Starship Troopers Series – Review: Part 2

24 Sep

Here we come to the conclusion of my review for the Starship Troopers movie series. To recap, I gave the original film an A- because of its perfect blend of satire and over the top sci-fi action. It’s one of Verhoeven’s best and stands as a classic of the 1990s. It’s sequel was lucky enough to slide by with a since it completely lacked all of the great stuff from the original and felt like such a huge departure from what this series should be. Now we have Starship Troopers 3: Marauder and Starship Troopers: Invasion to pick up the slack. They have a lot riding on them after the abysmal second film, so let’s see how much the can do for the series.

In 2008, Starship Troopers 3: Marauders was released on DVD, making this the first film in the series to go right to DVD after the first film was a major theatrical release and the second was a TV movie. Luckily, this film, despite its direct to DVD status, picks up some of the slack.

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The war with the Bugs has been going on for over a decade, and the Federation is still unable to outgun the overwhelming numbers of their enemy. On the planet of Roku San, Col. Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is in charge of a large military base that is being inspected by his old friend Gen. Dix (Boris Kodjoe) and Sky Marshal Anoke (Stephen Hogan). When the Bugs get through the perimeter of the base, the Sky Marshal is forced to leave on his ship which is soon shot out of the sky leaving him and a small crew stuck on a desert planet. Under the leadership of Capt. Lola Beck (Jolene Balock), this crew starts moving towards a section of their broken ship to call for evacuation while avoiding the Bug swarm. Meanwhile, Dix recruits Rico to lead the new Marauder program, which would put him at the head of a unit of soldiers donning mech-like power armor to go to the planet’s surface and rescue the survivors before it’s too late.

After Hero of the Federation deviated from the structure and style of the first Starship Troopers film, it was a nice surprise to see Marauder return things to what they once were, for the most part. This is another direct to DVD release, so there’s a major limit on what can be done, but this movie and the film makers behind it clearly have some major ambition. The writer of the first and second films, Edward Neumeier, returns again to write the screenplay but also takes a spot in the director’s chair. That being said, he did a pretty good job all around. It was great to see the character of Johnny Rico come back, especially with Casper Van Dien reprising the role. This helped this film really feel like it fit in nicely with the original. More attention is also given to the idea of psychic soldiers, and the satirical humor makes a lot more of a comeback than it did in the previous film. The Federation as a whole is front and center at this one, which also gave me a clearer and wider look at the world these movies occupy.

While this movie does fix a lot of problems from the second one, like being more interesting, better looking, and having better special effects, there’s still glaring problems to be seen here. First off, Johnny Rico is established in the beginning, and it was great to see him again. After a while though, he takes a back seat to the people stranded on the planet. I figured that would all be fine because when he takes command of the Marauders, it’s gonna be awesome. Well it kinda sorta was. The ending of this movie is very anti-climactic and I was pretty disappointed. When the mech suits land on the planet, I was so ready for a big throw down with the Bugs, but it was over before it even began and nothing that cool even really happened. It was a wasted opportunity that should have been part of the movie more. Finally, there’s this weird theme about religion that is beat over the viewer’s head, but in the end, the film can’t seem to figure out its stance on the subject which just makes it really annoying. These are some major problems in an otherwise good film.

Starship Troopers 3: Marauder is a really impressive direct to DVD movie and it a pretty worthy successor to the original for what it is. It still suffers from the low budget that most, if not all, direct to DVD movies suffer from, but the ambition overshadows that. There’s a lot of great ideas in this movie, but there’s unfortunately a lot of problems holding it back from reaching its full potential. If you’re a fan of the original Starship Troopers, this movie continues the story and the mood much better than the second film and works well as fleeting entertainment. It’s not great, but it’s alright.

Final Grade: C+

With three live action feature films, it would’ve made sense to leave this series as a trilogy, but in 2012 we got another entry. This film was released in theaters in Japan and direct to DVD in the United States. Surprisingly enough, Starship Troopers: Invasion was a pretty cool addition to the series.

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As the war rages on, the Bugs have begun attacking more Federation outposts like the asteroid base, Fort Casey. While the Bugs are in the middle of their siege, and elite team of the mobile infantry lands to rescue the crew and destroy the base so no Bugs can escape. Along with the infantry, pilot Capt. Ibanez (Luci Christian) and Minister of Paranormal Warfare Carl Jenkins (Justin Doran) escape the base, but Jenkins commandeers Ibanez’s starship before mysteriously going dark. Before Ibanez and the soldiers can get home, Gen. Johnny Rico (David Matranga) orders them back to find the starship that went dark and investigate what went wrong. After finding the ship, the infantry and Ibanez find the crew wiped out and Jenkins hidden away in the cargo hold. Soon, the Bugs make themselves known and the fight for survival begins as a Queen takes command of the ship and directs it onto a crash course for Earth.

