Friday, January 29, 2010

“Drinking gives Herculean strength!”

Booze and fighting go together like…well, booze and fighting. Comedy gold for some, recipe for tragedy for others, we here at Castle RMWC are not here to waggle fingers at the moral ramifications of alcohol abuse. Especially not when Jackie Chan’s involved, because if 1994’s Jui kuen II (Drunken Master II or The Legend of Drunken Master in English) has taught me anything, its that you don’t want to get between a Chinese folk hero and his alcohol.

In 19th Century China, our hero returns with his father from a shopping trip, but during a stop on the train, he gets mixed up in an accidental item switch as a box of ginseng that he was supposed to protect gets swapped with a box containing a priceless artifact. A series of misadventures leads to him getting mixed up with crooked British ambassadors and Chinese businessmen who are selling off Chinese artifacts for a quick buck to foreigners. Combat hilarity ensues.

Wong Fei-hung: Jackie Chan returns to a role that he played in 1978 for Drunken Master I. Wong is the enthusiastic but not exactly forward-thinking son of a doctor. He wants to help people out, and does so eventually, but he ends up causing himself a load of troubles along the way. That’s okay, because he’s a solid martial arts master (well, you’d expect that from Jackie Chan) that can hold his own in a fight. This is all well and good, but when the movie’s called drunken master, you expect some masterful drunken boxing, and when he finally hits the bottle, its like Popeye downing his spinach, and Fei-hung pulls off some visually incredible and over the top feats. Naturally he’s our funny and deadly badass.

Wong Kei-ying: Lung Ti is Fei-hung’s stoic and rather stern physician father. He also runs a martial arts school. He is very disapproving of his son drinking to increase his combat skills, considering it shameful and much too easy to go overboard into straight up sloppy drunk.

Mrs. Wong: Anita Mui is Kei-ying’s wife. Obviously a second one since she’s not Fei-hung’s mother. She’s more of a comic relief character, gambling with her lady friends when her husband’s away and generally encouraging Fei-hung to drink when he gets into fights. For a step-mother, she and Fei-hung get along great.

Tsang the Fishmonger: Felix Wong plays, well, a guy who sells fish. However, he’s also something of a friendly rival with Fei-hung in terms of martial arts.

John: Ken Lo is the final boss bad guy who fights Fei-hung in the huge set-piece finale. A gangster who’s been selling off priceless Chinese artifacts to the British ambassador, he’s got no regard for his nation’s history, doesn’t fight fair and has a lieutenant named Henry (Ho-Sung Pak) who is also a martial arts guy.

Chian-Liang Liu (and Jackie Chan for the climactic fight scene) directed this, and while a lot of the regular scenes are perfectly fine, we’re all here because of the fight scenes, and they are solid. Each is a fantastic set piece that uses as much of the environment as possible in that signature Jackie Chan style. Of particular note are the street fight where Fei-hung first gets liquored up and whups gangster ass but good, the fighting retreat against a horde of Axe Gang members who storm a restaurant Fei-hung and a policeman are talking in, and then obviously the final battle. You can’t go wrong for fight scenes in this movie. It’s impossible. The best part is that the fights are not claustrophobically edited so that you get only close ups of faces and people’s fists. I generally prefer being able to follow what’s going on in a fight scene, and that too, is solid.

Edward Tang, Man-Ming Tong & Gai Chi Yuen wrote the screenplay, and generally get things done well. It is a martial arts movie first though, and the general plot is more of a vehicle to explain when Fei-hung is always getting into visually spectacular fights. There are a lot of jokes, and a lot work, some don’t, and some don’t cross the Pacific that well, I suppose. The real comedy is mostly visual, anyway. Then there are the occasional serious moments, which get rather grim, like when Kei-ying rages at his son for drinking after he promised not to.

Michael Wandmacher apparently did the score for the 2000 North American release (which, sadly, is the version I watched because a lot was cut out apparently) and Wai Lap Wu did the original score. The score is good and very conducive to ADVENTURE!

Now, the version that I saw was dubbed and had no option for Cantonese audio with English subtitles. Unfortunate, yes, but since this is a lighter movie than say, Hero, its not a deal breaker. Still, if you can get the original Chinese audio, that would be preferable.

Jui kuen II is not exactly what you’d call Oscar material. However, it is a prime example of not only Hong Kong action cinema but also of Jackie Chan’s signature action/comedy style in full effect. It is a Jackie Chan movie about Drunken Fist Boxing and delivers exactly what it promises it will. Wholeheartedly recommended, but from the sentence above, you should know if this is for you or not.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

“Nothing is impossible. Anything is possible.”

Throwing another video game onto the flaming wreckage that is my credibility, the royal we here at Castle RMWC are a sucker for medieval related things, and Ubisoft’s 2007 release Assassin’s Creed drops you into the middle of the Third Crusade as one of the mysterious and feared Hashashin/Assassins, but then it also promises a crazy twist!!

So, uh, its not really a twist if it takes place before anything else. Turns out, the main character is just some guy in a white hoodie in a fairly generic near-future setting that gets kidnapped by a fairly generic sinister corporation. The reason for this is that he’s a descendant of an actual assassin from a time period that is very interesting for EvilCo. and they plug him into a machine called the Animus which can apparently let you access “genetic memories” and live through them for something like “genericsciencefictionbullshitpsychobabblerubbishmillenniumhandandshrimp.” Anyway, its at this point that you’re seriously considering returning the game because you wanted to stab medieval peasants in the throat when it turns out that this Animus device is going to be the excuse to plop you down into the Crusades as one of your ancestors AND THEN you get to stab people.* Though its with a purpose. EvilCo.’s looking for some kind of MacGuffin that your great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddad was involved in finding and losing.

Desmond Miles: Nolan North voices our “Hero,” a bartender in a white hoodie that looks suspiciously similar to the uniform of his ancestor. Subtle. Anyway, he spends his time in the stark white apartment/lab getting yelled at by one of EvilCo.’s scientists and encouraged by one of their other, cuter, techs. He spends the entire game half-heartedly denying any connection to the Assassins and playing video games reliving his ancestor’s life, so he’s a blank slate of a character.

Altaïr: Philip Shahbaz voices Desmond’s much more physically active ancestor, they do share the trait of not having a backstory worth notice. A high ranking member of the Assassins, he’s pretty proud of himself and lets that get in the way when a mission goes pear-shaped and some of his buddies get killed. Demoted and nearly killed by his boss for his failure, Altaïr doesn’t exactly come across as a contrite or apologetic guy. Actually, he’s kind of a dick. Anyway, in exchange for not killing him outright, his boss assigns him to kill nine high profile targets (Christians and Muslims) who are “needlessly extending the crusade.” And if that sounds like a flimsy reasoning to you, give yourself a cookie. Our boy Altaïr does become the badass of the game as you pick up new skills and weapons for him (like his signature hidden blade: a nasty little wrist mounted switchblade), and he’s got some impressive le parkour moves that help him get around town. And when you can get around town by climbing up the Dome of the Rock AND the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, walking on the ground seems so passé.

Warren Vidic: Phil Proctor voices the Scientist of Abstergent Asbestos Asberger’s Sbarro Abstergo (you know, I’ll stick with EvilCo.) Industries who passively, then aggressively shoves Desmond into the Animus to get that information. If he had a moustache, he’d be twirling it.

Lucy Stillman: Kristen Bell voices the EvilCo. tech who gets friendly with Desmond, ostensibly because you’ll catch more flies with honey, but, well, there’s a pretty obvious twist involving her.

