Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Catwoman (2004)

Of all the villains in Batman's rogues gallery, one of the most famous and intriguing is Catwoman. Created in 1940 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, she was originally a catsuit-wearing jewel thief named Selina Kyle, whose sex appeal and ambiguous nature to make her a foe, ally, and and occasional romantic foil of the Dark Knight. As her character evolved, Catwoman often injected shades of gray into the black-and-white world of Batman.

Catwoman's mystique has made one of the more popular members of Batman's rogues gallery, which has also made her all the more ripe for numerous live action translations. Besides her appearances on the classic '60s Batman television show (where she was played by Julie Newmar, Lee Meriweither, and Eartha Kitt), Catwoman was also portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton's Batman Returns and had a very brief cameo in the pilot episode of the WB Network's short-lived series Birds of Prey.

But perhaps the most controversial depiction of Catwoman came in 2004, when Warner Brothers released the first feature-length film dedicated solely to Batman's feline fatale. However, Batman is nowhere to be seen here. Even Selina Kyle is missing in action. While this Catwoman makes efforts to retains the sexiness of her comic book inspiration, it's an all-new character, one that we probably could have done without.

The movie begins as we are introduced not to Selina Kyle, but to Patience Phillips (Halle Berry), a meek, bashful woman completely devoid of anything resembling self-confidence. What she lacks in aplomb, she makes up for in artistic ability. She's a talented painter working in the art department of H&H, a cosmetics company operated by the dictatorial husband-and-wife team of George (Lambert Wilson) and Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone). George and Laurel obviously hate each other, which isn't helped by the fact that Laurel is being forced to relinquish her position as H&H's top model to a new, younger, more attractive model that George just so happens to be sleeping around with. Laurel doesn't even bother to mask her hatred for her husband either, going as far as to make awkward, unfunny jokes about her husband's infidelity at a press conference to announce their new facial cream "Beauline."

Meanwhile, Patience has finished up a design for the Beauline ad campaign, but George rejects it for the simple reason that he doesn't like the particular shade of red Patience used. He gives her a second crack at it, telling her to have her new ad done by midnight the next day. She timidly apologizes for her "hideous" work, agreeing to get it right the next time.

That night, a raucous party at the building across the alley keeps Patience awake. Who's still partying at 4:00 in the morning? Mötley Crüe? Kiefer Sutherland's gang of vampires from The Lost Boys? Insomniacs with nothing better to do? She sticks her head out the window and yells at them to turn their music down, but they ignore her and keep partying. Just as she pulls her head back inside, she notices a mysterious gray cat staring at her from the alley below, perched on a motorcycle.

The next morning, Patience is painting when she notices the same cat on her windowsill. She goes out to rescue him, and ends up crawling out onto a shaky air conditioning unit. A man driving by sees her and runs up to her apartment, believing she's going to jump. He arrives at her window just as the air conditioner falls out from under her, snatching her and pulling her back inside. The man introduces himself as Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt), a homicide detective with the local police department. They don't get to talk long, as Patience gets a look at the clock and realizes that she's insanely late for work. She dashes out the door, accidentally leaving her wallet on the ground for Tom to find. He shows up at H&H to return her wallet, and the two decide to go out for coffee sometime.

Patience arrives at the company factory that night to deliver her new ad idea to George. She lets herself in after being unable to find a security guard to help her out, but thanks to her unfamiliarity with the building, she ends up stumbling across a research lab. Inside, we see Laurel arguing with Dr. Slavicky (Peter Wingfield), an H&H chemist who explains to her that Beauline has some unexpected side effects. Aside from being highly addictive, its use has some nasty consequences. Stop using it, and your face melts away; keep using it, and your skin becomes as hard as a rock. Despite Slavicky's protests, Laurel intends to release it anyway and make some money.

Patience backs away and ends up knocking over some equipment, the sound of which prompts Laurel to send a pair of security guards after her. The guards chase her down into the bowels of a building, where she ends up trapped in a huge pipe in the waste treatment section of the factory. One push of a button later, and a huge wall of water flushes Patience out of the pipe, killing her in the process. Patience's lifeless body surfaces on a riverbed nearby, covered in mud and surrounded by at least a dozen cats. The one we saw sitting on the motorcycle and windowsill earlier is among them, and it climbs onto her chest. The cat opens its mouth and a white fog comes out, breathing new life into her. Her eyes snap open, alive but different.

Patience awakens in her apartment the following morning to discover that not only does she have absolutely no memory of the night before, but that cat is still following her. She checks the cat's collar, finding that it belongs to someone named Ophelia Powers (Frances Conroy). Patience arrives at Ophelia's old-style house in the middle of the city, and is invited in. She enters despite an initial hesitation, and finds that the woman already owns a whole menagerie of cats.

Ophelia sits Patience down for a cup of tea, introducing her feline stalker as "Midnight." We also learn that Midnight is a one of a rare breed of Egyptian Maus, but before Ophelia can get into how cats relate into Egyptian culture, Patience decides it's time to leave. Before she can let herself out, Ophelia tosses a ball of catnip to Patience, who catches it, sniffs it, and starts rubbing it all over her face. Very weird.

When she finally arrives at work, Patience ends up getting chewed out by George, who ends up firing her after she insults him to his face. This sparks a series of events that sees Patience hissing at some dogs, eating eight cans of raw tuna, beating Tom in a game of basketball to apologize for missing their date for coffee, and crashing another all-night party across the alley. And by "crashing," I mean kicking down the door, short-circuiting the stereo speakers with beer, and smacking the party host with the tap to the keg. I want to crash a party like that someday. Anyway, after crashing the party, Patience goes back to her apartment and opens up a box full of sexy leather clothes given to her by some coworkers. She puts on her new leather outfit, gives herself a sassy new haircut, and hops on the party host's motorcycle to enjoy a night out on the town.

She rides down to a jewelry store nearby, and notices that the place is being robbed. She sneaks inside and, in a moment that visually looks like it was taken directly from Catwoman: The Video Game, Patience beats the snot out of the jewel thieves. She packs up most of the stolen jewelry into a brown paper bag with a note simply reading "sorry," and leaves it in the lobby of the store for the police to find. A day or two later, Patience gets online and does a little searching for cats. She discovers various websites about how cats were worshipped as gods in ancient Egypt, and discovers a picture of Midnight circa 1940. Patience returns to Ophelia's house, and Ophelia merely responds that she knew Patience would return when she was ready. She explains to Patience about the role of cats in ancient Egypt, before taking her upstairs to explain that Midnight selected her to become the next in a long line of "catwomen."

Patience is naturally skeptical, but begins to realize what's going on when Ophelia pushes her off a balcony and she hits the ground on all fours like a cat. Ophelia tosses a bunch of pictures of various catwomen to her (including one of Michelle Pfeiffer circa Batman Returns), and gives her a feline-themed mask. She explains that Patience is still Patience, but is now much more... she's Catwoman. Blessed with extra-sharp reflexes, senses heightened to superhuman levels, and an unnatural knack for jumping great distances, Patience begins to recover her lost memories, determined to find her killer and stop Beauline before it can be unleashed on the general public.

While she balances the line between good and evil and is enthralled with the newfound freedom her new persona gives her, a series of murders are eventually pinned on Catwoman, bringing Patience into direct conflict with the man that's caught her fancy. Patience finds herself trying to avoid a murder rap and get revenge on those that killed her at the same time.

Catwoman has been one of the hardest reviews for me to write, simply because I had so much trouble paying attention to the movie. It wasn't for being distracted, it's because the movie is uninteresting and just plain boring. And the movie's not very good, at that. I really can't think of one good thing about the movie. Yeah, Halle Berry is usually nice to look at, but the short hair and dominatrix outfit don't flatter her at all. She's one of the most gorgeous women on the planet, so why anyone would want to put her in a costume that makes her look like that is beyond me. And while the movie's biggest selling point is its lead actress in skimpy clothing, you could just skip Catwoman and go rent Swordfish or Monster's Ball instead.

Bad outfit aside, the movie also suffers from bad direction, bad writing, and bad performances. I don't blame the cast, since they have to earn a living somehow. If I had to be in this movie, I wouldn't have bothered giving a good performance either. The script by John Brancato, Michael Ferris, and John Rogers (from a story by Brancato, Ferris, and Theresa Rebeck) features dialogue so poorly written, it makes me want to cry. "Sorry isn't good enough? Let me try the remix." "Game over? Guess what, it's overtime." What the hell is that? Anybody who talks like that in real life should be beaten into unconsciousness.

And the character of Ophelia serves absolutely no purpose beyond providing exposition early in the movie. You'd figure that she could serve as some kind of mentor to Patience, like a cat-hoarding Yoda; or she could at least be a little more helpful than just handing Patience an ugly mask. It's such a waste of what I felt could have been a promising character. And how about Pitof's direction? He must have had both the attention span of a hummingbird and an addiction to some new hybrid of speed and cocaine when he was in the editing booth, because the cuts during the action sequences average maybe less than a second at most. It's not hip or exciting, it's migraine inducing. As it turns out, "Pitof" is a pseudonym used by French film director Jean-Christopher Comar. I don't blame him for using a assumed name, because I wouldn't want my real name attached to this hunk of crap either.

With all the disposable music throughout the movie and ugly outfits on attractive women, it feels like I'm watching a badly edited Britney Spears music video that's been stretched out to 104 minutes. And the CGI is so unrealistic and so prominent that they should have just made the movie a cartoon. Whatever happened to using trained cats or doing stunts with wirework? And is it just me, or did that whip look like it was CGI too? Come on, Halle; learn how to use a real whip! Michelle Pfeiffer did!

Not only is the CGI bad, everything else is bad too. The camerawork is too shaky during the action sequences, and combined with the light-speed editing, it just gave me a headache. And what's with all the shaky camerawork in movies nowadays? Just because they did it in The Blair Witch Project doesn't mean that every movie since then should. So here's some advice for you aspiring young directors and cinematographers: go back to film school, you jokers.

Klaus Badelt's score is acceptable, but it's largely forgettable and would be better suited for listening in The Gap or Banana Republic. And how about that acting? Every performance is hollow and uninvolved, and there is absolutely no chemistry between Berry and Benjamin Bratt at all. Berry seems to be having fun in the role, but it's so badly written that any credibility she had gained from Monster's Ball suffered a pretty nasty beating. I'd be willing to bet that she's just a bad WB sitcom away from completely flushing her career down the toilet. It's the quickest plummet of an Oscar winner since Mira Sorvino fell off the face of the earth after winning the Best Actress Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite.

