The Neon Demon (2016): Better Writing and Exploration of Characters Could Have Made This a Classic

the-neon-demon

    “The Neon Demon” is a horror film that could have been a great classic. It had so much going for it in the themes, ideas and even the characters…but due to lack of development of the characters really failed to deliver on it’s intriguing premise making it more of a film akin to “The Lobster” rather than John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” It’s a film I’d still recommend as it is good, but it fails where it has to and that is what keeps it from being great…for my non-spoiler thoughts.

     The film was directed, co-written and co-produced by Nicolas Winding Refn, co-written by Mary Laws and Polly Stenham and co-produced by Lene Borglum.

     The story involves aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) moving from a small town in Georgia to Los Angeles to get a start in the modeling business. All is not as it appears to be though as rivals have plans for her that go far deeper than she can ever realize.

Spoilers ahead

The Pros: The Premise – The premise is cool! The modeling industry in L.A. is such a great place to have the threat of confined spaces and the city and since modeling…body horror or all the different ways people try to fit in by changing their bodies…within horror and thrillers there is so much that can be done with that.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is picturesque and had so many beautiful images. Even if the images themselves were often beautiful for the sake of beauty or symbolic for the sake of symbolism, they were still stunning.

The Soundtrack – Cliff Martinez created an amazing synth heavy soundtrack that gave a sci. fi. horror feel to the film that sadly was never delivered on. I was expecting to see actual demons rather than implied demon models and some sort of real body horror or at least deep psychological horror…and while there are disturbing scenes the music was far better at tension than the story was.

Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves – These two play characters whose stories I wish we could have gotten! Hendricks plays the Manager of a modeling agency who has Jesse lie about her age to get the job (What lead her to be that way? How did she become head of the agency? I wanted to know!) and Keanu Reeves plays a corrupt owner of a motel who uses runaways for sex and exploits models. He’s an evil dude who I wanted to know on how a person could get that way…instead they are side characters who only act as motivation or threat…

The Cons: The Demons – The motivation of the demons seems to be power and destruction but I never got why. They merely existed to exist and exist as symbols of how an industry and being so focused on self can consume you and lead you to consume others. That is cool but even that idea isn’t fully explored because the characters feel unfinished. They exist as half-formed ideas which is a shame as the actress are at least decent at their roles.

Characters Never More Than Symbols Who Aren’t Fully Explored as Symbol or Character – It isn’t just the demons who have the problem of never becoming full characters, Jesse has the same problem too. Everyone exists as threat or motivation for Jesse or I guess the Demons at the end so in the end the story is not fully formed as those who inhabit it never fully become characters and are stuck existing as concepts and ideas.

     If the characters had been fully fleshed out and we had fully explored the depths of the evil of the demons and the industry as it is presented in this film this is a horror film that could have been one of the greats and truly a classic. Because it failed in execution I can only say it is really good but not great though. Lack of character exploration can bring any story down whether it is film or book and this film really suffers from that. I’d still recommend it though and I hope to see more of Refn’s work.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) – A Fun Adventure That Gives Justice to the Characters and Plot

Hellboy 2 Poster

        The blog is finally back! I’ve been on a bit of haitus since I’ve been moving to a new apartment, my sister got married this week and I had car trouble in Seattle and had to replace a flat, which took a few days. There are reviews upcoming, the first of which is this one that I’ve been working on. Enjoy.

       “Hellboy 2” is a lot of fun. This is a film that takes everything that worked about the first film and focuses it (with some of the same problems still around as well) and creating a few new problems. It is the better film though, as the characters in this are more memorable and Hellboy isn’t the only character driving the plot this time. Non-spoiler thoughts, check this film out if you like the Hellboy comics and enjoyed the first film.

    The film was directed and written by Guillermo del Toro and produced Lawrence Gordon, Mike Richardson and Lloyd Levin.

    The story involves Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and the team working top the evil elf Prince Nuada from summoning the immortal Golden Army from ancient that nearly wiped out humanity before.

The Pros: The World – Guillermo loves the dark world of fairy mythology (see “Pan’s Labrynth”) and here he gets to show and express that love in the mythos on display. His world is fascinating and all characters look so real and alien. This is really him in his element as this film had some of my favorite character designs.

The Soundtrack – Danny Elfman once again creates a powerful score! This is a guy who specializes in dark fairy tales and that is what this Hellboy film is. he does a masterful job capturing the tragedy and loss in scenes and the soundtrack is worth checking out just for what it is.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is stunning. While the last film was too dark at times this one embraces the dark but also the light to create beautiful contrasts in locations and characters, giving the film and otherworldly feel. Guillermo Navarro did a fantastic job.

The Introduction – A little Hellboy is being red a story by his adoptive father Trevor (yay, John Hurt is back!). It is a touching scene as we learn that fairys and humans lived in harmony until humans started destroying the land leading King Balor to create a Golden Army of magic. He regrets it all after the death toll rises and makes a peace treaty with humanity. His son leaves in exile as he wanted humanity wiped out and he and his daughter hide the pieces so the army may never rise again.

The Characters – The characters are what drew me into the world of Hellboy (though Hellboy isn’t as interesting as Abe of Krauss in my opinion) and they are the reason I will continue to see these films.