Al-Mualim: The awesome-voiced Peter Renaday voices Altaïr’s black-robed boss, the highly intelligent and dangerous “Old Man in the Mountain.” Based in the mountain fortress of Masyaf, Al-Mualim talks quite a bit about peace and freedom, but the facility itself is run much like a cult, and he does send people out to murder other people through a vast network of bureaus, so, you know, he's totally trustworthy and wouldn't possibly be lying to you.

Robert de Sable: Jean-Phillipe Dandenaud voices Altaïr’s archenemy in the game, the Templar Grandmaster and the last of the nine guys he’s sent to extinguish. On the surface, Robert’s a bigger dick than Altaïr, but there’s more to what the Templars are trying to do than simple crusading.

There are also the 8 other targets and Richard the Lionheart makes an appearance, but its not worth going into them.

Simon Peacock and Amanda Wyatt were the voice over directors and Jade Raymond was overall project producer. And there’s way too many people and departments to go any further into who did what. Visually, the game is impressive when you’re running around the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The world is beautiful and character animations are solid. Facial details are less interesting, which I guess is a strike against it, but if you’re spending all your time zooming in on your character’s face, then you’re doing it wrong. The game does get a bit repetitive in its structure.

Written by Corey May and M. Dooma Wendschuh the story is…not what I’d call good. The whole storyline about an assassin who screws up royally and becomes an expendable tool against high profile targets as punishment is a pretty decent, standard story, but then the sci-fi story feels badly developed and shoehorned into what was otherwise an interesting tale of dirty intrigue and politics. The other issue I had is that Altaïr is held up as a tortured but ultimately righteous good guy, but he’s really not that likable of a guy, or heroic. He’s really more of a self-righteous, arrogant ass who’s convinced he’s doing the right thing and bringing peace back to the Holy Land, when ultimately, he’s just another agent of discord. I mean, one of his targets only becomes a paranoid, would-be tyrant only after Altaïr has killed several of his other targets before him.

And I’m not going to go into all the historical…liberties taken. Not gonna do it. Just… Its not worth it.

Jespery Kyd does a great job with a moody, sometimes electronic, sometimes more orchestral sound. It is quite awesome.

There are a lot of flaws with Assassin’s Creed. A lot of flaws. At its worst, the game’s plot feels like it belongs in a Sci-Fi Original Movie. At its best, it’s a fluid, largely open world city crawler that encourages you to freerun across anything you can, not because you get a lot of rewards for it, but because its awesome. The sequel apparently fixes a lot of the flaws of the first one while playing up the great stuff. Still, the core appeal of the first game, to run around committing shenanigans in lushly designed medieval cities, is a solid one.

*Note, we here at RMWC do not actually advocate stabbing peasants, or any other kind of people in the throat, even if it is in a lushly designed Medieval city, and even if you do so by means of a flying leap from a belltower. Just don’t.

Monday, January 25, 2010

“Go ahead! Eat the writer! That will leave you explaining how your character gets to Bremen!”

And here you were thinking we were done with vampires for a while. NOT A CHANCE! 2000 brought Shadow of the Vampire an interesting mock-biopic (Bio-mock? Mockuography?) of F.W. Murnau and the making of Nosferatu, where the conceit is that Max Schreck’s performance was so convincing because he actually was a vampire, and was feeding on the cast and crew through the production of the movie. Strange premise? Sure. Interesting result? You betcha.

After an atmospheric, Art Nouveau-style opening credits that feel like they drag on for ten minutes, we get to that swingin’ hotbed of zany lasciviousness of the early 1920s; Germany. Well, the film scene was lascivious at least. There, big shot auteur F.W. Murnau assembles his cast & crew to film an adaptation of Dracula, except that they haven’t secured the rights, so they’ve got to change the name for legal protection. Murnau then takes his crew to Eastern Europe for location scenes and finally introduces them to the star of the picture, “method actor” Max Shreck, who is going to remain in-character for the duration of the shoot. This will be easy, since he really is a vampire. Things go well at first, but, well, vampire on the set means people start getting eaten. What follows is an interesting mix of period drama, hilarity, pathos, and a disturbing look at just how far someone is willing to go to capture art on film.

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau: John Malkovich plays F.W. Murnau as a dictatorial, ego-driven director whose concern with capturing “art” on film supersedes the well-being of his fellow human beings on his crew. At first this gets played for dark laughs as we see his complete disregard for what the vampire is doing to some of his crew, but his obsessions (and drug use) deteriorate the world around him and leads the movie into some pretty disturbing territory by the end.

Albin Grau: Udo Kier plays the producer of the film, the guy paying for the project and ostensibly in charge, but he ends up being second fiddle to Murnau’s vision.

Greta Shroeder: Catherine McCormack plays the diva-like actress who is Murnau’s star. A temperamental party girl with a drug problem, Murnau uses her as an unwitting bargaining chip to keep Shreck from flipping out and murdering everyone.

Fritz Wagner: Cary Elwes plays a cameraman who comes on to replace camera man Wolfgang Mueller (Ronan Vibert) after the latter turned into a vampire’s sippy cup. Fritz is a boozing, partying, womanizing pilot who storms onto the set and is basically awesome, but he’s a late addition to the filming of Nosferatu and doesn’t really do a whole lot.

Gustav von Wangenheim: Eddie Izzard plays the lead actor of Nosferatu, and while he doesn’t really get a whole lot of development, he does show up in a lot of the “Movie-within-a-movie” stuff where shots from the silent film are recreated. For what it is, Izzard gives a great performance, and his reaction to Shreck’s first appearance is priceless.

Max Shreck: Willem Dafoe as an ancient vampire-playing-a-method-actor-playing-a-vampire is the reason to watch this. The makeup work is excellent and makes it difficult to recognize Dafoe’s face, and he turns in an incredibly nuanced performance as he shifts between a pathetic old geezer of a vampire to a murderous monster that preys on the helpless, and he makes both believable. Some of the greatest moments in the film are where he is just talking, like when he’s telling the producer and scriptwriter his reaction to reading Dracula. An incredibly badass performance.

E. Elias Merhige goes for a very moody and shadowy look for the period at most times, which is appropriate, this being a horror movie, more or less. However, where the movie is probably at its best is when its recreating shots from the original Nosferatu. Those are filmed in that same kind of grainy black and white and blend a self-aware hilarity as well as respectful homage to the silent film genre.

The script by Steven Katz is one hell of an interesting story. Now, this is about as far removed from biography as you can get (Shreck wasn’t a vampire and most of the crew didn’t die during the production), but that’s not the point. It’s a really interesting character drama that by the end of the film asks you who the real soulless monster is, the decrepit vampire or the director that brought him in.

The score by Dan Jones is appropriately moody and fit’s the period. It blends well into the picture as a whole.

Shadow of the Vampire is an unusual film that probably isn’t for everybody because in the end, its not really a comedy or a horror movie in broad terms. It’s a character drama that, like most films about making films, is ultimately about the human reasons for and the cost of pursuing an artistic vision. At times it probably does get a little too clever for its own good, but ultimately it’s a fascinating, original picture with a good indie film vibe to it, and worth checking out.

Friday, January 22, 2010

“A point in any direction is the same as no point at all.”

Well, whaddaya know, another animated feature. This one’s a bit…odd though. The Point was made in 1971 as a made-for-TV movie based on an album and drug-induced children’s fable by singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson. The only reason I sought this out is because I watched it as a kid and it was weird as all hell.

