Anti-Film School Recommends These Films…
Killing Them Softly (2012)
For the second week in a row, there are some new Blu-rays that just have to be in your growing movie collection. First up, we have Steven Spielberg’s breathtaking Lincoln, a biopic that resists all the trappings of the biopic genre. While it is a must-own for the Academy Award winning performance from Daniel Day Lewis, grab up the four disc set which includes such features as a Making Of documentary, a look at how Daniel Day Lewis jumped into the role of Honest Abe, and a look at the marvelous period detail of the film, to name a few. In addition to Lincoln, we also have the brutal gangster thriller Killing Them Softly, one of the most underrated films of 2012. While the political commentary may have turned most viewers off, this a seriously startling and unforgettable piece of filmmaking that made my list of the 10 best films of 2012 (Lincoln was also on there!). The Blu-ray of Killing Them Softly comes with a handful of deleted scenes and a Making Of documentary. If you wish to read the Anti-Film School review of Lincoln, click here, and if you wish to check out the Killing Them Softly review, click here. If you want to see where each fell on the 10 best films of 2012 list, click here.
-Theater Management (Steve)
The Gate (1987)
by Steve Habrat
I had never heard of director Tibor Takács’ 1987 demons-in-suburbia horror flick The Gate until a buddy at work recommended it and let me borrow his copy on DVD. Made in the heyday of stop-motion special effects and flashy explosions, The Gate is what you would get if you combined the rollicking adventures of The Goonies, the spacey wonder of E.T., and the funhouse scares of Poltergeist. Borrowing heavily from early Steven Spielberg, Takács crafts a solid little eighty-five minute sleepover distraction that will send the kiddies off with a few nightmares and the adult viewers away inebriated on drive-in nostalgia. In addition to all the goofy fun you’ll have, you’ll also marvel at how well the film has held up through the years. Only once or twice do the incredible effects look dated or slightly cheesy. Even more incredible is that the film was made for a measly $2 million, which makes it even more astonishing that it has barely aged a day. The Gate is also worth a look to check out the performance from a young Stephen Dorff as our pint-sized hero who has to face Hell on earth in mundane old suburbia. And you thought searching for lost pirate treasure was stressful!
The Gate introduces us to Glen (Played by Dorff), a nerdy suburban kid who passes the time with his heavy metal loving buddy Terry (Played by Louis Tripp). After Glen’s parents have a large tree dug out of their back yard, Glen and Terry find a mysterious rock in the hole that looks suspiciously like an egg. Meanwhile, Glen’s sister, Al (Played by Christa Denton), is busy trying to convince their parents that she is old enough to babysit Glen while they are away for the weekend. After a lot of pleading and begging, Al is allowed to look after Glen but as soon as their parents leave, she kicks off a big party for her friends. What the kids assume will be a fun-filled weekend takes a sinister turn when they find a rotten corpse buried in the walls of their house, suffer from bizarre hallucinations, and are stalked by miniature demonic creatures that crawl out of the hole in the backyard. As the paranormal activity increases, Terry and Glen begin to suspect that the hole in the backyard is really a gateway to Hell and if it isn’t closed soon, the world will be reduced to ashes.
The Gate does start out a bit choppy in its opening moments, with awkward editing and lots of silly dissolves. It doesn’t help that the acting has trouble finding its groove but things start to click when the special effects kick in. Once the little demonic critters start wrecking havoc all over the house, things start to be a little more fun and surprisingly eerie. The Gate also has a number of hallucinatory moments that are capable of scaring the crap out of both younger and older viewers. A scene in which Terry comes face to face with his deceased mother is a major creep-out as is the one where Glen embraces a demonic form of his father, only to pull his head off and gouge his eyes out. There is also an eyeball in the palm of Glen’s hand, bedroom walls bending in on themselves, and a demonic version of Terry emerging from a closet and trying to take a bite out of Glen’s hand. It’s through these otherworldly moments that The Gate achieves a fairly creepy atmosphere that lingers until the final frame of the film. The creature effects add more of an action element to all the insanity and I have to say that they have held up better than you think. If you think the alien-like demons that scamper around are spooky, wait until you get a look at the rat like creature that bursts through Glen and Al’s living room. It’s actually better than most of the computerized monsters that Hollywood comes up with today.
Considering that The Gate is a kiddie horror flick, our protagonists are all below the age of seventeen. The young Dorff is passable as rocket-obsessed Glen but he does very little to really blow us away. When combined with Tripp, the two convey a legitimate friendship that is heartwarming, especially since Tripp’s Terry is nursing a broken heart. I’d honestly have to go with Tripp’s performance over Dorff’s since there is a bit more depth there. Then there is Denton’s Al, who is handed lots of 80’s slang that is sure to nab more than a few unintentional laughs from those who didn’t grow up then. If her slang doesn’t get you, her style and variety of friends will certainly have you chuckling. Deborah Grover and Scot Denton drop in briefly as Glen and Al’s worried but loving parents. There is a very fine scene that finds Glen and his father discussing Terry and how he is coping with the loss of his mother. It is a scene that actually made me want to see more from their father but if he remained in the picture, we wouldn’t have all the funhouse horror that we do.
While The Gate has some mighty fine monsters and some surprisingly disturbing images, the film is the victim of its own plot cheese. I supposed that if The Goonies and Poltergeist never were made, The Gate would have had a bigger impact than it actually had. Still, if your someone who really enjoys a good stop-motion special effect over rubbery CGI, you’re going to go wild for this one. Even if all this madness shouldn’t work, I’m still a huge sucker for these types of films, the ones where extraordinary events break the peaceful tranquility of the idyllic American suburb. These films are almost like comfort food, especially since I can remember checking out films like The Goonies and E.T. when I was just a squirt. It’s the rollicking adventure that wins out and makes The Gate a fun Friday night barging bin watch. Overall, the kids will find it scarier than the adults, but The Gate still keeps the entertainment light and accessible, something that you just can’t argue with. A forgotten B-movie gem that will do the trick when you’ve exhausted all the other horror classics the video store has to offer.
