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Death Wish Series – Review: Part 1

24 Mar

One of the most iconic action stars of the past century is the one and only Charles Bronson. He has a charisma about him that is undeniable, so it’s no surprise that he’s a name still remembered to this day. The film that got him raised to such a status is a well known thriller called Death Wish. While controversial for its time, and even this time in a way, it has garnered a lot of fans and a possible remake from Eli Roth. Like with other films of this time and genre, one movie wasn’t enough, which resulted in a total of five Death Wish movies. What can be said about them? Well… they’re certainly something else.

Let’s start with the original from 1974.

Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is a liberal minded architect living with his wife (Hope Lange) and daughter (Kathleen Tolan) in New York City during a time when crime is sky rocketing. One afternoon, a group of thugs break into Paul’s apartment and assaults his daughter and murders his wife. Overcome with grief, Paul doesn’t know what to do and his beliefs are all starting to go down the drain. After a business trip, Paul comes home with the answer and a brand new revolver. He takes it upon himself to start working as a late night vigilante, walking the bad streets of New York and shooting anyone that threatens him or another person. This causes the media, citizens, and police to start paying attention to his actions, and things in New York begin to slightly change. With the people starting to fight for themselves, NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) begins his nearly impossible task of tracking down the vigilante and putting an end to his spree.

Death Wish was made in 1974 and based off of a novel of the same name that was published in 1972. This was a time when crime was really getting bad in major cities, and people just didn’t know what to do about it. This brought about a new age of action films, with the most resonant being the Dirty Harry series. This film doesn’t quite hit as hard as some other films because the idea of vigilantism isn’t explored nearly enough. The novel takes the idea and shows the dark side that it can create, while the film shows Kersey as a straight up hero who can do no wrong. This makes the film feel incredibly dated and kind of a shallow experience, especially if you’re approaching this wanting to see an action classic that can stand the tests of time. It can also come off as very preachy in terms of its right wing political ideology. I don’t care if a movie leans a certain way, but make it subtle and don’t talk down to an audience.

There are things in Death Wish that do stand out. For one thing, Bronson’s performance is good even though the character sort of feels a little bit underdeveloped. Instead of being this boisterous vigilante, he plays the role very quietly, which actually reflects the whole tone of the movie. As the series goes on, it gets more and more off the walls, but this film is much more down to earth. In fact, it’s hard to call this movie a full blown action movie when it often times feels like a drama. The plot moves along slowly, which in retrospect actually works better than I originally thought. There are also no grand action set pieces. The “action” happens very quickly with Kersey pulling out his revolver and shooting a criminal, and once that’s done he just leaves the scene. It felt gritty and real and wasn’t at all what I originally expected this movie to be.

Death Wish is an interesting time capsule of a movie, but it’s one that hasn’t really aged well. It’s political ideology is rammed down the audience’s throat to the point of being obnoxious and it features a well known main character that didn’t always feel too complete. It does feature some cool scenes that feel gritty and realistic and the whole approach of not making a grand scene of the violence is a good choice. I just wish that the idea of vigilantism and its dark side was explored more instead of the whole concept just being praised. It’s an interesting movie for any film history buff and fans of Charles Bronson, but it’s really lacking in many ways.

Final Grade: B-

Eight years later, in 1982, a sequel crept its way into theaters and dragged things down even further.

After his vigilante spree in New York City, Paul Kersey has found a peaceful home in Los Angeles. His daughter (Robin Sherwood) is in a mental hospital and improving significantly, and he’s also found new love with radio reporter Geri Nichols (Jill Ireland). All of this comes crashing down when his daughter is kidnapped and murdered by a gang of criminals, which forces Kersey to once again pick up his revolver and hit the mean streets. As Kersey starts his revenge quest on the group of thugs, Detective Ochoa gets wind of what’s happening and travels to L.A. to put an end to Kersey’s spree, but it can never be that easy.

Death Wish II is straight up garbage. There’s no use beating around the bush with this one. It doesn’t even try to be anything different than the original. Kersey is living a happy live, then someone he loves is killed which brings him to his vigilantism. That’s the same exact plot as the original Death Wish. At least that one raises some questions and presents the material in a subtle way. This one, however, is just violence for the sake of it without any interesting material to back it up. That would be acceptable if this film had any sense of style, but it doesn’t even have that. It’s just a gray, ugly looking movie filled with cannon fodder for Bronson to take his anger out on. It’s absolutely mindless and devoid of any sort of flash to pull the viewer in.

