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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 86

#281 - 282
June 5, 2001 - June 13, 2001


all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

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#282 June 13, 2001

M O V I E S

Baby Boy one-sheet Baby Boy (R) *** Baby Boy: The World Premiere
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Given the fact that Baby Boy marks writer-director John Singleton's cinematic return to the 'hood of South Central Los Angeles a full decade after his acclaimed debut Boyz N the Hood, it makes sense for Columbia Pictures to play up the connection to that seminal double Academy Award nominee in its advertising campaign. However, the sure-to-be constant comparisons (which are further encouraged by erroneous reports calling Baby Boy a sequel to Boyz) will only be a disservice to what is a distinctive and worthy film in its own right.

While not a Boyz sequel, Baby Boy can be seen as a companion of sorts since it also traces a young African-American man's coming of age in South Central. Similarities end, though, with the central character, Jody (Tyrese Gibson). Jody is 20-years-old and father of two children by two different women, yet he's a layabout who still lives with his rather young mother, Juanita (A.J. Johnson). Jody, who spends most of his days hanging out with his equally directionless best friend Sweetpea (Omar Gooding) is every bit as selfish and immature as he sounds, and while this has an unavoidable distancing effect on the audience, it's a credit to Singleton and Gibson that they don't sugarcoat Jody's unsympathetic qualities. Whenever his girlfriend (and mother to his eldest child) Yvette (Taraji P. Henson), Juanita, or her O.G. boyfriend Melvin (Ving Rhames) express their frustration with Jody's behavior, one feels their impatience right along with them--as one should.

Jody's belligerent act is often laid on a bit thick, as if his outbursts are less a natural result of his short temper than it is the manner in which he believes people expect him to behave. His biggest problem, it becomes clear, is not his attitude but his buying into the fatalist mindset of the young inner city black male. The image of his own death recurs in his dreams and thoughts, but the visions don't really "haunt" him per se; he seems to welcome them, as if being a "man" is to constantly prepare himself for dying.

But Jody isn't beyond redemption and/or redirection, and ironically a great deal of his buried sincerity comes through in his rather destructive relationship with Yvette. Baby Boy may in essence be a study of Jody, but the heart of the film is Jody and Yvette's tortured romance. Their moments of tenderness, and the chemistry between Gibson and Henson, convince that these two people genuinely love and care for each other. But those pure moments are rare, and one is left to wonder if their feelings are worth all the pain they put each other and themselves through. Singleton points no fingers, for both parties do their part in perpetuating the vicious love/hate cycle. "Baby boy" Jody constantly cheats on her; the ever-suspicious but easily forgiving Yvette can't bring herself to leave him, at least not for very long.

The two screen newcomers are nothing short of exceptional in the leads. Given how abrasive his character is a lot of the time, the strong charisma that Gibson has previously exhibited in his music, TV hosting, and modeling careers is key to the character's engagement of the audience. Gibson's natural presence hooks the viewers in, and thankfully he has the solid acting chops to keep them riveted. He's more than able to hold his own with the seasoned likes of Rhames and Johnson (who are also terrific), and he is able to subtly convey what's behind Jody's tough veneer: vulnerability, self-doubt, and, to a certain degree, self-loathing. Considering a number of Yvette's scenes involve her angrily yelling at Jody, the true worth of Henson's work can all too easily be discounted; there's real soul behind the sometimes shrill surface. Most indelible is a nonverbal scene where a teary Yvette envisions--as he sexually services her--what a life spent with him could be like. If pictures speak a thousand words, the looks on her face speak a million.

The largely internal nature of the drama in Baby Boy is gripping enough that it's a bit of a letdown when external conflict arises. When Snoop Dogg turns up as Rodney, Yvette's just-paroled--but hardly reformed--convict ex, Singleton ends up retracing steps he and many other filmmakers have taken in the past. This is not to say that he doesn't find some fresh spin, but for a film that had taken a hard look at difficult people in difficult situations, this narrative direction seems a bit too easy, making way for a resolution is a little too tidy.

Nonetheless, however diluted the film's initial power feels at the end, with Baby Boy Singleton has again succeeded in making a thoughtful and provocative film that long resonates in the mind.


Swordfish poster Swordfish (R) ** 1/2
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God bless Joel Silver. While a certain nameless compatriot of his in the blockbuster game has decided to make a misguided, PG-13 play for Oscar this summer, Silver is sticking to his guns, delivering a slam-bang, pretense-free, hard-R-rated action thriller. Swordfish is the name, and the game is the same: chases, gunplay, the whole nine. In short, all the mayhem that one expects from a Silver Pictures production--and ultimately as nondescript as that description implies.

Undoubtedly responsible for that routine quality is director Dominic Sena, who last summer helmed Jerry Bruckheimer (oops, I said his name) Actioner #366, a.k.a. Gone in Sixty Seconds; and writer Skip Woods. After all, the mediocre sum is made up of some distinguished parts--and no, I'm not just talking about those very healthy ones of co-star Halle Berry, who reportedly received a (well-spent) half-million-dollar bonus to go topless in the film's (quite understandably) most-talked-about scene. Berry, who plays fiery femme fatale Ginger, is but one of the talented actors that make up the top-notch core cast, which also includes John Travolta as the bad guy, evil secret government agent Gabriel Shear; Berry's X-Men teammate Hugh Jackman as the hero, ace computer hacker Stanley Jobson; and Don Cheadle as the token fed, FBI Agent Roberts.

One doesn't watch a Joel Silver production for the stars so much as the action sequences, and, as mentioned earlier, Swordfish delivers the goods in that respect. A massive explosion that takes the "bullet time" effect to a new level gets the film off to a spectacular start, and subsequent set pieces live up to this big bang of an open. These range from the fairly standard but slickly done (a central car chase/gunfight) to the truly original and ranging from a foot chase down a cliff to the big finale featuring an airlifted bus, do the adrenaline-pumping job.

