I Am the Law (Dredd, 2012)

Dredd_PosterWhen a new Judge Dredd film was announced, there was no real fanfare.  What people did not realize is that the film was being written outside of the Hollywood scene.  Alex Garland (writer of 28 Days Later and writer/director of Ex Machina)…Garland is a fan of 2000AD and Judge Dredd.

Keeping the story very simple, Judge Dredd is taking a trainee with him, a hopeful Judge named Anderson.  She has some limited psychic ability.  Dredd is tasked with evaluating her.  When three skinned bodies fall from the sky, Judges Dredd and Anderson arrive at a 200 story building that is pretty much a city unto itself.  Dredd and Anderson capture a drug dealer who works for notorious gangster Ma-Ma.  To prevent him from being taken out, Ma-Ma has the building in lockdown and then announces to the entire complex that she wants the two judges killed.

This simple setup makes for a very effective story of survival.  Our leads must work their way to Ma-Ma to bring an end to their situation.  They are cut off from the outside world and must rely on their skills and wit.

The look of the city is grimy and lived in.  Full of pollution and decay, the sets of the film are effective.  The effects, specifically the sequences depicting the effects of the drug Slo-Mo (it makes the user feel that time has slowed down) are very well thought out.  The viewer sees everything in slow motion, with a shimmering effect.

Garland understands what makes Dredd work.  Keeping the story simple is such a benefit here.  There are no over the top conspiracies.  Karl Urban never shows his face without the helmet in this film.  And he wears a permanent scowl.  Never does Dredd break down.  Even when he seems to be relenting on his firm stances, it is in a fashion that he is in line with his attitude throughout the film.  Urban really embraced the character and does Judge Dredd real justice here.  Anderson is very sympathetic as a rookie and owns up to her mistakes.  At one point, she knows she has failed the evaluation but refuses to back down from the challenge of Ma-Ma and her gang. And Ma-Ma?  This is no glamor role for Lena Headey (Game of Thrones).  She is a drug addict and psychopath…cruel and vicious with scars to show for it.

Dredd has gained a cult following over the past five years, with people hoping for a sequel.  A few years ago an April fools announcement declared Netflix was doing a Dredd series with Karl Urban and Thirlby returning.  Fans were bitterly disappointed it was untrue.  But every so often, we get word of the filmmakers trying to press ahead.  And Urban has welcomed the possibility of returning to the role.  Most recently, there is the word that a series may be on the way after all, possibly with Urban back as Dredd.

Dredd is a very effective cop survival story, gritty and violent with strong performances.  The creators get the characters and manage to remain true to what made the character work in comics, without being alienating to those unfamiliar with the source material.

Rob Schneider in the Apocalypse (Judge Dredd, 1995)

Somebody looked at Sylvester Stallone’s chin and declared him perfect for the role of iconic British comic book character Judge Dredd.  And they were not wrong:

(I know I already showed this…but it seems relevant for the review)

Judge_dredd_movie_poster_1995Anyhow, looking for a story, the filmmakers thought the best approach was to tell it through the eyes of SNL alum Rob Schneider.  He is an ex-convict returning home who gets caught in the crossfire between thugs and Judges.  A little background here.  After a nuclear event society is rebuilt in heavily concentrated cities.  In these cities are massive buildings, communities unto themselves. They are known as Megacities.  Outside of the sprawling cities is a desert wasteland populated by outlaws and mutants called the Scorched Earth.  The Society has combined Police Officers with Judges.  You do not go to court, a Judge simply tells you your sentence and that is that.

The most famous Judge is Judge Dredd.  Dredd has no tolerance for lawbreakers.  The comic is a satirical look at fascist societies (the Eagle emblem is not a coincidence, it is meant to acknowledge both America’s national bird as well as the use of the bird as a symbol by fascist societies).  Of course, fans also like the ultraviolence, making Judge Dredd’s popularity complex.  As Neil Gaiman notes, the comic is one of the rare instances where you have something that is both the very thing being commented on and the commentary itself.

While attempting to hide in a robot to avoid death by gang members or a Judge, Fergie (Schneider) is caught and sentenced for tampering with the robot.  In the meantime, Judge Dredd is framed for murdering a critic of the Judges.  He is sent to the Scorched Earth, where he runs into Fergie.  They return to stop a conspiracy to destroy the Judges and establish a new regime.