The Gate is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I’m starting to think that there is no role too great for Mr. Daniel Day Lewis. The man continues to top himself with each new role and with Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg’s new war drama, he may have given the performance of his career. With Lewis’ uncanny performance as the centerpiece, Spielberg, who blew us away last year with heartwarming boy-and-his-horse drama War Horse, spins a film so rich, detailed, and satisfying, it almost demands a second viewing to fully appreciate this towering instant classic on a technical level. I was in absolute awe over the fussy attention of each set piece, astonished by the grade-A lighting flowing into each scene, and fully immersed in this meaty slice of informative history that drops us right into the thick of the battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. But it all comes down to Lewis, hidden behind a beard and a few expertly blended prosthetics, as he settles into the role with a thin but warm smile. He is a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, a weight that he sometimes begins to collapse under but hides with a clever story that will lighten the mood when the tempers flare and the nerves churn around him. You can’t help but admire this man even when Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner dare to shed light on him in his fits of desperation.
Picking up during the last four months of Abraham Lincoln’s (Played by Lewis) life, the Civil War continues to rage and the battle to end slavery is heating up in Washington. Lincoln, his Secretary of State, William Seward (Played by David Strathairn), and cranky abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Played by Tommy Lee Jones) join forces to gather the number of votes needed from opposing Democrats in the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteen Amendment. As he attempts to convince those stubborn voters, Honest Abe uses his down-to-earth charm and hilarious anecdotes to win them over. He also sends out a trio of lobbyists, W.N Bilbo (Played by James Spader), Richard Schell (Played by Tim Blake Nelson), and Robert Latham (Played by John Hawkes), to earn votes. As the pressure to pass the Amendment and end the war escalates, Lincoln battles with his grieving wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Played by Sally Field) over the death of one of his sons and pleads with his son, Robert Todd Lincoln (Played by Joseph Gordon Levitt), about enlisting in the army.
At two and a half hours, Lincoln is far from the typical biopic that we all expected it to be. In all honestly, I think the final product would have suffered and bored us to tears if it chose to dive into Lincoln’s early years. The film opts to pull the curtain off of the small details and reveal the smoky meetings in the White House, where Lincoln and his staff debate over the best way to earn votes and win the war. When they can’t agree, Lincoln pauses and offers a little story to lighten the mood. Some of these stories are so veiled that they even stump Seward, who replies blankly with, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” When we aren’t in the meticulous drawing rooms of the White House, we are crammed into the stuffy House of Representatives, where the men bicker, scream, yell, and argue until they are blue in the face about the Thirteenth Amendment. While it certainly is interesting to get a behind the scenes look at this historical moment, it seems to lack suspense, mostly because we know the that the Amendment is going to be passed. In a way, that is the precise problem with Lincoln. There is never a moment where you are caught holding your breath. Instead, Spielberg focuses on carefully telling this historical epic in the grandest sense.
Then we Lewis, who pours everything he has into Honest Abe and completely disappears into the role of the 16th president. Folks, there are just simply not enough hours in the day to rave about this spellbinding performance. You just can’t help but love Abe as his lanky frame lumbers into a room and warmly embraces every face he meets. Lewis plays Lincoln as a sly politician who can win you over with a few perfectly delivered jokes. As a husband and father, Lincoln isn’t great but he tries his hardest. You can’t help but feel for the guy as he gets ripped up one side and down the other over the fact that he suggested the Mary be checked in to a mental institution when one of their sons died. He also doesn’t win any points with Robert, who begs Abe to let him enlist in the army. He rants about his embarrassment over not being able to wear a uniform during a party at the White House. The moment that hurt the worst was when Abe tries to reason with Robert but Robert just storms away in anger. As Abe watches his go, he silently whispers, “I can’t loose you.”
Lincoln may belong to Lewis but the supporting cast members are all brilliant in their own ways. Fields is an emotional force as Mary Todd Lincoln, who grapples with a grief that sends her into shocking fits of hysteria. Every blow of accusation she dishes out to Abe is even more severe then the last. When it comes to her politics, she can really grab a room. She shares a scene with the curmudgeon Stevens that finds a whole room holding their breath. Jones brings his long face to the role of Thaddeus Stevens, who is a firm defender of the Thirteenth Amendment. He is also handed a number of punchy one-liners to help keep things a bit playful (there is a good one about his wig). Levitt, who has been everywhere this year, shows up here as Abe’s antsy son Robert. He isn’t handed infinite amounts of screen time but his desperation to join the war is brave. Strathairn is firm and no-nonsense as Seward, the prickly Secretary of State who gets a little exasperated with old Abe and his anecdotes. Spader, Nelson, and Hawkes are all tasked with lightening the drama as three hilarious lobbyists. Spader is especially hilarious as he jogs after opposing Democrats and breathlessly argues and bribes them for their vote.
Despite ignoring his early years, Lincoln ends up feeling like the ultimate biopic, one that is immensely infatuated with its subject. Spielberg goes to great lengths to paint Lincoln as a man who isn’t perfect but is trying so desperately to do the right thing. Clearly a passion project, Spielberg pours his all into this and it shows right up to the end, making him a strong contender in the Best Director category at the Oscars. Lewis, meanwhile, should just be given the Best Actor Oscar right now and save the Academy the trouble of sorting out that category. So the question stands, is this Spielberg’s finest hour? Well, it is certainly is a triumph and it certainly ranks with the best of his work. Whether you love Spielberg or hate him, you can’t deny the fact that Lincoln is a touching, thoughtful, intelligent, reflective, and towering piece of filmmaking that will certainly be remembered for years to come. Best see it now so it can be admired on the big screen because your television will not do it justice.