The first thing you may notice about this movie is that it is completely computer animated. This could have either helped or hindered the movie, but in this case I think it helped. The animation isn’t anything special but it works well enough for the story, and the actors were all motion captured which gives the characters a little bit more life in their animation than they otherwise would have. This being a computer animated movie, there’s also a lot that could be done that otherwise couldn’t have been without an insanely huge budget. For one thing, the power suits finally get to do a lot, and we finally get to see how powerful and useful they really are. We got a glimpse of them in Marauder, but with Invasion you finally get to to really see them in action.

Speaking of action, this movie has plenty of it, and that’s both a good and bad thing. There’s plenty of scenes where the Bugs chase the troopers down endless corridors and trap them in seemingly impossible situations that they have to fight their way out of, but it does get a little repetitive after a while. There’s no grand battle scene or anything like that to shake things up. There’s also a lot of characters in this movie that don’t have a chance to get fully developed, so when some of them do die, it feels like a wasted potential for some real drama. This is something that the original Starship Troopers did well, but none of the others could quite match. Still, when the action picks up, especially towards the end, it does get to be a lot of fun and is the kind of stuff that this series is based on.

Starship Troopers: Invasion is oddly enough the best film in this series since the original, but it still doesn’t quite live up to that one in many ways. There are some cool characters, the animation looks good, and there’s plenty of action to keep die hard fans of the series entertained. It was also cool to see more of the original characters make a return. Unfortunately, the lack of character development and the repetitive nature of the action stop this movie from becoming something of a cult classic. Fans of the series will probably enjoy this one while people unfamiliar with the world may not see anything too special.

Final Grade: B-

Well, there you have it. All in all, this is a pretty lackluster series. The first film was an outstanding, satirical sci-fi/war film while the second one has a special spot at the very bottom of the bargain bin for all eternity. Some redemption was found with the third and fourth, but not enough to really hearken back to the original film. These movies can be an interesting watch, but it may be best to just stick with the 1997 original by Paul Verhoeven.

Don’t Breathe – Review

19 Sep

It’s been gratifying as a fan of the horror genre to see some really cool, highly original horror films to come out in the past few years. There’s been something of a horror renaissance. That being said, I’m not completely opposed to a film maker taking a familiar approach or using familiar plot devices to create a unique and entertaining horror film. It just has to be done right. Enter film maker Fede Alvarez and his newest film Don’t Breathe. This film is a mix of ideas that has been seen in films like Panic RoomThe Strangers, and Wait Until Dark, but it’s important to note that this isn’t a carbon copy of any of these movies. Instead, Don’t Breathe is an unbearably tense, slow burning horror film that’s smartly written and very well executed.

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Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three Detroit friends who make a living off of breaking into and robbing houses protected by Alex’s father’s security company. After a while, the profits from these jobs are becoming less and less from what they have been, which begins making Rocky’s plan, along with all the other’s plans, of leaving Detroit almost impossible. One day, Money is told about a house in the middle of an abandoned neighborhood with $300,000 just waiting to be taken. The seemingly only defense is an older, blind man (Stephen Lang) who seems like he couldn’t do any harm to anybody. When the three thieves enter the house and come closer to finding the money, the blind man wakes up and realizes what’s going on. It becomes clear that he isn’t nearly as defenseless as he looks, which forces the three robbers to quietly maneuver around him in the house, but they soon discover the blind man’s darkest secret that he will kill for in order to protect.

For me, Don’t Breathe is one of those movies that really hits what a horror movie is supposed to be on the head. Fede Alvarez previously directed the remake of Evil Dead, which I have not seen, but after seeing this movie and seeing how well he understands the genre, I wouldn’t be opposed to it. This is an incredibly tense film that made me cringe countless times. There were even times where I was afraid to breathe and give away the characters’ location in the house. It a movie can make me tense up and not want to breathe, then I know that I’ve just experienced an excellent horror film. The first time the movie really got me was a quick scene where the blind man quickly walks down a hallway, forcing Alex to quickly hug the wall and remain absolutely silent. The actual scene lasts only a split second, but that’s what makes it so good. There’s no cue that this is supposed to make you jump or feel frightened. The immediacy with which it happens is enough to make anyone feel uncomfortable. And that’s just the beginning. There are so many memorable scenes that almost force you to watch the movie through your fingers.