Judge Dredd is not very good in its story.  It tries to give some emotional depth to Dredd that ends up feeling odd.  Family angst is not something that drives the character and is an unnecessary addition.  The film also tries to hint at a romantic tension between Dredd and Judge Hershey (Diane Lane) who plays the role of the angel on Dredd’s soldier, pressuring him to be less harsh.

There are some notable things about the film.  The costumes look great.  They feel like they are ripped from the pages of 2000AD.  The sets are also like the strip come to life.  The cities and the Megacity blocks are appropriately broken down and seedy looking and the Scorched Earth barren and unforgiving.  Visually, the film is pretty impressive looking.  There are some nice nods to other 2000AD characters (most notably the use of the ABC Warriors robots).  Mean Angel (a cyborg and member of a cannibal outlaw family) stands out.

The cast includes Max Von Sydow, Diane Lane, and Armand Assante.  Most of these choices are good choices.  Rob Schneider is there as comedic relief, but it is not very organic in the story.  There is one amusing moment where Schneider looks over to Dredd on the prison transport and tries to figure out why he recognizes him…Schneider uses his hand to cover the top of Dredd’s head and recognizes him based on the chin.

No, where the film fails is not in its look.  It’s the story.  Trying to create an origin for Judge Dredd makes all sort of unnecessary explorations of his character.  Dredd does not question the Law.  The Law is his life.  You can have Judge Dredd question the application of the Law, but the character loses meaning if he questions the Law itself.

The biggest issue here is that ultimately, they did not hire Sylvester Stallone to bring Judge Dredd to life.  They hired him to be a stock Stallone Action Hero.  And Stallone delivers his lines as such.  It is not that Dredd does not make jokes…but he does not deliver them as one-liners.  He should always sound deathly serious.  Also? Dredd does not smile.  And most importantly…remember that gag I mentioned with Schneider recognizing Dredd?  That scene should simply not happen.  Judge Dredd is never seen in comics without his helmet.  Never.  I mean NEVER.  And yet, in this film?  He is seen far more without the helmet than in it.  This is because it is a star vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, rather than Stalone making a character live on screen.

Judge Dredd pretty much killed other 2000AD film deals, and frankly, it is obvious why.  The film fails in all the areas where it needs to succeed.  Character and Story.

The Art of Rebellion (Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD, 2014)

future_shock_bdFor Americans, the character they probably most recognized from the British comic book series 2000AD is Judge Dredd.  But 2000AD actually had a whole host of characters spawned from its weekly pages.  Almost all of them every bit as violent and over the top as Dredd.  There was Rogue Trooper, the ABC Warriors, Nemesis the Warlock, Bad Company, the Ballad of Halo Jones, D.R. & Quinch and Zenith to name a few.

Back in 1988 or so, I went to Northern Ireland as part of a church mission trip.  I came upon a comic shop there and discovered 2000AD…I came home from the trip with several progs (the term for an issue of 2000AD) and a few books collecting specific characters.  I fell in love with the world of 2000AD…the writers and the artists provided inspiration to my artistic side.

Future Shock! is an entertaining journey through the creation of the comic in 1977 to present day.  Interviews with its staff and creators explore the controversies and successes.  There are may familiar faces for comic book fans (As American companies, especially DC’s Vertigo imprint, poached a lot of their stars).  Included in the film is commentary from Neil Gaiman, Brian Bolland, Alan Grant and Carlos Ezquerra (the creators of Judge Dredd) and more.  One of the stories discussed is the unfinished the Ballad of Halo Jones.  Written by Alan Moore (with gorgeous art by Ian Gibson), it is a story that verged on being epic.  But Moore was frustrated by his treatment by the magazine and walked away, leaving it unfinished.  Both Leah Moore (daughter of Alan and a writer in her own right) and Neil Gaiman lament that it was never finished.  Moore states she wishes she could have convinced her father to return and finish the tale.

The film explores failures as well, for instance, their ill-fated movie plans.  The only result is the heavily maligned Judge Dredd starring Sylvester Stallone.  It is maligned for good reason, of course.  I do disagree with the idea that choosing Stallone was a bad idea from the start…I mean…LOOK:


But more on the Stallone film at a later date.  There is a pretty rich history behind 2000AD, and it is pretty well covered by this documentary.  Both fun and educational, it makes for an enjoyable watch.  This includes the titles and the transitions with animated art from 2000AD to great effect.  It makes the film feel like it is moving quickly, as well as allow you to appreciate the rich history of artwork.