So a father reads his son a bedtime story about a kingdom where everyone there has a pointed head, except for one kid who’s born with a round head. When he’s older, he gets a pointed hat, a loyal dog and earns the ire of the son of a powerful Count and gets exiled from the kingdom on the technicality of not having a pointed head and is sent into the Pointless Forest, where he meets all sorts of weird things before learning the moral of the story (that everything has a point, if you couldn’t guess already), and returns home.

The Father/Narrator: Originally Dustin Hoffman, then in subsequent releases/broadcasts, it was Alan Barzam, then Alan Thicke and then finally Ringo Starr for the home video version. Anyway, whoever it is, it’s a normal dad reading his kid a bedtime story. The Ringo version is the one I watched and he does a fine job of it.

Oblio: Mike Lookinland voices Our Hero, a decent kid who’s treated differently by the accident of his birth. Not much to his character though.

Arrow: Oblio’s loyal, blue and pointy dog. The badass of the film, because he’s never annoying and generally more observant of his environment than Oblio.

The Count: Lennie Weinrib voices our villain, a purple-bodied guy with a gigantic moustache and a surly attitude. He’s a jerk, his son’s a jerk, and he manipulates the rather foolish king into exiling Oblio. Like a jerk.

The Pointed Man: A really trippy, three-headed weirdo who Oblio meets in the Pointless Forest and tries to espouse some kind of nihilistic belief system onto the poor kid. Has a habit of popping in and out of sight to “his” own musical cue.

The Rock Man: Bill Martin voices a guy made of multi-colored pastel rocks that Oblio runs into in a ravine after evading giant bees. Gives the kid some vague advice and talks like he’s stoned….

Look, I need to apologize for that pun: I’M SORRY!

The Leaf Man: Paul Frees voices a guy who looks like a walking shrub that talks like Dom DeLouise who’s trying to get Oblio involved in the growing field of leaf selling. Probably not a direct drug reference, but it was 1971 so I’m not ruling it out.

Directed by Fred Wolf, the film has a really unique visual style that has a lot of sketch-like, hand drawn elements to it by the animators. Sometimes its kind of charming, sometimes (like the Rock Man) slightly less so, and sometimes, like those bouncing pink ladies that never stop laughing, it strays into nightmare fuel. Still, its really memorable what the animators did.

Original Fable by Harry Nilsson, Story by Nilsson and Carole A. Beers, screenplay by Norm Lenzer, and additional story stuff by Fred Wolf. The story itself is a fairly inoffensive tale about accepting people different from yourself. Still, the ending is a bit…weird when you think about it. Spoilers on, though I doubt you’ll check it out for the story. Oblio returns home, people are happy and the Count tries to boot him out again, knocking Oblio’s hat off…only to reveal a point on Oblio’s head. Then suddenly, the heads of everybody and everything else in the town become rounded, except for Oblio. I guess this is all well and good, but the whole crux of the story was that Oblio was disliked for being different from the majority, and at the end of the movie, he’s still different from the majority…um...

The songs by Harry Nilsson are generally catchy and easy to listen to. Pretty nice, actually, especially “Everything’s Got ‘Em,” “Me and My Arrow,” and “Are You Sleeping?”

The Point is a weird little movie, but not without its charms. The songs are catchy and occasionally the animation is surprisingly engaging. Not recommended for everybody, but it’s a harmless enough little tale.

No trailer, but here's the clip of "Are You Sleeping?" since I rather like the song and it showcases the animation.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

“Talking man hurt Hulk! Hulk rip off talking man's head!!”

Okay, I feel the need to preface this with something of an apology. The way the Octoverride worked out, a lot of stuff got bounced around. So while in real-time, I may have thrown in 2009’s direct-to-DVD animated Hulk vs. in to take a break from Dracula movies back in late September, you get a face full of Superheroes in January.

This actually is two short films. In the first, Hulk vs. Wolverine, we find the Marvel U’s most over-exposed mutant sent back home to Canada to investigate a Hulk who rampaged through several towns. And by “investigate,” I mean stab a lot. This only makes the Hulk madder, then both he and Wolverine get captured by the Weapon X Program, a shadowy Canadian government organization that was responsible for giving Wolverine his adamantium skeleton and is now staffed by superhumans that want to see Logan dead.

In Hulk vs. Thor, we get some Asgardian politics where the trickster God Loki summons Bruce Banner to Asgard, magically manages to separate Banner and the Hulk, then sends the Hulk to break stuff in Asgard while Odin is in the middle of his “Odinsleep” (essentially a long nap that leaves the rest of the gods vulnerable). Its up to Thor to put a stop to Loki’s machinations. And by “put a stop to” I mean hit things with a hammer.

Bruce Banner: The Hulk’s human form is voiced by Bryce Johnson, and puny Banner doesn’t show up much in these. When he does, its mostly to plead with people not to agitate him/the Hulk.

The Hulk: Fred Tatasciore (from Mass Effect and the animated Iron Man movie) is great as the perpetually angry big green guy. Basically, this hulk is the “dumb but talkative” version (which is  a personal favorite) which leads to some good comedy. Of course, the Hulk is also a monster when it comes to fighting, and the battle with Wolverine is particularly brutal.

Wolverine: Steven Blum, who’s one of the big names in voice acting for the last decade, and the current official “voice” of Wolverine, plays…wait for it…Wolverine. Wolvie’s the grumpy, short, nearly impossible to kill Canucklehead we’ve all grown to love through overexposure, and the PG-13 rating of the movie means that he and the Hulk can just go nuts on each other.

The Weapon X Department: There’s a bunch of them, so let’s work our way through the list.

The Professor: Tom Kane is the bald, sinister director of the program, and has a claw for one of his hands.

Sabertooth: Mark Acheson is Wolverine’s arch-nemesis with almost comparable healing and no Adamantium skeleton. He’s embraced the feral side of his personality and, well, he’s always been boring.

Lady Deathstrike: Janyse Jaud is a Japanese lady with some creepy cyborg arms who’s had a messy past with Wolverine.

Omega Red: Colin Murdock is a Russian Super-Soldier/mutant with a pale complexion and two energy draining tentacles.

Deadpool: Nolan North steals the show as the completely insane Merc with a Mouth, Deadpool. And unlike that terrible Wolverine: Origins movie, he has the powers, personality, motormouth and costume of Deadpool. Possessing a healing factor even more powerful than Wolverine’s and a complete lack of inner voice or restraint, Deadpool is awesome for his one-liners and the fact that at one point the jumps onto the Hulk’s back and shoves a live grenade into the big guy’s mouth. It doesn’t work, of course, but major badass points for trying. This is Deadpool done right, and for that he’s the badass of both films, even though he’s only in one.

Thor: Matthew Wolf voices the Asgardian Thunder God who’s got to keep things together when Loki brings the Hulk to town.

Loki: Graham McTavish voices the always asshole Loki who really just wants to see his legitimate half-brother Thor suffer and/or die. Unfortunately, letting the Hulk loose in Asgard isn’t a good idea.

Amora the Enchantress: Kari Wahlgren voices a sorcerers who was spurned by Thor a while ago and kind of has a love/hate thing for him going. She teams up with Loki to get Hulk there.

The Asgardians: Okay, the film really throws in a lot of surprise residents of Asgard into the mix.

Lady Sif: Gray DeLisle voices Thor’s lover and second in command in the defense of Asgard.

Balder the Brave: Michael Adamthwaite voices one of Asgard’s more steadfast warriors and a good buddy of Thor’s.

