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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

Just four short months ago, Marvel Studios broke away from their kid-friendly formula with Captain America: The Winter Solider, which found the star-spangled man with a plan punching, kicking, and stabbing his way through a shadowy political thriller. It was refreshingly gritty and darker than anything the pulpy Marvel had released before, and it turned out to be the comic book studio’s best Avengers movie yet. As the summer movie season winds down, audiences are still searching for that one blockbuster that leaves you floating on cloud nine. There have a handful of pleasing efforts (Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) that passed the time nicely, but none have contained the zippiness of Marvel’s newest adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy. Fitted with a title that calls to mind serial space adventures of the 1950s, and playing out like an episode of The Jetsons crossed with the original Star Wars, director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a cosmic daydream of a superhero movie—one that continuously delights as it zooms from one dazzling planet to the next. Even more exciting is the fact that Marvel studios—who has clung largely to four well-known protagonists—has taken a risk on a band of lovable misfit thugs who have always shied away from Marvel’s mainstream line of comics.

Guardians of the Galaxy picks up in 1988, with a young Peter Quill having to say goodbye to his terminally ill mother. After suddenly passing, Peter bolts from the hospital into the foggy night, where he is spotted by a UFO and beamed up into space. In present day, Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (played by Chris Pratt) is a wanted man across the galaxy. He earns a living by working for a space pirate by the name of Yondu (played by Michael Rooker), who is always flirting with taking the reckless Peter’s life. After stealing a mysterious metallic sphere from an abandoned planet, Peter finds himself being hunted down by a green-skinned assassin called Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana), a tough-talking furball named Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Rocket’s simple-minded muscle and personal houseplant, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). After being rounded up for causing a ruckus in the streets of Xandar, Peter, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot are all arrested by Nova Corps and shipped off to a massive prison called Kyln. Upon their arrival, the group meets Drax (played by Dave Bautista), a hulking madman who is eager to kill Gamora for her affiliation with Ronan (played by Lee Pace), a Kree alien who wishes to get his hands on the sphere for his own destructive pleasures. After discovering the money that can be made by selling the orb, the group bands together to break out of the maximum-security prison, but hot on their tail is Ronan and his extremely deadly assassin Nebula (played by Karen Gillian), both of which know that the sphere houses more terrifying power than the misfit group could ever imagine.

Given the absurdity of some of the characters that make up the core team in Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn gives the film a self-aware sense of humor that is downright infectious. Part of Marvel’s allure is that they don’t take themselves too seriously, and Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t dare break this tradition. In fact, it’s even more cartoonish than The Avengers, and the humor is even more in your face than anything you have seen in the past. Part of the credit must go to the script, which was penned by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, which crackles with sparkling one liners that are simultaneously bad ass and hilarious. Gunn has already proven himself to have a handle on comedy, as he expertly blended it with horror in his underrated 2006 horror flick Slither and his 2010 indie superhero outing Super, but it’s nice to see him introducing his talent to the mainstream. While there is certainly a strong emphasis on comedy, Gunn never forget to bring the razzle-dazzle sci-fi action. The standout is easily the bonkers prison break that finds our heroes improvising their way out of an industrial prison housing a whole bunch of extraterrestrial crazies with faces only their mother’s could love. And we can’t forget the battle on Knowhere, where a drunken Drax attempts to put the smack down on an alarmingly calm Ronan, and the rest of our heroes jump into an aerial battle without the luxury of weapons bolted to their spaceships.

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While Guardians of the Galaxy certainly wins big with its balance of zinger jokes and fizzy action, the best part of the film is the five main characters that we glide through the stars with. Parks and Recreation funnyman Chris Pratt finally hits the big time with Peter Quill/Star-Lord, a bopping outlaw who dances his way to his prizes. He brings plenty of his man-child charm to the character, but what really surprises is his chops as an action star. He really holds his own in the rock-em-sock-em moments. The sexy Zoe Saldana is as fierce as ever as Gamora, a green-skinned assassin who would take out a whole room full of hulking extraterrestrials if one dares to look at her wrong. There is naturally a love story that begins to blossom between Quill and Gamora, and it unfolds with sweet patience and plenty of beating heart. Then we have Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer, an extremely literal beefcake on a quest to exact revenge on those who are responsible for his family’s death. The WWE wrestler shows off serious talent as a comedian and nabs some of the film’s best one liners, specifically one about Quill’s sarcastic remarks going right over his head. The ever-popular Bradley Cooper lends his nearly unrecognizable voice to the CGI Rocket Racoon, a genetically engineered rodent who can’t resist massive machine guns and hocking a loogie right in captor’s direction. Perhaps the core team’s best member is Vin Diesel’s Groot, a tree-like creature capable of only saying three words: “I am Groot.” Groot gets some of the funniest moments of the film, and when he’s called upon to protect the group, he does so hair-raising fury.

As far as the supporting roles go—and trust me, there are plenty of them—nearly every single performance manages to sparkle. Lee Pace bulges his eyes and booms threats to the good and the evil as Ronan, a ruthless adversary that wishes to inflict some serious pain on the galaxy. Beninco del Toro’s flamboyant Taneleer Tivan/The Collector seems to be being groomed for the villainous role in future installments of the series. Del Toro injects a bit of edgy unpredictability into The Collector, which leaves you wanting more from his character. The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker brings his tough guy act to Yondu, the leader of a band of space pirates called Ravagers. His bright blue skin and crooked teeth sure make him a visual marvel, but wait until he reveals a secret weapon that makes him a man you certainly don’t want to cross. Karen Gillian gets to bear her fangs as Nebula, Ronan’s loyal number to who slices and dices her way to her opponents. Djimon Hounsou gets wicked as fellow Ronan supporter Korath, Glenn Close dives into sci-fi as Nova Corps leader Nova Prime, and John C. Reilly largely keeps a straight face as Nova Corps soldier Rhomann Dey.

