Movie Reviews - 1980s postsTuesday August 11, 2015
Movie Review: The Killing Fields (1984)
Who decided on the music? And how much did it harm the movie?
I’m not talking about the dissonant music we hear when the foreign journalists are in the clutches of the Khmer Rouge and fearing for their lives. That’s obtrusive but appropriate: time out of joint, life upended. I’m talking about the music we hear after Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who won the Oscar for best supporting) somehow secures their release, and they return to the city proper, with its increasing lawlessness and triumphant teenaged soldiers, and our guys are pushing along a small white truck but the camera lets them push it out of frame while it holds on the mass of Cambodians being herded out of Phnom Pehn—prefiguring mass relocation, reeducation, and, for many, death. That’s when we get something out of western opera: medieval chants and bombast. At first I thought it was from an opera, but it appears to have been created for the soundtrack by Mike Oldfield. He was going old school, but old western school, which hardly seems appropriate. It’s so over-the-top, silence would have been preferable.
Worse, of course, is the last song we hear, but I don’t know if we blame Oldfield since he obviously didn’t write it. (According to IMDb.com, we blame producer David Puttnam.)
So after years in the countryside, hoeing mud and being subjected to dissonant loudspeaker propaganda, not to mention a constant threat of torture and death; and after escaping one misery only to tromp through the titular killing fields and then land in another, as a kind of au pair for a benevolent KR leader; and after fleeing that situation with several others, two of whom die on a landmine, Pran finally makes it all the way to Thailand. He’s working at a Red Cross station there when he’s told someone has arrived to see him. Confused, he goes outside, and sees, half out of a car, his old boss/mentor/friend, and the film’s co-star, New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterson, nominated, lead), who has been looking for him all of these years, plagued by the guilt that he didn’t insist Pran leave when he had the chance.
And what’s the music we hear during this powerful moment? “Imagine” by John Lennon.
Even when I saw the film as a 21-year-old in 1984, I all but slapped my forehead in disbelief. And that’s the mood you take with you from the theater. It absolutely ruins the feeling it's spent two-plus hours cultivating.
They came from TV
I decided to watch “The Killing Fields” again after I saw the documentary, “The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor” at the Seattle International Film Festival this year. I thought it needed a rewatching. I remembered so little of it.
Mostly, I remembered that the movie was split into two parts: before the Khmer Rouge and after. A lot of waiting around in embassies in the first half, and the horror, the horror of the second. To be honest, in the rewatch, I fastforwarded through some of the second-half scenes of horror.
Is the first half more interesting because it’s ensemble? Because of its different tensions? Pran is almost in a servant role. He gets Schanberg into and out of places. Sometimes he wakes him up in the morning. Does he ever resent it? Is that what he and the driver talk about once they drop Schanberg off at his swanky hotel? And by the way: What happens to the driver? Does he make it out alive? Do we ever find out?
Back in’84, I liked the bored, soggy worldliness of the international journalists stationed in Phnom Pehn, and that feeling’s still there. John Malkovich is stellar as Al Rockoff, while Julian Sands is startling handsome (but not much of an actor) as Jon Swain. Spalding Grey is our U.S. consul, a government functionary trying to do the right thing, but, sadly, he’s not really that good, either. Is Craig T. Nelson as the stonewalling military attaché who keeps Schanberg from visiting Neak Luong, the site of an accidental U.S. bombing?
A lot of the principles came out of television. Director Roland Joffé had been directing British TV series when he got the gig, Waterson had been relegated to TV movies after the box office disaster of “Heaven’s Gate," Sands was in Brit TV.
Ngor, of course, came out of nowhere. The producers were looking for someone to play Pran and he was working at a medical clinic near L.A. and someone suggested him. He had the background (he’d escaped the Khmer Rouge himself) but zero acting experience. But he’s quite good. For some reason I thought Ngor didn’t really deserve his Oscar; back then, I’d been rooting for Adolph Cesar in “A Soldier’s Story.” But his performance anchors the movie.
The Nixon Doctrine
“The Killing Fields” is not a great film but it is a worthwhile film. The line of the movie belongs to Pres. Richard Nixon, whom Schanberg, back home, watches on a primitive VCR while “Nessun Dorma” (again with the opera) plays in the background. This is what Nixon says to the press, almost with a swagger, while explaining U.S. incursion into Cambodia:
Cambodia is the Nixon Doctrine in its purest form.