Meanwhile, Bratt is just there, and Sharon Stone plays the role like she's not only unhappy to be there, but like her role as a middle-aged woman clinging to past beauty hit too close to home. She may have been an "It Girl" thanks to Basic Instinct, but thirteen years later, a world full of Halle Berrys and Jennifer Anistons and Angelina Jolies has caused her to fade into obscurity. And with flops like Catwoman, Cold Creek Manor, and Basic Instinct 2, I wouldn't be surprised if she sank back into obscurity again.

The ironic thing is that Catwoman, one of the worst comic book adaptations ever made, was released during the same summer that saw the release of Spider-Man 2, one of the best ever made. Given that the movie is lacking in thrilling stunts or memorable one-liners, I'm not exactly shocked that the movie is a total waste of time. And I'm sure that the fact that neither Selina Kyle nor Bruce Wayne appear will cause fans to draw the line right there.

Perhaps the only real connection to Catwoman as fans know her is the scene in which she snatches a few diamonds from a jewelry store. The scene contributed nothing to the movie outside of a way for Catwoman to acquire her claws, and probably wasn't needed. There's no purpose for it outside of showing her as a "bad girl," and there's more than likely a better way to show it.

If it were me, I'd have made the movie about Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman from day one, and I'd have done everything humanly possible to make sure Pfeiffer reprised the role. And I would have dropped that whole cat goddess thing too. I have nothing against those of you who worship cats, but that bit just seemed hackneyed and tacked on. I personally found Catwoman to be the "girl power" version of Batman & Robin. It actually makes Superman IV and Roger Corman's Fantastic Four look good by comparison.

I also have yet to figure out why it's so hard for Hollywood to make a woman-led comic book adaptation that's actually good. I mean, look at what's out there: Supergirl, Barb Wire, Tank Girl, Catwoman, and Elektra. Nothing really good to choose from, and none of them really rate beyond mediocre at best. I'd like to think that that a good female-driven superhero movie can be made... but only if Hollywood is willing.

Final Rating: *

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Elektra (2005)

Kung fu was all the rage in the 1970s. Bruce Lee was a huge star, David Carradine's television show Kung Fu was making waves, and action figures soon became marketed with "kung fu grip" in order to capitalize on the newfound popularity of kung fu. Kung fu soon found its way into comic books, with heroes such as Iron Fist and the Master of Kung Fu debuting.

As the '70s progressed into the '80s and '90s, kung fu diminished in recognition as bad girls became more and more popular. Pulp comic sexpot Vampirella's cult following grew, and along with frequent doses of sex appeal from Batman villains Catwoman and Poison Ivy. One of the last examples of a kung fu comic star and one of the earliest members of the bad girl trend is Marvel's one and only Elektra.

Making her first appearance in 1981 in the pages of Daredevil #168, cartoonist Frank Miller created her to be a hired assassin out to kill Daredevil, but with a twist. As it turns out, Elektra was at one time the college sweetheart of Daredevil's secret identity, Matt Murdock. But a lot of emotional baggage and martial arts training later, Elektra had become one of the world's most dangerous and deadly assassins.

Since her debut, she's gone on to star in several miniseries and graphic novels, and even had her own title on two separate occasions. Elektra has become such an important part of the Daredevil mythos that when the "Man Without Fear" appeared in his first movie in 2003, the sai-wielding Greek assassin was right there by his side. Although the Daredevil movie's success was rather modest and the reactions among critics and fans were decidedly mixed, Twentieth Century Fox felt that Elektra was such an intriguing character that they decided to give her a spin-off movie of her own.

Our story begins with a brief monologue, introducing us to the universe we will become a part of during the film. Since the beginning of time, good and evil have waged a war hidden in shadow. In modern times, the force of evil has become represented by "The Hand," a criminal organization that secretly engages in the dark arts. The good follow a form of martial arts called "kimagure," the masters of which are granted a form of clairvoyance and, in some rare cases, the ability to raise the dead. Somewhere in the history of this war is something called "The Treasure," a story of a motherless daughter that is destined to become a powerful woman warrior and tip the scales between good and evil, the final weapon in an ancient war.

It is from here that we segue into our introduction to Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), who was shown very much dead at the end of Daredevil. So if this isn't a prequel, what is she doing alive? In the time since we last saw her, blind kimagure master Stick (Terence Stamp) used his powers to resurrect Elektra for the purpose of continuing the martial arts training that was briefly alluded to in Daredevil. Emotionally scarred by watching the death of her mother and fueled by an intense inner rage, Elektra soon finds herself expelled from Stick's dojo, and she fine-tunes her abilities into a career as an accomplished hired assassin. Using her death to her advantage, she has become an urban legend in the underworld, with opinions ranging from her being a ghost to simply not existing.

And in order to maintain appearances, she's developed an obsessive compulsive disorder, incessantly cleaning her house in order to remove all DNA evidence of her existence. It's kinda like Men In Black, but with cleaning solvents instead of alien technology. Anyway, after accomplishing one job, her manager McCabe (Colin Cunningham) arrives to inform her of her next assignment, where she's to set up shop in a secluded cottage on an island off the coast of Washington and await further instructions. This doesn't sit too well with Elektra, who doesn't like playing the waiting game, but she goes anyway.

At the cottage, we learn a few things. One of them is that Elektra's obsessive compulsive disorder stretches far beyond scrubbing floors. She also counts her footsteps and has a very specific way that she organizes things. It's not as extreme as it could be, but it's still creepy. I have to agree with Roger Ebert's review; I want to see a superhero with a full-blown case of extreme OCD, to the point that they count their steps when they walk. Wouldn't that be different?

Okay, back to the story. While waiting for information on her targets, Elektra is befriended by her neighbors, Mark Miller (Goran Visnjic) and his rebellious 13-year-old daughter Abby (Kristen Prout). The cold, distant Elektra slowly begins to take a liking to her neighbors, but the new friendship takes an unexpected turn when she learns that her targets are none other than Mark and Abby. She makes an attempt, but her conscience finally gets to her and she can't bring herself to kill them.

Elektra calls McCabe and tells him she can't carry out the contract, which ends up unloading a whole heap of trouble. Y'see, it turns out that the unnamed party that hired Elektra to kill the Millers is the Hand, led by Master Roshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). The Hand's been chasing the Millers because they've determined that Abby is the aforementioned Treasure, and after some prodding from his son Kirigi (Will Yun Lee), Roshi has decided that if Abby won't join the Hand, she won't get the opportunity to oppose them either.

Elektra wipes out an entire team of ninjas in defense of the Millers, and the trio soon find themselves on the run from the Hand and Kirigi's three goons: Stone (Bob Sapp), who is incredibly strong and has rock-hard skin; Tattoo (Chris Ackerson), whose intricate animal tattoos can peel right off his torso and attack; and Typhoid Mary (Natassia Malthe), who can cause any living thing to wither and die. Their evasion of the Hand soon leads them to Stick's dojo, where Elektra learns that if she wishes to start a new life, she must defeat the Hand and come face-to-face with the ghosts of her past.

Elektra is an oddity. Though a spinoff of Daredevil, it has only the loosest of connections to that film. Elektra is shown getting killed at the end of Daredevil (though the scene is cleverly structured to avoid having to pay royalties to Colin Farrell or Ben Affleck), and that's it. If anything can be said about the movie, it's that it definitely tries to forge its own identity. The promotional materials didn't even mention it was related to Daredevil until shortly before the movie's release, instead choosing to ride the coattails of the X-Men movies instead. Even the poster says that the movie is "from the forces that brought you X-Men." However, Daredevil ties or not, Elektra is very much an example of not much style over even less substance.

This is most evident in the lead character herself, who brings very little to the movie. Despite being one of the better parts of Daredevil, the Elektra depicted here is such a hard character to connect to, it hurts the movie. When you boil comic book heroes down to their barest of skeletons, you can find why people relate to them. Spider-Man is a nerdy little wiener with problems like everyone else. The X-Men have extraordinary gifts yet are social outcasts. The Hulk is a man whose bad temper gets him in a crapload of trouble. Batman and the Punisher are out to avenge the murders of their families by punishing the wicked.

But it's hard to connect to Elektra. It's hard to even like her. She's a cold-blooded killer that's completely devoid of a sense of humor or any other kind of emotion. The Punisher may be a killer, but at least you can understand the means to his madness. Elektra's make less sense. So she's a hitman because she saw her mother die and her father was a strict swimming coach? Color me underwhelmed. Besides, didn't she see her father get murdered too? I could have sworn it was an important plot point in Daredevil. Why isn't she all raw over that? Is it because Bullseye isn't in this movie?

The script, penned by Zak Penn, Stuart Zicherman, and Raven Metzner, leaves a lot to be desired. There is little to no character progression at all, and not only is Elektra a one-dimensional character, but that one dimension is that she's a total bitch for most of the movie. She spends a lot of time being grouchy and telling people to leave her alone, and she even makes a veiled threat to cut off Abby's hands after she steals Elektra's lucky necklace. She just has so little charisma that when she actually starts to open up, we don't care. Why would someone want to make the heroine both antisocial and emotionally detached? Combine that with her line of work, and I'm willing to bet that Elektra's a total sociopath.

Her obsessive-compulsive disorder also seems to fall into a plot hole halfway through the movie, ceasing to exist once it becomes inconvenient for the movie. If you're just gonna drop it, why put it in there to begin with? And the apparently budding romantic relationship between Elektra and Mark felt exactly like the love scene from Daredevil: tacked on because the studio wanted some romantic tension, despite a lack of chemistry between the two actors.

It also seems like Joss Whedon had a hand in writing the script, because every villain poofs into a cloud of dust immediately after being killed, akin to Whedon's "Buffyverse" vampires. Why? I don't know, and I doubt the writers know either. It probably has something to do with that "dark arts" thing, I guess. I'm not a regular comics reader, so I'm absolutely clueless regarding that. I also don't get Kirigi. He's supposed to be the movie's Big Bad, but he's not exactly intimidating until he goes all Bruce Lee near the end. Plus there's the fact that his connection to Elektra is insanely weak, and that the character is so hollow that you could cut his head off, yell down his neck, and hear an echo.

