Sunday, October 22, 2006

Batman Begins (2005)

The year was 1939. World War II was beginning, the career of legendary baseball player Lou Gherig was ending. The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind were released, and the "Golden Age of Comics" was just starting. By the time the year was out, the industry had seen Bob Kane and Bill Finger create a superhero that straddled the line between hero and vigilante.

A masked man striving to protect the city Kane and Finger's creation calls home from the criminals that claimed his family, he is called by many names. He is often referred to as the Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader, the Masked Manhunter, and the World's Greatest Detective. But he was born into the world with just one name: Batman. He has become a superstar in the seven decades since he first appeared in the pages of Detective Comics #27 in 1939, serving as not only as one of DC's flagship characters, but ranking with Superman and Spider-Man as one of the comic world's most iconic figures.

Batman has ventured outside of the printed page on numerous occasions, seeing translations into video games, toys, cartoons, movie serials in the 1940s, and the famous 1960s television show starring Adam West and Burt Ward. The show (and its spinoff movie) were super-silly, prompting the uninitiated to assume that the comic version was just as campy.

Batman, however, would be undeterred, and his public image would be drastically altered by Frank Miller's gritty 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns and Tim Burton's adaptation in 1989. Burton's film inspired three sequels between 1992 and 1997, but similar to Christopher Reeve's four Superman movies, the franchise started a quick downward spiral with the third and fourth films in the series. Fans cried foul at the cinematic downfall of their hero, aiming their hatred at the apparent return to the campiness of the old television show. Warner Brothers apparently heard their cry, and felt the need to wipe the slate clean with a complete and total reboot. And reboot they did, starting with the Dark Knight's backstory in Batman Begins.

As our story begins, we're introduced to eight-year-old Bruce Wayne (Gus Lewis) as he plays in his backyard with a friend, Rachel Dawes (Emma Lockhart). She discovers an arrowhead, but Bruce swipes it and makes off like a bandit. Rachel chases him, but when he attempts to hide, he ends up falling into an old well. Stranded at the bottom with a broken leg, Bruce is overwhelmed by a swarm of bats.

Flash forward just over twenty years into the future, where the adult Bruce (Christian Bale) is interred at a horrible Asian prison, looking more like a psychotic Grizzly Adams than a billionaire playboy. And I'll be honest, the prison makes Schindler's List look like a fun way to spend a weekend. The place looks like Hiroshima: The Morning After, the slop they serve the prisoners is so disgusting that it barely qualifies as food in any sort of ethical sense, and to top it all off, Bruce ends up in a giant brawl with six guys at once. He kicks the crap out of all six before the guards break it up, getting thrown in his cell before he can hurt anyone else. In his cell, he's greeted by the enigmatic Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who offers Bruce the answers he's sought for his entire life.

Bruce accepts his offer, and arrives at a Himalayan palace occupied by a band of masked ninjas and their equally enigmatic leader Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). It is here that Ducard reveals his intention to take on Bruce as a protégé, and train him to combat evil in all its forms. He teaches Bruce numerous fighting styles, dropping little nuggets of wisdom while instructing his pupil to use theatricality and fear to conquer his foes. So in short, Ducard is like a funhouse mirror version of Qui-Gon Jinn from The Phantom Menace. Bruce's physically demanding training progresses, as we see flashbacks of his past and the path his life has taken. From watching a mugger senselessly murder his parents as a child, to his failed attempt as a young man to gain revenge by killing that mugger, to traveling the world committing crimes to sustain himself.

Bruce's training is a success, and he is accepted into the "League of Shadows." The League is an ancient organization, dedicated to restoring their view of order to the world in an "end justifies the means" fashion. Responsible for the downfall of numerous decadent societies, the League has sacked the Roman Empire, started the Black Plague, set the Great Fire of London in 1666, nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, took out Sodom and Gomorrah, hijacked the planes used in the attacks on September 11th... okay, I'm exaggerating a tad. They're only responsible for Rome, the Plague, and the London fire. But from the way Ra's and Ducard talk, the influence of the League of Shadows is rivaled only by the Illuminati. Anyway, Ra's and Ducard want Bruce to lead the League into Gotham City, which has been selected as their next target. Bruce refuses to destroy the city he loves, realizing that the League is simply a group of criminals hiding behind the guise of justice. He severs ties with the League by burning the place down and fighting off most of the League's members, then departs for home.

Bruce is reunited with longtime Wayne butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), who brings his ward up to speed on Gotham City events in his long absence. He has been declared dead, and his shares in Wayne Enterprises (the philanthropic business founded by his father) have been liquidated by company CEO William Earle (Rutger Houer) with the intention of taking the company public. It is on this flight home that Bruce declares his intentions: to save Gotham City from the crime choking the life out of the city.