For a film like Swordfish, the plot is merely connective tissue between the big blow-ups, and at first Woods seems to have done all that's required of him. Gabriel gets the sultry Ginger to entice formerly convicted hacker Stanley into helping them electronically tap into heavily protected government funds. Simple enough, but the script soon gets lost in convoluted, half-baked twists as well as unconvincing, half-hearted emotional content--namely Stanley's desire to be with his young daughter, whom he is forbidden to see. That this subplot, however ridiculous it is, is not laughable is a testament to Jackman's charisma and natural sincerity.

Swordfish practically invites criticism by beginning with Gabriel directly saying to the camera, "You know what the problem with Hollywood is? It makes shit." I wouldn't go so far as to call Swordfish shit, but it certainly is junk in a nice, glossy package, and doesn't pretend to be otherwise. While embracing and celebrating its lowest-common-denominator aspirations make Swordfish a refreshingly unpretentious and modestly diverting film, it doesn't make it a good one.


In Brief

Baise-Moi poster Baise-Moi * 1/2
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Baise-Moi, which literally means “fuck me” in French (though the film’s distributor is hiding behind the slightly less vulgar Rape Me), could not be a more appropriate name for this lurid exploitation film, for fucking is exactly what you get. Our pair of anti-heroines, occasional porn star Manu (Raffaella Anderson) and prostitute Nadine (Karen Bach), indiscriminately and unapologetically satisfy their carnal urges whenever they can, and directors Virginie Despentes (who wrote the screenplay, based on her own book) and Coralie Trinh Thi leave no detail to the imagination. When not literally fucking, the dastardly duo fuck people up, blowing the brains out of anyone (mostly men) who happens to disrespect them or stand in their way.

The most severe fucking, though, is given to the viewer, who is subjected to an insanely repetitive 77-minute display of pointless nihilism. Without the magnets for controversy that are its hard core sex and brutal violence, Baise-Moi is no more than a low-rent DV rehash of Thelma & Louise, but en français and without any sense of narrative direction or coherence. Once our pair is scorned (Manu by a rapist, Nadine by her brother, whom she kills), meet up, and hit the road, the film falls into a vicious cycle of fuck/kill, fuck/kill. The sex and violence is so plentiful that it doesn’t take long for the audience to be numbed to whatever shock value they initially have possessed, then making it quickly and painfully clear what an empty exercise the film is. The blood becomes a blur; the non-simulated fornication is also non-erotic and non-interesting. The only time the graphic sex is used to any real effect is in the early rape scene that sends Manu on her sociopathic way; the act of violence becomes that much more ugly and unsettling with its down-and-dirty details being shoved in your face.

The fearlessness Bach and Anderson have developed during their years in adult film serves them well here, and the two, especially Anderson, turn in performances that flout any traditional expectations about the acting abilities of porn vets. Such a shame that Despentes and Trinh Thi give them so little opportunity to exercise those fledgling abilities and instead make them go through some very familiar motions whenever possible.


Evolution poster Evolution (PG-13) ***
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A number of critics have been eager to pan Ivan Reitman's effects-laden alien comedy as a blatant rip-off of his very own Ghostbusters. They have a point. While there's nothing here that Reitman hadn't done before and to better effect in that ghoul-filled 1984 sci-fi comedy classic, this alien comedy is able to compensate for lack of originality through easy-going charm--which comes mostly from the actors. Granted, no one here is challenging themselves. David Duchovny contradicts his oft-repeated desire to break free from Fox Mulder by treading water as Dr. Ira Kane, a community college science professor, who discovers extraterrestrial life at a meteor crash site. Orlando "Make 7, Up yours" Jones doesn't tax himself as Ira's wisecracking colleague Harry Block, a geology teacher. Seann William Scott is on hand to do his familiar "young dumb guy" schtick (here, aspiring fireman Wayne, who witnesses the meteor crash). And, as the trailer pointedly notes,"Academy Award nominee" Julianne Moore trips and falls numerous times as Allison, a rep for the Center for Disease Control.

That latter casting coup begs the question--why the hell would someone as classy as Moore agree to star in a derivative, light-as-a-feather summer comedy? Evolution easily offers a convincing answer: to simply have fun. While there are only a handful of real laugh out loud moments, the film often elicits warm smiles, coasting by on the good will and high spirits of everyone involved. If that sounds like praise of the faint sort, it is; but such pleasant and amusing entertainments are hard to come by these days.


D V D

Clerks: Uncensored DVD Clerks: Uncensored (R)
Feature: ***; Disc: ****
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In a delicious bit of poetic justice, Clerks: Uncensored, the video and DVD release of the extremely short-lived 2000 ABC animated series based on Kevin Smith's cult classic Clerks hit stores in mid-February, smack-dab in a TV sweeps period--thus in essence getting the big, high-profile bow the network denied it. New series conspicuously pulled from regular season berths and then dumped in the summer typically are trash deserving of a quick and painless (at least to the network, not the viewers) burn-off. But as seen in Clerks: Uncensored, the show definitely had at the very least one quality that set it apart from most series cluttering network airwaves these days: genuine promise.

That promise, it must be noted, was only fully realized in one of the show's six produced episodes (of which only two ever saw air): the second. Near-Simpsons-level moments of subversive brilliance are reached in this pointed parody of those lazy sitcom "clip" episodes where the characters reminisce about times (read: episodes) past. As long-suffering convenience store clerk Dante (voiced by Brian O'Halloran) and smartass video store clerk Randal (Jeff Anderson) are locked in a freezer with "merry mischief makers" (as defined in this series) Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) they proceed to recount memorable events from their lives--one of the big jokes being that a number of said events derive from the only episode that came before.

A number of other inspired ideas are spread throughout the other five episodes of Clerks: The Cartoon, if unevenly so. Of the six, episodes two, five, and six are the best. The fifth episode centers on Dante coaching a Bad News Bears-ish little league team, with the story then somehow veering off into wild territory inspired by The Last Starfighter and, quite hilariously, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; and the sixth episode amusingly evokes the spirit of the original film by keeping Dante and Randal in the store as a number of extraordinary events take place just outside. The weaker segments do have their moments, though. The pilot episode is a bit heavy on set-up, but it does give each member of the voice cast (which also includes Alec Baldwin as villainous businessman Leonardo Leonardo) a moment to shine; the Outbreak-based third episode takes some choice potshots at Quentin Tarantino; and the largely dull fourth episode (which was the first of the two episodes that actually saw air), a courtroom comedy featuring guest appearances by a number of NBA stars, ends with an amusing riff on the hyperactive visuals of Japanese anime.

