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Black Christmas (2006)

Black Christmas (2006)

by Steve Habrat

Bob Clark’s original Black Christmas is a freaky, freaky movie. Seriously, watch it all by yourself and try not to get creeped out as a slew of sorority sisters are stalked and murdered by an unseen killer all while ethereal Christmas carols play faintly in the background. It is no surprise that Hollywood would get the idea that the film was in desperate need of a redo and then proceed to screw it up royally. Enter director Glen Morgan’s cheap and tasteless 2006 pulp explosion that completely misses what made the original Black Christmas such a spooky little title. Sure, the original Black Christmas contained a little gore here and there, but it relied on atmosphere, getting under our skin with the idea that evil could be lurking anywhere and strike at any moment. Plus, it also featured some pretty good acting (Margot Kidder!), which was another positive. Black Christmas 2006 opts for outrageous shocks, glaringly fake gore, and some truly awful acting (Seriously, what the hell is Mary Elizabeth Winstead doing here?!). Morgan’s monstrosity should really be viewed as an insult considering that Clark’s Black Christmas predated John Carpenter’s legendary 1978 slasher Halloween and deserves credit for shaping the slasher subgenre. These kids just don’t get it!

On a snowy Christmas Eve night, the girls of the Alpha Kappa Gamma sorority house are all preparing themselves for Christmas day. Apparently, most of them don’t have any family to go home to. It turns out that the Alpha Kappa Gamma house used to be the home of Billy Lenz (Played by Robert Mann), a boy who suffered from a liver disorder that caused his skin to be yellow. Billy was loved by his father but despised by his mother and one night, Billy catches his mother and her boyfriend killing his loving father. If this wasn’t traumatizing enough, they then lock Billy away in the attic and his mother proceeds to sexually abuse him. She ends up getting pregnant and giving birth to a girl, Agnes (Played by Dean Friss), who is the apple of her eye. One day, Billy snaps and finds a way to get out of the attic. He then proceeds to murder his mother and eat her. In present day, Billy executes a daring escape from the mental institution he is locked away in and he returns to his childhood home to massacre the sorority sisters staying there. As the girls mysteriously disappear and perverted phone calls terrorize the girls, it is up to Kelli (Played by Katie Cassidy), her suspicious local boyfriend Kyle (Played by Oliver Hudson), and Leigh (Played by Kristen Cloke), the half-sister of one of the missing girls, to get the bottom of the mysterious disappearances and gruesome murders.

With subtly and the sinister slow build long gone, Black Christmas 2006 dives head first into a comic book aesthetic that is bathed in flashing multicolored lights and relentless self-aware violence. Morgan is all about being gross and graphic without ever paying tribute to the restraint of the original film. About the only thing he gets right is the plastic bag used to suffocate the victims but even that gets worn out about twenty minutes in. If suffocating his victims wasn’t enough, he then has his yellow skinned Billy, who looks like he belongs in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, chop off the heads of his victims and remove their eyeballs, which he then uses as ornaments on his Christmas tree. And we can’t forget the cannibalism that has been worked into just to make things more sick and twisted. There are only a few moments where Morgan applies the voyeuristic camera work that Clark used but when Morgan does it, it seems like it is just a laughable excuse to show one of his pretty actresses nude. He also can’t seem to leave the gratuitous sex scenes alone and he shoves one after another on us. One character watches a porn video on her computer while a flashback sequence shows Billy’s hideous mother and her boyfriend going to town on each other only to follow that up with her molesting Billy moments after. After a while, I just wanted it all to stop.

Black Christmas (2006)

Then we have the atrocious acting, which unsurprisingly never rises about very average. Cassidy’s Kelli is absolutely awful as the main heroine, mostly because there is very little development with her character, which makes it very hard to root for her. She is just suddenly being terrorized and that is all there is to it. Hudson is a joke as Kyle, the meathead boyfriend of Kelli who walks around with an ominous smile plastered across his face for most of the movie. It’s like he is begging to be a suspect even though we know he isn’t the killer (He has yellow skin, you morons!). Cloke’s Leigh arrives late to this stabbathon looking for her half-sister, who bites the dust earlier in the film. She teams up with Kelli but both just run around screaming and making one stupid decision after another. The rest of the girls all blend in to the background, cliché characters designed to be hacked up in the most brutal ways possible. The only one that really stands out is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Heather. She’s the only scream queen here who really knows what she is doing and even she seems a little embarassed. As far as Mann’s Billy is concerned, he just darts around in the shadows and stares bug-eyed at his victims. He certainly doesn’t anything new or exciting with his character.

At a skimpy eighty minutes, Black Christmas 2006 feels entirely too long and too short at the same time. It seems to be dragging its feet in places, especially when the girls sit around and complain about Christmas or listen horrified at the story of Billy Lenz. Then there are the flashbacks that build Billy’s backstory, which are more interested in being repulsive than providing a good scare. There is a last act twist that we can see coming a mile away and when it hits, it seems to make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Probably the only thing that one can like in the film is the nifty little nod to Clark’s other holiday classic A Christmas Story. In one scene, we can clearly see the Old Man’s leg lamp glowing proudly in the darkness. Overall, Black Christmas 2006 is another throwaway remake for the MTV generation; the ones who just can’t seem to sit patiently and enjoy a good, clever scare. It has to be a strobe light of senseless gore, loud fake-out scares, and pretty faces to keep them occupied. I hope Santa delivers a lump of coal to Morgan for this rotten remake.