Anti-Film School Recommends This Film…
The ultimate summer movie is FINALLY on blu-ray! Whoopee! Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws has been unleashed in a kick ass new collector’s set that is a MUST OWN for ANY movie fan out there. You can pick up the collector’s set at your local Best Buy and it is the one I highly recommend that you spend the bucks on. There are plenty of behind-the-scenes features, tons of deleted scenes, production photos, outtakes, and more. Then there is the film itself, which looks absolutely marvelous. So, enough from me. Grab you credit card and zoom over the Best Buy now and grab this bad boy. If you do not have a Best Buy near you, you can grab the normal blu-ray wherever movies are sold.
Read the Anti-Film School review of Jaws here.
-Theater Management (Steve)
by Steve Habrat
I really don’t know why I didn’t go see Alexandre Aja’s 3D remake of Joe Dante’s Piranha back in the summer of 2010 but I do kick myself now for never taking the time to go check it out. What a hearty dose of gruesome fun in the sun this Piranha out to be! Aja, who is responsible for the wickedly clever 2003 French horror film High Tension and the hair-raising 2006 redo of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, doesn’t shy away from giving us exactly what we would want to see in a film called Piranha. Yes, we see one of the hungry terrors actually burp out a penis, a girl get her blonde locks tangled in a boat engine propeller, and tons more assorted carnage for any horror fan to go bonkers over. Piranha also happens to be a mighty fine tribute to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws, even giving us one hell of a cameo from Richard Dreyfuss, donning the same wardrobe that he did while battling that iconic great white shark. While Joe Dante’s original film was basically Roger Corman’s quick cash in on the popularity of Jaws, Piranha fully gets that and it plays with it quite a bit. It also seems like Aja has it out for obnoxious spring break college kids who say “bro” too much, enjoy showing off their tribal tattoos, and hate anyone wearing a Pixies t-shirt. Oh boy, does Aja get them good.
Piranha begins with fisherman Matt Boyd (Played by Dreyfuss) fishing and enjoying a couple cold brews out in the middle of Lake Victoria, Arizona, one sunny afternoon. After accidentally causing a small earthquake that cracks the lake floor, Boyd’s boat is pulled into a whirlpool that unleashes thousands of hungry piranhas that proceed to rip him to shreds. Meanwhile, Lake Victoria is crawling with scantily clad tourists who are ready for spring break shenanigans. Among them is local seventeen-year-old Jake Forester (Played by Steven R. McQueen), who is eager to join the party. Jake’s mother, Sheriff Julie Forester (Played by Elizabeth Shue), is consumed with keeping an eye on the drunken college kids and has barely any time for him or his two younger siblings. Jake ends up meeting porn filmmaker Derrick Jones (Played by Jerry O’Connell), who offers him some money to take him around to local hot spots so he can shoot some steamy footage. Jake agrees and takes off on a boat trip around Lake Victoria, bringing his crush Kelly (Played by Jessica Szohr) with him for the ride. As word gets to Julie about the disappearance of Matt Boyd, she teams up with her tough-as-nails Deputy, Fallon (Played by Ving Rhames), to find him. Soon, more bodies pile up and Julie is forced to investigate what is causing these deaths or close the lake. She ends up taking a group of seismologist divers to the crack in the lake floor where they make a terrifying discovery.
Once Piranha gets moving, the film really bares its teeth and chews you up, right down to the bone. Things get NASTY. The death scenes here are seriously grizzly with a heavy sprinkling of camp. The final half of the film is a never-ending bloodbath that features one memorable death scene after another. Drunken college kids are chewed in half by the scurrying school of death lurking just below their inner tubes. One naked girl after another is chewed up to the point where they are floating skeletons while one gets the top half of her chest chopped off. You can’t help but laugh when splat pack director Eli Roth shows up as the judge of a wet t-shirt judge who meets his maker by getting a speed boat to the face, spraying his gooey brains all over the tanned mug of a horrified hottie who is looking to show off her double D’s to thousands of chanting beefcakes. It practically leaves you exhausted even at its brief eighty-nine minute runtime. If you have ever found yourself annoyed to no extent by abrasive sex-starved teenage idiots, this is the movie for you. Aja apparently can’t stand them either and he makes you know it.
While it lures you in with its excesses, Piranha has a surprisingly clever cast keeping this pleasure cruise on course. I just couldn’t stop laughing over the sweet cameo by Richard Dreyfuss, who seems to be having a grand old time at this B-movie soirée. Shue and Rhames as the heroes here are exactly what you would expect. They don’t really blow your mind but I never expected them to. Rhames does get a nifty sequences where he rips the engine off a dingy and uses it to hack up a school of charging piranha. McQueen and Szohr get the typical teen roles of looking good for the camera while Jerry O’Connell dances around them in a cocaine fury. O’Connell’s Derrick is just as unpleasant as he should be and you will be counting the seconds until he comes to face to fangs with the chomping menace. Also on board is Parks and Recreation cast member Adam Scott as the hilarious Novak, the head of the team of seismologist divers. Scott happens to be a welcome presence in anything he is in and he adds some more welcome humor to an already hysterical experience. The other awesome cameo is Christopher Lloyd (Yes, THAT Christopher Lloyd) as a pet shop owner who identifies the piranha as an extremely violent species that went extinct two million years ago.
Using almost the same plotline as Jaws, Piranha 2010 is more of a loving tribute than sloppy rip-off. It affectionately winks at the Spielberg classic, which I think is why I liked it as much as I did. Judging by some of the shots found here, I can assume that this had some truly awesome 3D to hold the audience’s attention and would have been fun in a big theater. The guys get an extended sequence of two nude women swimming around like dancing mermaids while the girls will scream over a piranha belching out a chewed up penis right at them. In addition to those two moments, the engine wielded by Rhames looked like it would have been pretty neat in 3D as does the darting school of piranha, who leap at the screen like aquatic demons. The film luckily doesn’t go on for very long, making it even more likable than it already is. Aja doesn’t hesitate to show the audience that he is capable of really creating a suspenseful mood and really freaking us out. He really is a talented guy who should be given more horror projects. Piranha may not make you a better person and it may not challenge you intellectually, but you just won’t be able to resist its B-movie allure, even if that allure is dripping with blood, guts, and tons of nudity.