Truer words. Maybe a different John Lennon song should’ve ended the film: “How Do You Sleep?”
Dig If You Will the Picture: A Few Thoughts on Seeing 'Purple Rain' 31 Years Later
Nobody digs his music but himself?
Last Thursday, P and I went to see a showing of Prince's “Purple Rain” at Central Cinema, a fun, dine-in movie theater in Seattle's Central district. It was part of the “Movies in Black & White” series that my friend Jason Lamb hosts in Portland and Seattle. And yes, “Purple Rain” is not in black and white (it's in purple), but that's not the point of the series. The point of the series is to screen movies that lead to racial discussions. Tough thing to do. There's always a lot of posturing in racial discussions. No one these days wants to be Bull Connor. Or even Laurie Pritchett.
Anyway, I didn't really talk much during the post-screening discussion, which turned less on racial matters than gender matters. A lot of misogyny in the film: girls tossed in trash bins, hit, stripped, ignored, etc. This attitude, in fact, is the thing that needs to be overcome in the film. At least that's what the Kid needs to overcome in order to become a success. He's one of four acts at First Avenue in Minneapolis (the club I went to growing up), and he may be on his on his way out. As the club owner, a fat black dude wearing an ugly Detroit Tigers cap, tells him, “Nobody digs ye music but yeself.” But then the Kid opens himself up to collaboration with bandmates Wendy and Lisa, and he sings “Purple Rain,” which they wrote, and that brings the house down. And he finally becomes successful.
Here are the two objections I have with that story arc:
- It's bullshit. The notion that becoming less selfish and more inclusive leads to success is a tired Hollywood trope that is rarely if ever borne out in reality.
- The first song we hear the Kid play is “Let's Go Crazy,” which is one of the greatest rock songs ever written. It's also the music nobody digs but himself. Which is ... crazy.
It's really the second objection that I could never wrap my mind around. Just how dumb is that club owner? How dense are the flat-footed kids of First Ave not to recognize one hellbent, balls-out, rock-n-roll song?
Other thoughts on the film 31 years later:
- The First Ave in the film was a lot more racially diverse than the First Ave I went to in '83 and '84.
- A lot of early-MTV sexism. At the same time, Apollonia. Good god, girl.
- The only real actor in the film was Clarence Williams III, Link from “Mod Squad,” who played the Kid's father. He has a stillness to him. Everyone else was a B actor at best. But Morris Day was fun.
I do think it's funny seeing Prince all duded up—hair a tower of curls, shirt ruffled, suit as purple as the Joker's—tooling around the scabby Minnesota countryside on his motorcycle as if it's the most ordinary thing in the world. Naw. Minneapolis has a touch of the Amish in it. We look askance at anyone calling attention to themselves. We're Bud Grant on the sidelines, Garrison Keillor on the radio, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale coming in second and smiling in presidential races. Prince's outlandishness was probably in reaction to all that. No wonder he wanted to go crazy.
Overall, the music still rocks but the movie hasn't aged well. It's kind of astonishing to remember that not only was it a huge box office hit—knocking “Ghostbusters” out of the No. 1 slot at the end of July 1984, and grossing a total of $68 million, or $165 million adjusted—but it was a huge critical hit, too. Both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel included it in their top 10 movies of 1984.
Movie Review: Hero At Large (1980)
They should remake this movie. We could use its message again.
An out-of work actor named Steve Nichols (John Ritter) takes a gig appearing as Captain Avenger at local cinemas to help promote the apparently dying superhero movie of the same name. He’s a generous personality, a gee-whiz Midwestern guy who helps fellow actors get jobs, and he likes the superhero gig. He’s kind of thrilled by it. One night after an appearance, wearing an overcoat over his red suit, he’s at a mom-and-pop grocery store in his Lower East Side neighborhood when it’s robbed. It takes a moment, but eventually he springs into action. He stands arms akimbo, annunciating like the character, and scatters the hoodlums—one of whom flees outright, the other after a 15-second fist fight—then turns to mom and pop, amazed at what he’s done, what he’s gotten away with, what acting he did.
