Saturday, December 30, 2006

BloodRayne (2006)

Films based on video games have a pre-established reputation as very rarely reaching above mediocrity, with the vast majority of them being uncompromisingly bad. Not helping the stereotype is German director Uwe Boll. A "filmmaker" in the loosest sense of the word, Boll has gained some form of infamy for his involvement with two of this decade's most reviled films, House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark. Both were adaptations of video games, both crashed and burned at the box office, both were atrociously bad. I mean, they were so bad that they make those crappy Sci-Fi Channel original movies look good by comparison.

But I assume that poor box office income and horrendous critical reactions don't matter much to Boll, who ventured into the world of video games a third time with his acculturation of BloodRayne. Based on the horror game franchise developed by Terminal Reality and released by Majestic Games, the movie is nothing short of a great big suckburger with a side of suck fries and topped off with a tall glass of Suck Cola.

The story opens in Romania sometime in the eighteenth century, where we are introduced to a trio of vampire hunters that are part of a secret society dubbed the Brimstone Society. The three — Vladimir (Michael Madsen), Sebastian (Matt Davis), and Katarin (Michelle Rodriguez) — stroll into a pub looking for information on a certain someone they believe to be in the area. And apparently, the killing of vampires is quite commonplace, as nobody bothers to even look up when Sebastian stakes a vampire at the bar. Perhaps this particular town is a medieval version of Sunnydale from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. So anyway, there's these three vampire hunters looking for somebody, and they find her location.

Their quarry is the main attraction of the local carnival's freak show, a grossly mistreated young woman named Rayne (Kristanna Loken). Dragged into the freak show by chains, her right arm is sliced up pretty bad, while her left arm is dunked in a barrel of water that badly burns her. One of the carnies kills a goat and pours its blood into a cup, and upon giving Rayne a sip of the red stuff, her injuries immediately heal. She's led back to her cage after the show and locked up tightly.

That evening, she's approached by a fellow carny named Amanda (Madalina Constantin), who tells Rayne that she's formulated a brilliant plan to get them away from their horrible lives with the carnival. And I mean, this plan is absolutely ingenious. It's the most brilliant plan ever conceived by anyone. Not even the A-Team could come up with a plan this amazing and with this much potential for success. Not even The Great Escape had an escape plan this impressive. And because not even a simple summary could do it justice, I must quote the dialogue verbatim:

"My uncle, he's a sailor. And he once told me of a place where people play all day, and the trees grow fruits in every color of the rainbow. And the sunsets set the whole sky on fire. Doesn't that sound wonderful, Rayne? He'll send for us soon, I know it."

Wasn't that the greatest plan you've ever heard? It wasn't? Yeah, okay, it does suck hard. Why don't we point out all the things that are wrong with that plan? What really gets me is that "play all day" thing. Why not just add that after they get done playing all day, they're going to ride unicorns over lollipop rainbows and sleep on bubblegum clouds? I'm going to assume that the character was written for a six-year-old, and Madalina Constantin — who is very much an adult — was all they could get. If they wanted to keep the line like that, couldn't they have just brought in Dakota Fanning or Cameron Bright for a couple of hours to shoot this one scene? Because it would have made more sense coming out of a child.

And another thing: Is that even really a plan at all? It doesn't look like a plan. It looks more like some major wishful thinking. Because if that is a plan, then it's pretty darn flimsy. So anyway, Amanda gets that out, then tosses Rayne a crucifix necklace for good luck before bidding her adieu for the evening.

Even later that night, the carnival's strongman (T.J. Storm) lets himself into her cage and tries to get himself a little lovin' by force. She's in no mood to be raped, so she shatters a bottle over his noggin and cuts him up good. Some of his blood drips onto her face, and as she tastes it, she goes absolutely insane. Rayne starts running around, biting the necks of anybody that gets in her way, and she even bites Amanda before she can realize who she is. And once she does notice who she just bit, what does Rayne do? She just takes the fancy swords Amanda was carrying and runs away. Some friend she is.

Vladimir, Sebastian, and Katarin stumble upon what's left of the carnival the following morning. Knowing what they have to do, they start decapitating and burning every lifeless body they come across, while Amanda manages to explain what happened before they're forced to put her down too. Night falls, and Rayne stops and kills two vampires she catches attacking a caravan, even going as far as to drink their blood. The caravan gives her a ride to the nearest city, which appears to have a rather sizable vampire population. Rayne pulls a vampire hooker aside and sucks her blood for God and everybody to see, and the only people that care are these two thieves that pick the dead vampire's pockets, and a nearby fortune teller (Geraldine Chapman) that watches what happens intently.

The fortune teller captures Rayne's attention, telling Rayne her purpose and future through her deck of tarot cards. Y'see, Rayne is a dhampir, the result of her human mother (Daniela Nane) being raped and impregnated by Kagan (Ben Kingsley), the most powerful vampire on Earth. Due to her mixed heritage, she retains all of their strengths and their unfavorable reaction to water of any kind, while possessing none of their other weaknesses. So that explains why the crucifix around her neck doesn't bug her.