Death Wish II succeeds at only the most base level. I will say that compared to the first one, there’s a bit more mindless entertainment. There’s no real set up to the movie. Things happen right away which leads Bronson to start his vengeful murder spree. If you want to see an action star just blow criminals away, this is the right movie to look at. There’s a lot more action and the violent scenes do feel bigger and more exciting, which is definitely a plus. The only problem, like I said before, is that there’s no style and the motivation feels completely stunted by Charles Bronson’s lack of dramatic presence.

There’s really not much to say about Death Wish II. It feels like a rehashing of the first film, but more loud and more violent. This would be a welcome addition if the story felt different and something new was added. There’s really nothing new here at all. The only time there was a plot development that could lead somewhere interesting, the film makers decided to cut that off prematurely in favor of more mindless proceedings. This film is really a waste of time and only die hard Charles Bronson fans should give this movie any sort of respect.

Final Grade: D-

But the series wasn’t done with the stinker that is Death Wish II. Not by a long shot. In 1985, Death Wish 3 was released, and this is where things really started to go off the rails.

Paul Kersey has been living the life of a vigilante for too long and has finally decided to put away the revolvers and lead a normal life. This personal promise to himself is shattered upon his return to New York City where he finds his long time friend bleeding to death after being attacked by a group of thugs in his apartment. Kersey is than approached by Inspector Shriker (Ed Lauter), who makes an off the records demand of Kersey to return to his old ways and clear the neighborhood of the goons responsible for all the mayhem. Kersey finds allies in the tenants of the apartment building, especially with WWII veteran Bennett Cross (Martin Balsam) and the mild mannered Rodriguez (Joseph Gonzalez). With the support of his neighbors and other victims of the community, Kersey wages war with the criminals and their leader, Fraker (Gavin O’Herlihy).

Death Wish 3 is one of the most unintentionally hilarious movies you or I may ever see. To be fair to it, it’s a slight step up from the second film but for some of the wrong reasons. I do like that the plot deviates from someone hurting his family, but it just goes right to someone hurting his friend. Where the movie really differs in that Kersey becomes something of a guardian angel to the neighborhood, and by the end they all join him in his war against Fraker and his goons. The third act of the movie, by the way, is an extended shoot out in the streets that seems to never end. It’s so much fun to watch but it’s some of the most absurd, mind numbing violence. By the end of it, there’s no emotion or excitement to be felt, other than the moment of joy when the first end credit begins to scroll up the screen.

The rest of the movie is also devoid of any kind of emotional or dramatic impact, which would be fine if the rest of the movie was as entertaining and off the walls as the third act. It isn’t unfortunately, and this is where things really get bogged down. It does have more memorable characters than the previous film, but they don’t really have to much to say or do until things really start happening. There’s a few scenes of Kersey gunning down people throughout the movie, but it’s just all part of the formula by now. Even with a storyline that’s changed, it’s not enough.

If you want a good laugh, Death Wish 3 might be worth checking out, if only for the outrageous finale. It still keeps up the same trend that the other ones did, so the whole routine is feeling kind of stale at this point. It is a step up from the second movie, but that’s hardly saying much.

Final Grade: D+

So that’s the first three films in the Death Wish series. I still have two more movies to go, so keep an eye out for the next part of this review.

Once Upon a Time in America – Review

8 Feb

Sergio Leone is best known for helming the epic spaghetti western trilogy that features A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More, and perhaps his most famous film, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. His final feature film, however, was something very different from his previous works. In 1984, Leone released Once Upon a Time in America, a film that has become a sprawling gangster epic. When it was first released, its run time was cut down to two hours and twenty minutes and the chronology of the movie was changed to make it happen in chronological order, while the original length was more like 4 hours with a story told through flashbacks. The shorter version is the one people would much rather forget, so today I’m going to be looking at the longest cut, which runs over four hours, set in the proper order, and features scenes not shown in previous American releases.

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After living a life of crime and excitement, small time New York gangster Noodles (Robert De Niro) is forced to leave the city and go into hiding for over thirty years. After all this time away, he is mysteriously called back to New York City by an unknown part for an unknown reason that involves a bag full of money that was stashed in a locker at a train station when Noodles and his friends were kids and just getting started in their life of crime. Upon his return, he is overwhelmed with memories of meeting his best friend and partner, Max (James Woods), a friendship that over the years got more and more strained as motivations and relationships stood in the way of their goals. As Noodles starts piecing together the mystery of who summoned him, he also takes the time to reflect on the decisions and the action that got him to the lonely place he finds himself in the later years of his life.

