Blog Archives

Scrooge Month Day 17: Daffy Duck in BAH HUMDUCK! A LOONEY TUNES CHRISTMAS (2006)

Bah Humduck 2006Director: Charles Visser

Writer: Ray DeLaurentis, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Joe Alaskey, Bob Bergen, Billy West, June Foray, Maurice LaMarche, Jim Cummings, Tara Strong

Notes: This is actually the second time the Looney Tunes characters have tackled Dickens, the first being in the 1979 short, Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol. I would have included that in this little experiment, because at only eight minutes it would have been the easiest article ever, but it doesn’t appear to be available on DVD at the moment. Warner Bros should get on that. Anyway, in this version we see Daffy Duck (voice of Joe Alaskey) cast as the owner of the Lucky Duck Superstore in the Scrooge role. Although the Looney Tunes characters basically play themselves, they fill in the assorted Christmas Carol roles appropriately. Porky Pig (Bob Bergen) is Daffy’s assistant manager and the stand-in for Bob Cratchit. Bugs Bunny (Billy West) kind of takes nephew Fred’s place, although the role is somewhat expanded. Sylvester “the Investor” (Alaskey)  is our Jacob Marley substitute, Porky’s daughter Priscilla (Tara Strong) fills in for Tiny Tim, and the ghosts are filled up by a tag-team of Granny (the legendary June Foray) and Tweety (Begen) for the past, Yosemite Sam (Maurice LaMarche) for the present, and the Tasmanian Devil (Jim Cummings) for Christmas Future.

Thoughts: The Looney Tunes characters, traditionally, have not proven to be quite as versatile as the Disney crew. While Mickey and Company can star in more traditional versions of Dickens, The Prince and the Pauper, The Three Musketeers and the like, it’s much harder for the Looney Tunes to do so. They shouldn’t be embarrassed by this – it’s because they’re just plain funnier, and therefore it’s harder to wedge them into a drama. That said, Ray LeLaurentis managed to match them to the Dickensian roles in this film pretty neatly.

Daffy, as the head of a superstore, hates Christmas and families, mostly because he never had either of his own. Early on we see him being terrible to assorted Looney Tunes characters in assorted ways, most cleanly when he dismisses Assistant Manager Porky’s wish to spend Christmas with his family. Daffy may not be the most Scrooge-like of the Looney Tunes characters, being more of a grump than a skinflint, but he’s their biggest star that could fit the role. As such, the film doesn’t paint him as a spendthrift the way Scrooge usually is, but just somebody with a nasty disposition who decides to target Christmas with his ire.

“Sylvester the Investor” is a former CEO and idol of Daffy’s, not specifically his old partner, and he’s the character that really made the continuity geek that lives in my brain full-time struggle. There are two ways the Looney Tunes are usually portrayed: either as “themselves,” living an ostensibly normal life while going through wacky adventures; or as actors in crazy cartoons playing crazy roles. This movie seems to exist in some sort of weird in-between place. Daffy is himself, Porky, Elmer Fudd, Marvin the Martian and many of the others are his employees. But Sylvester and the ghosts come across more like the “actor” versions of the characters. There is, of course, the possibility that I’m simply expending way too much energy trying to rationalize the structure of a Looney Tunes movie.

After Marley’s visit, Daffy continues to torment his employees, even announcing that the store will be open from 5 a.m. to midnight on Christmas Day, making this 2006 movie seem sadly prophetic. He and Bugs wind up trapped in the store overnight, though, giving us the biggest Looney Tunes star at vital points of the tale. Granny and Tweety pop in as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and take Daffy back to the Lucky Duck Orphanage where he grew up. Lucky Duck, as it seems, didn’t live up to its name for Daffy. We’re shown a Christmas where he is literally the only child at the orphanage who does not get adopted. The scene is so pathetic that even the ghosts cry for him, until they snap out of it and Tweety lays a verbal smack-down on him and Granny tells him his own lousy childhood doesn’t give him the right to ruin everybody else’s Christmas.

Yosemite Sam, who played Scrooge in Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol, here dons the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. He whips Daffy around to show him how sad his various employees are, ending it with Porky telling adorable little Priscilla he can’t be with her on Christmas. When she asks him why Daffy’s so mean, Porky tells her it’s probably because he doesn’t have a family to spend it with. She wishes on a star that Porky could spend Christmas with her instead of going to work, and Sam smacks Daffy upside the head. Seriously, Daff, when Yosemite Sam is calling you out for being a jerk, you know you’ve gone too far.

Daffy finds Bugs decorating the store for Christmas and begs him to hide him from the final ghost, giving Bugs the chance to reenact a classic sequence of brutally bad hiding places from one of his old cartoons. None of it will protect him from the Tasmanian Devil as Christmas Future, though. Although Priscilla isn’t sick like Tiny Tim, Daffy sees a future where he’s dead and the store is closed thanks to his stupid effort to leave it to himself in his will. Now all of the employees are out of work just in time for Christmas. Just to drive the nail in, Priscilla promises to visit Daffy’s grave every Christmas. Taz weeps openly and Daffy asks for a second chance.

Well c’mon, it wouldn’t be much of a story if he didn’t get one, would it?

Back home, Daffy finds a frozen Fudd who informs him it’s still Christmas, and Daffy declares there’s work to do. When the employees return to the store in the morning, Daffy starts handing out gifts: a rocket for Marvin so he can go home for the holidays, a chef for the perpetually starving Wile E. Coyote, and raises and vacations all around. His 20-second interaction with Speedy Gonzales makes the whole film worthwhile.

As Daffy looks around he almost relapses, realizing how much the raises and vacations are going to cost him, but Priscilla’s grateful words to “Uncle Daffy” cut him off. She also gets the last word – not “God bless us, everyone,” but swiping her Dad’s usual proclamation of “That’s all, folks!”