Upon his return to Gotham City, Bruce heads to the Wayne Enterprises headquarters, inquiring about a job in the Applied Sciences division. He is led down into the division's long-forgotten warehouse in the basement, where he is introduced to Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman). An unjustly demoted scientist that is the only person working in the division, Fox has developed numerous prototypes for the military. But as it turns out, they were all rejected because they would be too expensive for mass production. If Ducard is like Qui-Gon Jinn, then Fox is like Q, only working for Batman instead of James Bond. Bruce drafts Lucious as his armorer, "borrowing" the unused prototypes under various false pretenses (such as spelunking and cliff diving) in order to craft a disguise for himself.

He tests out the disguise one night by paying a visit to police sergeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), one of the few honest cops in the city and the officer who helped console a young Bruce on the night his parents died. Bruce asks what it would take to bring down Gotham City's powerful crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), and warns Sgt. Gordon to "watch for [his] sign." Through a little investigative work, Bruce discovers that Falcone is expecting a shipment of drugs smuggled inside stuffed animals. He picks off each of Falcone's henchmen one by one, fighting his way through them to the mob boss's limousine, where he yanks him out through the sunroof and knocks him unconscious. When the police finally arrive, Sgt. Gordon discovers Falcone strapped to a spotlight, projecting the faint silhouette of a bat into the night sky... the work of the vigilante that becomes known as "Batman."

As the movie progresses, Batman finds himself up against a corrupt psychologist named Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy). At first seeming like a harmless drug dealer with ties to the Mafia, he continually has sane criminals committed to Arkham Asylum so they can avoid prison. We soon learn, however, Crane's deeper, more malicious intentions. Y'see, he's using drugs acquired from Falcone to develop a weaponized hallucinogen that causes its victims to project their worst fear onto everything they see. Donning a burlap sack as a mask, Crane has created an alter ego he calls "The Scarecrow" in order to facilitate the fear of his victims.

After Falcone goes insane (thanks to the fear toxin), Bruce's old playmate Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) – now an assistant to Gotham City's district attorney – wonders how a man with no history of mental illness goes crazy as quickly as he did. Crane offers to show her why, leading her into the asylum's basement, where various henchmen pour Crane's hallucinogen into a water main. Rachel catches what's up and tries to leave, but the masked Crane blows his toxin into her face.

Batman wastes no time in saving the day, swooping in and taking out the henchmen before spraying Crane with a dose of his own fear gas. Frightened into submission by his vision of Batman as a demonic gargoyle, Crane reveals his backer: the believed-dead Ra's Al Ghul. As the third act begins, we see the true face of Ra's Al Ghul and witness as Batman attempts to thwart his master plan: to vaporize Gotham City's water supply and cause the latent drugs to infect the entire city, creating a wave of panic that will cause Gotham's citizens to destroy themselves from within.

Wow. That's really all I can say, just "wow." As much as I liked Batman '89, I'm of the opinion that Batman Begins quite possibly exceeds it in terms of both filmmaking quality and storytelling style. For those still clutching to the belief that Batman Begins is a prequel to the Burton/Schumacher quartet, just let it go. This is an all-new franchise. The movie doesn't fit into the previous continuity, which is especially evidenced in the fact that the Waynes were not killed by The Joker as depicted in Batman '89. Here, they're murdered by Joe Chill (as played by Richard Brake). Besides, they had to reboot the series, because they killed off the majority of the best villains. The villains are just as much of a draw as Batman is, and oustside of Scarecrow, Burton and Schumacher pretty much used all the best ones. How many casual fans have heard of Victor Zsasz or Killer Croc? The only true remaining hint of the Burton/Schumacher era that I caught is the rather sly reference to the opening scene of Batman '89 ("What the hell are you?" "I'm Batman.").

The script, penned by Nolan and David S. Goyer, combines elements of classic Batman stories such as Batman: Year One, The Man Who Falls, and The Long Halloween to make an excellent script, seamlessly blending Nolan's dark storytelling style with Goyer's ability to write entertaining comic book adaptations (with movies like The Crow: City of Angels and the Blade trilogy on his résumé). We're taken deeper into Batman's psyche and we actually get to see what's inside his head, as opposed to him just being a guy in a black rubber suit that's background noise for the villains. Rather than ruin the Batman mythology, Nolan and Goyer weave a tale that enriches it. We see the reasoning behind the "Batman" image, the birth of the Batcave, how he acquires those wonderful toys. We get to understand the character, to see his motivation.

