Movie Review: FLATLINERS

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flatlinersSony Pictures Home Entertainment
1990
R

“He said…he said it wasn’t such a good day to die.”

Hot-shot medical students embark on a series of daring experiments to get a peek at the face of death. Stopping their hearts until the vital signs register as flat lines, they then revive the subject.  The group doesn’t count on bringing anything back from their near-death experiences, but each one does.

Back before he became known as The Guy Who Ruined Batman in the 1990s, Joel Schumacher had a pretty good reputation as a movie maker, counting St. Elmo’s Fire and the post-modern vampire classic The Lost Boys in his list of well-known flicks.  In 1990 he entered the realm of post-modern Mad Scientist movies by way of Flatliners.

I watched Flatliners a year after its release in theaters, when it was then newly released on VHS.  Rented it, watched it, promptly forgot about it.  I was also 17, and had the attention span of…well, a 17-year-old kid.  Flatliners was a bit more cerebral than what I was accustomed to in movie watching.

Having rewatched Flatliners recently, though, I must say that the movie is a pretty good neo-Gothic thriller, involving a bunch of young medical students obsessed with life after death.  The cast itself is rather impressive, sporting the likes of Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, William “Billy” Baldwin, and the highly underrated Oliver Platt as the cast of post-Brat Pack star types, all of which are at their peak here.  The story itself is, surprisingly, not so much about the exploration of life after death, but of seeking forgiveness for your past sins, which I found to be unexpected but still rather intriguing.

Those looking for straight-up horror might be a bit disappointed, as Flatliners is more of a psychological thriller.  For what it is, though, Flatliners is a smartly crafted movie that has held up right nicely over the years.  Recommended watching.

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Movie Review: EVIDENCE OF A HAUNTING

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evidence of a hauntingMidnight Releasing
2010
NR

Three investigations conducted by the Supernatural Phenomena Research Society are document, beginning with the exorcism of a young girl in Louisiana, then on to an American Indian Poltergeist in Oklahoma, then finally a particularly difficult case in Dallas, Texas.  Something haunts the tunnels deep below the Trinity River Community College, something evil.  As they probe deeper below, it becomes apparent that they’ve invaded the realm of the son of Satan, and they may not all escape.

“Oh, hey look!  A low-budget movie that’s aping one of those Ghost Hunters type paranormal television shows!  There’s NO WAY this is gonna suck!”

My exact words upon coming across Evidence Of A Haunting on that nifty 20 Horror Movie pack I’ve been working through.  And while I’m no stranger to the type, it does tend to get old, especially when we’re talking the mocumentary style.  All could do is hit “play” and hope for the best.

And just as I suspected, the “best” wasn’t in the cards here.  In Evidence Of A Haunting, we follow around a bunch of character clichés who cannot act their way out of a plastic bag.  Most of the time I swear they’re just reading their lines directly from the laptops they always have conveniently plopped open in front of them.  Not really “acting”, more like reciting lines and reacting to directional cues like a bunch of High School play hacks. When the best acting comes from the kid playing the possessed girl at the beginning, gleefully screaming profanities that would have made a Merchant Marine blush, that I believe says something.

Evidence Of A Haunting, despite having a decent enough concept for a low-budget mocumentary, didn’t have the resources to make any of it work.  By the time I got to the rather convoluted ending, I just didn’t care enough to make sense of any of it.  I was more than happy when the ending credits began to roll, thinking I could have just rewatched the “Ghostfacers” episode of Supernatural.  It would have been shorter and far more entertaining than this overwrought waste of time and brain cells.  Pass.

Movie Review: SUPERMAN RETURNS

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superman returnsWarner Bros.
2006
PG-13

“You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one.”