The rest of the movie follows from this one act of daring and kindness. He appears four more times as Captain Avenger:
- His life and career failing elsewhere, he attempts to remake the magic of the first incident but winds up with a bullet in the arm and a determination to hang up the cape and tights.
- When Walter Reeves (Bert Convy), the PR firm representing Captain Avenger—as well as the Mayor in a tough reelection campaign—figures out who he is, they cajole him into an orchestrated elevated-train-robbery to make people feel good about the city again. It works, but Steve feels like crap afterwards. He knows it’s phony, he feels like a phony, and he’s determined to hang up the cape and tights.
- Still, as agreed, he shows up at a rally for the Mayor, accepting a key to the city, then, apparently on his own, gives a “It’s not me, it’s you” speech to the cheering crowd. He talks about how there are heroes everywhere; he says we just have to pull together and care more about each other. It’s at this point, though, that an enterprising reporter, Gloria Preston (Jane Hallaren), exposes incident #2 as a fraud, which means Steve’s a fraud. The mob turns on him quickly. Fights break out. People don’t care again.
- Ashamed, about to leave the city for good, he comes across a tenement-building fire (of course), with a kid trapped inside (of course), and the Fire Chief determined not to let any of his men risk their necks (of course). So he springs into action again as Captain Avenger. After he saving the boy, though, he needs saving. Which is what happens. Two burly local guys, one black and one white, along with the Fire Chief, run into the burning building to get him, thus proving the message in his speech. We are all heroes.
After that, he gets the girl, J. Marsh (Anne Archer), along with a happy ending, and the two walk along the streets of New York as the camera pans up and back. Fade out
We could use this message again.
Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
No, not the “We’re all heroes” message. Ick.
I’m talking about the movie’s tangential discussion on hero worship: our overwhelming, insatiable, juvenile need for heroes. You could really do something with that in this day and age. You could attempt to upend the genre with that.
“Hero At Large” was made at a time when the genre didn’t even exist. It opened on February 8, 1980, when only one superhero movie, as we now understand them, had been made: “Superman,” starring Christopher Reeve. Before that, you had a few TV superheroes (Hulk, Shazam, 1950s Superman), a mess of Saturday morning cartoons, and the movie serials of the 1940s.
More, popular cinema was just beginning to switch from an era of gritty antiheroes, disappearing frontiers and depressing endings to the over-the-top heroics and ultimate triumphs of … take your pick. Luke Skywalker. Rocky Balboa. Indiana Jones. Maverick. John McClane. Superman. Batman. Spider-Man. Iron Man. The motherfucking Avengers. In its own way, despite its gritty New York locations and everyman message, “Hero” is trying to push us toward that future. It wants us to want heroes. It wants us to feel good again.
At one point, as New York City is going Captain Avenger crazy, a local TV host (William Bogert) talks up the phenomenon, then lets his two female panelists, journalist Gloria Preston and Dr. Joyce Brothers (playing herself), debate the matter:
Brothers: Who’s to say it’s unhealthy to admire a heroic figure?
Preston: Oh, I will. The next we’ll be doing is, uh, looking for genies in bottles or having our fairy godmothers take us to the ball.
The host then asks if the public response to Captain Avenger doesn’t indicate that people would like to have a hero. Brothers: “Of course they would.” Preston: “What happens when they find out it’s a joke?”
Preston’s assumption is incorrect at this moment. Steve hasn’t faked anything. He’s a legitimate nice guy and one-time hero. No, the better response is: “Of course people want a hero. Then what?” I.e., What happens when you buy into it as much as we buy into it? When you see it every weekend at the movie theaters? When you see it every night on TV? Do you begin to think we’re the heroes, that our powers are limitless, that happy endings are de rigueur? Do you transfer the tropes of the genre off the screen and into, say, the political realm? Do you see our country as the hero, stalking and routing villains, and then wonder where the happy ending went? Why it got so complicated? Do you have trouble dealing with complexity and relativity of the world? Do you have trouble seeing the world as it is? Do you assume absolutes? Do you yearn for a simpler time?