Grade: F

Black Christmas 2006 is available of Blu-ray and DVD.

Attack of the Remakes! The Omen (2006)

by Steve Habrat

If there is one thing in this world that makes absolutely no sense to me, it is when Hollywood decides to remake a classic horror film and do a shot-by-shot redo of the film. We saw it happen with Gus Van Sant’s color remake of Psycho and we all know how THAT one turned out (if you can believe it, one of my film professors though it was brilliant…). In 2006, Hollywood got the bright idea to revisit director Richard Donner’s 1976 demonic thriller The Omen, one of the best horror films to emerge from the heyday of gritty, blood-under-the-nails horror. The film may have been one of the countless imitators made in the wake of such demonic horror films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist but The Omen remains one of the titans of this subgenre because of its lingering post-Watergate chill and its bleak inverted-crucifix conclusion that practically leaves your heart pounding out of your chest. Basically, the original is a must for die-hard fans of horror. I can’t say the same about the absolutely pointless and flat post 9/11 update. Made to be released on 6/6/06 (I’m being serious), The Omen 2006 attempts to use horrific current events (9/11, Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami) as its gloomy backdrop but then does little else new or exciting with the story. If you’ve seen the original, you’ve seen this one. Absolutely nothing has been changed.

For those who are not familiar with The Omen, I’ll provide a brief plot synopsis. After American diplomat Robert Thorn (Played by Leiv Schreiber) is told that his newborn son died shortly after birth, the distraught Robert grapples with how to break the news to his wife, Katherine (Played by Julia Stiles). The hospital’s priest suggests that Robert adopt another newborn child whose mother died during childbirth and has no other living family member. To spare Katherine the pain, Robert accepts this offer and the Thorn’s raise the child, Damien, as their own. Five years pass and Robert is made Deputy Ambassador to the Court of St. James and the Thorns begin a new, lavish life in London. Everything is great for the Thorns but soon a serious of bizarre events begin to surround Damien (Played by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick). After a horrific suicide at Damien’s fifth birthday party, Robert is approached by Father Brennan (Played by Peter Postlewaite), who claims to have information on Damien’s birthmother. As the events grow more and more disturbing, Robert is forced to humor Father Brennan and he begins searching for more information on the boy. He gets help from a spooked photographer named Keith Jennings (Played by David Thewlis), who may be marked for death. Meanwhile, a mysterious new nanny named Mrs. Baylock (Played by Mia Farrow) has come to the Thorn household and begun watching over Damien, protecting him at any cost.

Directed by John Moore, The Omen 2006 is shot like a gothic music video and frantically edited together to imitate a strobe light. It’s incredibly stylish and symbolically obvious (the color red surrounds Damien everywhere he goes) to the point where all you can do is roll your eyes. The death scenes are overly grisly and amped up to outdo the chilling sudden demises found in the original film. The sets look like leftovers from David Fincher’s Seven and when an ominous mood fails Moore, he just clouds up the sky and allows a little thunder and lightning to make things creepy or simply dims the light in places where he shouldn’t. He also falls back on shaky camera shots in the hopes that it makes the scene just a tad more interesting. Outside of exploiting real life disasters as the rise of the antichrist, Moore and screenwriter David Seltzer inject a series of bizarre hallucinations and nightmares suffered by Katherine. They are composed of blinding reds and whites as demons in ceremonial robes stalk Katherine in baroque bathrooms and red clad Damien waves a noose around. These scenes are brought to us in rapid fire flashes that are accompanied by loud bangs on the soundtrack, which Moore assumes automatically makes them scary. To the jittery horror viewer, this may all be extremely terrifying but to those of us who are seasoned veterans, it’s all very cheap and lazy.

If the movie itself isn’t dull enough, the acting doesn’t really do much to spice things up. Schreiber and Stiles are grossly miscast in their roles and look laughable compared to the original’s Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. Schreiber looks stuffy and uncomfortable trying to prevent the rise of the antichrist while Stiles seems too young and bored as she sulks after their demon seed. Davey-Fitzpatrick could rank as one of the worst child actors to hit the screen in quite some time. He fails to really shake us up like he should. Moore instructs him to glare at everyone like they refused to buy him a toy he so desperately wanted. Things really get laughable at the end when Moore asks him to turn from distant child into thrashing demon. He looks like he is throwing a phony temper tantrum and it is downright awful. Postlewaite works his ass off as the perpetually terrified Father Brennan but there is just too little of him to really save this junk heap. Thewlis is likable enough as Jennings, a photographer who captures some sinister photographs. He makes up for the stiff and out-of-place Schreiber but the two just don’t have the chemistry that they should. Rounding out the main players is Farrow, who seems to be having a devilishly good time as Mrs. Baylock. She gives the film the suspense and unease that it so desperately wants.

As if the lack of any surprises and lukewarm performances wasn’t enough, The Omen is littered with glaring screw-ups in the script. Near the climax of the film, Robert receives news that someone very close to him has mysteriously died and upon learning that news, Robert tells Keith that he wants Damien dead. In the next scene, Robert goes to see a mysterious priest who instructs him on how to kill the child. As the priest explains the ritual, the distraught ambassador becomes sick to his stomach and claims that he cannot kill a child. Perhaps he forgot his previous statement? There are plenty more “What the hell?” moments like this to be found throughout the film so make sure you are prepared. As someone who admires the original film and appreciates its slow build-up, I say skip this utterly pointless remake and seek out the original. Somehow, it is more realistic and it’s all the more chilling due to its gritty presentation. If you are determined to see the modern interpretation, well, I suppose if you are in the market for a nap, this one will help put you to sleep.