The movie is as much about Bruce Wayne as it is about his masked alter ego, which brings more humanity and heart into the story. The hedonistic playboy side of the character's personality has been depicted by some comic book writers as Bruce's secret identity, while his "Dark Knight" side has been cast as the man's true nature. Nolan and Goyer have apparently taken that same route, because when the Bruce Wayne of Batman Begins puts on his cape and cowl, that's when we see his true face. This movie's Bruce is a hero through and through, and we get the sense that he feels more at home in the Batcave than he does in Wayne Manor.

But there is one thing that bugs me about the script. Is it just me, or are there flaws in that water vaporizer contraption used at the end of the movie? The human body is mostly water, so couldn't it vaporize people too? I'm not a science whiz, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. I don't have a clue. But in any event, the water vaporizer would have made an awesome weapon to use against Aquaman. If they make an Aquaman movie, they should totally rip that off.

After crafting such fascinating films as Memento, director Christopher Nolan has breathed new life into the thought-dead Batman movie franchise. Nolan's work here is just as well-crafted as the screenplay. The movie's look hearkens back to Tim Burton's original movie, yet retains its own individuality. While I normally complain about dizzying, quickly-edited action scenes, they work within the context of the movie. Take, for example, the scene where Batman interrupts Falcone's drug shipment. He appears out of nowhere, striking at a moment's notice. Falcone's henchmen are confused and have no clue what's going on, and the scene's editing reflects that.

The movie's camerawork (orchestrated by cinematographer Wally Pfister) pushes the movie along, putting to use exciting camera angles and moody lighting. Many of the scenes are cast in a melancholy gray light while others are tinted with earthy browns and sepia tones, which suits the movie's tone perfectly. The movie's special effects are also great, relying more on stuntmen and real gadgets than CGI work. They could have gone the whole Catwoman route and had a Batman that looked like he was ripped out of a video game during the action scenes, but the use of actual working props and stuntmen makes the movie that much more believable. And boy, did I like that Batmobile. Looking like an amalgam of a Hummer, a tank, and Dodge's aborted Tomahawk motorcycle, the Batmobile (called "the Tumbler" in the movie) isn't the typical Batmobile, but still manages to be sleek, intimidating, and downright cool.

Batman Begins is also assisted by a wonderful score by Hans Zimmer and James Nelson Howard. Their music doesn't rely on recurring leitmotifs like the scores by Danny Elfman and Elliot Goldenthal's previous scores, but I liked it all the same. The score carries a lot of power and strength, without overshadowing what's onscreen. The score is never overbearing, maintaining a presence throughout and helping to tell a story as much as the screenplay and cast.

Speaking of, let's talk about the cast. Christian Bale does a spectacular job, wonderfully conveying the deep psychological scars of a person who as a child watched as those closest to him were violently snatched away, and seeks to avenge them as an adult. Bale's enthusiasm for the role is evident, and when the actors have fun, the viewer does too. His heroic turn here is the polar opposite of his equally extraordinary performance as an off-his-rocker serial killer in American Psycho, and he manages to play perhaps the best Bruce Wayne of the five actors who have gained notoriety for the role.

Bale is surrounded by an impressive supporting cast, with Liam Neeson and Michael Caine as its best members. Both Neeson and Caine are awesome, bringing some much-welcomed class to the movie. They could have just stood around smoking cigarettes and downing martinis for two hours and it would have ruled. Gary Oldman is fun as the future Gotham City police commissioner Jim Gordon, and Rutger Houer's turn as the sleazeball Wayne Enterprises CEO is enjoyable as well. Cillian Murphy, who I'd only seen prior as the protagonist in the British zombie movie 28 Days Later, turns in a creepy performance that makes me wish Scarecrow had gotten more screen time.

And despite having almost no screen time at all, Linus Roache is great as Bruce's father. Roache's performance is understated, yet he manages to come across as a truly loving father that leaves a thumbprint on the movie as a whole. However, not everything about the cast is so great. Katie Holmes is likeable, but I just wasn't believing her as an assistant DA or as a love interest. She doesn't bring much to the movie outside of standing around looking cute, so her character just seems superfluous. Holmes and Bale don't have the same chemistry as, say, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man or Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in Superman. Though to their credit, Holmes and Bale are a more believable couple than Holmes and Tom Cruise. Maybe that's why she spent so much time talking about Tom than promoting the movie when it was released, because she realized that she was totally out of her league when compared to the rest of the cast.

I enjoyed Batman Begins a lot, and combined with the fact that it's well-made and well-acted, goes a long way into how much hype I give it. I really don't have much bad to say about the movie at all, and I'm willing to list it in my top-five movies of 2005. The quality of comic book adaptations can be mixed, but I'm of the opinion that Batman Begins is one of the best of the bunch. Not as awesome as Sin City, but still great. I'll give Batman Begins four and a half stars and a vote of confidence, so check it out.