“We need our hopes, just as we need our fantasies,” Dr. Brothers says on the talk show, then turns toward the camera and speaks directly to Steve. “We need you, Captain Avenger, dream and reality. Keep it up!”
He does. We have.
Come and knock on her door
The rest of the movie is lukewarm romance: Steve inveigling his way into J.’s apartment and her life. It’s got a “Three’s Company” vibe—he’s often shirtless, or in a towel, and there’s sexual innuendo. J. isn’t interested in him until she is. Then she isn’t again. Then she is. It’s love.
Archer is both annoying and sexy, while Ritter is too emphatic, too pungent, in both his niceness and his pushiness. He seems to gulp things in. The acting from both actors feels like acting.
Steve is basically Clark Kent—Midwestern nice guy that nobody in the city believes can be that nice—while the back-and-forth with J. borrows heavily from “Superman”:
J.: Why do you do it?
Steve: Because of what happened. All of those people who called in and wrote letters. How often do you get to do something that’s really special?
J.: You really mean that, don’t you? You’re for real.
Later, when it all falls apart and he’s ready to leave city, still wearing his red suit and striped underwear, she gives him a pep talk:
J.: If you run away, the bad guys win.
Steve: They win anyway. They’ve got the numbers. … Nobody listens.
J. (quietly): I did.
So did Hollywood.
Captain Avenger to the rescue!
Movie Review: Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (1981/2006)
In every detail, “Superman II” directed by Richard Donner is better than “Superman II,” directed by Richard Lester. Particularly one.
Alright, so the ending still sucks. Turning back time again? But this is understandable. “I” was supposed to end with Lex Luthor’s nuke setting free the Krytponian supervillains Zod, Ursa and Non from the Phantom Zone (“FREEEE!”), with the title graphic announcing, “Superman will return in SUPERMAN II!” or some such. But they decided—rightly, if you ask me—that they needed a real end to “I,” and so Supes turns back time to save Lois’ life. Although even as a 15-year-old I wondered: Just how farback did he go? To before the nukes launched? To before the kryptonite and the dunk in the pool and the rescue by Miss Tessmacher? Before the kiss from Miss Tessmacher? Do you give up Miss Tessmacher or allow half of California to sink into the ocean? A true dilemma.
In the Richard Donner cut, pieced together by editor Michael Thau in 2005-06 after years of fanboy demand, they return to the original ending. Now Superman turns back time so Lois won’t be unduly burdened with the knowledge that Clark is Superman. But there are still problems:
- It resurrects our three supervillains, who had died an icy death beneath the Fortress of Solitude. Meaning they could come back anytime and take over the world. Nice.
- It makes the comeuppance of Rocky, the diner bully, nonsensical. Now Rocky never attacked Clark and thus deserves no comeuppance.
- It makes the entire movie pointless. What we just watched never really happened.
Of course you can say this about the movies in general. What we watch never really happens. Yet we keep doing it.
If only we could turn back time.
Are you familiar with the backstory to the two versions? Donner was nearly superhuman in helping create “Superman: The Movie.” He cared about verisimilitude. That was his watchword on set. The cast loved him: Brando, Hackman, Reeve, Kidder. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind? Not so much. They liked spending money to make a splash—$3 million for Brando!—but turned off the spigot everywhere else. Their m.o. was to find a brand-name product, hopefully in the public domain, hire some big-name stars, and make a crappy movie out of it. Witness “Bluebeard” with Richard Burton in 1972; “Santa Claus” with Dudley Moore in 1985; and “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery” with Marlon Brando in 1992. Witness “Supergirl” with Faye Dunaway and Peter O’Toole in 1984. On second thought, don’t witness it.
The Salkinds also made the “Musketeers” movies in ’73 and ’74, directed by Richard Lester, and those were popular and came in under budget. And when Donner went over-budget while filming the first two “Superman” movies simultaneously—although he says he never had a budget—the Salkinds brought in Lester as advisor, most likely with the idea of having him replace Donner. Which is what happened after “Superman: The Movie” became a big hit. The Salkinds switched Dicks.
Apparently Donner finished 80 percent of principle photography on “II” but Lester, a Brit, who knew little of the Superman legend, and whose ouevre tended toward comedy (“A Hard Day’s Night”), camp (“The Three Musketeers”), and crap (“Butch and Sundance: The Early Days”), remade it in his image. Put it this way: “Verisimilitude” was not his watchword.