Grade: D

The Omen 2006 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Attack of the Remakes! The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

by Steve Habrat

It didn’t take long for Alexandre Aja’s The Hill’s Have Eyes remake to win me over. All it took was that brutal opening sequence and the spirited, stock footage atomic blast credits to convince me that I was in for one hell of a punishing ride. This zippy, bloody remake based on Wes Craven’s 1977 original has certainly been one of the more polarizing reboots to come out of Hollywood. The gritty original film is beloved for its simplicity but its status as a horror classic remains debatable. In fact, I think this is one of the few instances where I would have to go with the remake over the original film. Certainly not a film for the faint of heart, I would go so far as to say that Aja’s interpretation of this radiated nightmare is one of the strongest, most unforgiving, and confident mainstream horror films of recent memory. I adore the fact that this film refuses to play nice and just coast on autopilot as loud blasts of music startle us rather than scare us. I love that it dares give the viewer a heart attack as it drops a helpless infant into a savage world where deformed mutants attempt to chop it up and eat it. I hold my breath as our desperate liberal pacifist hero tiptoes around a forgotten atomic bomb test village as the savage cannibals growl and snicker from unseen vantage points. And how about that score from Tomandandy, all atomic alerts and static moans as characters are slaughtered in the most horrific ways imaginable. This, my friends, is a horror film that isn’t afraid to get right in the viewers face and stay there.

The Hills Have Eyes introduces us to Ethel Carter (Played by Kathleen Quinlan) and her husband, “Big” Bob Carter (Played by Ted Levine), who are on their way from Cleveland, Ohio to San Diego, California for their wedding anniversary. Behind them, they are dragging a trailer filled with their cranky teenage daughter Brenda (Played by Emile de Ravin), respectful son Bobby (Played by Dan Byrd), eldest daughter Lynn (Played by Vinessa Shaw), Lynn’s liberal husband Doug Bukowski (Played by Aaron Stanford), their newborn daughter Catherine, and a pair of feisty German Shepherds.  After stopping off at a dilapidated gas station in the middle of the New Mexico desert, the greasy gas station attendant recommends a scenic short cut for the family to take. “Big” Bob decides to take the recommended short cut but after traveling a few miles down the beaten path, the family’s tires are punctured by a spike belt. Stranded out in the middle of nowhere with a totaled car, the family begins trying to figure out a way to make it back to the main road and get help. As night falls in the New Mexico hills, the Carter’s begin to realize that they are not alone and that someone is watching them.

After the arresting opening sequence, Aja allows us to really get to know the Carter family in all their dysfunctional glory. They appear to be the typical American family that bickers, fights, but comes together over dinner. Aja lingers on them a long time before he unleashes his nuclear band of mutants that hide out in a dusty atomic test village. When he finally does launch into the carnage, he doesn’t ease us into it. He grabs us by the hair and tosses us in with such ferocity that we almost need a minute to recover. He knocks off three characters half way through and then to make things worse, we have a kidnapped newborn child to worry about. This first attack on the Carter’s has to ranks as one of the most terrifying sequences in a horror film, as one character is burned to death outside, a graphic rape and torture is occurring inside the trailer. This sequence will bring you to your knees as you watch from the cracked fingers covering your eyes. The sequence really leaves a bruise because we care for these characters and we are forced to watch as they are senselessly slaughtered right in front of our eyes. The film has been accused of descending into “torture porn” but I disagree with this argument. “Torture porn” films like Saw really failed to engage me emotionally like The Hills Have Eyes did. Saw was just disgusting where The Hills Have Eyes is scaring, traumatizing, and disturbing while also churning your stomach.

The one flaw that I can find with The Hills Have Eyes is some of the dialogue at the beginning of the film is poorly written. It was far from natural as characters ramble on with obviously scripted conversations. Luckily, we have some talented actors and actresses in front of the camera who can sell the lame dialogue. Levine ad-libbed all of his dialogue and its all the better for it. He is just fantastic as the gun-totting Republican who loves to tease his liberal son-in-law. Quinlan is believable as the loving mother who stews and frets over her children as they tease her with one dirty joke after another. Byrd and de Ravin are nicely cast as teenage hellions who argue with one another over little things that don’t warrant an argument. In the second half of the film, they really come together to stay alive and keep each other from succumbing to inconsolable grief. Shaw is sort of forgettable as Lynn but it is sweet the way she tries to keep Doug’s spirit up even as Bob relentlessly teases him. Stanford is probably the best next to Levine, especially in the second half of the film. Watching him transform from a non-confrontational wimp into a shotgun packing man on a mission is absolutely jaw dropping.

Elevated by strong pacing and a stunning explosion of violence, The Hills Have Eyes certain gets under your skin and fast. The action is complimented by a marvelous score by Tomandandy, who build suspense with a chugging atomic alert when the mutants are about to strike and make Ennio Morricone proud as soaring trumpets punctuate the final showdown. By the end, it almost sounds like Aja borrowed the score from a forgotten spaghetti western. The make-up and special effects on the mutants is also fairly impressive but the less you know about them, the better they are. I will say that I would have liked to see a bit more development out of them but they are pretty spooky as they are. I liked that Aja doesn’t ever reveal how many mutants are lurking out in the desert, which adds another chilling layer to the film. What ultimately makes The Hills Have Eyes into a ferocious winner is its willingness to be as unpredictable as possible. Aja refuses to work from a familiar formula and his addition of the atomic test village at the end allows the film to stand apart from Craven’s original film. Overall, The Hills Have Eyes is an intelligent horror film that isn’t afraid to leave the viewer rattled to their core. If Hollywood insists on remakes, they should all be as good as this.