The fortune teller knows of Rayne's quest to avenge her mother's murder at the hands of Kagan (which the five-year-old Rayne witnessed), and tells her of a magical eye that, if she can possess it, will gain her an audience with Kagan so she may fulfill her quest. The entire conversation is overheard by a vampire, who relays the message to Kagan. So what does Kagan do? He sends his chief lieutenant Domastir (Will Sanderson) to lead an army after the eye as well.

Rayne leaves, eventually arriving at a monastery seeking food and shelter. The monks gladly let her in, and not too long afterwards, she sneaks into the monastery's basement to retrieve the eye. How she knew where in the monastery it was, I have no idea. But regardless, getting the eye is not going to be a cakewalk for Rayne. Once she gets down into the basement, she discovers a sleeping ogre holding the key to the chamber the eye is in. She dispatches the ogre in a relatively easy fight, but there's one more step in her way: the large whirring blades that pop out of the chamber's floor on a regular interval. But it's not so bad; a simple cartwheel across the room gets Rayne past them. She goes for the box containing the eye, at which point a torrent of water starts flooding the room.

Since Rayne would rather not be burned, she jumps and hangs from one of her swords that she had previously embedded in the ceiling. The box opens and the eye starts to fall out, but when Rayne catches it with a free hand, she gets a really good look at it and somehow absorbs it. She loses her grip on the sword and falls into the ankle-deep pool of water beneath her, and when a few drops of water splash onto her arm... nothing happens. I guess they really weren't kidding about it being a magical eye after all.

Just as she realizes that the water hasn't affected her, some priests bust in and start reading her the riot act. Okay, that's probably an exaggeration, since the main priest (Udo Kier) doesn't seem too angry or upset that Rayne just killed their ogre and stole the eye. I mean, good ogre guards and disembodied magical eyes are pretty hard to come by. Believe me, I've tried to track some down, and I haven't had any luck yet. The priest's main concern seems to be if Rayne is in the employment of Kagan. She assures him that she's not working for him, as the priest explains just why that eye is so special.

Turns out there was this ancient vampire named Beliar that had figured out a way to overcome the three main vampire weaknesses. When he was finally defeated, three body parts — one of his eyes, one of his ribs, and his heart — were separated and divided among three remote locations to prevent other vampires from using them for their own gain. So the priest doesn't trust even a half-vampire with the eye, so he's kinda gonna need it back just to be on the safe side. But as always, things just aren't that easy.

Domastir and his crew arrive at the monastery, the Brimstone Society hot on their heels. A bloody battle ensues between Domastir's guys, the Society, and the monks, and in the chaos, Domastir knocks out Rayne and leaves with her. Vladimir and Sebastian trail him, catching up to him that morning at a castle called home by hedonistic vampire Leonid (Meat Loaf). Domastir is just looking for a place to crash for the afternoon, but his host is more interested in making Rayne part of his harem. Leonid is so into Rayne that he just has Domastir thrown out when he tries to warn him of Rayne's toughness. Before he can start putting the moves on the unconscious dhampir, Vladimir and Sebastian bust in and slay Leonid.

They take Rayne back to their hidden lair, where they train her in proper vamp-killing methods before Domastir and a bunch more goons find them and start raising some hell. And I know I said it was a hidden lair, but it doesn't really stay hidden if a certain someone would have kept her mouth shut. Turns out the newly-vampired Katarin sold them out with the intention of giving the three vampire parts to her father (Billy Zane), who seeks to overthrow Kagan (who has already obtained the rib through unseen, untold means). Rayne takes out Katarin and obtains the heart, and with Vladimir and Sebastian in tow, she heads for Kagan's castle to obtain her revenge.

I'm not going to lie: I really don't want to write this review. The quicker I can wipe my hands of BloodRayne, the better. It's so awful, I think it gave me cancer. And as you can probably guess, the movie was a financial disaster. It played in only 985 American theaters, pulling in a paltry 2.4 million dollars during a remarkably short seventeen-day theatrical run. So if the movie was meant to be a flop, it certainly succeeded.

But even if BloodRayne played in every single theater in the United States for six months, it still would have been a bomb. And why is that? Because everything about it is horrendously bad. The direction, the script, the acting, the music, the effects, the set design, the props, everything. And I'm going to come right out and say that everyone involved with this cinematic bowel movement should be ashamed of themselves for participating in this crime against humanity.

First up, the screenplay penned by Guinevere Turner. How she went from writing the brilliant movie adaptation of American Psycho to writing this, I have no idea. Turner's screenplay could not make less sense. It's so convoluted, so confusing, so absurd that it took me three days to figure out how to properly write that synopsis up there. It's like they stuck a bunch of chimpanzees in a room with a typewriter for six hours, then slapped Turner's name on what the monkeys churned out.

But let's get to some specific complaints. There's that silly "play all day" bit, along with all the other hackneyed dialogue. There's also the out-of-place Billy Zane subplot that accomplishes nothing and ultimately goes nowhere. If it had been properly written and fleshed out, then it could have made for something interesting. But no, we can't let a Uwe Boll movie be any good, so this subplot only leads to a twist that offends the intelligence of everyone who sees it.