On the technical end of Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn and his crew think up frame after frame of sci-fi splendor that just looks fantastic. The make-up effects are ornate and unique, the CGI landscapes are clean and convincing, and the set work is vibrant and detailed. The final battle between Ronan’s forces and the Guardians hurls plenty of shimmering eye candy at the audience, and it captures a bit of the rollicking spirit of classic summer blockbusters we’ve all come to know and love. It’s retro feel and the sunny nostalgia for ‘80s summer blockbusters that ultimately makes Guardians of the Galaxy such a treat, and anyone who considers themselves a fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark will be tickled…uh…green by the not-so-subtle tribute in the opening moments. In addition, the film doesn’t shy away from the dramatics, as there are several emotional surges that hush the howling and cheering audience. Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy shakes the summer movie season out of its weary slump and dares to show you something you didn’t know you wanted to see. It’s an endearing and exciting miracle that invites you to cut loose and get lost in a blur of imagination for two hours. For those out there who believe that they have seen every oddity that outer space has to offer, you simply won’t believe what James Gunn and Marvel have in store for you.

Grade: A

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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

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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-

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

Less than two years ago, Sony and Columbia Pictures rushed director Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man to the big screen, just five short years after Sam Raimi’s overstuffed Spider-Man 3. With a brand new cast led by The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spider-Man was a rush job of a summer blockbuster—a desperate attempt on Sony’s part to hold on to the rights of the Spider-Man character. It’s easy to see why Sony wanted to keep Spidey trapped in their web, as the beloved superhero is an audience favorite that guarantees the studio a big pay day. Yet for all the insistence that The Amazing Spider-Man was going to be a fresh start for the character, the film’s plot seemed awfully familiar and, frankly, a bit underwhelming when pitted against Marvel’s The Avengers and DC’s The Dark Knight Rises, the two summer kingpins of 2012. Now here we are at the commencement of the 2014 summer movie season and leading the blockbuster procession is The Amazing Spider-Man 2—a cramped comic book epic that fails to live up to its colossal hype. Sure it’s made with all the splashy action, on-again-off-again romance, wisecracks, and confliction that we have come to expect from a Spider-Man movie, but returning director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alec Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner appear to have been bitten by the same excess bug that nipped Raimi when he delivered his Spider-Man 3 dud.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 finds brainy teenager Peter Parker (played by Andrew Garfield) continuing to battle crime on the New York City streets as Spider-Man. On the day of his high school graduation, Peter’s spider senses lead him to a high-speed chase through the city streets involving a highjacked truck that is carrying a massive load of plutonium. The man behind the highjacking is Aleksei Sytsevich (played by Paul Giamatti), a ruthless Russian mobster who will stop at nothing to outrun the authorities. With the help of Spider-Man, the authorities are able to corral Sytsevich, but during the chase, the webslinger saves Max Dillion (played by Jamie Foxx), an OsCorp employee who is largely ignored by his coworkers. In the wake of the rescue, Dillion develops an unnatural obsession with Spider-Man, believing that he is the superhero’s partner. Meanwhile, Peter suffers from visions of fallen police captain George Stacy, the father of his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (played by Emma Stone), who made Peter promise to distance himself from Gwen after his battle with the Lizard. Haunted by the promise he made, Peter grapples with his romance with Gwen, which leads to a nasty break-up between the two. Shortly after the break-up, Peter reunites with his long lost friend Harry Osborn (played by Dane DeHaan), the son of OsCorp’s late president, Norman Osborn (played by Chris Cooper). Before his father’s death, Harry learns that he has inherited his father’s illness, and that he has to rush to find a cure before it’s too late. At the same time, a freak workplace accidently transforms Max Dillion into an electrified monster called Electro. After a botched attempt to calm the terrified Max in Times Square, Dillion develops a grudge against Spider-Man and vows to destroy him.

At two hours and twenty minutes, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 attempts to juggle a staggering number of subplots, all of which seem to demand more time than they are allotted. Webb and his screenwriters continue to reveal tidbits of information about Peter’s late parents, and Harry’s quest to cure himself leads to the creation of a familiar Spidey super villain. And then there are the romantic quarrels between the impossibly cute Gwen Stacy and the stammering Peter, a couple that have to hold the record for the most make-ups and break-ups in a single motion picture. Honestly, trying to keep up with all of it is exhausting, and in the process, Webb practically forgets about one character that we’re left wanting quite a bit more from. After a while, this overcrowded tale begins to feel a bit like Spider-Man 3, the film that single-handedly killed off Raimi’s series. It appears that neither the filmmakers nor the studio learned from this mistake, although Webb avoids the cartoonish brooding and cringe inducing camp that made Raimi’s such a painful embarrassment. What’s clear is that Sony is putting pressure on the filmmakers to set up spin-off movies and lay the foundation for the next two installments in this Spidey saga. Sony has already made it clear that they intend to craft a cinematic universe much like Disney’s Avengers line, although, this world is threatening to be too villain heavy.