One of the most important thing about any movie is the characters that are created for the audience to relate to or understand or anything like that. To me, some of the most memorable characters come from gangster movies because I really enjoy the depth of the best gangster characters, but I also see the more revolting sides of the personality as something that truly gives their characters weight. That how most of the characters in Once Upon a Time in America are created. Noodles and Max are two sides of the same coin and create a relationship dynamic that is typical for this genre but feels different and, because of the film’s run time, explored in a much finer way. Even the side characters in the film have unique character traits that make them memorable, and never does the large cast ever seem to blend together in any way. De Niro and James Woods are both excellent in their roles, and I also have to give props to Elizabeth McGovern for her role as Deborah, a character with one of the most unsettling stories of all the characters in the film.

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While crime and typical gangster themes are explored in this movie, the themes explored in Once Upon a Time in America feel grander in scale than most movies in this genre. Part of the reason these themes resonate so well is the fact that the story is told through flashbacks and not in chronological order. When Noodles returns to New York City, there’s this noticeable level of sadness and disconnect that he feels towards everything. When the story goes back in time to the 1930s, we see why these feelings exist. This creates themes of loneliness, friendship, loss, and the strongest of all those explored, regret. To me, that’s what stuck with me the most is the regret that Noodles feels towards his life and his choices. This makes every death or separation feel all the more powerful.

I can’t talk about a Sergio Leone movie without talking about his artistry behind the camera. Like all of his other films that I’ve seen, Once Upon a Time in America is a gorgeous cinematic experience. The sets that are built combined with his wide angle style of shooting makes this epic film seem grander than most. The color pallet is also something to notice with the past having a much warmer pallet as compared to the present time where the world is covered with neon lights and blues and grays. His collaboration with cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, who worked with him on his previous two films, also adds a lot with his camera work and lighting. Finally, I have to mention Ennio Morricone’s beautifully realized score that turns the emotions, loves, and losses of the characters into incredible music. It’s a solid reminder of why he’s my favorite film composer.

Once Upon a Time in America is both a technical achievement while also acting as a haunting tale of impulsion and consequences. This is the kind of movie that can serve as a reminder to any cinephile as to why they love movies and the process behind their creations. Sergio Leone is truly a master of his craft, and everyone involved successfully created one of the most memorable gangster films ever made. Just make sure you stray away from the heavily cut American release and find the longer versions to truly get the full impact of the story. It’s not one to be missed.

Final Grade: A+

Near Dark – Review

3 Feb

Kathryn Bigelow has had a very interesting career in Hollywood, and she has a fair share of really good movies supporting her filmography. Her most recent feature, Zero Dark Thirty, garnered plenty of controversy, but I can’t say that it wasn’t a very well made and designed film. I also recently reviewed Point Break, which was one of her earlier efforts but still packed enough over the top entertainment to keep me interested. Today, I’m going back even further to her 1987 film Near Dark. This is a extremely interesting and well thought out take on modern vampires, and this is easily one of the best vampire movies ever made.

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Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) is a young farmhand that helps his father on their farm in a small south western town. One night, he meets the beautiful, yet mysterious Mae (Jenny Wright), who seems in a rush to get home and in her panic bites Colton on the side of the neck. Colton is then taken off the road by Mae’s travel companions. The leader of the group is Jesse (Lance Henriksen) and his girlfriend Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein). Along with them is the sadistically violent Severen (Bill Paxton) and Homer (Joshua Miller), a kid who is much older than he looks. It also turns out that these travelers are vampires who roam the countryside looking for easy prey. Colton now is being forced by these vampires to accept his new life and kill in order to survive. This leads Colton on a wild ride of murder and utter chaos.

If you look close enough, you might notice that the cast to this movie is pretty close to the cast of James Cameron’s Aliens. As many people know, Bigelow and Cameron were married for a while in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cameron recommended these actors to Bigelow, and it worked out great. Henriksen is one of the most recognizable character actors working in film and television with good reason. He’s constantly bringing his best to every project he’s in and Near Dark is no exception. The same can be said about Bill Paxton, who really brings it in this movie. Because of Paxton’s excellent performance, mixed with Bigelow’s creative writing and direction, the character of Severen can easily be remembered as one of the great cinematic vampires. The rest of the supporting cast, along with Pasdar in the lead role are all very believable and do their jobs well, I just have to point out Henriksen and Paxton especially do great work.

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While the story of Near Dark is a pretty standard vampire tale, there are so many elements and scenes that put it a leg above the rest. For one thing, the vampires in this movie look like they could just be any person on the street. They aren’t pale or have fangs or anything like that, but they are just as vicious as any other traditional vampiric predator. There’s also a big focus on the affect that sunlight has on them. In fact, it’s one of the main components of the story. They don’t rest in coffins during the day, but they do have to take whatever precautions necessary not have a beam of light touch them. If it does, their skin burns and smoke starts rising off them. It’s really super cool. There’s also a now famous scene that takes place in a bar that really puts this movie up with other class-A horror films.

