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.
Superman Returns is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
You can’t call yourself a comic book fan if you haven’t seen Richard Donner’s powerful interpretation of DC Comics hero Superman, the first superhero epic ever projected onto the big screen. This 1978 blockbuster, based on the character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was marketed with the tagline “you’ll believe a MAN can fly” and to this day, despite dated special effects, I still do believe a man can fly. Donner’s Superman was the film that laid the foundation for superhero origin stories, one that taught Hollywood how to properly pace the origin tale of a crime fighter in tights, slowly and with a never-ending amount of care poured into each and every frame. Superman was born out of the explosion of fantasy films that came with a gigantic price tag, mainly science fiction films escapism like Star Wars. While I have never been big on Superman and I have never really been an avid collector of his comics, I will give his big screen debut credit as being one of the best big screen interpretations of his character as well as being one of the finest superhero epics ever made. I love the slow building story that arrives at an apocalyptic disaster that only the Man of Steel could prevent and the casting of Christopher Reeve is a stroke of genius as the hero who stands for “truth, justice, and the American way”. I will even go so far to say that any director planning to make a superhero origin story should be required to watch this film before they even think about stepping behind the camera.
Superman begins with the destruction of our hero’s home planet, Krypton, and his father, Kal-El (Played by Marlon Brando), sending him to earth in an asteroid-like spacepod. Three years pass and Superman or Jor-El, as he is called on Krypton, crashes in the rural farming community of Smallville. Shortly after he lands, the kind couple Jonathan and Martha Kent (Played by Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter) discovers the young Jor-El and proceed to raise him as a normal human being even though they are well aware of his astonishing superpowers. At age eighteen, Jor-El or Clark Kent, as he is now called, grapples with his superhuman abilities and his world is shattered when Jonathan collapses and dies from a heart attack. Shortly after his father’s death, Clark finds a mysterious green crystal in the Kent’s barn, a treasure that was aboard the ship that Clark arrived in many years ago. Clark says goodbye to the grief stricken Martha and sets out to discover who he really is and why he is capable of such incredible powers. He travels to the arctic where he uses the green crystal to build the Fortress of Solitude, a temple where he can communicate with a recording from his father. It is here that Clark begins learning about his abilities and responsibilities to the citizens of earth. More time passes and the adult Clark (Played by Christopher Reeve) arrives in the big city of Metropolis, where he gets a job as a reporter at the Daily Planet and he meets the striking Lois Lane (Played by Margot Kidder), who he quickly falls in love with. Clark begins to use his powers to help the people of Metropolis, which earns him the name of Superman by the press. Superman soon grabs the attention of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Played by Gene Hackman), who is developing a plot that could wipe California off the face of the earth.
Many may find Donner’s Superman a bit longwinded and slow to get to the action, but he really wants us to become attached to the Man of Steel. It is easy to like the guy, especially when Reeve steps into the character and lets his good-old-boy charm have some fun. As Clark Kent, he is an ungainly oaf who stutters through every word that pours out of his mouth. The employees of the Daily Planet march around him, barely even registering that he is actually in the room half the time. He scurries after Lois, who tries hard to humor him but also forgets about him like the rest of their colleagues. His confidence and warmth really takes hold when he rips open that button-up shirt to reveal that iconic “S” stamped proudly on his chest. He almost single handedly cleans up the streets of Metropolis in one evening and still finds time to rescue a kitty stuck in a tree. It is funny that Donner uses New York City as his Metropolis, a city that was slowly deteriorating from rampant crime during this particular era. He seems to literally be suggesting that this “Metropolis” could use a savior who is willing to clean up the streets and stand up to the grimy violence. That savior is a Christ-like alien from another planet who can see through walls, shoot lasers out of his eyes, deflect bullets, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Superman belongs to Reeve but his supporting cast is equally as brilliant as he is. Marlon Brando shows up as Superman’s astute father who is always offering up lessons to his pupil. When Brando steps into the frame, your eyes won’t be able to be torn away. About forty minutes into the film, he gets to deliver an unforgettable speech that compares the Man of Steel to Christ, something that may upset some viewers. Brando booms, “I have sent them you! My only son!” and you can’t help but get goosebumps. When Brando isn’t making waves as Kal-El, Gene Hackman cackles as the Man of Steel’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor, who schemes up a nuclear plot (Cold War willies anyone?) that would leave millions dead. A scene where he hacks into Superman’s head and threatens to kill thousands of people in New York City sends an icy chill through the lighter atmosphere that grips the middle part of the film. Margot Kidder is a throaty looker as the force that is Lois Lane. Moving at one hundred miles per hour, Lois is always in the wrong place at the wrong time but the scenes where she is in need of help never feel strained. A sequence where she dangles from the very top of the Daily Planet will take your breath away but you never fear that Supes won’t be able to catch his damsel in distress.
