and scowl into the camera, although there is a bad ass battle between pint sized Hit Girl and stone cold Mother Russia. The most cringe-worthy character of all is probably Augustus Prew’s Todd, Dave’s dim former buddy who joins sides with The Motherfucker and then acts surprised that he did. It’s about as underwritten as characters get, especially ones that double-cross their buddies.

While some botched supporting characters and graphic violence play tug of war, the intimate moments are the ones that really could have used more attention from the filmmakers. There are times when heartfelt exchanges feel like they were written with graphic novel dialogue and it doesn’t help that some of these scenes feel like Wadlow simply aimed his camera at one of the Kick-Ass graphic novels and hit record. The best of the serious-minded moments comes when the “Justice Forever” team takes turns explaining why they decided to put on masks and fight crime. It may be a slightly lazy double for brief character development, but a few of the stories do strike a chord and have an eerie sense of realism about them. The saving grace to the bland presentation and stiff dialogue is the fact that, once again, the project dares to prod teen culture of today. Overall, amidst the numerous problems that plague Kick-Ass 2, there is still some enjoyment to be found. Carrey hits the crazy button with an oversized Acme hammer and then whispers warm advice that cuts right to the heart of our young heroes, the action is just as crazy/disturbing/cool as it was the first time around, and you just gotta love that Hit-Girl. If you’re in the target audience or willing to keep an open mind, Kick-Ass 2 will make for a passable night at the movies.

Grade: B-

District 9 (2009)

District 9

by Steve Habrat

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

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

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

District 9 #2

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

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

Grade: A+

District 9 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.