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What makes the movie even more effective are the characters and the situation that they are in. I’m not so much talking about being trapped in the house, but more so the living conditions and fighting for survival in the dying city of Detroit. Similar themes were explored in It Follows, and Alvarez continues this exploration with Don’t Breathe. The film’s focus on the environment is really important to telling the story, and the actors play their parts in this world very well. They have more dimensions than what can be expected in most horror movies, even though their performances aren’t exactly out of this world. Stephen Lang on the other hand is outstanding. The outside world doesn’t so much affect him, which is why he is so threatened when outsiders enter his domain. He is a formidable presence, and while he doesn’t say too much in the film, it’s all about his actions. Like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees before him, the blind man is a nearly unstoppable force that gives you the creeps whenever he’s onscreen. Lang really was the only choice for this character and he’s excellent.

It’s also worth mentioning that Don’t Breathe is just an artistically and technically well designed film. The cinematography is perfect, and some scenes had me really loving the look of the film. The lighting is very important to the tension of this movie and without it done just right, the movie probably wouldn’t have been as effective as it was. A lot of attention was also given to the sound, and rightfully so. A large part of this movie is focusing and becoming paranoid about any little sound that may give away the location to the blind man. Every little click and whisper is magnified, which adds a sense of distress that I felt as a viewer. One great scene had such a quiet explosion when one character steps on a squeaky floorboard. The sound and the visuals all go above and beyond.

Don’t Breathe is not only a great horror movie, it’s just a great movie in general. The performances, especially by Stephen Lang, all work very well and it’s just a very well put together movie. The idea of someone breaking into my house and invading my space is one of the most terrifying ideas to me, and seeing that idea completely flipped on its head was interesting and made for a unique time at the movies. I really want this movie to be remembered years from now, as it’s a prime example of how to properly craft a suspenseful horror film.

Final Grade: A

Starship Troopers Series – Review: Part 1

15 Sep

Science fiction is one of my favorite genres of film, and when you add the themes of war and militarization along with the enemies being giant bugs from another planet, I’m completely on board. This makes the Starship Troopers movies right up my alley, but not all of them have gotten much praise. Based off of a 1959 novel by Robert Heinlein, the story of humanity in a utopian, yet oddly fascist, world in the 23rd century who go to war against a race known as the Bugs provided a lot of heavy handed messages that the author believed in. It seems pretty ripe for feature film story telling, and in some ways it worked. This series, like many others, certainly has its fair share of ups and downs.

Let’s start with Paul Verhoeven’s original cult classic from 1997, Starship Troopers.

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By the 23rd century, the Earth is now classified as a federation that is ruled in a fascistic and militaristic way. It’s a strange utopia that condones violence to survive and the only way to become a citizen is to serve in some branch of the military. That’s exactly what Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) intends to do once he graduates high school. Along with his friends Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), Carmen (Denise Richards) and Dizzy (Dina Meyer), Rico joins the military and is assigned with Dizzy to Mobile Infantry. After a race of giant insects called the Bugs shoot an asteroid across the galaxy and completely wipe out Buenos Aires, the Mobile Infantry and the Federation’s air fleet mobilize to the Bug planet of Klendathu, where a bloody war begins for the survival of the human race.

When it was first released, Starship Troopers was not met with too much success critically and the box office return was less than what was expected. Over the years, however it’s gained a status as a cult classic. When the film first begins and a lot of time is spent at the high school and basic training, I was worried that this would be an uneven mess with a disappointingly low amount of action. The first 45 minutes seemed to drag, but when the action does begin, I became thankful for all the time setting up the characters’ personalities and relationships. This makes the war scenes all the more impactful, and when someone gets hurt or is killed, I really felt like something was lost. Believe it or not, this is not a mindless movie and does evoke some real emotion, even though the acting is less than stellar.

Let’s face it, though, this is a sci-fi war film, so let’s get into the real nitty gritty. Paul Verhoeven may have had some missteps as a film maker, but it’s much easier to remember his films like Starship TroopersTotal Recall, and RoboCop. This movie stands as one of his achievements. The special effects are out of this world for the time and were even nominated for an Academy Award. When the Bugs swarm the soldiers, the movie gets so intense and action packed, which is where it really shines. There’s also lots of what I like to call “Verhoeven gore,” which, if your like me, adds some fun to the movie. He just seems to love blowing people up. Finally, this film works great as a satire of fascism and blind love and devotion to the military. The 1959 novel this film is based on got a lot of flack for seemingly glorifying a Nazi-like utopia. Verhoeven used this, flipped it on its head, and created bitingly funny satire that’s the backbone of this entire movie.

While I was planning on not really liking this movie when it first started up, I ended up loving it as the credits began rolling. It’s such a fun movie loaded with action, great special effects, and hilarious satire that starts in the very first scene. I was even surprised with how much I cared for the characters, despite some rather tone deaf performances. This is a movie I wish did better when it was first released so Verhoeven would have returned for a sequel. Nevertheless, it is what it is and this particular movie is a total sci-fi blast.