The cartoon – at a brisk 45 minutes – doesn’t spend a lot of time on the details of Dickens. Instead, it uses the classic framework to tell a story with more original characters and a lot of old-school Looney Tunes slapstick. These are timeless characters that still make me laugh when they’re done right, and for the most part, this special pulls it off. I’ve actually enjoyed the new Looney Tunes Show the Cartoon Network airs, but this slightly more traditional version of the characters is always going to be where my heart lies.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 16: Oscar the Grouch in A SESAME STREET CHRISTMAS CAROL (2006)

Sesame Street Christmas Carol 2006Directors: Victor DiNapoli, Ken Giego, Emily Squires, Jon Stone

Writers: Rickey Boyd, Jon Stone, Joseph A. Bailey, Christine Ferraro, Tony Geiss

Cast: Caroll Spinney, Kristin Chenoweth, Joey Mazzarino, Matt Vogel, Jim Martin, Tim Curry, Rickey Boyd, Kevin Clash, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Pam Arciero, Fran Brill, Alice Dinnean, Eric Jacobson, Peter Linz, Noel MacNeal, Jerry Nelson, Carmen Osbahr, Martin P. Robinson, David Rudman, John Tartaglia, Steve Whitmire, Bryant Young, Carlo Alban, Alison Bartlett, Desiree Casado, Emilio Delgado, Will Lee, Loretta Long, Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman, Imani Patterson, David Langston Smyrl, Brian Gore

Notes: This is, of course, not the first time the Muppet characters have tackled A Christmas Carol, but  sadly the Muppet Show Muppets and the Sesame Street Muppets are so far removed from one another these days that it almost doesn’t even matter. At any rate, this (much toned down) version of the Dickens story casts Oscar the Grouch as the most natural Scrooge since McDuck. New characters – all computer animated rather than traditional puppets – appear as the three ghosts. My favorite bit of this, though, is that the special uses footage from classic Sesame Street Christmas shows, thus allowing us to see performances from the likes of the late Jim Henson and Will Lee and the mostly-retired Frank Oz, all right alongside the modern cast of the show.

Thoughts: Tim Curry starts us off in his usual role as The Best Narrator In the World Assuming You Can’t Afford Morgan Freeman, and introduces us to an Oscar the Grouch (Caroll Spinney) who’s looking forward to sleeping through Christmas entirely. His plan is wrecked, though, when a messenger named Joe Marley (Joey Mazzarino) shows up with news. Marley is there to deliver Oscar the first of three Ghost-O-Grams, beginning with a vintage 1843 baked beans can. (1843, in case you didn’t know, is the year A Christmas Carol was first published. Cute.)

It hardly seems necessary to critique Caroll Spinney as Oscar the Grouch – he’s played the character for over four decades and he’s made him one of the most enduring childhood icons in the history of the world. Let’s instead just agree that Oscar as Scrooge is such an obvious idea that one wonders why they didn’t try it before and move on, shall we?

Rickey Boyd provides the voice for the first “ghost” – Rhubarb, the Grouch of Christmas Past. Rhubarb and Oscar agree to watch the old films of previous Christmases, even as they agree not to enjoy them, and we see the “Gift of the Magi” segment from 1978’s Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, which I wrote about last year. It’s a clever use of the old footage, something very few other versions of A Christmas Carol could even imagine, but it does raise an important question: what’s the point of all this? There hasn’t been any talk of “redeeming” Oscar the way Scrooge usually needs to be redeemed, and even if there was, this clip doesn’t even include him. Why is Rhubarb being sent to show Oscar heartwarming clips? Even Oscar asks this question, and Rhubarb doesn’t have an answer.

But you know what? It’s Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Will Lee, all together. I’m not about to complain about that.

In the next segment, we have an old musical number with Big Bird (Spinney again) singing about how he misses his best friend, Mr. Snuffleupagus, who’s away for Christmas. It’s a cute song, one I don’t really remember, which probably suggests this clip came some time after I grew out of the prime Sesame Street demographic. There’s not really anything to hint as to just when it was made. Once it was over, we cut back to Rhubarb and Oscar, laughing about how bad the clips are. Call me a racist, but this is the kind of typical Grouch behavior that has caused people to have certain opinions about them for decades.

Marley returns with the next Ghost-O-Gram. This time Oscar gets a jack-in-the-box that releases Christmas Carol (Kristin Chenoweth), a woman in a Christmas tree outfit, who decides to dress up Oscar’s trash can with a little holiday makeover. It gets worse for Oscar when she pops a Santa Claus hat and beard on him. Carol presents a contemporary segment featuring Sesame Street’s current cash cow, Elmo (Kevin Clash), on a visit to Santa’s workshop. Santa sings Elmo a song which can be summarized as, “Boy, it’s nice that you’re not a selfish jerk,” and we then spin off into another clip. This time, Elmo has somehow caused it to be Christmas every day, because he’s never seen a Christmas special before, and he sings a song explaining that Christmas is only special because it’s once a year. Oscar sarcastically quips, “Christmas every day is a bad idea,” as if he didn’t know that already. For once, Oscar, I’m with you.

Then, to ensure that Sesame Workshop maintained its educational grant, we get a couple of Muppet-free segments about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

The last Ghost-O-Gram introduces us to a flying robot named i-SAM (Kevin Clash), who is there to show Oscar Christmas Future. Instead of a Sesame Street clip, though, we get an animated segment in which we “tour” a future where homes decorate themselves, giant holiday dinners are reduced to pills, and families are whisked around in oversized Christmas tree ornaments. It’s a silly, charming little cartoon that fulfills the “Future” requirement in a decidedly non-frightening way. Oscar suddenly wakes up and sees it’s Christmas morning, and he’s being visited by Joe Marley again – only this time he claims to be “Little Joey Dickens from Brooklyn,” who tells Oscar all he had was a bad dream. He gives Oscar a present, though – a sticky ball of used wrapping paper – and all seems well. Especially since tomorrow is the best time of the year for a Grouch – the longest possible time until it’s Christmas again.