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While the jam-packed narrative causes The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to feel sluggish, the lighter moments between Peter and Gwen put a little pep in the film’s step. The relationship drama does get a bit tiresome, but the two stars have a chemistry that soothes some of the grumbles that are bound to slip out from many audience members who have grown weary of Spidey’s chaotic love life. It also helps that Garfield and Stone share an off-screen romance, which makes their on-screen relationship even cuter. On his own, Garfield continues to settle into the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, wisecracking his way through gunfights, car chases, aerial battles with Electro, and a final showdown with the charging Rhino. There is no denying that Garfield nails the cocky comedic side of the character, but he also proves that he can handle Peter’s darker demons that creep in when he’s not swinging through the concrete jungle. His inner angst is measured with a desire for answers about his parent’s mysterious death—a mystery that he grapples with in the privacy of his bedroom. Stone remains an actress you just can’t resist as her Gwen Stacy looks to a future without Peter by her side. In the final stretch of the film, she proves to be more than just a damsel in distress, daring to jump into the action and assist a desperate Peter as he fends off attacks from Dillion’s Electro and Harry’s cackling Green Goblin.

On the villain end of things, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 finds one half of the Sinister Six uniting to squash the Spider. If you thought that Lizard was a far-fetched villain, wait until you lay eyes on Electro, a glittery swirl of electricity given a tragic human rage by Jamie Foxx. Early on, Foxx really makes you feel for Max Dillion, a geeky engineer who talks to himself and frowns as his coworkers look right through him. As Electro, Foxx plays the character as a terrified monster that doesn’t wish to harm anyone, but this misunderstood monster performance is rapidly brought down through a sudden script shift that demands Electro get mean fast. DeHaan was born to play Harry Osborn, the chilly son of OsCorp’s late president who is doomed to become the leering Green Goblin. The scenes shared between Peter and Harry are pleasant enough, but there are far too little of them for us to really be shaken when Harry’s Green Goblin comes calling for Peter’s Spider-Man. Giamatti’s Aleksei is appropriately over the top, as he grunts and growls in a hammy Russian accent. Sadly, he’s reduced to an extended cameo, but when he jumps into that menacing Rhino suit and starts wrecking havoc in the streets of New York City, I promise your adrenaline will start surging, especially when he stares down quivering cops and proclaims, “I am zee Rhino!”

As expected, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 features numerous action set pieces that will thrill viewers of all ages. The scenes of Spider-Man swinging between skyscrapers are some of the most convincing we’ve seen so far, and Spidey’s first encounter with the skittish Electro shows off some impressive urban destruction. My personal favorite action moment is the confined fistfight between Spidey and the Green Goblin, a battle that ends with a shock guaranteed to blindside the packed theater. Another personal favorite is the Wall-Crawler’s showdown with Rhino, who charges into the battle guns and rockets blazing. As far as other complaints go, I found the score, which is composed by Hans Zimmer and the “Magnificent Six,” a super group led by Pharrell Williams, to be an absolute catastrophe. The chugging and whispering theme for Electro is just distracting as it attempts to get inside his glowing head, and the sudden lapses into shrill dubstep leaves your ears ringing. Overall, while there are things to like about The Amazing Spider-Man 2—the action, the CGI, the performances—the film doesn’t find Webb sending the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to soaring new heights. What we’re left with is a cluttered and disjointed superhero outing preoccupied with enticing the audience rather than satisfying them until Spidey inevitably swings back onto the big screen.

Grade: C

Anti-Film School’s 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2014

With the boring movie months of January, February, and March slowly inching by, it’s time that we start getting excited about the big movies that have been receiving the hype treatment over the past year. In 2014, audiences will be getting talking raccoons, a brand new Christopher Nolan epic, a Captain America follow-up, and a remake of arguably the greatest monster movie ever made. So, without further ado, here are the ten movies I just can’t wait to see in 2014.

10.) Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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It’s been nearly ten years since Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller ushered us into the noir world of Sin City, and we’ve been salivating for more ever since. With an A-list cast that includes veterans Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, and Jessica Alba, and newcomers like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eva Green, Josh Brolin, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven, and Stacy Keach, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’s trailer indicates that we are in for another heaping, black and white dose of steamy lap dances, sexy femme fatales, and back-alley tough guys who walk on the wild side. Bring on the gruesome mayhem!

 

9.) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t expecting much out of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. However, director Rupert Wyatt surprised both mainstream audiences and critics with his white-knuckle prequel about the ape uprising. Now we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which promises to up the apocalyptic scope and chaotic action to chilling highs. This time around, James Franco is out, but the always-reliable Gary Oldman is in, as well as newcomers Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Keri Russell. And we can’t forget the excellent Andy Serkis, who returns to raise hell as the ape kingpin, Caesar. Under the direction of Matt Reeves and taking place several years after the events of Rise, Dawn appears to be a worthy follow-up to the superb original.

8.) The Sacrament

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Ti West has twice proved he is a filmmaker to watch within the horror genre. His 2009 breakout The House of the Devil was a retro nightmare, and his 2011 follow-up, The Innkeepers, was one of the spookiest horror films of recent memory. For his third act, The Sacrament, he uses the devastating actions of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple as the framework for this “found footage” freak-out. While the “found footage” subgenre has certainly worn out its welcome (*ahem* Paranormal Activity, I’m looking at you!), if there is anyone out there who could really give it its bite back, it would be West, who hinted that he had a handle on it with his unforgettable segment in 2012’s V/H/S.