Piranha is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Throughout my film courses at Wright State, one of my professors (who will remain nameless in this review) argued that Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller Jaws was not an important motion picture but rather the bane of their very existence. He rarely had a kind word for the film (or Spielberg himself) and it was just downright perplexing. On the one hand, there could have been bitterness there because Jaws was such a commercial success, the first summer blockbuster marketed on a large scale and he was stuck on the smaller scale art house fare, reluctant to give anything with an explosion in it a chance. On the other hand, he could have just been in love with his own pretention and too stubborn to realize that Jaws had some very important things on its mind, mainly reflecting the Watergate scandal that gripped the nation at the time and exploring class relations among its three main protagonists. My professor liked to argue that Jaws, and the imitation blockbusters that followed, chose not to deal with real world consequences to the violent actions within the films themselves, glossing over the cold hard truth. He is wrong, folks. Jaws DOES deal with some real world grief, fear, and the heaviness in the heart of everyman hero Brody. And if what is going on underneath all the mayhem isn’t clever enough, Spielberg makes a film that is an absolutely flawless example of how to perfectly build suspense and follow through with a delivery that will have the viewer’s heart in their throat. Maybe Jaws isn’t such a piece of garbage after all…
Considering everyone and their mother have seen Jaws at least once, I won’t dive into too much detail about the plot. Jaws opens with a group of free-spirited teens partying on the beach. Two of the drunken teens slip away and decide they are going to go skinny-dipping. The boy passes out while in the process of undressing but the girl makes it into the water, only to find herself getting tugged around by an unseen predator that proceeds to rip her to bits. The next day, police chief Martin Brody (Played by Roy Scheider), who has just moved from New York City to the scenic New England island of Amity, finds the remains of the girl on the beach. The medical examiner concludes a shark killed the girl, prompting Brody to close the beaches down, just when the summer crowds are starting to pour into Amity. Overruled by the mayor, the beaches reopen with the promise that there is nothing to fear in the water. Pretty soon, two more people are dead and Brody quickly brings in Marine biologist Matt Hooper (Played by Richard Dreyfuss) to help find the shark swallowing tourists whole. Brody and Hooper join forces with a blue-collar professional shark hunter Quint (Played by Robert Shaw) and they board his rickety boat the Orca, setting out to find and kill the predator before more people are killed. They soon catch a glimpse of what they are going up against and they quickly realize that they are going to need a bigger boat.
No matter how tough you think you are, Jaws, which is based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, has at least one moment that will send you flying out of your seat. Yes, it is a rollercoaster ride caught on film but Spielberg keeps us on our toes for the entire runtime of the film. He is aided by the iconic score by John Williams, which adds to the stomach-knotting tension found woven through Jaws. I dare you not to jump when you get your first good look at the aquatic beast that rears up to show off its pearly white fangs. You’d be lying if you said your pulse didn’t quicken when Brody, who is well aware a shark killed the girl, sits helplessly on the beach while people pour into the water for a cool-off. Each playful shriek has Brody inching closer to the edge of his beach chair. I guarantee that you mimic him each time you watch the film. All of this suspense is aided by the fact that we don’t see the shark until more than halfway through the film and this glimpse is one of those reveals where if you blink, you’ll miss it. By keeping the monster off screen, our imagination runs wild with, “How big is the shark?” “What does it look like?” “Are our heroes equipped to do battle with this monster?” Between the score, the concealment of the shark, and the slowly rising tension, Spielberg crafts a film that still sends people fleeing from it to this day while the brave ones who remain scream their heads off.
While Jaws may be a big budget studio picture, Spielberg refuses to dumb the entire project down and treat us like blithering idiots. Jaws is eager to address the Watergate scandal, which the country was still trying to wrap their heads around at the time. Tricky Dick’s resignation was still fresh in the mind of most American citizens and the fear that we may not even be able to trust our own leaders is touched upon in Jaws. Throughout the first half of the film, the honest everyman Brody is pitted against Mayor Larry Vaughan (Played by Murray Hamilton), a liar done up in flashy suits who jumps on television to reassure the edgy tourists that there is nothing to fear in the waters of Amity. He breathlessly tells Brody that he can’t close the beaches down because the citizens of the area depend on the money that the tourists bring in. As the body count racks up, the slippery politician is caught up in his fib that everything is okay and out of disgrace, he allows Brody to hire Quint to track down the shark. The film uses Vaughan’s dishonesty to infuse the film with some stinging grief that really sticks with the viewer. The mother of one of the victims approaches Brody and scolds him for opening the beaches when he was aware that there was a shark in the water. This confrontation shakes Brody to his core and his character is never the same again. He seems quieter and a bit dazed as a result, seeking refuge in a bottle of wine.
When Jaws isn’t making us feel Brody’s pain, Spielberg is allowing us to really get up close and personal with the three different protagonists. Middle class Brody wanted to escape the violence of New York and live a peaceful life only to stumble into more violence where he least expected to find it. His reveal is most certainly a reflection of the violence that America was still trying to recover from throughout the 70’s. Quint is a blue-collar WWII veteran who likes to poke fun at Hooper, who has a college degree and happens to be wealthy. The group bickers with one another and they have a hard time working together at first but they are able to put aside their difference over drinks and lengthy explanations about past experiences. Quint and Hooper, who butt heads the most, are able to level with each other by comparing their scars, first physically and then psychologically. Quint’s reveal is the standout, a deeply disturbing account of being stranded in shark infested waters at the tail end of World War II. Then, to celebrate their understanding, they engage in drinking and singing, only to be yanked away from bonding by their aquatic nemesis. This bonding sequence happens to be one of my favorite scenes in the film. I love it when Spielberg cuts to the outside of the boat and up pops our antagonist, a common enemy for the uncommon trio.