Final Rating: ****½

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Hard Candy (2006)

If appearances can be deceiving, then perhaps the most deceptive of all is an Internet chat room. That person you may be getting to know online, that one you think you may have so much in common with, could be someone with an entirely different personality and motive. Watch any random episode of Dateline NBC's "To Catch A Predator" gimmick, and you'll probably see at least a few middle-aged men who believed they'd sweet-talked their way into the pants of some nonexistent teenage girl they met over the Internet. This sort of situation is the basis for Hard Candy, an excellent independent film that tells the tale of a real-life meeting between two online buddies that quickly becomes a very dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.

We begin our story by peeking in on an online conversation between "Lensman319" and "Thonggrrrl14," as the two agree to meet in person at a local coffee shop. And as they meet, we meet them as well: "Thonggrrrl14" is Hayley Stark (Ellen Page), a petite fourteen-year-old girl who is well-read despite barely looking a day over twelve; "Lensman319" is Jeff Kholver (Patrick Wilson), a charming 32-year-old photographer.

The pair strike up a conversation over a slice of chocolate cake, a conversation that is both friendly yet awkward. Jeff seems shy and a little nervous, and Hayley comes across as naïve yet mature for her age. As the conversation continues, the British techno band Goldfrapp comes up. Hayley is a fan, and when Jeff mentions that he's acquired a bootleg MP3 of a recent Goldfrapp concert he attended, she absolutely has to hear it. She more or less invites herself over to his house, even though they both agree that going back to his place is a little bit crazy.

They get back to his house, and as Hayley listens to the MP3, Jeff offers her a glass of water. She declines, stating that she's been taught to never drink any beverage she hasn't prepared herself. Hayley leads Jeff into the kitchen, where she raids the fridge and starts making screwdrivers. Times must be different nowadays, because when I was 14, the only screwdrivers I knew about were the kind they sell at hardware stores. Maybe I was too sheltered as a kid, I don't know.

But anyway, Hayley starts pouring the vodka and orange juice, and things start livening up. She starts begging Jeff to take pictures of her, similar to the ones he's taken of various models that hang on the walls of his house. Hayley turns on some techno music and starts dancing on the couch, but when Jeff returns with his camera, he gets dizzy and passes out.

He awakens sometime later to find himself tied to an office chair. Hayley greets him, explaining that she spiked his drink with something she'd stolen from her father, and that she was afraid she'd accidentally used too much. At first thinking this is some kind of joke, Jeff soon learns that Hayley is not the innocent young girl he believed her to be, but a cold, calculating sociopath with an axe to grind. Her agenda: to pull every skeleton out of his closet by proving her belief that Jeff is a pedophile. And folks, Hayley isn't playing around. She's willing to go to extreme lengths to make sure Jeff suffers, as she pumps him for information regarding his indiscretions and the disappearance of a young woman he may have once photographed.

Although it never claims itself to be such, Hard Candy could perhaps be construed as a spiritual cousin to movies like Takashi Miike's Audition. Both movies center around men whose relationships with the younger women in their lives aren't everything they originally believed them to be. But what separates Audition and Hard Candy (besides the lack of gore, of which there is very little in Hard Candy) is how we connect to the characters. With Hard Candy, it's as if we were merely dropped into the middle of a certain slice of life with no preparation. As the movie progresses, we get glimpses into Jeff's true nature, but we never really feel like we can identify with him. We learn that he enjoys the company of underage girls, and that he may be connected to a missing teenager.

It's hard to sympathize with him while knowing this information, but it's just as hard to sympathize with Hayley. I don't want to say she's one-dimensional, because I don't believe she is. There's a lot going on inside that mind of hers. But Hayley is absolutely devoid of a soul; she's a complete blank slate who completely negates anything we think we know about her with just a few lines of dialogue.

And really, should we sympathize with her? Do we cheer for her because she is doling out comeuppance to someone we are led to believe is a pedophile, or do we fear her because of how she gleefully tortures him both physically and psychologically? She is not painted as a feminist antihero, but as an enigmatic sociopath that enjoys what she's doing. She says early in the movie that "four out of five doctors agree that I'm actually insane," and though she sounds like she's joking, it appears that nothing could be closer to the truth.

Hard Candy is a very minimalist film, with nearly all of the 104-minute running time centering around two characters in one location. Director David Slade takes that and uses it to raise the movie's intimacy. He relies heavily (perhaps too heavily) on close-ups of his actors, but it manages to work in the movie's favor because it pulls the viewer deeper into the atmosphere. Slade also puts his music video background to good use, as we get some quite effective fast-motion and slow-motion. Combined with the work of cinematographer Jo Willems, it almost feels as if MTV decided to branch out into art house films.

