Monthly Archives: June 2013
Superman III (1983)
by Steve Habrat
Way before Tim Burton’s Batman franchise fell into the hands of hack director Joel Schumacher and was turned into a giant neon toy commercial with nipples; a similar fate struck another DC Comics superhero hero. In 1983, comedic director Richard Lester shifted Richard Donner’s Superman franchise from serious-minded optimism into full-on sight gag camp. The result was Superman III, a comic book movie that isn’t nearly as horrible as some may have you believe but is by no means a cinematic masterpiece. On its own, Superman III is a fun action comedy that will keep your ten-year-old son preoccupied while you take a nap, but when compared to the stellar Superman and its awesome follow-up, Superman II, the film is a humongous disappointment that only intermittently entertains. While every single one of the players tries their darndest, the one who is solely responsible for running the franchise into the ground is Lester, who flat-out refuses to take the Man of Steel seriously. To make things even worse on Superman III, Lester casts funnyman Richard Pryor as the thorn in old Superman’s side. As if he sensed this was a giant turd, returning star Christopher Reeve steps in front of the camera with fire in his eyes and he single handedly makes the entire thing, well, sort of watchable.
Superman III introduces us to Gus Gorman (played by Richard Pryor), an unemployed goofball who lands a job as a computer programmer at Webster Industries. Unhappy with his pay, Gus begins embezzling money from Webster Industries, but it doesn’t take long for him to grab the attention of the power hungry CEO, Ross Webster (played by Robert Vaughn). It turns out that Webster, his sister, Vera (played by Annie Ross), and his mistress, Lorelei Ambrosia (played by Pamela Stephenson) are out to take over the world financially and they plan on blackmailing Gus into helping them out. Meanwhile, Clark Kent (played by Christopher Reeve) and Jimmy Olson (played by Marc McClure) travel back to Smallville for Clark’s high school reunion where he reunites with his old childhood friend and recent divorcée Lana Lang (played by Annette O’Toole) and her young son, Ricky (played by Paul Kaethler). After being led to believe that Clark knows Superman, Lana pleads with him to convince Superman to attend Ricky’s birthday. Smallville turns the appearance into a celebration but Gus and Vera crash the party and present Superman with a chunk of synthetic kryptonite in an attempt to weaken him and prevent him from stopping their evil scheme. At first, it appears that the synthetic kryptonite has had no effect on Superman, but soon he becomes depressed, angry, and selfish, just when the world needs him.
Superman III begins with a chain reaction of slapstick disasters and sight gags that are all painfully unfunny and just way too drawn out. As if this isn’t bad enough, the sequence almost feels like it is poking fun at the hero we are supposed to be rooting for. The mocking tone never fully disappears, but every so often, Lester cuts through the carefree camp with a perky rescue sequence, but for the most part, the film is a far throw from the thrilling Superman II, which he worked on when Donner was fired. When we are introduced to the villains, things don’t get much better for Superman III. There is no Gene Hackman as the barking Lex Luthor and there is no Terence Stamp as the authoritative General Zod, but rather three screwballs who cower behind a giant super computer as Superman stomps their way. You could almost mistake them for Bond villains. Together, they wouldn’t make an infant tremble and they sure as hell don’t seem like they could do much damage to old Supes but somehow, to the horror of this viewer, they actually manage. While their plan is beyond stupid, it actually opens a door for Reeve to save the entire picture from crashing and burning.
It is undeniable that Reeve is the heart and soul of this entire Superman franchise and it makes me shiver to think what it would have been like without him. Even in Superman III’s worst moments, Reeve is almost too good. When the script asks him to be bad and play a bunch of juvenile pranks around the world (he straightens the leaning tower of Pisa and he blows out the Olympic flame), Reeve manages to keep his composure, which is really something special because anyone else would have been on the ground laughing at how idiotic these moments are. As Clark Kent, he is still the sweet and bumbling fool we all know and love, but this time around, he actually gets to throw a few punches. In the film’s highlight scene, the corrupted Superman projects the good Clark Kent and then gets into a fistfight with him in the middle of a rusting junkyard. Naturally, the scene is loaded with unnecessary laughs, it goes on for about five minutes too long, and it is wildly unclear as to how exactly Superman exactly split into two people, but it is really fascinating to see Superman, a force of complete good, at odds with himself. I didn’t think I’d write this, but well done, Lester!
Then we have Pryor as the film’s reluctant baddie, Gus Gorman, and really, he isn’t that bad, he is just grossly miscast. Pryor does drop a few laugh bombs along the way, but he seems like he is on a short leash by the director and the producers. He also really has no business being anywhere near a superhero movie, especially a Superman movie. Still, you can’t really fault him for trying. As far as the other villains go, Vaughn’s Webster practically blends into the woodwork, a cardboard stand-in for Hackman’s diabolical Lex Luthor. Annie Ross brings a bit more mean to her small role as Vera, Webster’s sister who in the final moments of the film becomes an android-like monster that does absolutely nothing (yeah, don’t think too much about it). Stephenson is irritating as Webster’s seemingly ditzy but surprisingly smart mistress, Lorelei, who doesn’t miss a chance to seduce the corrupt Superman. Margot Kidder, who was not pleased when Donner got the axe on Superman II, is reduced to basically a cameo, a shame considering how entertaining and frankly spot on she was in the role. The new love interest here is O’Toole as Lana Lang, a sweet old pal of Clark’s that slowly develops feelings for the bespectacled nerd. O’Toole is good, don’t get me wrong, but is it too much to ask for Kidder’s Lois Lane back?
I wish I could tell you that Superman III has some spectacular confrontation at the end, but instead it is approached like some forgotten Atari video game that was left on a dusty shelf. It takes forever to get to a real showdown between the two parties, with the plot practically stopping to take a nap at certain points. At least twenty minutes could have been cut from the finished product, including the fist-fighting traffic light stick figures bit that will actually tempt you to get up and turn the whole thing off. I wish there was something at stake here or some sort of actual threat looming over Superman’s head as he battled with his demons, but instead the bad guys would rather hang out on top of their skyscraper that has been fashioned into a ski resort and chat about defeating Superman. Through all the bad, Reeve is still the glue that keeps the entire thing from falling to pieces. Overall, it is big, dumb, bloated, and flat lining in the creativity department, but a handful of soaring rescues and Reeve’s irresistible warmth manage to triumph over the long line of groan-inducing jokes that Lester insisted upon. Maybe that Reeve was some kind of Superman.
Superman III is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Anti-Film School’s 15 Best Zombie Movies of All Time!
by Steve Habrat
With director Marc Forster and Brad Pitt’s epic World War Z swarming the global box office, I thought it would be a good time to countdown the 15 best zombie movies of all time. Now, if there is one thing that I know in this world, it is zombies. I love ‘em. I cut my teeth on Night of the Living Dead when I was just a little sprout and I never looked back. I’ve dabbled in everything from the Italian splatterfests of the late 70s and 80s to all of Romero’s heady zombie romps. I’ve thrilled at the sprinting zombies and I’ve chuckled right along with the new string of “zom-coms.” Hell, I even religiously watch The Walking Dead when it is on AMC. So, without further ado, I give you my picks for the top 15 zombie movies of all time. I do hope you’re craving some brrrraaaaaaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnnssss!
15.) Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
Director Jorge Grau’s surreal 1974 chiller doesn’t feature the undead in thick hordes like many of the films on this list. No, this film was made when the zombie subgenre was still suffering from some growing pains. However, it is still a massively chilling, impeccably acted, and brutal zombie movie made in the wake of the collapse of the counterculture. With an alien score that would have been perfect for any 50s science fiction flick and spine tingling wheezes creeping over the soundtrack, this go-green atomic freak out is an absolutely must for zombie fanatics and horror freaks, especially the final blood-soaked twenty minutes.
