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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!

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Lunatics and Laughter Day 18: Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

trick-r-treattDirector: Michael Dougherty

Writer: Michael Dougherty

Cast: Dylan Baker, Rochelle Aytes, Quinn Lord, Lauren Lee Smith, Moneca Delain, Tahmoh Penikett, Brett Kelly, Britt McKillip, Isabelle Deluce, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Alberto Ghisi, Samm Todd, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Leslie Bibb, Connor Christopher Levins, James Willson

Plot: (Note: Trick ‘r Treat is a movie in the Robert Altman tradition – not just an anthology film, but a film in which multiple plotlines tend to weave in and out of one another. Although I’ll attempt to give as straightforward a synopsis as possible, it may be best if you just watch the movie. Come to think of it, just watch the movie anyway. It rocks.)

On Halloween night, Emma (Leslie Bibb) and Henry (Tahmoh Penikett) return home after a party. Despite Henry’s objections, Emma blows out the candle in their Jack O’Lantern and begins taking down their decorations, even as kids on the street continue trick-or-treating. Something leaps out at her, covered in a sheet, and slashes her throat open with a pumpkin-shaped lollipop sharpened into a blade. Henry comes outside later to find her head severed and limbs dismembered, dangling from a scarecrow, the lollipop stuffed in her mouth.

Earlier that evening, elsewhere in town, the streets of Warren Valley, Ohio are loaded with partiers and revelers – this is a town that takes Halloween seriously. But not everyone is ready yet. Laurie (Anna Paquin) and her friends are at the local costume shop, trying to find last-minute outfits. Laurie is reluctant to join the fun, but her sister Danielle (Lauren Lee Smith) insists. Laurie selects a Red Riding Hood costume. As they check out, Danielle invites the sales clerk to join them at a party they’re going to in the woods. After the others chide Laurie for being a virgin at 22, Laurie abandons her friends, saying she’ll meet them at the party later. She’s decided she wants to find “her guy” herself.

Elsewhere, a young boy named Charlie (Brett Kelly) marches down a street, knocking over pumpkins as he goes. He approaches the home of his school principal, Mr. Wilkins (Dylan Baker), who catches him stealing candy. As he carves a new Jack O’Lantern, he gives Charlie a lecture about respecting the dead and the traditions of the past no one cares about anymore. Charlie begin throwing up blood. Wilkins gleefully confesses that he poisoned the candy, and Charlie dies. He takes the body into the house, but is interrupted by trick-or-treaters. As he gives them candy, one of the kids asks if they could have his Jack O’Lantern for a scavenger hunt. He drags Charlie to his backyard, dumping the body into a hole where another body already waits. While working, his son Billy (Connor Christopher Levins) loudly yells for him from the window. His next interruption is the neighbor’s dog, which he distracts by throwing one of Charlie’s fingers to him… but his neighbor Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox) comes out. As Wilkins hides in the grave, the second body squeals, not quite dead. He gives Kreeg a story about his septic tank being backed up, sending him back inside. Billy pops out again, begging to go with Wilkins to the Halloween party, but Wilkins says he can’t, he has a date. He finally manages to get the bodies buried. When he walks inside, Kreeg shrieks at him from the window, but Wilkins ignores him, and we see someone attack Kreeg. Inside, Wilkins and Billy sit down to carve their Jack O’Lantern… Charlie’s severed head. Billy sweetly tells his daddy to help him with the eyes.

The trick-or-treaters who took Wilkins’s pumpkin meet up with some other friends who’ve been gathering pumpkins. Macy (Britt McKillip) says they need more, so they visit “idiot savant” Rhonda (Samm Todd), who has carved dozens. Schrader (Jean-Luc Bilodeau) charms Rhonda into joining them. They make their way to a quarry where, according to the legend Macy tells them, 30 years ago a school bus full of mentally challenged students were taken instead. The children’s parents – exhausted and embarrassed– asked him to do “the unthinkable.” As he passes out candy and checks the chains on the students, one of them gets free and starts the bus, sending it into the lake at the bottom of the quarry. Only the driver survivs, and no one knows what happened to him. Finishing the story, Macy says they’re going to leave the Jack O’Lanterns by the lake. They manage to activate the old quarry elevator, taking Macy, Schrader and Sara (Isabelle Deluce) to the bottom. Macy says she’ll send the elevator back up for Rhonda and Chip (Alberto Ghisi).