I don’t usually like stories that end with the “it was all a dream” conceit, but in a way it’s the only thing that makes sense here. There’s no real reason for Oscar to be visited by these ghosts, nothing changes, nothing actually happens in this film. It’s just an excuse to use a classic framing device to show old clips of the show. It’s not the worst premise in the world, but it feels like there could have been more than a little lip service given to Dickens in the framework. It’s cute, and it’s perfectly acceptable as a Sesame Street special, but remembering just how special some of those specials have been, it seems it could have been better.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 15: ??? in A CHRISTMAS CAROL: SCROOGE’S GHOSTLY TALE (2006)

Christmas Carol-Scrooges Ghostly Tale 2006Director: Ric Machin

Writer: Sean Catherine Derek, Charles Dickens

Cast: Tim Bentink, Brian Bowles, Theresa Gallagher, Adam Rhys Dee, Keith Wickham, Jo Wyatt  

Notes: I’m trying to figure out where, exactly, I got this version of A Christmas Carol. I’m pretty sure it was on sale at Half-Price Books for a few dollars, and I got it because I’ve got a weird obsession with such things. Also, the DVD case has a liquid pouch with glittery “snow” in it, and I’m a sucker for such things. Anyway, this animated version of the story recasts the Dickens characters: the Scrooge family are skunks, the Cratchits are rabbits, and Marley is a Cricket. Past, Present and Future are a stork, a kangaroo, and a walrus, respectively. There are no voice actors credited for this movie either on IMDB or Wikipedia, which I’ve never seen before, and makes me wonder how exactly this short (48 minute) adaptation happened other than spontaneous combustion.  There are credits at the end (which is where the above cast list came from), but the film doesn’t bother to tell you who provided each voice, so I can’t even help you there. One of the above people played Scrooge. I’m betting on Theresa Gallagher.

Thoughts: Another animated version of Dickens, this one with weak computer animation rather than weak traditional animation, it’s hard to qualify the film. This is a post-Pixar world, friends. This came out the same year as Cars and Monster House, but the quality of the animation isn’t even as sharp as that of Pixar’s earliest efforts. The animation is in computerized 3d, but the coloring is flat, like it’s trying to mimic a hand-drawn effect.  I almost want to believe this was somebody’s student animation class project (made because you don’t have to pay for the rights to Dickens) that somehow got a DVD release.

We have a narrator and the characters are familiar, but the Dickens dialogue is thrown out the window immediately. Instead we’ve got super-greedy Scrooge berating Bob Cratchit over a missing farthing he’s too blind to realize is sitting on his own forehead until Fred arrives and points it out to him. The plot – for now at least – follows Dickens fairly closely. Scrooge is grouchy to Cratchit and grouchy to Fred and even blames his food for upsetting his stomach when Marley shows up. Speaking of Marley, the flaming cricket that plays the part shows even less animation than the rest of the cast. When he flails about on his chain, it looks like a toy on the end of a stick being waved around both willy and nilly.

When Christmas Past shows up, it appears first as Scrooge’s pillow, which scares the crap out of him. Cute enough. When she turns into a stork, though, she drops a joke about “pillow talk” that almost made me choke to death on the gingerbread M&M I was eating – not because it was funny, but because the filmmakers included such a (relatively) adult joke in the middle of a cartoon that, until now, seemed to be crafted to cater specifically to the 3-to-3 ½ year old demographic. Christmas Past whisks Scrooge to the past, where he sees himself and Sister Fan making the world’s ugliest snowman.

This time, for the first time in any version of the film, we see baby Fred. He’s not the cause of Fan’s death, but he is the cause of Scrooge’s isolation. Fan had promised Scrooge he could leave school and live with her, but with the baby there’s just no room for him. Young Scrooge storms out, not hearing Fan tell her baby how much she loves and misses her brother. Old Scrooge hears it, of course, but the whole thing rings pretty hollow, seeing as how these computer animated figures move at about the speed of a radio controlled car with a missing wheel. She could have caught up with him pretty easily.

Christmas Present hops onto the scene, a kangaroo, with an Australian accent because duh. At the Cratchit house we meet Tiny Tim, who isn’t even sick in this version. He still makes Scrooge feel like kind of a jerk, though, as he expresses a child’s love for the old miser.

Christmas Future, the walrus, is surprisingly funny. He sparks with red lightning and he has a broken tusk that looks like it’s been lashed together with a leather strap. And as he talks (yep, this one talks), his big jowls flap around over the tusks. His is actually the best animation in the entire film.

This is when the film goes off the Dickensian rails. Instead of dying, we see that Tiny Tim has grown up into an old, bitter codger just like Scrooge. This doesn’t seem to make any sense at all; there’s no motivation that seems in place to push Tim down that particular path. Then the movie actually makes a funny point when it gets to Scrooge’s death. In this version, Scrooge learns that he’s been crushed to death under the weight of his own gold. It’s goofy and ridiculous, and it actually entertains me for about five seconds before the character pushes it too far and changes the subtext into text by announcing Scrooge was killed by his own greed. You know. In case anybody didn’t get that.

So at the end, the Walrus of Christmas Future tells Scrooge to open his heart and he wakes up back in his own bed, and I realize with utter shock that there are still 15 minutes left in this movie. Considering how quickly everything has been rushed through, what could they possibly have to fill up that gargantuan amount of time?

Oh god. A musical number.

Scrooge starts to dance and sing about dancing and singing, informing everybody he meets that he won’t need another chance, which is swell, but the movie seems to have forgotten one of the primary rules of musicals. Namely, you need to have a musical number before the final reel of the film, or else it feels like it comes out of nowhere. Because it does.

Then there’s the last scene, which again departs from Dickens in a big way, as Marley reappears and tells Scrooge that he’s been set free from his eternal torment. Somehow, his concern for Scrooge has redeemed Marley as well. I have to admit, as deviancies from the classic go, I’m… I’m kind of okay with this one. I mean, it does somewhat undercut the notion that Scrooge had to change before it was too late, because evidently it’s never too late in this universe, but that’s not necessarily the worst message to take away from a story like this.