7.) Neighbors

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If you haven’t seen the raucous trailer for Seth Rogen’s new suburban comedy about a bunch of frat bros who move in next door to a mild-mannered couple with a newborn baby, you need to fix that right this instant. Though it wasn’t written or directed by Rogen, I’m crossing my fingers that the scruffy funnyman is still riding the highs of last year’s comedic gem, This Is the End, which had critics and audiences everywhere doubled over in laughter. Based on the footage that has been revealed, it could prove to be a raunchy follow-up to that fireball of a comedy, even if it doesn’t quite pack the star power or the gimmick of actors playing “themselves.” If nothing good comes from Neighbors, it sparked the brilliant and hilarious idea to throw a Robert DeNiro party.

6.) X-Men: Days of Future Past

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The X-Men series has been severely hit or miss. Director Bryan Singer’s first two installments in the franchise were solidly made superhero films. The third film, which was taken over by Brett Ratner, left a lot to be desired. In 2011, director Matthew Vaughn got the franchise back on track with X-Men: First Class, effectively meshing Cold War history with a whip-smart origin story. With Singer back in the director’s chair, and a time-jumping plot line that promises to mix the old cast with the new, X-Men: Days of Future Past is poised to be a comic book movie to keep your eye on this summer.

5.) Guardians of the Galaxy

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With their cinematic universe fully formed and humming along nicely, Marvel dares to expand with this August’s Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps the most bonkers release yet. While director James Gunn’s space adventure is certainly a gamble, the trailer—which gives very nice introductions to the five main characters—suggests that this sci-fi adventure will have a stronger comedic tone to it. With plenty of rollicking space action on display, Guardians of the Galaxy seems to have plenty of potential, even with a talking raccoon that wields a machine gun and hocks loogies. Hopefully, it will be a welcome departure from the Iron Man and Thor movies.

4.) The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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The last time Spidey swung across movie screens, his reboot was somewhat of a bore, mostly because new director Marc Webb rehashed a bunch of stuff we already knew about Peter Parker. With all the origin mumbo jumbo out of the way, it seems like Webb and his cast are really letting loose for an epic showdown between good and evil. Boasting not one, not two, but THREE superbaddies to face off against Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 could very well be this summer’s The Avengers. It looks to have the pulpy action to rival it, and like all good comic book sequels, it doesn’t seem to be shying away from a darker tone and heavier dramatics. Is it May yet?!

3.) Interstellar

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Not much is known about Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi epic Interstellar, but does that even matter? Christopher freakin’ Nolan is directing it and that is literally all we need to know! Shrouded in Nolan’s expected secrecy, Interstellar is said to be about a group of explorers who discover a wormhole and use it to push the limits of human space travel. The IMDB cast list is bursting with A-listers (Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, and more), and the stock-footage heavy trailer hints at larger-than-life filmmaking. What is even more exciting about Interstellar is the fact that Warner Bros. has chosen to release it in the thick of awards season.

2.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Of all the solo Avengers films that Marvel has produced since 2008’s Iron Man, my favorite has been the WWII period piece Captain America: The First Avenger. With it’s pulpy aesthetic and rollicking action, Captain America seemed alive with the spirit of classic blockbusters like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I loved it. With Captain America: The Winter Solider, the stakes are higher and the destruction is nastier than ever. Did I mention that it looks to be much more interesting than Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World combined? While Marvel’s reluctance to release it this summer has slightly concerned me, Captain America: The Winter Solider seems like it will be a fierce comic book movie, and the gloomiest chapter in Marvel’s Avengers series yet. Bring it on.

 

1.)  Godzilla

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There has been talk for years of another Godzilla reboot—one to scrub away all the horrid memories of that 1998 remake that should have been called Jurassic Park: New York City. With Puff Daddy and Matthew Broderick out and Bryan Cranston and director Gareth Edwards in, Godzilla 2014 is shaping up to be the mack daddy of summer movies. Seriously, have your seen the damn trailer?! It looks incredible, with some of the most savage city-smashing ever put on celluloid. What’s even better is that the filmmakers are re-establishing the idea that Godzilla is a walking A-bomb—a radioactive creation of the Atomic Age that continues to stomp on through the cinema history books. And here is the best yet: the movie actually looks pretty freaky! Oh, and did I mention that it appears that Rodan and Gigan will be joining in on the worldwide destruction? Yeah, let’s just get in line now.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Iron Man 3 #1

by Steve Habrat

Last May, Marvel kicked the summer movie season off with the hugely satisfying superhero spectacular The Avengers. Not only was The Avengers massively successful, but it also raised the bar for both Marvel and the superhero genre in general. When the lights came up in the theater, you knew that it would be extremely difficult for the comic book juggernaut to top themselves after the blast of awesome they had just delivered. Speed ahead one year and we have Iron Man 3, which lets us know that Marvel has absolutely no intentions of slowing down and giving their heroes a little bit of a breather (Thor is back for seconds this Thanksgiving and Captain America swoops in next spring). For the past few months, there has been quite a bit of hype surrounding the new entry in the Iron Man franchise and the film has already opened to staggering numbers overseas. So the question on everyone’s mind is, is it as good or better than The Avengers? Well, Iron Man 3 certainly isn’t better than The Avengers or the original Iron Man, for that matter. It is, however, a little bit better than the lackluster Iron Man 2, which is a huge relief. With a new director behind the camera and a script crammed with twist after twist, Iron Man 3 reassures us that there is still some life in a franchise that was starting to show signs of rust on its second run. This is a well-oiled superhero epic that finds ever-game star Robert Downey Jr. having the time of his life as he goes up against two of the ghastliest foes he has faced so far.