Slade's work is also greatly enhanced by the engrossing score composed by Molly Nyman and Harry Escott. The score alternates between thumping techno, a subdued ambiance, and occasions of no music at all. Sometimes silence is golden, and Nyman and Escott understand this. Many times, they just let the sound effects do their work, which is much more effective.

I also thought the screenplay penned by Brian Nelson was extremely well done. The movie has no real hero, no real villain. Nelson's script is not painted with black and white, but shades of gray, which makes the movie all the more intriguing to watch. The script touches upon certain taboos that most movies won't, but instead of doing it like some cheap Lifetime movie, Nelson makes Hard Candy bounce between psychoanalytical drama and black comedy. And believe it or not, it all balances out properly and works quite well.

But perhaps the best things about the entire movie are its two leads, Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. Outside of one or two scenes, they are the only characters in the movie, and both Wilson and Page are extraordinary. The movie is heavy on dialogue and the action scenes are rather light, but the duo effortlessly handles all that is required of them. Wilson is wonderful, managing to make the viewer both dislike him and feel sympathetic for him simultaneously.

His co-star, however, is absolutely excellent. Some critics have heralded this as Page's breakout role, and I might have to agree. Page is absolutely riveting as she plays the role with a certain whimsical merriment. Her character is smooth and cunning, and Page makes it believable. The movie is all about Page and Wilson, which makes Sandra Oh's cameo as a nosy neighbor delivering Girl Scout cookies so superfluous. Yeah, she might have a little name value after scoring points with Sideways and Grey's Anatomy, she doesn't bring anything to the film at all. Nothing against her, but the inclusion of her character doesn't bring much to the movie outside of a distraction. While I think the character was included to add a little "is Hayley going to be caught?" tension, it ultimately went nowhere and served no greater purpose to the movie.

Viewers will be either engrossed with or turned off by Hard Candy. The subject matter – a young girl torturing a suspected pedophile – will not appeal to everyone, but it will nonetheless get a reaction from those who see it. It is a film made with passion and with talent, and it is a film that is thoroughly fascinating. The movie is worth the price of admission, just to see the performances of its two leads. And because of this, I cannot give Hard Candy anything less than four stars and a very hearty seal of approval. It will not satisfy everyone who sees it, but I believe it is worth watching at least once, just for the experience.

Final Rating: ****

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Supergirl (1984)

Anyone who hasn't been living under a rock since 1938 will more than likely tell you that perhaps the greatest comic book superhero of all time is Superman. Since his first appearance, he has become a pop culture icon, up there with baseball and apple pie as a true symbol of America. Superman was a big fat hit almost immediately, and DC Comics was quick to snap up copyrights on nearly every potential spinoff they could think of.

One of these spinoff characters was Kara Zor-El, better known as Supergirl. The long lost cousin of Superman, she made her first true appearance in Action Comics #252 in 1959. Her existence has been a rocky road, as she got her own short-lived comic books in 1972 and 1982, but never really reached A-list status before being killed off in 1985 during DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline. (But of course, since nobody stays dead in comics, Supergirl was resurrected two years ago.)

Following the disappointing box office returns of Superman III, Christopher Reeve vacated his starring role in the franchise, and at the time had no interest in returning. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who owned the film rights to the entire Superman family, decided to tread unfamiliar waters by starting a new franchise starring Supergirl. What resulted was a movie that didn't even recoup half of its budget, yet has developed both a cult following and a reputation that it perhaps does not completely deserve.

As our tale begins, we learn that Superman was not the only survivor of his home planet's destruction after all. While baby Kal-El rocketed towards Earth, a fragment of Krypton was hurtled into "inner space." That fragment would become known as Argo City, a virtual utopia crafted by Zaltar (Peter O'Toole), the city's founder. One of his little creations is the Omegahedron, Argo City's primary energy source. It's basically this little glowing ball that looks rather unimpressive, but can apparently bring inanimate objects to life if used properly. I guess Kryptonian technology is light years ahead of human technology, since I don't believe we've harnessed the power of the Superball yet.

But anyway, Zaltar decides that he's going to take the Omegahedron out for a walk one day, in order to better flesh out his artwork. He's not really supposed to have it, so he passes it off to his protégé, Kara (Helen Slater), for safekeeping before he can get caught with it. Silly Kara decides she's going to goof around with it, obviously not realizing that it's nothing to be trifled with. She creates a dragonfly, which ends up crashing right through one of the community's windows – which looks like a thin layer of cellophane, to be truthful – and causes depressurization that threatens the entire city.

And wouldn't you know it, the Omegahedron gets sucked right out the window into the vacuum of space. Way to go, Kara, you dope. Ten minutes into the movie, and you've doomed the last vestiges of an alien civilization. Argo City is only going to last a few days without the Omegahedron, so Kara takes it upon herself to track it down and bring it back home.