There have been so many vampire films made over the years that it’s hard to make the idea seem fresh and exciting. What Bigelow did here was take the vampire horror genre and mix it with the western genre to create a very unique feeling and looking film. There’s so much excellent imagery in this movie from the RV with the tin foil wrapped around the windows, to the vampires with blood dripping from their mouths in the bar scene, to an excellent shootout which results in lots of exposure to sunlight. These images are so well constructed and make this movie feel like such an original take on the lore of vampires. That’s really what I want to praise this movie for. Above all else, it is an original take on a tale that everyone knows so much about, but the newness and originality of this movie makes it feel so fresh.

Near Dark is a wonderfully original vampire film that grabbed me from the start and wouldn’t let up until the credits began rolling. It acts as a horror film, a western, and an action adventure movie all in one. I really tried my best to find something negative to say about this movie, but I had such a fun time with it that I don’t think it’s possible. This is one of those one of a kind movies that I could watch again and again without getting bored.

Final Grade: A

Phantasm Series – Review: Part 2

1 Feb

What my final consensus was on the first three Phantasm movies is that they do represent a spark of originality in a time of slasher movies, but they still weren’t free from their own set of flaws. Most of these flaws come from the pacing and the focus of the narrative, but there were also some problems with the development of characters and the acting. Surprisingly enough, the first direct to video entry, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead was my favorite of the bunch. Now let’s take a look at the last two and see how the world Don Coscarelli built holds up.

The fourth entry in the series, Phantasm IV: Oblivion, was released in 1998 and also sent direct to video.

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Taking place right where Phantasm III left off, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) is on the run from the wrath of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). Meanwhile, Reggie (Reggie Bannister) is hot on his tail after being warned by the undead Jody (Bill Thornbury) that Mike will need all the help he can get. After the Tall Man leads Mike to Death Valley, the secrets of the Tall Man begin coming to light. Mike soon stumbles across a plethora of the Tall Man’s gateways, and he begins to travel through time to see just when the Tall Man came to be. What he finds is the story of a mortician living at the turn of the century who becomes madly obsessed with inter-dimensional and time travel. As Mike learns more of these origins, Reggie finally catches up with his friend and once again engage in a battle with the Tall Man and his horde of lurkers and spheres.

Is it possible that Coscarelli could strike gold again with the second direct to video release in this series? Well, no, I wouldn’t say gold. Perhaps bronze or silver. This is another relatively entertaining addition to the Phantasm universe and it does try to be something different from its predecessors which I really respect. For one thing, we actually see a larger picture of the the power the Tall Man has over time and space. This is way more of a science fiction film than it is a horror film at this point, even though the horror elements are never too far behind. Phantasm IV pushes the limit of the entire series in terms of storytelling and exposition, which is something that really had to happen at this point. It’s great to see what the Tall Man was versus what he turned into, and there are even some interesting twists along the way that feature all of the regulars of the series. This might be the entry with the most interesting story, if anything.

What this movie does that reminded me more of the first two films is that it sometimes gets a little muddled in showing too much or slowing things down. There’s a chunk that’s not too far into the movie that I can only describe as a lot of walking. When Mike first arrives to Death Valley and begins exploring the different gateways, it does show a lot of really interesting stuff in terms of world building and long awaited character development. It just seems that Coscarelli was determined to show of footstep that Mike takes on his journey. It was just a little bit too drawn out, but honestly, that didn’t bother me all too much. It’s also great to see Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm again, but of course we do get some cringe worthy acting from A. Michael Baldwin and especially Bill Thornbury.

Phantasm IV: Oblivion, along with its predecessors, are reminders of what makes this series so cool. They take the best parts of the first film and build on them to create a believable and cool sci-fi/horror world. There’s a lot of much needed exposition on who the Tall Man is and what his endgame is, and there’s also a deviation from the repetitive nature that the third movie suffered from. This is a worthy entry into the series, but it probably won’t convert anyone if you’ve haven’t had any interest in the series up to this point..

Final Grade: B

It would be 18 years before another Phantasm movie would be released, but after much anticipation, teasing, and idea changing the world finally got the final film in the series. This is Phantasm: Ravager.

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For decades, Reggie has been battling the fury of the Tall Man and the evils he has wrought upon the earth. After Reggie’s most recent encounter with the Tall Man, he finds himself waking up in the care of a nursing home where Mike tells him that he’s suffering from an onset of dementia. The confusion only gets more severe as Reggie begins finding himself both in the care of the nursing home, but also in a future where the world was completely overtaken by the Tall Man and his army of lurkers and sentinels. As Reggie continues to battle the Tall Man and his own mind, the lines of reality begin to blur. Not even this will stop Reggie and Mike from joining forces through time and putting an end to this evil once and for all.