I also wonder about that whole pointless thing with the eye, rib, and heart. To my understanding, it was inspired by the first BloodRayne game, but it had a logical conclusion there. And as we all know, we can't have logic or even common sense in a Uwe Boll movie. Couldn't they have just made it a simple quest for revenge, as opposed to a quest for these silly little things that ends up weighing the whole movie down?

Going back to the topic of insulting the intelligence of the viewers, why is just plain ol' everyday water such a big deal with vampires? Holy water, I would believe. But vampires not exactly enjoying regular water is absurd. The legion of the undead could be wiped out by a freak rainstorm or blizzard, or even a thick fog. And last I checked, blood is at least ninety percent water, so why isn't that a drawback? If this is another one of those things that are drawn from the games, then it just makes the games look stupid too.

And then there's the lame effects. Yes, I know that geysers of blood shoot out of every victim in the BloodRayne games, but it looks corny and derivative in here. Besides, the effects look awfully cheap too. Rayne's vampire teeth look like oversized plastic dentures at times, and you could probably see better blood and gore effects in a middle-school production of Sweeney Todd. The music composed by Henning Lohner is also disappointing, as I got the feeling that it was attempting to make up for the complete and total lack of emotion in the acting and the direction. Lohner's score wouldn't have been so bad had it not been trying so hard, but due to that, it suffers.

While we're at it, how about that cast? I pity every person forced to be in front of the camera, even the cheap Romanian prostitutes in Meat Loaf's scene. It appears that Michael Madsen, Ben Kingsley, Billy Zane, Udo Kier, and Meat Loaf all realized how awful the movie is. I say this because Madsen's performance alternates between exhibiting boredom and exhibiting total apathy toward the entire production, while the others completely ham it up and do what they can to make the horrible material look worthwhile.

I've read that Madsen may or may not have been drunk during nearly all of his scenes, and I can't really say as I blame him. I don't drink, but I'd chug a whole brewery if I had the unfortunate luck of starring in a Uwe Boll movie. And if I were Madsen, I would have myself surgically attached to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, just so to avoid doing any more horrible movies like this one.

The rest of the cast, though, appear to be taking the whole thing seriously. And to that, I ask why. If the entire cast had treated the whole thing like it was an episode of the old Batman TV show from the '60s, then BloodRayne might have treaded into "so bad, it's good" territory. But unfortunately, we're stuck with this crap.

Seriously, the performances contributed by Kristanna Loken and Michelle Rodriguez might not have been so bad had the material been better and if there had been a talented director to motivate them. But the fact that they treat this stuff as if it were Shakespeare really makes them look bad. I should also note that I like Rodriguez, I really do, but she doesn't exactly strike me as being the right person for the role. Her character is supposed to be Zane's daughter, but it's odd when you consider that Zane's only twelve years older than her. Add to the fact that they look absolutely nothing alike, and having them play father and daughter doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But nothing about the plot makes any sense, so why should the casting make any sense either?

And last but most certainly least is the captain of this sinking ship, the one and only Uwe Boll. No matter how bad any director may be, he or she can at least take comfort in the knowledge that they're not Uwe Boll. He obviously cannot get decent performances out of his cast, no matter what kind of talent they may have, and anything decent about BloodRayne's look could only be attributed to decent camerawork from cinematographer Mathias Neumann. Boll's dramatic scenes are laughable, his humorous scenes are lame, his action scenes look really bad, and the sex scene is awkward and out of place.

Let's talk about that sex scene for a second. If Boll is anything, he's the king of the badly-done sex scene. I thought Christian Slater and Tara Reid's romantic interlude in Alone in the Dark was bad, but it was only the tip of the iceberg. Loken and Davis have no romantic chemistry whatsoever; they didn't even seem like there's any sort of feelings between them at all. But then, out of nowhere, she's got him pinned up against a jail cell door screwing his brains out. The scene lacks any kind of passion, and since we don't care about the characters, we don't care about the scene.

I have two theories about this, actually. One is that all of the "budding romance" scenes were left on the cutting room floor. The other is that Boll simply wanted a reason to see Loken topless. As a red-blooded heterosexual male, I can't say I fault him for that one if that's true. Either way, Boll's managed to craft one of the least-sexy sex scenes ever, and how he did it is beyond me.

Boll's action scenes are also pretty bad. The swords look like cheap plastic at times, and like cardboard covered in tinfoil at other times. The scenes are poorly edited as well, and the choreography could have been a lot better. The majority of the fights had the appearance of either being improvised on the spot, or that the participants had simply been told to just walk around and swing at one another.

And in one of the most bizarre mistakes with the movie, there's this completely pointless montage at the end of the movie. It's just a bunch of random shots thrown together for no good reason, and it causes the credits to roll three minutes later than they should have. It's like Boll said, "Okay, guys, we're going to cobble together a bunch of stuff that the viewers have already seen and hated the first time, but I'm sure they'll love it when they see it a second time." Screw that. And screw this entire movie too.