Perhaps one of the most influential thrillers next to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (my professor’s favorite film), Jaws hits gold with its equal parts action, adventure, horror, thrills, and comedy, all while giving us three characters we grow to deeply care about. Unlike Spielberg’s later work, Jaws doesn’t have such a happy ending to soothe us. He is bold enough to kill off one of the protagonists, a shock to someone who is only familiar with his projects that came in the wake of Jaws. He also doesn’t shy away from graphic violence, a staple that was immensely popular in the horror films of the 1970’s. To say that Jaws isn’t a classic film worthy of study just because it was the film that “invented” the summer blockbuster and was heavily marketed by the studio is ridiculous. While marketing Psycho, Hitchcock used a gimmick that forbid anyone into the theater once the film had started. This gimmick is okay but the marketing for Jaws was a major crime? Maybe I’m the only one who sees something wrong with that argument. Jaws remains one of the best American movies ever made by a big Hollywood studio, one of the best thrillers of all time, and the quintessential summer blockbuster. An undisputed classic that will make you never want to visit the beach or go into the water again.
Jaws is available on DVD. It hits Blu-ray this August, a must purchase for any fan of cinema.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
by Steve Habrat
After taking the freaky detour into cult territory in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg retreated back to the winning formula that they had with Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, once again pitting our fedora-wearing hero against the dreaded Nazis. Sadly, they seemed really half-hearted about that return, almost a bit reluctant and preoccupied. There is quite a bit to like about 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the addition of Sean Connery as Indy’s father is a brilliant one, but the action and storyline do not seem as spry as they did in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Temple of Doom. It appears that the franchise is a bit winded and in need of a breather, much like our hero after doing battle aboard a tank full of Nazis. With a slightly dull storyline, the true hero here is without question Connery, who is wonderfully effortless as Indy’s father. The two argue, squabble, and work on their relationship all while bullets fly overhead. The plus to all of this is that we get to know just a little bit more about the whip-cracking Indiana Jones but the downside is the film is relying a bit too heavily on the father/son relationship and not enough on the task at hand: Finding the Holy Grail.
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade picks up in 1938 with Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford) in search of an ornamental cross that he has been looking for every since he was young. After recovering the cross, Indy returns to the university he teaches at where he finds himself approached by Walter Donovan (Played by Julian Glover), who tells him that his father, Professor Henry Jones (Played by Sean Connery), has vanished while searching for the Holy Grail, which he had been obsessed with finding his entire life. After mysteriously receiving his father’s diary in the mail, Indy sets out to locate his father with the help of his colleague Dr. Marcus Brody (Played by Denholm Elliot) and the strikingly beautiful Dr. Elsa Schneider (Played by Alison Doody). As Indy’s search for his father continues, he discovers that the Nazis are also in search of the Holy Grail and if they obtain it, they are guaranteed world domination.
At the time of its release, The Temple of Doom was met with mixed reviews from critics. While The Temple of Doom was a step down from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film was a bit too exotic for some tastes. Lucas and Spielberg were hell-bent to get the franchise back on the familiar path that won fans over in the first place. While the familiarity is welcome, I still enjoyed the exotic flavor of the second installment a bit more than the third chapter. The Last Crusade feels a bit too Hallmarky at times, like it is playing things too safe. The tone here isn’t nearly as dark as the previous two films and certainly not as violent. It is clear that this is for a much younger audience unlike the adult oriented Raiders and The Temple of Doom. It is obvious that Lucas and Spielberg don’t want to cause too much of a stir after producing a film that was responsible for creating the PG-13 rating. With playing things safe, Lucas and Spielberg seem to have little heart in the project, almost like they are just cranking it out so the fans will shut up. This doesn’t mean that they disrespect the character of Indiana Jones, giving him even more depth than before, doing away with the macho personality established in the second film, and giving him a proper send-off into a blazing sunset.
In The Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones was a flexing superhero that looked like he could have run alongside Rambo. In The Last Crusade, he is back to the Dr. Jones we knew in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Maybe this is due to his father’s supervision? In this installment, he isn’t knocking every single bad guy clean off his feet or ripping off his shirtsleeves to show off his biceps to Elsa. This is a much headier showdown than the battle of the brawn in The Temple of Doom. Here, Indy has to use his wit and intellect to stay one step ahead of the Nazis who stop at nothing to make sure he doesn’t get to the Grail before they do. I did not see Temple of Doom Indy getting swept up in the beauty of Venice and lusting after pretty blonde bombshells. Also enjoyable is the glimpse of a younger Indy (Played by River Phoenix) at the beginning of the film. In it, we get to see that the love of the chase began at an early age and that his relationship with his father was a on the rocks.
Professor Henry Jones end up being the salt that The Last Crusade is in desperate need of. He’s downright hilarious with precise comedic timing. You’ll love his reaction when Indy mows down a handful of machine gun toting Nazis or how proper Indy becomes when addressing his stern father (he calls him “Sir”). Their interactions turn out to be the highlight of The Last Crusade and watching them repair their relationship is a real treat. Connery also gets memorable interaction with bird-brained Marcus Brody. Alison Doody is a scorcher as the flip-flopping Elsa but she serves basically no purpose other than being another thorn in Indy’s side and a wobbly love interest. Glover’s Donovan, who early on reveals that he is working with the Nazis, is probably the nicest villain of the Indiana Jones trilogy, never really making us chew at our nails. He is very similar to the character of Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Michael Byrne steps up to the plate to play the real nasty General Vogel, the guy who gets to trade punches with Indy. John Rhys-Davies also returns as Sallah, who isn’t really given much to do outside of add a bit more comic relief to the action.