Even though the series wasn't exactly acclaimed during its abbreviated life and is now a long-forgotten oddity in the Survivor-crazy minds of most television viewers, as with all DVD editions of his productions, Smith has offered a wealth of extras for this two-disc set. A commentary track featuring Smith, O'Halloran, Anderson, supervising director Chris Bailey, and executive producers Scott Mosier and Dave Mandel runs through all six episodes, and while a scene-specific comment sneaks in here and there, it's less a discussion of the actual episodes than a more general one about the makings of the show and its ultimate fate. As always, Smith is very candid about the problems with various network honchos and the episodes themselves, and the insight he provides on dealing with TV executives will be of great interest and help to anyone hoping to get a series on network television one day.

Aspiring animators will also get some insight into the development of the series from a visual standpoint. Viewers have the option of watching every episode in animatic form, which are a mix of rough animation and storyboards cut together to the finished soundtrack. There are also two featurettes that delve into the development of the series' unique art style: a fairly short one on the general color and visual scheme, and a ten-minute one tracing the development of looks for the main characters.

Other extras are a bit on the throwaway side. ABC's Super Bowl spot, which Smith and the crew trash on the commentaries, is included here for your own private mocking; more effective--and profane--is a trailer that was used to promote the show on the film festival circuit. Finally, Mewes and Smith provide on-camera intros to each episode in character as Jay and Silent Bob. The idea of these segments are a lot funnier than the actually are. Nonetheless, on the whole Smith has again rewarded his faithful fan following with a superior DVD presentation of his work--and made a generally worthwhile disc whose merits would be far from lost on unfamiliar viewers.

Specifications: 1.33:1 full frame; English Dolby Surround; English subtitles; English closed captioning; DVD-ROM features. (Miramax Home Entertainment)


Dogma DVD Dogma Special Edition (R) movie review Dogma: The Los Angeles Premiere
Movie: ***; Disc: ****
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Much like how the film itself was held up by controversy (unfounded and overblown at that) on its way to theatres, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment's two-disc DVD special edition of Kevin Smith's 1999 offbeat religion-themed comedy Dogma has had a rather turbulent journey to store shelves. Disney, owner of original distributor Miramax, technically made a clean break from the film a full two years ago when 'Max co-prez Harvey Weinstein bought back the rights to the film and sold them to Lions Gate, but the Mouse was still able to exert their mighty corporate power over the already-delayed (first fall 2000, then January 2001, then now) special edition DVD release. Consequently, all references to Disney, Miramax, the Weinstein brothers, and even the film's biggest opponent, Catholic League head William Donahue (though a brief mention of him in the deleted scenes introductions emerges unscathed) in the two commentary tracks were bleeped out. More notably, an in-depth documentary on the controversy surrounding the film produced expressly for this DVD release was completely jettisoned, presumably due (at least in part) to that Disney legal pressure.

Even in its slightly censored release form, the Dogma special edition upholds the quality DVD tradition of Smith's View Askew Productions. Generous supplements aside (more on those later), the film looks and sounds as good as it possibly could for the home theatre. The anamorphic transfer is superbly clean, bold as opposed to overly bright in day and in light and suitably dark and without any apparent artificial enhancement in night shots; and the 5.1 Dolby Surround mix give the film's surprisingly action-heavy climax some added punch.

While a pristine copy of the film is what consumers should presumably care most about, it's the wealth of extras that are the real drawing card for fans. In addition to housing the feature film, the first disc includes two running commentary tracks. The first, labeled "Cast and Crew Commentary," is the type of jovial, self-effacing, sometimes self-mocking track one has come to expect from the Askew crew. Featuring Smith, producer Scott Mosier, View Askew historian Vincent Pereira (who did a lot of uncredited work on this DVD edition), and cast members Ben Affleck (Bartleby), Jason Lee (Azrael), and Jason Mewes (Jay), production details, while not completely absent, take a back seat to the infectious camaraderie between the six. The guys obviously have a good time revisiting and picking apart their own and (especially) each other's work, and only the stuffiest of film fans will have reason to complain.

As with the commentary on Universal's collector's edition DVD of Smith's Mallrats (which, coincidentally, features the exact same group of participants), there is also an optional feature to view video footage of the recording session. Unlike Mallrats, however, there are two separate cameras simultaneously recording the action, but more importantly this feature doesn't employ DVD's multi-angle capability. Rather, one must click on a "Buddy Christ" icon to access the video, à la the "Follow the White Rabbit" feature on Warner Bros.' disc of The Matrix, making for a fairly cumbersome and not exactly seamless transition to the video. That said, watching the speakers offers some amusing bits that otherwise would not have been captured, such as Mewes leaving his seat and getting ready to leave long before the session is finished.

Those aforementioned stuffy film fans get their due in the second audio commentary, the "technical crew commentary," recorded some months after the first and featuring only Smith, Mosier, and Pereira. While not completely serious (and how could it be, what with the sharp-witted Smith involved), the tone is decidedly less jokey, and overlap between the commentaries is minimal, for the trio cover a lot of ground left untouched in the first track. The major issue newly addressed here--which is somewhat surprising, given the very upbeat mood on the other track-- is how difficult production on the film was. The controversy that erupted after the film's completion was just one more bump in what had already been a turbulent road of constant shoot rescheduling (thanks to the busy careers of the cast members), personality conflicts (mostly with lead Linda Fiorentino), and time and budget overruns.