Set five years after the second movie, it seems that Kal-El has been gone, having traveled to the far reaches of space searching for remains of his home world of Krypton. Now he has returned, only to find that, while he was away, the world has managed to go on without him. This point really hits home when he finds out that Lois Lane is engaged to Perry White’s nephew, has a five-year-old kid, and has won a Pulitzer Prize for her article on “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman”. Add to that the reappearance of Lex Luthor, who was let out of jail on a technicality and is now rich again, and still looking to score that massive piece of property. Supes has got some ‘splanin’ to do…

WARNING: Spoilers and Geeky Whining Ensue From This Point

It’s been nearly twenty years since the last Superman movie…nearly twenty-five if you happen to not count the last two of the four, like Bryan Singer did. Between then and now, those of us who were patient were treated to many television shows and animated cartoons, not to mention the comic books that gave birth to the man of steel, some good, some not so good. And during that time, many rumors and speculations intermingled with actual facts surrounding the actual realization of another movie teased and taunted us. After all that time, finally we have another Superman movie to spend all of our hard-earned moolah on. Was it worth it?

In the long run, you’re darn tootin’ it was.

Let me tell you, from the opening scene to the classic John Williams score, tingles shot down my spine, and once again I was transformed into a six-year-old boy. Brandon Routh managed to simultaneously channel the spirit of Christopher Reeve and make the part his own, handling the duel role of Clark Kent and Superman deftly. It was eerie the way he embodied the character. I once again believed that a man could fly, and this time you couldn’t see the blue screen effects, which made it all the better. The voice of Marlon Brando as Kal-El’s father sent chills down my spine, as did all the other little (and not-so-little) homages to the original flick. Kevin Spacy played Lex Luthor with a gleefully twisted maniacal way that would make Gene Hackman proud. Kate Bosworth, I admit, was no Margot Kidder, but she did pull off the character nicely. I think she was going for more of the Erica Durance version from Smallville than Kidder’s Lois. The effects were off the chain (and shoot me for saying that)…Superman flying at supersonic speeds, hovering far above planet Earth, using his super hearing, x-ray and telescopic vision, heat vision, and super-breath? I get chills, man. The caper is watching the bullets bouncing off of him, while he’s walking nonchalantly toward the gunman. This is perhaps a near-perfect Superman movie.

So why’d I give this one only four stars out of five? Let me explain…

First off, after the second showing, I started to get the feeling that I’ve seen this all before. If you pay close attention (and ignore the disrespecting teenagers sitting behind you and to the right, making stupid little statements like “Wait, didn’t Lex have superpowers too?” I mean, co’mon…), you’ll notice that many plot points in Superman Returns are virtual retreads of the same plot points in the first movie. The saving of the airplane that Lois happens to be in. The little “Statistically speaking…” speech. Lex’s plan to capitalize on owning land by killing billions. Even a couple of speeches from Lex seemed to be lifted from Hackman’s lines from the first movie. The flying around with Lois Lane…thankfully they didn’t include that annoying “Can You Read My Mind” piece from the first one. Kudos to that. Really, outside of the not-so-subtle hints at the possibility that Supes may have had an illegitimate child with Lois, there’s really not much in the way of moving the characters forward, let alone giving something to really let Supes go to town and utilize the full extent of his powers, like the slugfest from Superman II. All I’m saying is, instead of rehashing, the insertion of another one of Superman’s rouges- Brainiac and Metallo come to mind- would have really brought something fresh to the table.

In the end though, Superman Returns did its job at reestablishing Superman as one, if not the, greatest comic book characters on the big screen. Even at the hefty two-hours-and-forty-five-minute running time, I was captivated from beginning to end. I just hope the inevitable sequel will pump things up a notch…

Movie Review: SUPERMAN IV: The Quest For Peace

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Superman_ivWarner Bros. Home Entertainment
1987
PG

“Lenny, I’ve always considered you the Dutch Elm disease in my family tree.”

To make the world safe for nuclear arms merchants, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) creates a new being to challenge the Man of Steel: the radiation-charged Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow). The two foes clash in an explosive extravaganza that sees Superman save the Statue of Liberty, plug a volcanic eruption of Mount Etna and rebuild the demolished Great Wall of China. Your quest for excitement is over!