King Balor – The King is awesome and shuts down his son when his son tries to call for war again. It takes his son killing him for him to be stopped. I wanted more of this guy as he was a fascinating and powerful character.

The Goblin Smith – This guy makes a deal to save the life of Hellboy and we learn he was the smith who made the Golden Army and fears his creations. He brings Liz to the Angel and she makes the deal to bring Hellboy back even knowing it could lead to the end.

The Angel – The Angel sees Hellboy’s future and in it only destruction. She is a dark and haunting figure with eyes of a large cranium and great black wings. She has my favorite design in the film and if they make more I hope we see her again. She saves Hellboy’s life.

 Hellboy – Hellboy’s arc is learning to communicate with Liz and work on a team. He is by the end and has rubbed off on Krauss who rebels against the agency. His arc is cool as we see even though he is stupid, his heart is in the right place and he is a talented fighter.

Liz – Liz makes the choice Hellboy made last movie where he risks all to save her, she does the same this film. She is the one who has gotten control of her powers (I would have liked to see more of how that happened) and is the one helping Hellboy become responsible.

Abe Sapien – Abe has a character arc as we see him love and lose as he brings the crown to Nuada that awakens the army (and rightfully calls out Liz and Hellboy for doing the same thing). Sadly not all love works out as Nuala dies to save them all. It is a touching scene and we see how perceptive Abe is. I really liked his character after this film.

Prince Nuada – The Prince is in it for revenge and has a great design as a dark warrior. He trained for centuries and his plan nearly works because he is the only one who doesn’t love and only wants to control. Luckily he is stopped in the end by his sister, who it turns out was the only one who could unless the heroes were willing to kill her by killing Nuada.

Princess Nuala – Nuala should have got more screentime. We see she is compassion and a healer, while her brother is the warrior and she is shown to be wise as she knows that the war will only end in the destruction of all as the Golden Army is only built to destroy. She also falls in love with Abe and is lovely until she kills herself to stop her brother keeping up the theme of tragedy that pervaded the film.

Johann Krauss

 Johann Krauss – Krauss is awesome! He is pretty much immortal because he is living ectoplasm in a suit. This leads to him being both smarter and stronger than Hellboy and a better leader on all counts as he doesn’t depend on brute forcing his way through situations. He does see the value in it though and resigns from the agency with the rest of them as they are tired of being tools, given that Hellboy’s existence is shown to be just a tool for his father to cause the end of the world. All of them, including Krauss, reject that control.

Okay: The Ending – It is cool that Liz and Hellboy are going to be parents, the freeze frame for the final shot was a bit annoying though.

The Cons: Disposable Agents – So many agents die, they are basically red shirts and I feel the stakes would have been hire if they’d felt more like characters rather than disposable bodies.

The Prince’s Long Term Plan – What was his plan after humanity was wiped out? He never talks about it and it seems that the Fairy Realm is largely afraid of him. He lived only for revenge when he could have been so much more since he wanted to rule and killed his father to do so.

  I enjoyed this film much more than the first one largely because the side characters got a lot more exploration while still keeping the Hellboy mythos key with him being son of a Demon Lord. The price and cost of choices was explored really well too and using the Fairy World to do so was masterful since in mythology they are all about dealmaking. Krauss was my favorite character and his character growth was a big part of what made the film so fascinating outside of the great world and character designs that we’ve all come to expect from Guillermo del Toro.

Final Score: 8.6 / 10

The Punisher (2004): A Great Telling of “The Punisher” and his Origin

The Punisher 2004 Poster

    I really liked Netflix’s version of The Punisher and think it may still take the prize for the most human version of the character, but this version is fantastic as well! This is a film about the death of Frank Castle, and it is handled really well. I like this character and I think I’m going to check out the comics. This film along with “Marvel’s Daredevil” on Netflix have sold me on the greatness that is this character.

     The film was directed by Jonathan Hensleigh who co-wrote it with Michael France and produced by Avi Arad and Gale Anne Hurd.

      The story involves Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) going into retirement after a successful undercover operation. Little did he know that the Crime Lord Howard Saint’s (John Travolta) son was killed the operation leading him to target Frank and his family to get revenge.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is really good and reminded me both of Sam Rami’s “Spider-man” and Tim Burton’s “Batman.” Because of this had a consistent comic book feel that showed where the story came from. Carlo Siliotto did a great job.

The Cinematography – The cinematography at times looks very 90’s but still manages to be quite beautiful as we get shots that contrast characters and illustrate the death of Frank Castle and his rebirth as the Punisher.

The Action – Whether it is Saint’s goons or the Punisher’s rampage…the action in this is fantastic and brutal. You really feel all the hits and losses.

The Death of Frank Castle – Saint sends his men and Frank’s entire extended family is killed by them, not only that Frank gets shot and blown up and only manages to survive because he washes up on the shore of the Witch Doctor he knew. The entire scene is powerful and even though I didn’t really know Frank’s wife and son all that well, I was still hoping they’d escape even though I knew they wouldn’t.

