Saturday, September 28, 2013

Instant Action : Sudden Death (1995)

The Blackhawks were clearly on their way to losing that game...

Screenplay By: Gene Quintano
Directed By: Peter Hyams

There are obvious problems with this Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle. But, you know what, those obvious problems take an easy backseat to the elements of the film that work. I'm writing specifically of the action set pieces in the film. Sudden Death is a very well made action film, and that makes up for its deficiencies in other areas. Outside of Powers Boothe the acting is pretty bad, and the story is ridiculously cheesy. There's a moment when a character ends up playing goalie and the movie almost grinds to a halt because of the stupidity of that moment. Sudden Death does a lot of stupid things, but every time it does something stupid it follows up said stupidity with a well placed, and well done, action set piece.

I'll admit to not being the biggest fan of Meneer Van Damme. I enjoyed Kickboxer and Bloodsport, and I loved the heck out of the terribleness that is Street Fighter. Outside of those films I usually tuned out of his action films quite easily. 2008's JCVD was a recent exception, but even that wasn't enough to want to make me go back and check out more of Meneer Van Damme's work. I'm glad that I decided to watch Sudden Death because it allowed me to gain a new level of appreciation for the Muscles from Brussels. He doesn't do anything that incredible in Sudden Death, but I'll be damned if his heart isn't in the proceedings. He sells the action really well, and he even tries like heck to sell the moments of cornball earnestness. I'm still not a member of the Jean-Claude Van Damme fan club, but his performance in Sudden Death reminded me that he can be a damn fine action star.

The draw of Sudden Death is simple, the action. When it comes to action Sudden Death is a highly technically proficient film. The best example of this is the gloriously over the top Penguins mascot battle. Peter Hyams doesn't draw back when the hero of his films starts trading blows with a woman in a penguin costume. Instead he moves in closer and revels in the zaniness of the action. I appreciated the way Mr. Hyams went about filming the action in Sudden Death. I had a huge grin on my face during the penguin fight, due as much to the inventiveness of the action as to the idea of a person in a penguin suit throwing down with the lead of the film I was watching.

It's obvious that Sudden Death is a Die Hard knockoff. As far as such knockoffs go Sudden Death is one of the better entries. It's by no means a terrible film, although certain aspects of Sudden Death do qualify as terrible. Sudden Death is a well made action film that knows where its strengths reside and puts most of its pieces in place to play up to said strength. There's a lot of fun to be had with Sudden Death, and that's why when I finished watching Sudden Death I was one happy camper.



Bill Thompson

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Episode #254: Prisoners Round Table

Welcome to another episode of the GGtMC! This week's episode finds the man that puts the Am in the Can-Am Connection laid out with an illness, but in true gentlemanly fashion, 5 fellow gents (and a very special dame) step in to round the show into form. We discuss Denis Villeneuve's much buzzed about Hollywood debut, Prisoners.

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Direct download: ggtmc_254.mp3

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Warlords Of Atlantis (1978)

Why is it that ship’s captains are almost always portrayed as grizzled?  Okay, that’s not quite fair.  Many are depicted as being very clean-cut and rule-conscious, but they’re usually captains of a cruise liner that’s about to hit a tidal wave or in the military.  Whenever a captain owns their own vessel or if that vessel is a working craft (freighters and such), they are always scruffy and look like they stink worse than their cargo.  They weren’t always this way (oh, sure, there were always slovenly seamen, but they couldn’t be trusted, regardless).  In King Kong (1933), Captain Englehorn was a very strait-laced yet agreeable fellow.  The same goes for Commander Carl Nelson (a military man) in King Kong Escapes (1967) and Captain Ross in the 1976 Kong remake.  Yet in Peter Jackson’s 2005 version of the story, Englehorn, while still a principled man, is now much more of a hands-on, working sailor (note his rumpled clothing and five o’clock shadow).  

I think the gruff stereotype for sailors was cemented in the public conscience with Robert Shaw’s portrayal of Quint in 1975’s Jaws.  Like the proverbial hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, Quint was colorful (just ask Chief Brody) and cantankerous, yet somehow also sincere and magnetic.  Henceforth, we don’t think of crisply-dressed men in starched uniforms when we think of captains.  No, we think of a person like Phil Harris from Deadliest Catch.  I’m not impugning that man’s character, but he fits the bill for the mental image of a modern sea captain handily, you must agree.  But you don’t have to.