Final Grade: A-

I feel like I was just talking about direct to video movies with my review of the Darkman films, and here I go again. The original Starship Troopers was the only film to make it to theaters, and all the sequels went right for the home viewers. Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation premiered on Encore (now known as Starz Encore) in 2004, and then went on DVD a few months later. The reasons can not be more clear.

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The war against the Bugs has been raging for nearly 5 years, and while the humans are victorious in many places, there are fronts where the Bugs have the clear upper hand. On one such planets, a group of troopers are overrun by a swarm of Bugs and are forced to retreat to an abandoned outpost called Hotel 1-8-5. With their commanding officer, General Shepard (Ed Lauter), missing, the squad is under the new leadership of psychic Lt. Dill (Lawrence Monoson) and Sgt. Rake (Brenda Strong). As the Bugs find the outpost and prepare to attack, Pvt. Sahara (Colleen Porch) releases an imprisoned officer, Captain Dax (Richard Burgi), in the outpost to help fight against the swarm. What these troopers don’t know is that the Bugs can now infect people and infiltrate squads from within, which spells danger for these soldiers confined to this small area.

With Hero of the Federation, we go from the knock out action, special effects, and satire from the first one and just downgrade it to what comes close to the lowest it can possibly get. I understand that a t.v. movie isn’t going to have the budget of a Hollywood feature film, but my goodness this movie looks hideous. Aside from the fact that it was shot on HD video, it’s just a dark and colorless film. All of the exterior shots are filmed at night with only a small area lit or sand completely covering up any scenery that could’ve given me an idea of where everything was taking place. Once the soldiers get into Hotel 1-8-5, things remain dark and colorless, but everything now just looks old and gross. I give the film makers credit for the claustrophobic feeling, which is nailed really well, but this is just not an easy movie to look at.

Phil Tippett, who is known for his special effects work on Jurassic Park and the first Starship Troopers, returns to direct this film which helps in a lot of ways. For one thing, for a t.v. movie that’s then released right to DVD, the special effects are really good. They aren’t stunning, but there are some scenes that had really impressive practical work. I can’t really say the same about his work with the actors. The acting in the first film really wasn’t anything special, but this is a different story completely. There are some line deliveries that made me either cringe or burst out laughing. The fact that this isn’t a big budget film really isn’t much of an excuse since I’ve seen t.v. movies with impressive performances. I feel like the ambition of this project just didn’t meet the standards of what was actually possible in making a good movie.

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation is more than a disappointing sequel. It hardly even registers as a sequel. Not only was it released almost 8 years after the original, but it was also a t.v. movie that loses a lot in translation to the small screen. The acting is subpar, the cinematography is bland, and the only saving grace is some cool special effects and an action filled ending. If you want to watch a movie with close to the exact same storyline, watch The Thing, or forget this storyline and just put on the original Starship Troopers.

Final Grade: D

So far we have a one great movie and one that really bugged the hell out of me, pun definitely intended. We still have a few more movies to go with this series, but that review will be coming soon. For now, stick with the original.

Demolition Man – Review

11 Sep

Throughout the ’80s and the early 90’s, action movies were really in a league of their own. This was a time when all an action movie really needed to be good was a jacked guy like Stallone or Van Damme to just be present and take out wave after wave of bad guys, and ultimately saving the day. It was something of an innocent time for the genre where audiences could just tune the real world out for a few hours and just watch mind numbing action/adventure. In 1993, a movie called Demolition Man was released starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes. This film has become regarded as one of the high points for the genre at this time period, and while I agree it does have a few more brain cells than some, it suffers from some pretty awful dialogue and a slew of jokes that fall flat.

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In 1996, Los Angeles is overrun with crime and violence which causes the LAPD to really crack down including Sgt. John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone), a tough as nails cop who has earned the moniker “Demolition Man.” Known for causing destruction in his pursuit of justice, Spartan meets his match in the super violent criminal Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), who wrongly gets Spartan arrested. Both men are then cryogenically frozen in the new prison system to be rehabilitated until their release in the next century. When Phoenix is taken out of stasis in 2032 in a future that has been completely peaceful for years, he sees an opportunity to take the city for himself using methods the police aren’t capable of handling. This prompts Lt. Huxley (Sandra Bullock) to propose unfreezing Spartan to bring down Phoenix. When Spartan is released, he resumes his one man war on his archenemy, and the new city of San Angeles is in for some serious problems.