There are a few action sequences that do manage to capture some of the adrenaline pumping thrills of the first two films. A battle aboard a tank has some edge-of-your-seat moments but is thrown off by too many laughs and “how convenient” moments. The strongest two action scenes end up being a boat chase and Indy and Professor Jones trying to outrun Nazi fighter planes. Unlike The Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade dashes all over the world, jumping from Nazi occupied Berlin to Venice to Jordan. Of all the Indiana Jones films, The Last Crusade is without question the funniest installment, more concerned with making us chuckle rather than filling us with that sense of adventure that Raiders and The Temple of Doom were keen on. Overall, I think that is why I favor Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Temple of Doom to The Last Crusade. This film feels like a dry rehash without the iconic moments to spice things up. That is not to say that I think that The Last Crusade is a bad film. The Last Crusade is a nice wrap up but it was time for Indy to retire the fedora and hang up the whip for a while. All that globetrotting and saving the world really wears a guy out.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is available on DVD.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
by Steve Habrat
As a kid, I absolutely loved producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I loved getting swept up in the adventure, hanging on every action scene, and being hypnotized by the sprinkling of horror that boils over at the unforgettable climax. To this very day, I credit Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark as one of the films that made me fall in love with cinema and pursue a deeper understanding of the medium. Each and every time I watch the film, it feels like I am seeing it for the first time all over again. I’m sure my anti-Spielberg film professors would be chocking on their own vomit if they read that! To this very day, I still absolutely love this movie and love the fact that it is a tribute to the serials from the 1930s and 40’s. I can honestly say that I really can’t find a single thing wrong with Raiders of the Lost Ark, every actor perfectly cast, every line of dialogue spoken with extreme care, and every action sequence wildly iconic. Right from the beginning, Raiders of the Lost Ark establishes itself as a classic film as Spielberg gives us one of the most thrilling opening sequences to a motion picture and from there, he refuses to let up for two hours. How can you argue with that?
Raiders of the Lost Ark introduces us to out hero Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford), an archeologist who gets himself into one tense, death-defying situation after another. The year is 1936 and the Nazis are currently exploring ways to make their army invincible using occult powers. Two U.S. Army intelligence officers approach Dr. Jones about the Nazi’s quest to find the Staff of Ra, which would reveal the location of the Ark of the Covenant. The intelligence officers ask that Dr. Jones locate the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis get a hold of it and unleash its devastating powers on the world. This quest forces Dr. Jones to enlist the help of his old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Played by Karen Allen), and old pal Sallah (Played by John Rhys-Davies) to help defeat his nemesis, René Belloq (Played by Paul Freeman), ruthless Colonel Dietrich (Played by Wolf Kahler) and the sinister Gestapo interrogator, Arnold Toht (Played by Ronald Lacey).
Never attempting to be anything it is not, Raiders of the Lost Ark exists solely to entertain all who choose to watch it and entertain it does. This movie is so damn fun, it is hard to believe there are those who resist it. It’s pure popcorn-munching fun that is one of the definitive summer movies. In addition to a light but gripping story, Spielberg packs his film with so many memorable moments, its absolutely unbelievable. Released in 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark refuses to conform to what was all the rage in the 1980s, which were flexing heroes with absolutely no emotion whatsoever (the Stallones and the Schwarzeneggers). Spielberg chooses to give us a much more vulnerable hero, one who has a few love demons scratching at his heart and one who can get hurt (both physically and emotionally). Dr. Jones isn’t always perfect but he is proud to be flesh and blood. It always seems like the odds are stacked against him as he is relentlessly backstabbed and duking it out with forces that we are sure will overwhelm him. A giant rolling boulder chases him, he is dropped into a pit of poisonous snakes (he hates snakes), and trades blows with a hulking Nazi mechanic all while dodging the propellers of a fly wing. This guy goes through Hell to protect the world.
A heaping amount of credit should go to Ford, who is a revelation as Indiana Jones, wonderfully capturing this vulnerability and imperfection. His cranky humor and irritation with his current situation (whatever he may be encountering: hulking Nazi, snakes, Belloq, etc.) is always on point. You practically hear him go “GULP!” when staring down some obstacles he comes across. He is even more fun when he is dealing with the griping Marion, who is constantly giving him a hard time for wronging her in the past. There is a spark between Ford and Allen and we do root for their love for each other to be rediscovered. We know that Dr. Jones wouldn’t be getting as far as he is without the help of Marion and we know that Marion would fall into the clutches of the dreaded Nazis if it wasn’t for Indy swinging in at the last second to save the day. They are like an old married couple that has yet to get married.
Raiders of the Lost Ark packs a trio of despicable villains to torment Dr. Jones and Marion. The best one here is Lacey’s Toht, who is a vaguely perverse, mouth-breathing freak with a nasty burn on his hand. He speaks slowly, allowing each one of his words to hit the victim he toying with. He wishes that he had the charm of Belloq, another slippery snake who snarls and smirks at Dr. Jones from a far. He loves getting the upper hand on Indy—usually leaving him in hopeless situations that will have you drying off your palms. Completing this trio of terror is Kahler’s Colonel Dietrich, the man leading the operation to secure the Ark. They all get their moment to kick Dr. Jones while he is down, only striking when he is down because none have the muscle to throw down with good old Indy. The other baddies that will stick in your mind is Alfred Molina in his debut role as the backstabbing Sapito who leaves Indy to be crushed by a giant boulder and various other booby traps and Pat Roach as a burly Nazi mechanic who gets a prolonged fight sequence with Indy.