The Texas Rose, a fairly nice-sized ship, approaches the Bermuda Triangle.  Aboard are her small crew, captained by Captain Daniels (Shane Rimmer), and the Aitken Expedition, led by Professor Aitken (Donald Bisset) and his son Charles (Peter Gilmore).  They are accompanied by engineer and all-around he-man Greg (Doug McClure) who  designed and built the new, open-bottomed diving bell that they will use on their deep sea exploration.  Greg and Charles descend into the abyss and come upon a large gold statue (and a dinosaur) which they haul back to the surface (the statue, not the dinosaur).  But before the crew can mount a full-on mutiny for the filthy lucre, a giant octopus rises from the briny deep and snatches the ship’s crew up, whisking them away to the fabled nation of Atlantis.  But will they be met with open arms or closed fists?  Or neither?

After finding some success with the trifecta of films inspired by/adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs (The Land That Time Forgot, At The Earth’s Core, and The People That Time Forgot), director Kevin Connor and lucky charm star McClure made Warlords Of Atlantis (aka Warlords Of The Deep).  However, unlike the former three films, this one had no attachment to the influential pulp author Burroughs, and by all indications, its script was original.  Seeing as how all four films essentially share the same basic plot, though, “original” is actually a very subjective term.  Still, Connor and company learned a thing or two from their previous outings, and certainly knew how to throw together a pulp-y adventure film.  When the film succeeds, it is highly enjoyable, but when it doesn’t, it really isn’t.  Large sections of this film are loaded with inactivity and go nowhere, and it’s these sequences (which feel more like padding than anything else) which prevent this (and, admittedly, the other aforementioned films) from being a favorite, at least from a story perspective.  The action sequences almost make up for the inaction sequences, but it truly is an uphill battle to regain an audience’s attention once it has been lost.

Like so very many films focusing on the lost continent, this one deals with Atlantis as a mystical, spiritual place (as was the popular take of the time).  The mind is more important than the body in Atlantis.  In the fifth city (of seven), where the elite Atlanteans carouse, the surroundings are immaculate, and most of the architecture is pyramidal, playing on not only the notion of pyramids as structures of power but also on the concept that the ancient Atlanteans were instrumental in helping shape the course of civilization on Earth.  This provides a link to Egypt, considered by many to be the “Cradle Of Civilization,” and we all know what we think of when we think of Egypt:  Mummies.  Okay, and pyramids.  

The other cities are closer in look and function to decrepit castles and fiefdoms.  Here is where the workers (read: slaves) toil their lives away, because of course, you may be able to construct a sewage system for your society with the power of your mind, but you’d most likely rather leave the job to menial laborers, being a not very glamorous undertaking.  The slaves are kept in line by hulking warriors, and importantly, we never see any of their faces.  They wear reflective helmets with smooth, curved surfaces.  They are Atlantean only in point of origin (and the implication is that they are created rather than birthed), because they are not true citizens but dogs serving their masters.  They have no faces, because they have no identity.  They are a pack of fighters and fodder, period.

This plays into the titular Warlords of the film.  These elite want to control the path of man’s destiny, and they mean to do so by creating ever-more destructive weaponry (they claim to want “neutron power”).  However, if past actions are any indications, the only thing they truly want is domination, and they’re not above employing violence to achieve it.  There is a rather on-the-nose line drawn between the Atlanteans and the Nazis in the film, but it’s an intriguing idea all the same.  They want to rule the world, and they certainly have the ability to do so.  So, my question is, why don’t they?  They say that they need Charles’s intellect to help them along, but considering what they’ve achieved, is this one man’s mind truly going to help them over hurdles they apparently surmounted eons prior?  And here’s another beef I have with the film:  It’s very idea-oriented, and many of the ideas proffered are fascinating (at least in a drunken brainstorming sort of way).  Sadly, they’re also left hanging out in the wind so that the filmmakers could finish up their plot, which is simply a set of arbitrary motions.  There is no real resolution, and the film doesn’t have a true ending; it just sort of stops.  Whether this was done to leave the door open for future films, I cannot say (and I would suggest that this movies’ spiritual successor is Ruggero Deodato’s Raiders Of Atlantis).  What I can say is that by being so open-ended with just about every aspect of this film, it effectively leaves the viewer with nothing to do but sigh rather than cheer.