14.) Grindhouse-Planet Terror (2007)
In early 2007, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino unleashed this passion project into an America that frankly didn’t get what the duo was trying to do. Well, America, you missed out. This scratchy double feature kicks off with a gooey bang in the form of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, a pus-filled tribute to zombie godfather George A. Romero and Italian goremaster Lucio Fulci. Brimming with tongue-in-cheek violence, melting penises, machine gun legs, and kerosene action, Planet Terror is a self-aware charmer that is guaranteed to churn your tummy. Keep an eye out for an extended cameo from Tom Savini, who did the make-up effects in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead.
13.) Shock Waves (1977)
Way before Call of Duty: Nazi Zombies took the world by storm, this little-known but unnervingly creepy tale about a troop of goggle-clad SS ghouls patrolling an abandoned island snuck into theaters and then was largely forgotten. Fueled by a ghostly atmosphere and flooded with horror icons (Peter Cushing! John Carradine! Brooke Adams!), this sun drenched chiller doesn’t feature the same old flesh-hungry ghouls ripping victims limb from limb. Nope, these guys march out of the water, sneak up on their victims, and then violently drown ‘em. Trust me, they are VERY cool. With a score guaranteed to give you goosebumps and an immensely satisfying last act, this is a low budget B-movie gem that deserves to be showered in attention. Track it down and show your friends!
12.) 28 Weeks Later (2007)
It seemed like an impossible task to try to do a sequel to Danny Boyle’s terrifying 2003 game changer 28 Days Later, but that didn’t stop Hollywood from giving it a try. Surprisingly, 28 Weeks Later, which was produced by Boyle and directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, is an intimidating follow-up that goes bigger and louder than the previous film. Clearly crafted for a summer audience, 28 Weeks Later is an effects heavy blockbuster that finds much of London being reduced to ashes, but the acting is top notch, the smarts are in place, and the zombie…sorry, INFECTED mayhem will leave you breathless and shaking for days.
11.) Day of the Dead (1985)
The third installment in George A. Romero’s zombie series was a bomb when it was first released and unfairly dismissed by many critics including Roger Ebert. You should know that the shockingly dark and cynical Day of the Dead has many tricks up its sleeve. Perhaps the angriest zombie movie ever made, Day of the Dead is the work of a man who has completely lost his faith in humanity and our ability to work together. Did I mention that it also features an intelligent zombie? Yeah, wait until you meet Bub. While much of the zombie carnage is saved for the shadowy climax, Day of the Dead is still a film that spits fire. I’d even go so far to say that it is one of the most important films of the Regan Era.
10.) Return of the Living Dead (1985)
This punk rock “zom-com” from writer/director Dan O’Bannon passes itself off as an unofficial follow-up to Romero’s 1968 treasure Night of the Living Dead. The characters all openly acknowledge the events of that film, but they do it all in neon Mohawks while snarling rock n’ roll blares in the background. With plenty of gonzo action and a swarm of ghouls that howl for more “braaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnssss,” Return of the Living Dead is like a living, breathing cartoon. If that doesn’t convince you to attend this ghoul shindig, wait until you catch a glimpse of the tar zombie, one of the most visually striking zombies ever filmed. Rock on!
9.) The Dead (2011)
The newest film on this list is actually one of the most impressive throwbacks of recent memory. The Dead is basically a road movie smashed together with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and a forgotten spaghetti western. It could also be the most beautiful zombie film on this list (aside from Dellamorte Dellamore). Taking place on the parched African landscape, The Dead will send shivers as its zombies slowly shuffle along in the background of nearly every single shot, making you wonder if our two silent protagonists will ever make it out of this situation alive. While the last act dips, The Dead never lets up on the intensity. Just watch for a scene where an injured mother hands her infant child off to Rob Freeman’s Lt. Murphy as zombies close in around her. Pleasant dreams!
8.) Re-Animator (1985)
It seems that 1985 was the year of the zombie. We were treated to gems like Return of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, and Stuart Gordon’s cheeky horror-comedy Re-Animator. A bit more restrained that some of the films on this list (but not by much), Re-Animator is a big glowing tribute to science fiction and horror films of years passed. It has a little something for everyone, all wrapped up in a big Sam Raimi-esque wink. Did I mention that it can also creep you out big time? Featuring a must-see performance from Jeffrey Combs and a zombie doctor carrying his own head, Re-Animator is a science-lab romp that will have you shrieking one second and giggling the next.
7.) Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Zack Snyder’s speedy remake of George A. Romero’s masterpiece was probably the most expensive zombie movie of all time until World War Z came crashing into theaters. It was also much better than it had any right to be. While it will never trump the heady original, Snyder makes an energetic gorefest that will make horror fans giddy with delight. The film has a stellar opening sequence that is followed by grainy news reports of a world going to Hell, all while Johnny Cash strums his guitar over bloody credits. From that point, Snyder lobs one gory gag after another at the audience, the most fun being a game of spot a zombie that looks like a celebrity and then turns its head into hamburger meat. Oh, and if the film didn’t have enough blood and guts already, wait until you see the chainsaw accident near the end of the film. It’s a doozy.
6.) Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man (1994)
From the late 70s through the mid 1990s, Italy had severe zombie fever. In the wake of George A. Romero’s massively successful Dawn of the Dead, the Italians cranked out more knockoffs than you can shake a severed arm and leg at. Many of them were cheapie exploitation movies that lacked artistic vision, but right before the craze died off, director Michele Soavi released Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man, a gothic zombie fantasy that truly is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Surreal, sexy, and episodic, Dellamorte Dellamore borders on arthouse horror and has earned fans as high profile as Martin Scorsese. The last act of the film is a mess and it seems like Soavi wasn’t exactly sure how to bring the film to a close, but this is certainly a zombie movie that you have to see to believe.
5.) Shaun of the Dead (2004)
In 2004, American audiences were introduced to British funnyguys Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright, and we were all the better for it. The first “romantic comedy with zombies,” Shaun of the Dead is a side-splittingly hilarious romp that can also be quite terrifying what it sets its mind to it. Loaded with nods to classic zombie movies (each time you watch it you will spot another tip of the hat), endlessly quotable jokes, and some eye-popping gross-out gags, Shaun of the Dead is a surprisingly sweet film with a core romance you can’t stop rooting for. Also, Romero has given it his approval, which automatically makes it a zombie classic.
4.) Zombie (1979)
Lucio Fulci’s 1979 grindhouse classic Zombie (aka Zombi 2) was the first Italian knockoff inspired by George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It is also the best Italian zombie movie out there. Entitled Zombi 2 in Italy to trick audiences into thinking that the film was a sequel to Dawn, Zombie is a beast all its own. Without question the most violent and exploitative zombie film to emerge from the Italian zombie movement, Zombie is a tropical blast of excess that will have your jaw on the floor. Gasp as a zombie has an underwater battle with a shark (you read that correctly, in case you were wondering) and dry heave as a woman has her eye gouged out by a piece of splintered wood (shown in an extreme close up). And that is Fulci just getting warmed up! Approach this sucker with caution.
3.) 28 Days Later (2003)
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is not technically a zombie movie. The red-eyed, blood-spewing maniacs that dash through the streets of devastated London are suffering from a virus known only as “RAGE.” Still, the ghouls are very zombie like as they sprint towards their victims like coked-out marathon runners. Gritty, grim, and absolutely terrifying, 28 Days Later is an impeccably acted and smartly directed apocalyptic thriller that astounds with each passing second. The climax has split viewers, but in my humble opinion, it is an unflinching glimpse of human beings at their absolute best and absolutely worst. This is an essential and influential modern-day classic.