As mentioned earlier, the behind-the-hubbub documentary was dropped (though a passing reference to it remains on the technical commentary), but the second disc offers just about everything else any Dogma fan could hope for. The highlight is the 100 minutes worth of deleted and extended scenes, introduced with characteristic candor by Smith and Pereira, who are joined at various points by special guest stars Mosier, Mewes, Smith's wife Jennifer, and their daughter Harley. A few of these bits are of the throwaway variety, restoring beats and lines here and there, but of the more substantial inclusions, two sequences stand out for wildly different reasons. First is an terrific dramatic showcase for Fiorentino where Bethany recounts her personal experience with abortion. Second is what the disc calls "The Now-Legendary Fat Albert Sequence," which I find more noteworthy for Mewes' perfect delivery of some choice dialogue and Smith's expert reaction takes as Silent Bob than the pair's showstopping performance of the TV cartoon series' theme song. As effective as these scenes are, it's easy to see why they were cut. The Bethany scene, which was to appear early in the film, is a bit too weighty for the beginning stages of a comedy; and Jay and Bob's song and dance is indeed a showstopper in the literal sense, holding up the progression of the story.

Two more interesting extras are included on the second disc. One is a set of storyboards drawn by Mosier for three different action-oriented sequences: Loki's (Matt Damon) slaughter of the Mooby fast food executives; the attack by the No Man, a.k.a. Golgothan, a.k.a. the shit demon; and the attack on Bethany by the Stygian Triplets, that demonic trio of hockey-stick wielding skaters. The first two are particularly interesting since the corresponding scenes in the movie don't go quite as far as was initially planned. The other extra is a spot for Smith's comic shop Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash; featuring Smith and Mewes, it's a hilarious take on those cheesy, no-budget TV commercials for local businesses one comes across primarily during late night viewing. One feature alluded to elsewhere on the discs but nowhere to be found anywhere is an animatic for a scrapped commercial for Hosties, a communion wafer breakfast cereal that was to figure in Cardinal Glick's (George Carlin) "Catholicism Wow!" campaign (a print ad for Hosties does appear on the label of disc two).

The supplement disc also includes features one would typically find on other DVDs, albeit with some new spin. In the case of the talent bios and filmographies, this is a good thing; they are presented as "Saint and Sinners" trading cards, accompanied by either heavenly harp music or a devilish strum of an electric guitar. Also, the outtake reel, capped off by a mad-libbing segment between Affleck and Matt Damon (Loki) titled "Why Kevin Smith Doesn't Like Improvisation," is fairly entertaining. What is called "the theatrical trailer," on the other hand, isn't quite what it says. While the visuals and narration are the same as they appeared in theatres, the original score has inexplicably been replaced by some ill-fitting, jazzy music.

Already a solid achievement in terms of content, the Dogma special edition further distinguishes itself through its snazzy presentation. On the physical end, the double keep case, which is done up like a Bible, comes in a slipcase featuring new painted artwork created exclusively for this release; disc one, like the Hosties-pushing disc two, is labeled by a faux ad for Mooby's Egg-a-Moof'n; and the booklet features more production art in addition to a new two-page essay by Smith. On the digital side, the menus are creatively designed, brightly colored and showcasing Mooby and many other Mooby-like characters. There are also some nicely off-kilter touches such as disc one's "Mrs. Harriet Wise"; prior to each submenu, an older woman scolds the viewer with lines such as "This film is the work of the Devil!" "Mrs. Wise" also gets her own little section, "My Opinion," where she makes more comically sanctimonious jabs at the film and those who watch it.

As impressively loaded as this special edition is, the loss of the documentary makes for a less-than-complete picture of the story surrounding Dogma. But perhaps it's just as well, for in only making minor references to the controversy over what narrowminded people thought the film was, maybe this DVD edition will enable Smith's film to finally be seen for what it is: an outrageously comic but ultimately heartfelt celebration of faith.

Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; English, French, and Spanish Dolby Surround; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; English closed captioning. (Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment)


The Man Who Cured My Cough

Bounce DVD Reindeer Games DVD Bounce (PG-13) movie review
Movie: **; Disc: ***
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Reindeer Games Exclusive Director's Cut (R) movie review
Movie: **; Disc: ** 1/2
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In his fairly short time as a major Hollywood star, Ben Affleck has somehow already managed to carve out a prototypical screen persona for himself: the affable, cocksure, All-American guy. Two of his more recent films, Bounce and Reindeer Games, found Affleck attempting to break public perception free of those constraints only to be constricted again by some unadventurous filmmaking, as their respective DVD editions illustrate.

In the romantic drama Bounce, writer-director Don Roos gave Affleck an ideal chance to spread his wings with the role of hotshot ad guy Buddy Amaral. At the beginning of the film, Buddy is the usual Affleck type--all cocky confidence and charisma. But his performance deepens along with the character of Buddy. As Buddy falls for Abby Janello (Gwyneth Paltrow), widow of Greg (Tony Goldwyn), the man who took his place on a plane that ended up crashing, Affleck capably etches Buddy's growth as a person as well as that of the guilt that continues to haunt him. Less capable is much of the rest of Roos' film, which takes a potentially interesting premise and plays it out as safely and routinely as possible.

Watching Miramax's two-disc DVD edition is an alternately intriguing and infuriating. In his commentary (with producer Bobby Cohen) accompanying the feature and the numerous deleted scenes, Roos reveals that he substantially--and quite willingly--watered down the movie he initially shot, which followed through on the idea of this story being about an especially, for lack of a better term, "difficult" love. Roos shouldn't have allowed himself to be so easily second-guessed by the studio, test scores, and the need to please the lowest common denominator, for a number of the cut scenes reveal a darker and hence more emotionally satisfying and true film. Among the unfortunate losses are a more ambiguous, less sunny, and far superior ending (another ending that's worse than the release cut's OK finale is also included) and some beefier scenes with supporting players Natasha Henstridge and Jennifer Grey, whose parts were substantially reduced in the release version.

However, the one actor whose work was most diminished in the reedits was indeed Affleck. While his turn as it stands in the final cut is still counts as some of his best acting work, some interesting shadings to his character and performance were sacrificed in the name of making the film "easier" on the audience and more commercial. His most impressive work comes in a courtroom scene (which is considerably hacked down in the theatrical cut) where a contrite Buddy confesses that he in a way hoped that Greg's plane would go down in flames. Alas, Roos in the end wasn't as brave as Affleck was in this scene.