Back at the Halloween party, a hooded figure in black kisses a girl in an alley. He bites her with a pair of fangs, drinking her blood. She flees into the streets, running into Emma and Henry and begging for help, but they think she’s just drunk. The hooded man returns, finishing her off. Laurie, meanwhile, is having no luck finding a suitable single man – until she sees the man in the hood.

At the quarry, Rhonda hears a howling in the distance and declares it to be werewolves. She and Chip take the elevator down, hearing their friends shouting for help as they come down. When they reach the bottom, the others are nowhere to be found. Rhonda leaves the frightened Chip behind and seeks the others, finding the half-submerged school bus in the lake, along with shredded and bloody remains of the other kids’ costumes. A pair of creatures emerge from the slime, and she runs. She falls into the lake, hitting her head, and the attackers reveal themselves to be Schrader, Macy and Sara – the whole thing was a cruel prank. Schrader tries to apologize, but Macy seems more irritated that their trick is over. Packing up, Macy kicks the last lit Jack O’Lantern into the lake, and voices begin to come from the water. The children from the bus crawl from the lake, pursuing the pranksters. They get back to the elevator, where Rhonda sits with her Jack O’Lanterns. The dead children approach, and Rhonda turns the elevator on, leaving her tormentors behind, screaming.

Laurie walks through the woods to her party alone, afraid she’s being pursued, until she encounters the hooded man. Danielle, at the party, is nervous for the sister her mother always called “the runt of the litter.” As she waits, a body in a Red Riding Hood cloak falls from the trees. Danielle lifts the cape to reveal the hooded man, begging for help. Laurie suddenly steps out of the trees, casually, albeit with a little blood on her. Danielle admonishes her for being late, and one of the other girls, Maria (Rochelle Aytes) removes fake fangs from the Hooded Man’s mouth. She removes his mask to reveal Principal Wilkins. She smiles, saying she’s glad he’ll be Laurie’s first. Laurie admits to Danielle that she’s nervous, and her big sister tells her to just be herself. She walks to Wilkins, sits on his chest, and transforms into a werewolf, opening her mouth wide for her first kill.

Earlier (again), a group of trick-or-treaters visits Mr. Kreeg’s house. He scares them off, taking the candy they left behind, and desperately tries to find something on television that isn’t about Halloween. He’s alerted to an intruder when his gate begins creaking, and someone begins pelting his window with eggs. He steps into the backyard, where his dog is nibbling on something and, over his fence, his neighbor is digging a hole. While they chtalkat, someone watches him from the bushes.  Kreeg sees a figure running through his house – a small child in orange pajamas with a burlap sack for a mask (Quinn Lord). (“Sam,” as he’s called, has turned up several times throughout the film, watching our stories.) Kreeg goes to his bedroom, where a burning pumpkin reveals “Trick or Treat, give me something good to eat” written on the walls and ceiling, over and over again, in blood. Sam slashes his ankle with a knife hidden in a candy bar. Kreeg runs for help, slipping on candy and broken glass that sends him tumbling down the stairs. He goes to the window and begs Wilkins for help, but his neighbor ignores him and Sam leaps again. Kreeg  rips off Sam’s mask, revealing a horrible pumpkin-like head. Sam finally gets the upper hand on Kreeg, approaching him with a sharpened pumpkin lollipop… but instead of stabbing him, he takes the candy Kreeg stole earlier. As Sam leaves, we see in Kreeg’s fire a burning photograph… years before, when he was a bus driver, at a home for mentally challenged children.

Later that night Kreeg, wounded and heavily bandaged, gives candy to a group of trick-or-treaters who come to his door. As he looks around the street he sees Billy Wilkins, bloody, handing out candy, Rhonda coming home with a wagon of pumpkins, Laurie and her friends driving by and giggling… and Sam, on the sidewalk, watching him. Across the street, Emma and Henry arrive at home, Henry admonishing her not to blow out the candle in their pumpkin. When she does it anyway, Sam looks down at his sharpened lollipop and walks towards their home. Kreeg drags himself back inside, but there’s one last knock on the door. The dead children from the quarry are back… and they want their candy.

Thoughts: Trick ‘r Treat is one of those movies that sat on a shelf for a few years, scoring only a limited theatrical release before coming to DVD. As such, many people dismissed it – straight-to-DVD movies have a rather negative reputation, you may have heard. But when I finally got a chance to watch the movie I realized that, not only was this a cut above most DVD-first fare, it was actually one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in a very long time.