Superman is loaded with sprawling special effects, destroying everything from the Hoover Dam to the Golden Gate Bridge and everything in between. These scenes of destruction still make us scratch our heads and say, “How’d they do THAT?” The most impressive has to be the wobbling Golden Gate Bridge, where the Man of Steel glides in and saves a bus of school children from tumbling to their death. The early sequences of Superman are appropriately trippy, fitting for their intergalactic landscape that looks like it would have been at home in something like Angry Red Planet or This Island Earth. These wondrous images are complimented by a trumpeting score that could only come from John Williams, who composes one of the greatest scores in the history of motion pictures. There are moments of Superman that are devilishly funny, lovingly winking at all the blue, yellow, and red clad fans that are hanging on every second of the film. My favorite wink has to be a scene where Clark is looking for a place to rip off his business attire to reveal the Superman armor. He jogs up to an exposed phone booth but opts for a revolving door that offers him some privacy for a quick wardrobe change. Yet the sweetest moments of the film are the ones where Superman literally sweeps Lois off her feet, taking her up into the clouds. These scenes show us that the Man of Steel has a mushy center.
Overall, Superman is grand achievement for the superhero genre. It proved that these stories could have intellectual ideas swirling below the special effects as well as breezy stories with tons of “WOW” moments. At two hours and twenty minutes, the film covers an enormous amount of ground, something only Superman is capable of. In the end, the whole picture belongs to Reeve, who can’t be topped as the squeaky clean do-gooder. Surprisingly, he lets a small amount of darkness and rage slip into his soul, especially when someone close to him bites the dust in the final moments. You will be hoping that suppressed rage and darkness will be let loose in later installments. Donner’s Superman is a larger than life explosion of sheer superhero bliss that you will want to revisit again and again. Bring on part two!
Superman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
by Steve Habrat
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II could very well be one of the greatest sequels ever made. I hesitate to say the greatest because I still favor the 1972 original slightly more than I do the 1974 follow up. Yet Coppola doesn’t just make a sequel for the sake of making one and getting another paycheck. The Godfather Part II has purpose and it actually enriches the story that was told in the first film. By giving us more of the characters that we only briefly saw in The Godfather and whipping up an absorbing back-story for Vito Corleone, The Godfather Part II actually ends up being more epic in the way it dances from Corleone, Sicily to Lake Tahoe, Nevada all the way to Havana, Cuba. The Godfather Part II turns out to be much darker and moodier than the 1972 original, all the characters barely visible in all the shadows cast in this sordid world of crime. The film also continues to explore loyalty to family and the ugly side of the American Dream, cutting much deeper than they did the first time and turning The Godfather Part II into a sullen tragedy that would have wrapped thing up perfectly.
The Godfather Part II balances two storylines this time around and piles on even more characters that we are supposed to follow. The first storyline is the background of Vito Corleone (Played by Robert DeNiro), how he made it from Sicily to New York and his rise to power in the criminal underworld. The second plotline follows Michael Corleone (Played by Al Pacino), who has fully embraced his role as the uncompromising head of the family business. Michael is looking to move into the gambling industry and has started negotiating business deals with Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Played by Lee Strasberg). After two hit men try to assassinate Michael in his Lake Tahoe compound, Michael begins to suspect that there is a mole hiding within the family and he is determined to seek him out. Michael leaves his compound and leaves consigliere Tom Hagen (Played by Robert Duvall) to watch over his wife Kay (Played by Diane Keaton) and his two children. Michael then begins his business with Roth even though he is met with protests from Frankie Pentangeli (Played by Michael V. Gazzo), who took over the Corleone family territory in New York after comporegime Peter Clemenza’s death. As the business becomes more and more dangerous, Michael finds that his wife and children are slipping away from him and his family is falling apart.
The Godfather Part II digs deeper into the idea of prosperity and everything that comes along with the American Dream. Coppola and returning screenwriter Mario Puzo suggest that corruption and deceit are everywhere, making the viewer question if there is any honesty in America itself. A side character, Senator Pat Geary (Played by G.D. Spradlin), speaks of his dislike for the Corleone family right to Michael’s face at his son’s First Communion, which takes place near the beginning of the film. He attempts to stand up to Michael but later finds himself bullied into cooperation with the Corleone’s. Coppolla and Puzo portrayed Michael as the most honest member of the Corleone family in the original film but here, Michael has become even more monstrous than we could have ever imagined. His father’s office was shady and ominous, but there were still hints of warmth within it. Michael’s is even darker and downright intimidating, Michael himself barely visible as he sits in an arm chair and listens to his sister Connie (Played by Talia Shire) beg for more money. All the good that Michael possessed has crawled away. We also see Vito embrace a life of crime, fleeing from Sicily to escape the clutches of a ruthless gangster only to find himself back in it in America. At first, Vito starts out trying to make an honest living but that quickly evaporates when he is suddenly thrust into the criminal underworld. He doesn’t put up much of a fight to not get sucked all the way in.