Affleck also gets the short shrift in one of the disc's extras, "Ben and Gwyneth Go Behind the Scenes," where the two stars interview various crew members during the shoot. Paltrow gets most of the screen time here, which is a shame since in his brief segments, Affleck actually shows signs of interviewing ability--unlike his leading lady, whose approach is as cutesy and fawning as one would expect from a non-professional. As disappointing as this bit is, it is still one of the more interesting supplements aside from the deleted scenes. The rest are strictly more conventional--gag reel, music video, an infomercial-ish "making of" featurette--and as such this package feels really padded out at two discs.

Affleck made a different attempt to broaden his horizons in his other 2000 release, the action thriller Reindeer Games. He's a game enough sport as ex-convict Rudy Duncan, who assumes the identity of his dead former cell mate to hook up with his girlfriend (Charlize Theron), only to be ensnared in a casino heist plot by her brother (Gary Sinise). But instead of building from the traditional Affleck screen persona to venture into new territory, the theatrical version of Reindeer Games did Affleck no favors as an actor by adjusting that territory to fit into the mold of that persona. Hence Rudy was more of a smug and jokey type than a believably hardened action hero.

Considering the film was hardly a box office bonanza or a critical favorite, it's a bit surprising that Dimension has now released director John Frankenheimer's original cut on VHS and DVD. "It's much sexier and much edgier," declares Frankenheimer in a quote in big type on the front cover, and to a certain degree, it is. Affleck and Theron's sex scene in the early-going is slightly more explicit (though not as explicit as its original unreleased NC-17-ready form, Frankenheimer notes in the commentary track); and the violence is a lot more brutal. More subtle touches, however, are what make this version better than the one that went to theatres. Rudy is less of a wisecracker; Theron's Ashley has much more backbone; and downright stupid touches found in the other versions, such as a montage of photos featuring Dennis Farina's casino owner posing with various celebrities, are completely gone. That said, while a better film, Frankenheimer's Reindeer Games still isn't a good film, for only so much can be done with Ehren Kruger's (he who ruined the Scream trilogy) weak script, which caps off its bewildering, out-of-control succession of twists with a ridiculously saccharine ending that does not fit in with everything that precedes it.

Frankenheimer's commentary is useful in pointing out all the subtle alterations (or should I say "restorations"), and he's refreshingly frank about what went wrong in the release cut and how unhappy he was with himself for going through with the changes. Another helpful supplement is the section of the alternate scene versions used in the theatrical cut. The other extras are less so: the film's theatrical trailer (slightly altered to include review blurbs), and a behind-the-scenes featurette that appears to be culled from the electronic press kit.

Unlike a number of his under-30 contemporaries, Affleck has shown--if often only in glimpses and glimmers--chops behind the charm, and one can only hope that in the future he takes fewer roles that play off the latter (yes, that includes Pearl Harbor) and more that give a workout to the former.

Bounce specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; French Dolby Surround; English and Spanish subtitles; English closed captioning. Reindeer specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; English subtitles; English closed captioning. (Bounce: Miramax Home Entertainment; Reindeer: Dimension Home Video)


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#281 June 5, 2001

M O V I E S

What's the Worst That Could Happen? poster What's the Worst That Could Happen? (PG-13) * 1/2
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Anything titled What’s the Worst That Could Happen? practically begs to be skewered with a play on its name. While I won’t fall into that trap, it is incredibly tempting--after all, to do such lazy, hackneyed writing is to mirror the amount of effort put into this sloppy and generally unfunny comedy.

Of course, with two genuinely funny toplining stars--Martin Lawrence and Danny DeVito--and a capable bench of supporting players, What’s the Worst… isn’t completely devoid of laughs. In fact, there is one genuine bring-down-the-house moment that has DeVito’s corrupt tycoon Max Fairbanks exploding into a torrent of profane language (explicitly translated by a sign language interpreter) during a Senate hearing. Yet nothing else in the film comes close to generating much laughter, let alone at the level that comes with that isolated moment of inspiration.

That’s all the more ruinous considering how improbable the basic plot is. Lawrence plays career thief Kevin Caffrey, who has the misfortune of robbing Max’s mansion when he actually happens to be there. As one last “fuck you” before the cops haul Kevin away, Max claims that Kevin’s good luck ring, an heirloom given to him by girlfriend Amber (Carmen Ejogo), is actually an item stolen from the house, so the cops force him to fork it over. Thus begins a game of one-upmanship that has Kevin and Max resorting to increasingly desperate measures--the former to get the ring, the latter to keep it--even as their overall fortunes take a precipitous tumble.

Suspension of disbelief would have been fairly easily achieved had director Sam Weisman and screenwriter Matthew Chapman (very loosely adapting the Donald E. Westlake novel of the same name) had come up with more moments like the Senate hearing and fewer of the plentiful flat ones, such a tired and obvious opening bit that has Kevin getting the better of a condescending white auction house employee. That said, the stars aren’t free from blame. DeVito, at the very least, appears to have some level of fun even if one’s seen him play such an oily sort many times before; on the other hand, Lawrence, usually such a reliable live wire, walks through his part--that is, when not throwing in a spontaneous and completely gratuitous dance bit here and there in a blatant attempt to force a cheap chuckle.

The supporting cast is more on the ball, but there’s only so much they can do for the film given the thankless nature of most of their parts. Among the criminally wasted are Bernie Mac (as Kevin’s uncle), Nora Dunn (as Max’s viper of a wife), Glenne Headly (as Max’s much-put-upon assistant), and the gorgeous and likable Ejogo (whose thin part here is still more meaty than the scraps Kenneth Branagh threw her in last year’s Love’s Labour’s Lost). The big exception is William Fichtner, who tops all of the many weirdoes he’s ever played in the past as police detective Alex Tardio. A flamboyant fop with a weakness for creamy-colored suits and a habit of tossing his powdery locks, he’s the type of guy who coos “Pull daddy like a chariot!” as he walks his dogs. The character and Fichtner’s performance hardly fit in with the rest of What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, and not necessarily because they are both incredibly bizarre--but because they are the only things about the film that doesn’t fit a familiar assembly line cookie cutter.