The Omegahedron somehow makes its way to Earth, where it falls into the hands of all the wrong people. It lands in the possession of Selena (Faye Dunaway), a wannabe witch with aspirations of world domination. And apparently, yellow suns affect Kryptonian technology as much as they affect actual Kryptonians, because this thing pretty much does whatever Selena wants it to. Start the car without any keys? Sure. Set a turkey on fire? Why not? Make some random guy fall in love with you? Well, I don't think that's such a bright idea, but I guess you could do that. We'll get into that later.

So with the Omegahedron in tow, Selena and her sidekick Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro) decide to throw a little soirée to celebrate Selena's newfound power and recruit a coven. Something like that, I'm not too sure. I should also point out that Selena and Bianca apparently live in the haunted house ride at an abandoned carnival. What, is she a Scooby-Doo villain? That's stupid.

Anyway, the party is eventually broken up by Nigel (Peter Cook), a warlock and occasional boyfriend of Selena. He warns Selena that she might have acquired a little too much power a little too quickly, and says that she should be careful. Of course, she's a totally over-the-top villain that wants to conquer the world, so what does she care? But Nigel's a huge buzzkill, and he totally ruined the party, so he's gotta go.

Meanwhile, Kara arrives in the Illinois town of Midvale, near where the Omegahedron landed. And she's fully decked out in her Supergirl costume with full cognizance of her powers. It took Superman years to accomplish all that, and she can do these things plus have a costume in twenty seconds on Earth? ...Okay.

Regardless, Kara enjoys her new powers, especially being able to fly, until she stumbles upon an all-girls school. She figures, "Hey, I'll just go blend in for a while." And that's exactly what she does, by somehow becoming a brunette and changing into one of the school's uniforms by apparently willing the changes into existence. Well, isn't that a convenient power? You know, if Superman could randomly change his appearance at will, he'd have no need for phone booths. Not only is it convenient, it's useful too. But since Superman doesn't have that power, I guess there's just something in Argo City's water. It's probably the same reason why Superman could throw big cellophane sheets at people in Superman II.

The newly-disguised Kara makes her way to the principal's office, where she tries to pass herself off as a student under the name "Linda Lee." The principal, Mr. Danvers (David Healy), is suspicious at first, since he's never seen her before in his life. As she tries explaining her situation, the math teacher – Nigel, of all people – interrupts and calls Mr. Danvers out of the room. While the principal is gone, Kara (or Linda, or Supergirl, whatever) uses her super-speed to type up a letter of recommendation before slipping it into a filing cabinet.

Mr. Danvers returns shortly thereafter, and she suggests that maybe there's some paperwork about her in his files. He does discover the forged letter addressed from her cousin, Clark Kent. Mr. Danvers doesn't question the recommendation of a reporter from the Daily Planet, so she's apparently a student after all. Let's not let pesky little details like admissions paperwork or tuition or proper identification or anything like that get in the way. Principal Danvers leads Linda to a dorm room, where she'll be bunking with the tomboyish Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy). So they've got Clark Kent's cousin rooming with Lois Lane's sister, and both of them have the initials "L.L." Huh.

Classes begin the next day, and for some reason, Selena and Bianca are hanging around in the parking lot reading tarot cards. Selena says the cards say people will do anything for love, so as part of her plan for world conquest, she's going to make everyone love her. She sees one of the school's groundskeepers, Ethan (Hart Bochner), and decides that she's going to start with him. Ethan later arrives at Selena's abode a few hours later under the pretenses of doing a little gardening around the place, but Selena slips him a little Love Potion #9 and knocks him out. It's right around this time that Nigel shows up, looking to play the party pooper once again by continuing to warn Selena that the Omegahedron may be too powerful for her to control.

While he does that, Ethan wakes up and staggers out of the house. He ends up in the middle of Midvale, walking around in the middle of the street like he's hopped up on goofballs. And everybody just yells at him and moves along. You'd think that someone would point him in the direction of the sidewalk, but no. People in Midvale must not be the friendly type.

He ends up getting noticed by Linda and Lucy, who are in town with Lucy's buddy from Metropolis, Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure). Linda wants to help him, but Jimmy just dismisses him as a junkie that probably has a weapon. So let me get this straight: Jimmy has no problem letting cars mow down some guy that's potentially strung out, just because he thinks he's gonna get shanked if he helps. Geez, Jimmy. You can be a real turd sometimes.