Where I will give the movie credit is in Rob Bowman's direction and Christophe Beck's score. Beck's score was quite good, holding a very Asian feel that went with the kung fu tone of the movie. And if anything, Bowman made a movie that at least looked good. The movie seems more like a tribute to Hong Kong wuxiá movies than it does American superheroes, but unfortunately, the film's look is almost as if the producers were aiming to do the American version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That scene with the sheets flapping around everywhere seems like a fight that Zhang Yimou would choreograph, only less interesting.

I also have a beef with the cast. Personally, I don't buy Jennifer Garner as a leading lady in an action movie. She was fine in the two fight scenes she had in Daredevil, but I didn't think she was all that great here. She's always seemed to me like she was better off in romantic comedies or dramas, but I've never seen Alias, so what do I know. The rest of the cast all gave rather wooden performances, though I did like Kristin Prout and Terence Stamp. I found Prout's "yeah, whatever" demeanor to be quite welcome, and I enjoyed Stamp, although Stick isn't half as cool as General Zod from Superman II. My only complaint with Stamp's performance is that Stick is supposed to be blind, and very rarely did I get the impression that he actually was. If it were me, I'd have given him some special contact lenses or glued his eyelids shut. He'd act like he was blind then.

People talk about Daredevil being bad, but I don't think Elektra does much to be any better. It's like Catwoman with better fights, acting, and special effects. The characters are flat, the acting is bleh, the action is uninspiring, and the direction is derivative. I said before that the fight scenes weren't very interesting, but the catch is that the whole movie isn't. Elektra is just so incredibly boring that even the cool fight scenes seem tedious. However, the movie can be enjoyed on some level, if you like seeing an attractive female ninja in a red corset kicking the crap out of everybody in sight. And despite being a disposable karate movie with forgettable characters and a waste of acting talent, the movie is an okay addition to the Marvel stable. It's certainly better than Catwoman. I'll give Elektra two stars and leave it at that.

Final Rating: **

Monday, June 20, 2005

X2 (2003)

Thanks to Marvel Comics, superheroes experienced a renaissance in the 1960s now referred to as the "Silver Age." New superhero comics were appearing right and left, many of them staying popular to this day. One of these comics was centered around a team of mutants known as the X-Men. Born of the civil rights movement, the X-Men teetered on the brink of cancellation before finally gaining an audience and becoming one of the most popular and influential titles in the genre.

Eventually, the comic was adapted into a movie that started its own renaissance for superhero movies. When X-Men was released in 2000, it sparked a revival in the genre and helped change the perception that all movies based on Marvel properties were poorly made filler for video store shelves. And where do you go when you have a successful movie based on successful source material? A sequel, of course! Loosely based on the 1982 X-Men story "God Loves, Man Kills," the simplistically-named X2 surpassed its predecessor in both critical acclaim and box office returns, and was hailed as one of the best superhero movies ever made. But does it live up to the hype?

Our story starts shortly after the previous movie, with humans still fearful of mutantkind. Are they the next step in human evolution? Are they a new species put on Earth to replace non-mutated people? And what of the ones who can walk through walls, or use mind control? What kind of threat would they pose? Such questions have only served to push the inevitable war between humans and mutants even further to realization. The movie's opening scene starts quickly enough, as a blue-skinned mutant with a prehensile tail invades the White House. He lays waste to an army of guards and Secret Service agents, who can't seem to get a shot at him, thanks to his ability to disappear into a cloud of smoke and reappear somewhere else. Teleportation, gotta love it.

The mutant soon infiltrates the Oval Office, where he takes out the last of the Secret Service and tackles the President (Cotter Smith). He pulls a knife on the President, but before he can cause any kind of harm, a half-conscious Secret Service agent shoots the mutant in the arm. He teleports to safety, leaving behind the knife jabbed into a desk with a small note reading "Mutant Freedom Now."

The scene shifts to New York, where the assassination attempt has drawn the attention of the X-Men. While they dismissing that he's a new member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) decides that they should get to him before the police do. Shortly after this decision, none other than Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) arrives back at the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters. He's immediately greeted by Rogue and her new boyfriend Bobby "Iceman" Drake (Shawn Ashmore), but soon turns his attention to Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Though she's suffering from painfully bad dreams, a loss of concentration that causes her to hear a cacophony of voices, and an intense dread that something terrible will happen, Jean seems quite happy to see Wolverine.

However, less happy to see him is Jean's boyfriend Cyclops (James Marsden), who doesn't take to kindly to some punk like Wolverine putting the moves on his woman. You can cut the sexual tension with a baseball bat. But Wolverine hasn't come back just to flirt with Jean, he's returned to ask Professor Xavier for more help in unlocking the secrets of his forgotten past. Unfortunately for him, Xavier refuses, telling him that "sometimes, the mind needs to discover things for itself." Wolverine is disappointed, left to stew on the school's night watch as Cyclops takes Xavier out to attend to some business while Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean head to Boston in search of the mutant assassin.

Meanwhile, the assassination attempt has also attracted the attention of Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox), who sees the attack not only as a way for the proposed Mutant Registration Act to gain support, but as a way to seek a personal vendetta against mutantkind. Having made a few discoveries about a supposed "mutant training ground," Colonel Stryker gains permission to attack Xavier's school under the false pretenses of rounding up the students and staff for questioning. What the President doesn't realize, however, is that Colonel Stryker plans to use the information he forced out of the imprisoned Magneto (Ian McKellan) to acquire knowledge of "Cerebro," a giant supercomputer built by Professor Xavier and Magneto that connects its user to every living being — human or mutant — on the planet.

As Professor Xavier visits Magneto in his plastic prison, he's horrified to discover that his old friend was forced to tell Colonel Stryker everything he knows about Cerebro, and even more horrified when knockout gas comes in through the ventilation system and renders them both unconscious. Cyclops attempts to break his way into the cell, only to get incapacitated by Colonel Stryker's assistant Yuriko (Kelly Hu), a mutant with the power to grow long metal talons from her fingernails (who comic fans will recognize as Lady Deathstrike). For those of you who don't know Lady Deathstrike, imagine Freddy Krueger as an attractive Asian woman that knows martial arts and has one line of dialogue, and you've got the idea.

Colonel Stryker and his task force siege Xavier's school in the middle of the night, and while many of the mutants into hidden escape tunnels, Wolverine makes a valiant stand. He tears a line through Colonel Stryker's team, introducing soldiers to the business end of his claws. That's something you very rarely see in superhero movies: one of the heroes actually killing people right and left! I don't mean the cartoony "he just knocked them out" kind of thing, he was slicing up guys! I'd expect that kind of thing out of the Punisher, but I guess Wolverine isn't above stabbing a guy in the chest either. But just as Wolverine has a face-to-face encounter with Colonel Stryker, who seems to know something about the clawed wonder's past, they're broken up by Rogue, Iceman, and the flame-manipulating John "Pyro" Allerdyce (Aaron Stanford).

Wolverine has no choice but to leave with the three, allowing Colonel Stryker to find the bowels of the school and retrieve his prize. Meanwhile, Storm and Jean are hot on the trail of the would-be presidential assassin, discovering him at an abandoned cathedral in Boston. The cornered mutant introduces himself as Kurt Wagner (Alan Cumming), whose demon-like appearance is offset by his devout religious faith. A one-time circus acrobat billed as "the amazing Nightcrawler," he welcomes Jean and Storm into his abode, having never met any other mutants and looking for someone to patch up the bullet hole in his arm. They question him about why he would try to kill the President, and he has no idea. The whole event was a total blur. They discover a bizarre scar on the back of his neck (similar to the one Magneto received after being drugged by Colonel Stryker), and convince Nightcrawler to come with them to meet Professor Xavier.

Speeding away in Cyclops's car (which they happened to hotwire on their way out), Wolverine and the X-Teens soon end up arriving at Iceman's house. Bobby introduces Wolverine, Rogue, and Pyro to his parents (Alfred Humphreys and Jill Teed) and brother (James Kirk, no relation), then proceeds to sit them down and essentially come out of the closet about his mutant power. His brother doesn't understand why Bobby has to be a mutant and calls the cops, telling them that Bobby broke into the house and is threatening to kill their family. Storm, Jean, and Nightcrawler are heading back to the school in the X-Jet around the same time, but are unable to find a signal to land.

They contact Wolverine, who informs them of the disaster at the school and tells them where they've fled to. He finishes the phone call, but notices FBI agents sneaking up outside. Wolverine runs to the living room and tells the others that it's time to go, but are met by a veritable horde of cops in the front yard. Wolverine gets shot in the head after being refusing to drop his "knives" (it's kinda hard to drop your knives when they're part of your hands), prompting Pyro to open up his lighter and spread giant fireballs over the immediate area. He destroys all the police cars, but before he can hurt anyone, Rogue is forced to take her glove off and suck the energy out of him.

And right on time, the X-Jet arrives to get them out of Dodge before any backup can arrive. Although reunited, the X-Men are soon corralled and attacked by fighter jets. While Storm utilizes the weather to fight off the jets and Jean tries to hold off the missiles fired at them with her telekinesis, the X-Jet is still struck and goes into a tailspin. But just before they crash, they stop twenty feet from the ground. Lucky for them, Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) were in the area after staging a violent jailbreak, and Magneto decided to catch the plane. He calls a truce with the X-Men, explaining that Mystique used her shapeshifting ability to do a little spying and discovered Colonel Stryker's ultimate goal: to kill every mutant on the face of the planet. But why, and how?

Y'see, Colonel Stryker's son Jason (Michael Reid MacKay) is a quite powerful mutant with the ability to telepathically cause illusions, in the vein of comic supervillain Mastermind. Jason's parents sent their son to Professor Xavier with the hopes that his mutation could be "cured," but there was really nothing the professor could do in that aspect. Unable to become a regular human and angry at his parents for their refusal to accept him as-is, he tortured his mother by projecting nightmarish hallucinations into her brain. These hallucinations drove her insane, causing her to drill a hole in her head in an attempt to pour them out of her skull. Needless to say, drilling a hole in your head means you won't be living too much longer.

Mrs. Stryker's forced suicide didn't sit too well with the colonel, who responded by lobotomizing his son and extracting fluid from his brain, which he uses as a drug to control other mutants. It's this drug that Colonel Stryker uses (in conjunction with Jason's power of illusion) to brainwash Professor Xavier into using a homemade version of Cerebro to eliminate the whole of mutantkind. Think Scanners on a much larger scale. Forced into an uneasy partnership, the X-Men and the Brotherhood storm Colonel Stryker's subterranean base in the Canadian wilderness in a final battle that forges new bonds and strains old ones, sheds light on dark secrets, and sadly requires a sacrifice that wasn't ready to be made.