2.) Night of the Living Dead (1968)
In 1968, George A. Romero crafted a film that would go on to lay the foundation for the zombie subgenre. Cramped, creaky, and infinitely creepy, Night of the Living Dead is a lo-fi horror classic that continues to sit securely on the short list of the most terrifying films ever made. Romero instantly throws the viewer into the chaos and flat-out refuses to give us any sort of explanation for why the dead-eyed cannibals outside are trying to pound their way into that boarded up farmhouse. All we know is that something is very wrong and the situation seems to be steadily getting worse. Brimming with Cold War anxiety and flashing images that would be right at home in a forgotten newsreel from the Vietnam War, Night of the Living Dead is a film that will stick with you the rest of your life. A true horror classic.
1.) Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Ten years after he shaped the subgenre, Romero returned to give audiences his ultimate apocalyptic vision. Often imitated but never duplicated, Dawn of the Dead is the king daddy of zombie movies. Set just a few short weeks after the events of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead begins with a flurry of blood and bullets ripping across your screen, assuring the viewer that once again, Romero is taking no prisoners. Once Romero decides to usher his four protagonists off to the Monroeville Mall, the satire kicks into high gear. Launching a full-scale attack on consumer culture, Romero dares to compare mall shoppers to his shuffling ghouls that wander the aisles of JC Penney. He also warns us that our inability to work together will be the death of us all. Featuring heavy character development, heart-pounding action sequences, and a devastating conclusion, Dawn of the Dead stands as a pulse-pounding masterpiece not only for Romero, but for the entire zombie subgenre.
So, do you agree? Disagree? Did I leave something off of the list? Feel free to leave me your picks! I’m dying to hear them!
World War Z (2013)
by Steve Habrat
In 1968, Duane Jones and a rag-tag group of desperate and confused survivors holed up in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse as undead cannibals roamed the yard waiting for their meals to emerge from their boarded up safe-haven. The survivors, who were armed with only a rusty rifle and a handful of bullets, were almost completely oblivious to what was happening a mile away from where they were hiding, their only source of information being messy and almost skeptical reports from spooked news anchors. The television flickered images of flustered government officials dashing to a car and mentioning something about radiation from space causing all the chaos in America’s streets. There was also the hollow reassurance from local authorities that the situation was under control even though you got the uneasy feeling that these events were going to get worse before they got better. Other than that, the survivors of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead were on their own, with their backs pressed firmly against the wall. Forty-five years later, we have director Marc Forster and Brad Pitt’s vast World War Z, which is based on the globetrotting novel by Max Brooks. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead preyed upon the viewer’s fear of being confined into a tight space by a horror that lacked clear-cut explanation. As far as scope is concerned, Forster’s World War Z is the polar opposite of Romero’s vision, presenting the audience with sprawling shots of zombie mayhem from all over the world and much to this viewer’s surprise, it is actually a pretty effective zombie blockbuster.
World War Z begins with former UN employee Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt), his wife, Karin (played by Mireille Enos), and their two daughters, Rachel (played by Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (played by Sterling Jerins) caught in a nasty Philadelphia traffic jam. On the radio, a fuzzy news report talks of a rabies outbreak that has apparently spread internationally. Overhead, helicopters roar and ambulance sirens echo through the buildings. Suddenly, there is an explosion just up the road and panic erupts as zombies charge through the bumper-to-bumper maze. Gerry and his family manage to escape to an apartment complex where they are to be extracted by a helicopter sent by Gerry’s former UN colleague, Thierry (played by Fana Mokoena). The Lane’s are taken to a US Navy ship that is just off the coast of New York City. On board, Gerry learns that the president is dead, the vice president is missing, and that the world is going to Hell in the blink of an eye. Thierry and the ship’s naval commander soon approach Gerry about accompanying virologist Dr. Fassbach (played by Elyes Gabel) on a mission to find the source of the outbreak. Gerry reluctantly accepts the mission and the two men set out towards South Korea, but as the investigation deepens, their dangerous journey also takes them to Jerusalem and Cardiff.
What was only heard about and distantly felt in Night of the Living Dead is shown to the viewer in full CGI glory in the rocky opening moments of World War Z. Forster assaults the viewer with blurry images of panicked citizens running for their lives as cars smash into one another, buildings blow up, and snapping zombies jump through the air like banshees. Unlike Romero’s shuffling ghouls, Forster’s zombies are more in the vein of the cannibals found in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. These zombies have cloudy white eyes that bulge out of their head and they twitch, spaz out, and when they spot their prey, dash wildly towards their meal. They hurl themselves off of buildings towards spinning helicopters and when they hear a noise on the other side of the massive wall that protects Jerusalem, they pile on top of each other like ants to reach their victims. While the initial glimpses of the ghouls in the World War Z trailers were a little corny, the finished product is pretty impressive, especially when viewed in long intervals from above. While these overhead shots are here to wow, they also allow Forster to conceal some of the gut munching that is taking place in the streets. Considering World War Z is rated PG-13, Forster is forced to really cut back on the violence that has become a staple of the zombie subgenre. He keeps the violence largely off screen but there are still more than a few moments that will make you wince. Be warned, zombie fanatics, there is none of the intestine spewing carnage that Romero is known for.
It was no secret that there was quite a bit of off-screen drama surrounding World War Z, both before and during production. Before the cameras rolled on the $200 million dollar project, there was a massive bidding war for the rights between Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way, and Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B Entertainment. Pitt wasn’t content on just having the rights to the film—he also stars in this epic zombie beast. Pitt is the only A-list star billed in World War Z and he gives his all in his performance. He is a loving family man before the violence comes crashing down and he is a driven investigator racing to save the human race when the zombies charge towards him. The action allows Pitt to be tough-guy hero in certain places, but some of the scenes are plagued by action movie clichés that will just have you shaking your head. As far as the supporting acts go (which is everyone else), Enos is asked to just hover around a cell phone and wait for Gerry to call and reassure her that he hasn’t become an all-you-can eat buffet. Gabel is given a small and brief role as Dr. Fassbach, who is convinced he can find a way to beat the virus. Mokoena shuffles around the Navy ship and is simply asked to explain how bad the situation is to Pitt. Unknown actress Daniella Kertesz is here as a shoot-first-as-questions-later Israeli soldier named Segen, who joins up with Pitt in Jerusalem. Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Matthew Fox (Alex Cross) a Navy SEAL operative and a small, scene-stealing appearance by David Morse (The Green Mile) as a former CIA operative with a nasty story to tell about North Korea’s approach to containing the zombie outbreak.
Considering that World War Z is a zombie movie, there is no doubt that you are wondering if it is actually scary. While there is quite a bit more emphasis on the 10-miles-wide action, World War Z offers up its fair share of nail-biting suspense, especially in the smartly claustrophobic climax that subtly winks at Romero’s 1968 game changer. Initially, I was unsure if I cared for this drastic shift in vision (those gliding God’s-eye-views are really something), but I’ve warmed to it in the hours since I’ve seen the film. What ultimately holds World War Z back from being a great zombie blockbuster is the number of clichés that you’ll find throughout its runtime. It seems that every place that Pitt’s Gerry steps, zombies manage to conveniently come barging in right when he gets a lead and you’ll highly doubt that he could survive a specific fiery plane crash. Oh well, he’s clearly having a good time playing a he-man action hero and I’m certainly not going to rain on his parade. Overall, World War Z gets off to an awkward start, but once it finds its groove, the film morphs into fun-but-flawed apocalyptic journey. It proves that there is still some wild-eyed life in the zombie subgenre and what Romero couldn’t afford to show us in Night of the Living Dead is actually pretty chilling stuff.