Picking up several months after the events of The Avengers, the brash industrialist Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) is suffering severe anxiety attacks over what he witnessed in New York City. He is having a hard time getting a little shuteye and when he does manage to drift off, he suffers from horrible nightmares. In his spare time, Tony retreats to his workshop and builds new Iron Man suits that he proceeds to store away in an underground vault for a rainy day. Meanwhile, the United States has suffered a series of bombing attacks orchestrated by a mysterious cult-like terrorist known only as the Mandarin (played by Ben Kingsley). After one of the Mandarin’s attacks injures one of Tony’s closest friends, Tony decides to issue a televised threat to the mumbling terrorist. The Mandarin quickly responds by destroying Tony’s luxurious home and several of his Iron Man suits. To make matters worse, Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) finds herself approached by Aldrich Killian (played by Guy Pearce), a bitter but brilliant scientist from Tony’s past who appears to be working hand-in-hand with the Mandarin’s terrorist organization. With the Mandarin’s attacks growing deadlier by the day, Tony has to enlist the help of Colonel James Rhodes (played by Don Cheadle) to help him get back in the fight.

Perhaps the biggest problem that plagued Iron Man 2 was the fact that the film seemed to exist solely to prepare audiences for The Avengers. It spent so much time prepping the Iron Man character for the ultimate meeting of do-gooders that it almost seemed to forget that it was also supposed to be a stand-alone film. It never felt like a strictly solo outing for Tony Stark. Thankfully, Iron Man 3 boots all the S.H.I.E.L.D agents out on their butts and even shoos Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow away from the action. Granted, there are a number of references to The Avengers and the three other team members are mention throughout, but Iron Man 3 seems refreshed by the idea that it isn’t just a lavish set-up. Free of these ties, the wave of trailers sent out by Marvel seemed to promise a darker entry for Mr. Stark and while there is plenty of sinister activity going on in Iron Man 3, the edgier moments are always complimented by a scene of slapstick comedy. This is especially apparent in the earlier moments of the film, where Tony fumbles and bumbles around with a new suit of armor that attaches itself to him in pieces. Here and there he complains about his anxiety and insomnia, but it never fully ventures into Tony’s heart of darkness, which is incredibly frustrating. Director Shane Black pushes the darkness even harder when he introduces the Mandarin, who appears in terrifying televised appearances that disrupt your normally scheduled programs. They are absolutely spectacular and maybe a little too effective in playing on our current fears of terrorism. Bravo, Black!

IRON MAN 3

While the first forty minutes may be a mixed ball of emotions and tones, the second and third acts of Iron Man 3 boast breathtaking action sequences and showdowns. The Mandarin’s first attack on Tony’s home is appropriately disorienting and frenzied as our hero desperately tries to round up all the pieces of his armor to fight back against the advancing helicopters. The standout rescue of thirteen Air Force One passengers tumbling through the air will have every single audience member holding their breath and wondering if their hero will be able to pull off the rescue. It is by far the film’s coolest action set piece and quite possibly the best from any Marvel film yet (it would only be second to the battle for New York City in The Avengers). Things really get epic when the grand finale hits and I must say, this is the first Iron Man film that truly seems to have a satisfying and coherent climatic showdown. The previous two films seemed to wrap everything up a bit too hastily, at least in my humble opinion. I won’t say too much about this fiery clash, but it really puts our hero to the test and finds Stark actually breaking a sweat, something you didn’t really see when he was trading blows with Iron Monger and Whiplash.

The true beauty of the Iron Man films is that there seems to be a genuine and giddy enthusiasm from the performers, which is always infectious. Downey continues to wow us as the mile-a-millisecond industrialist with a weakness for booze and babes. He can be crude, charming, and hilarious, but he can also reveal a vulnerability buried deep inside all the clanking iron. He is also given the chance to jump into a few action scenes without the cover of a CGI suit of armor, which is a nice change of pace. Paltrow continues to glow as the mild mannered Pepper Potts, who is even given the chance to throw a couple of punches herself. By now I’m sure you’ve heard or seen that she dons one of Tony’s Iron Man suits. Cheadle is his usual tip-top self as the straight-laced Colonel Rhodes/Iron Patriot. He doesn’t do anything extraordinary but he has plenty of charming moments with Downey’s Stark. Perhaps the biggest surprise of Iron Man 3 is how good Ben Kingsley is as the mumbling teacher-terrorist Mandarin. I don’t want to spoil the Mandarin but believe me when I say that he will practically have you in a ball under your seat when you first meet him. Guy Pearce also shines as the crippled scientist Aldrich Killian, a bitter rival who slowly morphs into one seriously nasty piece of work. Rounding out the new players is the severely underused and virtually pointless Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen, who is basically there to provide a bit of exposition and that’s it. What a waste!

While all the zippy action and adventure is fun, Iron Man 3 is not without its faults. In addition to the choppy commencement, I also found Tony’s little detour into rural Tennessee to be a bit dull. While there, Tony is forced to mingle with a local boy named Harley (played by Ty Simpkins), who I just couldn’t really bring myself to care about. Then there is the big twist at the middle of the film, which filled me with disappointment. Once again, I can’t go into much detail about it but I do think the film could have done without it. Overall, Iron Man 3 is a great way to kick off the summer movie season and it finds the series returning to form after a muddled second installment. It smartly plays on our current fears of terrorism and it wraps them up in one big, loud, and bold action sequence after another. It would have been nice to see the film venture deeper into the dark side and drop some of the childish humor, but I suppose they just have to appeal to the kiddies too. Oh, and do stay for a nifty little treat after the credits. You’ll be glad you did.