Bob vs Bill (Batman and Bill, 2017)

Everybody knows Batman.  And most people know who Bob Kane is.  He is the creator of Batman.  Every Batman comic book tells you this.  Right there in print.  “Batman Created by Bob Kane”.  Bob vehemently defended this idea that Batman was his creation and only his.  But why?  Why would he need to defend this notion?

The documentary Batman and Bill tells you exactly why.  In the comic book world, it was long known that Kane had the name “Bat-Man”, but his original design was a guy with a red suit.  He consulted friend and writer Bill Finger who contributed pretty everything we know to be Batman.  Kane then took the idea to the publishers and presented it as solely his idea.  He got a contract that established this.  He promised he would share success with Finger in spite of this.

Bob Kane never did.  In fact, it was long after Finger had died, and shortly before his own death that Kane changed his story and admitted Finger deserved a lot of the credit.  But that is not the whole story, as author Marc Tyler Nobleman took it upon himself to try and find any heirs of Bill Finger.  The path is full of surprises and heartbreak.

This is a tragic story of a creator who was not given the respect that should have been due to him.  Through archival footage, we hear from both Finger and Kane.  The story is expanded on through interviews with comic book pros familiar with the history behind it all.  Directors  Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce present everything as an unfolding mystery, befitting the famous cowled detective himself.  You are drawn into it by what starts as a frustrating professional injustice that evolves into a heartbreaking story of familial loss.

The first time anyone has credited Finger for Batman was 2015’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.  21 years after he died alone in his apartment.

It’s All About Image (The Image Revolution, 2016)

“We broke Batman’s back.  We killed Superman.” – Rob Liefeld

Image_Revolution_PosterThe 90’s were an amazing time for comic books.  It was the highlight of the speculator market, it was all about foil covers, and pouches.  Characters with hundreds of pouches.  In the early 90’s Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee were the top names.  They each set records for the sales of X-Men and Spider-Man books.

Comics have a pretty sordid history when it comes to the treatment of their talent.  Jack Kirby, the King of Comics, died pretty much at his desk to pay bills.  He saw no compensation for co-creating characters like the Hulk and Fantastic Four.

The Image Revolution looks back on the moment a group of artists decided they had had enough.  The mega-popular McFarlane was frustrated that Marvel was licensing products with his art…and he was not even getting a t-shirt out of it.  McFarlane and Liefeld started recruiting the top Marvel Artists who all  walked away from Marvel and DC to form Image Comics…a company where the creator ruled and owned their characters.

The documentary explores the highs and lows the group faced.  They had very high highs, especially in proving their critics (who gave them six months at best) wrong.  They broke sales records, found new talent, brought in other big names who wanted to do creator owned work.  And then there were the lows, mostly ego and in-fighting…especially between Liefeld and Marc Silvestri.

It moves at a rapid pace, covering the twenty five year history.  There are plenty of interesting and amusing anecdotes (how Robert Kirkman got Image to green light the Walking Dead comic book is quite funny).  For comic fans, or people curious about the industry, the Image Revolution is a fun and informative watch about one of the biggest shakeups the industry has ever seen.

The Not So Fantastic Four (Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, 2016)

doomed_posterYou may think that there have been three Fantastic Four films.  There were the two Tim Story film with Jessica Alba and Chris Evans…and the 2015 film with Miles Teller and Kate Mara.  But there are tales of a first film, never seen by the world.  Spoke in hushed tones.  Okay, not really.  There actually was a first movie made back in 1994.  It was completed and even had release material.  Outside of bootleg copies, the film has never seen the light of day.

The short version is that in the early 90’s, Marvel Comics was in real dire straights (they went into bankruptcy)…this resulted in them selling the film rights to multiple characters, such as Captain America, the Punisher and the Fantastic Four.  The producer with the option for the Fantastic Four shopped the option around, finalizing a deal with the king of low budget film Roger Corman.  The catch? Unknown to the cast and crew,  This producer simply wanted to keep the rights.  He had no plan to release the film.