If you’re looking for a completely original sci-fi/action movie, this is not the best place to start looking. Think of Demolition Man as a cut and paste collage of many different science fiction books and movies rolled into one less than fantastic blockbuster. There are so many clichés throughout the film’s run time that you can begin to lose count. The utopian landscape, the underground rebels, and the whooshing sound effects have all been done so many times before. There’s even a character named Huxley, which I look at as the film saying they were directly (almost too directly) inspired by Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. The makers of this movie were even almost sued by a Hungarian author named István Nemere who claimed that almost every aspect of this movie was ripped straight from one of his novels. These claims proved to be true, but he chose not to sue because of how much it cost to sue a Hollywood studio. Pretty rough stuff, if you ask me.

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Beneath all of the derivative and repetitive parts of Demolition Man is still some stuff to enjoy. For one thing, we get to see Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes go head to head. That alone is pretty cool. Stallone seems to be having a great time with this movie and has some pretty funny moments amidst his action sequences which we already expect to be great. The real scene stealer, though, is Wesley Snipes. Snipes makes Simon Phoenix really come alive and commands every hectic scene that he’s in as the over the top villain. His design is also really cool with the blond hair and the one blue eye. It adds a physical look of chaos to an already chaotic character. The two actors work really well together and I buy their vengeful relationship very well all the way up to the awesome climax where the two face off for the last time.

The writing in Demolition Man is as hit or miss as you can possibly get. When Spartan and Phoenix are first released from their cryogenic stasis, things started to go real south for me in terms of the dialogue. The people in this utopian future talk like a bunch of idiots, and I understand that that’s supposed to be the point, but it just doesn’t work. The things they say, like the phrase MurderDeathKill, isn’t particularly interesting or clever. It’s just repetitive, like a lot of things in this movie are. A lot of the jokes also fall flat, but the chemistry between Stallone and Bullock is great which provides a lot of much needed comedic relief. Dennis Leary also has a small part that provides a couple of laughs, but it would’ve been great if his character was more utilized. This movie shines with its action. The hand to hand combat is a lot of fun and the early 1990s special effects work great with the tone of the movie. The final action packed climax was so much fun and culminated in a very satisfying ending. I’ve seen very few movies with Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes where the action was anything but satisfying.

It may seem by all of the complaints that I list in this review that I hated Demolition Man. That’s really not the case. In fact, it’s a pretty fun movie if you switch you’re willing to suspend an uproarious amount of disbelief. While this film thinks it’s a lot smarter than it actually is, there are some clever quips and satirical moments that highlight the excellent and nicely shot action sequences. Simon Phoenix is a character I won’t soon forget, and in the end, Demolition Man is a serviceable enough film for fans of the genre.

Final Grade: C+

Kubo and the Two Strings – Review

8 Sep

Since it’s foundation, animation company Laika has been behind some of the best animated movies in recent years. Their first three films, Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls, all have very unique stories and designs while also taking an alternative route to how family movies are made and the themes involved. Their latest movie, Kubo and the Two Strings, fits in very well with the rest of their filmography in that it tackles heavy subject matter and also isn’t the kind of happy go lucky animated movie you can expect from companies like DreamWorks. While it is a very alternative kind of family movie, it’s still a beautiful looking movie with great characters and is full of adventure which is what makes fantasy movies like this all about.

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Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a boy growing up secluded from most of civilization in medieval Japan. He provides for his sickly mother by going down from the mountain where he lives and performs shows with his magical origami paper and playing his shamisen. One night, after being in the town after dark, his evil aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara) find him and attempt to bring him back to his evil grandfather, Raiden, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Now on the run, Kubo meets his guardian, a monkey aptly named Monkey (Charlize Theron), who is tough as nails and will do anything to protect the boy. They soon meet Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a man cursed to live in the body of a beetle. Together, Monkey and Beetle aid Kubo on his quest to find the missing armor and sword of his deceased samurai father, which are the only means of defeating the Moon King and securing a safe future.

What really drew me into this movie was the beautiful stop motion animation, which is my absolute favorite form of the art. There something about the otherworldly, yet fluid movement of stop motion that makes it perfect for a fantasy film like this. After seeing Kubo and the Two Strings and reading a little bit about its production, I feel like it’s an absolute miracle it even exists. The patience required to make a feature length stop motion film is far greater than I can even perceive. Kubo and the Two Strings was painstakingly filmed over five years. That’s unbelievable to me, especially someone who doesn’t know the first thing about animating. The result is a beautiful world full of color and darkness, movement and breathtaking stillness. It lives and breathes in its own unique way, and is some of the best animation I’ve seen in a long time.