Selena, meanwhile, finally realizes that Ethan's gone. She tracks him down via her magic mirror, then uses the Omegahedron to fire up some huge backhoe to scoop Ethan up and deliver him back to her. The thing does pick him up, but it ends up destroying half of Main Street in the process. And get this, while this backhoe is hunting Ethan down, everybody just clears the streets and lets it go after him. Even after it picks him up and carries him away, nobody tries to help him but Lucy, who gets knocked unconscious in the process. I guess everybody in town is as big a prick as Jimmy. But lucky for Ethan, there's a Kryptonian superhero handy!

Linda switches to her Supergirl costume, and helps fix most of the damage the backhoe caused. As the machine rolls on, Supergirl yanks the bucket off and deposits it safely on the ground. She quickly returns to her Linda Lee persona and opens the bucket, and Ethan – who apparently passed out in all the commotion – wakes up and sees Linda. This ends up finally activating Selena's love potion. He falls head over heels in love with his rescuer, and starts waxing romantic before planting a rather unexpected kiss on Linda. Honestly, if someone ever compiled a list of the most awkward kisses in the history of cinema, Ethan kissing Linda would be right up there. She's all "uh... okay" and rushes off, confused.

Not exactly happy with how things have resulted, Selena calls upon an invisible demon to go take out Linda. But I guess this demon is rather weak, since Supergirl kills it relatively quickly. Supergirl begins to get a signal from the Omegahedron, and she follows the signal straight to the amusement park where Selena lives. Supergirl is ready to throw down, but Selena distracts her by teleporting Ethan into the middle of a bunch of angry bumper cars. She also tries a little spell that makes multiple images of her surround Supergirl. Though truth be told, the effect makes it look like a lame version of Johnny Cage's shadow kick from the Mortal Kombat games. Supergirl is all "yeah, whatever" and snatches up a bumper car Ethan managed to jump inside, then flies off to safety.

But despite Supergirl's best efforts, Selena manages to poof Ethan into her castle high atop a mountain she created in the center of Midvale. She chains him up and forces some more of that love potion on him, and how he only has eyes for Selena. I think she also finally figured out the secrets of the Omegahedron, because she's got a henchman driving her around in this ritzy car so she can pick out random things to destroy. I'm surprised she even knows what the Omegahedron is in the first place, let alone how to use it. There's also anti-Selena protests in the streets, evidenced by Jimmy and Lucy leading some picketers carrying "Down With Selena" signs. I'm not even going to begin to get into all the things that are wrong with this bit of the movie. But I will say that nothing makes sense. Doctor Seuss books make more sense than this. But back to the movie. Every evil villain needs a hostage or three, so she traps Nigel, Jimmy, and Lucy in her castle while she waits for Supergirl.

Supergirl does arrive, only for Selena to put her in the Phantom Zone as soon as she enters the castle. There's no explanation as to how Selena managed to conjure up the Phantom Zone, let alone as to how she even knew what it was in the first place, but nobody ever accused this movie of swerving around any plot holes it happened to come across.

So anyway, Supergirl's in the Phantom Zone, and completely powerless to boot. She wanders into some quicksand, but as she frees herself, she knocks herself out in the process. But all is not lost, as Zaltar comes to her rescue. You may be asking, "Matt, what is Zaltar doing in the Phantom Zone?" Turns out that after the Omegahedron was lost, he figured he'd really screwed up something heavy and had himself put in the Phantom Zone as punishment. And to save a little time, here is a brief summary of Zaltar and Kara's conversation.

Kara: I really need to get out of here.
Zaltar: There is absolutely no way out of the Phantom Zone. That's the whole point of this place.
Kara: I said I really need to return to Earth.
Zaltar: And I said there's no way out.
Kara: But I wanna leave!
Zaltar: Okay, I'll take you to the exit.

They do head to the one possible way out of the Phantom Zone, but they risk death by attempting their escape. Kara does escape, but Zaltar unfortunately dies on the way out. But no matter, Kara's got some evil witch butt to kick. The exit conveniently drops her off back in Selena's castle, where Supergirl and Selena have their final showdown.

As I said earlier, Supergirl has earned something of a bad reputation in the years since it was released. It's been perceived as a horrible movie on the level of Superman IV, as a complete waste of time and effort. And while knocks against the movie may be justified, the movie does manage to bring a certain level of entertainment to the table. I'll agree that the movie could have been lots better, but it's so charming that I can't bring myself to hate it. So help me, I actually had a whole lot of fun watching the movie. Supergirl's reputation dictates that I probably shouldn't, but I did and I'm not going to lie about it.

So let's hit the acting first. Perhaps the movie's biggest saving grace is its lead actress. Helen Slater is quite charming and amiable in the lead role. It's a shame that Supergirl flopped and killed off any hopes for a sequel, because I believe Slater could have carried an entire Supergirl franchise much in the vein of Christopher Reeve's consistent performances as Superman. Essentially playing three roles, Slater is very much up to task. She is convincingly curious and awkward while in the Linda Lee persona, showing a want to learn about human culture yet not really certain how to properly fit in. As Supergirl, Slater is tough, confident, an example of "girl power" before the term existed. I honestly have nothing but good things to say about her.