Grade: B+

Favorite Marvel Movie… GO!

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Anti-Film School’s Summer Movie Wrap-Up Part 3: July 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

by Steve Habrat

America, you can all breath a collective sigh of relief. That nagging question on all of your minds has finally been answered. We now know what it looks like when Ghost Rider urinates! I know, I know, I was wondering when we would finally get the definitive answer to that brain-melting question. Thank you, Marvel! On a serious note, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is another swing and a miss for the Marvel Knights, the spin-off studio of Marvel Studios. Marvel Knights, we created in an attempt to bring some of the darker superheroes from the comic pages to the big screen and so far, they are zero for two (the other masterpiece from this branch division is Punisher: War Zone). With a fresh pair of directors (Crank’s Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor) and the studio hitting the restart button (subtly), Marvel somehow managed to make things even worse and make a film so unpleasant, the only reason it avoided the direct-to-DVD barging bin was the fact that Nicolas Cage’s name is leading the credits.  To my astonishment, Cage throws himself into Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance with such maniacal delight, I think that he may have finally hit rock bottom, and I thought that bottom was the FIRST Ghost Rider. Cage must really be a big fan of Ghost Rider and really hurting for money to agree to do this to himself. And to think that this man won an Oscar.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance picks up eight years after Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider (Played by Cage) battled the gathering satanic forces on American soil. He has been on the run and hiding out in Eastern Europe ever since, trying to deal with the curse that has been put on him by Roarke (Mephistopheles) (Played by Ciarán Hinds). Blaze soon finds himself approached by French priest Moreau (Played by Idris Elba), who asks Blaze to track down and save a young boy, Danny (Played by Fergus Riordan) and his mother, Nadya (Played by Violante Placido), from Roarke’s forces that are pursuing them. It turns out that Roarke, who is the Devil in a human body, wants Danny so that he can take a new human form on earth. Blaze reluctantly accepts the offer on the condition that Moreau takes him to a group of priests that will be able to lift the fiery cruse that plagues him. As the battle rages for Danny’s fate, the Devil unleashes the deadly Blackout (Played by Johnny Whitmore), who possesses the power to decay anything he touches, to deliver him Danny and kill Ghost Rider any way he can.

There really isn’t much to say about the plotline of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. It sucks and that is all there is to it. Half the time, it is barely coherent underneath all the searing action that cuts through the film like a white-hot knife. The story, which was penned by Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman, and David S. Goyer (yes, the same David S. Goyer who helped revive Batman), is basically a recycled glob of other, better satanic horror films. Think a touch of The Exorcist with a big scoop of Rosemary’s Baby fused with Crank and the original Ghost Rider. When I wasn’t rolling my eyes from the story, I was busy fighting off motion sickness from the constant shaking of the camera. Mind you, I have NEVER once got motion sick from a movie before but I can say that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was the film that had me reaching for the barf bag. I couldn’t wait until things slowed down so that my stomach would stop doing somersaults. I wish that the nausea was worth it and that there was some cool action scene to tell you about but the fight scenes are all the same here. They all basically consist of a bunch of bad guys standing around, Ghost Rider barreling towards them on his bike as they all stand in shock, and Ghost Rider approaching them one by one and sucking their souls out. That is all there is to it.

If I had to think of one reason for you to see Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, I’d say see it for the way that Cage throws himself into the role of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider. I promise that you have never seen anything like it in your entire life. It is almost like we are watching a nervous breakdown documented in a big budget blockbuster. Cage is all shaky delivery and bone rattling screams as his face bubbles and contorts into the charred black skull. I guess if my career had come to what his has, I would be starting to go a little berserk myself. Luckily, Idris Elba is present to take things down a notch in one of the worst French accents you will ever hear. Don’t get me wrong. Elba brings more to the table that anyone else does here but it is so painful to watch him slip like this. Come one, Idris, you have been awesome in the past! Hinds seems to get a kick out of delivering lines like “Worst fucking deal I ever made” right to the face of the fiery Ghost Rider. He is slumming it after doing heavier work like Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. Riordan is a forgettable child actor who doesn’t even register in all the chaos while Placido is the eye candy, taking over where Eva Mendes left off.  Whitmore really tries to shake things up as Blackout but he has to be the most pointless character in the entire film. He is only here to provide the audience was a high-speed slugfest in the final moments of the film.

Neveldine and Taylor do what they can to add a smidgeon of emotion to this project but they cannot resist the urge to just leap back into the head pounding action. They try to throw in a half-assed relationship between Blaze and Danny but it such a weak attempt, it practically disappears from your memory by the end battle. I can say that I was pretty impressed by the special effects and I did like the overall look of Ghost Rider. Shaking off some of the polish that original director Mark Steven Johnson had slathered all over his CGI hero, this version of the character is a hell of a lot grittier than what Johnson came up with. It actually suits the character but it is a shame this was not applied to a much better movie. Much like the Punisher, I know there is someone out there with a good story for Ghost Rider but this certainly wasn’t it. It is time for Cage to walk away from the franchise and really do some soul searching because the man has completely lost his marbles. And to you, Mr. Goyer, what is your excuse? You helped bring one of the greatest superhero trilogies to the big screen and then you follow that up with this piece of shit! Do you hate comic books and comic book movies?! With the level of quality that we have seen in films like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, X-Men, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight, there is no excuse for these types of superhero films in 2012. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance should have been tossed into an incinerator and forgotten. All of you responsible for this, sit in the corner and think about what you have done.