X2 succeeds in being a little more fun to watch than its predecessor, but it isn't without flaws. Like the previous movie, X2 suffers from too many characters, and not enough screen time to really get to know any of them. The movie is so overloaded with characters, it gets diluted. Even the cameos from and references to various other X-Men characters just serve to bog things down even more. With so many characters, we barely get to make an emotional connection to any of them, perhaps with the exceptions of Wolverine and Iceman.

I'm not saying I want to see everybody sit down and peacefully talk things out when they could have a wild scene-stealing brawl instead, but come on. This is what separates the X-Men movies from others in the genre. In other superhero movies, we get underneath the skin of our protagonists, whether it be tormented billionaire Bruce Wayne, bumbling reporter Clark Kent, or nerdy student Peter Parker. You get to see what makes them tick. But with a dozen characters to choose from, it's hard for the movie to have any real focus.

I'm also of the opinion that the use of Cerebro as a tool for genocide was actually rather dull. While I applaud them for using the concept to give the always wonderful Patrick Stewart more screen time, the effort just turned me off. Brainwashing a super-powerful telepathic mutant into causing the heads of other mutants to explode by merely thinking really hard seems silly, even by comic book standards. If it were me, I would have switched it around and used the Legacy Virus from the comics instead of Cerebro, but I guess that's why I wasn't hired to write the movie. While I respected what screenwriters Michael Doughterty, Dan Harris, and David Hayter attempted to do with the script, it just ends up being… hollow? Boring in places? In need of a little cast pruning?

But where the movie starts going wrong is trying to give us scenes that feature characters that aren't involved with Wolverine. Wolverine is the only character that most audiences want to see, so trying to shove boring one-dimensional characters like Storm down our throats just because Halle Berry won an Oscar in the time between the two movies makes me resent X2. Anna Paquin is an Oscar winner (albeit that was over a decade ago), so why not give us more Rogue? I'm a Rogue fan, I could handle that. But Wolverine is so obviously the main focus, they might as well drop the other X-Men and make Wolverine: The Movie already. I also thought that the setup for X3 was so blatant, the only way it could be any more obvious is if they put a big flashing sign that said "X-Men 3: Dark Phoenix — Coming Soon" at the end of the movie. I'm not saying I don't want to see the Phoenix in a movie, but come on.

I've also noticed something of a gay subtext in X2. If the first movie can be considered an allegory for race relations, the sequel can be seen as a metaphor for homosexual rights. Considering Bryan Singer and Ian McKellan are gay and Alan Cumming is bisexual, I guess I shouldn't be all that surprised. The subtext can be most evidenced in the scene in which Iceman essentially comes out of the closet and reveals his powers to his family. I'm not gay, so I don't have a closet to come out of, but I thought the scene was handled very well. And it led to the very cool "Pyro blows up an entire squadron of police cars" scene, so it can't be that bad.

However, the subtext doesn't get in the way of the movie being a cool action movie. From the previously mentioned Pyro/police firefight to the Wolverine/Deathstrike brawl to the opening scene. Bryan Singer's direction is very fun to watch, and even those who didn't like the movie should be able to respect the effort put into it. The special effects are wonderful, never once detracting from the movie. I dare you to watch the "Nightcrawler vs. the Secret Service" scene and tell me you don't think it's absolutely amazing. The makeup is once again great, as both Alan Cumming and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos look very believable in full character regalia.

The cast improves over the previous movie, but the lack of character development gives many members of the cast less to work with. Famke Janssen was criminally underused, especially considering the direction they were pushing her character. Also underused was James Marsden, who appears in maybe three scenes prior to the finale. His absence leaves the love triangle involving Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine to fall to the wayside and almost become forgotten about. But the cast isn't always like them. Despite her character having absolutely nothing in the way of depth or development, I really liked Kelly Hu as Lady Deathstrike. The character is so depthless that she's almost flat, but Hu makes Lady Deathstrike fun to watch, almost like a female Darth Maul. You don't really need to know who she is to enjoy the Wolverine/Deathstrike fight at the end.

I also enjoyed Brian Cox's turn as Colonel Stryker, but perhaps the most fun member of the cast is Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Jackman is great in the role, and has an intensity that makes the character very cool. I mean, he actually goes nuts and starts killing all those soldier dudes until they die. He's definitely the star of the movie, and as I said before, I just wish Fox would hurry up and make Wolverine: The Movie.

X2 is fun to watch, yet still seems to be trying too hard. Maybe doing a little streamlining and not using such a huge cast of characters could help the franchise in the future. I know the comics have a rather large cast, but come on, they're not making a movie adaptation of War and Peace here. In spite of its flaws, X2 is satisfying, and there's always the opportunity to make it bigger and better with the next one. I'll give X2 four stars because if anything, it entertained me.

Final Rating: ****

Friday, June 17, 2005

Daredevil (2003)

From the time of their founding in the 1930s until the early 1960s, Marvel Comics was never a very noteworthy publisher. Outside of characters like the Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, and Captain America, nothing about Marvel really stood out. Bankruptcy even threatened to close their doors in 1957. Luckily for Marvel, everything began to turn around when editor/writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four in 1961.

The success of the Fantastic Four led to an outburst of creativity that boosted them from a small-time publisher to the biggest comic book company in the industry. Characters like the X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Incredible Hulk all made their first appearances before the first half of the '60s were out, along with a successful revival of Captain America. But among the gods and goddesses of Marvel superheroes, one is merely a demigod, a B-level hero by the name of Daredevil.

There could be many reasons for Daredevil's second-rate status at the time of his debut. Perhaps because the name "Daredevil" was not only very generic, but also a retread (since there was a boomerang-wielding superhero with the same name in the '40s). Perhaps because Marvel's character creation department was simply running on fumes, since the character's first-issue cover date of April 1964 put him near the end of Marvel's most creative period. Perhaps because many viewed his acrobatic feats over New York City as a knockoff of Spider-Man. Perhaps because Stan Lee's artistic collaborator in creating Daredevil was not Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, but Sub-Mariner creator Bill Everett.

Artists and writers came and went, but Daredevil was never a very hot seller until one man changed everything in 1979. Artist/writer Frank Miller was hired to work on the series, and the changes he made in the character's tone, style, and direction made Daredevil a big fat hit. His noir-style stories grew popular with readers, pulling Daredevil out of the cellar and saving the character from cancellation. Miller went on to bigger things (such as The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City), but the dark style he pioneered with the Daredevil comics helped pave the way for the grim and gritty style of the '80s and '90s. With the 21st-century renaissance of superhero movies, it only made sense for Miller's version of Daredevil to get his own movie. But does it live up to the hardboiled stories given to us by Miller and the writers and artists that followed him?

Our story takes us to the New York City neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen, where we are introduced to Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck). Left blind as a child following an accident involving a barrel of toxic chemicals, Murdock is an attorney that specializes in pro bono work, much to the chagrin of his materialistic partner Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau). Though an attorney by day, Murdock spends his nights as the Daredevil, a masked harbinger of justice. Though robbed of his sight by that barrel of chemicals, the accident caused his other four senses to compensate drastically, functioning with superhuman sharpness. And perhaps more importantly, he has also developed a form of sonar that allows him to "see" sound waves, quite similar to echolocation. Armed with these gifts and a billy club that doubles as a grappling hook, he seeks to avenge the downtrodden by any means necessary.

And there's no shortage of criminal activity, much of it controlled by a mysterious crime lord known only as "the Kingpin" (Michael Clarke Duncan). Daredevil has become a thorn in the Kingpin's side, and thus must be eliminated. To accomplish this, he procures the services of a deadly Irish assassin dubbed Bullseye (Colin Farrell). With a crime lord and a hitman breathing down his neck, Matt must also deal with newspaper reporter Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano), who is on the verge of discovering Daredevil's secret identity. And to top it all off, he's found himself in a whirlwind romance with gorgeous martial artist Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), who is similarly a target of the Kingpin and Bullseye.

While I found Daredevil to be a well-made movie, I do question its methods. The movie can be viewed as a good adaptation of the Punisher comics, but the problem is that it's a Daredevil movie. Not being a devotee of the comics, I don't really have any anger towards that controversial moment where Daredevil kills a rapist that was erroneously found innocent. That doesn't outrage me or make me hate the movie, or anything like that. I thought it worked for the story the filmmakers wanted to tell. But it still feels out of place. Murdering a criminal doesn't make him any better than his foes.

But where I feel the movie succeeds is presenting a superhero who is still just a man. Despite his sonar and other enhanced senses, Daredevil's heroism takes a toll on him. He gets teeth knocked out and receives nasty lumps and bruises, the road map of scars that cover his body revealing him as a man whose chosen life is harder than it seems. It also pushes him to the edge of sanity, continually questioning if what he's doing is right and fearful that he won't be able to make a difference.

On the negative side, Daredevil seems very derivative. The relationship between Ben Urich and the New York cops seems an awfully lot like the relationship between the Gotham City Police Department and Robert Wuhl's character in Tim Burton's Batman. The reporter tracks a superhero and asks the cops about their file on him, the cops deny the superhero exists, the reporter ends up knowing better. There's also a strong visual resemblance to The Crow, from the fiery "DD" logo in the subway to Daredevil's jumps from rooftop to rooftop in one particular scene. But I guess if you're gonna steal a movie's visual style, you couldn't do much better than The Crow.

I also bring into question the decision to tinker with Daredevil's backstory. Normally, I wouldn't mind if a character's origin is altered a little for dramatic purposes. Take, for example, the Punisher movie in 2004. There, Frank Castle's family is massacred at a family reunion in Puerto Rico after he accidentally caused the death of a mobster's son, as opposed to the comics origin, where his wife and kids are killed in Central Park after witnessing some Mafia business take place. Though the Punisher's cinematic origin strays somewhat from the comics, the difference does not alter the character in any significant way, and the character remains fundamentally unchanged. But in Daredevil, one little alteration is enough to change the entire tone of the movie. For those not into comics, the original Daredevil origin saw a young Matt Murdock getting doused with chemicals after pushing an old man out of the way of an oncoming truck. But in the movie, he acquires his powers not by being heroic, but by being a victim of circumstance. The only allusion the movie gives to the old man is when an already blinded teenage Matt (played by Scott Terra) stops Stan Lee from stepping in front of a truck.