Lester gave Superman and the Kryptonian villains powers they never had in the comic books. They point at people and lift them in the air. Superman shrinkwraps Non with a plastic “S” symbol. He kisses Lois and makes her forget he’s Superman. In the Donner version, we lose all of this crap.
We lose the candy-cane villainy of Zod, Ursa and Non on Krypton. Seriously, that was their crime? Breaking a candy cane in two? Man, that Kryptonian Council was uptight.
We lose Clark strolling into The Daily Planet in the middle of the day like he’s a slacker. We lose the awful, super-sensitive dialogue between Supes and Lois in the honeymoon suite at Niagra Falls. Ditto Superman flying around the world to pick flowers and groceries. And now he beds Lois before he loses his powers. For which, I’m sure, she’s grateful.
How about the worst contradiction in the movie? In the Lester version, when Supes loses his powers in the crystal chamber, he grimaces in pain and comes out exhausted. Yet when he reverses things so Zod, Ursa and Non lose their powers, they feel nothing until Superman crushes Zod’s hand. Which makes no sense. Even as an 18-year-old in 1981, my mind balked at the disconnect. In the Donner version, Supes losing his superpowers isn’t so painful, so it’s less of a disconnect when Zod feels nothing.
That’s what we lose. What do we gain? The greatest actor of all time.
The best lost scene ever
That was another thing with the Salkinds: they got sued a lot. And they were in litigation with Marlon Brando at the time “Superman II” was being filmed, or refilmed, and so, because of that, and because Brando was promised 11 percent of the profits from the sequel if he was in it, they simply excised him from the story. The Kryptonian Council stands alone without Jor-El. Kal-El now gets advice from his mother, Lara (Susannah York), who was silent throughout most of “I.” No wonder he screams “Fatherrrrrrrrrr!” the way he does. Daddy’s missing.
Seeing Brando restored in the Donner cut, you get the feeling that the filmmakers planned on extending the Christ metaphor. Superman wasn’t meant to be merely a superpowered being sent via star to a childless couple to show humans the light; there’s also death (losing his powers) and resurrection (regaining them by becoming one with the father). Shouting “Fatherrrrrrrrrr!” with arms spread wide is his version of “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”
But this isn’t the best part of the Donner cut. The best part of the Donner cut is how they open the movie.
In Lester’s version, Clark Kent strolls into The Daily Planet office at midday while others are working, then hears about the terrorists taking over the Eifel Tower, with Lois on the scene; so he runs and changes into Superman and saves the day, and sends the nuke into space (again), and yadda yadda. None of it is tight. None of it is funny. You wonder why Clark isn’t at work, why he doesn’t know about the terrorists, and why he keeps detonating nukes in space when his mother has already warned him against it in those Kryptonian lesson plans.
Here’s what Donner does. Clark strolls into The Daily Planet office, yes, but he doesn’t try to say “Hi” to busy people. Instead, while he talks to Jimmy, Lois, back from her adventures in California, looks at him, looks at the photo of Superman in the newspaper, and begins to draw a suit, glasses, and a fedora on it. Wah-lah! She ain’t dumb. She probably thought, “Hey, they’re both tall, arrived in Metropolis around the same time, and they’re the only dudes in the late 1970s who still use Brylcreem, so…” Here, with her doodle, she makes the connection. Here, now, she’s sure.
And what does she do with this information? She toys with him and teases him. It’s pretty cute. Perry calls both into his office and gives them an assignment to pose as a honeymoon couple at Niagra Falls to blow the lid off some scam there. She’s game. He’s worried. She talks about flying up there and pokes him in the ribs. “You know, fly?” she says after Perry’s left, then flaps her hands like a bird, like Jack Nicholson’s Joker would do in imitation of the Batman 11 years later. Then she opens a window and allows herself to fall out. “You won’t let me die, Superman!” she cries. He doesn’t. With superspeed, he races through the Planet office, papers and skirts flying, and onto the sidewalk below, slows her descent with his superbreath, unfurls an awning with his heat vision, and allows her to bounce, plop, from the awning into a nearby vegetable stand. The he races back and looks worriedly out the window. “Lois, what are you doing?” he cries. She faints.