In my review of House of the Dead, I compared Boll's movies to those of Ed Wood. But in retrospect, I probably shouldn't insult Wood like that. He might not have made the best movies ever, but at least he was passionate about filmmaking. Wood's films are far more entertaining than they have any right to be, and you can tell simply by watching them that he loved making movies no matter what. And for that, I have the utmost respect for Wood and his body of work. Boll's work has no passion, no self-enthusiasm, and they just make him look like he's out to make a few bucks by exploiting a German tax shelter that rewards those who invest in poorly-performing movies.

The thing that gets me is that instead of admitting that these horrible films are his own fault, he blames everything on reviewers and audiences that are supposedly too stupid to understand that his movies are awe-inspiring classics along the lines of Casablanca and Gone with the Wind. It's that kind of bloated egotism that makes me long for the day that Uwe Boll and his horrible, offensively bad movies fall off the face of the earth forever and make the cinematic world a far better place.

Final Rating: *

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Christmas Story (1983)

Christmas movies are a dime a dozen. By my count, there's somewhere around ninety movies that involve the holiday season in some fashion. And everyone has their favorite, too. Some choose the traditional classics like It's A Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street, while others go for one of the million versions of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. But more than a few people go for Christmas movies that are a little more off-kilter like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, or even Die Hard and Gremlins. But one Christmas movie that I believe just about everybody can agree on is A Christmas Story.

A Christmas Story is one of those rare films that holds both a devoted cult following as well as a spot on the colorful list of timeless movies that everyone can enjoy. Watching it has become something of an annual Christmas tradition for this reviewer, so let's see what makes A Christmas Story so special.

It's Christmastime in Indiana circa the pre-WW2 1940s, and all Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) wants to find under the tree on the big day is a BB gun. Not just any BB gun, but — as he describes it — "an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time." This weapon of choice is the center of Ralphie's world, and despite every adult in his life being absolutely convinced that he'll shoot his eye out, Ralphie will go to any lengths to acquire it. He'll hide newspaper advertisements where his parents are sure to see them, make up wild stories about grizzly bears being spotted in the area, write an essay about it in school, blatantly state his desire for it to anyone who will listen, and as a last ditch effort, stand in line for hours just to ask an impatient department store Santa Claus for the BB gun.

But little does Ralphie realize that in the midst of his obsessive quest for the holiday Holy Grail, he's having the best Christmas of his young life. His curmudgeonly father (Darren McGavin) engages in battles of epic proportion the family's bothersome furnace, loathes the army of at least 785 smelly hound dogs owned by the family's hillbilly neighbors, and wins what he calls a "major award" — an absolutely hideous lamp shaped like a woman's leg. Ralphie's mother (Melinda Dillon) struggles to get his goofy little brother Randy (Ian Petrella) to eat like a normal kid, while simultaneously trying to hide her extreme mortification with her husband's major award. And over the course of this particular Christmas, Ralphie learns that triple dog dares and the "F-dash-dash-dash" word are nothing to be toyed with, that Ovaltine may be sneaking lame advertisements into Little Orphan Annie broadcasts through secret decoder pins, and that local bully Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) may not be as tough as he seems.

One of the reasons A Christmas Story is so wonderful is its innocence. It captures a time when Christmas defined everything that was great about childhood. There's also the nostalgia factor, as well. Almost every single one of us has been in Ralphie's shoes on one Christmas or another, wishing upon a star for that one present that would solve all of the world's problems. And there really is a lot of Ralphie in all of us. From his family and friends, to his experiences in school, to his silly, almost outrageous fantasies, we've all been there before. The movie isn't preachy, it isn't heavy-handed, it simply is what it is: a movie for kids and kids at heart.

Director Bob Clark is no stranger to Christmas movies, having previously helmed the 1974 horror classic Black Christmas, and his work here on A Christmas Story is inoffensive. It isn't revolutionary, but Clark's direction does give the movie a certain nostalgic feel necessary to make it work. Meanwhile, the score composed by Carl Zittrer and Paul Zaza is fun, bringing the viewers into each moment with a sense of childlike glee. But where the movie really shines, however, is its screenplay and its cast. Drawing inspiration from Jean Shepherd's anecdotal short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, the screenplay penned by Shepherd, Clark, and Leigh Brown is hilarious. It never once loses us or insults our intelligence. We can see glimpses into our own lives with these characters. We know people like them, or in some instances, we are people like them.

This is reinforced by the absolutely wonderful cast. Everyone in the movie is on their A-game. Peter Billingsley is engaging and entertaining as Ralphie, a typically impetuous kid that thinks his harebrained schemes can outwit any adult. Everybody's been there before, which makes both Billingsley and the character itself that much more exceptional. Jean Shepherd himself enhances Billingsly's performance, narrating as an adult Ralphie in a style later borrowed by The Wonder Years. (Sadly, there is no Winnie Cooper to be found in A Christmas Story.) Shepherd's sardonic narration adds to the movie's fun, giving it an air of an adult reminiscing over "the good ol' days" while comically making the smallest of events sound as epic as Homer's Odyssey. Ian Petrella is fun as Ralphie's little brother Randy, and the rest of the cast is great in their own ways, but perhaps the best performances in the movie come from Ralphie's parents, Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon.