Writer/director Michael Dougherty’s film puts its inspiration on display in the opening credits, which are structured to resemble old-fashioned horror comics of the Tales From the Crypt variety (inspiration for the TV show and movies, the Creepshow series, and countless other contemporary horrormeisters). He displays his four tales (and pieces of others) as part of a single night of insane terror across a little town, connecting them in subtle ways and using the audience’s own expectations of horror movies against it. The effect is a movie that makes you chuckle, jump, and scream, all the while giving you a brand-new horror icon that really could stand right up there with the Freddies and Jasons of the world.

The movie isn’t quite a gag-laden comedy the way a lot of the other movies in this project have been. In fact, someone unfamiliar with horror movie tropes may not find much to laugh about at all. The laughter almost always comes in when you realize the direction the story is going is not at all what you expected. In the principal’s story, for instance, Dougherty shows us early that Wilkins has no qualms about murdering a child, and when he begins showing clear frustration at Billy, we’re certain that either Billy will die or Wilkins will get some sort of cosmic comeuppance at the hands of his son. In virtually any other horror movie, in fact, that’s exactly what would happen. The end of the scene, where they tenderly begin to carve Charlie’s mutilated head up together, works brilliantly against everything a normal horror movie does, while delivering a powerful kick to close off that story (for the moment, at least).

Even more brilliant, perhaps, is the twist at the end of Laurie’s story. Dougherty sets her up perfectly as the sweet, innocent, virginal “survivor girl,” even making it seem as though she’s going to be pitted against a vampire for her grand moment of triumph. He nails us with two reversals here – first, making her the killer instead of the victim, and second, pulling a werewolf out of nowhere to close it off. Well… almost nowhere. Rhonda, earlier, did claim she heard werewolves in the woods, something that is easy to blow off the first time you watch the movie but that seems like a brilliant bit of foreshadowing on the second viewing.

Those little connected moments, by the way, also work brilliantly to make this a strong, cohesive film. Each of the four main stories could be chopped out of the anthology and shown as individual short films, and each would feel more or less complete. The connections, though, make things a lot more fun and help us connect the characters to one another and keep track, mentally, of the timeline. The movie doesn’t jump around quite as much as, say, Pulp Fiction, but it does jump.

The good thing is that the nonlinear nature of the story helps with the playfulness of the plot. When Sam kills Emma at the beginning, it seems sort of random. Okay, so she didn’t like Halloween, but surely that isn’t enough to deserve a death sentence. The callous way Henry blows off the girl who died at the party – which happened earlier but which we see later – helps bring things around to Emma getting what (in a twisted scary movie sort of way) she had coming to her. Mr. Kreeg’s story also benefits tremendously from this technique. Chronologically speaking, Sam attacks him long before we hear the story at the quarry, but had the film been shown in that order, the burning photograph would have been meaningless. We would have picked up the meaning later, but it would have robbed the story at the quarry of much of the impact. What’s more, when the dead children drag themselves out of the lake, it’s the first time the movie shows anything that’s explicitly supernatural. Rearranging the story would undercut that, and lord only knows what it would do the werewolf story.

Then there’s our new horror icon. Sam, at first, appears to be just a sort of playful phantasm, something that appears everywhere. He gets candy from Wilkins, visits the massacre at the quarry, and observes the murders at Laurie’s party. At first, he’s actually cute. He comes across as a mischievous little sprite that seems to be a watcher of sorts, but not actually connected to the chaos around him. The encounter at Kreeg’s house changes all that, of course, and does so in a clever way. Without actually spelling things out, Dougherty reveals why Sam is after Kreeg, ties many of the stories together, and makes the jolly little pixie truly horrific. You even understand – kinda – why Sam decides to let Kreeg live at the end. (It’s telling that perhaps the most disturbing part is that when Sam is injured, he doesn’t explode in blood, but in pumpkin seeds and entrails.)

Dougherty and producer Bryan Singer have been working for a few years to get a sequel to this film made. Although progress is slow, unlike the perpetually-stalled Behind the Mask sequel, it seems like this one will make it to the screen sooner or later – the movie is not only critically acclaimed, but eventually achieved solid commercial success on DVD. The FearNet TV channel has also embraced the film, having Dougherty direct several holiday shorts starring Sam and showing the film for 24 hours on Halloween, mimicking the success of A Christmas Story on TBS. In fact, if you’ve never watched this movie and you get the FearNet network, there’s the perfect chance to rectify this egregious error. Just check out the various shorts on YouTube, then set the DVR or carve out any two-hour block on Halloween night, and prepare to discover a movie that has become a tradition for horror fans everywhere.