This isn’t a good version of A Christmas Carol, don’t get me wrong. The animation is terrible, the dialogue is weak and the song at the end is guaranteed to make you want to plunge a stake of holly through each eardrum. That said, it’s not the worst version I’ve watched either.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Superman Week Day 4: Brandon Routh in Superman Returns (2006)

Superman ReturnsDirector: Bryan Singer

Writer: Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris

Cast: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Eva Marie Saint, Marlon Brando, Kal Penn, Tristan Lake Lebu, Jack Larson, Noel Neill, James Karen

Plot: Picking up where the 1980 Superman II left off (and wisely ignoring Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace), this film opens five years after scientists pinpointed Krypton in space, and Superman left Earth to examine the remains of his dead planet. Back on Earth, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacy) is claiming a vast fortune pulling a scam on a dying woman (the original filmic Lois Lane, Noel Neill, in a cameo). On his yacht, Lex tells his new girlfriend Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) his plan – to find and raid the arctic fortress Superman left behind for the crystal technology that ran Krypton.

In Kansas, Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint) sees a startlingly familiar sight: a spacecraft landing on her property. She finds her long-missing son, Clark (Brandon Routh), exhausted from his return to Earth from Krypton. In the morning, rested, he tells his mother all he found of Krypton was a graveyard. Returning to Metropolis and the Daily Planet, he reunites with Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and Perry White (Frank Langella), but Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is out of the office, covering the launch of a new experimental spacecraft. Examining her desk he sees she’s moved on in his absence, winning a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial explaining why the world doesn’t need Superman, getting engaged to Perry White’s nephew Richard (James Marsden), and having a son named Jason (Tristan Lake Lebu).

Luthor demonstrates his plan to his henchmen, using the Kryptonian crystal technology to create a new land mass. The experiment causes an electrical pulse that shuts down power across the country, including the tandem space shuttle/Boeing Lois is on board for the launch. The news reports on the damage to the twin aircraft, and Clark springs into action. Superman, making his first appearance on Earth in years, saves the two vessels and everyone on board, and the world cheers his return.

Back at the Planet, Perry and Lois bicker over their coverage, with Lois wanting to write about the blackout and Perry wanting to focus on Superman’s return. Lois is glad to have Clark back, but he soon realizes she’s carrying a deep anger towards Superman for leaving without saying goodbye. Superman glances in on the family that night, where he hears Richard ask Lois if she was ever in love with Superman, a notion she denies. When he speaks to her later on the rooftop of the Planet, she pointedly tells him the world doesn’t need a savior, and neither does she.

Luthor has Kitty stage a car accident to distract Superman while he breaks into a museum to steal a chunk of Kryptonite. As he plans, Lois tracks down the source of the blackout to Luthor’s yacht and, with Jason in tow, is captured. Luthor explains his plot – to create a new continent of his own that will engulf most of the United States, and he’s got the Kryptonite to back it up. When Jason has a reaction to the Kryptonite, Luthor asks Lois just who the boy’s father really is. Combining the Kryptonite with a crystal stolen from the Fortress, Luthor begins growing his new continent off the coast of Metropolis.

Lois sends the coordinates of the yacht to the Planet office, where Perry, Richard, and Clark are searching for her. When she’s caught by one of Luthor’s thugs he threatens her, only to be flattened when the wheezing, asthmatic Jason hurls a piano into him. Her fax makes it through and Clark and Richard (in his seaplane) both fly to her rescue. As they do, the growing continent sends out an earthquake that hits Metropolis. With Superman trying to minimize the damage to the city, Richard reaches Luthor’s yacht first, but a tidal wave takes it down. Superman pulls it above water and sends Lois and Jason off with Richard while he goes to Lex’s new landmass to face him, unaware of the Kryptonite in its makeup.

Luthor begins beating the weakened Superman and Lois begs Richard to turn back so they can help him. They find him stabbed by a Kryptonite crystal. Pulling the Kryptonite from his side, Superman dives beneath the ocean, ripping the growing landmass from the water, and hurling it into space. He crashes to Earth, nearly dead. As he recovers in a hospital, Lois and Jason visit him and she whispers something in his ear. When he recovers, he again goes to Lois’s house, looks in on Jason, and remembers his father Jor-El’s long-ago words to him… how the son becomes the father, and the father, the son. He promises Lois he’ll always be around, and flies once more into the sky, to gaze down on the Earth from above.

Thoughts: I know I’ll catch crap for this, but I’ve always felt Superman Returns was unfairly maligned by a lot of people. It’s not a perfect film, by any stretch, but neither is it as bad as so many make it out to be. After so many years without a Superman film, watching other superheroes populate cinemas, the opening sequence of this movie was just what we needed: a fantastic tribute and update to the Richard Donner/John Williams sequence from 1978.

The biggest problem with this movie overall, I think, is that it’s somewhat too faithful, too reverent to the Christopher Reeve films. Lex Luthor’s plot, just like in 1978, is essentially a massive, very deadly real estate scam. Marlon Brando is brought back to reprise the role of Jor-El despite the inconvenience of being dead. (They used archive footage shot for Superman II but unseen in the theatrical cut. Quick aside here – in 2006 Warner Bros released Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut to DVD. If you can find it, watch it. It solves virtually every problem with the original cut, and probably could have been a masterpiece if producer Alexander Salkind and Richard Donner hadn’t had a falling-out.) They brought back Noel Neill and her Adventures of Superman TV Jimmy Olsen, Jack Larson, for cameos. Composer John Ottman makes liberal use of the John Williams score, and even that opening sequence spins through space just like the original, but with flashier effects.

This is the good stuff, but the screenwriters and director also brought with them limitations that shouldn’t have existed anymore. In the 70s and 80s, before special effects technology could give us dinosaurs that we believed were real and outer space battles that could match any real aerial combat, the Christopher Reeve Superman was limited in how physical he could get with his opponents. His most intense battle in four films was that with the three Kryptonian criminals in Superman II, and while that Battle of Metropolis is impressive by the standards of the time, it doesn’t deliver the sort of Red Bull-charged action modern audiences demand. Most of the Reeve’s Superman’s feats were of the rescue variety, without a lot of actual violence, because what human foe could possibly stand up to the Man of Steel in a physical confrontation?