The Godfather Part II does leave the viewer in a crumpled heap by the end of its three-hour plus runtime. The film is a tragedy, a family falling apart from lies, secrets, and neglect. Kay announces that she plans to leave Michael, who slumps in armchairs and stares into space. We question if Michael really even feels anything for Kay or if he only keeps her around to provide him with heirs for the family business. Michael also begins to see his older brother Fredo turn on him, bitter that he has been passed over in the family business and waved off as a fool. The Godfather Part II maintains its tragedy through the tainting of Vito and Michael, both who had promising futures but chose to throw it all away. Further tragic is the way that Michael alienates his family members, intimidating them and pushing them around. He’s a far throw from the soft-spoken war hero that we saw at the beginning of The Godfather.
Both Coppola and Puzo water their characters and then watch them grow in The Godfather Part II. Michael is fully engulfed by the demons he so desperately wanted to bottle up, transforming into a vile piece of humanity every time he walks into frame. While this is Pacino’s show, DeNiro gives a discreetly powerful performance as the young Vito Corleone. What I absolutely love about DeNiro’s performance is that he becomes almost transparent when he studies the ways of the criminals around him. We can see him absorb the knowledge on how to manipulate and con his way to the top. I found it incredible the way that DeNiro allowed us to see the wheels turning. Strap yourself in because Vito has explosive violent rages, ones that come when you least expect them to. I also enjoyed John Cazale as Michael’s older brother Fredo, a hotshot wannabe who puts his foot in his mouth and who is unable to stand up for himself. Fredo is a pathetic soul who has a heart of gold underneath the flashy suits. Diane Keaton is also given more room here to prove herself as Kay. When her rage and disgust with Michael pours out and she reveals a secret that she has kept from Michael, you will simultaneously feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach and have goosebumps.
The Godfather Part II does run a bit long and the amount of ground that is covered is almost exhausting. The understandable absence of Marlon Brando is what knocks The Godfather Part II down just a peg for me. I still find the film absolutely flawless, from the technical aspects all the way down to the background performers, but I just miss his character so much. DeNiro does pad the blow of his absence and he gives one of the finest performances of his career. I do favor this installment’s darker tone over the originals and the original is a pretty gloomy film to begin with. Given the length, Coppola does divvy up the action expertly and never allows the film sag, making the film incredibly consistent. Much like The Godfather, The Godfather Part II is an undisputed classic in the cinema realm, earning just as much respect as the original, if not more. Many consider this to be even better than the original and I can understand why, with the plot thickening and its emotionally draining climax. Heavier than the original, with intensity and pessimism to spare, The Godfather Part II is a spectacular follow up, a true testament to epic filmmaking and storytelling.
The Godfather Part II is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Godfather (1972)
by Steve Habrat
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 gangster epic The Godfather is without question one of the greatest films ever made. It’s so easy to see why so many people list this film in their top five films of all time. Not one frame of The Godfather seems like filler or like Coppola was having an off day when he made this flawless masterpiece. There is not one moment in the film where your eyes will wander from the screen or you will become antsy from its nearly three hour run time. It’s an absolutely riveting and extraordinary masterpiece, a harsh examination of family, loyalty, and the dark side of the American Dream. Incredibly influential, it laid the groundwork for the modern gangster dramas that trickle out from Hollywood every now and then, all secretly hoping that they may be the one that bests Coppola’s juggernaut. If you are someone who admires cinema, wishes to study the medium, or someone who works within it, The Godfather is a must-see film for both the technicalities and the story structure of Mario Puzo’s screenplay, which is based on Puzo’s own novel. If you are someone who is an acting buff, the film is a must-see for Marlon Brando’s legendary performance as Vito Corleone, the slurring Don who lurks in the shadows behind a desk and makes offers his victims cannot refuse. Hell, if you walk this earth and call yourself a human being, The Godfather should be required viewing.