The Tenants – The tenants who the Punisher shares a home with are fantastic! There is Bumpo who is a cook and not quite all mentally there and a really sweet guy, there is Joan who has gone through abusive relationships and is a former druggie just like Dave whose mother was in prison. In all cases they protect Frank and show they are family as they look out for each other and for him.

Howard Saint’s Men – There are a bunch of them and all have a unique way about them…from the Russian who it takes Frank most of his energy to take out (and who mortally wounds him) the mullet, Quentin Glass and Howard’s sons. Each have distinct personalities that makes them more than just hired muscle.

Livia Saint – Livia is just as cruel as Howard as she is the one who calls on the hit to target not just Frank but his entire family. She is the mob girlfriend and is social to the isolationist Howard which leads to the pool being easy to poison as she hardly ever spends time with Howard leading him to believe she is having an affair which Frank feeds leading Howard to eventually kill her in revenge, even though it was a lie.

Quentin Glass – Quentin Glass is Howard’s dragon and is a fantastic threat. He is the one who takes out most of Frank’s family and nearly kills Frank Castle. He ends up being killed by Howard though when Frank frames him as having an affair with Livia even though he is gay so he wouldn’t have had an affair with her. His character is ruthless and a bad guy but also is humanized.

Howard Saint – Travolta is good at playing gangsters and it is fun seeing him play one here as the Punisher takes away everything from him and gives him a wonderfully brutal death. He is a good villain as he is threatening and unstable, but has goons who are good at doing their job and is only stopped because of his pride and jealousy as he destroyed the only people who could have stopped Frank Castle.

Frank Castle / The Punisher – I like Thomas Jane and want to see him in more things. He is great at this type of character (I last saw him as Detective Miller on “The Expanse” which I highly recommend). He is a very human character as we see him connect with his family and with the outcasts who take him in. This film is the death of Frank Castle as he doesn’t stay with the outcasts but makes destroying criminals his life as Frank Castle is buried and the Punisher is born.

Okay: Frank Castle’s Family – They are just kind of there. More could have been done to humanize these characters and make them fully three-dimensional rather than just victims that motivate Castle’s revenge spree. Besides this though, this is an amazingly solid film and one of my favorites.

  I highly recommend “The Punisher.” If you liked the 2nd Season of “Marvel’s Daredevil,” you will also like this. Both Thomas Jane and John Bernthal capture the broken person Frank Castle became and from that the death of his humanity and the rebirth of the vigilante anti-hero who lives only to end crime. Travolta made a great villain too and the side characters like the Apartment Tenants have depth and character that humanize Frank Castle further and help fully illustrate his transformation into the Punisher.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10

The Hateful Eight (2015): An Exploration of Hate

The Hateful Eight

      “The Hateful Eight” is a really good film. Not one of Tarantino’s best films but still his quality that he brings to all of his work. In this we see him explore some of the tropes of Westerns, History and the Civil War and from the depths of hate that characters can be driven too when they are desperate or so broken down by the world around them. It’s powerfully done and he does a great job presenting it all. I’ll get into more detail later in the review.

     The film was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and produced by Richard N. Gladstein, Shannon McIntosh and Stacey Sher.

      The film involves eight strangers seeking refuge in a blizzard as secrets unfold as all is not as it appears to be. John Ruth (Kurt Russell) the bounty hunter is bringing in Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to be hung in Red Rock but picks up bounty Hunter Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Sheriff Mannix (Walton Goggins) who are also on their way to Red Rock where they meet the others at Minnie’s Haberdashery where the events unfold.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful. Robert Richardson did a great job and gives us scenes that capture the destitution of the of where this all takes place and the cost of war on a population that is recovering (this is post Civil War) and how far there is still to go in regards to being free even though slavery is done.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack fits everything so well and captures the nihilism of our characters and also the fun nature that Tarantino brings to all his work. Ennio Morricone was the right person for this film and the music is good at pulling you in and keeping you present with whatever events are transpiring.

The Dialogue – Tarantino’s dialogue is always snappy and the actors use it very well. It feels natural for all of who they are and Tarantino continues to show why this is his forte.

 Story Structure – Tarantino’s novel like format comes again and is one of the things I really liked about the film. There are pauses and at one point Tarantino is the narrator explaining what happens after a chapter. The story takes place over 5 chapters with Chapter 4 setting up Chapter 3 with a flashback setting up the events. It’s really well done and I’m glad Tarantino has this unique style.

The Situation – The idea of 8 people trapped in a blizzard with one of them holding a lie is quite compelling. How it all unfolds is really cool too as all of them are hateful and despicable people each in their own way and it lends stakes to all that unfolds.

John Ruth – Kurt Russell’s John Ruth is one of the few characters who was the closest thing to a hero. He’s the guy taking out the worst of the worst and hanging them. He’s obsessed and is prickly to everyone. He has a respect for Warren but that takes along time and by the end we see that he was right to put his trust into him. He’s all about his job and when he dies you somewhat feel it since Kurt Russell does a good job playing the bitter bounty hunter.