By the time Superman IV rolled into theaters, it had been four years since the last live-action Superman movie.  In between the time, they tried to get Supergirl into a movie property, but that spectacular mess failed to inspire any kind of spin-off, so they went back to Christopher Reeves, who was severely burned out of playing Superman by then.  I would be, too, after having to star in Superman III.

See, Reeve didn’t think much of making Superman into a farce, which the Salkinds pretty much made them into.  So, when Superman III received less than stellar reviews and box office numbers, Reeve called it quits, and went on to find greener pastures.  And no, that wasn’t a jab at his unfortunate accident.  Anyway, somehow Cannon Films felt that they had a way to bring Superman back, so they offered Reeve a sweet deal, essentially to produce any project he wanted, in exchange of playing Superman at least one more time.  He even had input into the story.  They even managed to get Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder back as Lex Luthor and Lois Lane, respectively.  So, what went wrong?

Well, as it turned out, Cannon Films had about a bajillion projects going on, and didn’t give the Superman project special consideration, so there was hardly any kind of budget to work with, and to say corners were cut would be understating things to the n-th degree.  For instance, there’s a scene where Superman flies to the UN building and gives a speech involving his plan to make the world a better place and stuff.  So, the logical thing to do was to film in New York, at the actual UN building, right?  Um, not according to Cannon.  Instead, the scene was filmed in England, on a rainy day, with about 100 extras and a bunch of pigeons for effect.  Essentially, Cannon thought we the general watching public would be too stupid to know what New York would look like.  There are other stories, but in the interest of keeping this from becoming a pointless essay, let’s just say the end result was less than expected.  Again with the understatements.

Anyway, when this came out, it was the summer before my 8th Grade year in school, and I was 13 years of age.  A long cry from the 9-year-old that watched Superman III blissfully unaware of how bad the movie sucked.  In other words, by the time the end credits rolled on Superman IV, I knew I had just witnessed a very bad movie, the worst entry in the Superman live action movie series, and left the theater with a very sour taste in my mouth.  This was a sour taste that wouldn’t be scrubbed away until the premier of the beyond-awesome animated series in 1996.

Watching this now, there isn’t even a sense of nostalgic cheeseball fun that a lot of older bad movies have.  And throughout it all, you get that nagging feeling that there was supposed to be much, much more to this, that there was something missing that was originally there, but was cut down by way of Hollywood Suits.  And as I found out later, yes, this feeling is completely justified.  But back then, even now, watching Superman IV: The Quest For Peace is like watching Batman & Robin.  Mediocre, boring, and uncomfortable, Superman IV is what happens when the wrong people get ahold of a beloved property.  Watch as an example of what not to do when making a superhero movie.

Movie Review: SUPERMAN III

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SUPERMAN IIIWarner Bros. Pictures
1983
PG

“You know a wise man once said, I think it was Attila the Hun, ‘It is not enough that I succeed, everyone else must fail.'”

With Lex Luthor still in jail, and Lois Lane off on a story, Clark Kent finds time to head back to his hometown of Smallville for a High School reunion, where he reconnects with recently-divorced (and still hot) Lana Lang. Meanwhile, a computer genius working a menial tech job stumbles upon Superman’s weakness, and with the backing of his megalomaniac millionaire boss, comes up with a way to synthesize Kryptonite. Only thing is, the not-so-natural rock doesn’t kill him, it just turns Supes bad. We know this because he stops shaving and washing his super suit (one can only assume that he also stopped showering), everything short of growing a gotee. Now he’s going around doing evil stuff, like straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa, blowing out the Olympic Torch, drinking, kicking puppies, and returning his video rentals without rewinding them first, until his personalities literally split, leading to a showdown between the “strong” Bad Supes and the “weak” Good Clark Kent. Will he become good again? Will anyone watching this movie care? Ooooh, the suspense is underwhelming…

This third installment of the Superman movies carries a stigma with me. See, it came out the summer of 1983. A few weeks after watching this in a theater in Aberdeen, Washington, my parents got a divorce. Not a very good memory association, there.