MVT:  The sense of wonder and adventure in the film is infectious, and it is this which does the heavy lifting of the picture.  That it is left without solid footing to support it, is lamentable.

Make Or Break:  The giant octopus attack scenes make this film.  The practical effects (many of which appear to be full-sized, and if they weren’t are even more impressive to me) will make Monster Kids the world over happy.  The other creatures in the movie are equally delightful, and the often-wonky puppetry is charming as all hell.  

Score:  6.5/10

Friday, September 20, 2013

Episode #253: Devil Take This Train to the Taebaek Mountains

Welcome to another wonderful episode of the GGtMC!!!

THis week, Large William and Sammy are joined by one half of the cineAWESOME team for coverage of Devil Take This Train to Hell (1977) directed by Park No-Shik and Taebaek Mountains (1994) directed by Im Kwon-Taek. Rufus is our main man when it comes to Korean cinema and he brought the thunder with his choices. We want to thank Rufus for coming on the show and please check out the cineAWESOME podcast!!!

Direct download: ggtmc_253.mp3

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The League Of Gentlemen (1960)

Okay, guys, it’s cards on the table time.  I have been to a lot of gentlemen’s clubs.  I mean a lot.  I have probably spent more money in these sorts of places than I have on my education and wardrobe combined (and if you’ve ever met me, you would find this extremely easy to believe, I guarantee it).  The way these places are typically portrayed on film is slightly exaggerated, though.  They’re usually depicted as dens of inequity, where there are no boundaries, and any woman’s body can be bought, in total, if the price is right.  Not true.  Oh, I’m sure there are places like that out there (though they invite the nomenclature “brothel” rather than “strip club” or “gentlemen’s club”).  I haven’t been in them (or if I have, I never witnessed anything along the lines of illegality).  Yes, really.

The strippers I’ve met were generally nice women simply looking to make a living in a way they are both adept at and out of which they derive some small amount of pleasure (or at least don't entirely loathe).  And even if you did get friskier than you should (and no, I did not, thank you very much), there are ample muscle-bound bouncers around to put you (and the ladies) in check.  I haven’t been in one of these clubs in a long while, but the last time I was in one, the experience was different.  The atmosphere of fun there used to be fun was all but gone (or at the absolute minimum, vastly changed).  I can only assume this is me getting old, finding places and people I used to enjoy have become shrug-worthy rather than exciting.  Perhaps it’s because these places, which used to be avoided by most, have become not only culturally accepted, but just plain cool to visit (remember what Groucho Marx said about clubs and memberships?).  And this is why I come down in the middle if I were to be asked whether I would to like hang out in a gentlemen’s club or with Basil Dearden’s The League Of Gentlemen.  Sadly, either would reach about the same level of fun from my current outlook.      

Seven men, at various low points in their lives, receive a copy of John Seaton’s The Golden Fleece with one half of a five-pound note in each.  Heeding the call, they meet with one Mr. Hyde (Jack Hawkins) for a luncheon.  The enigmatic man reveals that they are all ex-military, and, like the characters in the novel he sent them (which, by all accounts [and like its writer], is a fiction invented by either the filmmakers or John Boland, the [real] author of the [real] novel on which this film is based), he would like to plan and execute a daring, daytime robbery with their support. 

Primarily, this is more of an Assemble The Team film than it is a Heist film.  The majority of the runtime deals with prepping for the heist and how the men come together to do just that.  The reason for this, to my thinking, is because of the nature of these men.  Being ex-military, these men know about following orders and about the need for efficiency in such an undertaking.  This supersedes the differences over which the men would likely have conflicts.  For example, Stevens (Kieron Moore) is a homosexual, and he winds up rooming with the most heterosexual of the group, Lexy (Sir Richard Attenborough).  However, after a brief offhand remark about keeping the lights on at night, the situation is dropped, and the men get along like a house on fire.  And that’s part of the problem.  The men have very little to overcome in order to become a team, and their pasts do not intrude much to cause complications.  Thus, we are left with a film where the only tension comes in the form of the work the men take on, rather than from issues they have with each other.  This would be all well and good, were more of the film focused on the job, but much of it is following the men around as they cheerfully perform their duties like clockwork (accompanied by an anthemic, march-style score from Philip Green).  It makes for a bit of dry viewing, though it needs to be said that there are also several genuinely funny moments (one of the best being a breezy comment in regards to the status of Hyde’s wife), and stylistically the film’s camerawork and editing performs with the military precision of its characters.  So, in that respect it clicks.