The Warriors Three: Holy Shit! They actually put the Warriors Three into this. Fandral the Dashing (Johnathan Holmes), Hogun the Grim (Paul Dobson) and Volstagg the Voluminous (Jay Brazeau) don’t do a whole lot, but damn, they’re actually in this. Major props for that. If it weren’t for Deadpool, they’d be the collective badass just for being put in.

Hela: Janyse Jaud voices the Asgardian goddess of the underworld who’s also Loki’s daughter. She’s not a nice lady.

Frank Paur directed Hulk vs. Wolverine and Sam Liu directed Hulk vs. Thor. Both are well animated and heavily action-oriented. Actually, they’re pretty much all action oriented. And the action is nice. The Thor one does go a little bit long at about 40 minutes, but nothing game breaking.

Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost do a solid job of hitting all the right character notes quickly then getting to the “Hulk Smash” parts. Nothing complicated, but solid nonetheless.

The original score by Guy Michelmore is appropriate and fitting.

There’s really not lot to either of these short films. Hulk Gets Mad. Hulk Smashes Things. Deadpool Behaves Awesomely. Simple, but with an animation style that is very conducive to fluid and surprisingly brutal action scenes, it’s a really fun dose of straightforward power fantasy.

Five Exclamation Points: The sure sign of a troubled mind

Hi. How’s it going? Good? Nice to hear that. Me? Yeah, I’m doing well. So, uh, the reason I called you here is to do a little, what’s the word? “Community building.” That’s it. Something about getting in touch with the readers (all four of you) and kind of doing the whole “two way communication” thing. Because I’m a giver. I give freely. Only now I want to come down from the parapets of my ivory tower and take. I want to take from you so I can give back. With interest.

It occurs to me that while readers exist for this blog, they/you are a silent majority. I’d like to change that, if for no other reason than to reassure my fragile ego that I’m not just whistling in the dark.

So! Theatrical turns of phrase and verbal flourishes aside, I’d like feedback from you! The Reader! On what! I should be watching! In simple terms, the request line is now open. Think I should be watching more pirate movies? Westerns? Dramas? Skin flicks? (that would be a little weird, but I’d be willing to consider it) Uwe Boll movies? (the skin flicks might be more enjoyable, but I’d be willing to consider it) Then LET ME KNOW!! Think I should watch a specific movie? It might take a while to track down, but LET ME KNOW ANYWAY!!!! And I’ll SEE What I Can DO!!!!!

Friday, January 15, 2010

“If it's a woman you're calling, then you say: You're good woman. I'm good man.”

Spider-Man was two for two going into the 2007 release of Spider-Man 3. Then 3 was released and fanboys raged across the globe. Let’s take a look at why, shall we?

Peter Parker’s life is looking up. After saving New York from Doctor Octopus, Spider-Man is lauded as a hero, he’s getting ready to propose to his girlfriend, Mary Jane, he’s doing all right, he’s got good grades, his future’s so bright that he’s got to wear shades. All of this starts going to his head and he starts turning into an neglectful jerk. Then Harry Osborne decides he’s had enough, takes his dad’s Green Goblin serum and some equipment, picks a high flying fight with Peter, loses and gets a nasty bump on the head that is entirely Peter’s fault and gets amnesia.

Meanwhile, an escaped con who’s trying to get some money for his sick daughter gets caught in a SCIENCE experiment in the middle of the night and gets atomized (he gets better) and reforms himself from sand (told you). Turns out he was the guy who actually shot Uncle Ben (yeah, I know, it’s a pretty lame retcon) and once Spidey finds this out, he wants to take the guy down permanently.

Meanwhile(er), a little black glob of glue from a meteorite latches onto Peter’s backpack and follows him home. Turns out it’s a symbiotic alien life form that ends up taking the form of a new black costume for Spider-Man, granting him even greater strength and giving his already inflated ego an even bigger, nastier boost. This leads to trouble with a new freelance photographer at the Daily Bugle, Eddie Brock and Parker basically ruins Brock’s career (which comes back to bite Spidey in the ass later). Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane also hit’s the skids because he’s a negligent, self-centered prick (before the symbiote, actually).

And THEN things get complicated.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man: Tobey Maguire got a lot of flack for “emo Peter Parker,” and yeah, I can see that. However, Parker’s transformation into a douche bag takes place before he actually gets the symbiote. He almost kills Harry during their fight and he’s so smitten with his own newfound glory that he can’t recognize the fact that Mary Jane is having a really difficult time with her career and he’s all like “gee, ain’t my life great?” all the time. And besides, Peter’s always been kind of on the cusp of becoming an asshole during all three films, the symbiote just makes it official when he wears it.

Mary Jane Watson: Kirsten Dunst actually goes through a lot in this movie. From starting out optimistic about her relationship and an acting gig, to understandably depressed about getting booted off the gig then really angry at Peter for being too self-absorbed to realize that she’s in need of comforting to being comforted by Harry to being utterly devastated by Peter’s infamous “Dancing scene.” She handles it quite well (oh yeah, and there’s another damsel in distress scene for her. Again.)

Harry Osborne/New Goblin (seriously? New Goblin?): James Franco gets some…odd stuff in this movie. First, we get Harry in his dad’s secret stash, kits himself out in a modified version of the Green Goblin gear and a brutal fight scene where he chases Spider-Man through the skyscrapers of New York, then he gets a bump on the head, almost dies, suffers some amnesia (like forgetting how his dad died or who Spider-Man really is) and his life starts improving. I actually really liked the whole “Mary Jane goes to Harry when Peter acts like an ass” subplot because it could lead to interesting story places down the road, but then Harry’s memories and hatred of Spidey comes back and he just turns into a generic bad guy who uses Mary Jane in an evil plot to “destroy Peter’s life,” then he & Pete fight it out, Pete scars his face and, well, let’s just say that by the end of the movie, the Harry subplot is no longer an issue. I’ve gotta admit, the whole Harry plot felt really forced in this and not as well developed as it could have been.

Flint Marko/Sandman: Thomas Hayden Church kind of gets the shaft in this movie. On the one hand, he does a fantastic job as a rather tormented escaped con who just wants to be able to help his sick daughter, but he made the mistake of turning to crime to do that and that leads to him becoming the Sandman and then becoming our Villain du jour. There’s some great potential for exploring the nature of good and evil, and Church is the spiting image of Flint Marko in this film, but all of that early potential gets kind of cast aside and he disappears from the movie for a while we focus on the other two villains populating the screen, both of whom are more connected to Peter Parker. Which is kind of a shame, since Sandman is a really well realized character in this movie, nuanced and sympathetic while still a credible threat to our hero. The only real issue I had (aside from the plot shoving him out of the spotlight) was the retcon of having him be the guy who shot Uncle Ben in that carjacking all those years ago. It kind of forces a connection between him and Spidey, and it also has the unfortunate implication of Peter Parker being guilty of criminal negligence (thanks, Wikipedia!) in letting the hood he thought killed Uncle Ben fall to his death.