Grade: A

The Hills Have Eyes is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006)

by Craig Thomas

Chan-wook Park is one of South Korea’s most prominent directors and one of the best working directors in the world today. Among his most vocal supporters is Quentin Tarantino, who pushed to award Oldboy the 2006 Palme d’Or (it instead went to Michael Moore for Fahrenheit 9/11, one would assume for political, rather than cinematic reasons). Whilst it would be easy to tag him as part of the “Extreme Asia” movement of extremely violent films, this would detract from his ability as a filmmaker. Yes, his films are often hard-hitting and violent, but they are also fantastic, beautifully shot and directed.

I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK is somewhat of a departure for Park, being a romantic comedy, though the theme of revenge runs throughout the film (in some ways making in the unofficial fourth part of his excellent “revenge trilogy” of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance) and there are one or two scenes not for the squeamish. Set in a mental institution, it tells the tale of Cha Young-goon, (played by Su-jeong Lim) a new patient who thinks she is a machine rather than a human being. Inside, she meets a host of quirky patients with problems of their own.

This is not a social-realist film dealing with mental illness. It is a highly stylized, colourful work that often makes being insane look quite fun. What it is, is a film about denial. Struggling to overcome the loss of her grandmother, she denies she is a human being. Cha Young-goon’s mother denies both her mother and daughter have serious mental health issues, the former who is left until her problems become too great to ignore whilst the latter is told to hide her problems, until they manifest in what is mistakenly thought to be a suicide attempt.

Like Park’s previous work, it is also about the futile, destructive nature of revenge. She spends the film plotting with all manner of electronic devices (wall lights, vending machines, etc) in order to kill the “men in white” who took away her beloved, insane grandmother, whilst licking batteries to charge enough power (because cyborgs don’t eat) to kill them all.

Like all of his films, it is visually stunning. Every shot, without exception, is beautiful and credit must be given to the long-time collaborator, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung. This is one of the greatest strengths of Park’s films. They are clean and precise, without ever being sterile or bland and can make even the most brutal and disturbing scenes of violence (of which in the film, there is only one) beautiful, yet hard-hitting.

Some might be concerned that the comedy would not survive the subtitles, but they needn’t be. The script is laugh-out-loud funny and there are also a lot of visual gags and despite the somewhat unusual setting there are also tender and heart-warming moments throughout with the blossoming romance between her and the “soul-stealing” Park Il-sun (played by Rain) offering a somewhat optimistic tone about the redemptive nature of love.

That said, it is not perfect and the one scene of violence does seem to jar somewhat with the rest of the film. Nevertheless, it is a rewarding watch and an interesting take on an often (rightly) derided genre. It’s also a great way to experience the beauty of a Park film if you are not fond of extreme violence.

Grade: B+

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

V for Vendetta (2006)

by Steve Habrat

Among the superhero movie elite is without question director James McTeigue’s politically charged 2006 film V for Vendetta, based off of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name. Heavily critical of oppressive, war hungry governments who lie to their citizens and control through fear, it is very easy to read V for Vendetta as an attack on the ultra right wing extremists. Even if you do not quite agree with the politics of V for Vendetta, the film still has plenty to offer in the action and suspense department. Larry and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix boys) penned V for Vendetta, so you know you are in for one hell of a thrill ride when the bullets, knives, and fists start flying. Despite the heaping amount of praise I give this film, I do think it does have its fair share of flaws which cause it to stumble during its second act, especially when much of the focus is pulled off of the liberal-minded vigilante V, a monstrous experiment that backfires on all of those who were responsible. The story is so busy and tries to juggle so much at one time that you may find yourself hitting the rewind button out of confusion, at least on your first viewing. Things do clear themselves up a bit after revisiting the film a few times but certain points are still murky. Even so, you have to applaud the film’s reluctance to simplify itself, which is always invigorating in a superhero film.

The year is 2020 and much of the world is ravaged by civil war, disease, unrest, and chaos. Great Britain is under the control of a fascist Norsefire party, who act as a sort of Big Brother type. One evening, British Television Network employee Evey Hammon (Played by Natalie Portman) decides to make a trip to the home of her boss, Gordon Deitrich (Played by Stephen Fry), despite the government curfew that is firmly in place. The streets are partoled by “Fingerman,” a secret police force who takes orders from High Chancellor Adam Sutler (Played by John Hurt). Evey ends up bumping in to several “Fingerman,” who then attempt to rape and beat her but she is saved by a mysterious man in a Guy Fawkes mask. This man, who calls himself V (Played by Hugo Weaving), proceeds to take Evey to a rooftop that overlooks the Old Bailey, which he then proceeds to destroy. The next days, the Norsefire party attempts to cover up this attack but V infiltrates the BTN and takes credit for the attack. He then encourages the citizens of Great Britain to rise up against this tolterian force that oppresses them and join him on November 5th, 2021, outside the Houses of Parliament and watch as he destroys it. Evey ends up bumping into V as he is fleeing the BTN and she narrowly saves his life, but it is all caught on camera. With no other alternative, V takes Evey to his underground hideout where she slowly begins to understand what V is trying to accomplish. She also learns about his horrific past inside a concentration camp called Larkhill, one set up by the Norsefire party. Meanwhile, lead inspector Eric Finch (Played by Stephen Rae) is hot on V trail but he ends up discovering more than he bargained for.