It’s fun. It’s clever. It’s sexy. It’s got pizzazz. It’s like finding a great lost scene from “Casablanca.” It’s better than any scene in Lester’s version.
And it wound up on his cutting-room floor.
You want to call Superman. Because we wuz robbed.
What might’ve been
Who knows what might have happened if the Salkinds had stuck with Richard Donner for the second movie. Who knows how he and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz might have shaped the movie and the ending. Maybe they would’ve realized, as Hollywood eventually realized, that you can have the secret identity revealed, and stay revealed, as it was in “Batman,” and “Batman Returns, and “Batman Begins,” and “Spider-Man 2,” and “Iron Man.” That it’s OK to deviate from the restrictive continuity of the comic book. That you’re in the movies now and it’s time to have a little fun.
Maybe they would have done all that.
But we can’t turn back time to find out.
Supercute: Lois and Clark in the best lost scene ever.
Movie Review: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
In “Superman: The Movie,” set in 1978, Superman (Christopher Reeve) brings a bit of old-fashioned conservatism (“I’m here to fight for truth, justice and the American way”) to a cynical, left-wing America presided over by Jimmy Carter. The result is charming.
In “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” set in 1987, Superman (same) brings a bit of left-wing idealism (“Effective immediately, I'm going to rid our planet of all nuclear weapons”) to a conservative, loutish America presided over by Ronald Reagan. The result is shit.
Why? The fourth “Superman” movie, and the sad, last chapter in the Christopher Reeve series, reverts the old saying about failure being an orphan. This failure had nothing but fathers. Most of them deadbeats.
Bow down before Übermensch
Start with the concept, which started with Christopher Reeve.
In the DVD commentary to the Richard Donner cut of “Superman II,” creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz talks about Reeve coming to him with this idea about nuclear disarmament for “IV,” and while he loved Reeve, “the most wonderful guy in the world,” he says, “so altruistic in so many ways,” he laid down the law:
I can tell you as a writer: Stay out of things that Superman can fix by himself … Don’t get into famine. Superman can feed the world. Just stay inside the character.
I’m reminded of that strip Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster created for Look magazine in 1940, “How Superman would stop the war,” which was just two pages long. Superman blasts through German defenses, grabs Hitler, grabs Stalin, takes them before the League of Nations, where judgment is pronounced. Problem solved.
It’s similar here. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. are ramping things up, goosed by the yellow journalism of a Rupert Murdoch type, David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker), who now owns The Daily Planet. Then an annoying boy named Jeremy (Damian McLawhorn) writes a letter to Superman asking him to stop the arms race. He says all the kids are unhappy about it. “Superman can make sure we don’t blow ourselves up, quick and easy,” he writes, and Superman, or Clark, or Kal-El, treats this information like it’s news, like he’d never contemplated it before. It goes against everything he was ever taught, by both fathers, but he ignores their wisdom. Instead he goes to the U.N., where he gives this speech:
We can't live in fear, and I can't stand idly by and watch as we stumble into the madness of possible nuclear destruction. So I've come to a decision. I'm going to do what our governments have been unwilling or unable to do. Effective immediately, I'm going to rid our planet of all nuclear weapons.
Cheers go up and Superman goes on his way. There’s no debate. I’ve come to a decision and this is the way the world is going to be. It’s tyrannical but the movie doesn’t recognize its tyranny. What if Superman comes to other decisions? “Everyone must wear their underwear outside their pants like I do. Starting with you, Jimmy!” “No, Superman, no!”
Oddly, Superman only grabs the nuclear missiles once they’re launched. Do the U.S. and U.S.S.R. launch them as a favor to him? So he can round them up more easily? Or is he just stealing them? Either way, he collects them in a gigantic space net, then swirls this net around and around and into the sun. Problem solved. Now to get to work on that underwear-outside-the-pants thing.
Of course, in one of the missiles, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) has placed a hair of Superman, some protoplasm, a computer code, and some clothes, and all of this will lead to the creation of Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow, a Chippendales dancer), the villain of the movie. Which is such a dumb idea it makes the rest of the movie seem brilliant.