Eddie Brock/Venom: Topher Grace has an odd job of being a character who’s in the movie throughout but only becoming a villain near the end. At first, he’s another photographer and actually a lot like Peter, a little hard on his luck, but dating a model and on his way up in the world. He’s a little bit more of a fast talker than Parker and slightly more lecherous, but there’s no indication of him being a bad guy. Then Peter, in the black costume, throws a hissy fit at Brock and breaks his camera and calls him a chump. Then Eddie does something desperate: he doctors photos of Spider-Man to get the scoop. Peter finds out about this, they have it out in the Daily Bugle and Parker does what every fifth grader knows not to: he tattles, getting Brock fired and essentially blacklisting him from any other newspaper. Long story short, a desperate and depressed Brock gets the black symbiote when Peter ditches it, becoming the revenge-obsessed Venom. This in itself isn’t a bad plotline, but considering everything else that’s going on in the film, its just too damn busy and the Brock storyline just feels rushed. It probably would’ve worked better if they spread it out over two movies, but, well, Venom was hella popular with the kids in the ‘90s and is still really recognizable today, so here you go, have some Venom. Now, Venom in the comics is a big dude, but here he’s maybe slightly bigger than Peter, so it loses some of the menacing effect.

Gwen Stacy: Bryce Dallas Howard (yes, yes, I know its ironic that a natural redhead is playing a blonde alongside a natural blond who’s playing a redhead) plays the famous Gwen Stacy, in comics, the “other girlfriend” who (well, its not really a spoiler since it happened back in the 70s) was infamously killed in a fight with the Green Goblin. She’s decidedly less dead in this movie, and is a generally nice girl who also happens to take a liking to Spider-Man after he rescues her from falling out of a building during a construction crane accident. She was dating Eddie Brock, but after Peter ruined his career, that seems to have fallen apart and Peter hooked up with Gwen for a while, but thanks to all the plots being juggled, she feels like a tertiary (Tertiary!!) character.

J. Jonah Jameson: J.K. Simmons is STILL awesome in this series, only now he’s gotten some character development/new gag with Betty Brant (still Elizabeth Banks) constantly reminding him of his blood pressure and not to get too excited/angry/shout loudly at Hoffman (Ted Raimi). While he doesn’t get that much screen time in this, he is easily the film’s most consistent badass.

Sam Raimi still brings a great visual style to things, (montages, transitions, etc) though there is that whole “Dancing Emo Peter Parker” scene that is either intentionally cheesy or unbearably campy. I shall withhold judgment. The action scenes remain inventive, though, and the CGI work still looks very good. The scene where Flint Marko is trying to reform his body from grains of sand and has difficulty doing so until he focuses on a locket with his daughter’s photograph is both convincingly done and incredibly touching. Poor guy just can’t get a break.

Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi & Alvin Sargent do have a grasp on the characters, but all of the above points to the biggest flaw of the film: Too much plot. We’ve got Peter & Mary Jane’s courtship troubles, Peter trying to avenge Uncle Ben, Sandman’s subplot, Harry Osborne’s yo-yo of sanity, Gwen Stacy’s introduction, Peter dealing with the symbiote, Eddie Brock’s career ruin and then gaining the symbiote, and J. Jonah’s heart rate gags. Individually, these elements are fine, but there’s just too much of them in the air at once to get the attention they deserve, like the symbiote storyline could’ve been extended across two movies just fine.

Christopher Young replaces Danny Elfman on the score, and does a good job of things. The standard alternative/pop songs are also fine.

Ok. Spider-Man 3 is definitely a flawed film. Very flawed, come to think of it. Too many villains and an outright surfeit of plot threads to keep track of bog the film down, but its not actually an epic failure of a movie (its better than Supermans II, III, & IV combined, and I am willing to stand by that assertion). Compared to those, its actually quite watchable, largely enjoyable on the whole and there are some truly great scenes in it, so I’m going to invite a bit of flack from fellow fanboys by saying that I liked it. 2 and 1 are definitely better (in that order), but it doesn’t deserve the hatewagon its managed to pick up.

Still here?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

“Whoa... He just stole that guy's pizza!”

Spider-Man was a success, and success means sequels. 2004 brought Spidey back with a vengeance as sought to up the ante on the franchise now that all that pesky origin story junk was out of the way.

Life’s not so great for Peter Parker. He’s been pushing his Spider-Man career really hard, completely neglecting his classes, job as a pizza delivery guy and social life. The love of his life, Mary Jane finally gets a break on stage and Peter, shlub that he is, breaks a promise to her to see the play. Oh yeah, and she gets engaged to an astronaut because she’s tired of waiting around for Peter to do something about their mutual feelings. His best friend still blames Spider-Man for his father’s death. On top of that, his powers seem to be shorting out at inopportune moments. Prompting him to hang up the tights to try and figure out his life. About the only bright spot is a potential scientific mentor, Doctor Otto Octavius who takes the kid under his wing, then promptly becomes a super villain in a science experiment gone horribly wrong.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man: Tobey Maguire is back as the hard luck hero. Throwing himself headlong into superheroics, his health and life are going to hell and he’s about as unhappy as can be. It gets to be too much for him and he decides to hang it up, and interestingly enough, his life improves almost instantly. He starts paying attention at school, gets hired by Jameson to do more than “GET ME PICTURES OF SPIDER-MAN!” and even starts patching things back up with Mary Jane. In short, he’s happy, on his way to being successful and responsible. Additionally, and here’s the kicker, he does his most heroic act of the trilogy while he’s de-powered by going into a burning building to save a kid. What was easy as pie in the first movie becomes a life or death struggle, and he pulls off one hell of a heroic rescue. Guess what, though. That guilt complex I mentioned in the last review? It comes back with a roaring vengeance as he starts dreaming of his Uncle Ben trying to talk him into putting the tights back on, and when he sees a police chase drive by him, you can see the wheels of guilt rolling in his head, knowing that “he coulda stopped it himself.” Which, is kind of selfish of him when you consider you can’t throw a rock in the Marvel Universe New York without hitting a cape. Whatever the mundane crises are that Peter feels guilty about neglecting, I’m sure that either the Avengers (New, Mighty, Young, Initiative and even West Coast when they’re in town), Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Moon Knight, Doctor Strange, the X-Men (and all of their affiliates), the Hulk (when he’s in town), Power Pack, Darkhawk, Blade (with or without the Nightstalkers), Heroes for Hire, Nova, the Human Rocket (when he’s on Earth), the Thunderbolts (okay, they’re iffy at best), and even the New Warriors have the situation under control. And that’s just off the top of my head.

Mary Jane Watson: Kirsten Dunst lends a lot of development to Mary Jane, who’s now torn between love for Peter, but also incredible frustration with his asshatted avoidance of her. She’s still good in the role, though despite Peter’s best efforts to distance her from his hazardous life choices, she still ends up getting kidnapped by the bad guy as leverage against Spider-Man.

Harry Osborne: James Franco glowers and stews his way across the screen as he just spirals deeper and deeper into brooding thoughts of revenge. And booze. He’s been hitting the bottle hard after his father’s death. And this is all because the Green Goblin told Peter not to tell Harry about him being a super villain and all.

Doctor Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus: Alfred Molina turns in an astounding performance as a scientist who loses everything (his wife, sanity and the ability to remove the four mechanical tentacles grafted onto his spine that were intended for the handling of dangerous SCIENCE materials. The root of his success is how kind and friendly he was before the accident, which hammers home the tragedy of his character arc. Post-accident, he becomes obsessed with recreating the experiment (and ostensibly getting it right this time) and will tear the city apart to do so. For making Doc Ock, a villain known for being a fat guy in tights with stupid goggles and a Moe Howard haircut into a legitimately awesome villain, he easily becomes the badass of the film.

Aunt May Parker: Rosemary Harris is still great as Peter’s loving aunt. She’s hit financially tough times and gets some emotional development when Peter finally mans up and admits his inadvertent guilt in Uncle Ben’s death. And still no wheatcakes.

