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Superman Returns

Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden and Parker Posey
Runtime: 157 minutes
CARA Rating: PG-13 for some intense action violence

In what is widely regarded as the worst of the four original Superman movies, Superman III finds Clark Kent fighting an evil doppleganger of himself after being exposed to Kryptonite by Richard Prior. I know, the concept is hilarious, but stick with me here. While it may sound ridiculous and I hated it as a child, Superman can’t be bad, that was the first time Superman, a classic archetypal Christ figure, was shown to be capable of evil.

It is this concept of a god’s humanity and heart that is shown front and center in the latest Superman movie, Superman Returns. Bryan Singer, who handled the first two X-Men movies with outstanding precision, shows a true humanity…with all its mistakes and miscues – not seen in past incarnations of the Man of Steel. In doing so he makes this Superman entertaining and yet, flawed.

I was impressed by Brandon Routh’s performance as Superman. Stepping into a role as big as this for your first big budget feature film is daunting enough. Then the magnifying glass comes down when you’re taking over the role from such a highly admired figure like Christopher Reeve. Routh handles the pressure amazingly well and provides fine skill as both Clark Kent and Superman. Routh’s Kent was very reminiscent of Reeve. Perhaps not as bumbling or nerdy, but there was a definite delineation of character there. Kevin Spacey was equally good as Lex Luthor. I don’t know why, but Spacey seems to do his best work as a bad guy.

The plot of the story is the weakest part of the movie. But that may be the point. Singer’s smart enough to know that we are going to be comparing this movie, his Superman to Reeve’s. It’s impossible not to because he does it too. The main action of Singer’s Superman Returns is an examination of what happens when a character that we’ve known so well for years, returns to a world who has felt abandoned, grown cold, and moved on. Can a figure that represented truth, justice, and the American Way find his place in a world that has become one of deceitfulness, anger, and spite for the American Way? Superman Returns shows that his return will not be an easy one. But it’s worth fighting for.

Final Verdict: At first viewing I felt a conflict regarding Superman Returns. The magic, the innocence of the first Superman movies was gone. Instead, we had this different, more complicated Superman. Yet it also felt more grown up. There was more to Superman and Singer and his writing crew have done an outstanding job of showing this new Superman while remaining reverent to the source material, which is an extremely difficult challenge especially given the scope of the picture, which means it may take more than one viewing to get and appreciate all that Singer is throwing at the audience. Yet, much like Superman himself, Singer takes what was, deals with what is, and makes it his own…giving us a complex god in uncertain times. And with that glimmer of hope Superman and Singer show us that is all we need.

Superman Returns

Rating by Mark Malafarina: 4.5 stars
****1/2

United 93

United 93

Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Lewis Alsamari, JJ Johnson, Trish Gates, Polly Adams, Cheyenne Jackson and David Alan Basche
Runtime: 111 minutes
CARA Rating: R for Language, and some intense sequences of terror and violence

This is a hard film to review.

Before seeing United 93, I had many doubts. Natural questions arise when discussing the first Hollywood recreation of 9/11. Should this have been made? What can be taken from it? Will it just be an offensive or heartless manipulation of a real tragedy? There is little doubt that simply as a film, United 93 is well made. It is expertly paced, it is involving and it captures the chaos of that Tuesday morning.

Director Paul Greengrass uses mainly handheld cameras, giving a similar “you are there” feel as his last film, the hit sequel The Bourne Supremacy. Random bouncing around is toned down a bit, though, so if you got sea-sick during Bourne you can rest a little easier here.

Most of the running time is spent either on flight 93, which was the fourth plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, or around various air control or military rooms. Nothing is shown from Ground Zero. Greengrass walks a very tight rope, managing not to become exploitive while also not falling into extreme political correctness. His film is brutal at points, but never gratuitous. The way the reactions of everyone in the film are portrayed humanizes them. We all had similar responses on September 11th.

Even if a vivid back-story is not presented for each person, little distance is felt. Sometimes it is possible to relate through circumstance, and the fact that there are no marquee name stars helps the actors to become their characters. Some of the officials in the control rooms actually play themselves, too. This gives an authenticity to the film that is needed, especially since it comes so soon after the attacks.