Being nine at the time of this release, I was still captivated by the movie. I mean, it was Superman for crying out loud. There were a few things that disconcerted me (“Mommy, why is Superman flicking beer nuts at the booze?”), but overall my love for the character remained. Watching Superman III now, I can understand why this wasn’t as loved as the first two movies.

I believe the first mistake made on the parts of the producers (the Salkinds again, this being the last Superman movie they were ever involved in) was to stick to the idea they wanted for the second movie. Namely, make it campy. I would suspect that they, along with Richard Lester, who was at the director’s helm for the entire thing instead of part of it like last time, didn’t have the same grasp of the character of Superman, or respect, like original director Richard Donner did. As a result, key actors that were key parts of the success of the first two movies were nonexistent here: Gene Hackman, who flat out refused to be part of this movie due to the Salkinds’ involvement, and Margot Kidder, who’s screen time was cut almost completely (save for a few minutes at the beginning and end of the film) due to her criticism of the producers. So, basically we’re starting off on the wrong foot by not including Superman’s greatest enemy and greatest love interest.

To fill those voids, we have perhaps the most underwhelming and lackluster “evil” guy ever thought up- namely, Robert Vaughn as capitalist baddie Ross Webster- for the antagonist, and Annette O’Toole as Clark’s childhood sweetheart Lana Lang (O’Toole, as you might know, went on to play young and whiny Clark Kent’s mother in the television show Smallville…which, when you think about the fact that she was once Clark Kent’s love interest…well, it’s just best that you don’t). Actually, to tell you the truth, having Lana Lang in for romantic tension instead of Kidder was a breath of fresh air.

Then there’s Richard Pryor. Many claim that his inclusion in this movie was a bad choice, but I disagree. While the usual rule of thumb is that by including a comedian as a villain is a sign of a franchise jumping the shark (Batman Forever being a good example), Pryor’s character was really that of a regular schlub going down the wrong path by trying to make a better life for himself, and then finding himself in the middle of a moralistic quandary. Sure, as an actor he falls into the “Ricard Pryor, playing Richard Pryor as a computer genius henchman” category, but who really watched this expecting anything more than that? Especially if you’ve seen anything else he’s starred in. No, Richard Pryor’s involvement wasn’t the straw that broke this camel’s back.

Mind you, there are some pretty inspired moments in this movie. The very concept of Superman going rogue, then having him duke it out with himself was very cool. But in the end, really, the lack of beloved supporting characters returning, the uninspired antagonist, the confusing plot points and the heavy-handed camp and needless slapstick really bogs the rewatch value down. Good movie, but not great…

Movie Review: SUPERMAN II

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SUPERMAN IIWarner Bros. Pictures
1980
PG

“You will bow down before me, Jor-El! Both you and then one day, your heir!”

Taking up a few months after the first movie left off, a trio of Kryptonian baddies, banished to the Phantom Zone at the start of the previous flick (don’t worry, it’s recapped for you here as well), have escaped and, led by the nefarious and power hungry General Zod, have their sites to conquering Earth. That’s pretty affluent, but Zod has another errand to run…getting back at the guy who jailed them in the first place- namely Jor-El. Only thing is, Jor-El blew up with the planet, so he’s going after the next best thing…Kal-El, aka Superman! And with a giddy Lex Luthor, who has a beef with Mr. Blue Tights as well, joining up for the ride, and Supes just losing his own powers (all because of a woman…isn’t that just the way it goes?), there’s no telling what wackiness will ensue! Unless, of course, you’ve watched this about a bajillian times as I have…

Man. Did this sequel have enough problems. First, Marlon Brando sues over his percentage of the profits of the first film, even though he had less screen time than Jimmy Olsen. Which is why I consider the decomposing gastropod a wanker. Hence the lack of Jor-El in this sequel. Add to that the removal of director Richard Donner because he disagreed with the producers’ desire to make the movie more campy (don’t get me started), and his replacement Richard Lester (who’s movie credits up to then included mostly 60s comedies with Peter Sellars and The two Beatles movies) taking over, much to the begrudging of the cast (Gene Hackman refused to come back for reshoots under Lester, which resulted in less screen time than last, and the use of an obvious body double in some scenes).