I really hate to say this, but Phantasm: Ravager is the bottom of the barrel in this series. It’s hardly even in the barrel at this point. What’s disappointing is that this movie has a promising start by throwing Reggie right into the action with a really fun scene on a desert highway. After that, the movie just sinks further and further into the mud, and not even the Tall Man’s usual shenanigans can pull it out. This movie tries really hard to be a puzzle movie and mess with the viewer’s mind instead of trying to coherently tell any kind of story. The only problem is that the puzzles they are presenting don’t seem to make any kind of sense and nothing is ever explained enough for me to even begin putting together what the hell is actually going on. What ends up happening is a series of scenes where Reggie and his companions are just running around in different times and places only to have the scene cut away right when things start to get remotely interesting.

It’s clear that this movie doesn’t have too much of a high budget, but this has been proven to not be a detractions from horror movies given the right circumstances. The first Phantasm was put together very well for such a shoe string budget. Ravager, on the other hand, is a complete eye sore that just gets worse as it goes on. There are scenes in the future where the world is taken over by the Tall Man and even on the Tall Man’s red planet that is scene throughout the series. These mark the low points for the series in general The CGI is so bad I actually had to look away for some of the movie rather than subject myself to the computer generated vomit that was filling up my screen. It’s important to work with what you have when you’re making a movie, and these film makers (this entry is no directed by Coscarelli) are obviously in way over their heads.

Phantasm: Ravager is by far the worst entry in the series, which is sad because there is some fun to be had seeing these actors return to these characters so many years later. Unfortunately, the story makes no kind of sense and the movie is damn near unwatchable due to some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen mixed with camera work that is bland and unexciting. This film is a let down for fans of the series, and I really wanted to see some sort of closure to the series, but this is what it’s left with.

Final Grade: D-

Looking back on it, Phantasm IV: Oblivion gets better as I think about it. That one’s really the last good entry in the series before it all just goes down the drain with Phantasm: Ravager. All in all, this series is pretty interesting and definitely unique. While it may not provide the best horror experience, these films do offer a breath of fresh air and has become something of a small icon of the horror genre. If you’re a horror fan, this series is worth checking out.

Phantasm Series – Review: Part 1

25 Jan

Horror movies have a fair share of memorable boogeymen. In the 1970s and 1980s there was Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees to name a few, but there are also some that have gained more of a cult reputation. One of these boogeymen is the Tall Man from the Phantasm series. I didn’t know much about these movies, but he was a character who always piqued my interest, and I also find it odd that I haven’t given these movies a chance yet, especially considering their cult status and following. I’m always ready to see some new horror movies, so I’m going to watch all 5 in the series and have a two part review on all of them. Let’s see how they are.

In 1979, writer and director Don Coscarelli released the first film in the series.

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Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Michael Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin) are two brothers whose parents died a few years prior in a car accident. Michael is practically attached to Jody’s hip at times, which isn’t always convenient when Jody has things he needs to do. After the death of one of Jody’s friends, Michael becomes suspicious of the town’s mortician (Angus Scrimm) and the activities he’s engaging in in the mortuary. Michael begins his investigation and stumbles across very strange things in the mortuary like hooded dwarves that attack him and a flying silver sphere that will attach to your head and drill through your skull. Soon Jody and his friend, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), join in on the investigation and are quickly sucked into a web of undead minions, hidden planets, and the wrath of the mortician known as the Tall Man.

Say what you will about Phantasm, because either way this is one hell of an original movie. This film came out in 1979, which was an era of slasher films. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween were both released and a year later in 1980 we’d be introduced to Friday the 13th. What Phantasm did was focus more on the supernatural and not so much a high body count. The whole thing feels like it could be a tale told around a campfire with the Tall Man being the boogeyman that would keep everyone up that night. Angus Scrimm plays the Tall Man to perfection, and there’s no reason not to see how he became a cult icon in the horror world. There’s also plenty of imagination in terms of the story and the design. This film was made on a super low budget, so the fact that writer/director Don Coscarelli pulled it off is amazing. One scene in particular where the silver sphere is attacking Michael in the mortuary is especially memorable and very well made.

So while Phantasm is a horror film that’s held up very well over the years in terms of its ambition and originality, there is a lot holding this movie back. My first complaint is something you’ll see in a lot of low budget horror movies, and that’s the acting. Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm both do great work, but A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury kind of do that weird overemphasizing thing you see in movies like this. It’s awkward to watch and must have been awkward to perform. Another big issue is the way the film is paced and structured. For a good portion of the movie, it seems like nothing is happening. There is admittedly some good suspense in this build up, but it just takes way too long, and this is a pretty short movie so there really isn’t any time to spare. Finally, there are scenes that are simply uninteresting even though it seems like Coscarelli was definitely trying to make something of them. The one I can think of is a small car chase on a deserted road. It’s a car chase that was boring and I couldn’t get into. That’s a rare thing for me.