Man of Steel: A Spolier-Thick, Dissenting Opinion
by Will Nepper
We’ll get this out of the way first: I know that Christopher Reeves is dead and I did ‘get over it.’ (Mostly.) I’m also aware this is ‘not Donner’s Superman.’ (What is?) And finally, the fact that I really enjoyed Superman Returns may render my opinion invalid in your eyes. In fact, that may’ve been enough to stop you from reading further. I can live with that.
(What I can’t live with? A “World Machine” for starters, but more on that later.)
On the positive end of the spectrum, there is a lot to like about Man of Steel. That, perhaps, is what makes the entire experience so frustrating. The problem isn’t that it isn’t Donner’s Superman; it’s not even Superman’s Superman.
I enjoyed Kevin Costner, Diane Lane (even though, she wasn’t given much to do but beam proudly and look concerned) and almost all of the Smallville-era Kent family backstory, particularly moments where a young Clark becomes overwhelmed by his super senses in the classroom. His struggle to keep his powers a secret in the face of bullies presents some solid moments – some of the best in the Superman movie history.
Unfortunately, those moments make up about 20 percent of MoS, serve an origin story that we don’t really need and leave two hours of running time open to completely botch the rest of the job with increasingly boring battles and no real sense of peril or characterization.
I admit that I prefer my Superman movies with a bit of humor and characters that smile from time to time. (Henry Cavill smiles once or twice during the two-hour-plus epic.) But I’m willing to sacrifice all of that on the Fan Boy Alter because those aren’t Superman-story necessities. There have been plenty of “dark” story lines for the Last Son of Krypton and he can’t always maintain the boy-scout-in-blue attitude that many of his older fans (…Who has two thumbs and is an ‘older fan?’…) are accustomed to. Fair enough.
If you can’t see that this incarnation of Superman was built around the fan boy gripe that Superman Returns didn’t have enough punching in it, your brown-tinted, grit-covered Chris Nolan glasses may be blinding you.
We’ll never know (well, until we hear a DVD commentary) who’s most responsible for which of MoS’s problems, but I’m sure there’s plenty of blame to go around. The convoluted Kryptonian story components are almost certainly the fruits of Nolan’s influence. The static, unrelenting stake-free action sequences – well, those reek of Snyder’s style. For example: the fast zoom-in-zoom-out moments (to give you the POV of a flying Nikon, I guess) and the terrible pacing. (Snyder blew his wad on his remake of Dawn of the Dead as far as I’m concerned.)
Let’s scratch beneath the surface to the spoiler-y list of gripes I have with MoS and how they keep the movie from being the “Superman movie I’ve been waiting for.”
1. Lois Lane, as played by Amy Adams, looks more Lana Lang than spunky reporter and her character plays more like a History Channel “History’s Mysteries” sleuth than a “Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter.” In fact, there’s no evidence that she’s much of a reporter at all considering that she spends the entire movie tracking one story she’s been told to drop in favor of, you know, news. I’d say she’s miscast, but I don’t think Adams is the problem. Her LL is written as bland, and LL has never been bland. Adams singing scene in The Muppets was a showstopper and she was the only actor to rise above the material in the god-awful The Master. Her relationship with Superman – if we can call him that (Nobody does until the last reel and even then, only once.) –seems to have developed off-screen. I won’t say there’s a lack of chemistry between the two leads because we never get an opportunity to see for ourselves. The movie shifts back and forth in time and jumps to a new scene whenever things start to actually get interesting. To be fair, Superman Returns had some major Lois Lane problems too. (She was played by a woefully miscast Kate Bosworth and was Superman’s baby mama. Whaaaaa?!)
2. Krypton occupies waaaaay too much of MoS – even after we leave it – and this is a huge miscalculation where story is concerned. EVERYthing is explained to no substantial effect. What’s accomplished in the early scenes on Krypton could easily be chopped down to about 5 minutes without leaving us wanting or needing more. It would kick start the flick with some action-movie pacing rather than serve as a bloated Krypton history lesson. It doesn’t help that Krypton is … well, brown – like a cross between the sets of Dune, The Neverending Story and the Dark Crystal dropped into Nolan’s Gotham City. And the flying monsters, like the one Russel Crowe’s Jor-El hops on? They only served to remind me of a similar moment in a Star Wars prequels (they blur together for me) where Obi Wan mounts a similar CGI beastie eliciting similar groans from me.
The meat of these scenes is our introduction to this movie’s Zod, which is necessary but also problematic when this particular villain’s agenda is revealed and we learn how, in some ways, he’s a more sympathetic enemy than he is pure evil. He’s a Krytonian patriot just as he was genetically engineered. That means this dye was cast without his say, making him less a big meanie than a diligent servant of his race. Kal-El, on the other hand, is the only Kryptonian capable of free will. He faces tough decisions, can weigh the pros and cons, and act accordingly. Everyone else (including bred-for-science, Jor-El) is just doing the Gattaca shuffle his or her destiny demands. This leads me to another major gripe:
3. Superman does not snap necks. He never kills unless he’s left no alternative, and he almost ALWAYS finds an alternative because he’s super smart and calculating. (How many times has he outwitted confirmed genius, Lex Luthor?) Unlike Batman, Supes is a lover, not a fighter. Where DC’s second banana (kidding, Steve-O!) (… Even though he totally is … ) is a vigilante, Superman is more in the business of being a rescuer. His priority: protecting the people of the world (and the individuals within earshot of his super hearing). When Faora (Ursa 2.0) announces that: “You will not win. For every human you save, we will kill a million more,” she nails it because in that way, the bad guys DO win. Her prediction proves correct and though Zod and Co. don’t walk away with the store, they certainly rack up what must be a substantial body count. Remember what 9-11 did to this country? Imagine where the country’s head would be under the rubble of a completely trashed Metropolis. (It’s going to take Smallville several years to rebuild as well, and forget about a late night trip to IHOP for a while.) Superman would never let that pass. He would find a way to save as many people as possible AND save the planet, because HE’S SUPERMAN!
Not to kick it all nostalgic, but remember in Superman II when the panic-stricken Superman pleads with Ursa to rethink throwing the city bus full of people? He knows that a big Metropolis showdown between four superfolk would create a lot of collateral damage, so he leads the bad guys away from the city to battle them where they’ll do less damage. (The Artic was a good choice.) Instead we’re forced to endure a battle of indestructible Gods in which all the real damage is done to the city and its residents. Instead of outsmarting the villain, Superman breaks Zod’s neck and screams.
[An aside: On the topic of collateral damage: What the fuck, Hollywood? I had this gripe with The Avengers and Star Trek Into Darkness too. Our primary characters go unharmed while millions of simple city folk are squished under demolished buildings and thrown cars. I don’t need realism. I don’t require that we dwell on these things, but it would be nice to feel like something is at stake for once. We KNOW the good guy is going to win, but at what cost? That question is never answered because we never get an inkling of suffering despite the mass destruction. Even if we could just hear an off-screen newscast reporting: “Millions dead as Metropolis comes tumbling down like a lost game of Jenga, because a battle we have nothing to do with is being waged in our city by aliens, one of whom is supposed to be the good guy despite his inability to strategize.”]
Within minutes of Zod’s snapped neck, which, it would seem, indicates Supe’s victory, we make a rare visit to The Daily Planet, which looks to be in pretty damn good condition after the battle waged there. Did city engineers start reconstruction with The Daily Planet (a PRINT publication)? Instead of, like, schools? Things look like they’re back to business as usual, though we know outside Perry White’s windows are dead bodies trapped under the rubble left by a battle between two indestructible forces. Unless we’re to believe several years pass between the two scenes, and I’m pretty sure we’re not.