When this first came out, I loved it to death. Like the first movie, I would watch this whenever it came on HBO. To my innocent 9-year-old mind, it was just as good, if not better, than the original. More fight scenes! More Superman! More cool effects! Could have done without that sappy love angle, but then again Supes made up for it by breaking out of that cootie-infested nonsense. Remember…I was 9.

Watching this movie now, after age and jaded perception have been set, I still enjoy this sequel. There’s a few more points of dissidence with this than the last movie, but they’re mostly where suspending my disbelief is stretched to the near-breaking point. Like, for instance…my understanding is that, in the vacuum of space, specifically on the moon, sound waves are impossible to pick up. Why are the baddies conversing with each other? Let alone breathing. I don’t care how super you are, anything that requires oxygen to survive wouldn’t last a minute out there. Sure, their physiology could withstand the cold vacuum of space, but…co’mon. Then there was the snake that bit Ursa. She felt it when she wasn’t supposed to. Skin’s supposed to be super-resistant to things like that. Maybe it was a magical snake, which is one of the things Superman and (assuming) other Kryptonians on Earth are susceptible to. And don’t get me started on the giant cellophane “S” that Supes tosses out during the battle in the Fortress Of Solitude.

On the less geeky sides of things, there is a noticeable campiness here as compared to the first. I mean, yes, there was camp in the first one. But it was a comic book type camp. Here, there are moments, mostly in Lester’s contributions, where it seems the wackiness was deliberately thrown in for camp effect, which just detracts from the overall enjoyment. For instance, when the Unwholesome Trio defeat Supeman in Metropolis, and the crowd of people gather together in an inspiring yet ultimately suicidal attempt to take the three of them down, and they were pushed back by the baddie’s collective superbreath (hoping they popped a mint before doing so)? That scene draaaaaaags on for several minutes. And during that long exhale session…well, you just have to watch it to see what I mean. I kept expecting the Keystone Kops to be part of that crowd.

In any case, regardless of the gripes, Superman II is still one fun ride. Definitely heads and shoulders better than the following sequels. Still, can’t wait until all of the original footage is placed back…I’d like to know how it would have looked if the producers didn’t try to stick their meddling noses into the film…

Movie Review: SUPERMAN The Movie

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SUPERMAN - The MovieWarner Bros. Pictures
1978
PG

“You’ll believe a man can fly”

The classic tale of one Kal El / Clark Kent, from his escape from his doomed home planet, to is life growing up on a Kansas farm, to his life as a mild-mannered reporter in Metropolis and his early adventures as Superman. From his introduction to Lois Lane and the gang at the Daily Planet, to his tense confrontation with evil genius Lex Luthor, classic comic book-inspired wackiness ensues…

Alongside the likes of the American flag, the bald eagle and Uncle Sam, the character of Superman is perhaps, without a doubt, one of the easily recognizable symbols of modern American culture. And it’s also the only one of the four that can get away with wearing their underwear on the outside of the uniform.

There were live-action adaptations of Superman done before this groundbreaking film came out- the movie serials in 1948 and 1950 staring Kirk Alyn and the classic 1950s television series staring George Reeves- but while they have a nostalgic significance, none of them really did the character justice, especially when it came to flight. All that changed when, after years of production problems, studio red tape and lingering doubts, Superman The Movie was released.

I credit this movie as the vehicle that got me hooked on Superman. Though probably not as insane as some of my friends were about the character, I did have the bedsheets, the prerequisite metal lunch box, coloring books, comic books, and wore out at least three pairs of Superman Underoos (the classic ones, with the blue shirt with the big “S” on the front, and the red undies with the bright yellow waste band…worn mainly on the outside of my pants, to my mother’s dismay). Though I never tried to jump off the roof of my house thinking I could fly, I did my fair share of running around the house with a red beach towel tied around my neck. And every time the movie was played on HBO, I had to watch it.