All in all, Phantasm should be required viewing for anyone interested in horror films, but it’s not something that is necessary for everyone. There’s plenty of originality and I admire Don Coscarelli and his crew for making the movie they wanted no matter what the cost. There’s some great scenes that will stick with me for quite a long time and Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man is one of the great cinematic boogeymen. There’s just some serious pacing issues that drag this movie down from being one of the titans of the genre. It’s still a really cool movie, but can’t be compared to something like the original Nightmare on Elm Street.

Final Grade: B-

Almost a decade later, in 1988, Coscarelli followed up his original movie with the higher budgeted Phantasm II.

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After spending years in a psychiatric hospital, Mike (James LeGros) begins having visions of this girl named Liz (Paula Irvine) who is being tormented by the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm reprises his role). He talks his way out of the hospital and meets up with his old friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister also returns), who at first doesn’t believe his story of the Tall Man, but quickly comes to realize Mike isn’t so crazy. The two get geared up and hit the road, following a trail of desolate towns wiped out by the Tall Man. Soon, the two meet up with Liz and it becomes clear that the Tall Man needs Mike and Liz together because of their strong telepathic bond that becomes apparent in their dreams. Now the trio must once again face the Tall Man, his army of dwarf minions, and his arsenal of deadly flying spheres.

I didn’t have too high of expectations going into Phantasm II since I just felt like the first film was pretty good. Still, I went in with a fresh mind and wanted to see that maybe a bigger budget would give Coscarelli some more room to go bigger and build on the lore. This just goes to show that a bigger budget does not make a better movie. For a horror sequel, this isn’t a bad film, but it still falls into the same pits that the first film does. The beginning of the movie starts out really strong by picking up right where the first film ended, but as time goes on everything starts to lose its luster. The characters all, once again, fail to really grab me or make me care. The only two that succeed in being interesting characters are the Tall Man, of course, and Reggie. Mike and Liz are both bland and altogether uninteresting, which makes some of the more intense scenes feel like they’re missing something. There’s also some weird pacing issues, yet again, where the movie slows down to a grinding halt at times and we are left with characters engaging in dialogue that often feels hollow.

I’m still having a little bit of a dilemma. I have a hard time not hyping this movie up because there is still a lot of really cool stuff. The special effects in this movie are a huge step up, and some of the scenes involving them are genuinely shocking. There are a couple of new spheres that offer some of the most memorable scenes in the movie and one particular puppet that was really creepy. There’s also a new sense of action in this movie that reminds me a little bit of Evil Dead II. This film has those moments of characters gearing up and customizing their weapons, which serve really well to get the audience hyped up. There are also some attempts at funny tough talk which usually just fails completely. Still, I will say the bigger budget does allow for some great show downs with the Tall Man that was sort of missing from the first film.

Phantasm II is a mixed bag for me. It’s missing the wonder, mystery, and suspense of the first film, but it does amp up the action, intensity, and special effects. For me, a horror movie is more about the mystery and suspense while the special effects and intensity come second. This is still a really imaginative movie that builds on the lore of the original, but it doesn’t have enough characterization going for it to bolster the content still. Phantasm II isn’t bad, but I can’t help but feel it’s missing something.

Final Grade: C+

In 1994, something unfortunate happened to this series. Universal stated that if Don Coscarelli and his crew were attached to the next Phantasm film, they wouldn’t distribute it. Coscarelli said that was fine and went on to make Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, which was released direct to video.

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Picking up right where Phantasm II left off, The Tall Man and his minions are in pursuit of Reggie and Mike (once again played by A. Michael Baldwin). After being seriously injured, Mike is left in a coma and taken by the Tall Man soon after he awakes. Now, Reggie is forced to go head to head with the Tall Man, yet again, but this time he has more help than he’s ever had. His first new partner is a young boy named Tim (Kevin Connors), who has survived in a town desolated by the Tall Man. Reggie and Tim also meet Rocky (Gloria Lynn Henry), a tough as nails biker who lost her best friend to the Tall Man. Finally, Mike’s brother Jody has returned as one of the Tall Man’s spheres that has the ability to take human form for a short period of time. This newly formed gang of heroes each have their reasons to stop the Tall Man once and for all, but will they be strong enough defeat him and his ever growing army of undead minions?