In Brief

The Animal poster The Animal (PG-13) * 1/2
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I admit it: I laughed along with the rest of the audience when I first saw the trailer for The Animal. No, the sight of Rob Schneider--as a man who for some reason has had various vital organs replaced by those of wild animals (!)--engaging in the sort of goofy physical gags one would expect (e.g., taking a canine-like leap into the air to catch a frisbee with his teeth) didn’t elicit a chuckle. What broke down my defenses was the trailer’s parting gag of Schneider slapping the ass of a goat to the strains of “Let’s Get It On.” Idiotic, yes, but in its own no-brainer way, rather funny. But not unlike that of any given sketch on Schneider’s alma mater of Saturday Night Live, the premise of The Animal is a single-note joke. So little surprise that while it can easily sustain interest in a 90-second trailer, it is hardly sturdy enough to support a 90-minute feature.

After all, a feature requires some sort of serviceable story and cannot merely be a string of scenes with Schneider’s Marvin Mange indulging the wild beast within. But someone didn’t tell Schneider, co-writer Tom Brady, or first-time director Luke Greenfield, for once the film introduces its central gimmick (which doesn’t happen until about a good 25 minutes in) it settles into a virtually plotless stretch of scenes with novice cop Marvin sniffing out a balloon of heroin from a smuggler’s butt (yes, it’s true) or licking the face of the comely nature activist (Colleen Haskell, a.k.a. the cute one from the original Survivor) whom he likes. The antics go on for about 30 to 40 minutes longer than their thin novelty is worth, and then point Schneider and the crew introduce some last-minute conflict--does Marvin become a rampaging beast at night, unbeknownst to himself?--to pad the film to a multiplex-ready run time.

It goes without saying that Schneider isn’t much of an actor, but at the very least he doesn’t exhibit the worst characteristics of fellow SNL-to-film transplants Adam Sandler and David Spade: smugness and smarm, respectively. Haskell shouldn’t bet on a screen career just yet, for Greenfield so obviously covers up her clear absence of acting ability by throwing in closeups of her ever-adorable smile whenever remotely possible; note how he cuts away as much as possible whenever she speaks (or is it “reads”?) her lines. But complaining about performances is a moot issue when every single character is a caricature, and even more pointless considering the entire film itself is one--and a quickly tiresome one at that.


The Man Who Cried poster The Man Who Cried (R) ***
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The title of Sally Potter's WWII-era drama refers to no one in particular; in fact, it has little do with much of anything, especially considering the main character is a young woman. The film begins with the Jewish protagonist, Fegele, being sent away from her village in Russia by her family in 1927 for fear of possible persecution. She lands in England, where she is renamed Suzie and brought up in a Christian school and household. Ten years later, Suzie (now played by Christina Ricci) is all grown up and ready to pursue a life of her own, which she finds in Paris as a chorus girl. But her happiness is again threatened as Nazi forces close in on the City of Lights.

Although WWII plays a large role in The Man Who Cried, it is hardly the film’s main concern. The war and the accompanying prejudices loom ominously throughout (and the era is further echoed by the beautiful mock Technicolor of Sacha Vierny’s cinematography), but this is essentially a timeless story about a young woman searching for her father and, in turn, her lost heritage. While she and her family were still in Russia, her father (Oleg Yankovskiy) left for America to find work, promising to send back for his loved ones once he was settle, which proved to be an impossibility. It’s a simple plot, but it is quite poignant in its modest, literally quiet nature; Potter keeps dialogue to a minimum, especially for Suzie. Her soft-spokenness can easily be taken as passivity, but Ricci has a captivating inner strength and intelligence that radiates in her expressive face; her Suzie may be silent most of the time, but she’s never opaque.

With the possible exception of a seemingly disinterested Johnny Depp, once again playing a gypsy and also again romancing Ricci, the supporting ensemble, which includes John Turturro (as a vain Italian opera star) also Harry Dean Stanton (as the opera company’s manager), makes their mark. Coming off most indelibly is Cate Blanchett, continuing to dazzle with her chameleonic virtuosity as chatterbox Russian showgirl and Suzie’s roommate, Lola. But their and Ricci’s work is ultimately just support for Potter’s entrancing and emotional vision.


Panic poster Panic (R) ***
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Henry Bromell's film about a hitman (William H. Macy) in a mid-life crisis received largely positive notices when it premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. Yet mere months after that well-received debut, its distributor, Artisan Entertainment, unceremoniously sold off first-run rights to the film to Cinemax. (San Francisco-based Roxie Releasing later snapped up the rights for a post-cable theatrical run, as they did previously with John Dahl's Red Rock West.) So what's wrong with the picture?

As it turns out, nothing, but Artisan's decision is somewhat understandable--not for what the film is, but what it isn't. The main character may be a hitman, but this is no action film nor violent crime yarn. Panic, contrary to the suggestion of its title, is a subtle and delibaratly paced character study of a man who just happens to be a hired killer. Like many other average guys, Macy's Alex turns to a therapist (John Ritter) for help with his troubles, namely frustrations with his domestic life with wife Martha (Tracey Ullman); difficulties in doing right by his 6-year-old son Sammy (David Dorfman); an intensifying flirtation with the much younger Sarah (Neve Campbell); and above all an increasing distaste for the work he's done all his life for his father/agent Michael (Donald Sutherland). Given the almost mundane nature of Alex's problems, the hitman angle would seem to be gratuitously sensationalistic, but it adds a layer of danger the film's central concern: the relationship between Alex and Michael, which is fleshed out through flashback.

Bromell's approach to the material mirrors the character of Alex: subdued but with palpable tensions simmering below the surface. Much like Bromell's direction, Macy's performance is superbly modulated and quietly touching; the rest of the cast also give understated yet powerful turns. Particularly disarming is the work of the young Dorfman, who is cute without being cloying; that said, the character of Sammy is the key weakness in Bromell's script--he's a bit too precocious and profound for his age. Nonetheless, that is but one flaw in a worthy film that's well worth seeking out.