But there is more to the story, and really?  It is quite interesting.  Doomed! The Untold Tale of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four delves deeply into the story, giving the viewer insight into exactly how it all played out.  With a cast of actors that were at least semi-recognizable at the time (and many who are still working today) such as Jay Underwood and Alex Hyde-White.

What stands out is that the director, cast and crew were dedicated to making a good movie…though one hindered by a tiny budget.  The effects were limited and the story was not very strong…they never did ADR to make Joseph Culp’s Doctor Doom understandable.  They hired a guy who claimed he was an effects supervisor on Independence Day…and they discovered…he was not.

The people behind the film were passionate, and it become clear that even Corman thought the film was going to be released.  He was creating posters, button and trailers (I have a poster in storage somewhere, as well as a couple of the buttons).  The people involved clearly wanted (and still want) the film to be seen.  And there is a lot of hurt feelings involved, including some understandable bitterness towards Marvel Icon Stan Lee.

The film is a fascinating exploration of the passion that can go into film-making and when those hopes and big dreams get dashed.  Even if you do not care about the Fantastic Four, this tale is epic and engaging.  It is an effective documentary that can give you insight into the more heartbreaking side of film-making.

The Hunter or the Hunted? Pt 11 (Alien vs Predator: Requiem, 2007)

AVP_Requiem_PosterWhile critics and plenty of fans pummeled the first film, it was more than successful enough to get a sequel greenlit.  Directed by the Brothers Strause (that is what they direct under), Requiem is a real mess in more ways than one.

The cast is immense, so you start figuring out who will die sooner than later based on how much attention they get.  The film picks up right after the first film, with a xenomorph bursting from the body of a predator.  It has the predator mouth and dreadlocks., so it gets nicknamed the Predalien.  It rapidly makes trouble for the Predator ship crew and their ship crashes in a forest.

The predator and a couple face-huggers escape, a new Predator comes to earth after getting an emergency alert from the crashed ship.  Soon the town is besieged by Aliens.

It is all pretty much what you would expect, unfortunately there is little to set it apart.  Oh, the “Predalien” looks big and aggressive, and instead of laying eggs, the Predalien shoves it’s secondary mouth in your throat and feeds live larva into your stomach.  It gets pretty gross when the Predalien takes over a hospital and assaults multiple pregnant women.  The vast majority of characters are there to be alien fodder.

Time has no meaning in the film…the Predator make it from his planet to Earth in a couple hours, aliens grow to full size in a couple hours…as usual, the practical effects are the high point and the digital a bit dodgy.  This film also messes with the timeline, at least the first film ends in a way you could argue humanity is not aware of the Xenomorphs.  That is wholly implausible in this film.  I can understand why Scott blew this crossover off for Prometheus.

The Hunter or the Hunted? Part 10 (Alien vs Predator, 2004)

AVP_PosterThe Predator films went quiet after the second film, and Alien films were stalled by Resurrection seven years earlier.  In that time, there had been a series of successful Alien and Predator comics by publisher Dark Horse Comics.  In 1990, Dark Horse brought the franchises together, which was one of those crossovers that you never knew you wanted until you were given it.  The Alien vs. Predator comics were very popular and fueled desires of a crossover movie from the fans of the franchises.  There were attempts to bring this to life, but it seems nobody could settle on a story idea.

After the first Resident Evil was somewhat successful in it’s box office, Director Paul WS Anderson was brought in to guide the film to fruition.  Rather than adapt the comics, they came up with an entirely new story (though they did adopt a few ideas from the comics).  Set in 2004, a Weyland (eventually becoming Weyland Yutani, the company from the Alien films) satellite discovers a unique structure buried below arctic ice.  The company assembles a team of historians, geologists, survivalists and so on to investigate (and lay claim to the discovery).  Lance Henrickson returns to the Alien franchise as Charles Bishop Weyland…the human on which his character from Aliens was based.

They discover a pyramid that seems to be a combination of structures from around the globe.  The film suggests this pyramid was part of the cradle of civilization and people worshiped the Predators as gods. Ridley Scott borrowed this notion for Prometheus (but it was language and cave art).  The humans are unaware of the arrival of the Predators, and inadvertently activate the dormant temple.  An alien queen is revived and starts pumping out eggs.  A bunch of nameless characters are attacked and birth aliens while the Predators discover they are not alone.  There is the standard misunderstanding where the people are hunted by both Predator and Alien, but eventually the last human and Predator team up.