“I've come to a decision...”
You won’t believe that you once believed that a man could fly
It doesn’t help that the special effects suck. You get that fakey drop shadow behind Superman in flight, and he keeps having to steady his arms, as if he’s not used to flying. It’s like we’re back in the days of “Shazam!” or something. Even the opening credits look like cartoon versions of what came before. They look like placeholder credits.
Remember when we lost Brando in “II” and were stuck with Susannah York? I’d kill for her here. Instead, in the Fortress of Solitude, Kal-El gets advice from generic Kryptonian elders, heads floating in space. They come off like the League of Grumpy Old Men.
Chalk up all of this cheapness to three words: Golan and Globus. These two Israeli filmmakers, Monahem and cousin Yoram respectively, bought Cannon Films in 1979 and proceeded to make it, and themselves, synonymous with the cheapest, crappiest movies of the 1980s. They were all about quantity over quality. In 1987 alone, the year “Superman IV” was released, they produced 26 other movies, including “Over the Top” (Sylvester Stallone arm wrestles) and “Death Wish IV” (Charles Bronson kills). And that isn’t even the worst of their oeuvre. Think “Bolero,” the 1990 “Captain America,” and the “Hercules” movies with Lou Ferigno. Think “The Wicked Lady,” or “Death Wish III,” or any movie in which Marina Sirtis gets her clothes torn off. Think the worst devils of our nature.
And these are the guys who temporarily owned Superman. Oy gevalt.
The DVD commentary by screenwriter Mark Rosenthal is more dismissive of the movie than the harshest review from the most dismissive critic. It’s not a mea culpa so much as an eorum culpa. These are his first words:
You can tell from the very first credit, which says “Warner Bros.,” that something is terribly wrong in Metropolis. … When we sat and looked at these credits, which are more like graffiti on a black screen than the wonderful, and startling for their time, credits of the Dick Donner Supermans, “Superman I” and “II,” it was heartbreaking for everyone involved, who had so wanted to make this a return to the high-quality of the first two Supermans.
He talks about how, because the budget was cut in preproduction, Canon lost all the great technicians and effects people who had done the first “Superman” movies. Big scenes became small scenes. The global became local. A grand vision was replaced by the rinky-dink. It looked fake fake fake. You won’t believe that you once believed that a man could fly.
You won’t believe that you once believed that a man could fly.
Lois Lane, Superman’s mother
Plus, people just got old.
Reeve still looks good as Superman (although is he wearing a wig now?), and Hackman can still play Lex Luthor. (He was a year away from another Academy Award nomination for “Mississippi Burning.”) Otherwise….
Perry White has shrunk. (Did Jackie Cooper have cancer?) Jimmy Olsen is going bald. And Lois Lane looks less like Superman’s girlfriend than Superman’s mother. Margot Kidder, bless her, didn’t age well. I assume drugs. She was 39 but looked 49.
Thus the addition of a younger love interest: Mariel Hemingway playing Lacy Warfield, daughter of David, who starts out echoing her father’s bottom line, until, influenced by Clark, on whom she has a crush, she becomes a better person. “Daddy?” she says near the end when her father is still talking circulation numbers and profits. “Stuff it!” We’re supposed to cheer.
She thinks Clark should do a regular “On the Town” feature, and takes him to aerobics class, where he fumbles about, and she takes him weight lifting, where he can’t lift anything, ha ha, and somehow she organizes a double-date for her and Clark and Lois and Superman, which Superman isn’t smart enough to get out of. “Sorry, Lois, there’s a typhoon in Taiwan.” Instead, he keeps changing from one to the other, to be with either Lacy or Lois. We’re supposed to chuckle.
Lois isn’t completely forgotten. She shows up at Clark’s place while he’s wondering what to do about nuclear disarmament, and he takes her by the hand and jumps off his terrace, which looks a lot like hers from the first film, and then, while she’s screaming, boom, he’s Superman, but with Clark’s glasses on. After that, they go flying around the country. I immediately assumed dream sequence. At one point he drops her, laughing, and she screams, but then he catches her, ha ha, before it’s too late. Surely a dream sequence. Nope. Afterward, he asks for her advice, then he kisses her to make her forget who he is again (see: “II,” Lester). How often does this happen anyway? How often does he reveal himself, fly around with her, make her fall and scream, then kiss her to make her forget it all? Brutal. No wonder she looks old.