J. Jonah Jameson: J.K. Simmons continues to be awesome as the cantankerous newspaper mogul. When some guy brings Spidey’s discarded costume to him, he feels triumphant, then laments his retirement when Doc Ock starts his rampage. Its great stuff. Also, his son, John Jameson, an astronaut, gets engaged to Mary Jane, which leaves Peter thunderstruck, but leads to a great comic moment at the end of the movie for JJJ. Sadly, John does not turn into Man-Wolf in this movie. Also unfortunately, there is no Ted Raimi death scene, despite bringing back the Bugle’s support staff with the same actors.

Sam Raimi kept the same visual style that worked really well in the first movie and just ran with it in this one. Montages remain good, the CGI characters have improved greatly and the movie strides along at a fantastic clip. Of special note are the fight scenes, which really use both Doc Ock and Spidey’s fighting styles to their best effects. The fight on the L train is probably the best realized superhero fight scene yet for visceral thrills, use of environment and inventiveness. The movie even has a throwback scene to the Evil Dead movies when Doc Ock’s tentacles wake up in the hospital when the staff are about to amputate them. Let’s just say the tentacles don’t take kindly to that one bit.

This time around, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and novelist Michael Chabon worked on the story and Alvin Sargent got the screenplay credit. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko still created Spider-Man. Free of the fetters of an origin story, the movie is able to develop characters further while also giving us plenty of slam-bang moments. No complaints.

Original score once more by Danny Elfman, and once more its very good.

Its not much of a stretch to say that Spider-Man 2 is a better, more satisfying film than the first one. Great acting, directing, and action deliver glorious superheroics. Not much to say in that regard.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"I resent that. Slander is spoken. In print, it's libel."

I’m unabashedly a fan of Sam Raimi’s work and a fan of superheroes. Put the two together and you get 2002’s Spider-Man, the big screen adaptation of one of Marvel’s flagship heroes.

So a geeky high school kid in a suburb of New York who’s bullied a lot and has a secret crush on his beautiful next door neighbor, gets bitten by a radioactive genetically engineered spider on a senior class field trip, develops super powers and the first thing he decides to do is profit from it and get a sweet convertible. Then his actions indirectly lead to the death of his uncle and he develops an incredible guilt complex, decides to try and make up for it by fighting crime, graduates from school, moves downtown with his best friend, still pines for his love, gets a job photographing himself as Spider-Man for a newspaper and then has to deal with the Green Goblin, a villain that also happens to be his best friend’s dad. Got all that? Good, because there will be a test. And no, he never does get that convertible.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man: Tobey Maguire is our titular Hero, a smart but bullied, insecure kid who gets superpowers by chance. Naturally, once he gets his powers he exults in them and looks for personal gain to get what he wants (fighting Macho Man Randy Savage in a cage match for a convertible in this case), and basically decides “screw the rules, I’ve got super powers.” Then his uncle is killed by a crook that Peter could’ve easily stopped in an earlier scene. Being responsible for the death of one of the very few people in his life that loved him unconditionally shocks Peter out of becoming a selfish asshole, but he kind of takes it a little too far in the other direction, adopting the Spider-Man identity and treating it with the seriousness and dedication of a job (only without the paychecks involved and at the expense of his college classes and actual jobs). His frequent poor decision making skills are, of course, what make him an interesting character, but its also the root of a lot of problems that will come back to bite him in the ass in later films.

Mary Jane Watson: Kirsten Dunst plays Peter’s next door neighbor (as kids) and is the crimson haired object of his affection. Popular in high school, she hits hard times after graduation while struggling to make it as an actress, but she’s just a sweet, likable girl throughout. And a redhead. Can’t forget that.

Harry Osborne: James Franco is Peter’s best friend, a rich kid with daddy issues, but a decent enough guy all things considered. Peter moves in with him after High School, but Harry remains unaware of Peter’s (and his father’s) escapades.

Norman Osborne/Green Goblin: Willem Defoe turns in an awesomely badass performance as Harry’s dad. An engineer/scientist/businessman who looks favorably on Peter’s scientific inklings, Norman’s back into a corner by the possible revocation of a military contract that could ruin the company and by the board of directors who want to oust him, he makes the poor decision of injecting himself with a body enhancing serum that gives him enhanced strength, but also drives him into a split personality that slowly drives him mad. Dubbed the “Green Goblin” by the press for the green armor that he wears and the mad cackle he delivers in said costume, he’s got a glider, a bevy of pumpkin-themed explosives and a vindictive streak a mile long. He tries recruiting Spider-Man, but when that goes nowhere, he decides to destroy the hero before he can get in Osborne’s way. A great villain.

Uncle Ben Parker: Cliff Robertson has a small, but vital part as Peter’s doomed uncle/father figure. Warm and human, his death is quite sad, even though you know its coming.

Aunt May Parker: I will admit to not liking Aunt May at all in the comics, but Rosemary Harris does an outstanding job of making the character likable and really well rounded. And not once does she tell Peter to eat his wheatcakes.

J. Jonah Jameson: J.K. Simmons is perfect as the muckraking publisher of the Daily Bugle, a newspaper that Peter gets a job with as a freelance photographer (selling them pictures of Spider-Man). Jameson is bigger than life and hams up the screen gloriously, and the Bugle’s support staff are all very solid, with Bill Nunn as the Spidey-friendly Robbie Robertson, Elizabeth Banks as Betty Brant and Ted Raimi as Hoffman, a staffer who pokes his head into Jameson’s office to say some lines, then get shouted at angrily (and it never gets old). Sadly, no Ted Raimi Death Scene.

Sam Raimi has a lot of ground to cover in this movie, and the pacing is nice and tight for 121 minutes. Shots are really well done, color is vibrant (Spidey’s not a particularly gloomy superhero all told) and there are some truly great transitions between scenes. Case in point: When the Green Goblin blows up a test site in his first attack, sheets of paper are blown into the wind and fly past the camera, these then turn into mortarboard hats being throw into the air by graduating high schoolers (among them Harry Osborne). The movie also does montages incredibly well to bridge sections, like when we get scenes of Spidey’s heroics mixed in with reactions from New Yorkers.

Special effects are all still pretty good, though some of the CGI of Spidey swinging around New York is starting to show its age. The Spider-Man costume is fantastically realized, and while the Green Goblin looks nothing like his four color counterpart, Gobby would look…out of place in his original threads on screen.

Spider-Man created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, with the screenplay by David Koepp. The story is an origin, so its got to slog through all that “getting the powers” thing that every origin does, but it does them all quite well, and throwing in the Green Goblin as his first major foe is a great choice. Characters act like they should and dialog is quite good. There is one scene where a bunch of normally surly New Yorkers band together to throw cans and garbage at Gobby, which is kind of cheesy, but keep in mind, this was released in May of 2002, a mere eight months after September 11, so its forgivable in context.

Danny Elfman did the original score for the film, and its quite good, though not up to par with his Batman work. The film also brings in the old school “Spider-Man Theme” (does whatever a spider can) along with some early 2000s acts like Sum41, Macy Gray, Oleander, and so on.

Spider-Man is a solidly entertaining superhero movie that proudly wore its heritage on its sleeve. In some ways, it’s a lot like Donner’s Superman in that it’s a mythologizing take on an iconic character that plays its roots straight (we get a full spandex suit, unlike in X-Men). Totally recommended.

Friday, January 08, 2010

“Your levity is good, it relieves tension and the fear of death.”

