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Badlands (1973)

by Steve Habrat

It is virtually impossible to shake Terrence Malick’s 1973 debut film Badlands from your head once you have seen it. This arty crime thriller that is based off of the real-life 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate watches the horrific actions of these two young murderers with a frustrating and nonjudgmental gaze throughout the hour and a half this senseless rampage lasts. This is a gaze that turns your insides to stone and freezes you in place while you watch Malick soften the blows of the chilly violence with whimsical music and achingly beautiful images of nature being nature. To say that one becomes almost as detached as these two misfit killers continue their journey is an understatement. You will fail to be moved when Martin Sheen’s captivating Kit blasts one of his victims without a glimmer of remorse as the body falls to the ground. Welcome to Badlands, one of the most extraordinary debuts from a director you are ever likely to see and one you are surely never going to forget. Complimented by a marvelous voice over teen dream confession from Kit’s galpal and accomplice Holly, Badlands becomes the road trip from Hell as bodies senselessly pile up even though our two young lovers know that this wind-in-the-hair freedom cannot and will not last.

One day while walking home from work, young garbage collector Kit Carruthers (Played by Martin Sheen) notices dreamy redheaded teen Holly Sargis (Played by Sissy Spacek) twirling a baton in her front yard. The two really hit it off but Holly is reluctant to really get close to Kit because she fears that her father (Played by Warren Oats) will not allow her to go out with a garbage collector. Soon, things begin to go sour at work for the rebellious Kit and he decides that he is going to run off with Holly. After Holly’s father refuses to let Holly leave, Kit murders him and then burns the house down. The two disappear into the woods and they attempt to make a life for themselves but they are soon discovered and chased off by a trio of bounty hunters. As Kit and Holly begin making their way towards the Montana badlands, they leave a trail of random murders in their wake. As their journey continues, police and bounty hunters slowly close in on the duo but Kit has no intentions of going down without a fight.

Malick’s Badlands is relentlessly surreal and oftentimes strangely dethatched, seemingly off in its own little world, much like the two misfit fugitives at the heart of the film. As they flee from their dead-end small town and wander into the strange and unforgiving landscape, Malick’s camera comes to life and gazes longingly at this barren, almost alien land that is acting as the stage from Kit to lash out at anyone standing in his way. Malick never demands that we come to one definitive conclusion about these kids and he even makes Kit strangely charismatic despite his trigger-happy tendencies. He almost clings to some foreign string of innocence as southern drawl threats pour from his mouth almost like syrup. This is the most disturbing part of Badlands, the fact that we never truly loathe the monsters causing all this senseless chaos. They seem to enjoy the thrill of it all even though the fully understand that they are bound for chains and shackles at some point. At one point, Kit tells his buddy Cato (Played by Ramon Bieri) that they may make a try for Mexico but just by the tone in his voice, you get the impression that he doesn’t half believe that they will make it.

Then we have Spacek’s Holly, who speaks to us in a child-like confession, dejected but never truly alarmed by what she has seen and done. While Kit thinly conceals his doubt that they will stay out of the law’s clutches, Holly doesn’t hide it in her confessions. She is a typical teenager, one who lacks one specific direction and is still trying to get to know herself. She speaks of moving on after her run with Kit is over and finding another boy to settle down with, almost like this is just a backyard game of cat and mouse that will end when her father calls her in for dinner. At one point she hints that she knows she is Kit’s puppet, telling a young girl that “Kit says ‘frog’ and I say how high” just before Kit guns the girl down. The two watch these murders with a sense of awe, impressed that they are capable of taking lives without a nervous blink or a shoulder twitch. Holly almost seems fascinated by it, even when her own father meets one of Kit’s bullets and lies bleeding out on the floor. She is angry for only a moment, slapping Kit as tears well up in her eyes but this is only brief and it is all the creepier for it. Later on, Holly watches a man slowly die in front of her and she almost studies it, pouring over the fading light in the man’s eyes before his last breath exits his lungs.

As Badlands inches out of small town America and into the flat plains, the film takes on a western vibe with hints of a fairy tale whispered by a naive angel. These fairy tale hints also come from the chiming score from George Tipton, which enters the scenes low and adds an aura of whimsicality to the looming terror. While Badlands certainly frightens us with its insistent grit realism, it soothes us over with the beauty in between the fits of violence. The magnetic terror is abundant in the performances from Spacek and Sheen, two young talents who give the performance of their careers. Sheen is the one who earns the gold star for his chatty killer who sees himself as an adrift rebel with a soft spot for Nat ‘King’ Cole. Oats is also brilliant as Holly’s stern father who dares to stand up to Sheen’s rebellious greaser. The cinematography is to die for and the 50’s set design is fussy but never particularly overwhelming. Overall, Malick’s accessible but emotionally complicated vision of an America loosing its grip on innocence stands as an American classic. It is essential viewing for those who have a deep love of cinema and a film that elbows its way onto the list of most impactful films you are likely ever to see.

Grade: A+

Badlands is available on DVD.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

by Steve Habrat

For a film that has been selling itself on the promise of telling us the untold story about Spider-Man’s origins, The Amazing Spider-Man feels suspiciously familiar. Replace the original actors with some fresh faces, toss out Mary Jane as the love interest, bring in new director Marc Webb, and scrub away pervious director Sam Raimi’s fresh-off-the-pulp-page style and you have Marvel’s good but not really amazing reboot of their ultimate cash cow. The debate still rages on about whether it was a smart move on Marvel’s part to reboot the Spider-Man franchise just five short years after Sam Raimi left a bitter taste in our mouths with the overly crowded Spider-Man 3. In my opinion, I believe that it was a bit early, especially since Webb’s reboot didn’t really take on much of a life of its own and Raimi’s series is still pretty fresh in my mind. Even though this is familiar territory, Marvel still understands what worked in the previous Spider-Man series and it refuses to let go of that formula. I guess it means a big payday so I can’t really say I blame them.