The movie also suffers from a real overuse of the sonar effect. It's sort of like the "bullet time" shots from The Matrix, where it starts out being very cool, but ends up becoming rather ho-hum by the end of the movie. While the effect is very neat and quite intriguing, we're almost beaten over the head with it after a while. And where did that love scene come from? Matt and Elektra get into a fistfight right out of the Matrix movies, then he takes her up to the roof of his apartment building before they get rained on and head to bed. Not only does it make Elektra look trampy (what self-respecting woman puts out on her second date with a man she barely knows?), but their whirlwind romance makes no sense. It's not for a lack of chemistry, it's just that the spark between them has only started developing. It's like the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes relationship, only not as fake. The love scene has been excised from the R-rated director's cut of the movie, which I feel is a wise move because it just stinks of unwanted studio involvement.

I don't know whether to blame Mark Steven Johnson's script or the choppy editing, but the movie seemingly has little character development at all. Any depth the characters have is brought to the table not by the script, but by the actors portraying them. Though I enjoyed Ben Affleck in the Matt Murdock half of the role, his performance in the Daredevil half left me feeling hollow. I thought Affleck did a respectable job conveying the conflict in Matt's psyche, but when he's in the Daredevil attire, he's perhaps mediocre at best. I'm not saying that Affleck is bad in the role, it's just that he isn't exactly great either.

Michael Clarke Duncan obviously had fun as Kingpin, but I simply didn't find him to be all that intimidating until the movie's finale. However, that's probably more due to the writing and editing than Duncan's actual performance. I did like Joe Pantoliano as Ben Urich, though I must point out that he's playing a flat, uninspiring character. The character of Ben Urich is written as generically as possible, with nothing that really makes him stand out from any other character like this. Like I said earlier, the character isn't that much different from Robert Wuhl's character in Batman. I think if they could have gotten Wuhl to play the part, they would have.

But perhaps the brightest stars in the cast are Jennifer Garner, Jon Favreau, and Colin Farrell. While I felt Elektra was lacking depth, Garner's performance made the character feel a little less one-dimensional. She adds a lot to the character, and her mannerisms and facial expressions from the funeral scene on show a character who has died inside, and has nothing left but thoughts of vengeance. Favreau, meanwhile, does a great job as the movie's token comic relief. He and Affleck are quite funny together, and their scenes together are some of the most entertaining parts of the movie. And Farrell's portrayal of Bullseye is just so over the top, you can't help but like him a little. Even as a villain, he's just so much fun to watch that he made the whole movie for me. Plus how can you hate a charismatic Irish hitman with a target carved into his forehead?

If Johnson's script fails, his direction soars. As I said before, the movie is quite well made, and features some really great camera work that harmonizes with the eponymous character of Daredevil. When Matt Murdock is in his lawyer persona, the camera rarely moves, as a way to show the character's vulnerabilities and emphasize his handicap. But when he's Daredevil, we get flashy camera angles and movements to show Daredevil's strength. While the characters seemingly pay no attention to Newton's law of gravity and the CGI is too glaring at times, the movie looks like a million bucks.

The movie also has a very engaging score by Graeme Revell that is befitting of the superhero film noir that the filmmakers are aiming for. While other superhero movies have better scores (Danny Elfman's Batman and Spider-Man music, John Williams's Superman music), I do like Revell's work here. However, the score is eclipsed by the musical soundtrack, with great songs by House of Pain, N.E.R.D., Fuel, and The Calling being among the standout songs in the movie. And if the movie can be given one compliment, and only one, it's that the soundtrack brought Evanescence into the mainstream spotlight. Both "Bring Me To Life" and "My Immortal" are featured in the movie to wonderful effect, and both ended up becoming big hits following the release of both the Daredevil soundtrack and their debut album Fallen.

Fans of the comic will probably nitpick until the cows come home, but Daredevil serves its purpose as being a 103-minute superhero action movie that serves as fine disposable entertainment. The movie is also a case of history repeating itself. Daredevil was the "little brother" that was second rate compared to his big brothers Spider-Man and the X-Men, and the movie he inspired is second rate compared to the cinematic offerings of the aforementioned big brothers. After the huge Daredevil/Bullseye fight near the end, the movie just runs out of gas and ends with a whimper. While it's still better than other superhero movies like Superman IV or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, it's merely adequate when compared to others. Three stars for Daredevil.

Final Rating: ***

Thursday, June 9, 2005

Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)

In Hollywood, there's such a thing as "The Law of Diminishing Returns," where as the quality of a long-running film franchise worsens over time, the box office returns drop as well. Sometimes the producers will try to make a quick buck with some kind of gimmick like killing or resurrecting a main character, going for a "fish out of water" feel with an extreme change in setting, or making a movie in 3D.

But in a lot of cases, others don't really try do anything to improve, instead choosing to stay the course. Such was the case the Superman movies. After the poor box office showing of Superman III, you would think they'd ditch the overtly unfunny comedy for something more in the same vein as the classic first two movies (or at the very least, make it a comedy that was actually funny) when it came time to do the next movie. And to their credit, they did in a sense, do things a little differently with it. But now, instead of a lame comedy where Superman fights both a gigantic supercomputer and an evil version of himself, we get a lame story about the horrors of nuclear war in Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.

This tedious exercise in superhero cinema begins in space, as a cosmonaut (Eugene Lipinski) belts out a Russian version of "My Way" while on a space-walk to repair an antenna on their station. He's so wrapped up in his work that he doesn't notice an American satellite heading his way. The collision is brief, but it knocks the Soviet Sinatra out into the darkness of space and sends the space station into a tailspin. However, it all turns out okay, as Superman (Christopher Reeve) shows up and saves the day. Not only does he stand for truth, justice, and the American way, but he doesn't have any problems helping a few Communists in need. What a super man.

Back on Earth, a prison chain gang is working the rock-breaking shift at the local quarry while super-genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) whistles Mozart and waxes poetic on the efficiency of biogenetics as he tends a miniature flower garden. And that sentence ended up being longer than it probably should have been. Anyway, a very ugly convertible pulls up, blaring a Jerry Lee Lewis song as its driver asks the guards for directions to somewhere inconsequential. This turns out to be a ruse, however, as the driver is none other than Luthor's technologically brilliant yet otherwise idiotic nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer). And the guy must dress himself in the dark, because he looks like a Spencer's Gifts store threw up on him. While we the viewer quickly realize what's going on, the idiot guards have no clue, falling victim to Lenny's trap. They get stuck in the car, and in a bizarre moment, Lenny uses a remote control to drive it off a cliff. Luthor and Lenny get the heck out of Dodge, and Luthor is quick to resume his master plan: destroy Superman.

The scene shifts to the bustling city of Metropolis, where strange things are afoot at the Daily Planet. Turns out the Daily Planet's been the victim of a hostile takeover at the hands of amoral tabloid publisher David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker), which really honks off Planet editor and legitimate journalist Perry White (Jackie Cooper). Of course, it doesn't really matter what Perry has to say about it, because he's just been replaced with Warfield's own daughter, the garishly-clad Lacy (Mariel Hemmingway). The meeting to announce the management shakeup is soon interrupted, however, as the President (Robert Beatty) holds a press conference to support nuclear proliferation. Gotta give the President credit, he could have just been sneaky about it. Why acquire nuclear weapons behind the backs of your nation's citizens when you can just announce it on television for God and everybody to see? Though I wouldn't doubt it if the President was bluffing. I would.

We use the President's announcement of mass destruction to segue into some random fourth grade class in some random American town, where the teacher asks the class for their opinions on the political climate. And I'd like to remind you, this is a fourth grade class. I was in third grade during Operation Desert Storm, and we didn't have discussions like this. But then again, I don't think Iraq was threatening to go all Hiroshima on us either. The teacher's suggestion of a discussion gets the typical fourth grade answers... and then there's Jeremy (Damien McLawnhorn), the class daydreamer, who just says they should ask Superman for help. And you know what? That's the only thing in this movie that makes any sense. Why not ask for help from the guy that's immune to everything but a particular green rock? That's a brilliant idea!

Meanwhile, at the Metropolis museum, a tour guide explains to her group that Superman has recently donated a strand of his hair to the museum. And to prove it's Superman's hair, they suspend a thousand-pound weight from it. Lenny and Lex, trying to blend in as members of the tour group, stay behind to smash the glass case containing the hair with a set of bolt cutters and snatch the hair. And people say subtlety is a lost art. While we're here, I might as well point out something. When Lex snatches the hair, it causes the thousand-pound weight to fall and crash through the bottom of the case. But if you watch closely enough, a giant hole (roughly the size of the weight) falls out before the weight even drops. When the filmmakers leave such a blatantly obvious error in the movie, you know you're working with cinematic genius realized. Geniuses, I say!

Moving on, back at the Daily Planet, Lacy flirts with Clark for some ungodly reason, under the guise of proposing he write a new "Metropolis After Hours" column. Why, I don't know. Clark isn't exactly the kind of guy that would troll Metropolis's red light district, unless he got ahold of some of that fake Kryptonite from Superman III and turned evil again. Thankfully, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) interrupts the Lacy/Clark meeting before it can get any more uncomfortable, and she's got Jeremy's letter to Superman in tow. I guess he hoped the Daily Planet knew Superman's forwarding address. Lacy sees an angle in a little kid wanting Superman to destroy the world's nuclear weapons cache, and the next day, the Daily Planet runs the headline "Superman Says 'Drop Dead' To Kid." Because when you want to sell papers, you can libel the the local superhero. I guess the Warfields majored in yellow journalism at the J. Jonah Jameson School For Defaming Superheroes.

Clark is so upset over the whole nuclear arms race that he retreats to the Fortress of Solitude to get some advice from some creepy celestial talking heads that I guess represent the Krypton Tribal Council or whoever's running the show now. I guess they just decided to say to hell with Marlon Brando after he wanted infinity billion dollars to do five minutes worth of work in Superman II. If that's the case, then at least the movie has thrifty budget management going for it. That's a plus, I guess.