Major Warren – This guy is brutal but you also get why as he is a freed man whose only protection from racism against the Union and Confederacy is a forged letter from Abraham Lincoln. He’s a bounty hunter so already he’s at the bottom of the food chain but Ruth has a respect for him and that never completely goes away. Warren is the closest thing to a protagonist even though he is still villainous as he does a pretty horrendous things to one of hte monster character’s children. There are no good characters in this film and Samuel L. Jackson represents this really well.

Okay: The Characters – They are well acted but because they are all so despicable there aren’t any reasons to like any of them. We don’t get reasons for what they did and this brings the story down and puts it below “Reservoir Dogs” in many ways (though both films are similar).

   This is a movie that is worth checking out, and I do consider it a favorite film but not one of Tarantino’s best. What really brings it down is Domergue’s Gang is just kind of there. They don’t get the kind of development that the folks receive in “Reservoir Dogs” which is the most similar as a bunch of characters who hate each other are trapped in a room. What really makes it work are the characters of Ruth and Warren who are both so twisted but manage to be compelling as they are given reason for what they do, the same cannot be said for a lot the others. This is a shame since Tarantino is usually really great at giving extended motivation for what makes his characters make the choices they do.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10

Darkman (1990): A Masterpiece Exploring the Transformative Nature of Revenge

Darkman

    “Darkman” is a fantastic film and really gave me a huge appreciation for Sam Raimi’s work outside of the first two “Spider-man” films. This is a film that has depth to it’s characters, fascinating villains and a protagonist who is one of the more original to be created in fiction. Darkman is a character who changes over the course of the film and his creation is tragic, which lends strength to the story’s narrative and kept me watching.

     Sam Raimi directed the film and wrote it along with Chuck Pfarrer, Ivan Raimi, Daniel Goldin and Joshua Goldin. It was produced by Robert Tapert.

    The story involves Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) who is scarred when Durant (Larry Drake) the mobster attacks his lab to steal a document his girlfriend Julie (Francis McDarmond) was planning to use to explore city corruption. He survives the experience and goes underground becoming Darkman and seeking revenge against the mobsters who killed his assistant and scarred him.

The Pros: The World – The world reminds me of Gotham with there always be darkness and smoke over everything and the mob being in bed with big business as they pretty much do a takeover of the city. It makes sense why Darkman isn’t an idealistic hero, this city has no room for idealism.

The Transformation – The transformation is dark and powerful as Peyton is dropped into a vat, has his arms burned and loses his ability to touch. This leads to him getting super strength and also making him mad.

The Cinematography – Bill Pope did an amazing job on the cinematography. The scenes are clear and there is great use of shadows and light to give the tone of the world and our characters. This is a dying city.

The Soundtrack – Danny Elfman did a fantastic job on this soundtrack! His haunting score captures the horror of what Peyton Westlake goes through and captures how his desire for hate and revenge transforms him.

The Characters – The characters are all solid and have reason behind what they do, even the villains who would be lesser under different direction and actors.

Louis Strack Jr. – Is the corrupt billionare who wants to rebuild the city with the stolen money from the mob. He’s ambitious and was a man who came from nothing. He is also smart too and figures out when Darkman has taken the identity of Durant to get close to him and to rescue his girlfriend. He is tough to beat and his words about Westlake losing himself are proven correct. Colin Friels did a good job.

Robert Durant – Durant is the mobster who has a pretty great team. He works for Strack and is the man who nearly kills Darkman on multiple occasions, once when he is still Westlake and he kills Westlake’s assistant, the second when he targets Darkman’s hideout. Larry Drake was great.

Durant’s Minions – The minions are a lot of fun. One of them is a curly haired nerd, another has an artificial leg that works as a machine gun (and is used to kill a rival gang at the beginning) there is the muscle who looks like the Kingpin and the brains who survives until the end.

Julie Hastings – Frances McDormand is awesome! I really liked her in this where we see her see past Westlake’s appearance even when he can’t…and the fact that she was the one trying to reveal the corruption in the city. She’s a great character and I wanted to see more of her in action.

Peyton Westlake/Darkman – Liam Neeson is a wonderful hero. As Westlake he plays an eccentric mad scientist who is a strong empath and who loses all of that when he is burned making him a man who lives only for revenge. He is lost in it even as he is able to get his face back due to him being a scientist creating artificial skin…in the end that can’t change how his actions of revenge against Durant and Strack have changed him. In the end he becomes Bruce Campbell and disappears into the crowd knowing he can only be the avenger as his humanity is lost.

How Revenge Transforms – In the beginning Westlake is holding onto who he once was, but when he goes to Hastings in the pouring rain she runs away and fear and he sees his appearance and blames that and not the fact that he couldn’t speak, from here he seeks revenge and we see how the manipulation and his anger come to consume him to the point that he reacts at a a Carnival and attacks a man, which later leads to him going underground as he fears what his anger will make him do to good people like Julie.

   There really isn’t much that can be said that this film does wrong. It has a unique feel and flavor to it, our characters change over time and have to make choices that advance the plot, and in the end it sticks to the tragic tone as Westlake is forever alone when he realizes the person he has become is a danger to everyone. The only reason I didn’t give it 10 is I wish Strack had been less slimey and that we’d gotten more time with Julie doing her job before the transformation. Regardless, I highly recommend it and find it to be one of the best superhero films I have ever watched. I am going to be checking out more of Raimi’s work later. I really like his style.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10

Escape from L.A. (1996): Tearing Down the Machines

Escape From L.A.