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While this is a gorgeous movie to look at, the story sometimes faltered for me. The main quest of Kubo and his companions traveling to find the lost armor of Kubo’s father is all well and good, and I was intrigued with it for the most part. My only problem is that the real threat doesn’t make itself known until near the end, and instead it is only talked about. I didn’t need Kubo to confront his enemy, the Moon King, right away, but it would’ve been good if he had more of a presence. On the flip side, Kubo’s ghostly aunts had some really cool scenes, and were probably my favorite part of the movie. If I’m talking about the story, I have to talk about the end. Without spoiling it, the end left me scratching my head. I’ve tried really hard to figure it all out, and I’m pretty sure I did, but I can’t say that my knowing what they were trying to do made the ending better. It all just kind of comes from left field without any warning.

While the story does have its flaws, there’s this mood that pervades throughout the entire movie that really hits you in the feels. For being a family movie, this is a very mature film that deals with mature themes and scenarios. In my opinion, there should be more families like this that don’t rely on cuteness and bright scenery to make a successful film for kids. I feel something like Kubo and the Two Strings is the movie that will provide the younger folk more about the truths of life. There’s a light side to Kubo and the Two Strings, but there’s also this pitch black darkness that sticks with the viewer all the way to the end credits. To put it in the simplest of terms, this is very mature family movie that is full of things for both adults and children to think on.

Kubo and the Two Strings is not a perfect movie, in fact I kind of wanted to like it a little more than I did, but it’s still a very strong and intelligent movie. The animation is out of this world and the content can get a lot heavier and more mature than you might expect. The only problem I can think of is a story that grew a little weak over time and a villain that didn’t make himself known nearly enough. Still, this is a movie that’s good for families of all ages to see. Who doesn’t love a good fantasy adventure?

Final Grade: B+

Darkman Trilogy – Review

4 Sep

The super hero genre is more alive than ever before nowadays, and that’s both good and bad. It’s good because most of them are very entertaining, and bad because it’s flooding the market. A name that goes hand in hand with super hero films in my opinion is Sam Raimi. Raimi successfully brought the webslinger to life in Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 (not so much Spider-Man 3). Before any of this, however, Raimi created a character named Darkman, a dark super hero based on characters like Batman and The Shadow, but also inspired by the old Universal monster movies. This idea spawned a trilogy of movies called the Darkman Trilogy. While two of these movies are direct-to-video with differing qualities, it can’t be denied the first film has become a cult classic.

Let’s start in 1990 with the original film, Darkman.

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Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a brilliant, but completely underfunded scientist who is on the verge of developing a new synthetic skin. Even with the hidden variables making this project difficult, Peyton still has the support and love of his long time girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand). Julie is a district attorney who is close to uncovering illegal business dealings by a major developer named Louis Strack (Colin Friels). Another party is interested in this incriminating evidence, a violent gangster named Robert Durant (Larry Drake). Durant breaks into Westlake’s lab to look for the evidence, and in the process destroys his work and severely burns and disfigures Westlake. Now thought to be dead, Peyton hides himself in a condemned factory where he rebuilds his machines that can construct any face he needs to disguise himself with, and soon begins to take revenge on Durant and his henchmen as the face changing vigilante Darkman.

Since it was first released in 1990, Darkman has become something of a cult classic. It’s over the top style and direct influences from Universal monster movies of the 1930s mixed with dark superhero action is a fantastic combination. In many ways, Sam Raimi hit the mark with Darkman, and in some ways it doesn’t quite stick. Where the movie slips up is the pacing of the story. This is an origin story, and origin stories can be tricky, especially when they aren’t based off of any real established lore. The character of Darkman came right from the head of Sam Raimi into the form a short story, so the film makers had to create a way to start the tale of Darkman. The first half hour of this movie goes frightfully quick, and it didn’t give me a chance to really care about the characters or their situations before Peyton’s transformation happens. The rest of the film goes on pretty good, with some odd speed bumps along the way, but the ridiculously fast pace of the beginning makes the character development suffer.

The movie really gets good whenever the action picks up or Sam Raimi does what he does best and goes crazy with the camera and the stylistic editing. This is a really cool movie to look at with the camera jumping all over the place and colors really popping in certain scenes. Raimi also knows how to direct action with his use of outstanding practical effects, stop motion, and blue screen to create a unique looking movie that only early-90s movies could do. Neeson also gives a pretty expressive performance as Peyton/Darkman, and it’s equally impressive given the huge amount of makeup and bandages on his face throughout most of the movie.

Darkman is a really cool, yet minor movie in the superhero genre. It’s not going to be a classic like Raimi’s later Spider-Man entries (excluding the third), but it does have a following of people that will defend it to their last breaths. While I definitely enjoyed the movie, the flaws that crop up throughout the film are very noticeable, and it’s clear that the production of this movie was pretty bumpy. Still for fans of oddball filmmaking and dark superhero tales, Darkman is a movie that deserves another look.

In 1995, Universal Studios released their first ever live action direct-to-video movie. That honor(?) goes to Darkman II: The Return of Durant.