Of course, following Fahrenheit 9/11 anything that remotely touches on controversial or political ideas is considered one-sided propaganda. Conspiracy theory nuts especially have used this to bring down United 93 and the people behind it.

However, any film or art form cannot truly be neutral, and this is a good thing. This is why – as filmgoers – we should use our own intelligence and rationality, never only taking what we see onscreen as gospel. Art should make us question rather than blindly accept. With this said, here is a film that is constructed with passion and care, attempting to recreate an experience rather than further an agenda.

The portrayal of the terrorists is perhaps the hardest challenge. Their evil is not overemphasized. The film opens with them praying, and it gives a glimpse into their fanatical religious beliefs that lead them to believe murdering thousands of Americans is a solution for anything. This makes the tragedy all the more palatable, since we are not watching inhuman monstrosities rampaging, but rather people doing horrible things to other people.

This inherent tragedy helps the heroism at the end seem true, rather than forced and sentimental. United 93 shows, without preaching, the way people can bind together to kill each other, and also bind together to do the opposite.

Still, not everything about United 93 works. One scene involving a passenger who wants to acquiesce to all the terrorists’ commands is overdone, and it feels like a fake Hollywood invention.

The amount of text after the harrowing end – which eerily reveals death as well as cinema can – is somewhat distancing. It would have been better and more effective if there wasn’t an immediate bombardment of historical facts we already know.

In the end, United 93’s greatest strength is its greatest weakness. The fact that it has no political ambitions or fiery declarations lets the emotion of what it shows seem fresh, real, and genuine. The confusion, fear, and unification that came from these attacks are perfectly captured, although little is said that is groundbreaking or philosophically revolutionary. “Why” is not as important as “what.”

United 93 is ultimately a reminder. While remembering an event that happened less than five years ago might seem superfluous, this is not so much a reminder of the physical, actual event, which is impossible to forget, but of the emotions that arose that day and what was created from these emotions.

9/11 has become a punch line for politicians, the memories it evokes abused and torn apart by vehement partisan anger. The title might seem cheesy but it signifies the central theme that runs throughout this tragic but heroic tale.

For all that was destroyed in the attacks, something was gained. America found a new connection, a connection that went beyond conspiracy theories or liberal/conservative politics.

The fact that United 93 captures this connection at all is proof that, despite any flaws, it is not too soon for this film, and that its greatest message is not delivered in a long-winded monologue but discovered in emotions simmering right up until the end.

Critic’s Conclusion: Not necessarily an easy film to sit through, United 93 comes at the right time. Unlikely to find a large audience now, those willing to give it a chance might be surprised at the emotions it carefully exposes.

United 93

Rating by Dan Russell: 4.0 stars
****

Silent Hill

Silent Hill

Director: Christophe Gans
Cast: Radha Mitchell, Sean Bean, Laurie Holden, Deborah Kara, Unger Kim Coates and Tanya Allen
Runtime: 127 minutes
CARA Rating: R for Strong horror violence and gore, disturbing images and some language

Attention all: please welcome video game adaptation number 32, Silent Hill. Here we have a lovely specimen, a film that actually stands out from the pack.

Our main character is Rose, the mother of an adopted little girl named Sharon. Sadly, little Sharon has been acting weird thanks to some high-risk sleep walking. Worse, she keeps mumbling about a mysterious town called Silent Hill.

Rose decides the best solution to cure her daughter is to bring her to Silent Hill and discover exactly what is going on. Of course her husband does not approve, but it doesn’t matter since there isn’t much time to reflect on the situation at all.

Silent Hill delves right into the action. In fact, within 10 minutes Rose is already stranded at the mysterious Silent Hill. While it’s nice to not have to wade through pointless exposition that exists only to give the illusion of an actual story, there is no time to bond with the characters at all.

The problem is not so much that we need a half hour of superfluous back story, but that too little time is focused on the main characters as people merely trying to live their lives. Thus, they become artificial cardboard cutouts. There is never a sense of panic or fear. As strange and sinister as Silent Hill can be, it?s never genuinely scary because there is never any real connection to a human figure.