Anyway, seems that the Krypton Tribal Council has something stuck in their craw over the whole "Superman wants to interfere with Earth's proceedings" or somesuch. I can see how that would be an issue, since last time he decided to screw around and tinker with Earth's ebb and flow, there was this whole thing about making the planet spin backwards. So anyway, the Krypton Tribal Council warns Superman to fear betrayal before the scene shifts back to Clark's apartment in Metropolis, where we learn that the Soviet premier is jealous of America and wants some nukes for himself. Man, the President traipsing around all over TV announcing we had the bomb really blew up in his face (no pun intended).

Lois shows up at Clark's apartment and offers a little moral support, and when they step out onto the balcony for some fresh air, Clark takes her hand and jumps over the edge. But just before a seemingly senseless murder/suicide can make the news, Clark is quickly replaced by Superman, who snatches Lois and takes her flying around the world. And just for kicks, he drops (then catches) Lois while flying over the Rocky Mountains. That's real nice. Oh, that Superman, what a cad. Wait until she meets the business end of one of those mountains with her face, and we'll see how freakin' funny it is then. You can only spin the planet backwards so many times before you break something important. And just to make sure she doesn't make any connection between Clark jumping off a building and Superman showing up in his place, Superman gives her one of those amnesia kisses from Superman II and wipes her short-term memory. With Jedi mind tricks like that, you can certainly make sure there aren't any witnesses, if you catch my drift.

From "Can You Read My Mind, Part 2," we transition to the United Nations building, where Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) is snapping pictures of Jeremy for the next issue of the Daily Planet. Superman triumphantly arrives, and asks Jimmy to take a walk with him. The pair start across the pavilion, a small crowd growing behind them as they head straight for the UN building. Lacy and Lois soon catch up with the crowd, accompanying Jeremy to the press box as Superman takes center stage in the UN's main chamber and announces that he plans to rid the world of nuclear arms. Both the Soviet and the United States put Superman's plan into effect, firing all their warheads into the air, where Superman snags them into a giant net in outer space (seriously!) and flings the big ball of missiles into the sun. Who has a net that size lying around? That thing must have taken months to construct!

But while Superman is eliminating the world's nuclear stockpile, Luther sets his own plan into effect. Meeting with three black market arms dealers, he arranges a missile of his own to be launched into space. That might not be such a big deal, but there's a hitch. Using the super-hair he stole from the museum, Luthor has created his own genetic goop that he attaches to his black market missile and launches into the waiting arms of Superman. Like the others, this one is shot into the sun too, but moments later, a fireball emerges. The fireball metamorphoses into a new superhuman born of Superman's DNA and powered by the sun, Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow). With long claw-like fingernails, the ability to shoot fireballs from his fists, and a body temperature as hot as the sun itself, he's quite the formidable foe... as long as he's in direct sunlight. So in short, Nuclear Man is like Superman from Hell, only with shadows serving as his Kryptonite.

Back on Earth, Kal-El soon finds himself in quite a predicament: he's somehow been talked into a double date, posing as Clark with Lacy and as Superman with Lois. Needless to say, this love triangle is even more insane than the Clark/Superman/Lois one from the first movie, but only half as intriguing. The double date is soon cut short when Luthor makes use of Superman's super-hearing to call in a bomb threat. Turns out was just a hoax, a ruse to get Superman to arrive at Luthor's new penthouse apartment. How he acquired such an apartment during his stay in prison, I'll never know. Nuclear Man arrives on the scene, and he and Superman throw down. And for some ungodly reason, Nuclear Man stops the fight in order to demolish huge chunks of the Great Wall of China and cause an eruption at Mount Vesuvius in Italy. Superman rebuilds the Great Wall and stops the eruption and moves the fight to the relative safety of the moon.

The pair brawl all over the place, but Nuclear Man gets the upper hand and heads back to Earth, where he picks up the Statue of Liberty and drops it over a crowded city street. You just know Nuclear Man means a little more business than the Evil Superman from Superman III. Straighten the Leaning Tower of Piza? Please. When you blow up the Great Wall of China, cause a volcanic eruption, and drop the Statue of Liberty on Manhattan in order to squash hundreds of people, you've gone from being a minor annoyance to being a complete and total a-hole. Superman catches up and snatches Lady Liberty before she can cause any damage, but just as he's returning the statue to her perch, Nuclear Man sneaks up on him and gives him a rather nasty scratch on the neck with his atomic claws. The scratch is enough to incapacitate Superman, who is unceremoniously booted into orbit by Nuclear Man, leaving his trademark red cape floating in the breeze.

Anyway, enough of that whole Superman thing. Why don't we move along to the business dealings at the Daily Planet? If you're into corporate wheeling and dealing, you're in luck, because Mr. Warfield just named Lacy as the new publisher of the Daily Planet. Lois, quite miffed over the blatant show of nepotism and the speed that the Warfields decided to run the headline "Superman Is Dead!", quits the newspaper while prompting Lacy (now sympathetic to the causes of honest journalists) to tell her father off. Meanwhile, Lois heads to Clark's apartment, where he's reclusively hidden himself as he battles the radioactive flu. She lets herself in and gives Superman a pep talk via Clark, baring her soul (and love for Superman) before presenting Clark with the cape of Metropolis's hero.

Very much near death, Clark turns to a glowing green crystal he took from the Kent farm in Smallville earlier in the movie. Through it, we hear the disembodied voice of his birth mother, Lara (Susannah York), who tells him that the crystal contains all that remains of Krypton's energy, to be used to save his own life. Man, those green crystals do everything, from giving Superman the final energy of a long-dead planet to creating Fortresses of Solitude.

With Superman gone, Luthor declares victory against his greatest foe. Nuclear Man happens to notice Lacy's picture on the cover of the Daily Planet, and he's got himself a nuclear crush. He storms the Planet headquarters and demands to see her, but the rejuvenated Superman arrives just before Nuclear Man can lay waste to any more police cars or SWAT team vans that have arrived on the scene. Superman lures his foe into an elevator (where there's no sunlight), then yanks the elevator car from the shaft and flies out to space, where he drops his cargo on the moon. But stupid Superman didn't fuse the doors shut, as some sunlight seeps in through the edges of the door and gives the incapacitated Nuclear Man his powers back. He tears his way out of the elevator, and on the surface of the moon, Superman and Nuclear Man have one final showdown.

Ugh. Just... ugh. I want to hurt Superman IV, but I can never hurt it the way it hurt me. People say movies cause real-life violence, and for a change, I'm going to agree with them. This stupid, no-good movie just makes me want to punch stuff. I'd rather zap my testicles with a car battery while jamming rusty fishhooks under my fingernails than watch Superman IV again. I hate it that much. I wouldn't wish the horror that is this movie on my worst enemy. I swear, I think there's one section of Hell where the damned are forced to watch Superman IV over and over again for the rest of eternity. I really can't think of a single nice thing to say about the movie. The movie is so full of holes, one would think it was produced in a Swiss cheese factory. How can it be daylight in China, Italy, and the United States all at the same time? Did Earth spawn two or three new suns? Why does the Jeremy character suddenly disappear for no reason? How can people fall in space when there's no gravity? How can humans survive in the vacuum of space without oxygen?

And sweet merciful crap, are the effects bad. If you thought the flying effects looked somewhat unrealistic before, wait until you see this one. With the exception of one or two scenes, you can obviously tell that they simply put the actors in front of a green screen and added the background in later. One would figure that they would improve the quality of the effects as the franchise progressed, but no, they just get worse. And don't get me started on the "Superman drops Lois as a joke" bit. Is it just me, or did it look like Lois was falling horizontally? How can that happen? And not only are the effects bad, but so is the set design. I mean, I can't be the only one who saw the folds in the black backdrop during the moon scene. I've heard of the fabric of space and time, but I didn't think it was literally fabric. If that's the case, I think my high school science teacher and all those sci-fi movies I've watched over the years have some explaining to do.

And like the far better Superman II, they spring a bunch of random powers out of nowhere on us, and we just have us assume that Superman is a telekinetic too. He's got all these other powers, why not? The apparent telekinesis that General Zod showed in Superman II is taken to a far extreme level here, as Superman rebuilds a demolished section of the Great Wall of China by merely looking at the rubble. So now, not only are Kryptonians Jedi masters, but it looks like they took Carrie to heart. If Superman was rebuilding it by hand while moving so fast I couldn't see him, that's one thing. But telekinesis? No.

But perhaps one of the most telling examples of the awfulness of the movie is near the end, when Nuclear Man grabs Lacy and flies into space with her. She's not wearing a spacesuit or an oxygen mask or anything, she's just there. When can humans survive the vacuum of space exposed? I can understand Superman and Nuclear Man, but Lacy is supposed to be a normal human being! I thought humans need oxygen and stuff like that. I know movies about aliens with godlike powers don't exactly subscribe to the laws of nature and physics, but come on.

Just like in Superman III, John Williams's classic soundtrack is poorly performed and hideously underwhelming. It had no flow, no real tie-in to the scenes. Composer Alexander Courage apparently took no pride in his work here, and the score is lacking the triumphant feel of the score from the first two movies. It's almost pitiful in its ineptitude. And then there's the acting. While Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman are good as always, the rest of the cast is the definition of "letdown." I didn't really want to see or like any one in the movie. Mark Pillow's Nuclear Man is unbelievably generic, and he doesn't even get to really say any lines, since Hackman provides the Nuclear Voice.

And let's not get me started on Sidney Furie's direction or the script. Written by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Connor with some input from Reeve, the movie is just a compilation of bits and pieces with no flow or internal logic. If there's anything good that can be said about the other black sheep of the series, Superman III, I can say that it at least it managed to make some kind of sense in the end. But by the end of Superman IV, I had no clue what I'd just seen. The movie was absolutely disjointed and all over the place. In fact, I'll do a "Synopsis In 60 Seconds" to show what I mean...

"Lex Luthor breaks out of jail. The Daily Planet falls victim to a hostile takeover and turns into a tabloid. A kid wants no nuclear bombs. The kid becomes a big deal, then vanishes. Superman throws missiles into the sun, and Nuclear Man is born. Lacy hits on Clark, Lois hits on Superman, and it goes nowhere. We get a reprisal of the classic Superman/Lois flying scene from the first movie, only crappier and with Superman almost killing Lois just for a laugh. Superman fights Nuclear Man and loses, then does the Rocky comeback and beats him. Before the rematch, Nuclear Man pulls Lacy out into space and she disappears shortly thereafter. Perry White buys the Daily Planet and Superman decides to quit destroying nuclear weapons because it really didn't solve anything anyway."