Their characters are the complete polar opposites of one another, which only serves to make their performances even more amusing to watch. McGavin approaches "the old man" (as the adult Ralphie is wont to call him) as a gruff Mr. Fixit type that earnestly loves his children, but seems more at home changing a tire or working on the house's furnace than he is showing affection. Dillon, however, plays Mrs. Parker as the typical kind of mother that's in charge of the things that don't fall into the father's jurisdiction. Which means that while the old man makes sure there's a roof over their heads, Mom will take care of everything else. Mrs. Parker is a little overprotective — she's the first one to warn Ralphie that he'll shoot his eye out, she bundles up Randy so tightly that he can barely move — but Dillon's performance is full of warmth, which greatly ups the quality of the character. Their performances are charming and hilarious, which I found to be evidenced in one particular moment. After the old man's "major award" is accidentally shattered, he desperately tries to piece it back together by any means he can. While he makes his failed attempt, his wife merely sits in the background, trying to keep from giggling. It's a scene that seems to sum up their entire relationship, and McGavin and Dillon play the scene perfectly.

I've seen A Christmas Story described as "the Seinfeld of Christmas movies," and I like that label. I think that could be the reason why the movie is continually brought up as a prime example of a great Christmas movie. It doesn't seem like there's much of a plot in the conventional sense, but A Christmas Story never once tries to be more than a story about a ten-year-old boy's Christmas. And I believe it did a great job at that. So I'm going to give A Christmas Story four and a half stars and a proud seal of recommendation. And I dare any movie nowadays to try and get away with bits like that Chinese restaurant scene. It just couldn't be done anywhere but the '80s.

Final Rating: ****½

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Clerks II (2006)

The 1990s were an important decade in independent filmmaking. Movies like Boys Don't Cry, Natural Born Killers, The Big Lebowski, and the work of Quentin Tarantino brought many little-known actors and directors into the spotlight. Such was the case with Clerks, a low-budget black and white movie from 1994. Directed by first-time filmmaker Kevin Smith, the movie following a day in the life of two convenience store clerks became a cult classic among Gen-Xers and brought much recognition to its director.

Smith and went on to direct four more entries into the fictional universe dubbed "the View Askewniverse" (named for View Askew, Smith's production company), each film each gaining a devoted following among his fans. But when Smith decided to venture outside the View Askewniverse in 2004 with Jersey Girl, it wasn't met with the same reaction as his prior work. In fact, it was crapped on by damn near everybody. Perhaps due to the movie-going public's backlash against movies featuring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in the wake of the Gigli disaster, Jersey Girl barely broke even, was nominated for three Razzie Awards, and was even subjected to playful derision from Smith himself. He returned to what brought him to the dance two years later, writing and directing the first true sequel in the View Askewniverse, Clerks II. And personally, I think it may be some of Smith's best work.

Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) are still living a minimum wage existence as the clerks of the Quick Stop and RST Video. But when their places of business accidentally burn down, you'd think that would be the spark that would get them moving on to bigger and better things. Turns out that they merely went from ten years of convenience store hell to fast food hell when they get jobs at the local Mooby's restaurant.

A year passes, and Dante is preparing for his final day of work at Mooby's. The next morning, he's packing up and leaving New Jersey for Florida, where he plans on wedding his white-collar fiancé Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach). It's unimportant to Dante that his heart truly belongs to his boss, Becky (Rosario Dawson); she claims to not believe in romantic love, nor can she promise a way out of Dante's rut like Emma can.

Randal is devastated by the prospect of losing his best friend for good, but hides it under his sarcastic personality while he humorously torments his dorky teenage coworker Elias (Trevor Fehrman). And it's just another day for newly-sober Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), who are only concerned with standing outside and selling drugs.

If Clerks tells the story of slackers at that awkward stage between youth and adulthood, then Clerks II tells the story of slackers that have reached adulthood and aren't sure what to do with their lives. By bringing the View Askewniverse full circle, Kevin Smith shows that he has matured as a filmmaker while staying true to what brought him fame in the first place. Yes, Clerks II is a raunchy affair that will primarily appeal to Smith's devoted fanbase, but that doesn't stop it from being intelligent, fun, and even a little heartwarming.

Smith's maturation over the twelve years between his debut film and its sequel is especially evident in his direction. I'm not for sure if that was due to budgetary restrictions or his relative inexperience, but it seemed that in the original Clerks, Smith was content to just point the camera in one direction and let the action go down. But with Clerks II, we actually see the camera move around a few times. Smith — with a little help from cinematographer Dave Klein — still utilizes the "point and shoot" method for the most part, but he throws in a few crane shots and some handheld stuff. He also uses a simple yet effective move, rotating the camera around Dante and Randal during a particularly dramatic dialogue exchange. Things like that really work to enhance the overall feeling that Smith was trying to go for, and I think he did a great job.