The Road Home poster The Road Home (G) ***
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If you think Zhang Ziyi's breakout performance in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was mostly due to nifty wire assistance, then this unabashedly sentimental drama from celebrated Mainland Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou will prove you wrong. In a role that predates last year's award-winning phenomenon (and, in fact, led Ang Lee to make that fateful casting decision), she is absolutely radiant and completely convincing as Zhao Di, a country girl smitten with Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), the freshly-arrived young teacher at the village schoolhouse. After not-so-subtly pursuing--and winning--his affections, Di and Changyu are torn apart.

It's not giving anything away to say that Di and Changyu do end up together, for their story is framed by the present day one of their adult son Yusheng (Sun Honglei), who has returned to his home village for Changyu's funeral. That the flashback story, which makes the heart (in every sense) of the film, still engrosses is a testament to the captivating talent of the two Zhangs. Zhang Yimou is a true poet with his camera, spectacularly capturing the lush visual splendor of the village of Sanhetun (contrary to norm, the flashback portion is in vivid color while the present-day events are photographed in black and white). One of the most beautiful features of the village is, of course, Zhang Ziyi, and while the director's generous closeups of her beaming face go a long way toward endearing Di to the audience, the conviction she brings to the role make the character one to deeply care about. Screenwriter Bao Shi's characters and story are fairly simple, but in the ever-sure hands of Zhang Yimou, such simplicity is made quite elegant.


D V D

The Complete Superman Collection DVD The Complete Superman Collection
Discs: ***
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FEATURING:
Superman (PG)
Movie: *** 1/2; Disc: ****
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Superman II (PG)
Movie: *** 1/2; Disc: **
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Superman III (PG)
Movie: * 1/2; Disc: **
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Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (PG)
Movie: no stars; Disc: **
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Nearly a quarter-century has passed since the release of Richard Donner's 1978 blockbuster Superman, and it is still considered by many to be the standard to which all film adaptations of comic books are measured. Arguably, nothing has quite matched it, not even the two most artistically and commercially successful page-to-screen translations in the intervening years: Tim Burton's original Batman, which, while staying close to the Dark Knight mythos, was more a showcase for Burton's splendid sense for atmosphere than a solid piece of storytelling; and Bryan Singer's X-Men, which for all its faithfulness to the spirit of the comics didn't get all the visuals quite right (read: what was up with those costumes?).

Superman DVD Donner isn't known to be a filmmaker of much personality; his best work has a workman-like precision but lacks a truly unique imprint. That fairly anonymous quality, however, is a perfect match for the Man of Steel and, come to think of it, comic adaptations in general. He doesn't force any quirks onto the famously wholesome character or his familiar story, instead presenting them in a manner that is straightforward and respectful--in short, the very qualities one would want and expect from any adaptation of that more highly esteemed form of literature, the novel. It seems ridiculous that no one had used such an approach before; after all, for all their erroneous stigma as being "kids stuff," comics have produced some of the most enduring icons and attached mythologies--not because they hold some camp appeal (the wrongheaded notion behind the '60s Batman television series and Joel Schumacher's misbegotten Batman & Robin), but because the characters and their stories all somehow resonated on an intimate level. In the case of Superman, not only is there the ultimate fantasy fulfillment--to be strong, to be invulnerable, to be fast, to FLY--but his story also taps into the universal feeling of being an outsider in the world.

One common knock on Superman is that Donner and "creative consultant" (in actuality, script rewriter) Tom Mankiewicz are a bit too reverential, and that's understandable. While their careful attention to detail in recounting baby Kal-El's journey from the doomed planet Krypton to the too-aptly named Smallville, the rechristened young Clark Kent's transformation into Superman, and adult Clark's (Christopher Reeve) life in Metropolis offers many savory details (e.g. the brief appearance of Clark's high school sweetheart Lana Lang) and indelible sights (e.g. the crystalline structure of Krypton and the Fortress of Solitude; the living Norman Rockwell landscape that is Smallville), it also is responsible for a pace that sometimes ponderous and a film that is ultimately a bit overlong (and even longer still in the DVD's expanded special edition). The balance of the film also weighs heavily toward exposition and dangerously light on the side of narrative and conflict (Gene Hackman's light take on Superman archnemesis Lex Luthor can be called a lot of things--but not a convincing threat).

That shortcoming is excusable in light of Donner and Mankiewicz's original game plan, which was for the simultaneously-shot Superman and Superman II to essentially make one big movie (and, in fact, the two films were based on a very epic, very long script by Godfather author Mario Puzo). The plan didn't completely pan out due to Donner's conflict of personalities with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who fired him from II after he had already completed well over half of it. Ample background on this and other aspects of the original Superman's production is offered in Warner Bros.' superlative DVD edition of the film. This jam-packed, double-sided platter includes a trio of documentary featurettes tracing the film's development from basic concept to final product, including an in-depth look at the extensive visual effects work; amusing and insightful feature-length commentary (that slightly overlaps with the documentaries) by Donner and Mankiewicz; theatrical trailers and a television spot; and, most delicious of all, screen tests for the roles of Superman, Lois Lane, and II villainess Ursa.

While only Reeve's screen test is included on the Superman end and relatively little space is (understandably) devoted to Ursa, quite a few tests for Lois are included, and the clips are fascinating. For someone who's never been the biggest fan of Margot Kidder's interpretation of Lois, the test footage is a revelatory watch. She may have been too screechy for my taste at times, but when viewing her next to the failed applicants--among them, a too-soft Anne Archer, a too-hard Stockard Channing, and a giggly and altogether frightening Lesley Ann Warren--there's no question that she was only one who really nailed the balance essential to Lois: that between intelligent, ballsy independence and romantic vulnerability. Despite whatever hang-ups I've had about Kidder's work, I never denied her potent chemistry with Reeve, and that effortless rapport was quite evident even in these early tests.