Old, old, worried.
That’s probably the biggest problem with “Superman IV.” Misplaced idealism aside, crappy special effects aside, there’s too much stupid shit.
Is Clark going to sell the farm to developers? It’s introduced in the beginning and forgotten by the end. I assume it wound up on the cutting room floor.
Nuclear Man is made from the power of the sun, which is the source of Superman’s strength. So shouldn’t contact with him, I don’t know, make Superman stronger? Instead Nuclear Man scratches his neck and Superman develops a fever. The next time we see him, he’s gray and withered, having turned old overnight. Except he’s in Smallville now. How did he get there from Metropolis? Bus? Plane? Look! In the sky! It’s … a really, really, really old and sick dude. But the green crystal at the family farm turns him back into Superman. As it always does. Me in 1987: “But didn’t he use up the last one in the last one? Or the second one?” Nope. It’s called the magic of movies.
When he returns to Metropolis, super again, he confronts Nuclear Man, who goes on a rampage. We watch 30 seconds of carnage: cars overturn, things blow up, etc. What’s Superman doing all this time? Just standing there. Because? Because the carnage. Which we have to watch. “But Superman—“ Sssh. “But he wouldn’t—” Ssshhh. It’s OK.
They battle all over the world. Hey, the Great Wall of China! Hey, Nuclear Man knocks part of it down. And now Superman is putting it back together … via blue beams from his eyes? But he never—
When Superman figures out Nuclear Man’s vulnerability—absent the sun, he crumples like a puppet whose strings have been cut—what does he do? Lead him to the other side of the Earth, where it’s night? No, he traps him in an elevator. Which he then drags on the moon. Right! The dark side of the moon! Actually, no. In fact, a second later, the moon revolves, there’s the sun, and Nuclear Man wakes up and starts fighting again. He hammers Superman into the moon, then returns to Earth to get Lacy, for whom he has the hots. Why Lacy? Because he sees her picture in the newspaper. I mean, who’s he going to pick? Lois? She’s like 50.
Later, Superman moves the moon to cause an eclipse to cause the final death of Nuclear Man. But wouldn’t such an action screw up the tides?
How to repair the Great Wall of China, step one.
I hate the ’80s
It’s not all horrible. I like this exchange Clark has with Mr. Hornsby (Don Fellows), his real estate agent in Smallville:
Hornsby: You be careful when you get back to Metropolis, Clark. It’s a long, long way from where you were born.
Clark: Yes, sir. I never forget that, sir.
Those are nice lines and Reeve has a good line reading.
I also like the homage in the Daily Planet headline when Superman initially doesn’t respond to Jeremy:
SUPERMAN SAYS ‘DROP DEAD’ TO KID
But mostly “Superman IV” is a crime. Besides all of the above, it reminds me of everything I hated about the 1980s: aerobics, hostile takeovers, new-wave hairdos, Reaganomics. In the nukes debate, the warmongers wanted to spend trillions to increase the number of times we could destroy the planet, while the peaceniks thought getting rid of nukes meant getting rid of the knowledge of how to make nukes. If we just disarmed we’d be safe. But we’d never be safe.
Seeing the film reminds me of our cultural regression. The first movie was set among adults, in a gritty world in which journalism mattered; “IV” is set among adolescents, in a fantasy world in which only profits matter. In 1978, it felt innovative that the star lifted weights to become the central character. By ’87, we all lifted weights. There’s a body consciousness here that permeates everything. Our bodies got hard and our journalism got flabby.
I’d anticipated the first movie for months but “IV” was in theaters before I knew it was being made. I saw the first at a packed, opening-night screening in which everyone applauded, while I saw “IV” in a multiplex, the Skyway in downtown Minneapolis, which was small and nearly empty. When it was over, we shuffled out of the theater in a gloomy silence.
The movie for everyone became an emblem of greed and chaos on the part of people who were in over their heads, and an unfortunate—and really almost unethical—betrayal of Chris Reeve ...
The bad guys won.
I hate the '80s.