There. I just saved you ninety minutes that you could spend doing something more interesting. It's like the filmmakers wanted to make the stupidest, most mind-numbingly awful movie ever. Or at the very least, they wanted to make a movie about a superhuman from Krypton that was actually worse than Supergirl. I can forgive Roger Corman's Fantastic Four for being bad, because they had a miniscule budget and the movie was never intended to be released anyway. But this is Superman! He's arguably the most recognizable superhero ever, and this had to be the note the Chris Reeve series ended on?! Ugh, it's like nobody even gave a damn during the making of this movie. And if they can't be bothered to care, I can't either. You win, Superman IV. You broke my spirit, you insulted my intelligence, and you crapped on my heart, you soulless bastard of a movie.

Final Rating: *

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

X-Men (2000)

The 1960s were a tumultuous time for the United States, and at the forefront of much of the era's turmoil was the civil rights movement. African-Americans often found themselves on the outside staring into Caucasian society, being treated as second-class citizens if they were even treated like citizens at all. It was this bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination that was eventually allegorized into its own comic book franchise, when Marvel Comics published X-Men #1 in September 1963.

The creation of industry legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men have become one of the most beloved comic franchises in history, producing dozens of spin-offs and turning many of the writers and artists involved in the series into bona fide stars. The X-Men have seen translation into numerous forms outside of comic books in the four decades since their creation, from toys to video games to animated television shows.

But perhaps the most recognizable of these translations were the series of films distributed by Twentieth Century Fox. With Bryan Singer fresh off directing his critically praised thriller The Usual Suspects, X-Men can lay claim to reviving the superhero genre, and it helped turn Marvel from a Hollywood punchline to a cinematic powerhouse. Back before X-Men, movies based on Marvel properties were low-budget affairs that were laughable at best. From The Punisher and Captain America to Howard the Duck and Roger Corman's unreleased (and oft-bootlegged) Fantastic Four, they were just plain embarrassing. Since X-Men, Marvel has led the renaissance of superhero movies, achieving success with big-budget theatrical adaptations of Spider-Man, Blade, the Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, and Elektra, along with new interpretations of the Punisher and the Fantastic Four. But is the X-Men's big-screen debut really any good? You bet it is.

Our film begins with a brief narration, explaining that despite evolution's generally slow process, it sometimes takes a giant quantum leap forward. Such a leap forward has resulted in the existence of mutants, people with a certain "X-Factor" that manifests at puberty during heightened emotional stress and gives them extraordinary abilities. Two such examples of newfound mutant abilities are laid out at the beginning of the movie. First, we are taken to a Polish concentration camp circa 1944, where a young Jewish boy named Erik Lensherr (Brett Morris) frantically reaches for his parents as the Nazis lead them to the gas chamber. The trauma manifests Lensherr's mutant power, tearing up an iron gate and rips barbed wire out of its mounts before a soldier clocks him across the face with the butt of his rifle.

Flash forward to "sometime in the near future" in the small Mississippi town of Meridian, where we are introduced to the teenage Marie D'Ancanto (Anna Paquin). As she details her planned road trip through Canada to her boyfriend David (Shawn Roberts), she cuddles up next to him and they share their first kiss. The sexual tension causes her hidden "X-Factor" to reveal itself, and Marie literally sucks the life out of him. David will be in a coma for three weeks, and the deeply scarred Marie will flee to Canada in fear.

Taking the pseudonym "Rogue," Marie ends up at a truck stop in some middle-of-nowhere Canadian town called Laughlan City. In the middle of the building stands a huge cage, where the truck stop's proprietor organizes no-holds-barred bare-knuckle fights. The catch is, a particular fighter named Logan (Hugh Jackman) is nearly impossible to defeat. Fighting under the name "The Wolverine," he always manages to come out victorious despite taking hellacious beatings from fighters twice his size. After a night of successfully defending his "king of the cage" title against numerous fighters, Logan retires to the bar, but his rest is interrupted when a fighter he beat earlier in the night tries to gain a little retribution by pulling a knife on him. Logan is up to the task, as he quickly pins the man to a wall with nine-inch metal claws protruding from between his knuckles. The bartender throws Logan out (but not before he neatly claws the bartender's shotgun in half), and Logan decides to hop in his truck and hit the road for destination unknown. He soon discovers Rogue stowing away in the back of his truck, but instead of telling her to get lost, he lets her hitch a ride instead.

Rogue and Wolverine have an awkward "getting to know you" moment (where we learn Wolverine's real name, Logan), and just as she's about to warn him about the dangers of not wearing your seat belt, a tree falls in front of them and Logan gets launched out the windshield. It's this crash that demonstrates why he never appeared to get hurt during his fights, as he heals a large bloody gash on his forehead almost instantly. Logan and Rogue are attacked by a group of mutants at about the same time, and but are just as quickly rescued by a second group.

The second group takes Logan and Rogue to Westchester County, New York, where we are introduced to Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. On the outside an exclusive private school for kids and teenagers, the school is a front for Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) to help young mutants understand their budding powers while forming his own team of mutant superheroes that the school's students have dubbed "the X-Men." These superheroes also are employed as teachers at the school, and include the telekinetic/telepathic Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the weather-manipulating Ororo "Storm" Munroe (Halle Berry), and Jean's boyfriend Scott "Cyclops" Summers (James Marsden), whose eyes constantly emit powerful energy beams.

With all that exposition out of the way, lets get to the meat and potatoes of the movie, shall we? It turns out that the mutants that attacked Logan and Rogue in Canada were the Brotherhood of Mutants, led by the adult Erik Lensherr (Ian McKellen). Having adopted the name "Magneto" as a reference to his ability to manipulate magnetic fields, he has a deep-seeded hatred of normal humans thanks to the murder of his family during the Holocaust. Magneto and the three members of the Brotherhood – the immense lion-like Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), the blue-skinned shapeshifting master of martial arts Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and the aptly-named Toad (Ray Park) – are the polar opposites of the X-Men, holding normal humans with a very low regard and seeking to take what they believe is their rightful place at the top of the food chain.

Magneto has crafted a tool that will allow him to cause mutations in those who don't have them, and he plans to give evolution a swift kick in the butt to speed things along. The only bad thing about his machine is that while it causes mutations, it eventually causes its victims to melt into a watery gelatinous goo. After testing it on (and ultimately killing) the outspokenly McCarthyesque anti-mutant senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), the Brotherhood plans to activate his device at a world diplomatic convention on Ellis Island and he needs Rogue's life-draining power to do it. The X-Men are forced to spring into duty and save a kidnapped Rogue, sparking a stunning climax on top of the Statue of Liberty.

Cramming four decades of history into a movie and expecting the non-fanboys to follow along can be rough, but it can be done and X-Men is proof of that. One can tell that the cast and crew enjoyed what they were doing and respected the source material, because it shows. The respect can be seen in several sly references to X-Men history, such as the cameo appearances from noted X-Men characters Iceman, Pyro, Kitty Pryde, and Jubilee, a very novel explanation for Rogue's trademark streak of white hair, and a humorous reference to Wolverine's famous yellow jumpsuit from the comics and cartoons. They even worked in a reference to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, just for Ray "Darth Maul" Park to twirl a staff like he did with his duel-edged lightsaber.

The movie also benefits from some extremely cool effects, from the simple (Wolverine's claws) to the extravagant (Mystique's shapeshifting, Storm flying up an elevator shaft). Bryan Singer's direction is top-notch, making the movie feel like a comic book, yet still seeming oddly realistic as well. Singer presents us with some nicely put-together fight scenes and action sequences (the fight scene between Wolverine and Mystique is a must-see), and Singer's work and the astonishing effects make the movie visually astounding from start to finish.

The filmmakers made a very apropos decision in using the Statue of Liberty as the location for the finale. The mutants seek their own form of liberty and freedom in a society that hates them, and Lady Liberty once served as a shining beacon for so many immigrants who came to America in search of liberty and freedom for themselves. And while screenwriter David Hayter's script can be seen as championing gay rights (as the potential anti-mutant laws in the movie could parallel the prohibition of homosexual marriages), I prefer to look at the movie as a story about race relations. One can obviously view Professor Xavier as a version of the peaceful Martin Luther King, while Magneto and his Brotherhood serve as the militant Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

This is a comparison that I find very striking. Just like Dr. King and Malcolm X, both Professor Xavier and Magneto desire mutant equality, but through far different means. One seeks it through dignified efforts, the other intends to force equality by giving non-mutants something to justify their fear. Hayter's screenplay is also effective on an emotional level, with the developing friendship between Wolverine and Rogue. Him with no past (thanks to a bad case of amnesia), and her with seemingly no future (thanks to her mutant power), the bond between them feels very warm and real.

The cast is quite charming in their own right, because it's so apparent that they enjoyed themselves. Of course, Hugh Jackman is the most noteworthy cast member, since he plays the most popular of the X-Men characters. The movie focuses almost exclusively on both Wolverine's relationship with Rogue and the love triangle between Wolverine, Jean Grey, and Cyclops, and Jackman is up to task. If Wolverine was a foot taller and a real person, he'd definitely be Hugh Jackman. Anna Paquin is stellar as well. I have to admit that despite her being an Oscar winner, I'm not too familiar with any of her work outside of the X-Men movies. But she did an absolutely spectacular job, conveying Rogue's fear and sadness, desperate for human contact but unable to truly feel close to anyone because of the curse that is her mutation. With the Wolverine/Rogue relationship and the love triangle at the forefront, it unfortunately pushes the bulk of the cast into supporting roles.

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are both superb and enjoyable as the close friends yet bitter enemies, and despite having very little dialogue, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is fun to watch. It's her mannerisms that makes her so captivating. She accomplishes quite a lot with just a facial expression or eye movement, and the fact that Mystique has no problem picking a fight with a guy makes her quite an intriguing character. And it should be noted that her minuscule wardrobe is simply a bucket of blue paint, red hair, yellow contact lenses, and a few strategically placed scales, which is enough to make any red-blooded heterosexual male at least a little interested. Also entertaining is the movie's exciting score, composed by Michael Kamen. Outside of a certain crescendo that sounds eerily similar to the classic theme from Fox's mid-'90s cartoon, it really doesn't have any standout themes like the scores from Spider-Man or the Batman and Superman movie franchises. But despite that, Kamen's score is quite effective.