The screenplay penned by Smith is also as wonderful as ever, in spite of a few flaws. We never really believe that Emma is ever a contender for Dante's heart, especially since Smith has chosen to write her as a ball-busting shrew that just doesn't seem to really love Dante for who he is. That sort of thing afflicts most movies with a "torn between two lovers" air, so I guess it should be expected out of Clerks II as well. But no matter, the script is still hilarious, with very few misses. While not as outright vulgar as Clerks, Smith makes this one just as raunchy — and as fanboyish as well. From discussions regarding the difference between Helen Keller and Anne Frank, to debates over the value of a particular sexual act and whether or not the phrase "porch monkey" should be a racial slur, to a rant regarding the quality of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Smith is in rare form. He even throws in a donkey show and a musical number too. The jokes may not fly for everybody, but those that get a laugh out of this sort of thing will enjoy what Smith brings to the table.

I spoke of Smith's evolution as a director, but it should be noted that his cast has evolved as well. As good as they might have been, it was still obvious that the cast of the original Clerks were amateurs, nobodies that could have randomly walked into the Quick Stop on any given day and landed a role in the movie. But with the passing of a dozen years, his returning major players have drastically improved. Brian O'Halloran is still kinda stiff, but he's still quite fun as a character that seems to be perpetually stuck behind the eight-ball of "The Man."

And as he was in the original Clerks, Jeff Anderson is a total scene-stealer. As uncouth as Randal may be, Anderson's performance makes him charming and amiable. And although the roles of Jay and Silent Bob are downplayed, Jason Mewes and Smith are hilarious as always. Their memorable moments are limited, but the presence of Smith's most popular characters are much welcomed.

The new cast members aren't too bad either. Jennifer Schwalbach, who one may recognize as either Mrs. Kevin Smith or pigtailed jewel thief Missy from Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, is entertaining as Emma. Like I said, we can tell from the start that her relationship with Dante isn't going to end well, but Schwalbach has fun in the role and it shows. Also having fun is Trevor Fehrman, who is incredibly amusing as Randal's nerdy and woefully sheltered sidekick Elias. The character isn't very deep, but Fehrman does provide the movie with some of the movie's best scenes ("Pillow Pants," anyone?).

But something that even Smith will readily admit is that the best actor in the entire movie is Rosario Dawson. Adding another entry onto her already colorful résumé, Dawson is nothing short of wonderful. She plays the role with a passion, and does such an impressive job that she nearly makes everyone else in the cast look bad by comparison. Dante and Becky's relationship is one of the film's strongest points, and while O'Halloran is no slouch, Dawson really helps elevate it into something that we the viewer want to see more of.

I don't really know for certain if Clerks II is the absolute final chapter of the View Askewniverse. Smith said the same thing about Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back back in 2001, and look where we are now. Maybe when 2018 rolls around, we'll see Clerks III, where Smith can do a movie about slackers in their forties raising teenage slacker children. But as it stands now, Clerks II makes for a perfect finale for the View Askewniverse. I'm certainly not complaining if it did end here. And I'll gladly give the movie four stars and a hearty recommendation. Go check it out, and see if you can find my name in the MySpace credits at the end.

Final Rating: ****

Friday, December 8, 2006

Superman Returns (2006)

Of the multitude of characters dreamed up by comic book writers and artists since the medium came into prominence in the 1930s, one of the most important and influential has been the one and only Superman. The creation of Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster, the last son of Krypton made his first appearance on the cover of DC's Action Comics #1 in 1938 and became a big fat hit. In the decades since his debut, Superman has become the de facto mascot for DC Comics as well as a cultural icon that defined the term "superhero."

And with his popularity, one medium wouldn't be enough for the Man of Steel. The character has popped up on quite a bit of merchandise over the years, along with inspiring radio plays, movie serials, cartoons, and popular television shows. But perhaps the most famous depictions of the character were the four movies starring the late Christopher Reeve. Released between 1978 and 1987, the four movies varied between exceptional and abysmal, but Reeve's charismatic performances in all four cemented him in the minds of many as the definitive real-life face of the beloved hero.

But after the painful box office performance of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace in 1987, it appeared as if there might never be a fifth movie in the franchise. Franchise producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind proposed a movie pitting Superman against his noted foe Brainiac, but when the rights reverted back to DC Comics in 1992, things snowballed from there. Numerous writers, directors, and actors were attached to the project over the course of the next two decades, quite a few of them looking to do an adaptation of DC's famous story arc "The Death and Return of Superman."

Big names like Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, Brett Ratner, Lost creator J.J. Abrams, Charlie's Angels director McG, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Keaton, and Nicolas Cage were all connected to the various projects in some capacity, but for one reason or another, the fifth Superman movie would repeatedly be put on the shelf before it could find its way out of pre-production. After three directors, nine writers, and fifty million dollars spent, X-Men director Bryan Singer was hired and the ball finally got rolling on what would be the first Superman film in nineteen years, the boldly-titled Superman Returns.