Here, once again, we see Superman battling a human foe, dealing with Kryptonite (a crapload of Kryptonite, to be certain), and not getting particularly physical except for a few moments when the filmmakers deliberately tried to show off the special effects, such as the scene where a bullet bounces off Superman’s eye. Like Reeve, Superman uses his powers far more for disaster relief than for combat. The really startling thing is that this came from director Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men movies, which were both full of action and a lot of fun to watch. (When he chose to do this movie instead of the third X-Men, 20th Century Fox rushed it into production with director Brett Ratner, and the film was an unmitigated disaster. Singer returned to the X-Men to produce 2011’s X-Men: First Class, which to date is the best film in that franchise and one of my favorite superhero movies in general.)

That said, in those moments where the film makes the most of these techniques, it does it well. The scene where Superman rescues the airplane (itself a bit of a nod to the 1986 John Byrne Man of Steel comic book) is as visually exciting and thrilling as anything I’ve ever seen on screen. His efforts to stop the destruction of Metropolis are exciting and visually satisfying. If the rest of the film had the energy and power as those sequences, there would be nothing to complain about at all. Even the airplane scene, though, ends with a nod backwards – Routh cribs Reeve’s line about flying being, statistically, the safest way to travel.

Let’s talk about Routh, now. Of all the ways I think this film got a raw deal, Routh got it worst. His performances as Clark Kent and Superman were both really good. As with everything great about the film, though, the greatness comes through imitation. Routh does the best impression of Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent and Superman duet any actor possibly could, imitating his voice, his tone, his mannerisms, his speech patterns. It’s an impressive performance, but it’s not really his own. The same goes for Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor – he’s doing a Gene Hackman impression. It’s a very good Gene Hackman impression, with the sort of manic energy that would swing from subtle moments of frustration to wild anger with lots of solid humorous moments in-between, but it’s an impression nonetheless.

The only major performer not doing an impression is, ironically, also the worst thing about this movie: Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. While Routh and Spacey drew on Reeve and Hackman, Bosworth has none of the fire or spark that Margot Kidder brought to Lois Lane, and as those are her two most defining characteristics, we’re left with a bland and lifeless performance. Neill and Kidder both gave us Loises that felt like a real match for Superman, a brave, witty, intellectual equal who lived up to being a love interest for the world’s greatest hero. Bosworth simply never feels worthy of the role, and she and Routh have no chemistry together whatsoever. Kidder’s Lois was a joy to watch, even when she was just sitting around the Planet office asking for orange juice (“freshly squeezed”). Every moment Bosworth is on the screen, I’m just waiting for the scene to end so we can move on to something interesting.

Plotwise, Jason is another issue that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The fact that Clark left a son behind when he left Earth inspired a lot of “deadbeat dad” jokes that aren’t really fair – you can’t blame a man for not taking care of a son he didn’t know existed. (That doesn’t quite excuse the scene where he spies on her at home, mind you.) That said, we’re now being asked to accept that human and Kryptonian DNA could mingle and create a half-breed. I suppose we can accept that, if we can accept a world where a journey from a red sun to a yellow one allows a person to fly… but if that’s the case, why is Jason so frail and sickly until the plot demands otherwise? The idea here is clear – Singer and the screenwriters wanted to employ the unused Marlon Brando “son becomes the father, father becomes the son” speech from Superman II, and they wanted to do that by giving Superman a child and removing from him the weight of being the literal “last son of Krypton.” That didn’t come across, though. In practice, Jason just weighed him down more, and probably would have been even more difficult to deal with had they ever moved forward with a sequel.

In my opinion, the good in this film outweighs the bad, but it suffers mainly from not being what people wanted out of the franchise at the time. It would be another seven years before a new movie would try to resurrect Superman again, this time deliberately starting from scratch and doing away with the trappings of Donner, Williams, and Reeve. Just last week, Man of Steel hit theaters. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll tell you how well it succeeds.

At the time I write this, I still haven’t seen Man of Steel yet (although I will have by the time you read it), so I’m as excited as anyone to see just how it all turns out.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Lunatics and Laughter Day 17: Slither (2006)

slitherDirector: James Gunn

Writer: James Gunn

Cast: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Don Thompson, Gregg Henry, Tania Saulnier, Haig Sutherland, Jennifer Copping, Brenda James, Jenna Fisher, Lloyd Kaufman

Plot: Thesmall town of Wheelsy, South Carolina is in danger. A meteor has fallen to Earth. Local car dealer Grant Grant (Michael Rooker)’s relationship with his wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) hasn’t been great lately, and he’s in the woods with a woman he picked up in a bar (Brenda James, as Brenda) when they come upon the meteor. A parasite infests Grant’s body, and the next day, he begins stocking up on meat. Starla returns home to find a lock on the basement. Grant is changing – odd sores appearing on his body, and intense discomfort in his abdomen. A pair of fleshy tendrils sprout from his chest and almost reach for Starla, but he makes up an excuse about leaving something at work and flees. He goes to Brenda’s home and abducts her.

Starla, meanwhile, reconnects with Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), a childhood sweetheart who never stopped carrying a torch for her. At home she finds Grant covered in bumps and sores. He claims it’s just a bee sting and the doctor has already treated him. She calls the doctor the next day, though, and he denies having seen Grant. Grant, meanwhile, has chained Brenda in a barn in the woods, and is bringing her huge bags of meat. Her stomach has become grotesquely distended, and she is ravenous. Bill and his deputy Wally (Don Thompson) pay Starla a visit. Brenda has been reported missing, and the neighbors saw Grant enter her house. Scared, Starla breaks the lock off the basement door to find a grotesque, flyblown nest full of animal corpses. Grant attacks her, but Bill and the cops return just in time to see his mutated form as he runs away.