    John Carpenter is easily one of my favorite directors at this point. “The Thing” is one of my favorite films as are both his “Escape” films. “Escape from L.A.” is better from “Escape from New York” in my opinion because the characters are more memorable and everyone has more agency, it also is much more of a protest too as we see Snake do much more than troll the President to finally end this film. All of these things make it the stronger film with the only thing being less being the cinematography.

     “Escape from L.A.” was directed by John Carpenter who co-wrote it along with Kurt Russell and Debra Hill with Debra Hill and Kurt Russell also being the producers behind the film.

     The story is in 2000 after a huge Earthquake has turned L.A. into an island. A theocratic President blames L.A.’s sins for this and turns it into a prison Island to put all the “undesirables” from the United States. Things come to a head when Cuervo Jones, the leader of the Shining Path seduces the President’s daughter Utopia in order for her to steal a Super Weapon which is transported to L.A. as Cuervo Jones plans the conquest of the United States. Snake is brought in again to stop him as he is infected with a super-virus giving him only 10 hours to complete the mission.

The Pros: The Premise – The idea of the Earthquake making things worse since the last film makes sense, as is the rise of theocracy in the United States as people would be seeking stability and blaming of “the Other.” We’re already seeing that blaming of the other right now with how the Syrian refugees are being seen here in the States as fear takes over rationality. In that way what brings about the premise hits very close to home.

The World – The World is factionalized with the Third World on one side fighting for revolution with Cuervo as their leader and the President on the other seeking to uphold the status quo of inequality. Both are dictators though as they each silence dissent in the same way.

The Themes – The themes are about getting back to the base of what it means to be human. Are ways of escaping that base humanity and seeking to control others (the President and Cuervo) or ourselves (the Plastic Surgeon and mutants) runs throughout the film as it is only when Utopia and Eddie work with Snake that there is any chance for things to change as either side winning is the loss of freedom for all.

The Action – The action is once again solid as we see Eddie, Hershe and Snake to an air assault on gliders against Cuervo and Cuervo taking out Snake when Snake is taking out his men in the first car chase is really good too.

The Soundtrack – Shirley Walker and John Carpenter do a great job of keeping the sci. fi. feel from the last film in the soundtrack while adding a much more apocalyptic feel as well as everything is bigger and more desolate than before.

The Characters – The characters are all compelling, whether they are antagonistic or not and I anytime any of them appeared I wanted to see what choices and decisions they would make.

Taslima – Is a small role but shows Snake the fearful on the Island. She speaks for the vulnerable and is super trusting too. At one point her and Snake escape from the Surgeon and his plastic surgeon mutants before she is eventually killed. Valeria Golina did a great job as this minor character.

Brazen – Michelle Forbes (Ro Laren from “Star Trek: TNG”) is awesome as Mallory’s second-in-command as we see someone who is calm and collected and is always looking towards the bigger picture.

Commander Mallory – Mallory is a true believer unlike is predecessor and at one point tries to kill Snake until he realizes he was played out he had played Snake with Snake only appearing as a hologram before taking away all power from the world. He felt threatening too and we see him force the President to stay and face the consequences of making the weapon. He isn’t a coward. Stacy Keach does a great job.

Utopia – Utopia starts out as one dimensional but becomes a full character over the course of the film as we see her realize that Cuervo is just as corrupt as her father, leading her to helping Snake fight back and escaping along with him, only to be sent to the electric chair by her father. She is a character who is trapped and is only freed when all the power around the world is shut down for good by the Super Weapon when Snake activates it.

Map to the Stars Eddie – Eddie is a double crosser who in the end chooses Snake after he sees that Cuervo cares nothing about him. Steve Buscemi did a great job as the quick talking salesman whose tape about L.A. is used to mock the President when it is played at the end. He is comedic but is a schemer who you end up taking seriously. He doesn’t make it out of L.A. as he shoots Cuervo but Cuervo fires the rocket before dying forcing Eddie to jump out of the helicopter.

Cuervo Jones – Cuervo is a great enemy. He is the dictator of L.A. and is connected to the oppressed as a symbol around the world. He is brutal though and cannot see past himself. He doesn’t dehumanize his enemies like the President but he is just as brutal and corrupt as he even turns on his allies. Georges Corraface did great.

The President – The President is the worst of the Religious Right as all racial, religious and political minorities are sent to L.A. He is brutal and clearly is a functioning dictator in the United States, though he was elected as the timeline doesn’t tell us anything different. He is a true believer like Cuervo as we see him willing to sacrifice his daughter to death for having been with the enemy. Seeing him literally lose power and get mocked at the end was rewarding. The guy was a great antagonist. Cliff Robinson was awesome.

Hershe – Is a transgender heroine and also Snake’s ex-partner. It is she who gives Snake the air support he needs to stop Cuervo and get the weapon. She thankfully manages to escape to the mainland and is off the copter before the troops arrive to take Snake. She is a great leader and the only faction standing against Cuervo and his corruption. Pam Grier played my favorite character in this film.