The visual effects (especially the practical effects) are quite good, though Anderson relies to heavily on the “Transition Through Hologram” set up, which he used in Resident Evil.  Considering how large the cast is, very few characters are well defined, resulting in the majority of characters simply being monster fodder.

This is the first film set in the present for the Alien films.  The Predator films were always in the present, so the idea that people are running into Predators is not much of an issue.  For the Aliens, the idea that they are already on earth seems pretty problematic.  The film tries to resolve this and as a one off film, this would probably be sufficient…but then they made a second film…

The Hunter or the Hunted? Pt 9 (Predators, 2010)

PRED_B-ALT_Eng1sht (Page 1)After the second film, the Predator series went dormant.  The alien hunters only saw the screen in the “team up” Alien vs Predator films.  It was not until about 2009 Predator was announced as getting it’s own new film.  It was spearheaded by Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, From Dusk Til Dawn, Sin City) and was referred to often as a reboot.  The problem with the tendency to treat every film as a remake or reboot is that it is not always clear what a particular entry is.  These days, people tend to refer to a new film in a franchise as a reboot, even when it is in continuity.  Admittedly, it is a little unclear here.  Nothing discounts the previous two films, but they are not really acknowledge in reference (# 2 made reference to the first film).

It does however feature the original Predator design along with a much bigger and more aggressive version.

Anyways, whether this is a new start or simply a new installment is not that important.  What we have is a group of people who find themselves falling from the sky.  They apparently had not planned this themselves.  As things unfold, we find that the most common trait the group has is they are mercenaries, soldiers, mob enforcers and so on.  There is one odd man out named Edwin who is a doctor.  He seems meek (but very smart).  He is played by Topher Grace, so, you know something is up with him.  Adrien Brody plays mercenary Royce.  Royce takes on the role of defacto leader, convincing everyone they need to work together.

After encounters with strange animals, they start to try and find safety, only to realize they are not on earth.  Unlike the previous films, the people being hunted have been dropped onto a planet that functions as a big game hunting preserve.

This does make for an interesting idea, though it is basically a jungle like the first film.  The new Predator design is good, building off the previous design in a way that is sleeker and more threatening.  While the film strives to have lots of surprises, in the end, there is not much new here.  The humans are picked off by the predators in violent and bloody fights.  But it is pretty straight forward action, and pretty predictable.  Frankly, it feels like the franchise may have hit a wall, and truthfully, I don’t know that people will care all that much about it.  The second two films are not strong enough to pretend this is a trilogy.  It is just a decent action film followed by two okay sequels.

The Hunter or the Hunted? Pt 8 (Predator 2, 1990)

Predator_2_posterDirected by Stephen Hopkins (Lost In Space, Nightmare on Elm Street 5 and Race), Predator 2 is an attempt at being very different.  Instead of a jungle, we are in “the Concrete Jungle”.  Instead of a heavily muscled soldier, we have have a team of police.  The film tries to be different by being very opposite.  There are vicious gang wars that are tearing up the street.  Captain Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) and his team are the cops on the front line.  They start to find dead and mutilated gang members.  Soon the cops find themselves as much targets as the gang members.

This sort of works well, and the film acknowledges the first film with Gary Busey as head of a task force trying to capture the Predator explaining it all to Harrigan.  The film also establishes what draws a Predator to a location.  Extremely hot weather in volatile areas.  It also expands the previous film’s rule that Predators do not hunt and kill the unarmed to not killing pregnant women (even if they are armed).

Predator 2 is competently made, but Hopkins is not as strong as McTiernan.  It has it’s charms (such as a very late 80’s action cast including Bill Paxton, Maria Conchito Alonzo, Robert Davi and Ruben Blades) but does not rise to the entertaining levels of it’s predecessor.

There is a throw away moment towards the end where Glover’s Harrigan is on the Predator ship and looking at the trophies on a wall…one is clearly a xenomorph skull from the Alien films.  Although just a “wouldn’t this be fun” gag, it set fire in the imaginations of fan who soon wanted a crossover between the franchise.  For a long time, this only occurred in the comics.  It took fourteen years (seven from Alien Resurrection) to get to the Alien vs Predator films.

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