Three days later Mayor Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry) is up in arms. Although he doesn’t believe reports that Grant has turned into a monster, he does believe he’s behind Brenda’s kidnapping and the rash of animal slayings that has sent the town into a frenzy. Bill rounds up a posse to stake out the next farm in Grant’s attack pattern, and Starla asks to come with him. Grant has mutated further, turning into a horrible, fleshy mass covered with tentacles, and the horrified police watch as he slays and consumes one of the farmer’s cows. Starla tries to reason with him, but when a deputy tries to play hardball, Grant kills the man and flees into the woods. They track him to the barn and find Brenda, now transformed into an enormous, pulsating blob. She explodes into a torrent of sluglike creatures that attack the cops, slithering into their mouths. Billy, Starla and a few others escape by covering their mouths until the slugs are gone, but most of the cops are down – alive, but comatose. The slugs converge on the farmhouse, where one attacks the farmer’s daughter Kylie (Tania Saulnier). Although it makes it into her mouth, she digs her fingernails in and yanks it out – but not before she has visions of its horrific alien homeworld. When she stumbles from the bathroom, she finds her parents and sisters have been taken by the hundreds of slugs overwhelming the house. She locks herself in her father’s truck as the slugs swarm over it.

Back at the barn Bill calls for help and tries to get the fallen cops outside. Wally wakes up and begins talking to Starla, saying he’s sorry and that he didn’t tell her because he was afraid she wouldn’t love him anymore. As the rest of the posse stands, it becomes clear Grant’s mind is controlling them all. Starla shoot Wally and rest of the Grant-zombies give chase. Back at the truck, the slugs have slithered away, but Kylie’s blood-soaked family is now trying to get to her. Bill saves her, but a horde of zombiefied people from nearby homes attack. Starla and MacReady run by, pursued by the zombies, and Starla slays another. The four survivors climb into Bill’s car and flee, while the zombies they leave behind cry Starla’s name.

Kylie explains what she saw when the slug attacked her – a creature that moves from planet to planet, consuming everything and turning what it doesn’t eat into part of its hive-mind. Bill calls his dispatch officer Shelby (Jenna Fischer) and tells her to call the CDC, but the slugs burst into the office before she has a chance. Instead, Shelby sends a zombie in a van to collide with Bill’s car. A horde of the zombies kidnap Starla. Bill and Kylie hide while one of the zombies gets MacReady. The zombies bring Starla and MacReady back to Grant’s house, and the thing that used to be Grant puts on some romantic music for a night at home with the wife. She approaches him as he continues to absorb the zombies into his own mass. She finds him in a twisted shrine to their marriage, surrounded by pictures of the two of them. She attacks as Bill and Kylie arrive, but Bill misses with his grenade. The creature stabs Bill, but he manages to get a tentacle jammed into a propane tank. Starla grabs Bill’s gun and shoots Grant, igniting the gas. As he dies, everyone taken by the slugs collapses. Bill, Starla and Kylie stumble out into the rising sun, surrounded by the bodies of the zombies, and begin to go down the road, planning to walk to the hospital in the next town.

Thoughts: If Eight Legged Freaks was a love letter to 50s-era giant animal monster movies, Slither is a tribute to that time period’s other great fear: alien zombies. Of course, the zombies of that time aren’t zombies as we know them today (that was largely a creation of George Romero in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead – virtually all zombie movies since have taken their cues from Romero). At the time, pretty much anything that turned ordinary people into mindless beasts or, even better, part of an alien hive-mind, could qualify. Slither fits in well with that brand of horror film.

It’s most certainly a Type-A horror/comedy, though. In terms of sheer gore, this movie far outstrips anything we’ve yet watched in this project. James Gunn (writer of the Scooby Doo films and the Dawn of the Dead remake, here making his directorial debut) is a product of Troma Studios, and it shows with horrific monster designs, highly realistic animals, and garbage bags full of blood and offal. Gunn pays his dividends to his alma mater in this movie. Not only is the story like something ripped right from a Troma film (albeit with a less campy tone and much better production values), but he works in a cameo by Lloyd Kaufman as a town drunk and even throws in a clip from The Toxic Avenger on Brenda’s TV screen. That’s only the obvious stuff, though. Less obvious, but still undeniably Tromantic, are some of the monster scenes. When Grant infects Brenda, for instance, the scene is surprisingly brutal, but shot in many ways like a sex scene, right down to the rhythmic gyrations one would expect at such a moment. It’s the sort of thing that’s either wildly funny or horribly disturbing depending on how you want to look at it. The part where Bill grapples with a zombie deer? Well, that’s just funny any way you cut it.

The true expression of how warped Gunn’s sensibilities are (and I mean this as a compliment) is the finale. Grant – now a truly hideous creature – has Starla trapped in the house while dozens of zombies walk around calling her name and pounding on the walls, all to the dulcet tones of Air Supply’s “Every Woman in the World.” The disconnect between the music and what we’re watching on the screen is jolting, funny, and terrifying all at the same time. There’s a bit of genius there too – when Starla begins talking to Grant about how long he’s been alone, it takes you just a moment to realize she’s not really talking to him, she’s talking to the alien. It’s really well-scripted and well-acted, and all the blood and gore is just a bonus.

Grant Grant actually manages to transcend his stereotype a bit. He’s the big lummox, the sort of guy you expect to turn into the threat in these situations, but it’s worth noting that before the alien takes over his body he actually turns down the chance to cheat on his wife. That’s not something most characters of his type would do. Even after the parasite takes him, we see him try to resist. There’s real pain in his eyes when Starla looks at him covered in the bumps and sores, when he realizes she’s starting to see the monster inside him. He even protects Starla when the monster wants to go after her in the shower, and although he quickly finds an alternate victim, it’s hard to argue that his love for his wife isn’t genuine.