Despite being PG, Raiders of the Lost Ark does have a few moments that wander into the horror realm. The climax of the film is nice and ghoulishly nasty, complete with melting antagonists and terrifying demons laying waste to tons of Nazi soldiers. The film is surprisingly violent and does contain some moments that may scar young children. Overall, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a globetrotting blockbuster that made globetrotting action cool. With Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg set the bar so high for action/adventure films that he couldn’t top himself. The three sequels, while good in their own right, pale in comparison to this installment. Also notable is the easily recognizable score by John Williams, one that compliments the rollicking action like peanut butter does strawberry jelly. While certain aspects of it are showing its age, Raiders of the Lost Ark still stands as the definitive action/adventure film, one that is always imitated but will never be duplicated and one that can outrun the spry CGI blockbusters of today. This is an undisputed classic and absolutely flawless film.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is available on DVD.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
by Steve Habrat
Michael Bay’s 2007 Transformers was no doubt a huge guilty pleasure. It was far from intelligent but at least it was entertaining and that is really all we could ask of it. I can’t really say that I was dying for a sequel but you knew it was inevitable given the success of the first installment. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the 2009 sequel, never even remotely justifies its own existence. Revenge of the Fallen is lumbering, loud, stupid, and downright obnoxious from the first frame all the way to the last. It’s almost as if the first film shot up with a bunch of steroids, downed a whole case of Red Bull, and then was let loose to wreck havoc on society. Part of the problem is that returning executive producer Steven Spielberg has obviously cut the short leash that he had director Bay on and allowed him to bolt right for the TNT stash. I swear that Bay can’t go ten minutes without blowing something up and he sculpts his film all the fireballs.
In the opening moments of Revenge of the Fallen, it is revealed that ancient race of Transformers called the Dynasty of Primes was searching the galaxy for energon sources. The Dynasty of Primes used energon to power their mighty AllSpark, the device that caused all the ruckus in the first film. They decide that if the planets they visit have life forms residing on them, they will not harm the planet. When one brother who is dubbed “The Fallen” breaks away, he lands on earth and builds a Sun Harvester, which drains stars of their energy. The other Primes sacrifice themselves to stop “The Fallen” before he wipes out the human race and to hide the Matrix of Leadership, which is the key to operating the Sun Harvester (I hope I have all of that straight…). In present day, the Autobots are working with an elite group of soldiers lead by Captain Lennox (Played by Josh Duhamel) to seek out and destroy the remaining Decepticons. Meanwhile, Sam Witwicky (Played by Shia LaBeouf) is getting ready to go off to college and start a life of his own away from his goofy parents (Played by Kevin Dunn and Julie Alice White). He is also grappling with leaving his super hot girlfriend, Mikaela Barnes (Played by Megan Fox), who wants Sam to say the L word (LOVE). After Sam discovers a small piece of the AllSpark stuck in his jacket, the Decepticons begin to regroup and launch an even more powerful strike on earth. Autobots leader Optimus Prime calls on Sam and Mikaela to once again aid him in his protection on earth, but Optimus discovers that he is facing a far more powerful villain than he ever could have imagined.
The small synopsis that I have provided in this review is only the tip of the iceberg that is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. This movie has so much going on in it, you will be in utter disbelief (Seriously, go look at the synopsis on RottenTomatoes. It’s unreal how long it is!) and actually feel your brain melting from overload. Upon my first viewing of the film, I actually started getting a headache from all of the longwinded explanations and teeth-rattling explosions. The first film didn’t bog itself down with complex back-story and sub plot silliness, which made it an easier pill to swallow. It appears that Bay and his screenwriters overcompensate for the simplicity of the first film, which is what made it so likeable in the first place. If that isn’t bad enough, the film features more pointless action sequences that are stuck in simply to show off how much the CGI has improved in the past two years. A sequence in the middle of the film that features an army of Decepticons raining down on earth, smashing into U.S. Naval ships, cities, and everything else you can think of is the final word in extreme and meaningless, a continuous string of explosions, CGI destruction, and incomprehensible aliens.
In addition to all the inane action and story, Revenge of the Fallen further irritates with the horribly misguided acting that Bay proudly displays. LaBeouf’s Sam was once a relatable teen who was caught in the middle of something larger than life. In Revenge of the Fallen, you want to kick him in the face. I couldn’t believe how unbearable he was this time. Bay throws him in with a slew of other aggravating teens, which makes things even worse on the viewer. Fox is given absolutely nothing to do except look hot in a tank top and run away from multiple explosions. Duhamel is still wooden and cliché yelling orders at Tyrese Gibson’s equally useless Sergeant Epps. John Turturro returns as the disgraced Sector 7 agent Simmons, who once again appears to be having fun but he fails to cast his spell on us this time. Ramon Rodriguez joins the insanity as the Sam’s college roommate Leo, who is even more aggravating than Sam. Blonde bombshell Isabel Lucas also is on board as the mysterious Alice, who has an attraction to Sam and wishes to break up his relationship with jealous Mikaela. I still don’t buy these two girls battling over LaBeouf. Sorry, Bay.
What was once sort of cute has become a revolting spawn of Satan, a film that is shockingly racist (get a load of the Twins), unintelligible, and just plain irresponsible. It could be one of the worst written sequels I have ever seen, one that was spit out to suck more money out of the pockets of those who enjoyed the first film. Sadly, we were all suckers and flocked right to it opening weekend. If I were a bigger fan of the Transformers franchise, I would be absolutely furious at Bay for what he has done to this material. He is so concerned with staging an action sequence that he throws lucidity right out the window, napalms it, and the proceeds to piss on the ashes. What Bay fails to understand is that story is more important than action and respect for the material is key to winning the hearts of fans. These characters mean so much to people and to see Bay more concerned with how much of Fox’s cleavage he can capture is just despicable. Furthermore, Spielberg should be ashamed of himself for allowing this film to be made and being okay with his name stamped in the credits. If you have not seen Revenge of the Fallen, trust me when I say that you will not believe your eyes or your ears. With Transformers, Bay earned a smidgeon of my respect and showed the world that he could make a film that was watchable. With Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, he lives up to his reputation for being one of the worst directors currently working in Hollywood.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Michael Bay’s 2007 live action interpretation of Transformers, the immensely popular Hasbro toy line is infinitely better than it should be. I can still remember seeing trailer for the Bay vehicle and thinking that it would be the biggest piece of junk ever spit out by both Bay and Hollywood. It turns out that Transformers was more than meets the eye (I couldn’t resist!). While I admit that I had more fun than I should have at Transformers, it is nowhere near a perfect movie. Transformers has some of the worst dialogue that you are likely to hear in a motion picture, bizarre lapses in time, and some truly awful acting yet astonishingly, the film remains watchable and surprisingly entertaining when it really shouldn’t. The first Transformers film works because it shows us something we can all honestly say we have never seen before. Despite all the twisting and turning metal that fills the picture, executive producer Steven Spielberg slyly inserts a human heart in all of the nonsense and keeps Bay on a short leash, giving it a yank whenever the action on screen gets too out of control.