The Godfather introduces us to Don Vito Corleone (Played by Marlon Brando), the head of a powerful organized crime family in 1945 New York. When an up and coming rival Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Played by Al Lettieri), who is backed by the Tattaglia crime family, comes to the Don for political and legal protection for his drug business, the Don refuses and voices his dislike for the drug importing business. Sollozzo and the Tattaglia family retaliate by attempting to kill the Don and several other affiliates of the Corleones but they only manage to severely wounding him. His loyal sons all rush to his side and his vicious eldest son Sonny (Played by James Caan) takes over the family business while the Don recovers. The Don’s beloved son Michael (Played by Al Pacino), a war hero who has just returned home from service in World War II, reluctantly begins helping the family and ends up lashing out against those responsible for the hit on his father. The reprisal sparks a deadly gang war that sends Michael into hiding along with his younger brother Fredo (Played by John Cazale), but as the war takes more lives and enemies of the Corleones close in, Michael realizes that he must return to protect his father and take over the family business.
The Godfather has a thick plot with quite a bit going happening on the side. Coppola introduces us to several characters throughout the epic runtime and at certain moments, the almost three hour runtime doesn’t seem long enough to cover all the ground that Coppola and Puzo need to. The film, however, isn’t impossible to follow and its accessibility adds to the allure of it. Coppola wins back viewers because there are so many characters; a second viewing is almost necessary just to put faces with names. You are left wanting more from secondary characters like the Corleone’s enforcer Luca Brazia (Played by Lenny Montana), Corleone’s godson Johnny Fontane (Played by Al Martino), the Don’s daughter Connie (Played by Talia Shire), her husband Carlo (Played by Gianni Russo), and the Don’s consigliere Tom Hagen (Played by Robert Duvall). There is also the detour to Sicily that Michael takes where he meets the beautiful Apollonia (Played by Simonetta Stefanelli), who we only see for a brief time.
The technical aspects of The Godfather add to its place in cinema history, a film that is packed with moody lighting, incredible set pieces, a lush trip to Sicily, and rich performances that have become legendary. Throughout most of the film, the characters sit in darkened rooms, offices, and dens, shrouded in shadows with only portions of their faces visible in an amber glow. This dark color palette Coppola uses when the mobsters meet behind closed doors compliments the shadowy subject matter that he is exploring. While the cinematography is grainy in comparison to what we have today, the film avoids looking dated due to being a period film. The set pieces never seem boastful or too grandiose, just subtle enough to let us know that we have taken a trip back in time. Most period films slip in minor showy details to remind you that you are watching a period film but The Godfather is an exception. The flashiest thing in The Godfather is some of the cars that you will see either parked or driven around. Coppola also scores points by taking a scenic journey to Sicily, waltzing through the peaceful and verdant countryside, giving us a slight break from all the paranoia and suspicion that is threaded through the film, but even this trip isn’t airtight.
The most memorable aspect of The Godfather is the performances by the two main actors. Marlon Brando is at his absolute best when he is making offers that can’t be refused. There is a moment halfway through the film when he calls a meeting with the other heads of the five rival families after the murder of someone very close to him. Slurring through Puzo’s silky dialogue, Brando shines brighter and brighter as the scene goes on. He lectures about his loss, his conservative perspective, and his readiness to forgive and move on from the pain that plagues him. It is without question my favorite Brando scene in the entire film. Pacino also checks in with a haunting metamorphosis from a disinterested son who is the apple of his father’s eye into a brooding, chilly, and obdurate gangster. The Don wants something better for his war hero son but he is inevitably drug down into the seedy underworld full of deceit and betrayal. Puzo and Coppola understand that this metamorphosis wouldn’t occur in the blink of an and they don’t demand that it does. Coppola lets his camera sit on Michael, allowing Pacino’s eyes to convey the deterioration of his morality and his soul.
The Godfather isn’t simply a bullet riddled gangster film. The film is a complicated study of family and loyalty, understanding that loyalty is far from a straightforward path. The Corleone family wants so much more for Michael but he gives up an honest life to keep the family business together. The further in he gets, the easier it is for him to embrace darkness. He will kill for this family, to protect them and uphold their name. The film also exposes the dark side of the American Dream, pulling it up like a rock that has been stuck in the dirt, exposing the worms and filth that lurk underneath. The American Dream, which consists of prosperity and success, isn’t obtained by always playing nice and to keep all that comes with the American Dream, you won’t always be able to play fair. It is virtually impossible to find anything wrong with The Godfather and it is completely deserving of its place near the top of the greatest works in cinema. There a few films in the history of motion pictures that are pitch perfect, without one misstep or questionable choice, that continues to stand the test of time. The Godfather is one of those films.
The Godfather is available on Blu-ray and DVD.