The acting doesn’t help much, either, with Sean Bean phoning in his performance as the worried dad and Jodelle Ferland doing her best “creepy girl from The Ring” impression. Lead actress Radha Mitchell plays a convincing mother, though her entire performance is fairly one note.

However, one thing about Silent Hill stands out in an extraordinary way. Simply put, French director Christophe Gans knows how to sculpt moving images. Much like his last film, the stylish but complex The Brotherhood of the Wolf, the assorted mix of odd environments and crazed fiends fill a dark void that is anything but empty.

With a surrealist look reminiscent of earlier European horror, Silent Hill is able to stretch out from the screen and into the mind. Now, it is absolutely true that great visuals cannot make a bad movie great.

To be fair, horror films are hardly heralded for brilliant character development or complex stories. Nevertheless, this does not mean that these elements are useless. And no doubt, if Silent Hill had a stronger script it could truly have been a brilliant little film.

Thankfully these flaws don’t sink the entire production. Even as the vague plot lurches to its halfway satisfactory climax, it is hard to turn away.

This is a movie for the fans, and it includes many horror movie musts. There are especially scenes of great carnage, including a gruesome finale and the untimely demise of one character whose clothes are torn off in one fell swoop, followed by their skin.

Yet, Silent Hill is more than a pointless gore fest. Although a level of realism is purposely lost, something distinctive is always waiting to echo from the darkness. A curiosity as to what could be around the next corner keeps boredom at bay.

Admittedly, though, the ending is weak. First we have the wonderful “Harry Potter” monologue where most of the story is summarized in a short spouting of clunky dialogue. Then there is the obligatory ambiguous finale that is not so much clever as it is predictable and disappointing.

In some ways, the problems with the plot are because Silent Hill is such a faithful and direct adaptation of its source material. Many videogames are very clearly influenced by films and what might be original in one medium becomes tired and overused in another.

Still, Silent Hill is an interesting journey that feels dredged up straight from a nightmare. Gans will not convert nonbelievers to the world of horror, but for those who have played the game or seek something unusual, there is quite a bit to appreciate here.

Critic’s Conclusion: It is probably the best videogame to film adaptation so far, not that this is saying much, and despite inherent flaws with basic concepts of story and characters, Silent Hill compels attention.

Silent Hill

Rating by Dan Russell: 3.5 stars
***1/2

Lucky Number Slevin

Lucky Number Slevin

Director: Paul McGuigan
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Lucy Liu, Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, Ben Kingsley and Stanley Tucci
Runtime: 109 minutes
CARA Rating: R for strong violence, sexuality and language

A movie with a title as stupid as Lucky Number Slevin needs to have a lot working in its favor. Thankfully, what might seem like another Snatch meets Pulp Fiction rip off actually proves to be a worthy addition to the silver screen.

Following our main character Slevin (Josh Hartnett), we find a simple case of mistaken identity. Slevin has come to stay at the apartment of his friend Nick, but Nick never shows up.

Soon he is visited by the girl next door (played by Lucy Liu) and finds himself in the middle of a gang war between The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley). What will happen next? Will Slevin live? Why is his identity mistaken? Thankfully there are answers and they aren’t disappointing ones either.

The acting, script and direction are all top notch. Director Paul McGuigan handles the large cast well. Every actor plays the part right, including Josh Hartnett who is quite a bit better here than he was in Pearl Harbor. Morgan Freeman and Bruce Willis play roles similar to some stuff they’ve done before, no, Morgan Freeman is not God again, but they do a fine job at it.

Much of the onscreen time takes place in New York, and there is an interesting artistic style that has flair without being overtly flashy. There is even a visual effect shot that efficiently sets up the conflict between the warring mob bosses.

One thing, however, that may be surprising is the amount of violence. Although the film is never gratuitous with its bullet holes, there are moments of visual bloodshed and intrinsic nastiness. A somewhat fun, light-hearted mood permeates most of the time, yet at heart Lucky Number Slevin is a drama.