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Years after being horribly burned and disfigured, Peyton Westlake (now played by Arnold Vosloo) still dons the title of Darkman and is still working hard to perfect his formula for synthetic skin and make it last longer than 99 minutes. What Westlake doesn’t know is that while he’s been working, Durant (again played by Larry Drake) has been alive in a coma, and he has just recently gotten out of it with plans to take over the city’s crime scene using a new super weapon designed by a mad scientist named Hathaway (Lawrence Dane). After Durant is responsible for killing the one man that may have had the secret to the synthetic skin problem, Darkman once again begins a mission of revenge against the sadistic crime lord, and this time he means to end things once and for all.

Whenever something’s released direct-to-video, I have some measure of fear that I’m about to watch a really awful movie and throw an hour and a half of my life out the window. That being said, Darkman II: The Return of Durant certainly feels like a direct-to-video movie, but it also was still a pretty entertaining film. Let’s get the garbage out of the way first. For one thing, Durant’s plan of using a super weapon designed with plutonium is way out of left field. His main goal is for a group of gun happy vigilantes to get rid of the competition so Durant will reign supreme. What? There’s so many plot holes there that it hurts to think about. The side characters in this movie are also completely useless and almost don’t even need to be in the movie at all. Most of them are just a testament to awful B-grade acting. Of course the cheesy screenplay adds a lot to that, as their characters and dialogue weren’t written well in the first place.

That being said, Darkman II is not a complete waste of time, in fact it felt like a pretty good sequel in terms of style and action. It still has this pulpy kind of fun that relishes at being way over the top. Believe it or not, I think Arnold Vosloo is a great replacement for Liam Neeson. Unfortunately, his performance is a little stifled by make up that doesn’t quite match the make up done on Neeson in the original. The only returning member from the first film is Larry Drake as Durant, and he hasn’t missed a beat in his performance. It’s still fun and easy to hate his character and he gives Darkman a villain worth defeating.

While this is definitely a step down from the original, Darkman II: The Return of Durant is not an awful movie. In fact, it’s a pretty entertaining movie that kept me watching for it’s entire run time. There are some really ridiculous plot holes and the acting is less than acceptable, but it’s B-grade minor entertainment that would be interesting to see for fans of the first Darkman. Just don’t expect anything great.

One thing these movies didn’t need was a third entry, but alas, we now have a trilogy. In 1996, the third film was released direct-to-video titled Darkman III: Die Darkman Die.

darkman3-mca1 (VHSCollector.com)

Still trying to find the secret to permanent synthetic skin, Peyton Westlake accepts to offer of Dr. Bridget Thorne’ (Darlanne Fluegel) help to not only fix his destroyed nerve endings, but also allow him to use her laboratory. During his time there, Westlake finds the secret, but is betrayed by Thorne, who is actually working for a crime lord named Rooker (Jeff Jahey). Rooker wants to extract whatever it is that makes Westlake so strong, so that he can synthesize it and inject it into his henchmen. These super soldiers of Rooker’s will then go on to assassinate the district attorney and give Rooker unlimited power over the city. Feeling vengeful towards both Thorne and Rooker, and feeling an overwhelming desire to protect Rooker’s innocent family, Westlake becomes Darkman again to now save the city, a task more important than saving himself.

So here we have the second direct-to-video release of this trilogy, and boy have we really gone downhill. Darkman II: The Return of Durant was a pretty ok, pretty standard B-movie that had some problems, but was ultimately entertaining. Darkman III: Die Darkman Die is a complete train wreck of a movie. There is such little action, hardly any humor, and a story that is so boring and out of place that I lost interest before the halfway mark was even close to hitting. The whole plot of Rooker not spending enough time with his family, and Westlake disguising himself to take care of them is so stupid I almost can’t even handle it. There’s so much bland family drama with cringe worthy lines said by a terrible child actor that I was almost embarrassed watching it. How can a cool superhero action movie turn into this?

Arnold Vosloo is back playing Peyton Westlake/Darkman and he’s still a good substitution for Liam Neeson, but his role is written really poorly in this entry. He’s either grunting with pain, screaming with anger, or being overly sentimental with Rooker’s family. Darkman’s entire story of trying to fix his skin is also too played out by this point and the amount of stock footage from the second film just goes to show how repetitive this whole movie feels. The only positive I can think of is Jeff Fahey’s performance as Rooker. He’s an over the top, smug villain with a face that you just wanna hit. He seems to be having a good time oozing evil, so the entertainment I did have with this movie came from him.

Darkman III: Die Darkman Die is an insult to the first film and a disappointment to its ok sequel. It walks a fine line of being way too familiar while also straying uncomfortably far from the source material. The story could have easily ended after the second film, which makes this third movie feel like someone just thumbtacked it on to the canon that was already present. Do yourself a favor and do something better with your time. Spend an hour and a half tying and untying your shoes. It’s more fun than watching this mess.