Snake Plissken – Snake is back and is a much better person in this! He doesn’t threaten people nearly as often and we see him go from setting out to kill Utopia to protecting her pretty quickly. He also does more than just troll and chooses to take away power from both Cuervos Revolutionaries and the President, both who are fighting with the same mentality of silencing all opposition and using murder as the way to enforce will upon the world. Snake isn’t a hero but he does the action that changes everything before he disappears once again.

Okay: The Cinematography – There are a few moments where green screen use is obvious and took me out of the film a little bit, the most glaring example being when Snake is surfing the largest wave. It’s an odd statement to say but this film is much more cartoony than it’s predecessor but it works and fits the tone.

    This was a great film with only certain cartoony moments in regards to cinematography as the only real downside. The characters are much more colorful than in “Escape from New York,” and Snake is more sympathetic as we see him act for more than just himself on multiple occasions. The antagonists are good too with the Socialist Dictator Cuervo on one side and the religious theocratic President on the other. Both are extreme sides of fanaticism that are rejected by Snake in the end when he makes the decision to take away their abilities to control and destroys the machine that’s been using him during this film and the last one. John Carpenter did an amazing job creating these two film and I can see how they inspired the character of Solid Snake and the world of the “Metal Gear” series. I highly recommend both the films.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10

Re-Animator (1985): Doesn’t Quite Work, Though Good is There

Re-Animator Poster

    I like Jeffrey Combs, I’ve even found a that I enjoy camp bloody horror like “Hellraiser” or “The Thing” the thing is this film is unlike either of those in storytelling. There are certianly aspects of the film I liked, but the focus is all wrong. We follow the most uninteresting couple when there is the prime candidate to tell an interesting story right there…Herbert West.

     The film was directed by Stuart Gordon who also co-wrote the script along with William J. Norris and Dennis Paoli. Brian Yuzna produced the film and it is based off the story Herbert West-Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft.

     The story involves a medical student named Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) taking in Herbert West as a roommate. Things soon get more complicated as his fiance Megan (Barbara Crampton) is the daughter of the Dean of the College as Dan finds himself pulled into Herbert’s experiments in reanimation of the dead.

The Pros: The Premise – The premise is pretty cool. Any movie with a mad scientist immediately has potential to explore the depths of mortality and why a person would want to bring back the dead or escape death…sadly we don’t get any reasons behind why Herbert West does what he does, but the premise gives us the potential for more.

The Special Effects – The Special Effects are great! We get to see a re-animated cat, head and a few zombie bodies as well. This is really where the movie works and I wish we’d gotten more of it since the writing is really bad when things aren’t being brought back to life.

Herbert West – Jeffrey Combs can make anything good, even a poor script. We never get his motivation but his passion shows why even he could see the smallest of roles in “Star Trek” and make them interesting. His character is the reason to watch this and his acting owns this film.

The Ending – Dan the bland leads using re-animation to resurrect his dead fiance. That’s actually a pretty neat ending as the film establishes that being brought back warps your mind.

Cons: The Antagonists – Whether it’s the Dean or Dr. Hill these are men who only live to control and the reasons behind their insecurity and bullying is never explored in any way. They are crappy villains that bring down the story.

Megan – All she does is scream and she is only written into this film to be creeped on by all the male characters. She is nothing more than a prop that drives the protagonist (Dan) and antagonists’ (The Dean and Dr. Hill) actions.

The Structure of the Film – The structure begins with the past and Herbert West trying to bring back his mentor Gruber. It is so different from the rest of the film I am not sure why it was put in as West shows on multiple occasions he doesn’t care about people just what he can do with them after they are dead. From here we follow Dan’s story and it just goes down from there…so West’s motivations aren’t fully established and we have a weak lead…the hook fails causing the rest of the film to be weak in the process.

  This is a film that is alright and worth checking out if you are a fun of Jeffrey Combs and Lovecraft as I am. Sadly neither are given the chance to fully be in a masterpiece of his work as the film falls flat on a few occasions and the blandness of the leads and the antagonists only being one-dimension really brings the film down. For what it is worth though, I am curious if the other sequels are better.

Final Score: 6.5 / 10

The Shining (1980): Kubrick’s Masterpiece About a Haunting and Escape From Abuse

The Shining

   Stanley Kubrick is one of my favorite directors so seeing “The Shining” again was well worth it and I was reminded once more of all the reasons why he is a favorite director. I haven’t read the book that the film is based on but Stephen King hated this version of the film even though it is so far the best adaptation of his work…most of the other adaptations of his books are simply terrible. But who knows, Kubrick was never a likable guy so maybe that’s part of it. This is a film that captures so many elements of horror and makes me really want to read the book. I’ll go into the aspects of terror it captures later on in the review.

    The film was directed by Stanley Kubrick who also produced the film and wrote the screenplay with Diane Johnson. It is of course based on the book of the same name by Stephen King.

      The story is about a struggling writer named Jack (Jack Nicholson) who takes his family up to the Overlook Hotel so that he can be caretaker of it. He soon learns about the haunting history behind and as things begin to unravel it is up to his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to cope with the consequences of Jack and the Hotel.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – The Soundtrack is wonderfully tense and keeps you on your feet the entire it. It turns mundane things into things that are off, whether it is writing a story or entering a maze. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind did a fantastic job.