X-Men is a fun thrill ride from beginning to end, and I have no problem listing it next to movies like The Incredibles and Superman II as one of the best superhero movies ever made. If more superhero movies could be like X-Men, we'd all be the better for it. A definite four stars for sure, and a Sutton Seal of Approval.

Final Rating: ****

Friday, June 3, 2005

Superman III (1983)

With most successful film franchises, the quality of the sequels start to decline over time until the movies just outright suck or don't even register on the cinematic radar. Such is the case with Christopher Reeve's Superman movies. While Superman is fun yet somewhat forgettable and Superman II is absolutely awesome, the series began a decent past mediocrity into just plain bad with the release of Superman III in 1983. The movie proves that all the success of the previous two installments was thanks to Richard Donner and "creative consultant" Tom Mankiewicz. Donner's firing halfway through the filming of Superman II prompted the departure of both Mankiewicz and composer John Williams, but the movie was far enough into production that it was safe.

Without Donner, Mankiewicz, and acclaimed writer Mario Puzo, father-and-son producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and director Richard Lester (who served as Donner's replacement during Superman II) decided to take the franchise in a completely different direction with Superman III, playing up comedy and camp instead of action and thrills. To borrow an analogy from another reviewer, the movies went from Sean Connery's James Bond to Timothy Dalton's James Bond in the span of two movies. Or perhaps a better analogy is like they went from Tim Burton's Batman to Joel Schumacher's Batman. Something like that.

Our story opens in a Metropolis unemployment office, where we meet August "Gus" Gorman (Richard Pryor). Thanks to thirty-six weeks of chronic unemployment and a severe inability to hold down a steady job, the unemployment office tells Gus he's on his own. He asks someone for a light on his way out, noticing an ad for a computer programming class on the matchbook. He follows up the ad by heading to the Arcibald School of Data Processing, where he soon realizes that he has a knack for computers. He apparently doesn't even know anything about computers, yet he becomes a master hacker when you put him in front of one. He's like Geoffrey Rush in Shine, only with crappy computers from the early '80s instead of pianos.

Gus soon scores himself a job as a computer programmer at WEBSCOE Industries, but is quite unhappy with the amount of money being deducted from his paycheck by taxes. He gets into a discussion with a coworker over the certain percentages taxes take out, and theorizes that there has to be fractions of cents left over. When his coworker says that the checks are rounded down to the closest "half cent," a light bulb goes off over Gus's head. Those "half cents" that aren't being paid to employees have to be floating around in the system, right? He sneaks into the computer mainframe and takes advantage of their bookkeeping snafus, sending all those leftover "half cents" to his own account and earning himself over $85,000 on his next paycheck. If the "stealing half-cents" thing sounds familiar, the same thing was done to much better effect in Office Space.

Okay, folks, here's some advice: If you ever start embezzling thousands of dollars from your employer, start small. Don't go buying a Lamborghini or Ferrari right out of the gate, or someone will get suspicious. I guess ol' Gus didn't get that advice, because his embezzlement draws the attention of WEBSCOE Industries chief Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn). Rather than fire Gus or have him arrested, the insanely wealthy Webster sees the chance to make himself even wealthier. He employs Gus's computer skills to help him engage in some competitor elimination, such as leaving oil tankers stranded in the middle of the ocean and destroying a rival coffee crop in Columbia. And how a weather satellite can be used to create massive tornadoes in Central America, I'll never know.

But standing in the way of Webster's plan is only one problem: Superman (Christopher Reeve). Webster lays down an order for his butch sister Vera (Annie Ross) and Gus to find a way to kill Superman and allow his shady business procedures to go off without a hitch. Since they know our hero is fatally allergic to Kryptonite, Gus utilizes some satellite technology to scour deep space and analyze a hunk of the green stuff. Since it's out in deep space and might not even float through the Milky Way, Gus analyzes the elements that comprise said Kryptonite... and comes up with an unknown variable as an ingredient. Not having any idea what the unknown portion is, he just substitutes tobacco tar to fill in the gaps and comes up with a reasonable facsimile of Kryptonite.

But Superman has got stuff going on out of town. Clark Kent has returned to home to Kansas so he can attend Smallville High's "class of 1965" reunion. And Clark's pretty smart too, since he scammed the Daily Planet into paying the expenses for his trip by saying he was going to write a human interests piece on it. He's super and clever. Comically unable to dance and bored to tears by an old teacher who won't shut up, Clark soon finds himself face-to-face with his old high school flame Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole). A single mom after her recent divorce, it's blatantly obvious Clark was her "one who got away." She and Clark begin catching up on old times while he tries to bond with her young son Ricky (Paul Kaethler), while a former classmate named Brad Wilson (Gavin O'Herlihy) keeps putting the moves on Lana every chance he gets. Brad's a raging alcoholic and womanizer that keeps hearkening back to his high school glory days, sort of like if Al Bundy was drunk all the time.

But Lana is undeterred, especially after Ricky warms up to Clark when he learns Clark knows Superman. Lana asks Clark to get Superman to appear at Ricky's birthday party, and when Superman arrives in Smallville, the town throws a big celebration and presents him with the key to the city. Disguised as representatives from the Army, Gus and Vera interrupt the ceremony and give Superman the hunk of synthetic Kryptonite. The fake Kryptonite doesn't kill him, but it does have some unforeseen results that work in Webster's favor. Superman goes from "Superman" to "Superjerk," straightening the Leaning Tower of Piza and blowing out the Olympic torch. He even causes a massive oil spill and becomes a boozing Don Juan.

Superman's downfall culminates at a junkyard, where for some reason, he somehow (and I don't know how he did it, either) splits into two different people: the evil Superman and the good Clark Kent. Ever see that one episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk ends up getting split into two people, one good and one evil? It's like that. The two brawl all over the junkyard, but Clark finally chokes out Superman and they merge back into one person. Our movie finally climaxes as Superman storms the gigantic subterranean supercomputer that Gus and Webster have built in the Grand Canyon.

Superman fights the computer, he wins, and everybody goes home happy... except for the audience. The first thing I can say is that at least Superman III is better than Superman IV. But that's like saying a punch to the jaw is better than a kick to the groin. They're both bad, but it's just the lesser of two evils. As a comedy, it's not very funny, and as an action movie, it's not very exciting. There's a horrible script, bad effects (being able to see the wires used to help Superman fly is not good), and ho-hum direction. Richard Lester has directed great films in the past, but it seems here like he has a creative brainfart. Similar to his work on movies like the Beatles vehicle A Hard Day's Night, the movie opens with a slapstick montage that serves as one of the most inane opening credit sequences ever. The bottom half of the frame blurs out of focus when each credit appears, making the credits difficult to read while obscuring any of the details of the action going on behind the distortion. The opening sequence is all action, so why would you want to distort what you're trying to highlight?

And how about David and Leslie Newman's script? Who told them it was a good idea to have "WALK" and "DON'T WALK" street signs get into a fistfight? And did anyone tell them that weather satellites can't create weather, only monitor it? Even if the movie's lead character is an alien with superpowers, they could at least try to have a little realism. And the Evil Superman bit, which I would have made the focal point of the movie, is relegated to a short subplot and is resolved rather quickly.

Evil Superman, like I said, is really very juvenile at first. He's like an elementary school bully. While blowing out the Olympic torch is a crappy thing to do, I'm sure we've all thought about it once. And straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa? I would have done that as Good Superman, so I don't see what the big deal is. The only knocks against the Vertical Tower of Pisa would be that it puts a dent in tourism and stops those goofy "holding up the Leaning Tower" pictures everyone seems to take. You know the ones.

On the musical end, the score by Ken Thorne is barely there at all. It's missing the epic storytelling feel that John Williams's score had; here, it's just background noise. Speaking of music, the use of the song "Earth Angel" left me waiting for Clark to run up on stage and start playing "Johnny B. Goode." Yeah, I know Back to the Future wasn't released for another two years, but every time I hear "Earth Angel," I get flashbacks to the Enchantment Under The Sea dance. Is that just me? Or am I crazy?

The only real standout of the movie is the acting. Once again, Christopher Reeve is great here. If there's anything I'm sure of, it's that Chris Reeve is the glue that holds these movies together, and Superman III is no exception. His turn as Evil Superman is fun, even though he seems, like I said, juvenile at first. But once he declares he's out of the heroism business, it's a whole new ballgame. The blues and reds in his costume grow darker, his hair becomes more unkempt, and he starts sporting a wicked five o'clock shadow. I don't know if that was the idea of the writers, but it's genius. Reeves takes the opportunity to become a surly jackass, and he's just plain awesome in those moments.

Annette O'Toole is very good and very likeable, as well. She has a great "girl next door" vibe, and I found her to be a much more effective female lead than Margot Kidder. What's funny is that here, O'Toole plays someone who has stayed in Smallville all her life... and then she ends up as Ma Kent on Smallville. Talk about life imitating art. But back on Margot Kidder for a second. You may be wondering why she's only in two scenes in the entire movie. Quick answer: Ms. Kidder was very vocal in her displeasure that Richard Donner was replaced during Superman II, so the Salkinds rewarded her with minimal screen time in the next movie. And that's that.

Meanwhile, Richard Pryor is appallingly miscast. He's one of the funniest and most influential standup comedians ever, but he's stuck in a blah role that was very obviously not written for him. He does as good as he can with what he's given, but better writing or another actor could have made all the difference. Pryor's character has none of the charm or humor he had in The Toy or Stir Crazy, which just helps no one. Robert Vaughn is just kinda there as overzealous villain Ross Webster, who comes off as just a very, very poor facsimile of the direly missed Lex Luthor as portrayed by Gene Hackman. He even has his own sidekick and consort in Annie Ross as his one-note joke of a sister and Pat Stephenson as Lorelei Ambrosia, a poor man's version of Miss Tessmacher.

While the movie can entertain the ten-year-olds and ten-year-olds at heart, it's just not much for everyone else. The movie probably would be better off seen by only completists who've seen the first two Superman movies and have to see all four. The movie is straight-up mediocre from start to finish, with only one real scene that stands out and is worth talking about. Nothing else in the movie is really worth talking about. While the movie isn't bad, it certainly isn't good either. Those of you who aren't huge Superman fans, you can just ignore this one. The Clark/Lana scenes were good and the Evil Superman stuff was fun, but outside of that, the movie is just hollow. Two stars for Superman III, and I'm gonna leave it at that.

Final Rating: **