Each of the men has a reason why he is taking on this job.  Porthill (Bryan Forbes) wants the money to escape the life of being a low-rent gigolo.  Rutland-Smith (Terence Alexander) wants the money to escape an emasculating wife.  Lexy wants the money to buy into a lifestyle (and especially the women that come with it) which has eluded him.  As I stated above, however, these issues take a back seat once the training begins.  The reason for this is because it is not the money that these men truly crave.  It is the military lifestyle they used to share which each needs to fill the hole in his life.  All of them were drummed out of the military for one reason or another (and it’s not as if these discharges were unwarranted; one of them even got soldiers killed due to his alcoholism and gross negligence).  But the prepping and execution of the heist allows them to get back into and essentially complete a portion of their lives which had been cut short.  This is exemplified in the scene where the team pays a visit to a military training camp.  The men slide easily back into their military roles, and there is a facile confidence exuding from each of them which was not there when we first met them.  They may need the money, but they want to be military men again (or at least regain those aspects which gave their lives structure).  It’s a primal drive that fulfills their souls, not their wallets.   Without this they would be common criminals but with it, they are brothers-in-arms.

MVT:  The heist is not handled as if it is the most important element of the film, what with each portion of it being carried off with very little kerfuffle to it.  However, it looks exceptional, and the smoke-choked streets, combined with the team scurrying around with gas masks and machineguns, is reminiscent of the classic images we have in our cultural consciousness of scenes of trench warfare from World War Two.  These striking visuals carry the audience over the more pedantic aspects of the picture (though it can certainly be argued that meticulousness is one of the main, if not THE main, draw of a Heist film). 

Make Or Break:  The first meeting of The League is a classic of exposition and whetting the appetite.  We get more background information on the characters, while also raising some new questions about them and their motivations.  Further, the scene solidifies the plot, handily, and it does it in a visually interesting fashion (no small feat, since it all takes place in one room; not quite Twelve Angry Men, but still…).

Score:  7.25/10

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Instant Action: Dredd (2012)

I'm not the law, I'm the guy who winds up dead because he's too busy patching up other people!

Screenplay By: Alex Garland
Directed By: Pete Travis

Olivia Thirlby, the character of Anderson, is not the person I expected to open up my review of Dredd with. To say that I was surprised by the way her character was presented would be an understatement. She has a great arc, one that could easily slip under the radar of many a viewer if they weren't paying attention. She begins as the typical rookie, and at some point slips into the role of the helpless woman. Dredd isn't your typical damsel in distress action film, and the way that Anderson responds to being in jeopardy proves as such. Miss Thirlby provides just the right amount of emotion at every stretch of the film. Her emotions and her character arc are very important to the larger picture in Dredd. She is the humanity in the film, and it's important that when she is pushed against a wall she responds. And respond Anderson does, transforming from the damsel in distress into a damn fine ass kicker. The character of Anderson is the most obvious example of how Dredd is more than just a typical action flick.

Dredd gets right to the point and it's a film that never minces its words. This is an action film that goes full throttle from beginning to end. The backstory of the film is given in a very matter of fact fashion, and the film never stops to enter story mode. The reason for this is that Dredd is always in story mode. The action in Dredd tells the story, and it keeps the viewer in line with where the film wants to go and what the film wants to say. The audience learns everything they need to learn about Judge Dredd through the way he carries himself during the action of the film. It's not that Dredd doesn't have a story to tell, it's simply that in a neat twist Dredd chooses to tell its story through its action instead of padding out the run time of the film with needless exposition.