Upon hearing that astronomers may have discovered the remnants of the planet Krypton, Superman (Brandon Routh) embarks on a long voyage into space to see the remains of his home for himself. Finding nothing, he returns to Earth and resumes his life in Metropolis as mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent. But five years have passed, and the world he knew has changed drastically. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), the woman who'd captured his heart, has moved on with her life. During Superman's half-decade absence, Lois has won a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial titled "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman"; gotten engaged to Richard White (James Marsden), the yuppie nephew of the Daily Planet's editor, Perry White (Frank Langella); and given birth to a young son named Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). But in spite of Lois's disillusionment in regards to the big blue Boy Scout, Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) theorizes that she still might have some feelings for him after all.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from prison on a technicality, and he's managed to finagle his way into being the sole beneficiary of a wealthy old woman's money and possessions. Luthor gathers up his henchmen and his female companion Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey), and using his newfound financial resources, ventures into the Arctic to the abandoned Fortress of Solitude. He acquires a number of the Fortress's crystals, and through the holographic representation of Superman's father Jor-El (archival footage of Marlon Brando), Luthor learns that the crystals can be used to create anything from Kryptonian architecture to enormous landmasses. He tests this by placing a tiny speck of crystal into some water that was part of a model train set in the basement of his newly acquired mansion. In doing so, it causes a sizeable Kryptonian structure to form in the middle of the room.

But Luthor's little experiment also causes an electromagnetic pulse that briefly knocks out all of the electricity on the east coast. This temporary blackout also causes a serious malfunction on a space shuttle and the jetliner hauling it, and the shuttle threatens to drag the jet and everyone on it — including Lois — into outer space. Forced into action, Clark quickly changes into Superman and rescues the plane. He safely deposits the plane in the middle of a baseball stadium during a game, revealing Superman's return to the world. You know, the scene is cool and all, but afterwards, it left me wondering what happened to the wings of the plane. They came right off the plane, so they had to go somewhere, right? It's probably safe to say that they landed safely in the ocean, but what if they crashed onto an orphanage or the Special Olympics or a box full of kittens? Am I the only person that thinks about things like this?

You'd think the return of Superman would put a wrench in the gears of Luthor's grand scheme, but nope, he's got that taken care of. After robbing a museum of a chunk of Kryptonite, he sets his plan into motion. His scheme: to use one of the stolen crystals to create a brand new continent. The continent's growth is projected to wipe out most of North America and kill millions (if not billions) of people in the process. High body count or not, Luthor anticipates scores of people paying boatloads of cash for prime real estate and possible access to alien technology. And just to be on the safe side, he's managed to lace the new landmass with his stolen Kryptonite, just so Superman doesn't get any wise ideas. Kryptonite or not, Superman rushes to stop Luthor and rescue Lois, Jason, and Richard, who have gotten caught in the middle.

Although Superman Returns isn't a flawless movie, it's certainly very good. It has and will probably continue to draw comparisons to Christopher Reeve's films, but I think the movie holds up quite well on its own. It boasts superb direction, writing, and effects, as well as a cast that brings a lot of substance to the movie. While some have argued that perhaps the movie could have gone the way of Batman Begins and restarted the franchise with a clean slate, that wasn't really necessary. Because unlike Batman, Superman already had a perfectly good movie that told his origin story. Besides, making Superman Returns a vague sequel to the first two Reeve movies (while ignoring the existence of the third and fourth ones) brings a strong sense of familiarity to the movie that I feel that it benefits from.

Let's start with the screenplay first. Penned by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, the screenplay is solid in spite of a few plot holes and subplots that are left unresolved. The screenplay also hearkens back to the Reeve movies on numerous occasions with various dialogue cues and little moments, which I thought was really entertaining and brought a sort of continuity and familiarity that bridged the old and the new. Dougherty and Harris also crafted characters I thought to be extremely well-written, with the exception of one. I'm going to come right out and say it: This iteration of Lois Lane has absolutely nothing on the one portrayed by Margot Kidder. When Kidder played the role, Lois was strong, spunky, and fun. But instead of that, Lois is to Superman Returns what Kristin Kreuk's Lana Lang is to the Smallville television show.

This movie's Lois is kinda dull and whiny. She treats Superman like dirt for not living up to whatever unobtainable standards she holds him to; she completely disregards Perry's requests to actually do her job; she has no problem with bringing her five-year-old son along as she breaks into a supervillain's private property to get a scoop; she gets upset when anyone dares question her motives; and she generally doesn't serve a whole lot of purpose outside of being a damsel in distress. While Lois isn't as utterly useless and annoying as Lana from Smallville, she's pushing it. But despite her cocky "how dare Superman save me from certain death?" attitude while blowing off Clark like he's some kind of second-class citizen, it's only made funnier when she has to keep being saved over and over by the men in her life — whether it be Superman, Richard, or in one instance, Jason — because she was too stubborn to swallow her pride and admit that she's just not all that.