The Cinematography – Kubrick knows how to shoot a scene and the use of the hotel’s size is used to create feelings of isolation. Kubrick also uses shadows and light in the maze for that same bit of terror and using stark contrasts throughout the film to accent loss of control or entering moments of the supernatural.

Film Structure – The structure of the film is great as we are shown Jack’s descent into madness as winter comes on the Overlook Hotel with the time period or time passed flashed after character moments.

The Writing – The writing is mostly show and not tell and that lends it power. We also see character moments revealed in this way too, Jack’s making excuses about hurting Danny only being one time reveal that no doubt had happened more…and the silence of characters reveal intent and action. Kubrick’s script is phenomenal.

The Characters – The main characters are all compelling in different ways and their relationships inform one another as many of them change over the course of the film.

Dick – Dick is the cook and also can communicate and sense things like Danny. He is Danny’s mentor and Danny reaches out for help. He is killed by Jack in the end but is able to deliver Danny and Wendy an escape vehicle to get away.

Danny – Danny is a kid who has a spirit named Tony inside who takes control sometimes and is the one who goes from a passive figure to one fighting for survival as he tricks his father in the maze and reaches out to Dick to save himself and his mom.

Wendy – Wendy’s arc is standing up to her abusive husband and escaping the relationship. In this we see that even though she seems passive that she will fight back and does so when she knocks Jack out and locks him up and later we see her stand up against the spirits even though she’s terrified as she makes the escape with her son. She’s an awesome character.

Jack – Jack is abusive and we soon realize how abusive as the story progresses. He is an antagonist who is complex in that he obviously is not a fully terrible human being, but at the end of the day he is the monster who lets his ego and selfishness control him and whatever ways he was horrible before become compounded as he becomes a force that the ghosts use to kill his family.

Escape From Abuse – Wendy and Danny are in an abusive relationship with Jack. It’s never stated outright but the moment of anger at Danny was shown to be a pattern based off his behavior in the hotel…as well as Wendy’s making excuses for him…it takes seeing Danny hurt again for her to finally stand up and after that she fights. She is no longer a victim but over the course of the film becomes a survivor of Jack’s abuse. She survived while the other family was not able to escape their abusive spouse/father.

The Mystery – The mystery is wonderful as we are left wondering if Jack crossed back in time when he was interacting with the ghosts and if he’d been at Overlook before that day. The nature of the Hotel and Jack are left open which gives power to future hauntings of the place.

What Makes a Good Ghost Story – Part of what makes a good ghost story is how it puts those living on edge and connects them to their mortality (Wendy and Danny’s escape) or their ego and selfishness (Jack). It is less about the ghosts in the end and more about what they make people do. This is a prime example of this as the point of evil spirits in horror stories is to reveal the darker side of the living.

   This is a film that has very little wrong with it. My only issue I could see with it is sometimes it lags, though I valued that time because it helped build suspense, but I’m also aware that not everyone is into the slow build. Besides that, this is one of Kubrick’s masterpieces for a reason and is well worth viewing for anyone who loves suspense, horror and cinema.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10

Black Mass (2015): A Decent Biopic about the Rise and Fall of “Whitey” Bulger

Black Mass Poster

    Biopics, specifically gangster biopics are hard to pull off. For one you are starting with someone who by the very nature of what they do is unsympathetic and it often times depends way too much on whomever the star is in order to carry the story rather than the power of the writing and story itself. These were the main issues with “Black Mass” that kept it from being great, though it is good to see Johnny Depp in form again and there is a lot to like about this film, even though it missed some great opportunities to raise stakes and humanize the characters.

      The film was directed by Scott Cooper who was also one of the producers and written by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk while the other producers were Josh Lesher, Patrick McCormick, Brian Oliver and Tyler Thompson. It was also based on the book of the same name by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.

      The story involves the rise of fall of Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) and his relationship with his brother the Senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and their childhood friend who joined the FBI but stayed close to them John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is dark and does a good job capturing the tone of the piece as we follow the life and times of the criminal Whitey Bulger. It never pretends to be anything but a crime biopic and the cinematography beautifully captures it. Takayanagi did a great job.

Whitey Bulger – Johnny Depp is great when he has the chance to play more than a Tim Burton stock character and we get to see him play a truly creepy and scary guy in this. He has relationships he cares about like his son, mother and brother but at the end of the day human life means nothing to him and we see that really well. His paranoia also continues to grow throughout the film as he becomes even more unstable than when we first meet him.

Billy Bulger – Cumberbatch does a fantastic Boston accent and is great as the brother who looks the other way and gives a good public face to the family as he is never corrupt as far as we can see, he is corrupt in how he hides his brother’s crimes by refusing to prosecute or do anything about what others bring forward. It is for this reason he eventually gets arrested we learn in the post credits scene when he stays in contact with his brother the fugitive.

Fred Wyshak – Corey Stoll does a fantastic job as the one who cleans house in the FBI leading to the eventual arrest of Connolly and Bulger and his gang. He is all about work and and it is great seeing him figure everything out, while holding it all close to his chest so that what informants Bulger has in the FBI won’t get out.