At first I was irked by the visuals in Dredd. The slow motion effect was handled nicely, but I wasn't sure about the almost neon like blood. The first few times it took me out of the film and made me question what I was watching. I stuck with the film and over time the visuals of blood letting took on a different label in my mind. They were no longer irksome, but they were stylish in a way that gave the film energy. Being based on a comic book the way the slow motion visuals, and blood work, are handled is very reminiscent of said comic book roots. The visuals are splashy, and a tad gaudy, but they are very clean and let the viewer know exactly what is happening at every turn. Dredd isn't a film about trickery, the visual style of the film isn't intended to trick but to pay homage to the brighter world of comic books.

I would be remiss if I didn't bring up Serbuan maut in my review of Dredd. I know this is a touchy point for some people, but for my money the connection is an obvious one. Both films are about the adrenaline of action, and are very similar plot wise. The key differences come into play in the way that each film handles its story and its lead character. The story in Serbuan Maut is not a good one, and while the action is marvelous enough to overcome its lackluster story the film is ultimately hurt by said story. The story in Dredd is a strength of the film because as I stated above the action in Dredd tells the story and thus the film doesn't rely on any cliched dramatic beats within the story. The hero in Serbuan maut is a hero, the same is not true for Judge Dredd. He is an avenging figure, and almost machine like in his drive to dispense justice. We see at the end that he is human, but he's still a killing machine and that is the main function he serves during the film. The connection is present between Dredd and Serbuan maut, but each are their own film and are great for different reasons.

A couple of years ago I was one of the few people lamenting the nature of the modern action film. Films like The Bourne Ultimatum and Transformers were prime examples of what was wrong in action cinema. My tune has changed to the point where in 2013 I'm convinced action cinema is in the middle of a renaissance. The big budget blockbusters have been getting it right more than they have wrong when it comes to action cinema. A film like Dredd is a clear sign of a return to form for action cinema. The editing in Dredd is fluid and the action is easy to follow. Most of all, the action in Dredd makes great use of spatial relations and character placement. I hope more people discover Dredd, because this is action cinema that the film community needs to support. Movies like Serbuan maut, Pacific Rim, The Avengers, and Dredd show that action cinema in the 2010s is making a comeback, and it's a comeback I welcome with open arms.




Friday, September 13, 2013

Episode #252: Astronaut Highway

Welcome to the GGtMC!!!

This week dear friends stepped in to do an episode for Will and I due to our being out of town for a community get together. Eric and Ghetto Tim bring you coverage of Human Highway (1982) directed by Dean Stockwell and Neil Young and The American Astronaut (2001) directed by Cory McAbee. We want to thank the guys for stepping in and bringing you all some interesting conversation...VIVA GGtMC!!!

Direct download: ggtmc_252.mp3 
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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Samurai Spy (1965)

Stop me if I’ve told you this one before (actually, don’t).  I was the youngest of six children.  I grew up with four brothers and a sister, all of whom loved nothing more than bedeviling their chunky (and much cooler) baby brother.  If you recall from my story about Brigantine Castle, you’ll recall that my family used to vacation in Long Beach Island, New Jersey every summer.  On the main strip was, conceivably, my favorite place in the whole, entire world: an arcade/snack shop which had the single greatest video game ever created: Xevious.  Adjacent to this pleasure palace was my second favorite place in the whole, entire world: a trampoline park.  For those who don’t know, these were places where you could rent time to risk life and limb and bounce on a giant trampoline.  When your time was up, your name was announced over a loud speaker, and you were invited to leave.  Like last call at a bar, just without the bouncers and alcohol and beer goggles.  Places like these have vanished; I’m sure due more to an increasingly litigious society than to any actual physical danger to children.  

At any rate, I used to love Trampoline World (this particular park’s moniker, if memory serves), but of course, I was too young to go there by myself.  This task of handling me fell to my brothers.  One fiendishly clever day, they took me over for my midday, spring-loaded constitutional, and I proceeded to go through my routine, lost in that magical act of leaping.  As my time drew to a close, the loudspeaker crackled to life, “Pyew Stinky on Six, Pyew Stinky on Six.  Your time is up.”  Go ahead and guess what the number of my trampoline was.  Suffice to say, I was miffed, nay, livid.  But I got over it.  Had I been more aware at that time of the usage of trampolines and the like in performing the acrobatics in films like Masahiro Shinoda’s Samurai Spy (aka Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke) and countless other Martial Arts and Science Fiction films, I probably would have pulled off some sweet midair maneuvers that would have firmly denounced the fetid nickname with which my trampolining prowess had been besmirched by my lowlife siblings.