You could probably tell that this is going to be one of those long-winded, rambling gushariffic type reviews right about now. You’d be right.

Even now, in my early 30s, this movie is one of the staples of my very selective DVD collection. This is hands-down the original classic comic book movie, made in a time when CGI effects were but a gleam in Hollywood’s eyes, and for the most part pulled it all off with flying colors. No pun intended, there.

The story pretty much does a good job at establishing Superman’s roots, albeit revamped a bit. Marlon Brando, as much as I despise the wanker, does well as Kal El’s father Jor El (wanker, though…complete wanker). While the hour-long setup surrounding Kal El’s arrival on Earth and growing up as Clark Kent irritated me when I was 7 (it was all about getting to the flying and kicking butt in that costume), now I appreciate the slow build, establishing Clark’s close relationship with his adoptive parents (the scene where Pa Kent dies still gets me) and his strong heartland upbringing (even as a famous superhero in the big city, Superman still exudes that farm boy charm).

It was the cast of actors that really brought the story to life. The late Christopher Reeve, then a little-known actor, I consider to be the iconic image of Superman. He pulls off the duel role of both Superman and Clark Kent, two completely opposite personalities in one body, and makes it look easy. Most people think that it’s the glasses and the shift in hairstyle that made the secret identity, but what cements the believability is the stark contrast between the bumbling “aw, shucks” of Clark Kent and the self-confident heroic stature of Superman. And Reeve pulled off this dichotomy beautifully. Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, maybe not the best Lois in the great list of actors who played the part through the decades, but still pulls off the hard-nosed, no-nonsense star reporter with a vulnerable femininity, especially when it came to Big Blue Britches. And Gene Hackman (“We meet again, Hack-Man!”…sorry…couldn’t resist) plays Lex Luthor with a gleam in his eye, spouting off some of the best one-liners in the movie (“Miss Teschmacher, some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.”).

The effects are still powerful today. Especially in the area of flight. Before, like in the 50s television show, you’d just see the top part of Superman, lying prone with his arms out, and wooshing sounds to simulate flying. Here, when Superman takes his first flight, you physically see him dismount off in the distance in the Fortress of Solitude, come at you, and then buzz by the camera in a flash of red and blue. While any yahoo can be trussed up in wires and hauled around like that, it was the way that Reeve moved and contorted his body during the “flight”, lending great believability to the effect. In short, yes, you really do believe that guy’s flying.

One short mention of the music score. John William’s classic theme…every time I here it, I get all sorts of giddy. I run that theme through my head every time I burst forth from the bathroom in the morning…

As classic as this movie is, it’s not without it’s shortcomings. And I’m not talking about the fact that they had to fit Reeve with a codpiece. It does tend to get a bit campy at times, but that’s not really a problem. Kind of lends to the comic book feel, really. Lex Luthor’s henchman and girlfriend were annoying and even more annoying, respectively, and really did nothing more than provide comedy relief that didn’t work. Lex provided that with the dry wit and giddy evil charm that Hackman gave him. The whole Lois’ flight with Superman could have been chopped down considerably…or at least had that annoying “Can You Read My Mind” or whatever that obligatory love theme title was nixed. And what’s up with the Statue of Liberty doing in Metropolis? Was this somehow alluding to the Earth Superman resides in being an alternate reality, where Metropolis has supplanted New York? Does this mean that the French in that reality are still smelly and ungrateful? And don’t get me started about the whole Turning Back Time By Flying Around The Earth Really Fast And Reversing The Rotation Thereby Thumbing My Super Nose At The Established Laws Of Physics And Possibly Killing All Life On Earth Because My Love Interest Got Herself Killed Because She Was Stupid And Didn’t Gas Up Earlier angle.

To wrap things up, this is classic funnybook movie magic that, considering the law of averages concerning Hollywood sequels with heavy CGI nowadays, will still stand head and shoulders over all the others for a very long time.

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