Certainly not the easiest film to briefly sum up due to the fact that there are tons of moving parts that allow the story to keep chugging along, V for Vendetta certainly is a rich and hearty thriller that more than satisfies. The first forty minutes of the film are absolutely glorious and flawless, with plenty of mind-bending action sequences and slow mounting suspense to keep you glued to your seat. The infiltration of the BTN by V seems like something Christopher Nolan would have concocted in one of his Batman films with closed-quarters action that would have been right at home in The Matrix. Then things switch from relentless action into more of a political thriller and character drama. The second half of the film is certainly interesting, especially when we get to hear about the origin of the Norsefire party and how V was molded into a Shakespeare-quoting gentleman who prefers to slay his victims with knives and ideas. It is here that the narrative tries to cram in too much and things begin to get tangled up in its own story. There are so many characters to try to keep track of that the exhaustion carved into lead inspector Finch’s face says it all. Yet when things finally do come together, or at least when we can finally put all the puzzle pieces in place, it does knock you off your feet. In a way, this is a positive because the more times you see V for Vendetta, the more that it chooses to reveal, making it one that you could happily add to your film collection.

Another unusual approach in V for Vendetta is never allowing the audience to get a glimpse of the V’s face. We learn that V was horribly disfigured in a fire and that he also can take quite a bit more punishment than the normal human being, a result of experiments that were conducted on him in Larkhill. V keeps his scarred face hidden behind a Guy Fawkes mask and allows his personality to come alive in eloquent and poetic dialogue that pours from the small slit in the mask’s mouth. He is mildly pretentious in the way he quotes Shakespeare, enjoys high art, and swoons over The Count of Monte Cristo, a film he can quote line by line. His underground lair is walled with books as thick as bricks, shrines to individuals who were deemed “unfit” by the Norsefire party (a lesbian woman who was in a cell next to V while he was in Larkhill), and accented with classical tunes that pour forth from his jukebox of 100 songs, none of which V has ever danced to. Weaving has his work cut out for him in selling V to the audience but he does it with human grace. I enjoy the fact that V is meant to represent all of us and I loved the fact that my imagination ran wild with what he looked like. We only ever get a glimpse of his hands, which are red, swollen, and peeling, grotesque but tragic, even more so when Evey sees them and V quickly covers them up so he doesn’t offend her.

Then we have Portman’s Evey, who has to speak in a faux British accent that does come off as fake from time to time but Portman’s character is caught in so much conflict that you barely notice. She is a powerhouse when she has her hair shaved off in one of the film’s more intense moments. She morphs from a conformed member of the Norsefire society into a cold, steely liberator with eyes that are made of fire, perhaps the same flames that baptized V. Her intimate moments with V, the ones where they speak of their pasts and V’s plot are touching, haunting, and hypnotic. Then we have Rae’s Finch, a loyal Norsefire party member who is beginning to question the party he has dedicated himself to. The more he uncovers, the more he begins to see that V is not the enemy. Another standout is John Hurt as Sutler, who is almost always seen on a giant screen that looms over the closest members of his cabinet. There is so much force in his voice when he snarls at those close to him that he needs to remind the people of Great Britain why they need him. Rounding all the main players is Fry is a closeted homosexual who fears his sexual orientation will have him jailed, but that is the least of his worries, and Tim Pigott-Smith as Peter Creedy, the scowling and slimy head of the “Fingerman.”

V for Vendetta has a shattering moment in the middle of the film when it flashes back to tell the story of Valerie (Played by Imogen Poots and Natasha Wightman), a lesbian who was disowned by her family and ultimately arrested by the government and thrown into Larkhill. The scene is fueled by so much raw emotion, anger, frustration, and ache that it still retains its punch every time you see the film. It is the highlight of the convoluted middle section of V for Vendetta, one that shows the true suffering at the hands of evil individuals who lack the right to judge their neighbor. It also acts as the push behind this liberal minded superhero outing. It is a call for tolerance and acceptance of all walks of life, something the far right refuses to do. Despite the longwinded politics of the middle portion of the film (trust me, it covers it all), the last act ties everything up in grand, fiery fashion, complete with a rousing fireworks display. The end battle scene between V and several members of the “Fingerman” is turned up eleven with slow motion spirals of V flying through the air and cutting down those who have caused him so much pain, V’s rage tied up with fluttering ribbons of blood cutting across the action. Yet it is the idea that together we can accomplish anything that will have you on your feet by the time the credits roll. It is the idea of universal freedom that allows V for Vendetta to stand as one of the true triumphs of the superhero genre.