With this being the first direct to video entry in this series, I had very little hope that it was going to do anything for me. Surprisingly, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead is the one that has entertained me the most so far. Some of the pitfalls that the other two movies fall in are avoided in this third entry. For one thing, Mike isn’t in the movie too much, which is a good thing because I wasn’t a fan of A. Michael Baldwin’s acting in the first film, and it’s pretty much the same in this movie. Another huge plus is that the characters of Tim and Rocky both work great with Reggie and provide a lot of cool scenes and comedic relief that works a lot better than it did in Phantasm II. Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister also do good work here, as they have continued to do throughout the series leading up to this point.

Much like Phantasm II, this movie is heavy on action. Reggies quad-barreled shotgun makes a return while Tim and Rocky bring a lot of over the top action as well. For a movie that was made for direct to video releasing, this is a pretty good looking movie with some impressive stunts and action sequences. Not only do we get cool action, but there’s also a good amount of world building in that we learn more of who the Tall Man is and what he’s doing with the bodies he steals and the towns he destroys. To point out one negative, I will say that the last third of the movie falls into an area that can only be described as redundant. It’s the big showdown inside a mortuary with a twist at the very end. This is Phantasm 101 and it wouldn’t hurt to deviate a little from what’s been done in every movie so far.

In the end, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead doesn’t shake up the formula too much but it does offer a lot of good entertainment and fun additions to the cast of these movies. The characters are memorable and the action is fun. It just would be nice to see these movies go in a different direction in some ways.

Final Grade: B

The first three movies in the Phantasm series can be described as fine. The first and the third have stand out moments that make them memorable, but the second movie just dragged on a bit too much for me. There’s still two more movies to go so keep an eye out for part 2.

Manchester by the Sea – Review

14 Dec

Sometimes it seems that a great movie can just pop up out of nowhere. I shouldn’t really be saying that about this one considering this is the time of year when a lot of the great movies come out and also the fact that this particular film was getting a fair amount of buzz. When I first heard of Manchester by the Sea I was determined to see it because of the praise that was being given to Casey Affleck, one of my favorite actors. I went to the movie not knowing too much of what the plot was or who was involved with the production, but looking back on it, Manchester by the Sea is one of the stand out films of the year and one of the most honest and down to earth stories I’ve seen in a long time.

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Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor for an apartment complex in Quincy, Massachusetts who is known by the tenants for his often volatile personality. One day he gets a call to let him know that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died which forces Lee to return to his home town of Manchester-by-the-Sea for the services and to also look after Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). This return to Manchester opens some old, deep wounds that Lee has been running from for years that are only made worse when he finally runs into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), and the two begin talking for the first time since a tragedy forcefully pulled them apart. As Lee starts to deal with his past and the problems he is presently facing, a bomb is dropped on him when it’s revealed that he is now the legal guardian of Patrick, a responsibility that seems so far from what Lee is capable of.

There are so many really impressive things about Manchester by the Sea from the way the story is told to the actors responsible for bringing all of the poignant scenes Kenneth Lonergan created to life. In terms of story, it’s simply beautiful and it’s so beautiful because it’s so real. There’s nothing glamorized in this movie and the drama feels like it could happen to anyone including yourself. The idea of having a death in the family, especially someone as close as Lee and Joe were, is a very upsetting thing to think about but the story never becomes so upsetting that all the hope is lost. People deal with loss in different ways including lashing out at other people or hiding behind a sense of humor. This movie explores all of these ways and it surprisingly made me laugh more than a few times. In one scene, Lee and Patrick are having an argument while they walk up and down a street looking for where they parked the car. This frustration of forgetting where they parked adds frustration to their argument and fuels the fire. This is a great scene that perfectly illustrates the real scenarios that are relatable to the viewer.

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Part of what made this movie connect with me so much actually had a lot to do with the location. Manchester is shot like it could be Anytown, USA. There’s something really familiar about the businesses and the homes that just put me at ease with where I was. Like I said, there’s nothing glamorous in Manchester by the Sea and that includes the way the settings and people are shot. None of the characters look like movie stars, but are made up to look like they could be anyone’s next door neighbor. It reminded me a lot of British realism in the sense that all of this could be happening next door from you and you may not even know. Lonergan has truly crafted a story that can speak to anyone, no matter how cold and jaded you’ve become.

On to the reason why I really wanted to see this movie. Affleck has been getting a lot of attention for his performance in this movie and he deserves every bit of it. He gives an understated and honest performance, but he also just fits right into the location like he’s been there all his life. There are some scenes that require him to really put energy into the drama, but there are so many great scenes that are much quieter and you can see just by his face that the gears in his head are turning and turning fast. Lucas Hedges also gives a surprisingly great performance as Patrick, and the two leads work great with each other. It’s a very real relationship they have and the conversations we get to listen to happen so naturally. Finally, Michelle Williams is always one to give a strong performance and her tragic character in this film is clearly and accurately brought to life.