4. Lazy writing. Allowing Pa Kent to be swept away by a tornado is laughably lazy writing and makes no goddamned sense besides. Seriously, I laughed. It was the ONE TIME in his young life that Clark could have used his powers without it being detected by others. (–Even though Papa Costner forbids him, I bet Pa would be rethinking that stupid move as he free falls through the roof of a Smallville hardware store when the tornado eventually drops him.) But he let’s Dad’s raised hand force him back under the overpass? Maybe Clark just didn’t love him enough. I’d like to think that Ma, would immediately have slapped the shit out of Clark after that scene. “What the fuck?! He was your dad, dumbass!”
In Superman: The Movie, it’s important and pivotal when the elder Kent dies of a heart attack because “even with all of these powers, I still couldn’t save him.” Teachable lesson there, Kal – and one that will inform many of your future decisions as a protector of “truth, justice and the American way.” (In the Donner version anyway.)
Also, Snyder wants us to believe that Kal kills Zod because he had no choice! Zod was gonna heat-vision that family to death!
So, only then he finds the strength to do effective bodily harm to Zod? This after they’ve been having an aerial fistfight in which they sustain virtually no damage? Again: lazy writing that caters to the demand for more punching! Lazy writing made worse by the fact that Zod just made the case that he’s protecting what he was genetically engineered to protect. That’s not evil enough for a main villain. It’s pitiable. He’s not sadistic or cruel so much as he’s trying to maintain what he sees as “the greater good” even if he’s crazy, angry and misguided. But think about it: If Earth people had to relocate to another populated planet, we’d totally take over and think nothing of dropping a Target and Starbucks smack dab in the center of the alien planet’s red-sun-worshipping sacred ground.
5. Kryptonian jargon. It’s confusing, useless and poorly named. The only thing sillier than Kevin Costner being whisked away like Dorothy is all of the jargony, macguffiny, mumbo jumbo about things like a “codex” and (God help me) a “world engine.” I get that the villains are up to terraforming Earth into Krypton II, but did we need knowledge of Kryptonian science to make this effective? (I’m not saying bring back the crystals, but didn’t they do the job without us having to know exactly what they were doing?) Also did we need over-explanation of the House-of-El family crest? I mean, it works, but that was also done in Superman: The Movie – without the need for dialogue exposition I might add. Can’t we, the audience, sort that shit out for ourselves?
While they’re at it, why not explain why Kryptonians speak English? And have “military generals” that say things like: “Where did you train? –on a farm?!” Because it’s unnecessary. Like Star Wars prequel politics, we stop paying attention to what it all means halfway through the movie because we don’t care. A full season of Battlestar Galactica had less in-your-face fiction-based science.
6. Important elements left out. Most disappointing – and fatal, I think, to MoS’s potential acceptance by his *ahem* older fans – is what’s missing. I’m guessing a lot of this is to stretch the origin story even further into the inevitable sequel, by waiting to introduce REPORTER, Clark Kent, as a coda before the credits. For all the bitching fans seem to do about superhero movies being oversaturated with origin stories, this makes no sense. (It’s the ol’ Prometheus switcheroo, where we know there will be another movie or why else put Guy Pierce under all of that terrible old man makeup?) Without Clark Kent, the intrepid, mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet, there’s no signature Superman transformation to get a kid’s heart racing. It also means no real fun with glasses, double identities and the balancing act required to keep reporter and hero separate entities in the eyes of the public and, most importantly, Lois Lane.
Does NO ONE else have a problem with the fact that, throughout most of the movie, Lois is fully aware that Clark Kent and Kal-El are one and the same? It’s one of the primary tropes of the Superman mythos and it’s snuffed out, and what’s worse: for no discernible reason. (Will he be giving her one of those Superman II-style Forget Me Now kisses to reboot her memory later?) Lois seems to exist solely to be rescued by Superman, awkwardly bridge scenes and provide a quasi-romantic moment in the last act so that our two primaries can share a head-scratching kiss that is completely unearned by the story’s wobbly narrative.
Finally, a word about the inexplicably maligned Superman Returns:
What’s everyone’s beef with it? Brandon Routh’s performance was spot-on and the character, well developed. Yes, it used Donner’s movies as a jumping off point but I was glad. It wasn’t a sequel so much as it existed in the same universe. Donner directed most of Superman II before the Salkinds replaced him, mid-shoot, with British director, Richard Lester, who admitted to not giving a shit about Superman and who specializes in comedy.
Snyder and Nolan don’t seem to give much of a shit about Superman either. Thus, we get a stoic, humorless hero and a soulless movie that seems hell-bent on being different for difference-sake. “Let’s make Perry White … BLACK! Let’s modify the costume almost completely! And let’s make the final battle … Well, can we go bigger than The Avengers? Let’s try! … And don’t forget! MORE PUNCHING!”
MoS’s flying sequences are the most well rendered of any Superman movie – I’ll give it that. And Cavill looks great in the cape (and there’s less wrong with his performance than there is with the writing of the character), but there’s more to Superman than that. And Team MoS doesn’t seem to understand or care. They just want to out-action every Superman movie that came before and it’s obviously priority one.
I think the lesson to be learned here is an easy one. Superman is a tough hero to bring to the big screen, now more than ever. Different times require different movie heroes. (It’s why post-Last Crusade Indiana Jones movies can’t be done right. It’s why the return of Star Wars is/was a lost cause. And there’s a reason Bill Murray is telling Dan Akroyd to fuck off with his Ghostbusters III dream.) Someone got Superman right once. For my money, SR came close for many pre-millennial fans. (And critics. Note the 75% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes compared to MoS’s “rotten” 57% … but who pays attention to critics? … oh … wait. Nevermind.) MoS seems to be pleasing younger audiences with the spectacle of its relentless battle scenes, spaceships (Spaceships?!), mass destruction and thin characterization. I don’t blame them though because that’s consistent with the movie heroes they’ve grown up with. (See: Transformers) Perhaps it’s time to just accept facts: No one is ever going to make a modern Superman movie that works for everyone. I’m of the belief it just can’t be done and I hope to God people stop trying. (Not likely.)
As for a Justice League movie? Just say no.
Man of Steel (2013)
by Steve Habrat
With Christopher Nolan making the decision to bring his Batman trilogy to an apocalyptic close and 2011s The Green Lantern bombing horribly at the box office, DC Comics has been forced to turn to their last A-list hero in a final attempt to hang with comic book juggernaut Marvel Studios. Now we have Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, a gritty and epic reboot that is the Superman film we deserved way back in 2006. DC Comics made a grave mistake when they allowed Bryan Singer to craft another sequel to Christopher Reeve’s Superman films of the late 70s and 80s, a flub that has actually ended up hurting Snyder’s breathtaking reboot of the big blue boy scout. Man of Steel has taken quite a bit of negative criticism for its decent into massive action set pieces in the final stretch of its runtime, something that Singer wasn’t as eager to do in his wandering effort. The fact is that Man of Steel is seven years too late and it is entering a market that has been saturated by Marvel Studios. If this film would have been released in 2006, I guarantee it would have been met with as much praise as 2005s Batman Begins. That being said, Man of Steel is still a powerful entry into the superhero genre, a film that is perfectly grand for a true-blue do-gooder. It completely rejects the sunny optimism of the previous Superman entries and embraces a heavy heart of darkness that many fans may not be quick to warm to. In my opinion, it is just what the legendary superhero needed.