Faye Dunaway is entertaining if not hammy as Supergirl's nemesis. Her character is so blandly written, so poorly constructed, that Dunaway would have been well within her rights to completely phone in her performance. I'm just going to come right and say it: the Selena character is so lame, she makes me pine for Nuclear Man. But regardless of how awful the role is, Dunaway gives a performance that isn't completely horrible. It's no Mommie Dearest, but then again, what is?

Another main character, Peter O'Toole, is not bad at all. O'Toole, a certifiable Hollywood legend and seven-time Oscar nominee, is above this kind of material, but he brings a particular credibility to the role. Unfortunately, Supergirl doesn't make full use of his talents, and it ended up earning him a Worst Actor nomination at the 1985 Razzie Awards.

Also underused in a thankless role is the late British comedian Peter Cook. Perhaps most recognizable in the United States as "the impressive clergyman" from The Princess Bride, Cook doesn't really get to do a whole heck of a lot. His role could have been greatly expanded upon, but I guess it's too late to go back and change it now.

Supergirl's romantic interest, Hart Bochner, isn't awful, but he seems way too old to fill the role. Perhaps that could be because, if my math is right, Bochner was 27 and Slater was 20 while production was under way. Not that age is always a big deal, but it's kinda creepy. Throw in the fact that he and Slater have an appalling lack of chemistry, and I just didn't have any real use for him at all.

Brenda Vaccaro is acceptable, even a little amusing, as Selena's daffy sidekick. If the character was intended to be a version of Miss Tessmacher from the first two Superman movies, then I think it was a success. And rounding out the main cast, Marc McClure and Maureen Teefy are fun, despite having no real consequence on the plot nor very much screen time.

Sadly, Jeannot Szwarc's direction is flat and uninspired. Despite well-done cinematography by Alan Hume, Szwarc's work just comes across as being somewhat run of the mill. I'm not saying that what Szwarc has done with the movie is awful, because it isn't. I'm just saying that there was plenty of room for improvement. I also wonder if he brokered some kind of funding from A&W Root Beer and STP, because there's product placement like crazy.

However, Szwarc's indifferent direction is improved upon by the terrific score by Jerry Goldsmith, music that suits the movie's tone perfectly. The music never becomes overbearing, and really works well with the fantasy vibe that the movie maintains. Goldsmith manages to create a particular leitmotif akin to what John Williams did with the original Superman movie, even working in Williams's iconic theme song at one point. However, while good, most of the music ends up repeating itself over and over, which is somewhat distracting and disappointing.

David Odell's screenplay is high camp, through and through. While I did find it to be entertaining to a particular point, it's bogged down by instances of brain-dead dialogue and outright preposterous scenarios. For example, why does Kara feel the need to create a secret identity? She should be more concerned with finding the Omegahedron and saving the last city of Krypton, not mingling with us puny earthlings. Yeah, she might be curious about the planet her cousin calls home, but shouldn't she be worried about the fate of her own home?

And I also wonder whose bright idea was it to have Kara change from her "Linda Lee" attire to her Supergirl costume and back by merely thinking it. And who had the forethought to leave a Supergirl costume tailored to Kara's specific measurements in the ship she took to Earth? I know these were done for the sake of convenience, but still, it's glaring things like that that could just confuse somebody to no end.

But I will give Odell a little credit, as he expands on the mythology created by the Superman movie universe by taking us actually into the Phantom Zone. While we merely knew it as a thin pane of black glass in Superman II, we're shown that the world inside it is appropriately desolate and harsh. It's supposed to be a prison for the baddest of the bad, and I believe it. It almost as if it were a glimpse into a Kryptonian would call Hell.

Supergirl is most definitely not Oscar-worthy filmmaking by any means. But it is, however, a harmless fantasy movie that is an acceptable way to kill a lazy Sunday afternoon. The movie is flawed, with lazy directing, an inane script, and acting that is mediocre (for the most part). But it is, however, a perfectly harmless fantasy movie that is an acceptable way to kill a lazy Sunday afternoon.

And if one enjoys this kind of movie, you probably won't go wrong with Supergirl. I can truthfully say that, given its reputation, I didn't think it was completely horrible. It isn't the best movie ever made. Maybe not even fifth best. Truth be told, it's a lame B-movie. But depending on how you look at it, it can still be at least a little entertaining. And for that, I'll give Supergirl a "thumbs in the middle" with two and a half stars. But as always, your mileage may vary.

Final Rating: **½