Remember that whole rather optimistic theme in the Terminator movies? The one about how “there is no fate but what we make for ourselves” thing? Yeah, that one. Toss it out the window, since Judgment Day is inevitable, according to 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Los Angeles once more, and once more we get two naked Terminators coming through time, only this time, one’s a hot woman. Bad and Good Terminators track down a living human to fight over, and we find out that their primary target isn’t actually John Connor this time, but his future wife and 2nd in command, Kate Brewster. Again we get the game of cat & mouse between heroes & villain, and again we get an attempt to prevent Judgment Day, except the title of the movie should give you a clue as to who wins.

John Connor: Nick Stahl is the grown up future savior of humanity, except he’s also apparently hit the skids, having to rely on breaking into veterinary clinics for painkillers for injuries that aren’t exactly made clear. Perhaps he’s just a junkie. Anyway, he doesn’t really do all that much that’s “leader-ly” in this film and he’s fairly unlikable. Also, Sarah Connor is apparently dead at this point, having died in 1997 of cancer or something.

Kate Brewster: Claire Danes is our slightly more likable female lead. She runs a veterinary clinic and is essentially kidnapped by John & the Terminator and she (and the audience) find out later that Future Kate Brewster is Future John Connor’s wife and second in command and is the one who sent the Terminator back in time to ensure John & Kate’s survival. So, basically, Kate’s character has been shoe-horned into the movie’s continuity to provide a little twist to the whole “John Connor saves Humanity” thing.

Dr. Peter Silberman: Hey, its Earl Boen for a really small character bit in the cemetery. After Kate escapes to the police, Silberman introduces himself as a trauma counselor and that he’s there to help. Then he catches sight of the Terminator and runs like hell away from there. I laughed.

Robert Brewster: David Andrews plays Kate’s dad, a man placed highly in the military (probably Air Force from his uniform). He doesn’t get a whole lot of characterization aside from not really liking the idea of machines deciding national defense matters and then eventually pushing the button that sends SkyNet online.

The T-800 Terminator: Arnold Schwarzenegger once more brings the imposing cybernetic organism to the big screen, and it still works well considering these movies have spanned three decades. This T-800 is a completely new version (so no hasta la vista stuff) and was apparently a model that was reprogrammed by Future Kate after it busted in and killed Future John but good. This model is now considered outdated in the future but apparently features a new hydrogen fuel cell system that for whatever reason, is explosive enough to create a small mushroom cloud. I don’t think that’s how hydrogen fuel cells work. Anyway, Arnold gives it his best, and he still does a great job of things, its just that he can’t really carry the rest of the characters on his mighty robot shoulders. Still the badass of the film.

The T-X Terminatrix: Kristanna Lokken is SkyNet’s new assassin, a slimmer model that blends an endoskeleton with a transforming liquid metal skin and appears in human form as an attractive female. The T-X (because Terminatrix is really cheesy and I refuse to say it again) is an all right villain, having quite a bit of firepower built in and being able to drill into technology so as to reprogram it, but in other ways she just feels like a flat villain with no personality whatsoever, which is a shame since both the T-800 and T-1000 had subtle personality touches that made them different (like the 800’s penchant for sunglasses and the 1000’s vindictive streak). The T-X is, ironically, less interesting because she’s too mechanical in the long run. She starts off with some fairly interesting features, like being able to expand certain…elements of her physique to distract a cop and is also able to do DNA scans by tasting blood, but those get tossed aside later. They even have the T-X try and do the insanely fast cross country sprinting thing from the second movie, but its not nearly as creepy this time.

Directed by Jonathan Mostow, Terminator 3 certainly looks good. Arguably the best redeeming features of this film are the action sequences, and they’re pretty solid. The car chase early on with the crane was pretty cool, the shootout in the cemetery where the Terminator fights his way to a hearse carrying John Connor in a bulletproof coffin was nice visually. Unfortunately, they just feel like set piece scenes. The visual atmosphere is mostly uneven and lacking in the menace one would expect from the last few hours before Judgment Day.

The script by John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris and Ted Sarafini (and based on characters created by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd) doesn’t really work. Plot-wise, this movie is supposed to be taking place before SkyNet decides to royally sodomize humanity with nuclear weaponry but you never get any feelings of urgency or dread or hopelessness. Not even at the end when the missiles are actually firing. That just feels like “oh well, at least John & Kate are safe so that they could lead the fight against the machines and then send a guy back to 1984 so that John Connor could get conceived and give his mom the false hope that Judgment Day can be avoided.” There is also a subplot where the T-X is going around killing random people that will eventually become Connor’s lieutenants in the war, but that gets forgotten so quickly that I almost forgot to mention it. The dialogue is serviceable but nothing above average. There are a few nice mythology gags, like when the Terminator puts on a pink pair of sunglasses after getting his leather jacket and then crushes them before getting a pair of black shades, but those are just nods, nothing to really sell a movie on. Also, the T-X is able to hack into a police car and make it drive unmanned (okay…) and then is somehow able to control a bunch of other police cars and ambulances in a similar manner without hacking them individually because…because…because car computer chips and the nanotechnology excuse used DO NOT WORK THAT WAY! But that’s just one scene. The critical atmosphere failure is really the movie’s greatest sin.

The score by Marco Beltrami is nothing special. This time, there are more orchestral touches to the film and themes, which is jarring considering the straight up digital/electronic sounds of the first two.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is an entirely gratuitous sequel. It feels somewhat rushed, flat and aside from a few interesting action sequences, brings nothing of any real value to the franchise. Its not a terrible or unwatchable film by any means, but it is absolutely pointless from a storytelling perspective, aside from railroading Judgment Day into an inevitable event so that presumably more and more movies could be made. T3 is just…bland and completely unnecessary compared to the superior James Cameron helmed films. Worth a rental, but not really worth actively seeking this film out.

Of course, this previous year brought forth Terminator: Salvation, which basically moved the entire story to the post-apocalyptic future, but honestly, I’m in no rush to see it.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

“Hasta la vista, baby.”

In 1991, James Cameron returned to the world of SkyNet and Sarah Connor, bringing Terminator 2: Judgment Day to theaters. It had been almost ten years since the first movie and the general structure looked like it was going to ape the original, so how does the sequel stack up?

It’s the 1990s, and much like the original movie, a flash of electricity heralds the arrival of two naked men. Arnold’s Terminator is back and after beating up a group of bikers gets some clothes and starts looking for the last name of Connor. The other guy takes a cop’s clothes and does the same, ultimately converging in a shopping mall where they confront the young John Connor, and this time, the Arnold Terminator is the one sent back to protect him from the even more dangerous T-1000. More chases, gunfights, a side trip to rescue Sarah Connor from a mental hospital and a desperate attempt to prevent SkyNet from being completed to save the future ensue.

John Connor: Edward Furlong is our Hero, the very troubled youth John Connor. A foul-mouthed Mötley Crüe aficionado who’s in foster care (hey, his foster mom’s Jenette Goldstein, who was Vasquez in Aliens), he’s also an amateur hacker and mechanic, having been taught a lot of stuff by his presumed crazy mom. The kid’s kind of a dick, but undergoes some character development that actually makes him pretty likable by the end of the movie. After all, he’s got to survive to save humanity. Still, he spouts a lot of early 90s catchphrases that…they just haven’t aged well.

Sarah Connor: Linda Hamilton is back, though she’s changed a lot. First, she’s in a mental institution because she won’t stop talking about the robots and how they’re going to Kill All Humans. Second, she’s upgraded herself into a badass. She’s a survivor now, and is one tough cookie.