Man of Steel begins on the planet Krypton, with the wise scientist Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe) and his wife, Lara (played by Ayelet Zurer), giving birth to a baby boy they name Kal-El. With the planet of Krypton doomed to destruction, Jor-El and Lara send their son off to Earth, where he will have a chance for a survival. Meanwhile, General Zod (played by Michael Shannon), the military leader of Krypton, attempts to take over the planet with a handful of loyal followers including the vicious Faora (played by Antje Traue). Zod’s attempt to overthrow Krypton’s counsel is prevented and as punishment, he and his followers are banished to the Phantom Zone. Thirty-three years later, Clark Kent (played by Henry Cavill) is a mysterious drifter with superhuman abilities. He largely remains in the shadows, working odd jobs and occasionally saving people from horrific accidents. Word gets out about a mysterious object found in the ice in the Artic, which catches the attention of Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams). Lois sets out to do a piece on the mysterious object, but as she snoops around the dig, she comes face to face with Clark, who has also taken an interest in the object. After Lois is injured, Clark narrowly saves her life and then disappears. Shaken by what she has seen, she begins digging into rumors about a drifter who always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Clark, meanwhile, uncovers secrets about where he came from and learns about his superhuman abilities.
Almost instantly, Snyder, screenwriter David S. Goyer, and producer Christopher Nolan set their vision of Superman apart from the previous attempts through a gritty and emotionally riveting stage setter on the crumbling planet of Krypton. Gone is Donner’s neon crystal environment and in its place is a gunmetal gray landscape full of zippy spaceships and roaring and soaring alien beasts. There is plenty of exposition about Krypton and it is spiced up through bone-snapping fistfights and blaring explosions that dwarf anything we saw in Superman Returns. While this sequence ends in tragedy, there is still plenty of optimism from Crowe’s Jor-El, who is convinced that Kal-El will be a god to the people of Earth. When Snyder shifts clumsily to Earth, Nolan’s gloomy cinematic fingerprints begin to emerge. The filmmakers take their time working up to Superman’s big reveal, spinning a soulful tale of a man who is completely at odds with his abilities. To make things worse on the guy, he is entering a post-9/11 world that trembles in fear over the very idea of a man that can glide over the clouds. Despite numerous attempts to convince us that he means no harm, he is still met with suspicious eyes from the jumpy U.S. government.
The most pivotal part of Man of Steel is Henry Cavill’s performance as Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman. Cavill is absolutely excellent as an outcast who has been warned not to reveal his superhuman abilities to the world. He wants to help any way he can but the fear of rejection hangs heavy over his head. Cavill uses his eyes to convey this constant vulnerability and confusion, looking to the stars and his earthly father, Jonathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner), for guidance. While the new vulnerability is great, wait until you get a load of him in a fight. There is a surging intensity and almost a pulsing anger buried deep within his character that was completely unexpected. When Cavill is finally allowed to stop brooding, it is easy to see why he was chosen for the role. He is just bursting with all-American charm and he certainly is a warm figure of hope, even if he isn’t relegated to saving a kitten from a tree or helping an old lady across a busy Metropolis street. No, this Superman has bigger fish to fry when Shannon’s General Zod comes calling. We all know that Shannon can go fully crazy when he wants, and he certainly does get a little nuts with General Zod, but there is a measured insanity to his performance. He is a man driven by the love of his planet and he will stop at nothing to carry out his mission.
Then we have Amy Adams as the no-nonsense Lois Lane, who early on proves that she can hang tough in a room full of guys. Her strength and determination is certainly well played, but near the end of the film, her character is slowly shifted to damsel in distress, which was a bit disappointing. There was also a lack of build up in her romance with Supes, which sort of felt stuffed in there because it had to be. They share plenty of scenes but that spark just didn’t seem to be there. As far as Kevin Costner goes, he shines as Jonathan Kent, Clark’s adoptive father who constantly warns Clark against revealing his powers to the world. He shares a scene with the teen that is guaranteed to send chills down your spine. Russell Crowe is strong and sturdy as Jor-El, Clark’s biological father who believes that his son will be the Christ-like savior that Earth needs. Laurence Fishburne shows promise as the stern Daily Planet editor Perry White, a small role but one that I feel will be elaborated on in future installments. Diane Lane is affectionate and understanding as Martha Kent, who has to walk and talk a terrified Clark through his emerging abilities. Antje Traue is wickedly evil as Zod’s right hand woman Faora, who snarls threats like, “for every one you save, we’ll kill a million more.” Now THAT is a threat if I’ve ever heard one.
When Man of Steel finally ditches all the character building, the film dives into a climatic battle that is fittingly colossal for Superman. There is an adrenaline pumping battle in the streets of Smallville and the end man-a-mano between General Zod and Superman in the streets of Metropolis laughs at every superhero finale that has come before it. As far as criticisms go, there are a few plot holes that are difficult to ignore and Clark’s education about his home planet and abilities from a holographic Jor-El seems a bit brushed over. There are also a few lines of dialogue that will make you giggle and not in a good way. I should also mention that Snyder bashes us over the head with the Christ references, something that Singer was also guilty of. In case you don’t see the similarities between Jesus Christ and Superman, wait for the scene that finds Clark Kent wandering into a church and confiding in a nervous priest. Overall, while it isn’t perfect, Man of Steel certainly sets the stage for a refreshed Superman franchise for our dark times. It has a unique hand-held visual style and features a pounding score that only Hans Zimmer could provide. Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan successfully manage to wash away the sour taste that Singer left in our mouths and leave us wanting more from the hero that stands for truth, justice, and the American way.
This Is the End (2013)
by Steve Habrat
With interest rapidly fading in the abysmal The Hangover Part III, the film that almost everyone assumed would be the must-see comedy of 2013, the slot for “best summer comedy” has been left up for grabs. I have a feeling that over the next few weeks, that slot may end up being filled by This Is the End, an apocalyptic horror-comedy from the stoned minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Lovingly paying tribute to a whole string of horror films (look for nods to Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Evil Dead, and Zombie) and firing off laughs faster than a machine gun spits out bullets, This Is the End is a gross-out laugh riot that leaps from one frenzied shock after another. Nothing is off limits here and every single actor or actress in front of the camera (just know that each and every one of them is playing an exaggerated version of themselves) throws themselves into the project with plenty of maniacal gusto. To make it even better, the film boasts such a fresh and unique concept, making you wonder why no one has ever tried something like this before. Did I also mention that the film gets incredibly freaky when the demons come out to play?
This Is the End begins with Jay Baruchel arriving in Los Angeles to hang out with his old buddy Seth Rogen. The two arrive at Seth’s new home where they instantly smoke a ton of weed, watch Seth’s 3D television, and play video games. When their interest fades in doing that, the two decided to go to a housewarming party that is being thrown by James Franco. While at the party, Jay and Seth mingle with countless other celebrities including Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Rihanna, Danny McBride, Jason Segel, Mindy Kaling, and Aziz Ansari, to name a few (trust me, there is a slew of others that turn up). After Jay grows uncomfortable at the party, he asks Seth to accompany him to the nearest convenience store so that he can pick up a pack of cigarettes. Suddenly, beams of blue light shoot through the ceiling of the convenience store and suck up several customers. Terrified, Jay and Seth flee into the street where chaos has erupted. The two manage to make it back to James Franco’s home in time to warn everyone. Most of the partygoers refuse to believe their story but after a giant sinkhole appears outside and the Hollywood hills erupt with fire, the guests scatter and most of them die horribly. The only survivors of the incident are Jay, Seth, James, Craig, Jonah, and Danny, who proceed to barricade themselves into the lavish mansion they were all just partying in. Terrified and confused, the group begins trying to make sense of their situation and figure out if the destruction outside will pass or if it really is the end of days.