Manchester by the Sea snuck up on my out of nowhere and has become one of the strongest and most memorable movies of 2016. It’s a pretty long movie and it can be argued that not much happens in the slow burn of a storyline, but I’d argue that. This is a very deep, complex, and emotional story that’s acted by some of the best in the business and realistically brought to life by writer and director Kenneth Lonergan. It doesn’t so much succeed as a drama as it does in showing life and humanity in the most organic way you can see on film. Manchester by the Sea is required viewing.

Final Grade: A

Con Air – Review

17 Oct

When I think of the first R-rated movies I ever saw, my mind goes to the same two. The first that comes to mind is Gladiator and the second is Con Air. Two very different movies, yet they both have a special spot in the heart of this overly sentimental film geek. I actually haven’t seen Con Air in a really long time, so I had this fear that it would be nowhere near as great as I remember it being. So, I put it on and hoped for the best. What I got isn’t nearly as spectacular as I remembered it being, but it’s certainly an acceptable and memorable action fest that could’ve used a few more brain cells amongst other things.

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Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) has just finished serving his country as an Army Ranger and is celebrating his return with his wife, Tricia (Monica Potter). That night, Poe gets into a fight with a couple of bar patrons and accidentally kills one of them in self defense. Because of his extensive military training, he is deemed a human weapon and sentenced to 8 years in prison for manslaughter. After quietly serving his time in prison, he’s finally paroled and ready to be reunited with his wife and his daughter whom he has never met. Poe, along with some other inmates getting transferred board the transport plane, which doesn’t get too far until it is high jacked by the psychotic criminal Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich) and his crew. With U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) fighting on the ground to get the plane back, Poe is left to his own devices on the plane to stop Cyrus from using the plane to gain his own freedom, while also staying alive long enough to get home and see his family.

Like I said, I have very fond memories of watching this movie when I was younger, and while it still has some elements of being a guilty pleasure, I’ve noticed a lot of weird things that I really dislike about it. Before we get to them, I’d like to something I really like about the movie. The cast of Con Air is fantastic. Other than the names I’ve already mentioned there’s also Danny Trejo, Dave Chapelle, Colm Meaney, Ving Rhames, and Steve Buscemi. All of these actors do a fine job in their roles, with Buscemi bringing a really creepy performance as a Jeffrey Dahmer like serial killer that has disturbed me ever since I first saw this movie. The real scene stealer, though, is John Malkovich as Cyrus. Cyrus the Virus has remained one of my favorite screen villains, and this viewing of the movie still holds that opinion to be true. He just oozes with over the top villainy, and it’s so easy and fun to hate this character. I honestly feel like Malkovich is the only person that could’ve played this role, which is odd because it feels so out of place from what he usually does.

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So while the majority of the cast is really fantastic, there are parts of this movie that are so distractingly terrible, they pull me out of the movie and makes me think twice about what I’m watching. For one thing, I can’t get into Nicolas Cage’s character even though he’s the hero of the movie. There are scenes of his ridiculous long hair blowing in the wind and some really awful lines of dialogue that are so bad, it almost isn’t even funny. But I really can’t totally fault Nicolas Cage for this. Despite what many people think, Cage is a fine actor and has proven so in the past. Con Air isn’t quite a shining point in his filmography. I’d much rather blame the writers for most of the cringe inducing moments. Let’s just say that Con Air is one of those movies that you can only show to the closest of friends in order to save yourself massive amounts of embarrassment, solely because of all the awkwardness and corny dialogue.

Honestly, that one paragraph doesn’t really do justice to the amount of negativity that I would have towards this movie if it wasn’t for some really badass action sequences. The fact that a lot of this movie takes place on a plane is enough for plenty of set pieces, but there’s great sequences on the ground as well. Add in an element of time sensitivity, and you got yourself some suspense filled and memorable action scenes. There’s plenty of explosions and gunplay, but what really makes these parts so great are the maniacal villains and their psychopathic nature. There’s plenty of stand out scenes, and it’s funny to say that Con Air was nominated for an Academy Award for its sound design. It’s an example of really well constructed moments of mayhem, and these parts save the movie from being a complete flop.

The bottom line is that Con Air didn’t hold up quite as well as it did when I was a kid. I remember all of the characters and the action to their full potential, but I simply didn’t realize how awful some of the writing was. Now that I have more experience with film and how real people talk in real life, I know awful writing when I hear it, and this film is filled with it. As an action movie, it’s memorable for many different reasons, and it’s arguably a good escape from the real world. Objectively, however, it’s got so much going against it that the whole experience can feel kind of awkward.

Final Grade: C+