Grade: A-

V for Vendetta is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Superman Returns (2006)

by Steve Habrat

I’ll never forget the jolt of excitement that I felt when I first saw the Superman Returns teaser trailer, the one with Marlon Brando’s Jor-El commanding the speakers and explaining to Kal-El why he has sent his only son to earth. It looked like Superman was in good hands, picking up shortly after the events of 1980’s Superman II. Director Bryan Singer worked overtime to make a film that captured the nostalgia of the original two films while also updating the character for modern audiences. I really can’t express how disappointed I was in the finished product of Superman Returns, a dull, lumbering, and bloated reboot that basically served no purpose other than to let us know that Superman now has a son and that he is still not with Lois Lane. It has been said that Singer cut fifteen minutes from this movie when he should have cut about forty minutes from it. For almost two and a half hours, we go in circles while Kevin Spacey tries his hardest to perk the film up. Even worse, you’d think that with all of our beefed up special effects, Singer could have conceived one thrilling action sequence but nothing ever rises above mildly attention grabbing. They almost seemed like they were in there just as an excuse to crank the volume up and wake the audience up from their naps.

After assuring the president that he would never abandon Earth again, Superman Returns begins by explaining to us that Superman (Played by Brandon Routh) has been missing for five years, searching the galaxy for the remains of his home planet Krypton. He apparently didn’t say goodbye to anyone he deeply cared about, which has really upset Lois Lane (Played by Kate Bosworth) and led to her writing an article entitled Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman. Lane has also won the Pulitzer Prize for the article, an award that she has mixed feelings about when Superman suddenly returns to earth and makes a daring rescue. The Daily Planet is sent into a frenzy covering his return and Superman confronts the now engaged Lois, who also has a mysterious son named Jason (Played by Tristan Lake Leabu) about the article she wrote. As Superman tries to reignite the flame between Lois and convince her that the world does need a savior, the dreaded Lex Luthor (Played by Kevin Spacey) hatches a plot that elaborates on his destructive real estate scheme from 1978’s Superman. Luthor travels back to the Fortress of Solitude and steals multiple crystals that can allow Superman to grow massive landmasses that resemble his home planet. Luthor isn’t content with just growing alien landscape and he figures out a way to lace the rocky terrain with Kryptonite, which would prevent Superman from stopping him. Luthor plans to grow his new landmass in the Northern Atlantic Ocean, which would cause the sea level to rise and destroy the United States, killing billions of people.

My first complaint about Singer’s Superman Returns is that casting of the blank slate that is Brandon Routh, who has absolutely no screen presence at all. He barely even registers half the time and seems downright uncomfortable when he pulls on the iconic tights. He is expressionless and bland, cast simply because he has a striking resemblance to Reeve. Routh has so much make-up caked onto his face that at times he looks artificial, making him more creepy and off-putting rather than warm and inviting like Reeve was in Superman and Superman II. Singer twists him into more Christ-like poses and double underlines the idea that Superman is in fact Christ sent from heaven to deliver us from evil (Lex Luthor). He glides above Earth with his arms outstretched, listening to a world cry out for his help. His awkwardness does transfer well to the bumbling Clark Kent but he never pulls that side of performance off like Reeve did in the original films. I hate to compare Routh so much to Reeve but it is virtually impossible since he is picking up where Reeve left off. The best scene he does have is when he confronts a crook wielding a Gatling gun, smirking as a bullet bounces off his eyeball.

Then we have Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane, another small blip on the radar when she was such a firecracker in the other two films. Singer puts a heavy emphasis on her character, almost making her the centerpiece in all the apocalyptic mayhem. Bosworth is pretty enough and Singer doesn’t go to cheesy lengths to make her look like Margot Kidder, letting her physical appearance stand as it already is. At least she isn’t creepy like Routh. She is overly cold to Superman when he shows up for an interview and she is too torn between her fiancé Richard White (Played by James Mardsen), the nephew of Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White (Played by Frank Langella), and the alien savior. The finale is basically an extended sequence of Lane getting herself into one nasty situation after another, all there simply to reveal that her son may be the offspring of the Man of Steel. Luckily, the two bland leads are saved by Kevin Spacey’s inspired take of Lex Luthor. He steals the movie and holds our interest through the entire project. Going for a lower key interpretation of Gene Hackman’s over-the-top tantrums, Spacey owns the role until the final frame.

Superman Returns also doesn’t stray from the massive apocalyptic obstacles that the Man of Steel must overcome. Pointy alien rock formations poke out of the sea while lightning crashes down on Superman as he swoops in to pull Lois, Jason, and Richard out of harms way. Metropolis also sees its fair share of devastation as Luthor’s plot sends tremors right into the heart of the city. The Daily Planet globe tumbles off the top of the building while a damaged gas lines ignites a discarded cigar and sends flames shooting out of the sewers. The message here is quite simple in Superman Returns: Don’t smoke! Superman manages to keep everyone safe through the extended sequences of devastation—you never once fear that he won’t overcome what is thrown his way, which is the major problem of the film. Things do get a bit edgy when Luthor pummels Supes on his Kryptonite laced landmass. The best action scene has to be Superman’s rescues of an airplane that tumbles out of the sky, right towards a crowded baseball field. It is perhaps the most rousing aspect of the entire film. Luckily, all this CGI destruction looks great but it fails to ever really get our hearts pounding.

There was plenty of potential here for Singer to really make America fall back in love with the Man of Steel. He really tries hard but his choices in his cast are what really drags Superman Returns down. Nobody really grabbed me outside of Spacey and made me like them and trust me, I really did want to like these characters again. Singer is also quick to elaborate on the religious subtext made in Donner’s Superman, something that didn’t need to be rehashed to the audience. The lack of stunning action set pieces also really hold the film back and we know that Singer can do action, especially after watching his X-Men films. If Singer had provided a tighter runtime, a different thespian in the iconic tights, and a different villain to annoy Supes, Superman Returns would have been a much better film with a hell of a lot more flavor. Singer’s nostalgic nod had its heart in the right place but there is nothing here justifying Superman’s return, which is a real shame because it would have been nice to have him back.