Charles McGuire – Kevin Bacon plays the FBI agent trying to do his job on a corrupt force and does a good job of it and clashing with Connolly. Kevin Bacon was great doing the no-nonsense boss shtick.

Okay: John Connolly – It was hard to care about this guy as he was so blatantly corrupt that I was just waiting for the eventual ax to fall.

The Cons: The Minor Characters and Women – Most of the minor characters were completely unmemorable, be they part of Whitey’s gang or the wives of the FBI agents. They were nothing be scenery and for this reason it was hard to care about what happened to any of them. They weren’t given agency.

The War with the Mafia – We never really see the face of the mafia so the war that the FBI fights and the Bulger is fighting with them doesn’t mean anything. They are only ever mentioned and we get the fallout and that really took a lot of the stakes out of the film as we don’t really get tension until Wyshack appears and does all he can to clean out the FBI and catch Whitey.

  This was a decent film that is worth seeing if you are into crime dramas. Depp is memorable but the script needed work as the stakes aren’t executed well and the minor characters never rise above being stock crime drama characters. This is what kept it from being great and why I could see people not enjoying this film as you cannot count on stars to carry a film. “The Martian” worked because of the writing, directing and all of the cast being interesting. In this the only interesting characters are the main characters played by stars who are usually always good.

Final Score: 7.5 / 10

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007): A Dark Comedy Satire of Action Films

Shoot Em Up

       “Shoot ‘Em Up” is a film that is a lot of fun. When watching it was hard to know what was purposeful satire and what was what the director actually believes, but like “Lucy” it was one of those films that takes you on a ride and doesn’t stop until the end. There aren’t really likable characters in this film and each of them are a different action cliche, but they are each fascinating in their own ways as I would have hated this film if they weren’t actual characters and if the point was only satire. If you can’t tell an interesting story, you at least need enjoyable characters to watch.

     The film was written and directed by Michael Davis and produced by Susan Montford, Don Murphy and Rick Benattar.

      The film involves Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) protecting a baby after he is unable to save the mother was being hunted by a group of mercenaries lead by Hertz (Paul Giamatti) and seeks help from Donna (Monica Bellucci), a prostitute who is the closest thing he has to a friend. Together they must find out who is hunting the baby and why, before they and the child are killed.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography reminded me of Lucy and has a unique color feel to it. It feels vibrant and alive and has a great contrast of dark and light. It fit the feel of the film really well. Peter Pau did a great job on it.

Cliche Awareness – There is a level of cliche awareness in this film, which is why I call it satire. Hertz yells the hero is really good or they really suck at shooting after he’s lost 2 armies of men to Smith. He and who he works for also explain their plan to Smith rather than just killing him and forgetting about the baby as the plot was redundant after Smith killed the Senator.

The Action – The action is really great! It reminded me a Tarantino or Rodriguez film where the color of the blood splatters in such a way as to compliment the colors around. The use of rock and metal worked in this instance too to compliment the action.

Mr. Smith – Clive Owen is good at playing the anti-hero and even though we don’t learn much about him in this besides his eventually carrying about the Kid and Donna is that he like carrots and hates most people and things. In this way he is hilarious as he satires the tough guy macho role that appears in a lot of these flicks.

Hertz -Hertz is a creepy mastermind who is also a family man. We see him making a card for his kid and talking to his wife at multiple times throughout the film. He also is genre savvy and figures out where the hero will be running to next really fast. He’s the creepy average joe and seeing his downfall is rewarding. Giamatti created a great bastard with this guy who can’t see beyond himself, his ego and making his plans work.

Okay: Donna – Monical Bellucci does alright but she isn’t given much to do beyond call Smith out for being an ass and taking care of the baby. I don’t know if Davis knew what to do with her character, but when she does do stuff she is at least compelling. There was so much more they could have done! She could have been his partner and the one making connections on the outside when he went to take out the expendable army of mercenaries.

The Cons: The Writing – Just as I enjoyed the action cliches, there are things that could have been done better. Donna never gets the chance to fight for herself and always has to be protected, and we never learn Smith’s backstory or why Hertz’s wife left him (we have no idea if she knows what he does). So the story felt incomplete and rushed even within the guidelines it followed for itself.

The Other Villains – The Senator and gun manufacturer were two men I cared nothing about. They were blank slates and were empty suits compared to the charisma that Giamatti brought to his role. They weren’t even needed as characters and that brought down the script as they could have just been referenced by Herst but never seen.

Lack of Character Arcs – This is a film where no one really changes. We learn more about them and feelings that they had all along (Donna and Smith) are revealed but we don’t learn anything new. Our characters are exactly the same at the beginning of the film as they are at the end, so nothing has changed beyond them just being out of harms way.

    If you like dark comedies and action films that are mostly focused on action but have enough self awareness to satire themselves, you will probably enjoy this film. It wasn’t a favorite but I won’t deny that I enjoyed the ride. This would be a great film to see with friends who like this genre and with the added addition of drinks would be a really fun time.

Final Score: 7.4 / 10. Enjoyable but not great.