This Is the End marks the directing debut from Rogen and Goldberg, which would automatically make you assume that the finished product would be a somewhat wobbly experience. While there are a few pacing issues, Rogen and Goldberg show that they are extremely competent and confident blockbuster directors who also know their way around a good horror film. Even if they are borrowing most of their wink scares, there are more than a few moments that will have your arms breaking out in goosebumps. The amount of horror in the film is surprising, but it never once gets in the way of the infinite amount belly laughs strung throughout. You’d assume that the film would exhaust itself early on, especially when you get a load of the numerous cameos crammed into the first fifteen minutes. It’s a giddy delight that just keeps getting more outrageous, especially when Michael Cera turns up as an obnoxious cokehead slapping Rihanna’s ass and blowing a handful of cocaine into Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s face. Honestly, even if you have no interest in the film whatsoever, just go see it for his performance. He pretty much steals the movie. Yet when 98% of the partygoers get sucked down to Hell, the film never even misses a beat. The guys instantly start bickering over food, water, beer, drugs, a Milky Way, masturbating, sleeping arrangements, scavenging, and, yes, there is even a conversation about raping Emma Watson. As if it couldn’t get any better, the guys decided to make a homemade sequel to Pineapple Express.
Perhaps the most inspired part of This Is the End is that Rogen and Goldberg, who also wrote the movie, decided that everyone should just play a cartoon version of themselves. Using the image that most of the public has of them; the guys and gals instantly crank it up to eleven. Rogen goes fully stoner with a sellout edge while Hill goes full nice guy as America’s sweetheart. Robinson brings his teddybear charm while sweating profusely in his “Take off your panties!” t-shirt and McBride unleashes an even darker version of Kenny Powers, if that was even possible. Franco plays with the idea that everyone thinks that he is a bisexual art snob obsessed with Seth Rogen and Baruchel nabs laughs through the idea that everyone is sort of familiar with him but not entirely. Together, they erupt in a flurry of adlib conversations that are just downright hysterical. What is even more shocking is the fact that these guys really go for the throat, burning Rogen for his gravel laugh and Green Hornet and poking Franco for Spider-Man and Your Highness. It certainly is a set that demanded thick skin and deep-rooted relationships. Just when you think you’ve seen everything that This Is the End has to offer, wait until you lay eyes on the axe-wielding Emma Watson, who completely skewers her innocent public image. You will never be able to look at her or Michael Cera the same way ever again.
While This Is the End certainly benefits from its fast and furious humor, there are still a few guffaws that fall painfully flat. This doesn’t happen often but be prepared for one or two lines to be met with the sound of crickets. Despite these fizzlers, This Is the End never looses its momentum and it arrives at a towering inferno climax with a few more cameos and sight gags that are guaranteed to have you doubled over in laughter. The film also dares to get a little preachy in a few places and its interest in the biblical apocalypse was certainly unforeseen, but This Is the End delivers a message that this viewer could stand behind. This message is simple—don’t be a jerk and you’ll be just fine when you meet your maker. Fair enough. Overall, with an inspired idea and a cast that is game to poke fun at themselves and each other’s public persona, This Is the End is ablaze with uncapped creativity, pop culture references, and stoner charm. It may not be for everyone and it is sure to offend your mother, but this is one comedy that begs to be seen with a huge audience ready to have a raucous and raunchy good time.
The Purge (2013)
by Steve Habrat
After four weeks of hulking action blockbusters, Hollywood has finally decided to take a breather and offer up a smaller scale horror-thriller. On paper and in the Universal Studios boardroom, director James DeMonaco’s The Purge probably sounded like a great idea, but on screen, this politically charged dystopian thriller fails to elaborate on any of the razor sharp ideas it presents in the first half hour of its short-and-sweet runtime. However, credit should be given to The Purge for its attempts to be something deeper than just another home invasion movie. It tries hard and it certainly earns an “A” for effort, but after establishing a sturdy foundation, DeMonaco and his team (look for Michael Bay’s name among the producers) decide to fall back on a bunch of horror movie clichés that should never have stuck their nose in this project. It turns in to a Strangers-meets-Straw Dogs kind of bloodbath all while loosing it’s eerie “what if?” gimmick. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few moments that got the adrenaline pumping when the action kicks in, but these moments few and far between, certainly not enough to retain the film’s edge that it has early on.
The year is 2022, and the United States is ruled by the New Founding Fathers of America. This new party has instituted an annual twelve-hour period called “The Purge,” which legalizes all criminal activity. Many American citizens consider it their patriotic duty to take to the streets to murder and maim, their little contribution to keep the low crime and unemployment rates down, a result of “The Purge.” Among these supporters is James Sandin (played by Ethan Hawke), a wealthy home security salesman who has decided to spend the evening of “The Purge” in with his beautiful wife, Mary (played by Lena Headey), and his two teenage children, Zoey (played by Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (played by Max Burkholder). What begins as just a quiet evening in away from the violence spilling into the streets takes a turn when Charlie spots a bloodied stranger (played by Edwin Hodge) wandering through their neighborhood on their home surveillance cameras. Hearing the man’s cries for help, Charlie decides to unlock the Sandin home security system and give the man shelter. James and Mary are horrified by Charlie’s decision to give the man shelter, but things get even worse when a group of young, wealthy, and masked college students show up outside their door with an array of weapons and issuing an ultimatum through the security system: give them the stranger within the hour or suffer the consequences.
For the first half hour of The Purge, there are plenty of smart ideas thrown around that are built to spark debate. Characters and news media speak of “unleashing the beast,” encouraging each other to parade out into the night and beat, stab, shoot, or torture some innocent soul unable to protect themselves. It is basically class warfare, with the upper class absolutely leveling the less-fortunate competition. There is also plenty of talk about the bloodthirsty animal that resides in each and every one of us, a corked bottle of primal violence that is just waiting to be cracked open. The early sequences certainly do capture our America at this particular moment in time, when class warfare spills into the news and it appears that every other week, some psychotic gunman, the individual no one ever expected, is taking to the streets (or school, or movie theater, or mall) to unleash his-or-her inner beast. In this respect, The Purge works on a very alarming level, but when the film abandons these ideas in favor of a paint-by-numbers home invasion movie, it almost become a bit of a bore. Sure it is tense when the power in the Sandin home is cut and there is a chill to be felt when the masked psychos outside peak into the security cameras and windows, but by this point is has fully embraced the cliché. It’s just jump scares while a character mutters a line of dialogue meant to send a shock wave of thought through the viewer.
When it comes to the characters, DeMonaco works very hard to let us get to know them inside and out, but some of the acting and the dialogue that he gives them to work with leaves quite a bit to be desired. Hawke is the only familiar face here and he does a great job playing a rich jerk that supports “The Purge” but doesn’t feel the need to participate in it. You’ll certainly get the impression that he realizes some of the performances are lacking, so he is trying even harder to pick up the slack around him. The lesser-known Headey, who appeared in 300 and Dredd, is another stand out. Near the end of the film, she takes the wheel in a firm way, and you won’t be able to deny her evolution from sobbing and trembling to strong and no-nonsense. As far as the Sandin kids are concerned, Kane is cringe worthy as the lovesick teen Zoey, who is dating a guy a few years older than her, and Burkholder is a bit puzzling as the oddball Charlie, who seems to be flirting with a gothic side and bats an eye at the whole idea of “The Purge.” As far as the supporting cast goes, Hodge is passable as the bloodied stranger but he doesn’t really have much to do. Tony Oller shows up as Zoey’s older boyfriend, Henry, who has a surprise of his own in store for the Sandin family. I honestly couldn’t decide who I thought was a worse, Oller or Kane. Rhys Wakefield turns in an amazing villainous role as the leader of the psychos prowling around the house. Just wait until you get a look at his smile. It will freeze your blood.