If anyone fits into the dumb beefcake archetype, it’s Mayor MacReady (a nice nod to another of Gunn’s obvious influences, John Carpenter’s The Thing). He’s rude, crass, and uses his obnoxious personality to cover a streak of cowardice. When Bill shoots him in the head after his transformation, it’s the sort of horror movie kill that makes the audience cheer with approval. He does, however, get some of the film’s best lines – lots of tasteless jokes and panicked exclamations (he’s never seen anything like this, and he watches Animal Planet all the time).

Fans of Firefly have long known Nathan Fillion has leading man quality, and this film helps get that across. He’s got a heroic, self-sacrificing nature, not quite as bold or bombastic as the characters he usually plays. When he drops a one-liner (and he does, frequently), it’s more likely to be dry and a little self-deprecating than any kind of braggadocio. The scene in the car, when he nervously tries to explain to Starla how he’s responsible for stopping up his mother’s toilet and then gets into an argument with MacReady over the definition of “Martian,” is one of the best bits of writing I’ve seen in one of these movies.

Besides MacReady’s name, Gunn continues the now well-worn tradition of peppering the film with references to other horror stories. The scene where the slug attacks Kylie in the bathtub is very reminiscent of Freddy Krueger’s attack on Nancy in the first Friday the 13th for instance, with other scenes calling to mind great bits from Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead, and dozens of other films. Even Kylie’s little sisters are caught reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books before they turn into monsters themselves.

Like Eight Legged Freaks, the downfall of this movie comes in the CGI. Four years later than the other film, the technology has improved. Individual slugs actually look fairly convincing. But when you see an entire swarm of the slugs, the visuals start to break down. The worst bit is actually the first time you’re sure you’re looking at computer effects, when Brenda explodes and the slugs rush out in a wave. It looks very much like a 90s video game at that point. Although the rest of the movie looks better, that one moment tends to taint your perception.

Both Gunn and Fillion have gone on to bigger projects in years past, with it recently announced that Gunn would helm Marvel Studios’ upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Although we probably can’t expect the level of guts and gore he gave us in Slither, this movie really shows without a doubt that he’s got a powerful, unique visual style and a good eye for creatures and practical effects. If he can polish off the CGI, that movie is going to look fantastic. Hopefully though, he won’t stay in that relatively safe realm of sci-fi for too long, because this movie proves very neatly he’s got great chops for horror.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 16: Behind the Mask-The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

behind-the-maskDirector: Scott Glosserman

Writers: Scott Glosserman & David J. Stieve

Cast: Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Robert Englund, Scott Wilson, Zelda Rubinstein, Bridgett Newton, Ben Pace, Britain Spellings, Kate Lang Johnson

Plot: Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), a journalism grad student, has found the perfect subject for her student film. Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) was a child possessed by a terrible evil and murdered by an unruly mob years ago. Now, he has risen from the grave to terrorize the town of Glen Echo, Maryland. At least, that’s the story. Vernon, very much alive, has grown up idolizing the likes of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers, and today he’s working to join their ranks. He’s allowing Taylor and her camera crew to film him in the process of becoming the next great slasher killer. Leslie leads Taylor and her crew members, Doug and Todd (Ben Pace and Britain Spellings) to the old house where he lived before his “death.” Teenagers sneak out to the house every year on the anniversary of his demise, and this year, Leslie is planning to return.

But that’s a month away, there’s still a lot of work to do to prepare his “survivor girl’ – the one person he’s going to attack that’s going to survive to carry on his legend. Leslie stakes out waitress Kelly Curtis (Kate Lang Johnson). He waits for her to dump the garbage from the diner and sets up a quick scare for her. The burst of adrenaline from shocking Kelly goes throughout Taylor and the crew, and they and Leslie begin to bond. The crew visits Leslie’s friends Eugene and Jaime (Scott Wilson and Bridgett Newton). Eugene is a retired killer who has been a mentor to Leslie, Jamie his supportive wife. Eugene advises Leslie to make his preliminary strike against someone only loosely connected to Kelly, and he chooses a librarian (Zelda Rubinstein). He plants a fake newspaper article for Kelly to find implying a “great uncle” she never knew about raped Leslie’s mother, thus creating a connection between himself and his target, then waits for her to find it. After the librarian “explains” the article he slays her, but instead of chasing Kelly as intended, he’s interrupted by the sudden appearance of Doc Halloran (Robert Englund). Leslie is ecstatic: he has an “Ahab,” a good person who knows the killer and will stop at nothing to defend the innocent.

Despite Leslie’s insistence that they stay away from Kelly, Taylor visits her diner. Halloran is there, and he warns them that Leslie is not who he claims to be, that he’s from Nevada and is using a fake name. When Kelly approaches, nervous, Taylor and Todd flee. When they return to Leslie he’s enraged, shoving her into their van, but he calms down and promises to tell her everything she needs to know. He confesses he’s not Molly Vernon’s son, just using her name to build his legend, and that he understands if Taylor wants to leave. Reluctantly, she decides to see it through.

He takes her back to the Vernon farm to show her his preparations to the house, barn, apple orchard and mill. He’s made it easy to cut the power, put dead batteries in the flashlights, sabotaged the available weapons, set up rooms to be open to teens having sex and other places to make it easy to dispose bodies… it’s all about narrowing it down to just him and Kelly for a final confrontation. When the teenagers arrive, he even swipes a sparkplug from their car.

When a pair of Kelly’s friends begin having sex, Leslie starts his killing. Taylor and the film crew are suddenly unnerved, realizing how real the situation has become, and Leslie ushers them outside. He goodbye to them, knowing that at the end of the night he’ll be hiding, locked up, or dead anyway. Todd and Doug are ready to leave, but Taylor finds herself unable to stand aside and allow the killing spree to continue. They go into the house to warn Kelly and the others and, to their shock, find the “virginal” Kelly having rambunctious sex. Taylor is unable to understand why Kelly is behaving like just another victim instead of a Survivor Girl. With the teens’ cars sabotaged they rush to Taylor’s van, finding two bodies and an engine that doesn’t work. Taylor tries to urge Kelly to become the heroine Leslie wants him to be, but instead, she turns out to be the next victim. He chases the rest to the barn, killing Todd on the way, and Taylor realizes that Leslie had planned everything from the beginning. Kelly was never supposed to be the real Survivor Girl. Taylor was.