Dr. Silberman: Earl Boen is back again as the highly skeptical psychologist who’s now made Sarah his case study. Then he actually sees the Terminators in action for a really funny scene.

Miles Dyson: Joe Morton (who was also in, uh, Blues Brothers 2000) is the humble Cyberdine computer programmer who’s also the man who will unwittingly create SkyNet. Once our heroes figure out he’s the one, Sarah decides to take a very proactive means of solving that problem.

The T-800 Terminator: Arnold Schwarzenegger once more as the shades wearing cyborg, except this time, he’s on our (as in humanity) side. While still the implacable machine like in the first movie, he’s also way more awesome as the movie goes into “a boy and his killer cyborg” territory, blending the Badass Arnold with the Funny Arnold. I dare you to not be affected by the ending as the T-800 performs one of the coolest heroic sacrifices in cinema. Totally badass.

The T-1000: Robert Patrick is our villain, and really, really creepy. More skilled at infiltration because of his “liquid metal” body that can change shape (and form nasty looking blades). He manages to be a credible threat not by being bigger than the T-800, but by being more adaptable, flexible and relentless. When the heroes escape in a car, he just starts sprinting after them, and the way its done, he makes running at 35 mph look effortless in its inhumanity. An absolutely fantastic villain.

Visually, I’d say that James Cameron outdid The Terminator with this one. Action is still relentless, but there is an even greater sense of urgency, what with the goal of the heroes being to actually prevent (dun dun dun, or rather DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN) Judgment Day. The special effects are outstanding from Stan Winston’s team. The T-800 still looks great and the T-1000 is an absolute marvel to behold. Surprisingly, the CGI on the T-1000 was fairly restrained. Most of it was done with practical effects, and my God is it incredible.

However, I think the part that really sold me on this movie was the use of color and contrast. Each location has a distinct color, like the asylum being washed out white and blue, and then the…I guess smelting plant of the finale is full of blacks and reds. Its just outstanding.

All right, written by James Cameron and William Wisher, Jr., the script is tightly tied in to the events of the first movie. Its so tight that I can’t really think of any obvious plot holes. Dialog is good (aside from the dated 90s jargon that, well, every kid who ever experienced the 90s spouted. I didn’t even see this movie as a kid but said “hasta la vista, baby” a lot). There are a few moments where Sarah Connor gets incredibly preachy about how men are always destroying things, but before it becomes insufferable John kind of tells her "shut up, that's not helping."

The score by Brad Fiedel continues that same awesome percussive theme of the original movie.

The Terminator was a great film, but Terminator 2: Judgment Day I’m going to say outshines it. It’s a brilliantly realized sequel that completely ties up any and all loose ends from the first movie. Loose ends you didn’t even think were loose ends.

Thumbs up.

Monday, January 04, 2010

“It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

An implacable, nigh invulnerable killing machine can be a terrifying prospect, especially when its been designed to walk like a duck, talk like a duck and look like a duck, but actually isn’t. Strip away the science fiction, the action sequences and all that other stuff and what you’ve got at the core of this movie is an unblinking, metal endoskeleton that is now a classic movie monster in 1984’s The Terminator.

In 1984 Los Angeles, a robot in the shape of large naked man appears in a flash of lightning then takes the clothes off a group of street punks led by Bill Paxton. Somewhere else in the city, another naked man appears in an identical flash and steals a hobo’s clothes. Both of these strangers in a strange time are after the same person, Sarah Connor, a down on her luck waitress who has no idea why anybody would want to see her dead. Chase scenes, shootouts, general violence and trying to explain time travel in a coherent way ensue.

Sarah Connor: Linda Hamilton is our main character and the center of this movie’s world. She’s a normal woman with a dead end job, friends who have more fun than her, and a pet lizard. In short, an average, unremarkable person except for all of quirks that make her unique… Then a cyborg from the future shows up to try to kill her. Yeah, you’d be confused too. Fortunately the other guy who came through time is both there to rescue her and explain what the hell’s going on. She is going to be the mother of John Connor, a man who’s going to save humanity from the machines when a computer system called SkyNet decides to Kill All Humans.

Kyle Reese: Michael Biehn is the human soldier sent through time by John Connor to protect Sarah Connor and also to conceive John Connor in 1984 so that adult John Connor can send Kyle Reese back in time to-- See, this is why Time Travel is a pain in the ass. Reese is actually a pretty likable hero and gets some great badass moments.

Lieutenant Ed Traxler and Detective Hal Vukovich: Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen are two cops trying to piece together what’s going on when a man shows up and starts killing women named “Sarah Connor” alphabetically according to their placement in the phone book. They get some fun scenes, but, well, the Terminator absolutely destroys a police station to get at Sarah, so don’t get too attached to them.

Dr. Peter Silberman: Earl Boen (who’s done a bajillion things in voice over work, including the undead pirate LeChuck from the awesome Monkey Island games) plays a psychologist who’s brought in by the police to analyze Reese. The obvious conclusion is that he’s nuttier than a bag of cashews, and Silberman has some fun scenes where he’s both amused by Reese’s shouting and implacably skeptical.

The T-800 Terminator: Arnold Schwarzenegger in a badass movie role. Who’dathunk? Anyway, he’s a cyborg sent by SkyNet to terminate Sarah Connor, and he’s basically perfect for it. Cold, implacable, stern-faced, emotionless and thoroughly imposing, he’s also very good at really making himself behave mechanically. Then, there’s the battle damage that the Terminator goes through, which just makes him even more monstrous as bits of flesh get taken off here and there. And then we finally get the flesh completely taken off and are left with a glorious Stan Winston creation that is just plain iconic. Yeah, you don’t want to mess with a Terminator.

James Cameron is a fantastic director. The movie, while in a lot of places (like the shootout in the nightclub) it is extraordinarily 80s in its visuals, also has a lasting quality too. Action scenes are beautifully arranged, especially the car chases and there’s just this unrelenting undercurrent of dread and inevitability as the Terminator just won’t stop. You knock him off a building, fill him with bullets, throw him into an explosion. That just buys you breathing room. The atmosphere is fantastic, and then it throws a fourth act into the mix which I’m sure floored audiences back then since, well, we finally have the endoskeleton revealed and an even more apocalyptic showdown inside a factory. Outstanding visuals combined with stunning practical effects from Stan Winston’s team.

James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd wrote the script (with William Wisher) based on ideas by temperamental Sci-Fi legend Harlan Ellison. The plot is heavy, grim and thick. In the 90s, SkyNet, a computer so sophisticated it becomes sentient, decides to nuke humanity to protect itself in an event called Judgment Day and its only in 2029 that humanity is able to win the war on the machines, but in a last ditch gambit, SkyNet sends an agent back in time to prevent John Connor from ever existing. Its all staple sci-fi stuff, but it really works in the context of the movie. And the plot, while crucial to the events going on, never gets too ponderous or confusing in those ways that time travel can be. Unrelenting in its grim portrait of the future, its also quite hopeful because it stresses that “there is no future but what we make.”

The score by Brad Fiedel uses a very computer based sound. Lots of synthesizers and drum beats, and it complements the movie perfectly. The Terminator theme is just outstanding at setting the mood over the opening titles, promising relentless action.

The Terminator is a fantastic monster movie disguised as a solid action thriller with a coat of sci-fi paint. The Terminator itself is just plain awesome and the plot is wonderfully coherent. Totally recommended.