The Amazing Spider-Man re-introduces us to gangly but brilliant teenager Peter Parker (Played by Andrew Garfield), who is under the care of his warm hearted Uncle Ben (Played by Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Played by Sally Field). Peter has been under their watchful eye since he was a young boy, his parents mysteriously dropping him off at Uncle Ben and Aunt May’s one night and then disappearing without another word. Peter attends Midtown Science High School, where he snaps photos for the school year book, is the target of bullies, and crushes on the equally brilliant Gwen Stacy (Played by Emma Stone). One day, Peter stumbles upon his father’s old brief case and in it, documents that link his father to the pharmaceutical company Oscorp. Peter goes on to discover that his father worked closely with a man named Dr. Curt Connors (Played by Rhys Ifans), who severed contact with the young Peter after his parents disappeared. After sneaking into Oscorp to meet Dr Connors, Peter stumbles upon a laboratory that is crawling with those iconic genetically modified spiders. One naturally finds its way into Peter’s clothing and gives him a painful bite on the neck. He quickly begins to notice some strange by powerful side effects taking effect. Meanwhile, Dr Connors is researching cross-species genetics, which would allow Dr. Connors to re-grow a missing limb. After being rushed into human testing, Dr. Connors tests a serum on himself, with devastating consequences.

Director Marc Webb (yes, that is his real name) and his team of screenwriters understand that what appealed to us in the original Spider-Man movies was indeed the boy behind the bug-eyed mask. Webb allows his camera to linger on Peter for quite some time before throwing him behind that famous mask and letting him loose on the rooftops of New York City. There was a lot to like in that story about the bullied nerd who seemed helpless in defending himself suddenly becoming more powerful than he could have ever imagined. The Amazing Spider-Man really lets us see Peter’s anguish, from the suppressed anger over his parent’s sudden disappearance to the cold-blooded murder of his Uncle Ben. Peter gets an up close and personal look at the ugly side of life and what that ugly side can dish out. While all of this isn’t really new, Webb still manages to wring out some easy emotion from it by shrouding it in shadows and tearstains. Garfield’s Peter isn’t afraid to let the tears of pain fall down his face and paired with the swelling score from James Horner, you’ll find yourself getting easily sucked in to that pain and really feeling it. Webb knows that we can’t resist weepy and he really has a blast hitting the sob button multiple times throughout The Amazing Spider-Man.

The best part of The Amazing Spider-Man is the casting choices, mostly Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. Garfield and Stone, who struck up an off screen romance while shooting the film, allow that real life spark to translate and boy, does it pay off. They capture and quickly bottle the giggly self-consciousness of first love and allow it to mature into a confident romance. The little moments between Parker and Stacy easily outshine any of the nail-biting action scenes. You will also find yourself falling for Sheen’s Uncle Ben and Field’s Aunt May, both who are game to play loving guardians to the awkward teen shut away in his bedroom upstairs. Sheen’s Uncle Ben is given endless amounts of fatherly wisdom to pour onto Peter but he does it with quite a bit of spirit. Field’s Aunt May is stuck with grieving throughout much of the film but she is in full command when in front of the camera. Then we have Ifans as Dr Curt Connors/The Lizard, who is a revelation as Peter’s mentor but unsure of himself as the deformed monster. In many respects, he is similar to Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin from the 2002 original, minus the hover board and firepower. For the dark and serious approach, he is at times a bit too fantastical and his destructive plot is unintentionally funny.

What would a Spider-Man film be without the swinging action sequences that are hell-bent on giving us vertigo? There are plenty of showdowns between The Lizard and Spidey to keep the adrenaline flowing but Webb never dares to construct an action scene that we haven’t seen before. He converts it all into 3D and then just sends webs flying our way along with various other debris, rubble, and dust. I found myself getting sucked out of some of the action sequences because Spidey is just too mordant. He does muster up a few good one-liners, especially one about his weakness being “small knives” and a critique of a car thief’s wardrobe (both which you have seen in the trailer).  There is a gun-snapping brawl with a SWAT team that pits Spidey against skeptical police Captain Stacy (Played by the underused Dennis Leary), who has vowed to get the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man off the streets. I won’t say much about the edge-of-your-seat finale except that Spider-Man is bruised, battered, and has his back against the wall, on the lookout for all the help he can get. It is all done up in a CGI confrontation that takes Spider-Man to the very top of the New York City skyscrapers.

If Marvel would have held off for a few more years before deciding to revisit the Spider-Man universe, I think they could have come up with something inventive and invigorating. Instead, they rushed into something that obviously could have used a bit more thought and it is apparent in more than a few scenes of The Amazing Spider-Man. Spot on casting wasn’t enough to blind us to the fact they didn’t really elaborate on the beloved superhero. Still, The Amazing Spider-Man does offer up plenty of escapist summer thrills to warrant a trip to the theater to check it out. There is tons of immersive 3D and tweaked special effects, the best scenes being the ones where Spidey is swinging in between buildings. Since Marvel has insisted upon Spider-Man swinging across the movie screen once again, I am curious to see where they take the Webhead in future installments and I can’t wait to see how Garfield develops the character. I guess that is all any good but not amazing origin story can do.

Grade: B+