Grade: C

Superman Returns is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Ratatouille (2007)

by Steve Habrat

If I had to pick Pixar’s least accessible film, I would have to go with Brad Bird’s 2007 offering Ratatouille. Featuring some of their finest voice work, particularly from funnyguy Patton Oswalt as the rodent chef, clean animation, and a dreamy score, Ratatouille is one of Pixar’s artiest creations in their line of work. While it may not appeal as much to the kiddies, Ratatouille is crafted more for the adult viewer, featuring more adult humor rather than easy gags that will keep a ten year old howling at the screen. Personally, I find Ratatouille one of Pixar’s funniest films, yet the subtext, with it’s anybody-can-do-anything-if-you-set-your-mind-to-it message, is a little too simple minded, especially since Pixar is capable of infusing their films with some major real world weight. I did find the way the film skewers uptight critics, the ones who are so rooted to their opinion and refusing to alter that opinion extremely well executed. It seemed a bit personal too, since this is the film that was the follow-up to Cars, the first Pixar film that failed to run off with the imagination of some critics.

Ratatouille introduces us to Remy (Voiced by Oswalt), a rat who loves to cook and is blessed with a sharp sniffer that gets him the job of detecting rat poison in the food that the rest of his rat colony gathers. The colony is lead by Remy’s stern father Django (Voiced by Brain Dennehy) and his goofy brother Emilie (Voiced by Peter Sohn), both who voice disgust over Remy’s trust of humans. After having to make a hasty evacuation from their rural dwelling, Remy gets separated from the rest of the pack and ends up in downtown Paris, right at the doorstep of the famed fine dining restaurant Gusteau’s. Remy, who happens to a huge fan of the late Auguste Gusteau (Voiced by Brad Garrett), the chef behind the famous restaurant, fully believes in Gusteau’s message “anyone can cook.” After ending up in Gusteau’s kitchen, Remy crosses paths with newly hired garbage boy Alfredo Linguini (Voiced by Lou Romano), an uptight klutz who can’t cook to save his skin. While exploring the kitchen, Remy notices Linguini accidentally mess up a pot of soup, which he quickly tries to fix but is caught by Linguini. A bowl of the soup is served and the customer begins raving about how delicious the soup is. The rest of Gusteau’s staff believe that Linguini is responsible for the soup but Linguini knows that it was actually Remy that fixed it. Linguini soon grabs the attention of the cranky head chef Skinner (Voiced by Ian Holm) and an even crankier food critic Anton Ego (Voiced by Peter O’Toole), both eager to reveal him a fraud.

What makes Ratatouille such a delicious treat is the budding friendship between Linguini and Remy, both who realize that they ultimately need each other to succeed. Linguini needs Remy because he can’t loose another job and Remy needs Linguini to pursue his dream of becoming a chef. The film also develops a love story between Linguini and another member of Gusteau’s staff Colette (Voiced by Janeane Garofalo), who is forced into keeping an eye on the jumpy Linguini. The love story is fitting since the film is taking place in the city of love. The film also has Remy finding his father and brother, small little detours in the story that stress to Remy that he shouldn’t be so trusting of the humans. The film knows that Emile and Django are slightly bland characters so Bird smartly doesn’t focus on them too much. The film really gets moving when Remy discovers a way to control Linguini (pulling strands of his hair) so that they can continue to fool Skinner and Ego into thinking that Linguini is really cooking and not being controlled by a rat. This is where the film embraces some heavy physical comedy that will really appeal to the tots.

Ratatouille is a film that isn’t content with having one major villain but two antagonists to drive Linguini and Remy to the brink of madness. Skinner is a pint-sized terror as he tries to discover how Linguini is able to cook so well, especially since he is such a bumbling goofball. He is hilarious in his attempts to barge in to rooms to catch Linguni talking to Remy and he tries to get him drunk in the hopes that Linguini will spill the beans about his little helper. Skinner is also trying to capitalize on Gusteau’s name with a line of wretched frozen meals that he is eager to get into supermarket freezers. The skeletal Ego is also a pretentious nightmare as he spews his dislike for Gusteau’s motto and his restaurant, finding the food beneath his refined palette. He sits in his coffin shaped den typing away one negative review after another while sending shivers down his butler’s spine. Ego, who practically gags at the mention of Gusteau’s, gets a witty exchange late in the film with Linguini. Ego growls that if he doesn’t love the food he puts in his mouth, he “does not swallow.”

At nearly two hours, Ratatouille does run a bit long but it never ceases to tickle our imagination. The film gets far on such a simple premise and watching everything come full circle is delectable. The film is brimming with enough characters to hold the adult viewers attention for a good majority of the runtime. Halfway through Ratatouille, we get to meet the rest of Gusteau’s staff and they are all hilarious in their own individual way, even if the film then quickly forgets about them. The final rush to think of something to serve the impossible-to-please Ego will have you rolling on the floor in laughter, especially when you see who shows up to give Linguini and Remy a hand. You can’t shake the feeling that the portrayal if Ego is a jab at the critics who waved off Pixar’s previous offering Cars, a touch that I actually like even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of Cars myself. I was also impressed by how detailed the scenes of downtown Paris are, at times seeming almost real if glanced at from a distance. Overall, Ratatouille may send a simple, elementary message, which is somewhat disappointing, but it features enough “awe” moments and is spiced up with enough laughs to have you ordering up seconds and sending your compliments to the chef.