Moving along, I found the acting the acting to be quite well done. Though the cast seems as if they were all trying to fit themselves into the molds created their predecessors, I must admit that I didn't find any particular performance standing out as anything less than good. Brandon Routh, only really known prior to Superman Returns for his year-long stint on the ABC soap opera One Life to Live, fills Christopher Reeve's shoes well. In spite of the many talented big-name actors that were up for the role during all those years of pre-production, I'm of the opinion that, in retrospect, Routh was the best one for the part. I believe it was a wise decision to follow in the footsteps of the 1978 movie and cast a virtual unknown in the lead role. If someone like Nicholas Cage or Ashton Kutcher or whoever had played Superman, it could have pulled the viewer completely out of the movie. But with Routh in the role, we don't view the title character as "[famous actor] as Superman," we see only Superman. And casting Routh proved to be a good move, as he really holds the movie together with his portrayal of Superman's strength, Clark's meekness, and Kal-El's internal struggle to rejoin a world that has left both of his Earth personas behind.

Despite my beef with the way her character is written, I have to admit that I did enjoy Kate Bosworth's performance. If the character hadn't been as poor as I found it to be, I think her performance would have been even better. Bosworth and Routh have a great chemistry together, but due to Lois being written less than satisfactory, I felt that it bogged down Bosworth's performance and made it good, but not great.

I also thought that James Marsden did about as good as could be expected. His character is painted as a perpetual second-banana to Superman in the minds of both Lois and the viewer, but I thought he made a good romantic foil for Superman. You can see through Marsden's performance that Richard wants to be there for Lois and Jason even though he knows Ms. Lane would leave him for Superman in a heartbeat. And how about Tristan Lake Leabu as Jason? Not a whole lot is asked of him aside from standing there and looking cute, but he pulls it off like a pro. Frank Langella and Sam Huntington are also quite good, despite being super-minor roles. Both of them are well-suited for the roles, and both are quite entertaining.

Parker Posey is great as well. The character of Kitty Kowalski is essentially a clone of Miss Tessmacher from the first two Reeve movies, but Posey plays the role with a passion and humor that's needed for the role to work. As I said, Kitty is a modernized version of Miss Tessmacher, which raises the question, "Why does Lex Luthor surround himself with such ditzy women?" And I think the answer is simple. Luthor's intelligence and narcissism are vast, and keeping a dim-witted woman by his side makes him look even smarter by comparison. It's totally within the realm of the character. And last but not least is Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. The role could not have been better cast, because Spacey is nothing short of excellent. Spacey plays the role with just a touch of the humor Gene Hackman's Luthor had, but there is more menace than silliness to be found here. His Luthor is megalomaniacal, vicious, egocentric, and sarcastic, everything one would expect from the Man of Steel's archenemy.

Perhaps the most spectacular things about the movie, however, is its music and direction. The previously mentioned sense of familiarity brought by the screenplay is greatly enhanced by John Ottman's wondrous score, which borrows memorable motifs from the brilliant music composed by John Williams for the first two Reeve movies (including the legendary theme song). This, along with Ottman's impressive original music, gives Superman Returns a sound that is as grand and epic as the rest of the movie.

And I must admit that Bryan Singer's direction is outstanding. Singer is no stranger to superhero movies, and he uses that experience to craft a movie that can please fans of the old movies and wow a new generation of moviegoers who didn't grow up with them. His affection for the original movies is readily seen, evidenced by his use of the same style of opening credits from the originals, and his use of the same shot that closed all four previous movies. He delicately balances the drama with the humor and action, and I think he succeeded. And with a little help from cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and a team of special effects wizards, Singer's also given the movie a tremendous visual upgrade. The special effects are, without a doubt, astounding. Though we know that quite a few of the effects are computer-generated, they're not distracting, but quite believable and enjoyable.

As I said above, Singer balances the humor, drama, and action effectively. But what he also does is use the movie as an intriguing religious allegory. Superman is a metaphorical Christ figure, the only son of a father who sent him to Earth to become a hero for millions. This comparison is noted on numerous occasions in the film, with moments such as Jor-El's opening monologue, Superman snatching a large sign that reads "grace" and catching an enormous globe as it falls from the roof of the Daily Planet (essentially holding the whole world in his hands, like the song kids sing in Sunday School), and pretty much the entire climax and epilogue. Superman even says to Lois at one point, "You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one." The comparisons come close to hitting us over the head at times, but they do make for an interesting subtext that isn't usually explored in the various depictions of Superman.

Superman Returns may or may not be remembered thirty years from now as a classic along the lines the first two Reeve movies, but I found it to be an impressive, high-quality film. I thought it was everything that it should have been. Sure, it has its flaws, but what movie doesn't? However, the movie does excel in spite of its imperfections, and breathes new life into a franchise that at one time looked like it was headed nowhere fast. And thanks to that, I'll gladly give Superman Returns four stars. Even if the movie sucked, it certainly couldn't be any worse than Superman III or Superman IV, could it?

Final Rating: ****