Grade: F

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Ghost Rider (2007)

by Steve Habrat

When Marvel isn’t busy trying to force The Punisher on disinterested audiences, they are cramming Ghost Rider down our throats. This fiery badass on a bike just plays too nice in his disposable 2007 big screen debut, a film that only fans of the comic could love. Director Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider is a run-of-the-mill superhero film with the a whole bunch of superhero clichés we have seen countless times in other, better superhero movies. It doesn’t help that the film has no staying power once you have walked away from it. The culprit for all the mediocrity is the fact that the script, penned by Johnson, has holes big enough to drive a tricked out motorcycle from Hell through. Johnson seems like he is eager to deliver for Ghost Rider fans and I applaud him for that, but it would have been nice if he cleaned up his story a bit and, oh, I don’t know, thought outside the box. It would have also helped if he had filled his film with actors who actually care about the material they are working with. The only one who seems like he wants to be there is Nicolas Cage but he has such little talent to speak of that he doesn’t really come up with anything that will save this clunker of a film from a slow, fiery death.

Ghost Rider begins with introducing us to a young stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze (Played by Matt Long) and his father, Barton Blaze (Played by Brett Cullen). Barton, it turns out, has terminal cancer, which he tries to hide from young Johnny but the secret finally slips out. Devastated, Johnny slips off to work on his motorcycle when he finds himself approached by Mephistopheles (Played by Peter Fonda), a mysterious man who asks Johnny to ride for him. He goes on to mention Barton’s illness and adds that he could help. Johnny accepts the help but he accidentally sells his soul to the mysterious man. The next day Barton wakes up refreshed and feeling better than ever, something that stuns Johnny. Later that day, Barton is getting ready to perform a new stunt for a huge crowd of fans but the stunt goes wrong and Barton is killed. At the exact moment Barton is killed, Johnny sees Mephistopheles standing by and laughing. After the accident, Johnny sets out on his own but he once again finds himself approached by the mysterious man who says that he will come back for Johnny’s services one day. The film then speeds ahead to present day with Johnny (Played by Nicolas Cage) now a big name stunt motorcyclist who is always cheating death. As Johnny enjoys his fame, a sinister force is walking among us in the form of Blackheart (Played by Wes Bentley), a deadly demon who is searching for a contract that could allow him to unleash hell on earth. In order to stop Blackheart, Mephistopheles calls upon Johnny and turns him into a fiery superhero called Ghost Rider.

Ghost Rider leans heavily on the almost nonstop action at its charred heart. Very rarely does the film actually calm down enough to give us an intimate character moment. Perhaps this is good because the action actually allows Ghost Rider to be watchable for its two-hour runtime. The CGI is very well done, especially the effects on Cage when he morphs into the hissing demon. Things do turn goofy when Fonda and Bentley see their faces distorting into bluish ghouls with row after row of crooked fangs. They would be a dentist’s worst nightmare but they wouldn’t scare anyone else. The action basically sees Ghost Rider stomping around on the screen and battling one of Blackheart’s three grinning henchmen, all of which are dispatched with ease. The sad part to all of this is that Cage and Bentley allow the special effects to do all the work for them. Bentley ends up being guiltier of this than Cage, if you can believe that. Bentley’s Blackheart has to be the least convincing baddie to ever torment a superhero. At times, he seems like someone is standing off screen holding up a white poster board with his lines written on it. He doesn’t bring any menace to the role and in the end, he falls behind voice distortion and layers of CGI to make him an intimidating force. Still, he just seems too nice.

Cage, meanwhile, had to be breathing a sigh of relief that for once, he wasn’t the one ruining the movie. I was actually surprised in the amount of enthusiasm that Cage demonstrated even if he is hit or miss. The performance finds him speaking in a southern drawl that appears and then disappears without warning, something that you would think Johnson would have righted. The rest of the time, Cage just seems to be playing a giddier version of himself. Apparently, Cage is a huge fan of Ghost Rider (he even has him tattooed on his arm) and he really lobbied to nab the role. You would think he would have brought something special to this demon party, being a huge fan and all. Ghost Rider finds Cage’s Johnny Blaze striking up a relationship with forgettable reporter Roxanne Simpson (Played by Eva Mendes), a romance that has absolutely no spark to speak of. Mendes seems to just be going through the motions, very aware that she is only here to be saved by Cage’s CGI alter ego. The great Sam Elliot steps in as the mysterious Caretaker who finds himself the target of Bentley’s Blackheart. Elliot does a fine job with what he has to work with, even if there are more than a few holes in his character. Donal Logue shows up as Blaze’s wisecracking partner, Mack, who gets stuck with the typical one-liners for the kids. Rounding out the main players is Fonda’s Mephistopheles, who seems delighted to be playing the creeping puppet master.

There are aspects of Ghost Rider that are never fully explained to us, with things happening for no reason at all. Cage can apparently manipulate anything he touches, making them look like they were ripped out of the Devil’s imagination. There was also a twist with the Caretaker that drove me absolutely nuts, especially since Blackheart brutally terrorizes him while he does nothing about it. Another problem I had with the film was Blackheart’s evil plot to destroy earth. He gets the upper hand on Ghost Rider because he has no soul, something that Ghost Rider can target and destroy. Blackheart’s master plan fills him with hundreds of hellish souls, all of which can be burned up by Ghost Rider (Didn’t anyone catch this error while writing the film?). The film desperately wants to be a western but it seems that the western didn’t want to be associated with this crap so it spit it back into action territory. Overall, with wiser casting choices and a fully developed script, Ghost Rider could have turned out to be one of the more fun Marvel movies. It could have been a darker alternative to Marvel’s usually family friendly heroes. Instead, it just feels like watered down excuse to sell toys to kids and act as a quick cash grab for the money-hungry Marvel. A throwaway superhero vehicle that feels like it has been done before, and much better at that.