After their home planet is destroyed by war, the Transformers are split into two groups. There are the Autobots, who are lead by the courageous Optimus Prime and there is the evil Decepticons, who rally behind the dreaded Megatron. The two groups are after the AllSpark, which could allow the Autobots to rebuild their home planet and allow the Decepticons to wipe the Autobots out and take control of the universe. Their quest to find the AllSpark brings both groups to earth where they meet nerdy teenager Sam Witwicky (Played by Shia LaBeouf), who unknowingly holds the key to locating the AllSpark. It turns out that Sam’s new beater car also happens to be the gentle Transformer named Bumblebee, who has to protect him from the Decepticons that are closing in on him. In between attempts to woo the girl of his dreams, Mikaela Barnes (Played by Megan Fox), Sam is dragged into vicious war between the Autobots and the Decepticons, who fully plan on using earth as their new battleground. Sam and Mikaela are reluctantly paired with a small group of humans who have to battle beside the Autobots in order to save the human race from being wiped out.
Transformers is a must-see for the mind boggling special effects and earth shaking action sequences that Bay is noted for. The end battle in the streets of Los Angeles ranks as one of the most satisfying and adrenaline-pumping action sequences in a summer blockbuster. This one is truly one of those films that leaves you asking, “How did they do THAT?!” Being a Bay film, you are never really required to use your brain outside of keeping all the Transformers’ and secondary character’s names straight. Credit has to be given to Bay because he knows why we are watching this film and it certainly isn’t for a beefy plot. He fills the screen with hot chicks, explosion porn, and enough showdowns to drive Transformers fans up the wall. It’s all eye candy here but it is eye candy that we have never seen before and that will give your eyes cavities. I dare someone to name me another film where you see a Camaro convincingly morph into a towering robot, go leaping through the air, and clash with another robot that just morphed out of a police car. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
While the fiery battles are quite a bit of fun, they also happen to be one of the many flaws that wound Transformers. Clarity is sacrificed as Bay’s camera shakes around violently and his editor jumps from one side of the action to the other. He doesn’t really go out of his way to really distinguish the secondary Transformers, as he has them all done up in gunmetal gray and earth tones. When it is only two of them trading punches, rockets, and bullets, you can easily distinguish who is the bad guy and who is fighting for good but when the climax arrives, Bay frantically throws every single robot at us, causing Transformers to loose control here and there. And while the climax is rousing, the earlier battles are a bit more fun because we are able to actually see who is winning the showdown. A confrontation on the highway between Optimus Prime and Bonecrusher is stunningly realistic and easy to distinguish. Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Megatron are really the only Transformers that we are able to identify in all the mayhem, as they are the ones with the most color and personality.
Transformers ultimately belongs to Shia LaBeouf, who salvages crummy dialogue and creates a multidimensional teenager who other teenage boys can relate to. He also happens to be relentlessly hilarious and a real charmer. He’s just a goofball trying to fit in and win over the beauty, who appears to be way out of his league. It’s through extraordinary events that LaBeouf’s Sam gets what he wants and sees his suburban ennui shattered into a million little pieces. He works well with Fox, who has very little personality but LaBeouf knows how to coax what little she does have to the surface. Fox ends up being likable enough even if she is aware why Bay has his camera pointed at her. LaBeouf and Fox are paired with a slew of other pretty faces including Rachel Taylor as smoking computer analyst Maggie, Josh Duhamel as Captain Lennox, Tyrese Gibson Tech Sergeant Epps, Anthony Anderson as overweight nerd Glen, Jon Voight as Defense Secretary John Keller, and John Turturro as weirdo Sector 7 agent Simmons. They all get their chance to ham it up for the camera, mostly Turturro as Simmons, who seems to be having a ball slumming it. Tyrese and Duhamel are handed some of the worst dialogue to work with and their characters are lumbering clichés for the girls to drool over. Kevin Dunn and Julie White memorably show up as Sam’s TMI parents who walk a fine line between funny and downright annoying. Luckily, they fall more into funny.
Given the problems with dialogue, clarity issues, and everything else that Bay does wrong, Transformers morphs into a fairly memorable adrenaline rush that represents why we flock to summer blockbusters. It never attempts to be anything more than a mindless diversion from the humid weather outside and give us an excuse to munch on a gigantic bowl of popcorn. If you go in to Transformers with extremely low expectations, you will emerge from it a little winded and pleasantly surprised. This uber-expensive B-movie works because Spielberg keeps a watchful eye on Bay, as I’m sure he is fully aware of the work that Bay churns out. Spielberg seemed to demand warm and fuzzy moments, ones where he underlines the idea that there is something extraordinary happening right in our own backyard. It’s a bit naive but it works here. So, if you’re willing to let yourself go for two and a half hours, Transformers is just the escape that you are looking for. It may not change your life but not every movie has to.
Transformers is available on Blu-ray and DVD.