As if The Purge’s reluctance to follow through with its ideas, the abundance of clichés, and the lifeless performances weren’t enough to keep the film down, the script itself is loaded with one perplexing moment after another. What exactly is the deal with Charlie? At times he seemed to disapprove of “The Purge” and then there are moments when he seemed fascinated by it. And why weren’t James and Mary a bit more concerned about their daughter’s safety when she ran off after Charlie let the stranger in? Am I the only one who got the impression that they weren’t too worried about finding her? And how about that twist ending that you can see coming a mile away if you just pay attention to that peculiar moment during the opening moments of the film? To me, this was all very distracting and poorly thought out on DeMonaco’s part. Overall, you have to commend the filmmakers desire to attempt something fresh and say something about this moment in America, but when the psychos start trying to break in, the film plays out like every other—and better—home invasion movie we’ve seen before. It borrows heavily from The Strangers and the remake of Straw Dogs and it embraces an avalanche of wearisome horror movie clichés that should have been purged from the genre years ago. Hmmm maybe that is why it is called The Purge. Maybe DeMonaco is purging horror of all these frustrating clichés. Yeah, that is pretty unlikely.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
by Steve Habrat
Throughout the 1950s, most of the science fiction films that hit the screen were filmed in black and white and made on shoestring budgets. They were pumped out quickly to capitalize on the sci-fi craze that was running rampant through American audiences. Arguably the best science fiction film of the 1950s is director Fred M. Wilcox’s 1956 effort Forbidden Planet, a pulpy space opera that also acts as a retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Appearing as though it has leapt from the pages of one of those “funny books” and featuring an icy electronic score, Forbidden Planet is a film that truly tickles the eyeballs. It is all about the sky-high production values that are almost like staring into a cosmic rainbow, yet Wilcox doesn’t lean solely on the visuals. Forbidden Planet is also a cautionary tale about rapid technological advancement and those advancements spinning horribly out of control to the point of total annihilation. It perfectly reflects the anxiety and the tension of the 1950s, an era that saw the beginning of the Space Race, a general boom in technology, and the hydrogen bomb.
Forbidden Planet begins in the early 23nd century, with the United Planets Cruiser C57-D a year out from earth and traveling to the planet of Altair. It turns out that the crew of C57-D, led by Commander J.J. Adams (played by Leslie Nielsen), is there to investigate the fate of an expedition crew sent to Altair twenty years earlier. Upon entering orbit, the crew makes contact with Dr. Edward Morbius (played by Walter Pidgeon), who warns the crew not to land on the planet. Commander Adams ignores the warning and proceeds to land anyway. Minutes after touching down, the crew is greeted by Robby the Robot, an extremely intelligent robot who acts as an assistant to Morbius. Robby takes Commander Adams, Lieutenant Jerry Farman (played by Jack Kelly), and Lieutenant “Doc” Ostrow (played by Warren Stevens), to Morbius’ home, where the group is also introduced to his beautiful daughter, Altaira (played by Anne Francis). Morbius explains to the group that an unknown planetary force attacked and killed his crew and then vaporized their ship, the Bellerophon. Morbius then warns the group that they should leave the planet before they meet the same fate. But after equipment aboard C57-D is sabotaged, Commander Adams confronts Morbius about the damage. Morbius reveals that he has been studying an alien race known as the Krell, which mysteriously disappeared 200,000 years earlier, just as they achieved a great scientific breakthrough. As the days pass and the crew works to restore their ship, they discover that the damage may be caused by an invisible and extremely violent life form that watches from the surrounding hills.
Right from the start, director Wilcox works hard to establish a pulpy aesthetic that resembles something out of a comic book. Every color pops and flat out refuses to let you turn away. The environments look absolutely breathtaking, almost like a Technicolor dream made alien through a chirping electronic score that is just perfect. Yet despite all the cosmic color and alien blips, Forbidden Planet never once thinks about winking at the audience. It plays itself completely straight, something that will most certainly catch first time viewers off guard. Once the crew of C57-D lands on Altair, Wilcox is all about letting the viewer get to know the characters and the world around them. We are taken through glowing underground factories and shown all sorts of futuristic devices that do all sorts of wondrous (and dangerous) things. It truly is an immersive experience and not one moon rock is left unturned by the climax. While over half the film is explanation and plot development, the final stretch gives way to some pretty tense action sequences that really zip, bang, and flash. The less you know about the finale, the better, but just know that it will blow you away and have you wondering just how the filmmakers pulled all those effects off.
In addition to rich set design and the unforgettable score, Forbidden Planet is also loaded with unforgettable performances. Nielsen, who is mostly remembered for his comedic performances, is spectacular as the brave hero racing to understand the environment around him. We are never treated to a hint of his comedic talents and you can’t help but think that he would have made a great action hero if he had pursued it further. Pidgeon is commanding as our mysterious guide through this alien land. There is an angle of menace to his character and the heavy weight of tragedy is resting on his shoulders. Stevens is solid as Nielsen’s sidekick, “Doc” Ostrow, who is tasked with trying to understand the alien life form that is prowling around the ship. Francis is perfectly naïve and beautiful as Morbius’ sheltered daughter, Altaira, who is enamored by the “Earthmen” that keep visiting her home. Kelly is charismatic as the lovesick Farman, who desperately tries to cuddle up to Altaira. Earl Holliman also turns up in a supporting role as C57-D’s cook, who is desperate for another bottle of bourbon. Last but certainly not least is Robby the Robot, probably the most iconic character from Forbidden Planet. He may not have all that much to do besides moving heavy pieces of equipment with one hand or making 60 gallons of bourbon, but he is given plenty of personality through the voice of Marvin Miller, who elevates the walking pile of spinning parts into a real charmer.
Like most of the science fiction films of the 1950s, Forbidden Planet has quite a bit on its mind. You get the impression that Wilcox and his screenwriters, Cyril Hume, Irving Block, and Allen Adler, are reflecting upon the detonation of the atomic bomb and the rapid advancements that were being made in the Atomic Age. There is fear here that these great powers that America was experimenting with may also be our downfall. If you ignore the atomic fears that creep through the film, you’ll still notice that the film is incredibly influential. In addition to the breakthrough electronic score, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry has said that Forbidden Planet was one of his major inspirations for the classic show. The film is also mentioned in The Rocky Horror Picture Show during the opening song. Overall, brimming with personality, wit, thrills, chills, and charm, Forbidden Planet is an irresistible and massively influential entry into the science fiction genre. It has powerful performances, extraordinary set design, and special effects that continue to astonish to this very day. It is a deep and thoughtful journey through space that you will want to take again and again.
Forbidden Planet is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Drive-In Theater Turns 80!
I just wanted to let all of you know that today, June 6th, is the 80th anniversary of the drive-in movie theater. The first drive-in theater was opened in New Jersey by Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. in 1933. The drive-in theater really peaked in the 1950s and the craze lasted into the 1960s, but by the early 1970s, their popularity began to decline and in response to this, the drive-ins turned to exploitation cinema and pornography. Today, most drive-ins sit abandoned or forgotten, although there are still some that remain operation, eager to sprinkle a bit of summer nostalgia on American audiences. I’ve posted some old vintage photos and even a video in celebration of the anniversary. Enjoy and look for a review of the 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet tomorrow.
-Theater Management (Steve)
Ya know, I may just have to watch an old science fiction movie in honor of this special day….