There are also some pretty nifty action scenes, as McGuigan demonstrates a unique directorial style. There is more than just action, though, as the dialogue is usually sharp. At times it heavily resembles the blissful operatic ramblings of Quentin Tarantino, but the real joy here is the story and the way it is told.

I love when movies have lots of little details that are wrapped up in the end. This is perhaps the best attribute of Lucky Number Slevin, as all the little pieces of the puzzle come together.

Sometimes too many plot elements are crammed into one little monologue to explain an entire movie, but here every little twist and surprise is revealed at the right time and in an appealing way.

The script is smart, and for the most part it properly balances light-hearted humor with serious dramatic moments. It seems actual thought and care went into the narrative structure. Ultimately, Lucky Number Slevin ends on a high note.

A successful mix of a crime caper, a drama, a situation comedy and a mystery, the film knows when to borrow and when to pave a path of its own. There is enough originality to make it worth the time, and it successfully tells an interesting story distinctly.

Critic’s Conclusion: Dramatic, funny and smart, Lucky Number Slevin is a successful collage of genres. Don’t let the title fool you, there is more here than first meets the eye.

Lucky Number Slevin

Rating by Dan Russell: 4.0 stars
****

V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta

Director: James McTeigue
Cast: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry and John Hurt
Runtime: 132 minutes
CARA Rating: R for Strong violence and some language.

Perhaps better than any theatrical release from last year, this new film from the forces behind The Matrix succeeds as both enticing entertainment and as an emotive discussion starter.

Taking place in the near future, V For Vendetta presents a totalitarian England where freedoms are taken away in the name of security. A man, simply known as V, uses tactics of terrorism to fight back at the government while also trying to stir up revolution amongst the oppressed people of his country. Then in comes the average everyday girl Evey, who soon finds herself embroiled with V and his fight.

A good film works on many levels, and every aspect of the multilayered V for Vendetta succeeds. It has interesting political ideas, dealing with themes of corruption, freedom, terrorism and truth.

The notion that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is explored, but the complexities of such a concept are never ignored. The tragically heroic V is not meant as an example of Osama and this is not Fahrenheit 9/11 2: Now With Masks.

The script is written by the Wachowski brothers, the guys behind The Matrix trilogy, and V For Vendetta resembles the first Matrix more than its sequels. Rather than assaulting with pseudo-philosophy and overlong action sequences, this is an involving experience with a genuine story arc and characters that are both textured and real.

At the beginning, it is somewhat unclear how everyone will turn out and there is surprising tenderness and yet complexity carried throughout the story. This balance is often hard to maintain.

The direction from newcomer James McTeigue is fresh and the images brought to the screen clearly contain ambition and passion. The performances cannot be overlooked, either.

Natalie Portman does a great job as Evey, but the real standout is Hugo Weaving as V, who may be best known as Agent Smith from The Matrix trilogy, his face is always covered by a mask. He transcends these limitations, though, just as his character does. Through subtle movements and the sound of his voice, his emotions are always felt.

Of course, then there is the “C” word: controversy. While I’ve only heard a few voices of outrage, for anybody who does think this is simply an anti-American pro-terrorism film, I urge you to see it.

Besides the fact that the source material was not written to match such beliefs (the graphic novel V For Vendetta is based on was written in the mid 90s), for as many existent parallels to modern American politics as there are, there are also differences.

That’s not to say this isn’t a timely film, or that it doesn’t deal with important issues of today. However, the ?bad guy? totalitarian government here has more in common with the Taliban or Nazi Germany than the Bush administration.

V For Vendetta also has a lot of references to history and historical art and its theme is more than a simple appraisal or condemnation of some new political practice. In many ways this is a universal story that is unlikely to age.

Still, don’t forget that this is entertainment, too. The action is fast paced, the dialogue sharp and it is truly enjoyable to sit through. If controversy does sell, then at least here it is selling a great product.

Critic’s Conclusion: Filled with involving characters and intriguing ideas, V For Vendetta succeeds in many ways as it moves beyond controversy or political hot points to do the most important thing of all: tell a story. Few films are brilliant, but this surely comes close.

V for Vendetta

Rating by Dan Russell: 5.0 stars
*****

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