Halloran arrives, but neither he nor Doug – who confesses his love for Taylor – can stop Leslie. Soon he and Taylor are all that remain, racing through the apple orchard and playing out the final confrontation as planned. They arrive at the apple mill, where Taylor knows Leslie has planned the last showdown. Taylor traps him in the apple press and, with his head clamped down, he removes his mask and whispers to Taylor that he knew she was the one. With one final crank of the press, she crushes his head, then sets the mill on fire, weeping. She finds Doug and Halloran, still alive, and they watch the mill burn.

As the credits roll, Leslie’s charred remains are rolled into a police morgue. We watch and listen to his whispering voice. Just as the film ends, he sits up on the slab behind a hapless scrub. Just like the monsters he so idolizes, Leslie Vernon will rise again.

Thoughts: Although not as well-known as most of the other movies in this project, there was never any doubt for me that I would include it. I really don’t remember how I first discovered this little movie a few years back, but it instantly became one of my favorites. Like Shaun of the Dead, it’s ripe with meta-commentary on horror movies. Like Eight Legged Freaks, it manages to parody the genre it loves. But unlike either of these, it twists the entire world of the movie on its ear for a fantastic final act.

During the buildup, the movie comes across as a typical mockumentary. Leslie gives talking head interviews, Taylor follows him in his preparation and asks dozens of questions, and you quickly find yourself as charmed by Leslie as Taylor is. By all appearances, Leslie is a very warm, friendly, congenial young man. He shows great care for his pet turtles and is intensely proud of his enormous library, which is loaded with medical journals and books about escape artists and illusionists. He reminds me of a more gregarious Norman Bates – at the beginning of Psycho Anthony Perkins feels like a really nice (if somewhat browbeaten) sort of guy. Leslie has that same quality, with the added bonus of being funny and entertaining to boot. When the film turns later on and we realize that Taylor and her crew are, in fact, his targets, the effect is shocking. Leslie is a remorseless murderer. The entire movie is about following him as he plans his murders. And yet, when he suddenly starts murdering our heroes, we are shocked and horrified, as if there was no way we could have seen this coming. There’s a brilliance here that is almost impossible to quantify.

Eugene is a very good addition to the cast, allowing the (real) filmmakers to put out commentary on the state of horror movies and of fear itself. The sort of things he says actually make a lot of sense if you filter them through a real-world prism and consider the words as film criticism instead of the actual words of a killer. He comes across as a pretty typical character type – the old pro who’s upset because things just aren’t as good as they used to be. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s talking about cold-blooded murder, he’d be like somebody’s grumpy old uncle.

If you want more horror movie commentary, the extended sequence where Leslie describes the way the killing spree is supposed to go down is going to delight you to no end. Leslie taps into every psychological theory and trope used in the construction of horror movies, pounding home things like imagery, the importance of gender roles in the weapons used and in the Survivor Girl’s metamorphosis into a heroine, and probably a dozen other things I’m forgetting, even though I’m literally typing this paragraph while watching the scene. There’s just too much for me to keep in my head. Glosserman and Stieve could teach a graduate class in the psychology of horror.

A lot of the more lighthearted stuff doesn’t even come from the story or the characters, but from little Easter Eggs the filmmakers throw in for those who know where to look. The references to Freddy, Jason and Michael are obvious, and Robert Englund’s sizable role is a lot of fun. But people wondering where they’ve seen the librarian before would do well to check out Zelda Rubinstein in Poltergeist, and most people won’t even realize the Elm Street resident Taylor tries to talk to is Kane Hodder, the man who played Jason Voorhees more times than any other. Other things, smaller things, litter the background of the film, all of them there to make you laugh if you know where to look.

There are nice tricks on the technical side of the movie as well. Whenever we see one of Leslie’s “attacks,” we switch from the videotaped “mockumentary” style to a more traditional film stock, complete with a musical score, coverage, and all of the other techniques common to movies that don’t fit into the “found footage” subgenre. The “real” scenes grow progressively longer, until the finale, when the movie drops the comedy and the commentary and turns into a straight-up horror movie, with Leslie hunting down Taylor, the true survivor girl.

Towards the end of the film, things begin spiraling through a litany of emotions. Jamie reveals that she was once Eugene’s Survivor Girl, which makes you ask a dozen questions about how the hell she ended up married to him. Taylor and Leslie have a soft, somewhat disturbing conversation as he puts on his makeup and prepares for the evening, and the way he begins sobbing, claiming to be happy at the sudden culmination of his life’s work… it’s eerie. Even now, though, even though we’ve already seen him kill one person for real and watched his plans to kill a dozen more, there’s an unnerving humanity to him that feels somehow honest and wrong at the same time.

I’m also a fan of the visuals of the movie. The “real” segments are high-quality and well-shot, and I love the design of Leslie’s costume and mask. He’s the sort of character that kids should be dressing up as for Halloween every year – creepy mask, shredded clothes, an easy prop weapon to lug around with him… Well, maybe if the sequel ever gets made.

Sadly, the Kickstarter campaign to fund the already-scripted prequel/sequel didn’t succeed, and plans are currently in limbo. The filmmakers and cast – including Robert Englund – are all willing to return to the world of Leslie Vernon, and so is the small but dedicated fan base. So perhaps you’ll allow me to play advocate for a moment. If you’ve read this far into Lunatics and Laughter, I’m willing to bet this is exactly the kind of movie you’d be into. Unfortunately, you also probably never saw it. Do yourself a favor and hunt down the DVD or call it down from NetFlix. It’s a great movie that has everything you love about horror in a unique, incredibly entertaining package. Join us in Leslie’s legion, and help us bring Before the Mask: The Return of Leslie Vernon to life.