So there you have it. The Darkman Trilogy is a pretty uneven group of movies. Nevertheless, the first film is a super cool dark super hero film and the sequel really isn’t all that bad considering the casting changes and its direct-to-video status. The only one to stay away from is the third film. Stay far away from that. If you haven’t exposed yourself to the dark anti-hero that is Darkman, I suggest you give it a try.

Revolutionary Road – Review

2 Sep

To me, some of the coolest kinds of movies take subjects that seem completely normal and uneventful and completely flip them on their heads to show a much more unsettling look at normalcy. In 1999, director Sam Mendes graced the world with a masterwork of film making, American Beauty, which took a darkly comedic look at the sometimes tragic follies of suburban living. After this great success, Mendes would revisit similar themes with his 2008 film Revolutionary Road. While it does share similar elements to his earlier film, Revolutionary Road is a much more serious and unsettling look at marriage, mental health, and the idea of “settling down.” It’s an overwhelming experience that is bound to leave you drained by the end.

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After Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets April (Kate Winslet) at a party, it doesn’t take long for them to fall in love and start their life together. They move into a nice house on Revolutionary Road in the suburbs of Connecticut. Frank gets a job as a salesman for Knox Machines and April stays home taking care of their two young kids. It seems like the perfect nuclear family. What’s happening behind closed doors is less than perfect. Frank and April’s relationship is completely disintegrating, and this disintegrations is causing a lot of hate to boil to the surface. This hate has to remain hidden from their friends and neighbors. Their final solution to this is to pack their things, get out of the mundane life they created and move to Paris. While this idea brings them closer to the happiness they desire, a promotion offered to Frank once again puts their relationship in jeopardy as their desires and feelings become even more at ends and their lives begin to spiral out of control.

What Mendes did for more modern suburban life with American Beauty, he does for the nuclear family in Revolutionary Road. This film takes a tough look at what is labeled as the “perfect American life.” The Wheelers are a close family that live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and that’s ultimately what seems to be their downfall. Everything is just too nice. It also shows the long term consequences of decisions that seemed like a great idea at the time, like quickly getting married or hastily taking a job that you have no interest in. I feel like I’m rambling a little bit, but that’s one of the more interesting parts about this movie. Everything seems so mundane and ordinary at first glance, but this mundanity is what’s helping to tear this family to shreds. Revolutionary Road also takes a critical look at relationships. It doesn’t condemn them even a little bit, but it forces the audience to examine what makes them actually work and how too much focus on yourself, no matter how right or wrong you may be, can wreak the foundation a relationship is built on. In a nutshell, Revolutionary Road is a film about the extraordinary dark side to an otherwise ordinary life, which may seem all to real to some people.

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Revolutionary Road is an emotionally exhausting film, and I guarantee that by the end you’re going to need either eat an entire tub of ice cream or take a really long nap. There are scenes in this movie that are so intense and real and uncomfortable that I was looking at it through my fingers. When a movie isn’t a horror film and it elicits that kind of reaction, then something was done very right. While it is very intense and tragic in many scenes, there are times where it got to be a bit too much. That’s probably my only complaint with this film. It goes from being highly dramatic to too predictably melodramatic. This only happens a few times throughout the course of the movie so it really isn’t that big of a complaint at all. Most of the scenes hit the dramatic intensity just right, while a select few kind of just go too far. One major contribution to the drama is Thomas Newman’s excellent score that fits right in with the film’s onscreen action.

Watching this movie, it isn’t hard to believe that before working in film, Mendes was a prolific director of stage plays. He, along with the help of master cinematographer Roger Deakins, films this movie like something that could be found on stage. It works great for the film and really allows that actors to work with the limited space that is given to them DiCaprio and Winslet have already shown their chemistry in Titanic, and now show a much more matured version of that chemistry in Revolutionary Road. They give outstanding performances that, I feel, have become under appreciated since the time of this movie’s release. I was surprised to see Michael Shannon, who has grown to be one of my absolute favorite actors, shows up for a little bit. He’s only in a few scenes, but he absolutely owns the screen whenever he’s on, and for this small performance he was given a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Revolutionary Road is one of those movies that really hits you where it hurts. At times, the drama could get a little heavy handed and the writing could stray into the “no one really talks like that” category. Even with the rare heavy handedness, this is a really interesting and upsetting film that succeeds in exactly what it was trying to do. Not only is this film shot very well, but the acting is superb and the production and costume design really get you into the era that the film takes place. Mendes is a film maker that understands the more subtle terrors of normal life, and he uses them very well in Revolutionary Road.