Following the historic Battle of Sekigahara, Japan is still torn between the Toyotomi and Tokugawa clans, though the balance of power is inclining toward the latter.  Naturally, there are other clans, and they have their own networks of spies.  These clans generally align themselves with either the Tokugawas or Toyotomis, and their spies wander the country, collect information, and send it back to their superiors.  The Sawada clan, however, is neutral but leans Toyotomi.  Sasuke is one of their most renowned agents, and he soon finds himself embroiled in a search for a Yagyu agent turned traitor, as well as a mysterious young Christian man who is somehow tied up in all this.

The film has elements of the superheroic at various times.  Men have the ability to leap great distances (but not necessarily tall buildings) in a single bound.  Their skill with shuriken and wakizashi are accurate and deadly effective.  These extraordinary skills are usually distinguished in the film by the use of slow motion.  Not only is the action being slowed down for the benefit of the viewer to delineate what is happening, but this break from normal film speed signifies that what these people are doing is special.  Normal people and warriors move in normal time.  The elite of the superhuman spy set move differently, because they perceive action differently.  The flick of a blade may appear as a flash of light to the normal human eye, but to these masters, they follow the gleaming edge from the start of the draw to the final, bloody end of its arc, and along the way, they will notice and hit exactly what they intend and nothing more.  These types of scenes are important in the film, but they are not a focus.  In other words, these people have incredible powers, but they are ancillary to the central conceit of the film.

Which brings us to the sense of mystery intrinsic to the film’s point, and it is basically conveyed using two visual motifs.  The first is the image of fog or smoke.  The first time we meet Sasuke, he is wandering around, lost in a literal fog and sensing like something is following him.  In fact, the character is constantly wandering in and out of fog-shrouded climes.  This symbolizes not only the murky plot Sasuke is trying to unravel but also the interior confusion he feels about what type of person he is and what he needs to do.  Early on, he tells fellow spy Mitsuaki that he has stopped asking why he does what he does.  His persona is subjugated by his job, and he does it very well.  Nevertheless, he does know that there are questions he should be answering and isn’t (“No one seems to give any thought anymore to the meaning of death.  Or the meaning of life, for that matter.”).  When all has finally been made clear to Sasuke, the fog clears for a short time, but it well re-emerge shortly with a different function.  Now it is a source of tension which will remain muddy until Sasuke’s fate has been lethally determined.

The second visual metaphor imparting this notion of mystery is compositional in nature.  Shinoda employs high angle shots often in the film and especially during scenes involving action.  By doing this, he makes it more difficult to distinguish one character from another (the major exception to this being the person of Sakon Takatani; a Yagyu agent who dresses completely in white, effectively making of him a ghost and agent of death).  Thus, the masses of people move against each other, and the only true way to know what has happened is after it has occurred (slow-motion sequences notwithstanding).  Still, action is not always the focus of these types of arrangements.  Even quiet moments are mired in uncertainty, none more beautifully realized than the scene where Sasuke and his love interest Omiya are discussing their future.  The two are centered in the frame, beset on all sides by flowers to the point that they become lost in this pattern of nature.  Samurai Spy’s plot may be a bit much to take in, and it may sound like just another Jidaigeki, but it truly distinguishes itself as a perceptual journey, and it is as much influenced by the best Western Films Noir as it is by anything from its native East.

MVT:  The cinematography and general aesthetic of this film is impressive and sumptuous.  Masao Kosugi’s camerawork captures bottomless pools of black alongside searingly hot whites.  That it is so striking is almost as praiseworthy as the fact that it is not ostentatious.  To me, that makes it all the more remarkable.

Make Or Break:  The introduction of the film’s contagonist, Sakon is the Make.  After using his trademark grappling hook on a hapless victim, he emerges from one of the darkest shadows I have ever seen.  He is a spectre, imposing and awesome, a presence to be feared and a force with which to be reckoned.

Score:  7.75/10