All the supplements on the disc may be a bit much for the casual fan who just wants a copy of the movie, and no one will be disappointed by the presentation of the main feature. The new digital transfer sparkles, and remastered soundtrack is just as impressive; John Williams' classic score is also given its rightful due in a music-only track (and a separately-featured section of deleted cues). Purists may be a little upset by the fact that the sound effects have been completely re-recorded, but when the film sounds better than it ever has, why complain?

Superman II DVD Along with the super-special edition of the original film, Warner Bros. has also issued disappointingly barebones (movie and trailer only) DVDs of the other three films in the series, both separately and as part of a box set, The Complete Superman Collection. If it's quality you seek, stick with the original film and 1980's Superman II. A number of fans of Superman do not like II, but I chalk that up more to loyalty to the unfairly dumped Donner than anything else. Granted, replacement director (or is it simply "film finisher"?) Richard Lester makes an occasional dive into the campiness that Donner and Mankiewicz (who still retains "creative consultant" credit here) made great pains to avoid, but he deserves credit for assembling a wonderfully entertaining popcorn flick that still ranks in the upper echelon of comic-based movies. As according to the original plan for Superman II, the meat of the story that was so carefully set up in the first film takes place here: Superman finally meets his formidable match in the form of the three evil Kryptonians (Terence Stamp, Jack O'Halloran, and Sarah Douglas) that were banished to "The Phantom Zone" at the beginning of the previous film; and the ever-intensifying relationship between Clark and Lois reaches its full, complex blossom, with Clark making the ultimate sacrifice for love and happiness. The spectacular battle scenes, the tenderly poignant love story (driven by series-best performances by Reeve and Kidder), and the still-amusing work by Hackman make such broad transgressions as the "Houston, Idaho" interlude quite forgivable.

Superman III DVD In including 1983's Superman III and 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace along with the wildly enjoyable first two films, The Complete Superman Collection makes for an intriguing study in how a terrific franchise can go horribly awry in the wrong hands. The fateful changing of the guard between Donner and Lester on II reveals itself to be a move akin to Joel Schumacher's takeover of the Batman series. Much like how Schumacher's serviceable--and, more importantly, financially successful--efforts on Batman Forever were rewarded with what proved to be way too much "creative" freedom on the next movie, Batman & Robin, Lester, credited with the success of II, was given free rein to do whatever he wanted on III. Apparently, his intent was to turn Superman into a joke. A really bad joke. The grandiose opening titles of the predecessors is dumped in favor of a drawn-out slapstick sequence that feels like it came from a completely different film; Hackman's Luthor is replaced by even jokier villain (Robert Vaughn's business tycoon Ross Webster); and, worst of all, Supes himself is made a virtual second banana to Richard Pryor, who plays computer programmer Gus Gorman. Pryor is normally an insanely funny individual, but he's hamstrung by the lame PG-rated antics handed him, not to mention the fact that he and his character are simply out of place in the world of Superman. Another change made by Lester and the Salkinds is the fleeting presence of Lois, apparent payback for Kidder after publicly commenting against the decision to sack Donner on II; Clark's leading lady this time is Annette O'Toole as the resurfaced Lana Lang. O'Toole is certainly easier on the eyes than Kidder, but small town single mom Lana is a pallid stand-in for spunky Lois, and O'Toole doesn't strongly connect with Reeve. III does have one big highlight, though, and that is a knock-down, drag-out fight between Clark and a lapsed Superman, who are split in two after exposure to tobacco-tainted Kryptonite.

Superman IV DVD However wrongheaded a number of their decisions may have been, the Salkinds always made sure that their Superman films at least passed muster on a technical level; they always looked the part of a big blockbuster. With the passing of the production torch to the Cannon Group and infamous budget tightwads Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, it was clear that the worst was yet to come. A little grudging credit, though, has to go to them and director Sidney J. Furie, for they at least make some attempt to restore the original spirit of the series: the lengthy opening title sequence is back, if in far less elaborate fashion; and two of the more famous elements of the first two films are lifted, if for no real point: Superman and Lois's famous flight in the first, and the "kiss of forgetfulness" that closed the second.

That, and the fact that familiar faces Kidder and Hackman are restored to prominence, just about covers all the negligible good in what is otherwise an insultingly inept film. Reeve, who receives story co-credit, may have his heart in the right place with the nuclear disarmament theme, he and scripters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal come up with the most idiotically literal way of going about it: introducing a new supervillain named... Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow, all blond and beefy à la Malibu from American Gladiators). Nukie (who rather hilariously speaks in the voice of Luthor) is but one of the dud new characters brought into the mix: then-hot Brat Packer Jon Cryer is in full-annoyance mode as Lex's bumbling nephew Lenny (a horrid replacement for Ned Beatty's rather endearing bumbler Otis, of the first two films), and Mariel Hemingway turns up in a role whose only apparent purpose is to be dragged out into outerspace--and still somehow managing to breathe!--in the film's final stretch.

Amazingly enough, I still haven't covered the absolute worst element of Superman IV, and that is the cheesy effects work. There are moments where you can swear someone just moved cardboard cutouts across the frame (as in when Superman pushes the moon); and the matte lines get so thick that characters have blotchy rings around them. The big showstopper, though, is the chintzy moon set, where the outer space backdrop is so obviously made of ratty black curtains (dig those drape pleats).

Superman IV originally clocked in, as with the other three films, at over two hours, but disastrous test screenings led Warner Bros. to hack it down to a lean 90 minutes. Of course, there are some Super-fans clamoring for the release of a restored "director's cut" someday, but if those remaining 90 minutes are any indication, then this is a case where the test audiences did know exactly what was (or, should I say, what wasn't) good for them.

With two of the four movies being quite bad and only one of the four discs being a true special edition, The Complete Superman Collection is a DVD box set that will only hold much appeal for Superman fanatics. For the rest of us, the exceptional Superman disc should be good enough--and if not, Superman II, the real conclusion to Supes' cinematic saga, should satisfy any remaining Last Son of Krypton cravings.

Superman specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; music only Surround; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; English closed captioning; DVD-ROM features. Superman II and III specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English Dolby Surround; French mono; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; English closed captioning. Superman IV specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English and French Dolby Surround; English and French subtitles; English closed captioning. (Warner Home Video)


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