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.
Superman Returns is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Since Hollywood is insistent on remaking every classic horror film under the sun, is it too much to ask that they DO NOT do a shot for shot remake of the film they are redoing? Honestly, if the viewer has already seen the original film and the filmmakers have done absolutely nothing to tell an innovative or different story from the original, why should the viewer even bother? The Psycho remake was laughable and grossly miscast (Seriously, Vince Vaughn?!). It seems that Gus Van Sant and Universal thought that people would take it better if they deemed it an experiment. My question is what exactly is the experiment? They added color and a few morons out there scream brilliant. It’s not. Look at 2006’s The Omen, another shot for shot remake of a tour de force demonic horror film that appeared senseless. They knew there was a built in audience for it so it was easy green for the studio. The remakes that have done something different have gotten some respect, mostly 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, which just amped up everything (gore, action, pace, etc.). It was a good remake and I enjoyed it, but I still prefer the 1978 Romero original. I also thought the re-envisioning of The Hills Have Eyes is pretty bracing. It was a nasty film that refused to cater to the uptight Hollywood rating system. It pushes its hard R rating to the very edge, especially when it puts an infant child at the dangerous end of a revolver. It’s scary as hell, but was largely waved off as torture porn. And yet some intellectuals applaud Gus Van Sant’s sluggish Psycho. Hmmm.
Now we have the remake of Sam Peckinpah’s little seen 1971 classic horror film Straw Dogs, which takes the route of Psycho and The Omen, but to better effect. There is, thankfully, a brain in this one and resists being a petty money grab. I can’t say the same about Psycho and The Omen. My worst fears were confirmed early on and I’ll admit it was a tough pill to swallow. The only difference you will find in this Straw Dogs is the setting of the film and the actors that inhabit the screen. And possibly a few camera angles. This version is completely overstated and acts as nothing but a highlighter to the point Peckinpah made so unsettling in his terrifying original. It just adds a dark underline. I did start to enjoy myself after the first twenty minutes and stopped grousing about the similarities to my gung-ho chums sitting next to me. The major rough patch is the casting of James Mardsen as David Sumner, the mild mannered liberal intellectual who “will not allow violence against this house”. He can’t match the gusto of Dustin Hoffman, who’s tacit slip from timid to deranged is so distressing in the original, his wild eyed glare will appear in your nightmares.
This Straw Dogs moves from the English countryside to the swampy Blackwater, Mississippi, where everyone looks like they stepped out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Many of the sets look like leftovers from said film too. When the hometown darling Amy (Played by miscast and talentless Kate Bosworth) and her skittish writer husband David (Mardsen) move into her old home, they return to the old hometown heroes who never left the beloved settlement. David is currently working on a Hollywood script about the battle of Stalingrad, which is supposed to act as a heavy-handed comparison to the bloody climax. The locals still hang on to their glory days and all meet up at a local bar to hit on the chicks and listen to their beloved Coach (Played by the welcome James Woods, in one hell of a sadistic turn) Tom Heddon tell the same old stories. The merry gang of beady-eyed rednecks find a leader in Charlie (Played by True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard), who is constantly shirtless and oiled up with a layer of sweat. He’s seems harmless enough, especially when compared to the blatant intensity of Charlie in the original film. This time around, it’s David who seems to be the judgmental one when it was the other way around in 1971. David has hired Charlie to restore the roof on their barn, and soon, the beer chugging rednecks begin to pick at David and Amy. They hound Amy with their dagger stares as she goes for a jog without a bra. They invite themselves in and swipe David’s beer from the fridge. As tensions mount, an inevitable confrontation brews, especially when Amy is raped by two of the hicks. Also, we once again have the side story of Jeremy Niles (Played awkwardly by Dominic Purcell), a supposed local pedophile who wanders the hot streets with his dog. After an accidental murder of Tom’s daughter, the rednecks set out to kill the loathed local creep. The paths of Jeremy and David cross and it all adds up to a siege on David and Amy’s home that ends in a fury of slaughter and turmoil.
This revved up Straw Dogs is consistently playing with the idea of conservatism versus liberal thinking. It places us on the sideline as the two opposing forces collide and challenge. It’s intriguing to watch the bible thumping, violence-craving southerners challenge the beliefs of the liberal pacifist and atheist twerp David. They are supposedly God fearing people, yet the will rape and murder without a second thought. We are also left asking why David refuses to do a thing about the abuse aimed at Amy and him. The film suggests that we should inhabit the middle ground, and stray from the far left or far right. We fair better in the middle. It’s also the only new idea the film brings to the table. The original hinted at it, but never really elaborated upon it. The film haphazardly abandons this idea at the end and then tries to cover the territorial battle that Peckinpah staged to much better effect in the preferred original. It never takes on an original identity, which will turn some fans off.
The film’s appearance is spiffed up and loaded with pretty actors and actresses of the moment. I can’t say I enjoyed Mardsen’s performance, but I suppose it could have been worse. I have never really cared for Bosworth and here she does nothing with her character. She can barely convey emotion at the appropriate time. She retreats to simply trying to look sexy for the camera. Skarsgard’s Charlie is surprisingly likable and we do pity him in a peculiar way. It seems that he had potential early in life and ended up stuck in the blistering heat of his podunk town. James Woods takes control of the project and seems like he is on cloud nine playing a loose cannon drunk itching for a fight. The film’s acting is not the true issue though. The disappointing aspect of the film is it ends up being indistinguishable from other hillbilly horror flicks. Yes, we know the south can be a scary place, but did we need to be reminded again? Yes, we know people are scared by isolated Middle America, but must it be used again? What happened to filling us with fear of the characters? No one seems daunting because, well, they all look like movie stars.
The new Straw Dogs does pack a few scenes that will make your pulse race and may even give you a goose bump or two. But the film never holds a candle to Peckinpah’s, a problem that leaves the viewer asking why a remake was necessary. It’s sharply made and does have some showy cinematography, but the film is often all jazz and little else. The film’s climax is a little too bloodthirsty and there is plenty of the red stuff splashed about. There are a few nasty deaths including the returning death by mantrap. I don’t want to write this film off all together because it’s smarter than most films that Hollywood dumps on us, but I wouldn’t consider it genius. I did groan when the film offered up a definition of a straw dog. I wish the film wasn’t so eager to explain everything and make it so literal. A little sophistication never hurt anyone and audiences today should be introduced to some. Straw Dogs 2011 is still worthy of your time. Grade: B-