Grade: D+

Ghost Rider is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

by Steve Habrat

If you thought that 2004’s The Punisher was a pretty lousy movie, wait until you see Lexi Alexander’s 2008 redo Punisher: War Zone, an abomination that manages to make the first one look like an Academy Award contender. Trimming off all the emotional weight from the first film (there wasn’t much to begin with but at least there was some), Punisher: War Zone ends up resembling a Saw movie crossed with a forgotten 80’s shoot-‘em-up. While The Punisher isn’t exactly a family friendly hero, there is still no excuse for the relentless bloodshed and depravity that we have in War Zone. Furthermore, there is no excuse why there isn’t more depth to the character of Frank Castle, the vigilante in the black bulletproof vest with a big, white skull plastered across it. The only reason to even consider watching War Zone is to check out Doug Hutchison’s performance as Loony Bin Jim, a deranged lunatic who maims first and then asks questions later. You certainly don’t consider this film based of Ray Stevenson’s utterly blah performance as Castle, the most robotic vigilante ever to blast his way across the screen.

Frank Castle (Played by Ray Stevenson) has been prowling the New York City streets for almost five years as The Punisher. Heavily armed and extremely dangerous, this ex-military man hunts down and dispatches criminals in the most brutal ways imaginable. One evening, Frank storms the home of mob boss Gaitano Cesare and manages to massacre every gangster inside except for Billy Russoti (Played by Dominic West), a testy enforcer obsessed with his looks. Castle sets out after the escaped gangster at his recycling plant hideout. Castle blasts his way through the plant and in the process, he ends up killing an undercover FBI agent and horribly disfiguring Billy. After discovering his mistake, Castle decides that he is quitting his life as a vigilante. Meanwhile, Billy has reconstructive surgery on his face, leaving him a mug that resembles a jigsaw puzzle. Billy takes the name “Jigsaw” and sets out to free his insane brother Loony Bin Jim (Played by Doug Hutchison) from a mental institution so the duo can track down The Punisher together and destroy him once and for all.

A good bulk of War Zone is devoted to nonstop brutality and carnage. Screenwriters Nick Santora, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway try to wave off the mindless violence by forcing the abrasive characters to wink at the audience and act like cartoons. I thought this was supposed to be a raw and gritty interpretation? Then we have The Punisher himself, a real snoozer of a hero. Stevenson tries to play Castle/The Punisher as the strong silent type who communicates through a distant gaze at the person in front of him. He visits the graves of his deceased family where he scrubs mold and dirt off the headstones while seething with anger. In fight scenes, he is a scowling bad ass who chops, hacks, slashes, and shoots his way through a seemingly never-ending army of gangsters who all bleed buckets when The Punisher shoots a hole through them. We never really get a glimpse inside Frank, the only emotion coming from his anger over the accidental death of the undercover FBI agent. Frank attempts to reach out to the fallen agent’s family, who is being hunted by the deranged Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim. We are just supposed to accept that the death of his family shook Castle from warm family man into cold-blooded monster. Don’t think about it too much.

War Zone doesn’t really fair any better in the supporting good guys or villains department. Colin Salmon shows up as a tough-as-concrete cop Paul Budiansky, the man looking to bring The Punisher to justice. Somehow, Paul is able to hold himself in a bone crunching battle with Frank, something that was just utterly absurd. Dash Mihok is aboard as Paul’s partner Martin Soap, who is along for the ride as comic relief that is never very funny. Wayne Knight enters the mix as Frank’s completely underused partner Micro, the man who supplies Frank with all of his guns and ammo. Julie Benz is also underused as Angela, the fallen FBI agent’s widow who always manages to be a hysterical damsel in distress, even when she isn’t in distress. Then there is Dominic West as Billy/Jigsaw, the vicious enforcer who speaks in the worst Italian accent ever. An ugly son of a gun, Jigsaw speaks like he has a mouth full of mush as he demands that local street gangs fight back against The Punisher. There is a side plot that involves a biological weapon that you think will come into play but it never does, which is downright baffling to me. The only one really who shows up to have a good time is Hutchinson’s Loony Bin Jim, who gets all the best moments of War Zone. The highlight of the film is when he gets to beat up on our hero. As he delivers each blow to The Punisher, he explains the severity of the injury. It is the only sequence that boasts strong writing, creativity, and depraved fun.

As War Zone barrels towards the finish line, the film starts to resemble a stomach churning car wreck that you just can’t stop staring at even though you so desperately want to turn away and vomit. You will also be reaching for the Advil to relive the throbbing migraine that the film surely will cause. War Zone ends up turning into an unyielding, tasteless blur of heavy metal, terrible lighting, and reckless direction. The plotline becomes such a mess that you can’t even begin to figure out how the people behind the camera are going to tie it all up. The only relief that we find is Hutchison, who really brings the crazy to this horrorshow. Even worse, Alexander can’t decide if she wants this film to be a horror movie or an exercise in exploitation. Somewhere out there in Hollywoodland, someone has a good story for The Punisher but it seems that the suits out there just haven’t found that person yet. I hope they find that person quick because this character is barely clinging to life in the cinema realm. And let’s hope they don’t invite back the lifeless Stevenson.

Grade: F

Punisher: War Zone is available on Blu-ray and DVD.