Grade: A-

Ratatouille is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Dictator (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Perhaps my expectations were too high going in to comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest shock comedy The Dictator, a political satire that doesn’t ever really go for the throat. I was hoping for a comedy on the level of 2006’s Borat and 2009’s Bruno, a film with jokes that really left a mark and left you saying “ouch.” With The Dictator, Cohen parodies such real life dictators as the late Kim Jong-il and Muammar Gaddafi, both who were constantly making news and creating a stir throughout the world. One would expect Cohen to have a ball riffing these two individuals and he clearly is having a good time parading around in a fake beard, but this offering seems to just go in circles for eighty minutes. I kept waiting for something to truly shock me and outside of a joke made about women attending college and a climatic rant that will have any liberal-minded audience member jumping up in applause, I was left unmoved by Cohen’s effort. There are still some chuckle worthy moments and some gross-outs that lean more toward gross rather than funny, all of which you’d expect from The Dictator but even still, it doesn’t wield as much power as it would like.

The Dictator introduces us to Admiral General Aladeen (Played by Cohen), the dictator of the North African Republic of Waydia. The Supreme Leader, as Aladeen is often called, loves to oppress his people, pay Hollywood movie stars to sleep with him, order executions on those who get on his bad side, and develop nuclear weapons. Upon making an announcement that leads the world to believe he possesses advanced nuclear weapons, the United Nations Security Council declares that they will intervene militarily unless he shuts the program down. Aladeen and his uncle, Tamir (Played by Ben Kingsley), decide to travel to the UN Headquarters in New York City to address the council. Upon his arrival, Aladeen is kidnapped by a hired hitman, who shaves his iconic beard and then accidentally unleashes him on the streets of New York. Aladeen then finds himself replaced by a dimwitted double that will sign a document making Waydia a democracy. With the help of an activist named Zooey (Played by Anna Farris), Aladeen begins trying to stop the signing of the document and in the process, develops a soft spot for Zooey and democracy.

At a brief eighty-three minutes, The Dictator doesn’t linger long enough to become too outrageous. Throughout those eighty-three minutes, it seemed like the nervous studio was holding Cohen back from really finding a groove. I can remember seeing Bruno for the first time and just feeling the air getting sucked out of the packed theater while multiple disgusted audience members bolted for the door. It appears that Paramount was determined to not let something like that happen with The Dictator. I wish that they had let Cohen go and do his wild and crazy thing, which would have helped the film out immensely. It should be noted that The Dictator is also structured like a normal Hollywood movie rather than the hidden camera footage of Cohen messing with real American citizens. Even the subject matter itself, which plays with our fear of terrorism in this post 9/11 world, seems to be a bit dated and almost cheap, like Cohen could have come up with something better to hit us over the head with.

As far as Cohen’s performance is concerned, he is immersed in this character 110%. He ad-libs with the best and he does think up a few stinging zingers, mostly the one about women attending college that really pissed off one girl in my showing. Oh, and he does deliver a good one about Dick Cheney that had me in stitches. For the first time, Cohen seems a bit too eager to make us gag over making us think, something that was put first in both Borat and Bruno. I liked it when Cohen really put himself in danger to make us laugh (Remember the rodeo sequence in Borat?), but also to show us the ugly sides of America, the ones we hear about but rarely ever see. Here it is all about defecating off of a building, masturbating, and yes, putting a cell phone in a woman’s vagina (you read that correctly). He also goes for easy and juvenile jokes, ones that Adam Sandler would settle for on what he perceived as one of his good days. Yet Cohen is as magnetic as always and he does make us feel for this lonely, lonely dictator.

As far as the rest of the performers are concerned, Ben Kingsley has little to do besides stand next to Cohen and mutter lines to side characters and John C. Riley shows up briefly as the hitman hired to kill Aladeen. Riley delivers some of the best lines The Dictator has to offer and then he is gone in a flash. Cohen, on the other hand, works well with Anna Farris, who plays things straighter than I imagined she would. She usually can’t resist taking a violent turn into wackoville but with The Dictator, she keeps things nice and liberally normal. Jason Mantzoukas shows up as a nuclear weapons developer Nadal, who Aladeen had thought he had executed. It should be said that Cohen and Mantzoukas have little comedic chemistry and have a hard time playing off each other. Sadly, they only briefly click.

For a film that could have had so much bite, The Dictator rarely ever bears its fangs. Instead, it gets hung up on body fluids and jokes about terrorists, throwaway jokes that I never thought I’d see Cohen fall back on. Yet I did enjoy parts of The Dictator and thought certain moments of it were really clever. A pair of political analysts who pick apart public appearances by Aladeen and his advisors are an absolutely hysterical riff on the ones we see on television, the ones who find so much in so little. Overall, I can say that while I am disappointed in this paint-by-numbers studio comedy, it was still a good time for a crass laugh or three. Yet I was left wishing that Cohen had raised the bar, been more offensive, and pushed the envelope just a little bit further. When it comes to his trio of mainstream comedies, The Dictator is the runt compared to the rough and tough Borat and Bruno. Oh well, at least the runt is kind of sweet and cute despite all the urine and seaman.

Grade: B